By Devorah Ostrov & Billy Rowe
|Angel - photo from the Sinful album cover|
What emerges during more than four hours of telephone interviews with Angel's vocalist Frank DiMino and bassist Felix Robinson is the story of a band that had everything going for it, but seemingly no idea what it really wanted — except fame.
It's also apparent that they were molded (if not downright suffocated) by Neil Bogart's unwavering determination to make them as big as Kiss. Or as Robinson stated when we asked why Angel once flirted with a Giorgio Moroder-produced disco beat: "Our record company was willing to make us do anything to succeed and we were willing to listen to them."
* * *
|Casablanca Records advert|
"When we first started, we played two shows a night at a club called Bogies," recalls DiMino. "Everyone knew us from different bands around the area, so there was a lot of interest. We had a lot of people come down from record labels."
One long-held rumor claims Gene Simmons "discovered" the band at Bogies and brought them to the attention of Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart. (Kiss had released its debut album on the label a year previously.)
"What happened was Gene and Paul [Stanley] were playing at Largo in D.C.," says DiMino. "And [rock writer] Gordon Fletcher would bring people down from Largo [to Bogies] because we were good friends with him. He happened to bring Gene and Paul down one night and they stayed for the set. That's when they talked to us about Neil."
At the same time, Angel was approached with numerous management offers, among them Leber-Krebs (Aerosmith/New York Dolls) and Bill Aucoin (Kiss/Starz), but it was David Joseph of the Toby Organization who signed the group and relocated it to Los Angeles.
|Angel - publicity photo|
"We wore white on stage from the start," adds DiMino.
|Punky Meadows - publicity photo|
"We were really close to a deal with Capitol," says DiMino, "but we wanted to go with Neil because we liked the way he talked."
"Casablanca was the label with the least to offer," laughs Robinson. "Neil had a grand vision, but not a lot of money — only a belief in his own abilities. He said, 'If you guys will go with me, I will do whatever I have to do to make you successful.' That's something the other record companies had not said. They were offering large numbers of dollars, but that commitment was not a personal commitment. Neil Bogart was willing to put his name on the line."
And their management company was willing to put its money on the line with the then-novel idea of a self-financed album, giving the group even more leverage.
DiMino picks up the story: "When we finished the album we went to Capitol, ready to sign. But we wanted to talk to Neil one more time. We put Capitol off for a day and went to see Neil. He loved the album and he matched Capitol's deal."
Angel in Japan
Punky shows off his copy of Music Life
Robinson still considers "Tower," the LP's opening track, to be Angel's "signature tune," and notes that the band kicked off every show with it "right up to the very end." He adds, "It's a great tune! Kind of an ethereal sounding lyric. What's it about? It's about the tower!"
The group's sophomore album, Helluva Band, followed the same pattern, while it racked up comparisons to Queen and fanned the flames of a make-believe rivalry with Kiss.
As Pam Brown wrote in the September 1976 issue of CREEM: "Here they are, kids … Casablanca's new Kiss! Five pretty faces with long, long, British haircuts. Flowing white robes, very sheik in the style of Shah Freddy Mercury. Pink Floyd orchestration and Queen operation with lots of o-o-o-o-o-o's."
"We were always compared to Queen," says Robinson, "but we never paid much attention to them."
|Helluva Band (Casablanca Records 1976)|
Photography by Barry Levine/Graphics by Gribbitt!
By the third album, 1977's On Earth as It Is in Heaven, a small but perceivable change had taken place in the group's music: there was less pomposity, less flash just for the sake of flash. And there was a definite move towards pop.
"It was a conscious effort," states DiMino, before he drops the first hint of Casablanca's control over the band. "It was one of those things where there was so much input from everyone, the label, etc., it got really confusing. We tried to keep, more or less, the style from the first two albums adding it to the pop kinda stuff."
|Angel - publicity still from the 1980 film Foxes|
"We just had a falling out," DiMino simply states when asked about the bass player's departure. However, Robinson is a bit more expansive on the subject: "Mickey was a rock 'n' roll star, a legend in his own mind — but he was not a musician."
* * *
White Hot album insert - become a member
of Angel's Earth Force fan club for $5.00
He had just acquired a priceless 1969 Precision bass for $150 when a friend called and told him, "There's a band playing at the Fox Theatre. They just put out a record and the record company gave 'em a lotta money."
Robinson remembers, "I was told if I went down there and negotiated through Bill Schereck [Angel's tour manager] I could sell them this bass for heck, $300 or $400! After the show I went to the Holiday Inn where they were staying. I introduced myself to Bill and said, 'I've got a bass that I think your bass player might be interested in.' I opened the case. Bill said, 'We'll buy it.' They all came by, looked at me and said, 'Who the hell are you?'"
What did Robinson think of Angel at that point — honestly? "I thought it was a pretty lame band! I thought, 'The guitar player looks good, but he's not playing music he's comfortable with. The drummer's too frantic. The singer...' Nothing was right. Of course, I realized they were playing to 3,000 screaming 16 and 17-year-old fans, and so who am I to criticize this?"
|Punky applies his make-up|
Meadows and Giuffria approached Robinson during the recording of On Earth to collaborate on material for the group's fourth album, White Hot.
"They said, 'We're doing another record and our bass player is out of town,'" notes Robinson. "At first, I didn't understand what that meant. There's no code word there. 'Out of town' really was kinda out of town. But it also meant that Mickey was not really interested in writing songs for the next record."
|Casablanca advert for the White Hot album|
However, he's of another opinion: "Although I think the direction the band was going in musically was accelerated because of my involvement, the change that occurred was really more in terms of lyrical content. There's a song [on the On Earth LP] called 'Telephone Exchange' and it always seemed to me to be one of the transitional tunes from the third to the fourth album. It actually has some kind of a story behind it. The lyrics seem to speak toward a relationship between people, and less about some kind of ethereal concept of what's going on in the universe."
Robinson continues: "By the time you get to White Hot you're seeing a lot of songs that have to do with relationships. And Frankie, who had always been responsible for writing the lyrics, really started to blossom. He started to feel more comfortable with telling a story. Punky, who had always been more of a blues guitar player, was able to play more in that style. Barry is a fantastic drummer, but he'd been left to his own devices for three albums, therefore the songs had rhythmic parts that were just like extended jams. So, what we were doing was creating a more definable concept in terms of songwriting."
"Ain't Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore" b/w
"Flying with Broken Wings" - picture sleeve 45 (1977)
"Oh, Gregg was all over the place!" chuckles Robinson, who plays keyboards himself. "Gregg was always trying to play every bass line. He wanted to play along with every guitar part, and he wanted to play with every vocal part. When I joined Angel, for the first time a member of the band was able to interpret to Gregg what the keyboard part needed to be. Punky was very grateful for this. Punky and I would work out tunes and he would say, 'This is a place for the keyboards.' I would play the keyboard part, and when it came time to work it up as a band, I was able to interpret that keyboard part to Gregg."
A veritable pop music masterpiece, White Hot was Angel's most successful album. And DiMino says it was his personal favorite: "It was the one we put the most energy into, and actually, it was the most fun to do. Everyone was a little more clear on the direction we were going in."
|Angel - publicity photo|
Neither DiMino or Robinson remember precisely who suggested they record the song, but Robinson infers it was a record company decision when he states, "It was an attempt to bring in a song that could be a hit record. We needed a hit record."
Angel pose in fashionable street attire
for this Japanese publicity pic
(Robinson reveals one fun way that Angel threw money around: "A band like Styx — a very popular band that was selling millions of records — would pull up to shows in rental station wagons because when you're somewhere like Flint, Michigan, there are no limo companies. We would have limousines come from Chicago. We would have limousines drive 100 miles to take us from the hotel to the show, which was maybe a ten-minute ride, just so 30 or 40 of our fans and all the truck drivers and roadies would see us get out of the limousine. We did that many times!)
At this point, how committed was Casablanca to pushing the group?
"Very committed," confirms Robinson. "Neil was obsessed by the desire to make Angel succeed. He wanted Angel to be as big as Kiss."
* * *
|Angel On Tour - promo poster|
Magical illusions designed by Doug Henning and built by Sid and Marty Krofft (creators of H.R. Pufnstuff) got the group on and off stage; and there was "George," a talking and blinking hologram in the shape of Angel's logo. (Apparently, George's face belonged to Toby employee/Angel co-manager Warren Entner).
Each show began with several mysterious cubes spread about the stage. Then, during an opening narration that asserted the band had been sent to Earth as musical messengers from the angel Gabriel, two figures dressed in black began arranging the boxes.
|The original cover concept for the Bad Publicity album|
And, no... he doesn't give away the secret during our interview! Robinson, on the other hand, has no such qualms about telling us how some of the tricks worked.
First he divulges the mystery of the hologram effect: "Rear projection. Face made from plexiglass in the contour of a human face. Much larger than life size — George's face was about six-feet high and about four-feet wide, on a 15-hundred-pound scissor lift that rose from behind the band. At a certain point in our show the lights would come down and we would stop playing. This giant head would come up from behind the amplifiers, open its eyes, and speak to the audience."
Poster included in the
On Earth As it is In Heaven LP
Making an obvious reference to marijuana smoke, George said:
The gates of heaven are open to all
Do you feel the music?
Do you feel the music?"
Do you feel the music?"
Robinson continues: "And Frankie would scream, 'Do you feel it?' The crowd would cheer, and we would go into another song."
Then he explains the live show's closing effect: "A huge recreation of our album cover would come out of the ceiling. It was about 12-foot by 12-foot and about a foot thick. It would land on a large white table, a hollow table — or so it seemed. When we finished our last song, we would put down our instruments, walk up a flight of stairs and go inside this record cover. The cover would rise up into the air and explode into about 40 pieces. The trick worked as follows: We would go inside the album cover and dive inside this white table that would be wheeled off stage as the album was rising up in the air. The album would explode, our road manager would tap on the lid three times so we would know it was safe to open the trap door, we would run on stage, pick up our instruments and do the encore."
One show from the White Hot tour actually made it into the rock history books, but it had nothing to do with the group's special effects. "Played wild gig w/Godz in San Diego, 1978," states the compendium Headbangers: The Worldwide Book of Heavy Metal Bands. DiMino and Robinson give us the blow-by-blow (literally) account of the evening...
|Angel - promo photo|
Robinson: They had a very strict code at the San Diego Sports Arena which said: You Do Not Get Up Out Of Your Seat, and You Do Not Go Down To The Stage! But of course, we were Angel! And when Frankie said, "Come on down!" about three or four thousand 16 and 17-year-old girls got up and ran to the front of the stage!
Angel headline Cleveland's Public Hall with
support from the Babys & Godz - March 8, 1978
(Thanks to Mark Chatfield for the advert!)
Robinson: Frankie could see that these kids were really getting pummelled. He walked to the front of the stage and looked down at one of the bouncers who was in the midst of picking up some poor 14-year-old girl and throwing her six or eight feet through the air...
DiMino: I called out the guy's name and told him to leave everyone alone.
Robinson: Frankie said, "I invited them down here. If they wanna come down, it's okay with us!" Of course, more kids started coming down!
DiMino: The guy came up to the front of the stage, gave me the finger, and went to grab my mike stand.
Robinson: Frankie proceeded to plant his mike stand in the middle of guy's forehead. Axl Rose would've been proud! Now, this guy was big, and he grabbed the mike stand. Frankie wouldn't let go of it, so Frankie and the mike stand went off the stage! My bass roadie, Steve Brooks, who's about 6'6" and weighs about 240 pounds, came flying from behind me, took a swan dive into the audience, and started fighting. Punky jumped off the stage with a beer bottle in his hand after one of the security guys. I took off my bass and started swinging it over my head at one of 'em. Gregg... I believe Gregg ran behind his keyboard rig.
|White Hot LP insert|
Robinson: By the time we got back up on stage — nobody was hurt very badly, just ripped up a little bit — the house lights were up, and the Fire Marshal was standing next to my amp, giving me the cross-the-throat thing, "Cut it!"
DiMino: I told everyone we would keep playing until they turned off the power.
Robinson: We played one more song. The audience was screaming! In approval! There were still fights going on in front of the stage. The house lights were still up. There were security people all over the place. And the fun wasn't over yet, we had to get back to our dressing room — about a 40/50-foot walk. The original guy who had provoked us had gotten five or six of his friends together to jump us between the stage and the dressing room. The Godz, a very disgusting bunch of bikers from Ohio who carried loaded weapons with them everywhere they went, had been backstage cheering us on. And, I might add, they were really impressed! They had decided they were going to protect us.
|Angel in Japan|
Robinson: I stood up and said, "Yes! Let's go to jail! This is great press!" Our manager said, "We can't go to jail. Frank will have to make an apology. Frank has to go out front and try to get calm restored." Frank went back on stage and said, "You gotta cool it … the show's over ... we've gotta leave … we love you all … thanks for coming … be careful … and stop fighting!"
DiMino: It all worked out.
Robinson: One of the funny anecdotes of this was, my mother — who had never seen the band before — was living in San Diego and had come to the show with my aunt. They were both in their 70s. After this whole thing had died down, I went outside and found them. My mom says, "Is it like this every time you play?"
* * *
|Foxes promo poster|
Firstly, tired of being more known for their all-white image rather than their music, and the constant press ridicule it fostered, the band was determined to lose the costumes. (Perpetuating one old myth, The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll states: "Angel was designed as the dressed-in-white counterpart of Casablanca labelmate Kiss.")
"To us it was too much of a formula," says Robinson. "It was a little too like the Monkees, we always had to appear in character. Do you remember platform shoes? How difficult it was to walk in 'em? I wore platform shoes just about every day of my life for a year. I still have a back problem from it. One day I was getting out of a limousine and I fell flat on my butt! I finally got on my feet and said, 'What the hell am I doing this for?' It was absurd!"
Furthermore, in a departure from the usual play on angelic terminology, the new record would be called Bad Publicity. The front cover, photographed by Barry Levine over a two-day period at the Hollywood Blvd. Hyatt House, showed the guys in fashionable street clothes, partying with cards, booze and women. The back cover featured a collage of the group's negative reviews.
|Frank Zappa performing "Punky's Whips"|
Robinson recalls: "When the photographs were put in front of Neil Bogart, he said, 'I can't have this. You'll have to reshoot the cover.' Our manager said, 'But Neil, we spent $50,000 shooting this cover!' Neil said, 'I'll pay for it.' And he literally wrote a check for $50,000. We had new (white) clothes made and we reshot the cover."
The album was also renamed Sinful, but as a compromise, one photo showing the group in a police line-up dressed in "street" clothes was allowed to stay. (Although super rare, we're assured that a few copies with the original Bad Publicity cover did get out!)
Just how pervasive was Casablanca's control over Angel?
"When Kiss scored a Top 10 hit with 'Beth,' we were told to write a song like 'Beth,' asserts Robinson. "We were told to write a song like 'Rock and Roll All Nite.' They said, 'Write an anthem song.' And we tried."
|Angel - Casablanca Records/Toby Management publicity photo|
Didn't that drive them crazy?
|Koh Hasebe pic for Japanese Burrn! magazine|
With Sinful, Angel truly hit its recording stride. On tunes like "L.A. Lady" (with Giuffria pounding out a great honky-tonk piano), "Lovers Live On," "Just Can't Take It," "I'll Bring the Whole World to Your Door," and "Wild and Hot" (featuring Robinson on an upfront vocal mix) the band confidently used elements of R&B, power pop and hard rock to create what should be acknowledged as rock 'n' roll classics.
Robinson calls the album "the musical culmination of the band." And in a Kerrang magazine retrospective of the group, rock writer Howard Johnson raves: "Sinful is without a doubt the finest slab of metal/ pop ever laid down!"
With the '79 tour — a package deal featuring Mahogany Rush and Humble Pie alternating as headliners — there was new management (Leber-Krebs) and an important concession by Casablanca: on non-headlining nights the band was allowed to wear "alternative" clothes.
Unfortunately, it was too little too late. Sinful should have fulfilled Neil Bogart's dream of making Angel as big as Kiss, but instead for the first time, the tour found the band playing to half-full auditoriums and having to cancel some shows.
"Rock N Rollers" b/w "Mariner"
Japanese picture sleeve issued in 1976
And he emphasizes that it wasn't just Angel's problem. "No one was doing well. Anyone who was in the music business at that point will remember what I'm talking about."
Maybe. But there's a long list of bands that sold millions of records in '79 and had no problem packing concert halls: Cheap Trick, the Cars, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Dire Straits, Squeeze... It's possible that New Wave, more so than the price of oil, was Angel's real nemesis.
Interestingly, if Angel had stayed the course in which they were headed — less complicated music combined with a toned-down image — they could have easily competed with Cheap Trick and the Cars. However, Bogart was impatient to make Angel a household name and it's likely he didn't understand and/or take new wave seriously.
|Angel - promo poster|
Bogart also understood the power of promotion. Kiss had already made the monumentally silly made-for-TV movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, and in 1978 Casablanca's Filmworks division received a Best Picture nomination for Midnight Express (for which Giorgio Moroder won the Oscar for best original score). The idea of using films to feature the label's bands must have appealed to him.
You can almost see Bogart's mind at work: Angel must make a movie and Giorgio Moroder must produce the soundtrack. Released in 1980, Foxes was a coming-of-age story about four teenage girls (amongst them Jodie Foster and ex-Runaway Cherie Currie). It was also, states Robinson, "a culmination of the record company's control over the band."
"We were told we were going to be in this movie," he says. "This was another way to break the band. We'll do some songs in the movie. The movie's going to be about us. It's an Angel movie! It just happens to have Jodie Foster in it."
|Angel - promo poster|
But somewhere along the way, going to an Angel concert became just a minor distraction in the girls otherwise angst-filled lives. And although there was extensive filming of entire songs, only two — "Virginia" and "20th Century Foxes," both written by the band especially for the film — were used. "I'm sure the footage is laying in somebody's vault," offers Robinson.
The guys also found it frustrating to work within the strict confines of Moroder's trademark Eruo-disco beat, particularly on the synth-heavy "20th Century Foxes." Robinson groans, "I remember the excruciating hours in the studio trying to get Barry to play on two and four. It was almost impossible to make Angel into a disco band."
R.I.P. original Angel bassist Mickey
Jones, who died in 2009 after a long
battle with cancer.
For one thing, explains Robinson, "Kiss were already doing well on their own, but Angel were not yet weaned from the record company. The band had been built up to be completely dependent on Neil Bogart. We were dependent on him for our success and for our future. When Neil died, it was the death of Angel."
But there was more. "We had been used to getting a certain amount of money as an advance for each album," points out Robinson, "and Polygram was not willing to meet the same figure. So, we decided we would strike out and tell Polygram to take a leap!"
DiMino fills in the inevitable outcome: "Polygram wouldn't let us out of our contract, so we went through about a year of litigation where we couldn't play, couldn't tour, couldn't do anything. We recorded some stuff, but it was never released."
Deep in debt (Robinson notes that their contracts were used for a course in Entertainment Law at USC: "What can happen when a record company is willing to invest huge amounts of money to break a group; how commitments can be structured so that a band will be constantly in debt") and unable to continue to record or tour, Angel drifted apart.
Kerrang reports on Gregg Giuffria's (short-lived) revival of Angel in 1984
Robinson states the obvious: "It wasn't Angel anymore."
* * *
Robinson possesses a tape with several unreleased songs recorded in Atlanta during the band's final tour that are "in line with the stuff on Sinful although there's a couple of harder-edged tunes." And DiMino says some footage for the rumoured film Angel Live at Midnight actually does exist. However, he adds, "I'm sure they never even finished editing it. It's in a vault somewhere."