The story of Angel shows the many labels a rock band can
be tagged with as it makes its way through the music business: they started in
the ‘overnight sensation’ category thanks to a splashy label signing and spent
a few years in ‘next big thing’ status. Their profile curdled into hype status when
they didn’t rack up hits or big album sales. They moved into forgotten band
territory in the ’80s after splitting up but reestablished their bonafides as a
cult band in the ’90s after a CD reissue series brought their work back. They
experienced a phoenix-like resurrection in the last few years, allowing them to
finally attain the status of legacy band, at least amongst those in the know.
A record biz story incorporating that many labels just
begs to be told… and that story has finally made it to print in Martin
Popoff’s recent book The Fortune: On The
Rocks With Angel. As his publishing history has proven, he shows a special
love for chronicling the careers of cult acts (other Popoff book subjects
include Max Webster, Riot and Mercyful Fate) so he digs into this narrative in
a way that mixes a fan’s curiosity with the time-tested chops of a good
interviewer and critic. It further benefits from exclusive interviews with band
members Frank DiMino, Punky Meadows, Mickey Jones and Felix Robinson plus a variety of people and other musicians
connected with the band.
The opening chapter chronicles the formation of the
band, including the prior success of different members in outfits like the
Cherry People and Bux. It also clarifies the particulars of the long-standing
legend that says Gene Simmons discovered the band: while he figures into the
band’s early days, he was not singlehandedly responsible for them being signed
to Casablanca Records and fans will enjoying seeing the twists and turns of how
they actually ended up on the label finally laid out. You’ll also learn why
they never toured with Kiss, despite sharing a genre and a record label.
Angel is beloved to a big segment of their fanbase for their first two albums, which present a mixture of guitar/organ-powered hard rock and early ’70s prog stylings famously described as “Deep Purple meets Yes.” Popoff covers these albums in his song-by-song style, showing an appreciation for their inventive mixture of prog light and proto-metal shade. These chapters also include interviews with producers Derek Lawrence and Big Jim Sullivan, allowing them to offer their impressions of the band as the band members frankly discuss the benefits and drawbacks of Lawrence’s production.
Angel’s albums from that point on get more divisive and
controversial amongst fans because of their overt gestures to radio and focus
on shorter, catchier songs. The chapter dealing with On Earth As It Is In Heaven is quite interesting because it gets
into the challenges of lining up both recording location and equipment as well
as the first inklings of trying to write chart-friendly material to please the
label. It also gets into the circumstances behind Mickey Jones’ departure as
well as how he became the target of producer Eddie Kramer’s wrath during the
sessions. Popoff’s critical take on the album is complex, quibbling with
production choices but singling out strong songs that deliver the band’s
original prog/heavy combo in more compact, conventionally-structured packages.
The chapters dealing the last three albums of their
original run – studio ventures White Hot
and Sinful plus concert double Live Without A Net – present some of
the most complex writing of the book. You learn about the motivations behind
the change in approach, which most of the band considered a good thing: Meadows
in particular makes an interesting case for how they were going in the power
pop direction outlined by Cheap Trick around the same time. As for the live album, you learn about why it
arrived too late for more than one reason to boost the band’s profile – and how
their tie-in appearance in the film Foxes
was drastically cut in the final edit. Fans of these albums will be happy to
note that Felix Robinson has a lot to say in these chapters and the result
gives you a feel for the role he played in the band’s musical reshaping.
Meadows also makes a strong case for the worth of these
albums, which are often rejected out of hand by fans of Angel’s early material,
and Popoff (an early albums proponent) takes a nuanced approach as to which
songs are underrated and why other songs failed to catch on at the commercial
level, including some interesting conjecture on title and lyrical choices.
These chapters also crystallize an interesting theme in the book, namely the
complexities of why Angel never broke out of cult status: factors that Popoff
and the band members outline include jealousy inspired by the band’s label
support, how their elaborate stage show threatened other acts and most
interestingly, how the healthy level of ego displayed by band members in
interviews could have worked against them.
If the book had ended here, it might have been a
downbeat read. Thankfully, Popoff includes a few more chapters devoted to what
the band’s long-in-gestation return. After a chapter about the band member’s
activities between phases of Angel activity – including a great story about how
Meadows almost ended up in Kiss – you get chapters on the now-rare 1990’s Dimino/Brandt Angel reunion In The Beginning as well as chapters on
DiMino and Meadow’s recent solo ventures and how they led to the popular 2019
comeback, Risen. Both DiMino and
Meadows offer extensive commentary on their solo ventures and Risen, with additional thoughts from
new Angel band members: when combined with Popoff’s fond commentary on these
albums, you’re likely to find yourself tracking them down after reading.
In short, this is another solid read from Popoff. Angel
fans will enjoy finally getting an in-depth account of the band’s history as
well as detailed looks at all the albums. The author adds commentary in a careful
manner, never overdoing it, and the result makes for a brisk but satisfyingly
substantial read. If you have a serious interest in this cult fave group, you
should track this one down before it goes out of print.