Starz promo photo circa 1977
L-R: Richie Ranno, Joe X. Dube, Michael Lee Smith,
Brenden Harkin and Peter Sweval
By Devorah Ostrov
There's a brand new Starz CD at Tower Records! Honest, go look. It's called Requiem (as in a mass sung for the dead), and its thirteen tracks offer an assortment of band members, musical styles, and oddities.
The first five songs on Requiem feature this year's lineup -- vocalist Michael Lee Smith, guitarists Richie Ranno and Brenden Harkin (all three were with the original band), and drummer Doug Madick (who was in the post-Starz outfit Hellcats) -- and prove that while it's been some fourteen years since the last official Starz album, Smith and Ranno are still a hard-to-beat writing team.
"Vidi O.D." showcases the duo's sense of sarcasm ("X-rays show there's nothing to see/His head is empty, empty MTV"), while "You Called His Name" and "Rough & Ready" show they haven't lost their fondness for melodrama and the wherewithal to seriously rock.
Capitol Records advertisement for the
band's self-titled debut album
Although Ranno released Requiem on his own Drastic CD label, the story behind it begins with Metal Blade Records founder Brian Slagel.
A few years ago Slagel was browsing in a New York music memorabilia emporium when he chanced upon the rare Starz demo Do It With The Lights On.
Apparently, Slagel professed his love of the band to the store clerk who exclaimed, "Well hey! Richie's a really good friend of mine!"
Ranno's address was duly handed over, and the man who first put Metallica on vinyl promptly wrote his hero in the hope of reissuing the entire Starz catalog on CD.
Slagel learned that Capitol Records, the group's original label, still retained he rights to their four studio albums: Starz, Violation, Attention Shoppers! and Coliseum Rock. But Ranno owned the rights to an infamous, but never commercially released, live recording known to record collectors under the ponderous title Live at the Municipal Auditorium, Louisville, March 30, 1978.
|Creem magazine - Star's Cars No. 23 featuring Starz!|
Starz at the Lost and Found Saloon in
San Francisco with American Heartbreak
December 2, 2005
With Metal Blade's release of the live CD, Ranno and Smith - out of touch for several years - found themselves talking again.
"We never talked about the band," Ranno points out. "We just talked about our divorces. We'd call each other up about every two weeks and say, 'What's happening with you?' One day he said, 'You know, wherever I go people are going crazy over the Starz thing. Why don't we just make another album?'"
* * * * *
In 1973 Ranno, a Bronx native raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, was playing guitar with the Stories. Unfortunately, he joined the group after they'd had a #1 hit with the soulful "Brother Louie" and only months before they broke up.
The Looking Glass changed its name to Fallen Angels and recorded two singles for Arista without scoring a hit, before they hooked up with the powerful Rock Steady/Aucoin Management Agency (home of KISS).
According to Ranno, it was Sean Delaney, Aucoin's creative genius, who helped the fledgling band achieve a harder rock sound. And it was Delaney who convinced them to add a second guitarist. In September 1975 Ranno answered the Fallen Angels' ad in The Village Voice.
"They'd auditioned about 75 guys before I got there," he recalls, "but I was the only one who fit in. I'd been playing for about 30 seconds when I stopped and said, 'What's the matter?' They said, 'You're the first guy we didn't have to tell the chords to.'"
T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, KISS, and Alice Cooper were among Ranno's fave bands at the time. But most of all, he loved the British chart-topping glamsters Slade. "Slade was the most incredible live show I ever saw!" he declares.
|Starz and KISS|
The name Fallen Angels was short-lived. (Ranno mentions a poster advertising a KISS/Fallen Angels show which is worth big bucks!) By the end of '75, the band decided it was time to ditch keyboardist Larry Gonsky (a holdover from the Looking Glass) and change the group's name - again.
Starz drummer Joe X. Dube
and heartthrob Michael Lee Smith
"I think I had a star earring," says Ranno. "I always wore a star necklace, and I had stars on my guitar neck. Brenden wore a star around his neck, too. The management company said, 'You guys have stars on everything. Let's go with that.'"
At first, the band rejected the idea. Ranno remembers: "We said, 'Nah! We don't like the way that sounds.' But we started fooling around with different ideas. Stars with an 's' was unacceptable. Somebody said 'z,' and that was it."
Heartthrob vocalist Smith (brother of teen-dream Rex Smith), gave a more interesting account of the band's name in the January 1977 issue of Creem magazine. "It was one of those things where we were all hanging around late one night, doing various things, substances, and the next morning we were Starz. It just dropped from out of the sky."
Recorded at the Record Plant with producer Jack Douglas, the band's self-titled, hard and heavy debut album was released in August 1976. It easily contained at least three strong contenders for radio airplay: the power-packed "Detroit Girls," the melodic "(She's Just a) Fallen Angel," and the dramatic "Pull the Plug" (supposedly based on the story of Karen Ann Quinlan). Capitol's decision was to push... absolutely nothing!
|Capitol Records ad for the Violation LP|
The band got a second chance in 1977 with the equally hard-hitting Violation album - loosely based around the concept of a near-future world in which rock 'n' roll is one of many violations. But again, the label told them there were no singles. Apparently, it was only a fluke that "Cherry Baby," the LP's catchy opening track, climbed to #33 on the Billboard national chart.
It should be noted that Kerrang magazine's listing of the 100 greatest heavy metal albums of all time ranked Starz at #74 and Violation at #82! But at the time, no one could blame the guys if they were beginning to feel like a "tax write-off."
"Sometimes that's what we use to think," admits Ranno. "Capitol put a lot of money into us, but not in the right places. The best advertisement you could have in the '70s was a hit single, but they didn't believe that a hard rock band could have a hit single."
Joe X. Dube endorsement for
Tama Drums ... "as strong and
powerful as Dube's playing."
"They convinced us that we had to do an album like Attention Shoppers!" he asserts. "And even then they said, 'These songs can't be hits.' We thought, 'Great, now we'll lose our hard rock audience. People tell me that they love Attention Shoppers! but I can't believe it. I thought 'Hold On To the Night' was a good song; we kinda had a slight pop side there. I thought 'Third Time's a Charm' was good because it was like a ballad. And I liked 'Johnny All Alone' because it was kinda psychedelic, kinda 'Pull the Plug'-ish. Other than that... I don't know."
Ranno continues, "At the time, I really wanted to do another hard rock album, get that heavy guitar thing going - which was what Coliseum Rock (the band's fourth album, with bassist Orville Davis and guitarist Bobby Messano replacing Sweval and Harkin) was a reaction to. Every album was just a reaction to the previous one."
Although they didn't always see eye-to-eye with their label, Capitol didn't skimp on the band's stage production and pyrotechnics. "Our logo would rise up in the air with fireworks going off underneath it," enthuses Ranno about one pricey gimmick. "It looked like a spaceship!"
And there was no question that Starz always excelled when it came to playing live. One press release succinctly stated that live performances were the band's "greatest asset."
Fabulous comic book-style ad for
the Attention Shoppers! LP
In 1979, fed up with their label's apathy and tired of disco saturated airwaves ("It was disco on TV, disco in the car..."), Starz pretty much called it quits.
A five-track Hellcats EP was issued on Radio Records in 1982, which Kerrang! called: "A gloriously rowdy selection of hard rock tunes."
But... "Four weeks later the owner of the record company disappeared, never to be heard from again," laments Ranno. "Atlantic Records (distributor of the indie label) dumped all the Hellcats records and that was the end of that band."
In 1987 Ranno took another stab at Hellcats, replacing Smith (who had moved to California) with the previously unheard-of Perry Jones on vocals. Kerrang! (normally a staunch supporter of anything Starz related) described this lineup's one LP as "genuinely innocuous."
|Richie Ranno: "Our logo would rise up in the air with fireworks |
going off underneath it. It looked like a spaceship!"
He adds, "We have good memories. We felt great about Starz and each other. We only stopped playing because of the lack of success. That's really what it boiled down to. We just couldn't do it anymore. And actually, we weren't that unsuccessful."