At this point in the history of books on rock and roll, most of the key bands have been written about time and time again. If you’re going to explore any familiar territory, you need some new hooks to reel the core audience for these books back in.
To his credit, Doug Brod has fulfilled that mandate with his recent book They Just Seem A Little Weird. Instead of writing about the history of just one band, he picked two familiar groups (Kiss and Aerosmith), a cultish one with name recognition (Cheap Trick) and a band only known at this point to devoted ’70s hard rock addicts (Starz). More importantly, he weaves their stories together into a narrative about how the concept of a career in rock and roll has waxed, waned and mutated since the ’70s.
If you’re wondering how They Just Seem A Little Weird connects all four of its bands, Brod cleverly pulls that off in a prologue devoted to the recording of Gene Simmons’ eponymous solo album from 1978, a super-session affair that incorporated guitar work from Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick and Richie Ranno from Starz. Brod cleverly utilizes the ‘ships passing in the night’ quality of these people working on the same album to give us quick portraits of where they were in their careers at the time and the places they occupied in the arena rock food chain.
From there, the book explores an array of fascinating niches that take the overarching narrative in interesting directions. The histories of Kiss and Aerosmith are both well known so Brod doesn’t waste time giving us yet another rendition of their origin stories. Instead, he gives us fresh insights into their backstories by incorporating interviews with everyone from roadies to record company employees to members of lesser-known bands who gigged with the groups.
This tactic gives the reader an interesting perspective on the different personalities involved in these by filtering them through the observations of the interview subjects. For example, songwriter to the stars Desmond Child worked with both bands at different times and is able to provide unique insights into their creative processes: his tales about Steven Tyler’s prankish approach to creative endeavors is particularly enlightening.
Brod also delves into areas of the bands’ histories that often play second fiddle to the main narrative of their career. For example, Sean Delaney gets a well-deserved spotlight here for the key role he played in developing the style of Kiss and later Starz. Even better, the book delves into his interesting side-career as a musician, including a solo album with songs strong enough to be covered by mainstream artists and a unique disco/rock crossover band, The Skatt Bros., that became a cult fave and incorporated Starz member Peter Sweval in its lineup. His collaborators are on hand to provide a rich portrait of his colorful, mercurial personality, making these sections a rewarding read for hardcore Kiss fans.
The sections dealing with Cheap Trick provide a singular account of what it’s like to be a professional “cult band.” While their acumen as a concert act and Nielsen’s skill as a songwriter are unquestionable, their tendencies for quirky material and an unorthodox image made them a difficult proposition for a record label that wanted an easy sell. Thus, you get an intriguing sketch of a band that could create hits but often had trouble getting their own label interested in their efforts.
When said label did get involved, it was often to micromanage the process and enforce unwanted directions on a group whose resistance became progressively worn down: the sections focusing on the latter half of the ’80s is particularly interesting for fans as they explore how the band was briefly reborn as an AOR act. In that respect, they were kind of like a test case for the same approach that would reap bigger, long-term dividends for Aerosmith when they made their comeback during that time.
Cheap Trick’s narrative thread also reveals what it’s like to be a band that lives in the shadow of bigger bands in the commercial sense. As musician’s musicians in a group that included a songwriter’s songwriter, they get the patronage of both Kiss and Aerosmith during different times in their career. Tales about the brotherly heckling repartee between Nielsen and Simmons are amusing and a closing section where Cheap Trick are brought in to play a birthday party for Joe Perry is unexpectedly poignant (despite being the junior act in commercial terms, the band hiring them welcomes them like equals and even jams with them during the performance).
That said, the most rewarding part of They Just Seem A Little Weird is all the page space devoted to Starz. If you don’t know this underappreciated band, they had a major label contract during the second half of the ’70s and produced a string of albums that never broke big but were prominent enough to influence ’80s-era rockers like Motley Crue. Brod positions Starz in the book’s narrative as an example of what happens when the breaks don’t fall in the right way for a talented act, leaving them consigned to history or cultish interest rather than a part of mainstream rock history.
And rest assured, the Starz story is a fascinating one: Brod got interviews with all surviving members of the band and they provide a frank, often witty account of what it’s like to travel through the rock business. The reasons why they never became a major success are as complex as they are varied – management mistakes, getting the right producer in Jack Douglas and then losing him, indifference from press outlets, etc. – and they all get explored in detail. The Starz members never succumb to bitterness as they lay out this tale but they’re often brutally honest about what it’s like to find yourself on the wrong side of the rock business’s financial bottom line (Ranno also has a sobering tale of how financial mismanagement led him to create the Kiss convention, only to get bushwhacked by a jealous Stanley and Simmons). If you’re a Starz fan like Schlockmania is, you’ll devour every word of their story.
The complex twists and turns of They Just Seem A Little Weird all connect with the reader thanks to Brod’s thorough, artful approach to laying it out. He has decades of experience as a rock journalist, giving him both the experience and the material to create a compelling narrative that keeps the reader leaning forward, and his fan’s sense of what is fresh and what isn’t ensures that he’s able to keep even well-versed devotees reading all the way to the last page.
Thus, They Just Seem A Little Weird is highly recommended to ’70s hard rock fans. You may know the elements of these stories but you’ve never seen them put together this way.