Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Underrated: Starz (1976)

Posted By on Wed, Dec 7, 2011 at 7:04 PM

In their time, it was both tempting and fairly easy to dismiss Starz as purveyors of generic, overhyped album rock. Even Circus Magazine, a regular booster of the most commercial of acts, castigated the group for having no obvious raison d’être beyond the fame and fortune that nonetheless managed to continually elude them. But in retrospect, Starz’ 1976 debut could be one of the best hard-rock records of the decade -- the kind of document that’s initially pilloried as derivative and only years later stands revealed as exemplary of its form.

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“KISS meets Aerosmith” is the tag that’s followed the quintet through the years. Beyond some fleeting Frehley-isms on the part of guitarist Richie Ranno, however, there’s little of KISS to be heard on Starz; one suspects the connection was made mostly because both bands shared space on the Aucoin Management roster. The Aero-similes are, in contrast, copious: Producer Jack Douglas made the first Starz album in between Aerosmith projects, and in several places, the two bands’ rhythm sections sound close to identical. Starz’ pounding “Now I Can,” for example, resembles Sly Stone funking up Tyler/Whitford’s “Round and Round.”

Elsewhere, “Live Wire” makes uncommonly effective use of a percussion technique -- “hit every tom in the world on the 2 and 4” -- that the hair-metal bands of the following decade would belabor until it became an eye-rolling cliché. (It practically deserved to be listed as a cast member in the end credits of The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years.)

But much of Starz transcends heaviness and enters the realm of what was yet to be known as classic rock -- like the nods to the Allman Brothers’ “Midnight Rider” and Elton’s “Saturday Night’s All Right For Fighting” that color the epic “Night Crawler.” Vocalist Michael Lee Smith (brother of 16 Magazine heartthrob Rex Smith) had the smooth-and-soulful pipes to sell the music’s more down-home moments. He was also, apparently, something of a wit: Lampooning a time-honored infomercial trope, the rollicking “Monkey Business” declares that its titular activity is “so easy a child could do it.” Zappa himself might have raised a salute.

Smith’s lyrical tour de force was “Pull the Plug,” which was unfortunately condemned in the press as a juvenile mockery of the plight of Karen Ann Quinlan, the controversial vegetable and proto-Schiavo. That inaccurate and damning assessment probably turned off more otherwise-insouciant 12-year-olds than just this writer. (When I heard that an Aucoin act had allegedly satirized the Quinlan situation, I thought, “I’ll have a large glass of None Of That, please!”) But in hindsight, “Pull the Plug” is actually remarkably sensitive and sophisticated (at least by the standards of late-’70s arena rock) -- a bluesy, first-person lament by a grieving lover with a big, tough decision to make.

“If you would just smile, my tears would come like a flood,” Smith sings, “but your heart ain’t even pumping your body’s own blood.” Had the American blues been allowed to keep pace with the times in terms of subject matter, this is what it might have sounded like.

The ballad “(She’s Just a) Fallen Angel” exhibited the pop leanings the group would emphasize on their subsequent three records, diluting the impact of their sound while netting no big commercial breakthrough in the bargain. The Aucoin angle didn’t end up amounting to much, either -- any more than it did for the company’s other non-masked clients, like Anton Fig’s Spider and the Billy Squier-fronted Piper. Within a few short years, Starz had split, and axeman Ranno could be seen hawking his old tour laminates at KISS conventions.

Had that first album gotten its critical and commercial due, though, history might have played out quite differently, rescuing Smith and company from cult status and elevating them to the top of the “A” list for at least a few years. Would they have withstood the onslaught of Van Halen and the other speedier, more excessive units of the ’80s? Probably not. But neither did Aerosmith, initially -- and as Corky St. Clair once said of Charles Laughton, look what happened.

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