Down To Earth: How Angel Fell From Grace

Angel seemed to have all the key ingredients for domination of the 70s rock scene: a striking, androgynous image, explosive but radio-friendly music and a spectacular stage show featuring holograms, an animated 11-foot-tall logo designed by Sid and Marty Krofft (the puppeteers responsible for surreal American kids’ TV show HR Pufnstuf) and a disappearing trick worthy of Houdini.

Straddling the fence between the prog-rock pomp of Yes and ELP, the orchestral hard pop of Queen, Boston and ELO, and the riff-heavy raunch-rock of Kiss and Aerosmith, Angel were either a band hopelessly out of time, or a band defiantly ahead of their time.

Formed in Washington, DC in 1974, the group – guitarist Punky Meadows, keyboardist Gregg Giuffria, vocalist Frank DiMino, bassist Mickey Jones and drummer Barry Brandt – inked a deal with up-and-coming label Casablanca Records, home to a ragamuffin assemblage of misfits including Kiss, the Village People, Donna Summer and Parliament-Funkadelic. 

Angel’s 1975 self-titled debut mined a winning prog sound, earmarked by soaring, operatic vocals and consummate musicianship. But by the band’s third album, the Eddie Kramer-produced On Earth As It Is In Heaven, they’d shed most of the vestiges of prog for a more direct hard-rock thunder.

Dressed in virgin white costumes, Angel were the antithesis to the black leather and studs aggro of Kiss, the ‘good’ Beatles in relation to Kiss’ ‘evil’ Rolling Stones. But in reality, Angel shared Kiss’ larger-than-life theatrical rock show, along with their tireless work ethic, recording six albums between the years 1975-’80. They also shared the same astute brand marketing savvy, launching their own Earth Force fan club, and selling branded necklaces, belt buckles, posters, and t-shirts.

Clearly, they were destined for superstardom. Touring with Rush, Bob Seger, Aerosmith, The Runaways, Ted Nugent, ZZ Top and Styx, Angel’s commanding live shows were magnificently eye-popping spectacles. But a career-changing hit record failed to materialise. Frustrated, Angel called it quits not long after the release of their 1980 double album Live Without A Net.

But their followers never gave up on the band. In the late 90s, a new line-up of Angel appeared, with original members Frank DiMino and Barry Brandt at the helm. In 1999, they released In The Beginning, their first new studio album in two decades, featuring guest appearances by Punky Meadows and bassist Felix Robinson. Keyboardist Gregg Giuffria, meanwhile, enjoyed minor success in the 80s with Giuffria and House Of Lords. Today, Giuffria is a successful business entrepreneur.

And as for the reclusive Punky Meadows – famously immortalised by Frank Zappa in the song Punky’s WhipsAOR managed to track down the notoriously press-shy axe wizard for an exclusive interview and look back at one ‘Helluva Band’.

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What was the game plan for Angel?

We never wanted to be a singles band; we wanted to be an albums band. Singles bands were like The Osmonds and The Monkees. I like both of those bands, but we wanted to be taken more seriously, like Queen and Pink Floyd.

Angel formed in late ’74. We started out in a Washington DC nightclub called Bogie’s. I had met Gregg Giuffria a couple of years earlier, when I was playing with a band called the Cherry People. He wanted to put together a band, but it never worked out. A couple of years later I was playing this club, Bogie’s, with a band called Daddy Warbucks, with Mickey Jones and Ralph Mormon who sang with the Joe Perry Project. Back in 1973, we did an album for Capitol Records, which Jack Douglas produced but was never released.

Our manager was Frank Connolly, who also managed Aerosmith. Gregg showed up and said: “We should put a band together.” So Gregg, Mickey and I teamed up. We later found Barry Brandt, and Barry and Mickey knew Frank DiMino, so he joined us. The manager of Bogie’s let us use the big loft above the club to rehearse, and we put some songs together. We showcased at Bogie’s and people went crazy.

What was the concept for your sound?

Angel was like Yes meets Led Zeppelin and Queen. I’d never played with a keyboard player before. Playing with Gregg was very interesting because he was such a good keyboard player. I was really heavily influenced by Hendrix and British blues guitarists: Clapton, Page and Beck. That’s what I cut my teeth on.

Do the white thing, Angel in LA, 1976

Do the white thing, Angel in LA, 1976 (Image credit: Getty Images)

You were called Angel back then?

I had a white Stratocaster. My favourite Hendrix song was Angel, so I called my Strat ‘Angel’, and that became the name of the band. We started playing showcases and had potential managers flying in from all over the place. Kiss was playing at the Capitol Center in DC and came down one night. Gene, Paul and Ace saw us in a club and they freaked. They said: “Oh my God, glitter hits DC!” ’Cause there was no glitter around in DC before us, people were just wearing t-shirts and jeans.

We called different management companies, including Leber and Krebs who managed Aerosmith, AC/DC and Ted Nugent. David Krebs wanted Mickey and I to play in the New York Dolls. We said: “No, we have this band called Angel, you gotta come and see us.” So Leber and Krebs flew to DC, and they were just blown away, they wanted to sign us on the spot. But Gregg had this friend, David Joseph, who worked with the Toby organisation in California; they managed Gary Glitter and some off-the-wall people from London.

What happened then?

We started a bidding war. I really wanted us to sign with Leber and Krebs, because they had clout. The music business is all about who you know, and Leber and Krebs were the biggest management team around. The rest of the band had California in their eyes. I think they were dreaming about palm trees [laughs]. We wound up going to California and signing with David Joseph and the Toby organisation. So we flew out to LA and started looking for a record company. Neil Bogart had just started Casablanca Records; David Joseph called Neil and said: “I’ve got this band called Angel… Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley saw them and just raved about them.”

Neil said: “Kiss is playing this month, let’s put Angel on as the opening act and I’ll come to that show.” Then he called back about 10 minutes later and said: “I’ll sign the band sight unseen! Gene said: ‘Under no circumstances will Angel ever open for Kiss.’” They felt threatened by us. Casablanca signed us right away to a seven-record deal. Then Neil came to see us at rehearsal, and of course he was blown away.

What inspired the band’s all-white look?

At the time, we weren’t in white; we dressed like everybody else: sequin tops,velvet pants. We dressed like Aerosmith. But because we were named Angel, Neil Bogart thought we should dress in white and be the opposite of Kiss. We were resistant at first. We felt like we were street rockers. But once we started dressing in white, it turned out to be a really good concept. Maybe people didn’t take us seriously because of our image, but the critics hated everybody that I ever liked in music too [laughs], so it wasn’t a big deal to me.

Angel had one of the greatest logos in rock’n’roll. It was ambigrammic, meaning it looked the same right side up as upside down.

Wasn’t that cool? It was designed by a fan. We were playing down south and this fan came backstage and said: “I drew this logo for you guys and I want you to see it.” So he turned it upside down and we all freaked out and went: “That is so cool!” That logo got featured in [respected science and science fiction magazine] Omni. When played onstage, kids would smoke a few joints and watch this giant logo turn around and totally freak out!

Who designed your other logo, the giant letter ‘A’, which you used onstage?

That was by Jeremy Railton, who worked for the Toby organisation. He designed a lot of outfits for The Osmonds. We turned that logo into a huge stage prop, which was put on a hydraulic lift. It was supposed to look like a hologram, inspired by the holograms used in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. They filmed our junior manager, Warren Entner, for the talking logo. That was rear-projected through frosted glass so it looked just like a hologram. The logo would rise real slowly like when King Kong was coming up in his chains in the old movie. The eyes would slowly open up and look around the room and a voice would say: “I smell the aroma of the gods…” [laughs]. It was really cool, and the kids would start screaming when it rose up.

Angel live in NYC, 1976

Angel live in NYC, 1976 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Your stage shows were legendary.

We used illusions to make us disappear and reappear on stage. The ideas for our stage presentation came from Neil Bogart and David Joseph. They were trying to turn us into another Kiss. Casablanca wasn’t selling many records with Kiss at the time, but the band was doing great live. They felt Kiss was gonna make it on their live act, and they felt the same way about us.

Talk us through some of the extraordinary stage effects you employed during your shows.

The magician, Doug Henning, designed all of our illusions. The house lights would be on in the concert hall and the roadies would start rolling out these clear cubes, which would be scattered all over the stage. These cubes were made out of plexiglass and you could see through them. There were no trap doors. The music from Ben Hur would be playing while this was happening – that was always our opening music, because it was real angelic and biblical-sounding, with all the angels singing. So the roadies are building columns with the cubes, and the lights start going down.

There was narration by this guy with this really deep voice – his voice was used on a show from the late 60s called The Millionaire. He’d do the narration, like Gabriel, and he’d say: “Go forth and play your harp, Punky Meadows.” Once he said my name, the lights would illuminate inside the cubes and I’d burst out of one of them, and the kids would go crazy, ’cause they had no idea how that happened. The crowd was always stoned; you would smell all the pot everywhere, so everybody was totally freaked out.

What would happen next?

The narration would continue, and each individual band member would come out that way. Then Barry would do a drum roll, and then we’d hit the first chord of Tower and all the flash pots would go off. Back then, the only bands doing that kind of a show were us and Kiss. A lot of bands had lasers, but they weren’t doing all the kind of elaborate things we were doing. Midway through the set, the giant logo would rise up and speak – from the audience it looked like a hologram. Then, at the end of the show, a giant painting of the cover of whatever album we were promoting at the time would come down. We would all go ‘into’ the album cover and go up in the air slowly and wave goodbye. Then the whole album cover would blow up and fall apart. We wouldn’t be there, of course, and then we’d come running back onstage and the audience would be screaming and going crazy.

Was there a rivalry between Angel and Kiss?

No. We were doing our thing and they were doing their thing. They were big supporters of Angel and we were big supporters of Kiss. Whenever we played in town and they were anywhere close by they would come and see us, or we would go see them. They loved us.

Was there ever any talk of the two bands touring together?

Like I said, Kiss wouldn’t let us tour with them. As an opening act we got thrown off of so many tours. David Krebs put us on tour with Aerosmith. The first night we had five super-trooper spotlights on each individual member of the band; the second night we had four spotlights, the third night three spotlights, the fourth night two, and so on. I said to our manager: “Why are they taking away the spotlights?” He said: “Whenever you’re the opening act, you play by the headliner’s rules. They’re threatened by the band and don’t like the way the crowd’s responding to you.” So they threw us off the tour.

When we’d come onstage, even without our big effects, just because of our image with the white costumes and the whole thing, fans would go crazy. Our fans were rabid about us. They would rush the stage and immediately start going nuts.

Who made your costumes?

A girl named Fleur Thiemeyer, who used to date Billy Squier, helped design the costumes in the beginning. Actually, I designed my own costume myself because I knew what I wanted. My wife at the time was a really good seamstress and she would help me design things up and I’d tell her what I wanted. I don’t have any of my old costumes. Those things got worn out every tour. We’d have two costumes apiece for each tour. I don’t know where a lot of our stuff is. Nobody can find our logo, which we used as a stage prop. People have been searching for that for a long time and it’s all locked away in a warehouse somewhere.

The band’s androgynous look was very striking.

Angel really started the hair metal thing. We’ll never get credit for that. Mötley Crüe used to come and watch me rehearse. I was always into hair since I was a kid. My dad used to threaten me with getting my hair cut all the time because I wouldn’t go to the barber shop. To me Elvis Presley was the coolest guy in the world and he had that huge pompadour. When I first saw him I felt: “That’s what I want to do in life.” I used to listen to all his records and see all his movies. When I was a kid I used to always walk around with my lip curled up with a ton of Brylcreem in my hair, which was combed back.

When did you realise Angel’s image was hurting the band?

Critics always want to try and tear you down if they can’t relate to you. They could relate to Elvis Costello. I love Elvis Costello, but critics didn’t think we were a serious band because of our image. I loved David Bowie and all that glam stuff. We didn’t want to wear t-shirts and jeans. Once I put on the eyeliner and lipstick on, I became a whore onstage. You became a different person. It set me free. I felt like I could do anything onstage. I liked the androgynous image; the girls really loved that kind of stuff. We had a lot of chicks coming to our shows. But guys would go too, they wanted to be where the girls would be. We had chicks following us everywhere! We used to trash hotels with Playboy bunnies.

Being signed to Casablanca Records, home of Kiss, did you ever feel the band wasn’t given enough attention and support from the label?

Casablanca put a lot of money into us and supported us heavily. It was hard for a band like us to get any radio airplay. I mean, Zeppelin never really got major radio airplay. A lot of bands back then didn’t get a ton of airplay unless you were Fleetwood Mac or Peter Frampton. I guess we never had the big hit record. Whether that was a failure of publicity, or the record company, or radio not wanting to play our records, it’s hard to say. Had we come out when MTV was on the air it probably would have been a different story, because we were naturals for MTV. But the band broke up just before MTV came out.

The last meeting we had with Neil Bogart, we sat down and he said: “I’m gonna wipe your debt clean. You guys are still my favourite band out there and we’re gonna win the war!” After that, Casablanca just fell apart. It was run by a bunch of college kids. That’s why Angel broke up. We were still under contract and couldn’t sign with anybody else, so we wound up splintering off.

You tried to change your image toward the end of your career?

It’s funny. We played in San Diego and kids were racing toward the stage and the bouncers were throwing these girls back. Frank hit one of the bouncers in the head with a microphone stand and a big brawl broke out. From then on, for the rest of the tour, people labelled us as a punk band. By the time we recorded Sinful [the group’s fifth album, released in 1979], we decided our image was holding us back, so the cover showed us in rock’n’roll clothes in a trashed-up hotel room, with a midget and some girls sitting around. Neil saw the cover and said: “I didn’t sign a punk band, I signed Angel.” So we had to go back in and shoot new pretty photos of us in white again.

Angel was bigger in Japan than anywhere else.

The major acts in Japan at the time were Kiss, Queen, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick and us. It was like Beatlemania when we went to Japan, just total craziness. We’d arrive at the airport and there were thousands and thousands of fans out there, screaming. On the run to our limousine, the kids started pulling my hair out of my head. It was really scary. They wanted a physical piece of me, a souvenir. We had to rent two floors in the hotel, and we couldn’t go out anywhere. We had five bodyguards apiece. When we’d look the windows, we’d see a sea of fans.

What were the greatest challenges you faced as a band?

The biggest challenge we had was management. My biggest regret was signing with the wrong management company. Had we signed with Leber and Krebs, our career would have been a different story. We would have been on every major tour out there, because they had the muscle. We also would have signed a record deal with a big record label like Capitol or Columbia – Casablanca blew up and became huge, but at the time we signed with them they were really nobody. And we could have had a producer like Jack Douglas work with us; he produced all the Aerosmith albums back then.

Alice Cooper, Todd Rundgren and Gregg Giuffria during the Kerry Simon 'Simon Says Fight MSA' benefit concert in Las Vegas, 2014

Alice Cooper, Todd Rundgren and Gregg Giuffria during the Kerry Simon 'Simon Says Fight MSA' benefit concert in Las Vegas, 2014 (Image credit: Getty Images)

Still, Angel toured relentlessly…

We did a lot of shows with Rush and had a good time with them. We would all play gags on each other before shows. Pretty much everybody we played with throughout our whole touring career had animosity toward us. I remember when we played with Roxy Music, they wouldn’t let us have any room onstage.

On his Baby Snakes album, Frank Zappa wrote and recorded a song about you, called Punky’s Whips.

We had just come out to California and were rehearsing on the ABC Studios lot. Casablanca had a rehearsal space there. Dale Bozzio [later of Missing Persons] came down and said her boyfriend Terry, who played drums in Frank Zappa’s band, saw that famous picture of me with my pouting lips and he loved my whole look [laughs]. Dale said Frank wanted to write a song about me. Later, Frank sent us a tape of this new song, and I thought it was really cool and also very surreal. The other guys were kind of envious, because it was about me. It was originally called Punky’s Lips, because of that photo, and Frank changed it to Punky’s Whips, I can’t remember why.

Zappa was gonna play Punky’s Whips as the last song of the night at a show at UCLA, and he wanted me to come onstage in full costume and play. But the rest of the band didn’t want me to do it. I think they might have been a little jealous, because I used to get a lot of attention anyway.

So you weren’t offended by the Zappa song?

I understood Frank Zappa, and was into him when I was a kid. I used to sit on the floor with a friend and smoke joints listening to Zappa and go: “My god, this guy’s a genius!” So I’m at the UCLA show, and they had this huge scrim behind them that was covered by a curtain. At the end of Punky’s Whips, flash pots went off, the curtain dropped and there was that gigantic picture of me with those pouting lips [laughs]. It was really cool. I went backstage after the show and met Frank and Terry. Frank said: “You’re a really good sport. Come up to my house sometime, we’ll drink some beer and make some music.” I was honoured by the song because with Frank being a satirical writer, you needed to take it with a grain of salt. He does parody and that’s what he’s always done. A lot of people hear it and they don’t get it and they think that it’s a put-down, but I knew better.

Angel appeared in the 1980 Jodie Foster movie, Foxes.

We were filming at the Shrine auditorium. Filming is really boring. You get there real early in the morning and sit around all day long waiting to do a 10-minute scene. Jodie was really enamoured by us. The actress Sally Kellerman was there too, and she used to come to all of our shows. We went in and did our songs and the audience screamed and they’d yell, “Cut!” and we’d do it all over again. It was exciting to be in a film, but it wasn’t the same as playing onstage live and doing your thing.

Renowned disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder produced the song you played in the movie, 20th Century Foxes.

We were on tour and recorded that in New York during a few days off. We did the basic tracks in one day, and then the next day Frank DiMino came back in to do the vocals. I don’t remember having much conversation with Giorgio. Then we went right back out on tour. It wasn’t the direction we wanted to go in, but Casablanca wanted us to do it and were told the song was gonna be in the movie. We thought it would further our career. Kiss also recorded a disco song, I Was Made For Lovin’ You, and had a big hit with it. Neil Bogart had spearheaded disco with Donna Summer and the Village People. That was his thing. He was the golden boy of Hollywood at the time. I don’t really hate disco because I love the Bee Gees. But I think at the time if you were in a rock band you had to say that you hated disco.

There’s talk that you auditioned for Kiss after Ace Frehley left the band in 1982.

Ace had left Kiss and they put this cattle call out. At that point, Gregg, Barry and I were working together in a band called Legend with the singer David [Glen] Eisley, who later was the singer in Giuffria. Barry Levine, who shot all the Kiss and Angel photos, was a good friend of ours. He called me and said: “Kiss are auditioning guitar players because Ace is gone. I talked to Gene and Paul about asking you to come down and audition and Gene felt it was a great idea.” So I said to him: “I’ve got this new band called Legend.” Then Gene calls me up and says: “We’re looking for a guitar player. Just learn one side of our live album and come down and sit in with us.”

So I learned one side of the live album and walked into the rehearsal room and they were playing Dazed And Confused. Eric Carr [drums] was in the band at that time. So I plugged in and played songs like Deuce and Strutter. It was really cool and fun and sounded really good. They were knocked out by it. We finished, and Gene said: “You got the gig, let’s talk.”

But you didn’t accept?

I said: “Well Gene, I’m doing this thing now with Gregg and I’m really into it. I don’t want to leave him behind.” And I made a huge mistake, because I insulted Gene so bad by saying that that he said to Paul: “C’mon Paul, let’s go.” And he walked out. I sat around and talked with Eric for a while. When I got home Barry Levine called me and went: “Punky, what did you do? Paul and Gene came back with their mouths wide open to the floor. Gene said: ‘No one has ever turned Kiss down.’ They were gonna offer you a $150,000 a year, plus points!” At that time, that was a lot of money to me.

Do you regret your decision?

Who wouldn’t regret that? I would have loved to have been in Kiss. I remember making a joke about their make-up, asking Gene: “What character am I gonna be, an elephant or something?” Being the cocky little asshole I was at the time. I was very arrogant. We clicked. It sounded really good and I had a good time doing it. I didn’t turn them down, I just didn’t say yes right away. But that was a mistake, and I have to live with it.

Whatever happened to the movie *Angel At Midnight?*

Casablanca had us do a movie with Candy Silvers, who was the daughter of the comedian Phil Silvers, but the film never got released. There was a lot of footage of us playing live. Candy Silvers loved Angel, and they shot these dream sequences where she would be backstage touching our costumes and having these fantasies about us. Then we would show up and put our arms around her and she would be thrilled. So the film comprised all these different dream sequences, along with us playing live. It was shot in a bunch of different cities including Cleveland. The local radio station put out word that if you came to the Angel concert dressed in white you’d get in for a dollar, so the place was full with all of these people dressed in white. There were also all these white balloons that said ‘Angel’.

The film was being done right around the time that Mickey Jones was getting ousted from the band, unfortunately. They wouldn’t shoot any footage of Mickey and it got to be really awkward. I think the plan was for the film to be shown in theatres. Casablanca did a lot of filming and spent a lot of money doing it. Then it just came to an abrupt halt and never went any further and it was never finished. It never got released, and the footage got put into storage somewhere. I would love to see it.

Do you have any interest in a reunion of Angel?

Frank and Barry have been trying to get me back for many, many years. I would do a reunion if everybody was in the band. I won’t do it unless Gregg was back in the band too. Gregg just emailed me and said: “You’ve gotta give me a call, time passes by fast.” We talked when I first moved down to Charlotte [North Carolina] about eight years ago. He’s part owner of a Hard Rock Café in Biloxi, Mississippi. He’s done very well for himself. So I’m gonna give Gregg a call and see where his head is at.

If Angel reunited would you wear the white costumes?

I think we would have to wear white. I don’t know that we would wear spandex.

You’ve kept a very low profile recently.

I came back to the East Coast and was a DJ. Then I met a woman named Diane Eaton, who became my girlfriend, and she was really into the stock market. I quit the DJ business and opened some tanning salons, which she invested in. We did that for 11 years and then we sold them to a Peruvian company who gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse. We also sold some property and moved to Charlotte. I pretty much do whatever the hell I want to do [laughs]. I’ve got a nice home and a really big, beautiful garden. I like to get out in the garden and get my hands in the dirt. I’m always learning new stuff and I’m always writing music too.

This article originally appeared in AOR #10.

Ken Sharp

Ken Sharp is a New York Times Best Selling writer who has authored or co-authored over eighteen music books, contributes to a variety of national music magazines, works on music documentaries and has done liner notes for releases by Elvis Presley, Sly & the Family Stone, Janis Joplin, Small Faces, Santana, Cheap Trick, Raspberries, Eric Carmen, KISS, Hall & Oates, Rick Springfield, The Babys, John Waite, The Guess Who, Jellyfish, Jefferson Airplane and others. He releases power pop albums under his own name and lives in Los Angeles.