Starz: Starz - Album Of The Week Club review

Are Starz the "Big Star of hair metal"? Examining the debut, self-titled album may provide some answers

Starz - Starz
(Image: © Beat Goes On Records)

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Starz - Starz

Starz - Starz

(Image credit: Beat Goes On Records)

Detroit Girls
Live Wire
Tear It Down
Boys in Action
(She's Just a) Fallen Angel
Monkey Business
Night Crawler
Over and Over
Pull the Plug
Now I Can

Bassist Peter Sweval and drummer Jeffrey Grob gave Starz its backbone. Both had played in Looking Glass, who had topped the US chart in 1972 with Brandy (You’re A Fine Girl). The single was distinctly unrepresentative of that band, and three years later the Glass looked cracked. 

The pair hooked up with guitarist Brendan Harkin and frontman Michael Lee Smith (the latter a former Shakespearian actor and elder brother of US teen star Rex). They morphed into Fallen Angels, and after the indignity of the band being signed and dropped by Arista Records, ex-Stories lead guitarist Richie Ranno (who had also topped the US chart, with a cover of Hot Chocolate’s Brother Louie) came on board. All five band members were in their mid-20s and seasoned performers.

Fallen Angels’ first lucky break came when Bill Aucoin of Rock Steady management, the heavyweights who represented Kiss, signed them up. A final name change, plus the ousting of keyboard player Larry Gonsky, gave the newly monikered Starz a much-needed final push.

The band’s 1976 self-titled debut album, produced by Jack Douglas (Aerosmith/Alice Cooper), juxtaposed radio-friendly anthems like Detroit Girls and (She’s Just A) Fallen Angel with the creepier, serial killer-inspired Night Crawler, and Pull The Plug, which was about switching off the life-support machine of a dying girlfriend. Reviewers purred with approval, but Starz stalled at No.123.

Every week, Album of the Week Club listens to and discusses the album in question, votes on how good it is, and publishes our findings, with the aim of giving people reliable reviews and the wider rock community the chance to contribute. 

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Other albums released in June 1976

  • The Runaways - The Runaways
  • Chicago X - Chicago
  • A Night on the Town - Rod Stewart
  • Unorthodox Behaviour - Brand X
  • Alice Cooper Goes to Hell - Alice Cooper
  • Whistling Down the Wire - Crosby & Nash
  • Steal Your Face - Grateful Dead
  • Two for the Show - Trooper
  • Airborne - The Flying Burrito Brothers
  • Farther Along - Spirit
  • High and Mighty - Uriah Heep
  • Long Hard Ride - The Marshall Tucker Band
  • R.E.O. - REO Speedwagon
  • Shake Some Action - Flamin' Groovies
  • Shouting and Pointing - Mott
  • Softs - Soft Machine
  • Spitfire - Jefferson Starship
  • Summertime Dream - Lightfoot
  • Yes We Have No Mañanas (So Get Your Mañanas Today - Kevin Ayers

What they said...

"1976 saw the release of a lot of classic Hard Rock rock records. Destroyer, Rock And Roll Over, Rocks, Agents of Fortune and Free For All certainly come to mind. If you own any of these records (and let's be honest, you probably own them all) you would do well to pick up a copy of Starz' debut record. Both the band and this record deserve to be mentioned in such hallowed company." (Sputnik Music (opens in new tab))

"It's a simple, catchy, riff-driven album from start to finish. Even with the formulaic and predictably safe arena rock of Detroit Girls and Tear It Down, the full album fails to give the boost that the group so desperately needed to reach the plateaus of an Aerosmith, Kiss, or any arena rock group of that caliber." (AllMusic (opens in new tab)

"Produced by Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, and BOC among others) the eponymous debut album (1976) is an airtight and seamlessly-sequenced brace of scrapyard anthems, crackling with abandon and boiling with ambition and bare-faced cheek, standing there on the corner of Aerosmith Drive and Kiss Boulevard." (RateYourMusic (opens in new tab))

What you said...

James Praesto: The story of Starz, the red-headed New Jersey step-cousins of Kiss, is not one of fame and fortune. They stayed in the shadows throughout the 70s, only occasionally busting out a song or two people would kind of remember, almost skillfully dodging the spotlight. After every forgettable tour, opening up for guys like Peter Frampton, they would then quickly fade into the background again. Was it because they did not have the tunes? Was it because their label did not believe in them? Was it because people forgot they were the second reincarnation of the band that recorded Brandy (You’re a fine Girl) years earlier?

As a matter of fact, I have always had a soft spot for their self titled debut album. It does not quite have the bravado of the aforementioned Kiss; not quite the melodies of Cheap Trick, not quite the sexy swagger of Aerosmith, not quite the musicianship of Boston – most of them local(ish) contemporaries – but instead, this is a case where the sum could be greater than its parts. It’s almost a very good album. Almost.

By unfortunate circumstance, the album kicks off with Detroit Girls, just a month or so after Kiss blasted Detroit Rock City on every boom box in the neighbourhood. This is actually a pretty cool song, with a decent chorus, reminiscent of summer, long hair and not a care in the world. Maybe Bill Aucoin became their manager, because he wanted to create a carbon copy of the “hottest band in the world”, but he ended up with a more pop-sensible band than maybe he bargained for. The guitars are all good old solid dirty rock, but the hooks are pure pop, riding on a pretty standard soft rock beat.

If we got Kiss meets Cheap Trick in the first tune, we get more of a Gene Simmons version of a Rolling Stones song in Live Wire. Nice big bold guitars, aching for an Eddie Kramer production to make them cut through just that one bit more, and a sing-along chorus. One thing I find lacking in Starz overall, is that the drums and bass are so “nice”. Ranno and Harkin really bring it on the guitars, and Michael Lee Smith is not a bad singer, but the rhythm section just kind of shows up for the sake of being there. Tear it Down could have been a huge song with a more kickass focus on those drums, say, Brian Downey-style. It begs for some balls to drop somewhere. Anywhere.

And so it continues… Song after song almost deliver on that great promise, but never quite reach the state where you would find yourself humming any of them days after listening to the record. Boys in Action tread the waters of New York glam, and (She’s Just A) Fallen Angel is the song that people would dig on the radio, but would also not notice when it faded away to give room for a Big Mac jingle minutes later. Monkey Business wants to get its strut on, and makes a good case for itself down the avenue, but nobody is looking. I actually love the guitars throughout these songs. The riffs are strong, the licks are fine and the execution pretty spot on.

Night Crawler is my favorite song on the album. They manage to finally create a musical identity of their own on this one, and it gives us a glimpse of what Starz could have sounded like if they had spent an extra month polishing their songs, and getting a little more oomph out of producer Jack Douglas. (However, this album does come alive when you crank it.)

I always thought Pull the Plug was a cool song, with its sassy groove, and I never knew it was about taking some girl of life support. I just learned that reading the intro to this week’s pick, but, hey… it’s still a good tune. Now I Can is a really pointless rocker to close out the album, and I almost wish they had ended after Pull the Plug.

Having read all this, you would probably jump to the conclusion that there is not much to see here, but au contraire, my fellow rock club members… Remember the sum greater than its part and all that? Even though this is a collection of songs Kiss would foolishly have left on the cutting room floor, we still get a solid record with consistency throughout, great hooks, solid guitars and the perfect knee-tapping backdrop to any feel-good situation you may find yourself in.

Also… Guess who just scored a mint copy of this vinyl on eBay while writing this? Not a lot of the albums I have reviewed in this group spurred that immediate reaction out of me.

Matt Metzger: Just took a listen... it sounds exactly like Poison covering Boston songs. Seriously.

James West. Great album, great band, too bad they got screwed over by their record label. Michael Lee Smith had incredible lyrics and a voice like a dirty Elton John. Richie Ranno had tremendous guitar chops. Just listen to the segue between Boys In Action and Fallen Angel, what a great band!

Billy Master: My first time with this band. They sure can rock but I think they lose points on the vocals. Just a little too overblown and poppy. Nothing wrong with pop rock, I love Cheap Trick. Not this though.

John Hudson: Good choice album to discuss. A lot of people seem have Starz as one of those "one that got away...should have been huge" bands. There's a lot to like and dislike about the album. Night Crawler and Over And Over, for me, is how the band sounds at its best. Richie Ranno's guitar ability is really not used to its best effect. Some of the songs on here, and on all of their albums are just too lightweight. Fallen Angel is a song I don't like, and never liked. 

Obviously, it's all about personal preference, and everyone hears it differently. For all of the bands mystique, and one of the greatest band logos of all time, sadly they just didn't have the songs. Starz are a decent band, who for whatever reason didn't fulfil their potential. Someone online has compared them to Kiss/Boston/Angel/Aerosmith ect. Sadly for Starz, those bands were far better. 4/10 for the album. 9/10 for the potential.

Ron Ostrander: These guys came on the music scene they really shook thinks up. Got my attention real quick. They had that attitude, the songs and the look.seen them on their first tour. They were great.

Rick Anderson: I liked this a lot more than I thought I would, but not as much as I did when I was a kid. Are these guys the Big Star of hair metal?

Jonathan Novajosky: This is one of those albums I run through and then not remember a single thing I just heard. It’s decent fun, but incredibly mediocre. My feelings for Starz are similar to how I felt for Sea Hags a few weeks ago in the songs felt too uninspired and repetitious for my liking. 5/10

John Davidson: Starz offer up a good but not great slice of radio friendly American hard rock. There are rocking guitars and singalong choruses and a steady (if unremarkable) rhythm section. The vocals are throaty but not screechy- certainly on a par with bands that are more famous and did better commercially.

There’s nothing specific that I can put my finger on to explain why they didn’t get more airplay. To the best of my knowledge they didn’t trouble the UK charts and I’ve no recollection of hearing them played on rock radio over here in the late 70s (when the Tommy Vance Friday Rock show was king).

They are a slightly heavier Cheap Trick, a slightly poppier Aerosmith and (on the face of it) better musicians than Kiss. They have some decent songs - Detroit Girls and Night Crawler are two of the better ones - but as an album it runs out of steam in the middle and the likes of Monkey Business and Over and Over are far from essential.

Best thing about the band is their guitarist – I hear a fair a bit of Alex Lifeson in the guitar tone on some songs (Night Crawler for example). Otherwise they lack a bit of identity and though their sound was picked up and reused by the likes of Bon Jovi and other pop metal bands from the 80s those later bands did it with shoulder-pads and spandex and dare I say it, a bit more flair.

Maybe that’s the difference: in the world of MTV you could get by with mediocre songs as long as you had good hair and a pretty singer, but in the mid 70s unless you had the songs (or a major label throwing money around to get you on the radio) you were always going to struggle.

On balance, I think, if a friend had lent me this album as a 13 or 14 year old I might have been more impressed. So as someone who (at that age) liked the rockier edge of Elton John alongside The Sweet, Slade and Thin Lizzy, Starz sit smack on the cusp of heavy rock and could easily have been another gateway into heavier bands. Even without that whiff of nostalgia there’s enough to deserve our attention as a club. A 5 out of 10 seems harsh, despite the fates deciding they weren’t good enough to hit the big time, and an 8 would be generous to a fault, so I ‘m going to score this as either a 6 or a 7.

Mike Knoop: Starz are another relatively unknown hard rock band championed by my adopted hometown of San Antonio, Texas. By the time I moved here, they didn't get as much radio play as similar bands like Moxy or Legs Diamond, but I would see their full discography at the better CD stores. It's easy to see why San Antonio embraced Starz. They crank out solid hard rock with an edge that fits comfortably on a playlist with other city faves like UFO, Montrose, Riot, and Saxon.

I don't know if I would have heard the similarity of singer Michael Lee Smith's voice to Elton John's if others hadn't pointed it out, but I hear it now and I like it. It's on rousing opener Detroit Girls, rousing side two opener, Monkey Business, and sing-a-long anthem, Tear It Down. Smith's vocals are probably the biggest draw for me. I love his angry growls on Now I Can and his anguished howls on Pull the Plug. He also launches some excellent rock star screams on Boys In Action and Monkey Business. The lyrics aren't necessarily profound, but they're worth seeking out. Night Crawler is a strangely upbeat ode to stalking that wouldn't be out of place on a classic Alice Cooper album and Pull the Plug would make the misfit mystic lyricists in Blue Öyster Cult get misty eyed.

I have long half-joked that San Antonio needs it own hard rock and metal hall of fame because of its love for bands that Jann Wenner and his cohorts couldn't give a damn about. Starz might not get in as quick as Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy or Scorpions; but based on this album, there would be a place for them there.

Bill Griffin: I became aware of Starz and Y&T at roughly the same time and they are rather similar to me but Y&T is a local band and so got airplay here while Starz did not. Still, I like this album. It's not spectacular but is consistently above average hard pop rock. Their roots in the band Looking Glass astounds me; I don't hear even a hint of Brandy. If you happen to see it around, it's worth picking up but I wouldn't search for it.

Carl Black: Starz (with a Z, Edgey) completely passed me by. I had no idea this band or album existed until this was posted. After the first song I was enjoying it. Hard rock with a bit if attitude. All good. Maybe a new discovery? But then the song Live Wire came on. I was racking my brain as it sounded familiar and then it clicked. Firehouse by Kiss. This proved to be Starz undoing. I couldn't shake the Kiss comparison. So much so that all I really wanted to do was break out Alive or Kiss's debut, Or dare I say it, Double Platinum. As good as Starz were, was this the reason I'd never heard of them? Without make-up, fireworks, guitars that shoot out lights, levitating drum kits and egos the size of mountains, it's no surprise they never got out the starting blocks for me.

Nigel Lancashire: I remember someone I knew once telling me what a great ‘almost’ band Starz was, then playing me... I think Violation? I seem to have forgotten everything about it except that great band logo. He played me P**s Party too, which yes, I recall, but mostly for the obvious reason of the title. So, coming into Starz itself, I suppose my ears are relatively virgin territory, and yes, I can instantly confirm, that’s an American rock n’ roll band from the mid-to-late seventies all right!

All the hallmarks are there – nothing much past the three/four minute mark; reasonably catchy choruses that you could bark along to, once implored by the vocalist, from the stalls of an concert hall while waiting for the main act to appear; mid-paced rock with easy, unchallenging music and lyrics that would go great with a highway and a big automatic car, I’m sure. I quite like it.

But, there’s the devil in the detail of this review so far. I merely ‘quite’ like it. The Starz album is a pleasant, but not earth shattering record. Words like ‘undemanding’ and even ‘polite’ spring to mind, and It all sounds like so many local bands and support acts over the years. You just know deep down that they were never going to graduate to the big leagues.

Put a song like Detroit Girls or (She’s just a) Fallen Angel next to a same-period Grand Funk Railroad, Kiss, Angel or Foghat, and Starz sound right at home. Bung Live Wire into the middle of the Dazed And Confused soundtrack, or more recently, onto the end of the Guardians Of The Galaxy “Awesome Mix” and no one would raise an eyebrow.

As a whole though, listening to this album, it’s hard to believe Starz would create enough energy for them to be anyone’s first-choice, rocking-out favourite – as I said, put next to other similar bands, Starz wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, but I can’t imagine raising a fist for them either. It’s all so amiable, I feel guilty criticising it!

Titles like the aforementioned Live Wire, Tear It Down and Boys in Action promise much, yet deliver little when it comes to passion. It’s all just so damn workmanlike. The singing is reasonable, a bit Jagger-ish on occasion as the album progresses and becomes noticeably more laid-back into a sleazier groove toward the end. The guitars, bass and drums are pretty much fine, if maybe a bit small, let down by the ho-hum production.

After two or three spins, Starz remains decent but unremarkable – characterless even. It could often be so many other bands that you’re hearing, all of whom could arguably have made a couple of the songs into gold. There you go, it’s Starz then, and never Stars.

John Edgar: First, let me say thank you for posting my recommendation. I'm glad to see that some of you enjoyed this release as much as I did when it was initially released. I'm also glad to see some folks enjoying it for the first time. Looking back, It was a television performance of Pull The Plug that sent me to the record store the next day to buy this album. 

Starz was released smack dab in the middle of the summer of '76, and where I grew up it was a perfect cruising/day at the lake type of an album. It's definitely a product of it's time, but for me , it's still a great listen. Energetic tunes performed by a band that was doing its best to grab the so called brass ring of mid 70s rock. All these years later it's this first release and Violation album that I'm most likely to pull off the shelf for a listen. For those of you that had not listened to Starz before this posting, I hope you've discovered a new band to listen to. Enjoy!

Brian Carr: Some excellent reviews of Starz this week. This should be an album I’d devour - melodic hard rock with nice guitar playing. Instead, I found myself playing “who does this song sound like?” for much of the album. Considering the comparisons were with other bands of the era, my game may or may not be fair to Starz, but what can you do? Live Wire is very reminiscent of KISS, Pull The Plug reminds me musically of Night Prowler by AC/DC (which came three years later), and I heard Foghat and REO Speedwagon on other tracks. Didn’t pick up on the Elton John vocal similarities on my own, but it’s definitely there on some songs. I might spin Starz a few more times to see if it grows on me, or I might never listen to it again.

Roland Bearne: I don't know much about Starz at all, seen a few t-shirts at gigs but that's about it. So with absolutely no preconceptions, I started my listening and I have to say this week's album has made my ears chuckle! Although I gather there are some darker themes in play here, overall it sounded on the side of KISS-like (rather more finesse in the playing mind), so many Rawk boxes ticked. Fallen Angels, lots of Monkey Business, that naughty old Night Crawler/Prowler fella got a mention, city girls got a mention (Detroit again, nice one), oh yes, there's a Live Wire, check! I thought it sounded great, the playing was great the songs made me air guitar while running (a few stares at this sweaty old git air drumming and guitaring while running!) Thoroughly enjoyed this and if I can find it on vinyl I'll snaffle up a copy to keep my ears chuckling!

Final Score: 7.97⁄10 (97 votes cast, with a total score of 677)

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