CATALOG CRAWL: STARZ, Part 2 (1978-1989)

This Catalog Crawl begins with the end: Coliseum Rock featured a retooled lineup and was the second of two albums Starz released in 1978 during a final dash to break through as an album act. Despite plenty of talent, great songs, four albums on a major label and tons of touring, success was always just out of reach for this commercially underappreciated band (the many reasons why get thoughtfully explored in the recent book They Just Seem A Little Weird). However, the band never stopped working: Richie Ranno and Michael Lee Smith have regrouped at different times over the years with new lineups of Starz as well as a second band called the Hellcats during the ’80s.

Also, those who believed in Starz never lost that belief. Many hard rock fans at the turn of the ’90s heard the band for the first time thanks to a reissue series undertaken by Brian Slagel via his influential label Metal Blade Records. Those releases included a really entertaining archival live release covered below. Ranno has also kept the flame burning with live and studio releases of his own, including an overlooked gem from 1987 that delved into the group’s backlog of demos. Read on and discover the delights you can uncover when the story ends and the legacy building begins…

COLISEUM ROCK (1978): The first and sadly last album from Starz 2.0 missed the charts – and it’s a shame because it’s a minor classic. The material never gets as distinctively eccentric as anything on the first two albums but it has an almost furious sense of drive, delivering one taut hard rock fireball after another: songs like “So Young, So Bad,” “Take Me” and “Don’t Stop Now” burst out of the gate with relentless tempos and riffs. Even rockers a beat or two more relaxed like “No Regrets” pile on the riffs without letting up. Variation is provided by “My Sweet Child,” a midtempo piece with a slight country rock edge to its power balladry, and “Outfit,” a pop-rock charmer whose catchy refrain and harmonized guitar riffs make lusty girl-watching seem endearing. New guitarist Messano synchs up with veteran guitarist Ranno, bringing a new complexity to the band’s double guitar approach, especially on the fierce instrumental title track. Sidenote: “Last Night I Wrote A Letter” is the best late ’70s Aerosmith midtempo rocker than Aerosmith never wrote.

Members: Michael Lee Smith (lead vocals), Richie Ranno (guitar), Bobby Messano (guitar), Orville Davis (bass), Joe X. Dube (drums)

DO IT WITH THE LIGHTS ON (1987): this nice little surprise offers a barrage of engaging Starz demos from two distinctly different periods. Side one focuses on 1975-era recordings done with producer Jack Douglas. The first three are live-in-the-studio takes of debut album tunes and hearing them sans production frills lets you concentrate on how together the band already was with its material and arrangements: “Pull The Plug” really shines here and highlights Ranno’s bluesy guitar work. The first side also boasts the title track, an early version of “Rock Six Times” with entertainingly smutty lyrics about a threesome, and a rehearsal of “Fallen Angel” with a mellotron part provided by pre-Starz keyboardist Gonsky. Side two offers Ranno-produced demos from the post-Coliseum Rock, pre-Hellcats era. The new Scance/Madick rhythm section brings a speedier, more modern edge to the band’s attack, particularly on the double-time stomp of “Restless Underwear” and raucous lust cartoon “F.U. Girl.” There’s also an elegant, intricately arranged fusion of ballad and rocker called “Dreamin’ My Life Away.” Well worth the listen for fans.

Members: Michael Lee Smith (lead vocals), Richie Ranno (lead guitar), Brendan Harkin (guitar), Peter Sweval (bass), Joe X. Dube (drums), Larry Gonsky (keyboards), Peter Scance (bass), Doug Madick (drums)

LIVE IN ACTION (1989): Schlockmania heard Starz for the first time in the early ’90s via this album. It compiles highlights from two different promo-only live recordings of the group’s work released to radio stations in 1977 and 1978. The result is a great little cross-section of the band’s work performed with swagger and energy that studio recordings can’t capture: Violation nugget “Cool One” gets transformed from a low-slung midtempo guitar groove into a galloping uptempo boogie and Attention Shoppers tunes like “She” and “X-Ray Spex” ditch the restrained production of their studio incarnations to acquire the sonic firepower that fans of Starz’s first two albums adore. Elsewhere, the sinister atmosphere of “Pull The Plug” intensifies in the epic version included here and a killer medley that uses “Waiting On You” as a framework also incorporates “Coliseum Rock” and a string of famous riffs from rock history.  It all adds up to an exciting showcase for Starz that shows Bill Aucoin dropped the ball when he didn’t release a double-live album for these guys during their heyday.

Members: Michael Lee Smith (lead vocals), Richie Ranno (lead guitar), Brendan Harkin (guitar), Peter Sweval (bass), Joe X. Dube (drums)

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