❉ The ’70s West Coast band’s melodic brand of glam-style power-pop rock is back in style.
It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. However sometimes, it’s not what or who you know, but when you do it.
Popular music is full of what, who and when. But there cannot be many artists who illustrate this more than The Hollywood Stars, from California.
Having rehearsed and recorded an album’s worth of material in 1974, they were dropped by Columbia. The reason? The East Coast offices of Columbia Records seized control and fired all of its staffers on the West Coast. As a result, nearly all of the music acts signed by West Coast staffers were dropped
The album was eventually released. In 2014. Yes, in 2014! Some forty years later. Entitled Shine Like a Radio: The Great Lost 1974 Album, it received a host of five-star reviews upon release. And great it is too. Check it out and make your life better.
The Hollywood Stars were originally put together by impresario and Hollywood figure Kim Fowley. Fowley was an attention seeker and an attention grabber. He crammed their gigs at the Whiskey A-Go-Go, Los Angeles, full of influential people, together with the coolest and most colourful Sunset Strip characters. He wanted the West coast version of the New York Dolls, minus the cross-dressing. 1974 was the right time, right place for The Hollywood Stars. They had the sound people wanted in LA’s feel-good, glitzy rock’n’roll landscape.
The line-up at this point was Scott Phares (vocals), Mark Anthony (guitar, vocals), Ruben de Fuentes (guitar), Kevin Barnhill (bass) and Terry Rae (drums, vocals).
Truth was, The Hollywood Stars were no New York Dolls. Not just in the sartorial department. They were just too easy on the ear, and nowhere near as dangerous.
1974 passed, financial records got slack and the band were dropped from Columbia. They had missed their moment. The band’s line-up changed, with Phares leaving and Mark Anthony taking over lead vocal duties. Ruben de Fuentes remained on guitar and was joined in the axe department by Steve De Lacy. Barnhill was replaced by Michael Rummans and Bob Drier came on board on percussion. Mark Anthony took over principal song-writing duties and penned the most tracks featured here on Sound City.
They eventually signed with Arista Records. In 1977 a debut album (The Hollywood Stars) was finally released. A mixture of brand new and re-recorded material. Problem was, in the meantime, punk rock had exploded. Disco was spreading. The musical landscape had changed significantly. Feel-good glitzy rock’n’roll was no longer the main gig in town. Even out in Los Angeles. The Hollywood Stars’ brand of melodic, glam-style power-pop rock was being elbowed to one side. Their long-awaited debut album launch coincided with a sonic revolution they were not part of.
The Hollywood Stars were marooned.
Sound City is a collection of ten tracks recorded by the band in 1976. These tracks were produced by Neal Merryweather, and were recorded at Sound City studio, Van Nuys, California. Half the tracks are being released here for the very first time; the remainder were subsequently re-recorded and included on their debut album. However, on Sound City, the original versions are included. It is, in effect, their second ‘lost album’ release.
Sound City is therefore a fascinating release. Like the 1974 recordings, they were left in a vault, reel to reel tapes still in their box. Now they are being released courtesy of Burger Records.
Terry Rae articulates the view of the band’s enthusiasm for these Merryweather produced Sound City versions:
“The band have always preferred the Merryweather mixes to what eventually appeared on the Arista LP and are keen to see them finally released… Sound City is almost like a live set – all those songs were cut at the same time. In comparison, the Arista album went on for a long time, and our power pop roots lost out to the type of syrupy string arrangements that were prevalent on major label albums at the time.”
The album kicks off with the call-to-arms power pop of Sunrise on Sunset. The sleazy, pinched harmonic punctuation of Ruben de Fuentes’s lead guitar riff guides the way, with no time wasted in arriving at the chorus. Obviously aimed at the adult orientated rock market, it comes over as a blend of Bad Company blues riffage, and the glam rock pop power of the Sweet. It really paints a picture of rock n’ roll hot summer nights, with eyes squinting as first morning light hits.
Really, what’s not to like with a good time tune like this?
Merryweather’s production shoves the guitars right up high in the mix. A technique met with the band’s approval; “It was the same era of guitarists as Mick Ronson and Andy Scott (The Sweet). I wanted clear guitars up front. And Sound City was a great studio to do that in.” – Ruben de Fuentes.
It’s a formula that is repeated throughout. I Can’t Help it keeps the pace of the album’s opener. Escape is a tune that was included Alice Cooper’s Welcome to my Nightmare, and was co-written by the man himself, Mark Anthony and Kim Fowley. The latter pedalled these tunes around appropriate acts back in the day, see. A steady, cowbell-led beat, and snappy chorus. Another top tune. The lyrics are straightforward;
Escape! Get out while you can,
Escape! Anytime you can,
Escape! I’m cryin’ in my beer,
Escape! Just get me out of here.
Thin Lizzy-esque guitar harmonies complete the job. It’s easy to see why Alice Cooper wanted this track. This is the first time this version of the song has been released, however.
Mark Anthony had taken over on vocals following the departure of Scott Phares. No real gravel to his tones, it is a clean but strong, impassioned vocal delivery. Especially on the slightly slower, melodic So Blue, where the vocals do indeed soar. It is not so slow as to venture into rock ballad territory, but it does provide a welcome break from the energetic power-pop and rock of the rest of the album.
I’m a sucker for a good time rock n’ roll dance number. And this is what Hollywood Stars do best. Throw in a sing a long party feel to it and I’m anybody’s, really. Too Hot to Handle (previously a seven-inch single) and All the Kids on the Street appear back to back on the album, and they do the job nicely. Well, more than nicely actually. Songs generating immediate impact, with no fat on them at all. Guitar riffs you can sing along to. And as a listener, you feel you know the words even though you’re hearing the track for the first time. The lyrics are delivered with belief and are authentic. What you see and hear is very much what you get. Fantastic, and easy to love.
All the Kids on the Street is a hidden rock anthem. Celebrating the power of music and its ability to bring factions together. Music has the power to unite, see, particularly with a tune like this. Easily as strong a tune as Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing, for example. Again, a pinched harmonic guitar riff drives the tune onwards. And upwards.
Habits (complete with that cowbell, again) is a little darker. It is a belter of a track, again getting to the chorus swiftly. It was released on the other side of Too Hot to Handle as a limited edition seven-inch single in 2017.
Make it to the Party is high tempo and does what it says in its title. Dashing to get to the party. You can imagine it blaring out of the car stereo, as the gang pile into their Corvette and screech round the corners on route to a Friday night house party. Complete with a dreamy bridge section, where the lyrics tell how our hero wants to be sure his girl is indeed going to the party, otherwise there is no reason he’s going himself. It features a ‘fist in the air’ chant of a chorus. And a ‘foot on the monitor’ guitar riff. Perfect.
The tight, bluesy guitar and bass lick of Shotgun jumps in just before the album’s final track. Regular chants of Shotgun abound, together with (guess what?) more cowbell. This is the first time this tune has been released.
Sound City closes with Houdini of Rock and Roll. With a title like that how can they possibly fail? Another debut release where all the trademarks of The Hollywood Stars are present. Another snappy arrangement, a sing a long chorus, with a clear vocal delivery. But, unexpectedly, with a sitar effect on the guitar towards the end of the track. Just when you thought they were getting predictable.
Sound City is not going to change rock and roll history. Nor is it going to crop up on many ‘top fifty albums of all time’ lists. But it is a lively, solid collection of well written, well-performed and well-arranged power-pop tunes. Anthems, even. Evocative of the early-mid seventies, when the simplicity of good time rock and roll was all that we needed. These tunes are so good they are timeless. And were well worth getting out of that vault.
Following the recording of these tracks The Hollywood Stars had a further line-up change in 1978. They eventually splintered and split up. For forty years.
However, there is now a fourth incarnation of The Hollywood Stars. Original vocalist Scott Phares, original guitarist Ruben de Fuentes, original drummer Terry Rae and second incarnation bassist Michael Rummans, are joined by a new guitar player, Chezz Monroe. With the release of Shine Like a Radio; the lost 1974 Album, and now Sound City, The Hollywood Stars sound at home in the current musical landscape. Not exactly cutting edge, but a truly welcome component. They played a triumphant live show in November 2018, and there has been talk of further gigs to come.
Do we want such good time hard power pop, in September 2019, with the world seeming in such a perilous, serious state?
You bet we do. We need it, in fact.
❉ ‘Sound City’ is out now on CD and digital download via Burger Records: https://burgerrecords
❉ Paul Matts is a writer from Leicester, England. His debut novel ‘Toy Guitars’ is due to be published in 2019, and a further novella, ‘Donny Jackal’ is currently being edited. He previously promoted live shows as 101 Productions and owned The Attik night club from 2001-2007. He was also a songwriter and guitarist in The Incurables. Paul runs a music blog and has recently started a series entitled 101 Significant Figures. This focuses on under-appreciated individuals in the punk and new wave movement. See www.paulmatts.com for more details.