Friday, 28 July 2017

Starz: In 1992 I Tracked Down Guitarist Richie Ranno To Talk About The Band's History & Possible Future!

Starz promo photo circa 1977
L-R: Richie Ranno, Joe X. Dube, Michael Lee Smith,
Brenden Harkin and Peter Sweval
Originally published in American Music Press, 1992

By Devorah Ostrov

There's a brand new Starz' CD at Tower Records! Honest, go look. It's called Requiem (as in a mass sung for the dead), and its thirteen tracks offer an assortment of band members, musical styles, and oddities.

The first five songs on Requiem feature this year's lineup — vocalist Michael Lee Smith, guitarists Richie Ranno and Brenden Harkin (all three were with the original band), and drummer Doug Madick (who was in the post-Starz outfit Hellcats) — and prove that while it's been some fourteen years since the last official Starz' album, Smith and Ranno are still a hard-to-beat writing team.

"Vidi O.D." showcases the duo's sense of sarcasm ("X-rays show there's nothing to see/His head is empty, empty MTV"), while "You Called His Name" and "Rough & Ready" show they haven't lost their fondness for melodrama and the wherewithal to seriously rock.

Capitol Records advertisement for the
band's self-titled debut album
Other cool cuts include the rollicking "Texas" (featuring the full original lineup which included bassist Peter Sweval and drummer Joe X. Dube) and live versions of "Night Crawler," "Hold On To the Night," and "(She's Just a) Fallen Angel."

Although Ranno released Requiem on his own Drastic CD label, the story behind it begins with Metal Blade Records founder Brian Slagel.

A few years ago Slagel was browsing in a New York music memorabilia emporium when he chanced upon the rare Starz' demo Do It With The Lights On.

Apparently, Slagel professed his love of the band to the store clerk who exclaimed, "Well hey! Richie's a really good friend of mine!"

Ranno's address was duly handed over, and the man who first put Metallica on vinyl promptly wrote his hero in the hope of reissuing the entire Starz' catalog on CD.

Slagel learned that Capitol Records, the group's original label, still retained he rights to their four studio albums: Starz, Violation, Attention Shoppers! and Coliseum Rock. But Ranno owned the rights to an infamous, but never commercially released, live recording known to record collectors under the ponderous title Live at the Municipal Auditorium, Louisville, March 30, 1978.

Creem magazine - Star's Cars No. 23 featuring Starz!
Metal Blade combined those tracks with others taped at a 1977 show in Cleveland, and in 1989 the label released Live In Action — a terrific tribute to a band that was once within touching distance of being as big as Aerosmith and KISS before it inexplicably disappeared off the face of the earth. (Metal Blade later resolved an on again/off again agreement with Capitol to also reissue the band's studio albums and all four are now available on CD.)

The band were putting the finishing touches on Requiem when I contacted Ranno at a New York recording studio. Interestingly, they were using the very same room that 16 years ago to the month they'd used to record the first Starz' album.

Starz at the Lost and Found Saloon in 
San Francisco with American Heartbreak  
December 2, 2005
Ranno was quick to cite Capitol's original mishandling of the live LP as a prime example of what the band was up against throughout its career. Intended for "promotional use only," initially only a scant 2,000 copies were printed.

"Promotional meaning that they pressed them up and threw them away," fumes Ranno. "And I'm not kidding! I was in our manager's office... We were done as a band and I was trying to get released from my contract, and the records were piled up in a corner. I said, 'What are you doing with those?' He said, 'We're throwing them out.' So I said, 'I'll take 'em, thanks.' I sold them for $2, whatever. That album goes for $50 - $100 now! It became this real rare collectible."

With Metal Blade's release of the live CD, Ranno and Smith — out of touch for several years — found themselves talking again.

"We never talked about the band," Ranno points out. "We just talked about our divorces. We'd call each other up about every two weeks and say, 'What's happening with you?' One day he said, 'You know, wherever I go people are going crazy over the Starz thing. Why don't we just make another album?'"

* * * * *

In 1973 Ranno, a Bronx native raised in Teaneck, New Jersey, was playing guitar with the Stories. Unfortunately, he joined the group after they'd had a #1 hit with the soulful "Brother Louie" and only months before they broke up.

Looking Glass - Brandy (You're A Fine Girl) 
Sony CD compilation - 1998
On Facebook, Michael Lee Smith says: "So here I am,
the lead singer in Looking Glass and I'm pretty sure I
don't sing on a single song on this CD." 
Also pictured are Brenden Harkin, Peter Sweval
and Joe X. Dube from Starz.
Meanwhile, in another corner of New Jersey, Sweval and Dube (then-known as Jeff Grob) were recruiting new members for their band the Looking Glass, whose single "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" had been a #1 hit in 1972. In early '74, Harkin was added on guitar and Smith, who hailed from Georgia, replaced vocalist Elliot Lurie.

The Looking Glass changed its name to Fallen Angels and recorded two singles for Arista without scoring a hit, before they hooked up with the powerful Rock Steady/Aucoin Management Agency (home of KISS).

According to Ranno, it was Sean Delaney, Aucoin's creative genius, who helped the fledgling band achieve a harder rock sound. And it was Delaney who convinced them to add a second guitarist. In September 1975 Ranno answered the Fallen Angels' ad in The Village Voice.

"They'd auditioned about 75 guys before I got there," he recalls, "but I was the only one who fit in. I'd been playing for about 30 seconds when I stopped and said, 'What's the matter?' They said, 'You're the first guy we didn't have to tell the chords to.'"

T. Rex, Mott the Hoople, David Bowie, KISS, and Alice Cooper were among Ranno's fave bands at the time. But most of all, he loved the British chart-topping glamsters Slade. "Slade was the most incredible live show I ever saw!" he declares.

Starz and KISS 
Ranno's affinity for pop melodies and great big hooks, incorporated into the band's hard rock edge would become Starz' trademark sound, which down the line would prove an influence to the likes of Motley Crue, Warrant, Bon Jovi, and Cinderella (all of which have admitted to being big Starz fans).

The name Fallen Angels was short-lived. (Ranno mentions a poster advertising a KISS/Fallen Angels show which is worth big bucks!) By the end of '75, the band decided it was time to ditch keyboardist Larry Gonsky (a holdover from the Looking Glass) and change the group's name — again.

Starz drummer Joe X. Dube
and heartthrob Michael Lee Smith
During our interview Ranno understandably claimed to be a little fuzzy about who came up with the audacious, misspelled moniker — after all it had been awhile. But in other reports, full credit is given to Sean Delaney.

"I think I had a star earring," says Ranno. "I always wore a star necklace, and I had stars on my guitar neck. Brenden wore a star around his neck, too. The management company said, 'You guys have stars on everything. Let's go with that.'"

At first, the band rejected the idea. Ranno remembers: "We said, 'Nah! We don't like the way that sounds.' But we started fooling around with different ideas. Stars with an 's' was unacceptable. Somebody said 'z,' and that was it."

Heartthrob vocalist Smith (brother of teen-dream Rex Smith), gave a more interesting account of the band's name in the January 1977 issue of Creem magazine. "It was one of those things where we were all hanging around late one night, doing various things, substances, and the next morning we were Starz. It just dropped from out of the sky."

Recorded at the Record Plant with producer Jack Douglas, the band's self-titled, hard and heavy debut album was released in August 1976. It easily contained at least three strong contenders for radio airplay: the power-packed "Detroit Girls," the melodic "(She's Just a) Fallen Angel," and the dramatic "Pull the Plug" (supposedly based on the story of Karen Ann Quinlan). Capitol's decision was to push... absolutely nothing!

Capitol Records ad for the Violation LP
"Creatively we knew what we were doing," says Ranno. "We knew when it was good and when it was bad. We knew that 'Detroit Girls' was a hit, and we knew that 'Fallen Angel' was a hit. But they (the collective mind of the record company) didn't know it. I said, 'Doesn't it have a great hook?' And they said, 'Nobody plays that kind of stuff.'"

The band got a second chance in 1977 with the equally hard-hitting Violation album — loosely based around the concept of a near-future world in which rock 'n' roll is one of many violations. But again, the label told them there were no singles. Apparently, it was only a fluke that "Cherry Baby," the LP's catchy opening track, climbed to #33 on the Billboard national chart.

It should be noted that Kerrang magazine's listing of the 100 greatest heavy metal albums of all time ranked Starz at #74 and Violation at #82! But at the time, no one could blame the guys if they were beginning to feel like a "tax write-off."

"Sometimes that's what we use to think," admits Ranno. "Capitol put a lot of money into us, but not in the right places. The best advertisement you could have in the '70s was a hit single, but they didn't believe that a hard rock band could have a hit single."

Joe X. Dube endorsement for
Tama Drums ... "as strong and
powerful as Dube's playing."
The group's third album, Attention Shoppers!, was released in January 1978. Recorded at New York's Secret Sound Studios and produced by the band themselves, Ranno considers the LP — which takes an almost power pop approach to some material — to be the band's weakest effort.

"They convinced us that we had to do an album like Attention Shoppers!" he asserts. "And even then they said, 'These songs can't be hits.' We thought, 'Great, now we'll lose our hard rock audience.' People tell me that they love Attention Shoppers! but I can't believe it. I thought 'Hold On To the Night' was a good song; we kinda had a slight pop side there. I thought 'Third Time's a Charm' was good because it was like a ballad. And I liked 'Johnny All Alone' because it was kinda psychedelic, kinda 'Pull the Plug'-ish. Other than that... I don't know."

Ranno continues, "At the time, I really wanted to do another hard rock album, get that heavy guitar thing going — which was what Coliseum Rock [the band's fourth album, with bassist Orville Davis and guitarist Bobby Messano replacing Sweval and Harkin] was a reaction to. Every album was just a reaction to the previous one."

Although they didn't always see eye-to-eye with their label, Capitol didn't skimp on the band's stage production and pyrotechnics. "Our logo would rise up in the air with fireworks going off underneath it," enthuses Ranno about one pricey gimmick. "It looked like a spaceship!"

And there was no question that Starz always excelled when it came to playing live. One press release succinctly stated that live performances were the band's "greatest asset."

Fabulous comic book-style ad for
the Attention Shoppers! LP

"When everyone was wearing blue jeans we dressed really wild," recalls Ranno, "like six-inch high platform boots that went up to our knees. Not quite the glitter rock look, but real fancy. And our movements were always choreographed. We were the only band, other than KISS, who were doing that. The kids loved it!"

In 1979, fed up with their label's apathy and tired of disco saturated airwaves ("It was disco on TV, disco in the car..."), Starz pretty much called it quits.

Over the next couple of years several comebacks were attempted with various combinations of band members, but nothing really gelled until Ranno and Smith, along with drummer Doug Madick and bassist Peter Scance resurfaced as Hellcats.

A five-track Hellcats' EP was issued on Radio Records in 1982, which Kerrang! called: "A gloriously rowdy selection of hard rock tunes."

But... "Four weeks later the owner of the record company disappeared, never to be heard from again," laments Ranno. "Atlantic Records [distributor of the indie label] dumped all the Hellcats' records and that was the end of that band."

In 1987 Ranno took another stab at Hellcats, replacing Smith (who had moved to California) with the previously unheard-of Perry Jones on vocals. Kerrang! (normally a staunch supporter of anything Starz related) described this lineup's one LP as "genuinely innocuous."

Richie Ranno: "Our logo would rise up in the air with fireworks
going off underneath it. It looked like a spaceship!"
And nothing more was heard from the guys until the fateful day when Brian Slagel came across that dusty demo. As to future plans for Starz, Ranno says, "anything's possible!"

He adds, "We have good memories. We felt great about Starz and each other. We only stopped playing because of the lack of success. That's really what it boiled down to. We just couldn't do it anymore. And actually, we weren't that unsuccessful."

Friday, 14 July 2017

While Buzzcocks Toured The USA In Support Of Their 1996 CD "All Set," Their Record Company Abruptly Folded.

Circa 1979 tour poster
By Devorah Ostrov

It was Tuesday, July 23, 1996, when Buzzcocks pulled into San Francisco on the West Coast leg of a 26-date US tour in support of their new CD All Set.

The group, originally formed by Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto in 1976 after they saw the Sex Pistols, was headlining Bimbos that night but their label, I.R.S. Records, had abruptly folded a few days earlier leaving the band without any tour support and the new CD with no promotion.

I found Pete standing alone and unrecognized in the middle of the club following the group's soundcheck. Surprizingly upbeat given the circumstances, and suddenly unburdened of any previously arranged constraints on his time, Pete was happy to spend an hour chatting with a fanzine writer. According to Pete, the tour had been going well before I.R.S. closed its doors, with sold out shows in New York and Boston.

Q: Were you given any indication that this was going to happen while the band was on tour?

PETE: None whatsoever. Originally, I.R.S. were trying to wrest themselves away from EMI. But the financial backing fell through. So, EMI have just swallowed it up.

Buzzcocks at the time of this interview - I.R.S. promo pic
Tony Barber, Steve Diggle, Pete Shelley, Philip Barker
Q: What's going to happen?

PETE: I have no idea! We're still waiting on the outcome of it. We don't know if we'll get put onto one of the "EMI group of companies" or if we'll go off to Miles Copeland's new label.

Q: He has a new label?

PETE: He has a new one, which will be coming out through... EMI (laughs). It's all a corporate thing!

Q: You're not completely out in the cold, then?

PETE: No. Well... we don't know who we're with yet.

Q: When you were on LIVE 105 earlier, you played "Totally From the Heart" and "What Am I Supposed to Do" off the new CD. Are those the two songs that you're pushing?

PETE: Well... they were. I think the 45 release has been stalled. It's on hold.

Q: Was there supposed to be a video for one of the songs?

PETE: There was... for "Totally From the Heart." We were supposed to shoot it before we started the tour, but then it got changed to the end of the tour.

Japanese All Set CD (Real Cool Records 1996)
Contains three additional songs written by Steve Diggle
Q: And now it's too late?

PETE: It doesn't look like it's going to happen.

Q: The songs on All Set are every bit as good as the material on the earlier Buzzcocks' LPs. It's funny, I never expect a band that's been around for so long to be as good as they were in the beginning.

PETE: It's a rare thing but it is possible.

Q: "Totally From the Heart" is such a great pop song! I sort of wish there was a lyric sheet, as I'm sure I'm missing some of the nuances.

PETE: I never liked having lyrics inside the booklet. People don't get the chance to make up their own minds about what I'm singing about.

Q: That's true. But your lyrics are so full of clever wordplay, I would think you'd want people to know exactly what you're saying.

PETE: In Japan, they always include lyric sheets.

Q: That's understandable!

The classic 1970s Buzzcocks lineup with Steve Garvey & John Maher
PETE: Yes! But this time, surprisingly, the record company in Japan sent over a copy of all the lyrics and there were surprisingly few alterations.

Q: Do they make big mistakes?

PETE: Sometimes (laughs).

Q: Is the band popular in Japan?

PETE: Well, we've been over there three or four times. And we're going back over in September to do six shows.

UA advert for the "Orgasm Addict" 45
Q: Even without record company support?

PETE: It's a different record company in Japan. We're signed to Real Cool Records; we got a split deal.

Q: That was lucky! The band had been broken-up for eight years when it reformed in 1989. I read somewhere that the release of the Product boxset inspired you to get back together. Is that true?

PETE: Yes, it was concurrent with that. There were rumors that we were back together and we started getting offers. We had an offer from our agent in the States. He said, "How come you haven't been in touch?" And we said, "Well, the band's not exactly back together." He offered us a tour and we said, "Okay, we'll give it a try." So, the original band got back together.

Q: What happened to (drummer) John Maher and (bassist) Steve Garvey after that? Why did they decide to leave again?

PETE: It takes it out of you a bit - touring. They have their home pursuits. They're home-based.

Q: Is Buzzcocks a day-to-day concern now, or does the band just get together to record and tour?

PETE: It's a day-to-day thing. It's a consuming passion!

"Ever Fallen in Love" lyrics
Smash Hits magazine
Q: If I'm not mistaken, a few days ago it was the band's 20th anniversary.

PETE: That's right, yes, last Saturday! We were playing in Vancouver.

Q: Did you do anything special?

PETE: I think we drank rather more than we should have done! Apart from that, no. We just had a good show.

Q: The story goes that you and Howard Devoto were in school together when you formed the band.

PETE: In college... I was doing electronics, and Howard was doing Humanities.

Q: At the Bolton Institute of Technology?

PETE: That's right. Well researched.

Q: Howard had put a notice up saying he was looking to form a band?

PETE: Yes.

Q: And you were the only one who responded?

PETE: Uhmm... There were a few others. There was one guy who used to play bass. We used to rehearse on Wednesday afternoons in his bedroom. Although, unfortunately, some weeks we couldn't rehearse because his father was working nightshifts and sleeping during the day. But then it just petered out and it was just me and Howard writing songs together.

Buzzcocks at the Roxy Club
Q: You also did some recording prior to that, back in '74?

PETE: Well... It was just a home recording. I was just messing about.

Q: And you used a homemade oscillator for that?

PETE: Yes! It was in a hobby magazine. So, I got my soldering iron out and built it. I made a little printed circuit board. It was all open, and I found that if I actually touched the components, it would change the nature of the... noise.

Q: Were you into German bands at the time? Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream, Can...

PETE: (Nods and smiles) Yeah! I was well into Krautrock.

Q: Your home recording was released in 1980 as Sky Yen. How did that come about?

PETE: A friend (Francis Cookson) and I started a record company to put out more... uh... obscure pieces of music - Groovy Records. That was our second release.

Q: The early history of Buzzcocks really starts with you and Howard going to London to see the Sex Pistols in 1976. Can you tell me about that?

PETE: Yes, we saw a review. It must have been the end of February, the last week of February. We saw a review of this band called the Sex Pistols who had played at the Marquee. They were bad and nobody liked them. And they did a cover of "No Fun." Me and Howard were both big Stooges fans, so we thought it would be a good idea to check them out. See what they were like. See what the potential competition was like. So, we went down to London and saw two shows. We got to chatting with them and found out that they wanted to do some shows outside of London.

Early Buzzcocks lineup with Howard Devoto
Q: So, you and Howard arranged a show in Manchester?

PETE: At the time, Howard was doing the pop-rock column in the local listings magazine. He hunted around and found that we could hire this little hall (the Lesser Free Trade Hall). Not the big one (the Free Trade Hall), that's where the Halle Orchestra play. We could get it for about £32 a night. We thought, "We're getting a PA and some lights - there's £2. And we can get the Sex Pistols to come up, and we can play with them!" Unfortunately, we didn't get a band together by the time of the first show, which was June 4th. But by the second show on July 20th, we had the bass player (Steve Diggle) and the drummer (John Maher) - and we were in action!

Q: Is it true that Steve Diggle was supposed to meet up with some other band at the first Pistols' show, but in a case of mistaken identity Malcom McLaren introduced him to you?

Pete Shelley:
"I think we tended to see the dark cloud
rather than the silver lining."
PETE: Yes, Steve had arranged to meet up with someone outside the Free Trade Hall because there was a bar nearby. He was stood outside and I was in the box office taking the money. Malcolm McLaren went outside while the support band was on. There was a little blackboard with "Live From London: The Sex Pistols!" chalked on it, and he was doing his showman routine: "Roll up! Roll up! Come see this band! They're really great!" He knew we were looking for a bass player, and he went over to talk to this guy who was waiting to meet someone. He said, "Are you the bass player?" And this guy said, "Yes." Malcom came back to the box office window and said, "Here's your new bass player! His name's Steve."

Q: Who was Steve really supposed to be meeting? Did they turn out to be anyone famous?

PETE: I dunno. About fifteen minutes later, Steve did come in with another guitarist. It might have been the guitarist he was meant to be meeting. I don't think they did anything.

Q: Were you aware of the emerging punk scene in London when you first saw the Sex Pistols play?

PETE: No. At that time, I don't think there were many other punk bands.

Q: As far as you knew it was just the Sex Pistols?

PETE: As far as I knew, it was just me and Howard! Until we saw the Sex Pistols. Then we thought, "Oh, there are other people who feel the same way!"

Poster for The Screen on the Green Midnight Special
featuring the Sex Pistols, the Clash & Buzzcocks
Q: Would you describe yourself and Howard as being "angry young men"?

PETE: Uhmm... I think we tended to see the dark cloud rather than the silver lining.

Q: In the beginning, Buzzcocks seemed to purposefully align themselves with the punk movement even though it was being condemned by the press as being quite a violent scene.

PETE: There was no violence, that was the strange thing about it. Most of it was exaggerated.

Q: Wasn't someone stabbed at a Buzzcocks' show?

PETE: Yes, but we didn't see it actually happening. The police turned off the PA, but the backline was still working, so I sang "Orgasm Addict" through a megaphone.

Q: Does it surprize you that twenty years on there's still a punk scene?

PETE: Well, it's quite a simple formula. If we hadn't been doing it, I think somebody else would've invented it.

Q: But the fact that it wasn't supposed to last forever was part of what made it exciting!

Buzzcocks on the cover of
Smash Hits magazine - 1979
PETE: I can see what you mean, but it wasn't exactly like that. The whole idea was that it was supposed to be fun. And you might as well just do it, rather than wait until you learned how to play.

Q: But you guys obviously knew how to play before Buzzcocks.

PETE: Well, secretly... yes. But the whole thing was to make it look like you couldn't really play. To have a certain relaxed attitude, rather than being proficient.

Q: Buzzcocks supported the Sex Pistols at their massive Finsbury Park show a month ago, and in a few weeks the Pistols will be playing the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View as part of the "Filthy Lucre" tour. But I just want to say how happy I am that you're playing clubs on this tour!

PETE: We're playing clubs out of necessity. We couldn't sell enough tickets to play Shoreline!

Q: But I love that you're still accessible and fans can still say hello!

PETE: It's the best way to be. I'd hate to be closeted away!

Q: And you guys still have integrity.

PETE: I think the Sex Pistols still have integrity.

Q: Do you?

Pete Shelley: "We started to do demos for a
fourth Buzzcocks' album, and they ended
up becoming the Homosapien album."
PETE: Definitely. As well as doing it for the money, there's also the thing that they wanna have a final farewell as a band.

Q: Do you think this will be it? Their final farewell?

PETE: I dunno... They may do something else. It's hard to tell.

Q: They haven't even released a new record! At least you guys are still writing and recording new material.

PETE: Oh, yeah. There is that.

Q: Three years ago, you released Trade Test Transmissions, which was the first new Buzzcocks' record since A Different Kind Of Tension in 1979. Was it strange going into the studio fourteen years later to record as Buzzcocks?

PETE: No, we'd spent a lot of time in the studio doing demos and things. But trying to convince record companies that this band is back together and is still credible has been a bit of an uphill struggle.

Q: Why is that?

PETE: Because record companies more or less like bands that they can manipulate.

Q: And they can't manipulate you guys?

PETE: Well, they haven't really tried all that hard. But I think that's what's at the back of their minds.

Poster advertising Buzzcocks, Siouxsie & the Banshees,
and Subway Sect at the Roundhouse
Q: You're saying that the band is prepared to stick to its guns and do what it thinks is best?

PETE: Yeah. Which is what punk is all about, not being swayed from your convictions.

Q: Around the time of the Love Bites LP, some longtime fans and music writers criticized the group for "selling-out." Did that worry you?

PETE: I didn't pay much attention to it. It's a thing which always happens as soon as somebody has an idea, the next wave of people come along and try to dogmatize it. And anybody who doesn't agree with their definition is a heretic. All kinds of bands have been said to have sold-out. Like the Clash singing "I'm So Bored With the USA" and spending so much time over here.

My autographed copy of A Different Kind of Tension
Q: Why did the band break-up in 1981?

PETE: Well, surprisingly... our record company (United Artists) got eaten up by EMI! And we weren't getting along with the people at EMI, and we ran out of money. Things were going nowhere fast. We started to do demos for a fourth Buzzcocks' album, and they ended up becoming the Homosapien album.

Q: So, some of the songs on your fist solo album would have been on the fourth Buzzcocks' LP?

PETE: Yes.

Q: Are there recordings of Buzzcocks doing the song "Homosapien"?

PETE: No, not as far as I know.

Q: With the Homosapien LP, it seems like you got back into electronic music in a big way. You said in a Trouser Press interview at the time, "It's just myself and machines."

PETE: Yes, well... When we were doing the demos, it was just me in the studio and (producer) Martin Rushent. We got a synthesizer and a sequencer - a micro composer, it was called. And we just stared doing demos using that. The second one we did was "Homosapien." It took about 18 hours to record it and mix it. Over the next two days we did another two tracks, and then we started looking around for a record company that was interested in it.

Poster advertising the "Spiral Scratch" EP
Q: Are you playing any of your solo material on this tour?

PETE: No, it's just Buzzcocks' stuff. We've got enough of that!

Q: What songs are you doing tonight?

PETE: I think we're doing five or six off All Set, and three or four off Trade Test Transmissions, and the rest are off various albums and singles.

Q: Are you doing "Harmony in My Head"?

PETE: Yes!

Q: I read an interview where Steve said that his songs, like "Harmony in My Head," are more aggressive than the songs you write. Do you agree with that?

PETE: He tends to think that, but it's not my personal opinion!

Q: Where did Tony Barber (bassist) and Phil Barker (drummer) come from? How did they come to join the band?

PETE: We held auditions. They heard about the auditions and wanted to do it. I'd met Tony before; I knew he was a fan and he knew the songs. That's usually a good starting point, if you know all the songs! This is actually the longest lasting lineup, it'll be four years in September.

Q: In the UK, the band has had a long list of singles in the charts, with "Ever Fallen in Love" reaching number 12. Yet I'd still be tempted to describe Buzzcocks as "underrated."

Pete Shelley advertises the July 20, 1976 concert with
the Sex Pistols, Slaughter and the Dogs, and Buzzcocks at 
Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall.
Photo: Kevin Cummins
PETE: I'd agree with underrated!

Q: Do you think that's because you were based in Manchester as opposed to London?

PETE: I suppose that had a part to play. I mean, the thing is, the people that really like Buzzcocks, really like Buzzcocks - and they understand why they like us. Whereas other people don't see what all the fuss is about. I mean, we just have the reputation of being a good band, but sometimes that's not enough.

Q: And you've never gone out of your way to make a big splash.

PETE: Nah.

Q: Are you still based in Manchester?

PETE: No, I've been living in London for the past 11 years.

Q: Wow! I so much associate Buzzcocks with Manchester, I never thought you'd leave!

PETE: At one point I thought I'd never leave it, but they offered me a flat in London and I took it.

Q: What about Steve?

PETE: He moved down about three years ago.

Buzzcocks pose with Debbie Harry during Blondie's 1978 European tour
Photo: Chris Stein
Q: All Set was recorded at Fantasy Studios in Berkeley. Did someone recommend that studio?

PETE: Well, it's the studio that (producer) Neill King works out of. He'd just done an album for Menswear, who are friends of ours in London, and it had a great guitar sound. And when we were thinking about who we'd like to have produce the album, his name came up. Then we found out he'd also done the guitars on the Green Day albums. We just wanted to work with someone who knew how to treat a band with guitars! It was good because he's an Englishman! He's been living over here for eight or nine years, so he's got American studio ears. But he's got the same references as us and knows all the people we know, which made it easy to communicate.

Friars Aylesbury
Buzzcocks on Wednesday
Motorhead & Girlschool on Saturday!
Q: How long were you in Bay Area for?

PETE: About five weeks. We'd just done a tour of South America, and we came straight from Sao Paulo.

Q: Did you go to Amoeba Records while you were here?

PETE: Yes!

Q: Are you a record collector?

PETE: I'm not, but Tony is. He's fanatical.

Q: Are you familiar with San Francisco now? Can you get around on your own?

PETE: Uhmm... a little bit.

Q: Did you do all the touristy things?

PETE: I didn't, no. I was in the studio all the time. No rest for me, 12-hour days.

Q: You didn't even ride on a cable car?


Q: You mentioned that Neill King did the guitars on the Green Day albums. Did you meet Green Day while you were recording?

"Totally From the Heart" CD single
PETE: No, they were on tour.

Q: Are you interested in new punk bands like Green Day, Rancid, the Offspring...?

PETE: Uhmm... I do own some CDs.

Q: What's the music scene like in the UK now?

PETE: It seems to be mired in Britpop at the moment.

Q: Do you like Oasis and Blur?

PETE: I think Oasis are popular. And Blur are poppy.

Q: Do you go to see bands that were influenced by Buzzcocks?

PETE: It's sometimes impossible not to notice them. I have a growing collection of CDs and demo tapes from bands who cite us as an influence.

Q: Have you thought about producing some of these bands?

PETE: I've been asked on occasion, but it's never materialized.

Pete Shelley: "I have a growing collection of
CDs and demo tapes from bands who cite
us as an influence."
Q: I'd like to ask you about some of the songs on All Set. Could you tell me a bit about "Point of No Return"?

PETE: I wrote "Point of No Return" in 1987. It was on a tape of "stuff to do things with." What's it about? Uhmm... that's a difficult one.

Q: What about the song "Some Kinda Wonderful"?

PETE: That's from 1986! I was asked to do a song for the film (a coming-of-age teen flick starring Eric Stoltz, Mary Stuart Masterson and Lea Thompson).

Q: That was my initial thought when I saw the song title! But it's not included on the movie soundtrack.

PETE: No, it wasn't used. So, I just put it into a pile of cassettes.

Q: What about "Give It to Me"? What's the story behind that?

PETE: That's from 1984. In Britain, I did the music for the Tour de France - the intro and credits. "Give It to Me" is a version of that.

Advert for the band's debut LP
Another Music In A Different Kitchen
United Artists - 1978
Q: Are there any new songs on this CD?

PETE: Yeah... (laughs) The new ones are "Totally From the Heart," "Hold Me Close," "Kiss and Tell," "What You Mean to Me," and "Pariah."

Q: "Totally From the Heart" and several other songs on All Set seem like fairly straightforward love songs without your usual cynicism. Do you think you've softened around the edges a bit over the years?

PETE: Not really... There's still plenty of hooks and barbs in there; things that you might not hear right away! "Totally From the Heart" has the message: "From now on is the time for becoming/One by one we can take control..."

Q: What do you mean by that?

PETE: That people are in control of their own lives and destiny.

Q: But at the same time, you're saying that you're scared of being alone and without this person.

PETE: It isn't really about a person. It's about people in general, about expectations.

Q: Something which has been pointed out about your lyrics, is that they're not gender specific. You don't use the words "she" or "he."

PETE: I try to avoid them.

Buzzcocks with support band Joy Division - Rainbow Theatre
Q: It's something you do on purpose?

PETE: Yes.

Q: Why?

PETE: For myself, it means I can transfer the feelings and thoughts onto anyone.

Q: While maintaining an air of ambiguity?

"Love You More" sheet music
Words and music by Peter Shelley
PETE: Ambiguity... There's a lot to said for it!

Q: Is that something you've always been consciously aware of?

PETE: Yeah... more or less. I mean, somebody in New York gave me a copy of this interview that they'd done with me back in '80/'81, and in it I said that the thing about writing songs is that you can be vague and direct at the same time. There's a lot of reading in between the lines to be done.

Q: It doesn't matter if you're male or female, you can relate the song to yourself.

PETE: Yeah, yeah! You can relate to it. I mean, if "Ever Fallen in Love" had any references to a specific gender, it wouldn't have been so universally accepted. Anything to do with relationships, there's I and You - and that's all you need, really.

Q: It's like you've set yourself this lyrical constraint, but in turn it makes your songs more interesting. Buzzcocks are the only rock band I know of that does that on a conscious level.

PETE: It's sometimes on a par with... There was a French author who wrote a book without using the letter E (La Disparition by Georges Perec, written in 1968). And then somebody translated it into English and avoided using the letter E as well.

Q: So... it's unreadable!

Pete Shelley: "If  'Ever Fallen in Love' had any
references to a specific gender, it wouldn't have been
so universally accepted."
PETE: No, it's supposed to be readable, but... It's just a literary trick!  It's hard to think up ways to be both vague and direct at the same time (laughs).

Q: Have you thought about collecting your lyrics into a book of poetry?

PETE: I've put all my lyrics up on the internet. All except the new ones and I'll do them when I get back. I've got a website with all that stuff on it. My plan is to do a set of annotated lyrics where I'll tell stories about what the songs mean.

Q: What about writing a book of fiction?

PETE: No, I always find that reality is stranger than fiction!

Q: Is the song "Without You" on All Set about someone specific?

PETE: No, not really. I mean, sometimes I do have a person in mind when I'm writing a song. But then other people can fit in as well. So... no, it isn't about anybody specifically.

How about "Hold Me Close"?

PETE: "Hold Me Close" started off with an idea that I had on a tape, and it was really fast. Tony said, "Let's try it a bit slower." And I said, "How much slower?" Because I don't like... you know...

Pete Shelley on the cover of the NME
June 17, 1978
Q: Buzzcocks aren't exactly known for ballads!

PETE: No, not really. I think that's the closest we've come in a long while. It just came about from that. As soon as we slowed it down, it took on a different character. I think it's quite "European."

Q: How about "What You Mean to Me"?

PETE: It's a bit more poetical than I usually get. It's all: "roads past stormy seas" and "darkening skies."

Q: And finally, what was the inspiration behind "Pariah"? It's the strangest song on the CD!

PETE: I'd worked out the riff, and the word "pariah... pariah..." just kept going through my head. I looked up pariah in the dictionary to see how to spell it, and it said that it comes from the drummer caste in Hindu - they were meant to be the lowest of the low and were shunned by everyone else. Because the song has lots of drums in it, that seemed to be the right title for it. And I got the quote "as above so below" from Hermes Trismegistus.

Q: You're obviously quite a literary person.

PETE: I have read books!

Q: What are your favorite books?

Poster for the Love Bites LP
PETE: I like the Argentinian writer (Jorge Luis) Borges. And I like Robert Anton Wilson (best known for The Illuminatus! Trilogy), and Philip K. Dick, and William Burroughs...

Q: I'm surprized that you were studying electronics at college and not literature.

PETE: I had the qualifications to get onto the electronics course but not a literary course. But after doing two years of electronics, I dropped out and started doing Humanities.

Q: Were your parents disappointed that you formed a band instead of starting a career?

PETE: Well, the only career I could think of really was repairing TVs.

Q: You'd be a TV repairman if not for Buzzcocks?

PETE: Yeah! But I thought, there has to be something more to life.

Q: Were your parents supportive of your decision?

PETE: Yes, I suppose so. I mean, they didn't forbid me from doing what I wanted to do. The more successful we were, the more they liked it!

Q: I want to go back and ask you about Jets Of Air. That was your band prior to Buzzcocks?

Pete Shelley: "The only career I could think of really was repairing TVs."
PETE: Yes, that was the first band that I formed.

Q: What was that band like?

PETE: It was a mixture of, uhmm... David Bowie, Roxy Music, and the Velvet Underground. It was like proto-punk, with noisy elements.

Buzzcocks Coming Your Way
"Orgasm Addict" tour poster
Q: Who else was in that band?

PETE: The only other person you'd know was Garth (from an early Buzzcocks lineup).

Q: Did Jets Of Air ever record anything?

PETE: Not really. I mean, not in the studio sense. There's a couple of rehearsal tapes, that's all.

Q: I've always wanted to ask you about the surname you chose to go by. Did you choose the name Shelley because you liked the poet?

PETE: People used to ask, "After the poet?" And I used to say, "It was the name I was going to be called if I was a girl." It would have been after Shelley Winters. So I used to say, "It's after Shelley Winters." Then I saw Shelley Winters on a chat show and she was really called Shirley, but she changed it to Shelley after the poet. So, it is after the poet by a roundabout route!

Q: And can you clear up a rumor I've heard? Is it true that Bernie Rhodes wanted to steal you away from Buzzcocks and put you in a band with Keith Levine?

PETE: That's correct! Yes! I got a phone call from him just after Howard left. I also got a phone call from Rob Lloyd of the Prefects.

Q: Do you still talk to Howard? Do you still see him?

Advert for the "Love You More"/
"Noise Annoys" single
PETE: I haven't seen him for about a year. The last time I saw him, we went to see this play about the Sex Pistols. It was set in the Hotel Miyako in San Francisco. It was supposed to be based on the last day of the band. And we were saying, "Malcolm didn't talk like that!" Haha!

Q: So, you and Howard are still friends?

PETE: Yeah.

Q: He left the band on good terms, then?

PETE: Yeah. He was in the final year of his degree. His tutors took him to one side and said, "If you don't do the work, you won't get a degree." He'd done two years of psychology before that, and he wasn't getting a grant anymore. He was working during the summer and over the holidays to get the money to go to university. It was really important to him.

Q: Would you consider having him join the band onstage for a special show, or maybe as a guest appearance?

PETE: He hasn't since 1978. Buzzcocks and Magazine did a show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall for a documentary that Tony Wilson was doing.

Q: Was that the only time Buzzcocks played with Magazine?

Caroline Records advertisement for the
Trade Test Transmissions LP
PETE: I think so, yeah.

Q: What's Howard doing these days?

PETE: He's working at a photo library. He's a librarian.

Q: Have you ever thought about leaving music and getting a day job?

PETE: I've never had the desire to work. I gave up my day job the day before the Sex Pistols' show.

Q: What were you doing?

PETE: I was a trainee computer operator.

Q: Finally, what's the weirdest thing you've ever done to get in free to a rock concert?

PETE: Uhmm... Besides saying I was on the guestlist when I wasn't?

Q: That depends. Who was playing?

PETE: I dunno. It was just because they were serving late. I had no interest in the band!

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Dee Snider: I Asked The Twisted Sister Frontman To Name His Five Desert Island Discs

"I LOVE Slade! I never mentioned them
because people are like, Who?"
Twisted Sister's Stay Hungry LP - photo: Mark Weiss
Previously unpublished. (This was meant to accompany an article about Dee Snider's new band Widowmaker in a 1992 issue of American Music Press.)

By Devorah Ostrov

Short on time at the end of a telephone interview about Widowmaker, Dee Snider's press agent told him he could only answer one more question before moving on (presumably to chat with a rock journalist with more clout than myself).

Knowing what a huge rock 'n' roll fan he is, I asked Dee to name his five Desert Island Discs -  thereby ensuring that I completely screwed up whatever time had been allotted to everyone else! 

Unfortunately (or perhaps ironically), American Music Press didn't have the space to include this list with the article. But luckily (!) I still have the transcript. Now, I can finally reveal Dee Snider's Desert Island Disc choices circa 1992!

1. Montrose: Montrose (Warner Bros. 1973) "It's just classic, timeless heavy rock 'n' roll. Great singing, great playing. It still holds up!"

2. Alice Cooper: Killer (Warner Bros. 1971) "I like a lot of stuff afterwards, but 'You Drive Me Nervous' and 'Under My Wheels'...  That to me is Alice at his best!"

3. Queen: Queen II (EMI/Elektra 1974) "I was one of the first Queen fans. That album is one of the greatest albums of all time! It really has such DEPTH! You could spend years with it and not get all the nuances."

4. The Sex Pistols: Never Mind The Bollocks Here's The Sex Pistols (Virgin 1977) "The anger and aggression is just devastating! It's a DRIVEN record, with as much metal credibility as Montrose 1. And its simplicity is brilliant!"

"You're really putting a gun to my head here. If I could, I would say a compilation of the Bad Co. catalog. But if I can't say that, I'll say..."

5. Led Zeppelin: Led Zeppelin II (Atlantic 1969) "Legendary vintage playing and singing. Every instrument SPEAKS on that record. The song quality - 'Heartbreaker,' 'Whole Lotta Love,' 'Living Loving Maid'... It's got such musical depth!"

As Dee had by now forgotten about all the other interviews he was supposed to do, I pressed on.

Q: I notice that you've stuck completely to the '70s with your list. (Led Zeppelin II was released in 1969, but it's close enough.)

DEE: "That's pretty sickening, isn't it? That's because... Although there are many bands that I enjoy from the '80s... Just to show you bands I'm listening to now - Chilli Peppers, Faith No More, Guns 'n Roses of course, Skid Row, Kings X, Pantera, Metallica, Black Crowes, Nirvana... I like the Seattle scene a lot. I think there's a lot of great bands! Maybe I'm just incapable at this point of getting into a band the way I got into it before I was a performer. I listen to them now, not as a fan so much as it's more analytical. And they don't sparkle as much, in the way the bands of my youth did. You kinda looked up at them; I saw them on pedestals and there was a certain glamour. Now, any record that comes out I see as my peers. So, I'm looking at my peers and going, 'Wow! They have a great record!' The Nirvana thing is really cool! But when you're looking at equals, it doesn't have the romance that the bands of your youth did. I realize that we seem that way to our fans, but once you break through that door the romance goes out the window, and you have a much more realistic view of it."

And then I must have professed my undying devotion to Slade. I'm guessing I said something idiotic because I didn't bother to transcribe it. However, Dee replied in a most unexpected way - which kept him on the phone for another 10 minutes.

Slade: Slayed? (Polydor 1972)

DEE: "Slade!!! You're a Slade fan!? I LOVE Slade!!! I met Noddy Holder and I was bowing. 'I'm not worthy.' I never mentioned them because people are like, 'Who?' You were a BIG Slade fan?"

It would seem so. Again, I didn't transcribe whatever it was I said, but Dee's voice lowered from its usual roar to something resembling a conspiratorial whisper at this point.

DEE: "All right... I've never told anybody this, only because they wouldn't really appreciate it. I wonder sometimes where I get ideas for songs. Remember their song 'I Won't Let it 'Appen Agen'? (Sings) 'It's not gonna 'appen/No, it won't 'appen/I won't let it 'appen agen.' Well... (Sings) 'We're not gonna take it/No, we ain't gonna take it/We're not gonna take it anymore.'"

Dee then kindly proffered a line-by-line comparison of Twisted Sister's signature song with Slade's 1972 stomper:

"It's not gonna 'appen/No, it won't 'appen..."

"We're not gonna take it/No, we ain't gonna take it..."

"I won't let it 'appen..."

"We're not gonna take it..."



Finally, he adds: "It's really subtle 'cause it's not the same melody. But the way it's laid out, it's the same pattern. And the rhythm of it is identical to Slade's song. I realized that years later. I'm a HUGE Slade fan!!! I saw Slade, and the next day I bought three of their albums. I was just decimated! They just blew me away! I have to go. It's been great talking to you. Two kindred spirits! And the last thing I wanna say is: BABY! BABY! BABY!"

* * *

For my complete interview with Dee Snider, including a frank discussion about his post-Twisted Sister career and the dilemma of voting democrat in 1992, please go here: