The mid-’70s was a killer time for hard rock: bands like Kiss and Aerosmith broke through in a big way, showing that bands could deliver the riffs that hard rockers like but marry them to pop melodies that could make their songs into radio hits and thus bring in a bigger audience. This led to record companies taking a roll of the dice on countless rock bands pursuing the same sort of ‘hard riffs plus pop hooks’ alchemy in their music. Only a select few caught on big, leaving the rest to either be forgotten or attract a cult following.
One of the best cult bands to emerge from this waves was Starz, an east coast outfit handled by the manager of Kiss, Bill Aucoin. Like a lot of that post-Kiss/Aerosmith wave of hard rockers, they never had the commercial break that could have pushed them to the superstar level but they put together a respectable body of work that hard rock historians remain fond of today. As this first installment of a Starz catalog crawl reveals, they could do it all: blow out the speakers with killer riffs, deliver catchy melodies that linger in the memory and a top if off with a darkly humorous, quirky sensibility in their lyrics that allowed the listener to feel like they’re conspiring with the band in breaking the rules.
Members: Michael Lee Smith (lead vocals), Richie Ranno (lead guitar), Brendan Harkin (guitar), Peter Sweval (bass), Joe X. Dube (drums)
STARZ (1976): this debut was produced by Jack Douglas around the time he produced Cheap Trick’s debut. Like that album, it’s a surprisingly subversive affair that flouts radio concerns to unleash its hard-rocking in a twisted and untamed manner. Lead singer Smith spins streetwise, humorously sleazy takes on rock band behavior in “Detroit Girls” and “Boys In Action,” both songs packed with gutsy guitar work from underrated riff-slinger Ranno, and the sentimental yet horny street-chick portrait “Fallen Angel” shows an impressive sense of dynamics as it layers roaring power chords over a slinky groove. The darkness flows in “Night Crawler,” a swaggeringly riffed portrait of a serial killer who targets young women, while “Pull The Plug” explores the morbid topic of euthanasia against a backdrop of steamy, metallic blues. Also of note: “Monkey Business,” a surreal burlesque of addictive impulses that pumps along on stuttering guitar licks. Douglas gives everything a brash sound where the guitars snarl and the drums sounds cavernous, a perfect soundscape for the in-your-face intensity of the lyrics and performance.
VIOLATION (1977): the masterpiece of this group’s short but potent catalog, fortified by a killer Douglas production job. If you loved the debut, you get fierce rockers like “Subway Terror,” a darkly witty serial killer character sketch built on ferocious riffs and a galloping Dube drumbeat, and addictive sleaze like “Cool One,” a hilarious horndog account of heavy petting set to a slithering staccato groove. Other tracks get ambitious, particularly the ones exploring a concept about rock music being revived in a totalitarian future: the title track is a thrilling, ambitiously arranged rocker in which a hedonistic rebel clashes with Big Brother and “S.T.E.A.D.Y.” utilizes slow-then-fast dynamics to create an Alice Cooper-style conceptual piece about brainwashing. The album also include the group’s finest stab at a single with “Cherry Baby,” which offsets a subtly ominous lyric about a prisoner’s romantic daydreams with a power pop melody full of hooky riffs, handclaps and a sing-along refrain. Had radio picked up on this, Starz would be mentioned in the same breath with Aerosmith (who get referenced in “Rock Six Times”).
ATTENTION SHOPPERS (1978): Starz was in a tough place here: there was pressure to write radio hits but management failed to get Douglas to produce for a third time, leading to the band producing themselves. What emerged from this turmoil is a surprisingly exploratory album. Punkish, percussively riffed stomper “X-Ray Spex” and the anthemic power chords of “She” represent the old guard but “Third Time’s The Charm” and “Any Way That You Want It (I’ll Be There)” show a softer side to the band’s muse, with a greater emphasis on harmonies and acoustic textures. Fans of the first two albums often balk at the pop tunes and cleaner, more immediate production but everything here is catchy and smartly arranged – and fans of the band’s eclectic side will love “Good Ale We Seek,” a send-up of heavy metal attitude that still rocks out, and the moody street life vignette “Johnny All Alone,” which boasts some emotive Ranno soloing. It also boasts an unsung classic in “Hold On To The Night,” night-owl romanticism bolstered by a gorgeous power-pop melody.