Ginger’s Secret History Of Rock ’n’ Roll (pt.9 and 10)

Starz, Violation, Capitol, 1977

If one was to take all the criminally under rated groups of the 70s, and choose a poster band, then surely Starz would top the list by a healthy margin.

Over groomed for imminent success, this New Jersey powerhouse unit ticked off more boxes than any other underachievers. Awesome songs? Tick. Killer frontman? Tick. Amazing guitar arrangements? Tickety tick. They made three classic albums in two years.

So what went wrong?

Heads have been collectively scratched since the band’s demise at the end of the 70s/turn of the 80s regarding this conundrum.

Maybe it was simply the slightly-too-glam image that ran at odds with the hard rocking music? Looking back at the 70s as a whole, one could conclude that people simply tended to dress a little fruitily, but under a microscope it would seem that Starz came along at the perfectly wrong end of 70s, when punk was growing in the belly of a dissatisfied youth.

The era of garish rock had been superceded by the era of uber-glam disco, and the youth of America began demanding their guitars stapled to a more realistic image. Sadly, the same audience that turned their backs on Starz would have found more spit and attitude in this outfit than any number of pretend US punk wannabees churned out in the same years.

Mixing tough American rock with star charisma and classic tunes, Starz could easily have enjoyed the riches that Van Halen were to go on to collect, and while indiscriminately influencing every big hair band in the 80s, Starz failure was a bigger loss to American culture than their own bank accounts.

Signed to Capitol records in 1976 the classic line-up of Michael Lee Smith (vocals), Richie Ranno (guitar), Brendan Harkin (guitar), Joe X Dube (drums) and Peter Sweval (bass) would record three awesome albums, starting with classic US rock self titled debut, ‘Starz’ (every bit as good as any Aerosmith album), and finally bowing out with the incredible ‘Attention Shoppers’ (pop rock heaven), the band would then begin replacing members before calling it a day on the patchy yet great ‘Coliseum Rock’.

And sandwiched in the middle of all this big-rock action stands the majestic ‘Violation’.

Recorded in 1977, Starz second album is an awesome affair that wastes no time getting comfortable in your collection by kicking off with ‘Cherry Baby’, not only the band’s finest tune but one of the greatest songs ever written. Pop rock is given a new standard with this amazing track. You think you’ve heard good songs, but unless you’ve heard this one then your barometer is working on half battery life.

The delicious vocal stylings of unsung US icon Michael Lee Smith effortlessly luring the listener in, the stage is set for a quality filled 36 minutes of sheer class.

‘Rock Six Times’ follows in heavier style, sketching out a storyline based on a post apocalyptic rock fan’s discovery of an old Aerosmith album. The band are tight, the playing is focused and once again the vocal delivery stands up to any singer in the history of American rock music.

‘Sing It, Shout It’ treads the same boards as the most rocking tunes of Boston, Journey etc, and sits perfectly within an album intent on exploring the entire spectrum of US rock up until this point of origin. This track in particular brags the talents of guitar duo Ranno and Harkin, blending Aerosmith’s taste with the Eagles’ flair, as well as proudly presenting another hit-that-missed chorus the size of Texas.

‘Violation’ picks up on the post-apocalyptical storyline once again, with which the album is VERY loosely based, in its ‘decree by committee’ subject matter and tough musical performance. Jack Douglas’ sturdy production takes on Bob Ezrin proportions here. Like I said – quality, man!

‘Subway Terror’ builds the menace as the lyrics go from politically themed to dark and dirty in a tale of a serial killer that rides the subways looking for easy meat. The difference here is that the victim is male, and as the protagonist politely informs him to ‘please tell his family he won’t be home tonight’, one can’t help but shudder at this modern take on a largely misogynistic parable.

It is worth mentioning here that, while Michael Lee Smith is almost untouchable as a singer, as a lyricist he has very few peers. Cutting, touching, funny, intelligent and often just downright filthy, the man straddles the line between poet and rock God whilst never finding the need to take his art too damn seriously. Imagine Bon Scott and Dave Lee Roth combined with movie star good looks and you’re getting warm.

‘All Night Long’ drifts into an almost Allman Brothers groove as it sleazes lazily along, the album then switching from swing to classic 50s bop, with ‘The Cool One’. Surely the defining moment of Smith’s entire raison d’etre, this tale of love at the drive-in savours the line “she reached over and she squeezed on my rocks, I lost it all in the popcorn box”.

Who writes like this anymore? And why the hell not?

‘S.T.E.A.D.Y’ returns to the bi-polar storyline as it mixes up rhythms, tempos and generally throws the listener around like the poor unfortunate in this cautionary tale of enforced sobriety as inspired by George Orwell. As powerful a rock workout as a lyrical masterpiece, no song more beautifully illustrates the timeless quality of this band.

And in fine melancholy style, the album closes with ‘Is That A Street Light Or The Moon’. Sombre and string laden, it is the perfect way to end an album of almost schizophrenic rock’n’roll logic.

Man, what a band! What an album!

And while it is in serious doubt that you own anything this good, what should not be in question is the urgency in which you find this album and add it to your collection right now.

P.S. And while you’re at it, track down a copy of Smith, Ranno and Harkin’s next project The Hellcats, featuring the astoundingly great song ‘Auto Erotica’. You deserve it.

[Editor’s note – Starz are one of the bands referenced in ’29 Times The Pain’ that Ginger has since had the pleasure of joining onstage. In 2009, Michael Lee Smith joined Ginger and Friends at the Hollywood Viper Rooms for a runthrough of Wildhearts classic Loveshit.

In 2013 this was followed with Starz first ever UK show, the band supplemented with Ginger on bass and one time Clam-Abuser Alex Kane on guitar.]

Soul Asylum, Hang Time, 1988, Columbia

Before he dated neurotic actresses and strapped an acoustic guitar around his chest Dave Pirner was the coolest motherfucker to wield a low-strung telecaster who isn’t called Keith Richards. And before the puke-inducing ‘Runaway Train’ Soul Asylum were arguably the best live band in America.

Hard to believe? Read on, dear reader, read on.

Inspired by Husker Du, The Replacements and a healthy dose of country music, Soul Asylum would drag themselves around Minneapolis for seven drunken years after forming in the early 80s until the recording of this, their shining moment is a history of spirited, if semi-shambolic recordings.

Releasing three albums on the indie Twin Tone label, the band would continue to find their studio legs, often stumbling on gold, but largely never able to capture the base fury of their live shows. 1984’s oddly titled ‘Say What You Will, Clarence… Karl Sold The Truck’ cobbled together from various sources came with suitably varied results, while ‘Made To Be Broken’ and ‘While You Were Out’ (both 1986) hinted heavily at the shape of things to come.

Signed to A&M in 1988 the band would release this classic album, and although they would release another album on A&M (’And The Horse They Rode In On’) disappointing returns would see band being dropped from the label and picked up by Columbia where they would record the double platinum, and far inferior, ‘Grave Dancers Union’ before fading in apologetic style while attempting to recall what made them so fantastically essential.

Shame then that the world remains, by and large, blissfully unaware of ‘Hang Time’, an album that should be in the collection of any serious music lover.

Bursting into action with ‘Down On Up To Me’, the opening track sees the band in quasi Led Zeppelin territory with a huge, spluttering riff tumbling into harmony laden chorus, a style cannily ‘borrowed’ by many a band in years to come, including The Wildhearts, and one that still packs a weighty roundhouse to this day. Such is the confidence displayed in this opening track that it’s impossible to deny the bold presence and authenticity of a group absolutely on top of their game.

Almost supernaturally aware of themselves, the second track, ‘A Little Too Clean’, almost acts as a jaunty bridge between the killer opener and the hair-on-end brilliance of ‘Sometime To Return’. Although a live favourite with the ability to strip paint from the walls, the studio version admirably captures the break-neck beauty of this absolute thrill ride of a track (which contains one of the greatest rhyming couplets ever: ‘throw away your calendar and saddle up your salamander’).

With hooks fully implanted into the listener’s skin, it is with almost brazen moxy that they unleash their finest moment, the divine ‘Cartoon’, a song so perfect that it should awarded its own place in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. The twin vocal attack of Pirner and fellow guitar slinger Dan Murphy is simply shiver-inducing in this supreme slice of power pop guaranteed to make a fan of the most bone-headed of critic.

Go on, try to dislike this song! Told you, it’s not possible. Give in.

The mood is darkened for ‘Beggars And Choosers’ (let’s face it, after ‘Cartoon’ the mood would be darkened by The Archies ‘Sugar Sugar’) but the spirit fades not one bit as the boys lay into this slice of vicious pop like their livers depend upon it.

Side one (imagine it’s an album, even if you must buy it on CD, or worse still, download it) is neatly tailgated by the sumptuously gorgeous ‘Endless Farewell’, where Soul Asylum get to flex some sensitive muscle within the guitar onslaught, perfectly illustrating the point that this band bare scant relation to the outfit that would score a No.1 hit with the soggy acoustic-based mushy drone that is ‘Runaway Train’, even when tackling sensitive numbers such as this one.

Side two opens in classic style with the swooping intro of ‘Standing In The Doorway’, a track so awesome that the only thing more awesome is the potential to step over awesome songs in such a jungle of awesome songs, as this album is often in danger of doing. Taken away from its moorings ‘Standing In The Doorway’ would qualify as any normal band’s best tune.

As would ‘Marionette’ with its Queen-like opening stabs and lilting melody. In fact, amid the ferocious guitars the main theme here is the consistency in the songwriting. These gems are no cobbled-together-in-rehearsal type affairs, oh no – more Simon And Garfunkel-got-into-the-medicine-cabinet-and-discovered-severe-volume.

‘Ode’ drags itself into the party laboured under the weight of its own lurching guitar riff, while ‘Jack Of All Trades’ pushes festivities into third gear and doles out the speed. And after such an intense combination salvo the album adopts the wise approach and settles into a lighthearted, bluegrass groove with ‘ Twiddly Dee’ before launching into its closing statement with venomous glee. ‘Heavy Rotation’ sounds exactly as you’d imagine. Every element of the album is thrown into the pot for this final cheer: psychedelic vocals, thumping staccato riffs and sweet discord huddle together in a barbed wire nest, screeching out the end until finally taking flight on a mighty bed of noise.

And then it is over. A heavy meal that takes the consumer some time to digest afterwards, but one that feels so damn good going down that pause is not an option.

‘Hang Time’ represents a time in underground American music where the rules were still being written and albums, as a result, often revelled in a gloriously sprawling lack of coherence.

Where huge rock training sessions rubbed shoulders with blatant pop fancy without fear of audience alienation.

Where the industry hadn’t yet carved out neat sections of society and named them ‘markets’.

Where songwriter and band shared the same van.

Where guitars were still exciting.

Where style was still about personal expression.

Nostalgia can take the mind part of the journey but the rest of the trip needs a soundtrack, songs that last the test of time, fashion and hype.

‘Hang Time’ is such an album, and Soul Asylum were such a band.

You owe it to yourself to own this one.