The KissFAQ


Back In The Solo Album Groove With Brendan Harkin

Guitarist recalls "one small credit" on Peter Criss' solo album, working with Sean Delaney and his tenure with Starz, and offers his perspective on how the solo albums affected Bill Aucoin.

Interview by Tim McPhate

KissFAQ: Brendan, can you give us a snapshot of your musical career in 1978. What were you doing at the time?
Brendan Harkin: Well, I think it was right at the end of my time in Starz. I left the band after three albums, kind of burnt out from the road and everything. And that's when I just decided I was going to stay in New York, you know we were a New York City band, and just kind of try to make it as a workday guitar slinger, which I did. I did tons of recording sessions and all that stuff for years. The recording session scene started to dry up in New York around '82 or '83 and it was because of the advent of Linn drum machines. And so session work just kind of died. And what guys were doing was getting little 8-tracks and a couple of microphones and putting it in their apartment and [working that way]. So that's what I started doing. And that grew into a huge business for me and that's what I still do. I live in Nashville and I have a studio called Wildwood Recording. I still play all the time. I play on all the stuff I do. I do tons of mid-level records, lots of jazz stuff, lots of Southern gospel and contemporary Christian stuff, which is really big down here. I do very little country, although I do some. I used to do more when I first moved here 20 years ago but I don't do too much of that anymore.

KF: Do you recall how you were offered the opportunity to play on Peter Criss' solo album?
BH: This is interesting. Because I don't know if I've even listened to that record. This record was just one of many records I did at the time. You [mentioned] Vini Poncia [co-]produced it, and maybe he did, but my involvement was through Sean Delaney. And I just assumed that Sean was producing it. Maybe he just produced several tunes on it or maybe he was working with Vini, I don't know. But it was through Sean and he knew I could do the session [guitar] thing and put in what was needed on stuff. I actually played on a bunch of stuff on that record. I got credited with one song and Sean said, "Well, Peter wants stars, not Starz the band, but actual stars to play on the record. He doesn't want people who are not huge stars." And he said, "I can only credit you [with] one small credit on the record." But I went into Electric Lady with Sean numerous times to fill in lots of little parts, just kind of polishing stuff off. And to tell you the truth, I couldn't tell you what I played on and what I didn't. I can't even tell you what I got credited to play on.

Brendan Harkin
Courtesy of Brendan Harkin

KF: Well, you are credited on the acoustic ballad "Easy Thing." Regarding the production, as I understand it, Sean had agreed to produce Gene Simmons' solo album. Peter was having difficulty securing a producer, and had apparently been turned down by Tom Dowd. And so Sean helped Peter get some material together for some demos that were designed to help Peter get a producer, and these are the sessions you were part of. Vini Poncia was then brought in to steward the ship from there.
BH: I see. You know, that's a long time ago.

KF: Yes, it's difficult to piece everything together.
BH: That's almost 35 years ago and my memory of what happened is real thin. I mean, I used to do stuff with Sean in the studio all the time. He was a song guy who had visions of being an artist himself and we'd go in all the time and do demos on his tunes. So I was basically just a guy who was his buddy. I mean he was really involved with Starz; he was a total hands-on guy with Starz. So we know each other really well and he knew my playing really well. He used to call me all the time; he used to jingles. In fact, the guys in Starz probably did a few jingles for him (laughs). There was a lot of recording going on and Sean was involved with a lot of it and I was involved with pretty much everything he did. I mean, I never played on Gene's record. Whatever he worked on for Peter, I was there for a lot of it.

KF: Would you have played just rhythm guitar or leads too?
BH: I have no clue. Maybe if I heard it I could recognize myself. But I have no idea (laughs). I remember numerous sessions at Electric Lady working on Peter's stuff and I can't tell you whether it was four songs, six songs, three songs. I just don't really remember, but it was all with Sean and it was all with me and Sean and an engineer. There may have been one tracking date -- I think I did one tracking date with Neil Jason and Allan Schwartzberg.

KF: Yes, on select tunes Neil is credited on bass and Allan is on drums.
BH: OK, I think it was one tracking session where those guys were there and I was [there]. Other than that, there was just a bunch of overdub sessions, afternoon, late at night, you know too many drugs kind of thing (laughs).

KF: (laughs) Did you know Peter and was he around when you were in the studio with Sean?
BH: Well, I knew Peter from the whole association with Aucoin. But I can't say I was ever friends with Peter. I'm friendly with Lydia; she's a great gal. I'm still in touch with her and Richie Fontana, they live together in New York. She was always really nice and really friendly. They lived really close to me and my wife at the time, they lived on 2nd Avenue and 30th Street and I lived on 28th Street. Myself and my wife used to go over there, but never when Peter was there. I remember Peter as being kind of standoffish. The other guys were friendly. Ace, Gene and Paul were all real friendly and all real kind and encouraging to the band, and I used to see them all the time. We did some gigs with them. But Peter, I don't ever remember having a conversation with Peter and he was not there for any of the sessions.

KF: Did you think it was odd that Peter, as a drummer, wasn't playing drums on tracks for his own solo album?
BH: Is he listed?

KF: He is listed as playing on a majority of the tracks that were later produced by Vini Poncia.
BH: Right, right. Well, I couldn't tell you any of that because, like I said, there was one tracking session that Allan was on. Other than that, I have no idea who played on what. Is Schwartzberg listed?

KF: Yes, he's listed on a few tunes.
BH: I might be wrong. Maybe I was there a couple of times when there were tracking sessions. But I definitely played on more than that one tune. But Sean said, "I can only give you a small credit because Peter wants big names on there." And I guess I wasn't a big name.

KF: I have to be candid. I'm looking at the credit sheet and the only "big names" I see would be Steve Lukather and maybe Elliot Randall. Now that's not to take anything away from the players on the album. They're all fantastic musicians. But in terms of star power, Gene was the one who turned that trick on his album.
BH: Yeah, well that was Sean's story. And unfortunately, you can't ask Sean about it.

KF: Yes, we lost Sean 10 years ago. Brendan, when Sean told you that, what was your reaction? Was that just standard procedure in terms of album credits?
BH: Oh yeah, I didn't even think about it. You know, I had tons of credits on tons of different things. I don't think I even payed any attention to it. I got copies of the four solo records through the office, and they're probably still in cellophane up in my house right now. I doubt I ever opened hem up and listened to them. I did tons of records and three-quarters of them I got copies of and I listened to them so many times through the process of making them, that's it's kind of like the last thing I wanted to do. You don't get copies until months later and I'm on to tons of other stuff. So I never paid attention to it and it never bothered me. To tell you the truth Tim, as a musician your name is spelled wrong more than it's spelled right. You're credited wrong more than you're credited right. In fact, I played on some Kool & The Gang records. And I just took it out and listened to some of it the other day and I looked at the credits and they're all wrong (laughs). I'm credited on a few tunes, I think maybe one tune I'm credited on I didn't play on and several that I played on I wasn't credited for. I know I played bass on a song -- that's a pretty nice credential on a Kool & The Gang record because Kool is actually the bass player. So you get used to it and it kinda evens itself out. Sometimes you get more credit than you deserve, and sometimes you get less. It never made any difference to me whatsoever, it didn't matter as far as being able to get more work. I'm don't really care about the credit part. I'm into the music part.

Brendan Harkin
Courtesy of Brendan Harkin

KF: Of course, you would have been compensated for your work on Peter's album, yes?
BH: Oh yeah. Sean paid me very well, probably better than he had to pay me just as a session guy. But since he was a buddy -- I can't tell you how much -- I remember it being better than it could have been.

KF: The KISS solo albums were a major industry event in 1978. There was a huge marketing and publicity campaign surrounding the albums and they all shipped platinum. Did a sense of sensationalism trickle down to the musicians?
BH: Well, KISS was big as I remember. And the solo records were going to be another big deal. But they didn't kind of turn out to be. That's my take on it. They spent a lot of money and they didn't sell like they thought they would. And I think it really hurt Aucoin. Tim, I don't pay too much attention to all that stuff and it's a long time ago, so anything I tell you could be wrong (laughs). But as I remember it, it was a major disappointment. Not necessarily to the guys because I think the guys were all fine. But I think Aucoin really needed the money and had banked on four records selling multi-millions and making tons of more money. And 1978 was an insane time as far as spending money and having parties and doing drugs, and having dinners with two dozen people hanging out, drinking and partying. Money was going out like insane. I think Bill probably thought it was never going to end. And I think the solo albums were the beginning of the end. Shortly thereafter, I am pretty sure he moved out of his offices on Madison Avenue. He had like two floors of humongous offices, and a theater department and all kinds of people on payroll. God knows how much that must have cost to rent two floors at 645 Madison Avenue. But it couldn't have been cheap. I think he kind of went belly-up, financially, after those solo records. And as I remember, the solo records were part of the reason why.

KF: Some interesting insight, Brendan. The fact is the solo albums did not perform up to expectations, as lofty as those expectations were. The albums were certified gold and platinum by the RIAA. Did you receive an RIAA award for your participation?
BH: No I didn't.

KF: I know Gene Simmons made arrangements to send RIAA awards to some of the people who played on his solo album.
BH: Well, I'm pretty sure Richie [Ranno] got one. I think he plays one solo on one of Gene's tunes.

KF: Correct. He played the solo on "Tunnel Of Love."
BH: Right. I'm pretty sure I remember seeing one at Richie's house. But, you know, I never thought about it. I've got stuff on the wall that mean things to me. I don't look at it as thinking, "Why didn't Peter look me up and get me a gold record or platinum record?" It wouldn't have made any difference in my life. Like I said, Tim, that's not what I'm into. I don't hold any grudge about it, that's for sure (laughs).

KF: We've talked about Bill and Sean and both of them are unfortunately no longer with us. When you think about Bill Aucoin, what are the things that immediately come to mind?
BH: Well, I loved Bill. He and Sean -- and my guess is that Sean was probably the first one to suggest it -- brought my band, what turned into Starz, kind of out of oblivion and into the big time. And he put up a lot of his own money and a lot of his own reputation. So I loved Bill. And I left the band before it all fell apart so I don't have any of the negative feelings about him that some of the other guys had at the time. I think maybe that's changed over the years. I know Richie had some pretty hard feelings and Michael [Lee Smith] had some pretty hard feelings about it. I don't know if they still do. I do remember there was a Starz gig about, I don't know, seven or eight years in New York and Bill showed up and Michael wouldn't talk to him. So I guess Michael still has some hard feelings toward him. I guess he thought maybe Bill should have worked harder for us and got us with a different record company or something. But I think Bill did everything he could for us and I think he did a great job, given the band and [our] talent and our songs and records. I think we did about as good as we deserved to do. So I never had any negative feelings. I loved the guy. It was great to see him, seven or eight years ago. He looked great and he showed up and he held up a big Starz sign in the audience. He was dancing around. I thought that was pretty cool. I saw him once here in Nashville. He came to hear some artist and I don't know how I heard about it -- whether he got in touch with me or somebody knew he was coming -- but I showed up at the club and I saw him. That was maybe 15 years ago. So I only saw him those couple of times since the old days. He was the same old guy, sweet and smart. I only have the best things to say about him. And Sean also.

Starz (Brendan Harkin at far right)

KF: Of course, Bill and Sean were integral to KISS' success.
BH: Oh yeah. Absolutely. Well nobody would have made it without those guys. And my memory is Sean was the one who encouraged Bill to get involved. They got an invitation or something to go to this show [KISS] put together. And I don't know if Bill was interested but Sean was interested. And they went and Sean said, "Man, you're crazy if you don't get involved with this band." So I think it was Sean who was really instrumental in pulling Bill into KISS. And it was a great combination: Bill and Sean. One was real heavy business and the other was real heavy creatively. And it worked great. They took something that could have fallen flat on its face, and never been remembered, and made it, at times, the biggest band in the world. They did great. I don't think without them, there wouldn't have been any KISS or any of the other artists that came through that management company.

KF: Indeed. The band get a lot of credit, and deservedly so. But without the contributions of Bill Aucoin, Sean Delaney and Neil Bogart, I don't know that KISS comes to fruition.
BH: Well I don't see how. It was quite a go and it was a real interesting time. And it was interesting to be in the belly of the beast there. I got to kind of live my dreams and play to thousands and thousands of people and hear my songs on the radio and all that stuff. It was a great time. I don't have any regrets about it. I just got burnt out on it. Being on the road with a rock and roll band can be a real pressure cooker and a meat grinder. To tell you the truth, my heart wasn't into ... that kind of music (laughs). I did it because it was cool and it was fun. It wasn't bad music but it wasn't my ideal [situation]. But being on stages where they were unbelievably loud -- ringing in your ears all the time -- too much travel, never sleeping in your own bed, and that kind of thing, I just got tired of it after a few years. And I said, "Guys, it's time for me to move on. I'm sure you can find somebody else."

KF: Brendan, who do you cite as your guitar influences?
BH: Well, early on it was guys like Stephen Stills and everyone was influenced by Clapton a bit. Now my influences are the greatest guys in the world, guys like Allan Holdsworth and Frank Gambale.

KF: A couple of monster players.
BH: Yeah, incredible players. I try to strive to be as much like those guys [with] the quality and professionalism of my playing. I think a lot of guys skate by on what they do. They look good and they sound pretty good -- why spend all that time becoming great, you know? But I still work on it as hard as I ever did, probably harder. If I'm not working one day, I'll be playing for 10 hours. And I'll be on YouTube looking at Frank Gambale stuff.

KF: Isn't that one of the great things about YouTube? The learning resources that are out there for musicians are unbelievable. Just think, that stuff wasn't available 10 years ago, let alone 35 years ago.
BH: It's incredible, Tim. Young kids -- like when I started at 10 -- they can go and look at these guys and watch their fingers, anybody they want. I can only imagine what a 15-year-old kid who is highly motivated [is] going to sound like in 20 or 30 years, having all that information available to him. Because it's been a tremendous help to me, as a guy that's been playing guitars for 54 years now. It's a tremendous help for me and motivation to learn and to get better. I love it and I'm still doing it. I'm still doing it as hard as I ever did and I'm making as much music as I ever made.

KF: As someone who has been in the music business for many years, what are your thoughts on the state of music and the industry, and general?
BH: Well, other than the technology Tim, I feel like it's a little bit more than it was in the early '50s before record companies got big and people starting selling humungous amounts of records. People have to kind of do it on their own. The major label thing is there but it's not by any means the only way you can get noticed and heard and make a living. It's like it used to be. People used to make records as a promotional tool, not as a way to sell a lot of records and make money, but as a way to get good gigs and stuff. And that's what [artists] are doing now, it's kind of a similar thing. So I think it's good. I really think that the music business got way out of control -- way too much money, way too much drugs, way too much craziness, and way too little focus on music. And I think it's come back to more of a focus on music. There are more great musicians now than ever [and] more people making a living at it. Even if it's just somebody making $50,000 a year. That's great for a young musician or even a middle-aged musician to be able to promote their career on the Internet and go out and travel, even if it's in a van or whatever, with three or four guys, and go out and play clubs and people have already heard your music -- not on the radio but on the Internet. I think what's happened is healthy. And I think anybody that doesn't want to deal with it, they're better off not being in the business. I've seen the business change in major ways a few times, as a player and as a guy who's trying to keep trying to make a living. Every time you just got to adjust to it the same way that guys did when cars took over for horses and buggies. Guys who were making horse and buggy tires had to learn how to make rubber tires or they had to learn how to do something entirely different and get out of the business. Well, that's the same thing with music. If you want to have a lifelong career in music, you have to roll with the punches as far as how the business has changed and not get into saying, "Well, you can't get anywhere anymore. You can't do this and you can't do that." It's really not true. If you have initiative, you can make a success easily as well as you could at any time over the last 40 years. I have a studio now. I do all kinds of mid-level records. I don't do many huge records, although recently I did a record for Michael W. Smith. He's about as big as there in the Christian world.

KF: He's a Grammy-winning artist.
BH: Yeah, I did his last record. It's called "Glory," it's an instrumental record. And I do some records for some other big Christian artists. I don't work with many of the big country people, although I did a Jeff Foxworthy record back a ways. He did kind of a country music record and [told jokes] in the middle of it. And I work with a lot of the songwriters who write big stuff. But I'm doing very healthy business. Wildwood Recording [is my studio]. I've been here for 20 years and everyone knows about me. And I'm as busy as can be and it's all good.

(KissFAQ thanks Brendan Harkin for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums. Learn more about Brendan and his studio, Wildwood Recording.)

About Brendan Harkin
Brendan Harkin was a guitarist for New Jersey-based rock band Starz, an act Bill Aucoin managed from 1975-1977. Signed to Capitol Records in 1976, the group scored their lone Top 40 hit, "Cherry Baby," from 1977's "Violation," which was produced by Jack Douglas. Aside from Starz, Harkin has worked as a session musician on recordings for artists such as Kool & The Gang, among others. Also adept in the recording studio, Harkin has engineered recordings for artists such as Crystal Gayle, Beegie Adair and Grammy winner Michael W. Smith. In 2003 Harkin and guitarist Richie Ranno joined drummer Joe X. Dube and vocalist Michael Lee Smith for select Starz reunion concerts on the East Coast. The reunion was documented via the concert DVD "Back In Action: Live 2003." Today, Harkin owns and operates Wildwood Recording, a private music studio located on 13 acres of Franklin, Tenn., farmland.