“I didn’t used to like the Hollywood Stars, I used to like the New York Dolls. Then I heard the Hollywood Stars play ‘Satisfaction.’ Now I wanna fuck ‘em.”
Rock ‘n’ roll is all about timing. It would be nice to believe that the bands who make it big, the ones who are seen as trendsetters and influencers, and the best loved acts are always the ones who deserve it – the cream of the crop. In some cases, that’s true, but in most cases it’s entirely down to luck, to being in the right place at the right time and to being the ones who got all the breaks – seen by the right people, signed to a label that didn’t butcher or bury your work and capturing the fickle imagination of the press. We can look back at countless bands where one or two of those elements were in place – bands who became music press darlings but never actually sold any records, groups who put out magnificent and ground-breaking records that no one cared about – but who never quite made it to the big leagues. Equally, there are the bands who had the record sales but never received the respect that they deserved, and who fizzled out unnoticed once the initial success had passed. It would be nice to think that talent will out, but in truth, it’s all about luck.
The Hollywood Stars had more than their fair share of luck. Unfortunately for them, pretty much all of it was bad. In a parallel universe, The Hollywood Stars are one of the biggest names of the 1970s, cult heroes and innovators who were up there with the pre-punk glam greats, challenging Alice Cooper and Kiss for record sales and the New York Dolls for influence. Instead, the forces of the universe conspired to stop their first album from being released at all and caused their second to emerge in a version that was far from their original concept, just as punk was arriving to put a stake through the heart of the glam scene (even though, of course, glam had effectively spawned punk). Forgotten men even as their record finally came out, the Stars splintered and disappeared into rock history’s bargain bin, doomed – so it seemed – to be forever just a footnote in other people’s biographies.
The Hollywood Stars story begins in 1973, and it begins, like many an LA rock tale, with Kim Fowley. The eccentric impresario had been finding, moulding, using and (so the stories go) abusing talent since the 1960s, while also running his own very strange recording career, and he was looking for something new. Something to match the glam rock sounds of Bowie and Sweet and T Rex coming out of the UK, and – more pointedly – the wasted, drag queen sub-Stones glitter trash of the New York Dolls. He wanted LA’s own version of the Dolls, and he knew just where to go looking. he found frontman Scott Phares in the same place that, a few years later, he would go trolling for Runaways.
“I was standing at the bar of Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco in late 1973”, Phares told me. “Kim told me he’d seen me ’cause a riot’ on stage the year before with my previous band, Adrian. He said he was putting together a new group and wanted me as the lead singer. Yes, he said he wanted a version of the Dolls, but he envisioned us as being different. He wanted us to be Hollywood street people, not all the face paint and glam makeup, etc. He also wanted all of us to be good looking. I was well aware of the Hollywood scene. And right before The Hollywood Stars, I’d been living in Boston with Adrian and knew all about Aerosmith. I’d seen them play in Kenmore Square.”
By this time, Fowley had already recruited drummer Terry Rae, a former member of The Palace Guard who was working as a session man with the Flamin’ Groovies when Fowley called. Shortly after bagging Phares, Fowley added guitarists Ruben de Fuentes and Mark Anthony and bassist Kevin Barnhill. Working on the idea that it never hurt to think big, Fowley christened the band The Hollywood Stars, a name that demanded attention and screamed ambition.
As Phares stated, the Stars did not adopt the glam look – pictures now show a band who looked like a pretty boy rock group, but not one given to makeup and fancy clothes – ironic perhaps, given that LA would become the epicentre of glam mental a decade or so later. The group looked like a gang – not a particularly hard gang, perhaps, but one with street attitude who you wouldn’t want to mess with. There was more swagger than pout in the Hollywood Stars, and this was reflected in the music, written by Fowley, Mars Bonfire and the band. The Stars took a no-nonsense, macho rock ‘n’ roll approach that reflected the style of hard rock contemporaries like Kiss.
Fowley’s influence soon had the band headlining Los Angeles’ biggest rock clubs like the Whisky A Go Go (where they premiered in 1973) and the Troubadour, as well as securing support slots with, ironically, the New York Dolls. They played to packed out audiences that included John Lennon and Angie Bowie. The band were creating a local buzz, and when the record industry is based in town, that’s not a bad thing. Soon, they had reached the attention of Columbia Records, who signed them up. The future was looking rosy – actual stardom, it seemed, was just around the corner.
And then things went terribly wrong.
No one seems entirely sure what happened, but the band’s debut LP was recorded and almost ready for release when Columbia unexpectedly pulled it from the schedules and abruptly dropped the band. Rumours of unauthorised expenses being charged to the label were floated as a reason, though Phares has a more prosaic theory:
“There are a lot of theories and opinions out there. I learned later that at the time we were let go, the East Coast A&R people from Columbia were staging a coup on the West Coast office. They managed to successfully get nearly all of the West Coast signings dropped from the roster, so that they could push Journey and safer bets like Barbra Streisand-type acts. I lived in an apartment building where another CBS act lived, and they got dropped, too. It didn’t help that the producer CBS assigned to us, Bill Szymczyk, was busy producing Joe Walsh instead of us.”
Certainly, the hard rock that the Stars were producing was probably not a priority in LA at the time, and perhaps not seen as where the industry was going – Kiss were still a few albums away from their big break with Alive and Destroyer at the time, and both the Dolls and the Alice Cooper band were imploding. The notoriously fickle Fowley also seemed to be getting bored with the whole idea.
Phares: “Kim jumped ship around the time we went into the studio to record our first album for CBS. Basically, Kim wanted to produce those sessions and CBS wasn’t having it. They banned him from the studio. They didn’t want to have the guys they hired bumping heads with him. However, he stayed on the periphery of the band’s progress and returned to act as emcee for the original lineup’s last show at The Whiskey in November 1974.”
It’s hard to imagine a bigger blow to any band’s self confidence than having your debut record yanked from the schedules on the eve of release and then being dumped by your label. Unsurprisingly, the Stars fragmented.
Phares: “We were all really depressed, and then Mark Anthony quit the band. Everything fell apart then. No label, no managers, no band, no money! We all went on unemployment. Soon, I was approached by another Los Angeles band looking for a singer. That band became Hero. I made two albums with them with Michael Lloyd producing.”
But as the band disintegrated and moved on, two of their songs found an unexpected afterlife, thanks to Fowley’s connections. Kiss recorded Kings of the Night Time World on Destroyer in 1976, and the song would become a live staple subsequently. Alice Cooper would record Escape on his first solo album Welcome To My Nightmare, though he radically altered the lyrics to make the song more autobiographical, something that Phares is dismissive of: “Nothing against Alice Cooper, but I hate them. Kim’s lyrics are much better. His is the version I sing now. Of course, Kim’s were aimed at a different audience with a completely different point of view.”
Nevertheless, this backhanded acknowledgement of the Stars as a musical force must have seemed bittersweet as the band collected unemployment cheques and looked for new careers. As Phares comments, “in some ways it was proof of how good we were. I felt like if we’d been given a chance, and having those songs become hits for other artists proved that we could’ve made it.”
It was, perhaps, this belated validation that made the Hollywood Stars decide to give it another shot in 1976. Phares decided to sit it out, but Mark Anthony was back, this time as lead singer, and both de Fuentes and Rae also returned, with new members Michael Rummans on bass and Bobby Drier on percussion. The new band looked a little more mid-Seventies pop – de rigueur fashions of the era like silk shirts, scarves and wide collars – but the music remained as solid as before, and there was enough residual appreciation for the band from LA’s rock community to allow them to pick up where they left off, and secure support slots with the likes of the Kinks and – perhaps as a sign of what was to come – the Ramones. By this time, Fowley was entirely out of the picture – by 1976, he was putting together The Runaways, the all-girl band who in many ways took up where the Stars had left off, with glam-influenced, pre-punk attitude and hook-heavy songs on teen rebellion. For Fowley, the Stars were yesterday’s news.
Phares: “In the years after The Stars, I did see Kim from time to time. He wasn’t nice to me then. I asked him why, and he said people were either his friends or his enemies. His friends made him laugh, made him money, or got him high – though Kim never did drugs nor drank. I no longer was a friend then.”
Of course, Fowley’s reputation, even then, probably meant that he was as much a millstone as an asset, and without him, the new Stars quickly built a reputation as a hard working, hard rocking act. Music industry memory is notoriously short and very forgiving if it smells cash, and so it was only a matter of time before another label came sniffing around. In anticipation of this, the band recorded a complete album that producer Neil Merryweather intended to shop around as a finished product. Arista Records expressed interest, but they were not looking to release anything as raw as the album they were offered. As Michael Rummans remembers, “the problem was that (Arista head) Clive Davis had a different vision as to what the band should be.” Davis insisted that the band went into the studio with a new producer to re-record the album in 1977.
Bad timing and bad luck struck again. There has arguably never been a time in rock ‘n’ roll history that a raw, live-sounding album would have been as well received as in 1977, with the DIY the punk ethos sweeping across the UK and the US. But the eponymously titled Hollywood Stars LP that Arista released was anything but raw. It was a heavily produced, ultra slick affair, and both critics and fans were disdainful.
Rae: “Neil was a lot more into where we were coming from. He was there mixing our live sound at The Starwood. It was almost like a live set – all those songs were cut at the same time. In comparison, the production of 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.”
Rummans: “Production was definitely part of it, but lack of knowledge as to how to promote the band, and resistance among metal fans in Middle America to a bunch of pretty boys calling themselves ‘stars’ were factors as well.”
There was another half-hearted attempt to revamp the band in 1978 by de Fuentes, Rummans, Drier, vocalist Al Austin and guitarist Bryce Mobray, with the emphasis on a more hard rock sound, but this version seemed one too many, and whatever interest there had been in the band had long since evaporated. This final version of the Stars didn’t last more than a few shows before calling it a day that same year.
And that, perhaps, should have been the end of it. In most versions of history, the Stars would be relegated to the distant memories of aging LA rock fans and perhaps as an especially fiendish rock trivia quiz question relating to the songs recorded by Cooper and Kiss. But the 21st century has been a remarkable time for the rock historian. Even as popular music in general has deteriorated and been commodified more than ever, and physical media has given way to downloads and streaming, so the market for undiscovered and resurrected rock gems on physical media has increased. Perhaps it was always this way – after all, the Nuggets and Pebbles series were doing the same thing thirty years ago or more for forgotten bands of the 1960s. In any case, it seemed that the Hollywood Stars would not lie down and go away. Power pop, hard rock and glam archivists continued to be intrigued by the odd reference to the band in music magazines of the time – the tantalising photos, plus the fact that they had written those iconic and well known songs for major artists was fascinating, and yet to all intents and purposes the music could not actually be heard. The Hollywood Stars were the stuff of legend decades after they came close to actual stardom.
Eventually, the master tapes of the Columbia album – unmixed, on reel-to-reel – were found in Terry Rae’s archives, and picked up by retro specialists Light in the Attic, who released the album in 2013 as Shine Like A Radio: The Great Lost 1974 Album. It had only taken 39 years for the record to see the light of day. Those who heard it were amazed – this was classic 1970s pop-rock, the sort of thing you’d expect from Cheap Trick or Aerosmith or any number of big name hard rock bands of the time. For those who had wondered about the Hollywood Stars without ever hearing them, it was everything that they had hoped for.
And you can’t keep an old band down, it seems. Encouraged by the reaction to the album, the Stars reunited in December 2018 for a one-off show in LA, and then decided that they were enjoying themselves far too much to stop. “Ruben had a burning desire and it seemed as if everyone else was on board” says Rummans. “As a rock and roll survivor, it actually means more to me now.”
The new version of the Stars features Phares, de Fuentes and Rae from the original group, Rummans from the second version, with guitarist Chezz Monroe filling in for lost members, some of whom are no longer with us. And after their long lost debut album found a new life in 2013, so the second album has finally been resurrected – or, more accurately, the unheard Neil Merryweather 1976 album is about to finally be issued in August 2019 by Burger Records. And it proves to be well worth the wait. The ten-track Sound City manages to be every bit as vital as Shine Like A Radio, a punchy collection of anthem street rock that demands attention. If attitude alone counted for anything, the Stars would have been actual stars back in the day. As it is, this record still sounds fresh and vibrant – the hard rock of the 1970s is still woefully under-appreciated, and albums like this show just how glorious it could be.
To celebrate, the band are returning to their spiritual home of the Whisky A Go Go – as much a rock ‘n’ roll survivor as any band, it seems – in July 2019, and while they might no longer be the self-confident, snotty rock ‘n’ roll brats that they were in the 1970s, it would be churlish indeed to deny the band this moment in the spotlight – few acts have had quite the level of continual bad luck that seemed to haunt their career throughout the 1970s, and they frankly deserve this moment in the sun. There might not, even now, be a huge place in the rock history books for the Hollywood Stars, but at least that place is now ensured, and rightly so. This unlikely story of rediscovery and redemption is one that offers salvation to any band who have been eaten up by the machine. I hope that their current incarnation has a good few years of performance and even recording left in them. In the meantime, both Stars albums that have been released in this decade should be pushed to the top of your shopping list immediately – if these are, to quote one song title, the Last Days of Rock ‘N’ Roll, then we should be at least grateful that these exquisite lost moments from its glory days are finally being dusted off and revitalised.
Thanks to Randy Haeker at Prime Mover, Scott Phares, Michael Rummans and Burger Records.