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Back In The Solo Album Groove With Richie Ranno

Starz guitarist recalls a last minute phone call requesting his participation on Gene Simmons' solo album and challenges being part of the AMI family.

By Julian Gill

KissFAQ: Richie, if I may, let's set the stage for your career arc in 1978. Would it be correct to say that Sean Delaney discovered Starz in 1975 and brought you to the attention of KISS' manager Bill Aucoin following which you signed with AMI which resulted in a deal with Capitol Records?
Richie Ranno: Yes, that's exactly what happened. He [Sean] was friends with Pieter Sweval [Starz/Skatt Bros. drummer] and he went and heard the band before I was even in it. They were called the Fallen Angels. He said, "Wow, you guys are really great." KISS wasn't really big yet, it was the summer of 1975. He said, "You know, we're looking for another band," even though KISS hadn't broken big yet. He just wanted to have another band. I think they wanted a more normal kind of thing besides the hectic crazy thing that KISS was doing. So they liked the band and started managing them. Then they decided that the band could really use two guitar players, so I auditioned. I was the 75th guy to go down there, I think. They just couldn't find a hard-rock guitar player. In that day and age in New York City there were no hard-rock guitar players, which is kind of funny when you think about it. I went down there and played exactly what they wanted to hear because that's what I was at the time. And we fired the keyboard player a few weeks later because it really didn't make sense to have a keyboard player and changed the name to Starz, and there you go.

You shared guitar duties with Brendan Harkin, who we've also spoken with for his contributions to Peter Criss' solo album! Tell me how the guitar duo in Starz divided the guitar duties and worked together in their own band?
To be honest, Brendan is an incredible rhythm guitar player. I think he is one of the greatest I've ever heard at rock rhythm, just tight -- he's got a great right hand. He's just phenomenal. And it just seemed to sound better when he played more rhythms and I played more single note stuff. I'm more of a bluesy style, rock style guitar player, so I ended up playing more guitar solos than he did. But we did do a lot of dual guitar solos and at that point, maybe on the record, there would be no rhythm guitar. Or we'd overdub with rhythm guitar, but you really didn't miss it live. So we did a lot of dual guitar solos that were really cool that we worked out. That's how it divvied up. I don't know if Brendan was really happy about the situation, because he did leave the band after the third album! But anyway, we're still friends at this point in time, so whatever it is it's over.

Richie, who would you cite as your guitar influences?
Going back to when I was a teenager there's no question that it was Eric Clapton, the Cream style Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page, all in one.

That's kind of the holy trinity of players from the time (laughs)...
(Laughs) There are four of them... That's what it is! But you have to understand I had already started playing guitar before any of them had a hit. So, I was already pretty good by the time I heard any of them -- Jeff Beck was the first with "Over Under Sideways Down" and "Shapes of Things" -- I'll never forget it and it changed my life. And my life kept getting changed musically as each of those guitar-players came to the forefront over the span of maybe two years. And I learned to play exactly like each one of them and then came up with my own style out of it.

Your raw and rockin' self-titled debut album followed in 1976, produced by Jack Douglas. In some ways you seem more connected with Aerosmith -- you opened for them on tour too, right?
Yeah, we did one pretty major tour with them and then parts of other tours.

You guys were known for ripping it up in concert, combining catchy choruses and memorable riffs, along with in your face delivery. I've mentioned Aerosmith, but what target market was Starz most interested in breaking into?
I don't know -- that wasn't my job. I just played the music!

(Laughs)
You know what I mean? We didn't think in those terms back then. Actually, the record company was horrible and management wasn't much better because what happened, and I don't blame them necessarily, was that KISS wasn't that big when we started with them [AMI]. And then all of a sudden, three or four months later "Alive!" comes out and they become the biggest band in the world for the next couple of years. And let me tell you, that is probably what killed our career. Because there was nobody standing over the top of the record company -- Record companies were totally clueless back then. Absolutely clueless! Managers had to explain to them what to do. Unfortunately, our manager was busy counting his money and figuring out what was going on with KISS.

And of course that manager was Bill Aucoin...
Yes.

So he was very much distracted and you were playing second fiddle to KISS on Aucoin Management's radar of importance. Everything was dropped at AMI for KISS...
But no one could have possibly predicted after three albums -- that whether you realize it or not that those three [KISS] albums flopped -- no one could have predicted that they were going to sell over 2 million albums on their next release and become the biggest band in the world. No one! It was as weird as that Peter Frampton thing that happened right afterwards. Frampton ["Comes Alive," January 1976; Note the eponymous "Frampton" album released in 1975 did hit #32, just as KISS' "Dressed To Kill" album had] comes after KISS.

Those two are great examples of live albums really breaking bands to a wider audience. Both had essentially bombed with their studio releases -- live albums completely saved their careers, didn't they?
And Bob Seger was the next one by the way.

Absolutely, that's right, "Live Bullet [April 1976]..."
Yeah, it's really weird how that happened. And the Frampton thing -- we toured with Frampton before our album came out. We were playing in the mid-South mostly and did something like 10 shows with him. It was in theaters, and we were unknown and didn't even have an album out. The theatres were half sold-out and to be honest, I wasn't impressed, even minutely, with Peter Frampton. Don't ask me why, but I wasn't impressed with the live act. Over the years I've realized what a great guitar player, and singer, and songwriter he was, but to just stand there as an unknown not knowing what he was doing really didn't hit us. All five of us thought that it sucked, to be quite honest with you, and I don't mean to put him down -- I do think he's great, so don't get me wrong. But, the crowd, maybe a thousand people or so, were really into it and screaming and yelling. And I thought the talk-box thing was just a shitty gimmick. So it really shocked us when the live album came out sold like 20 million copies [Ed. currently 8x Platinum in the U.S.]. There's no predicting this shit is what I'm trying to get at. I'm not saying Frampton's bad. Frampton, over time, I came to appreciate and he is great. He's a great guitar player, he's great at everything, but I wasn't impressed by that act that really made it very big. I really wasn't.

So that goes back to my question of "who are you targeting," it's all luck or in the stars who actually makes it and who doesn't?
You throw the paint against the wall and what sticks, sticks. Capitol Records was completely incompetent. It was just a bunch of music executives who were hooked on cocaine. I really don't give a shit, they can sue me, but it's a fact. They were all, with the exception of a few hard working serious people, fucking drug addicts and 35 years later I don't give a shit. They were drug addicts and they didn't know what they were doing. They can deny it as much as they want. But every time they came up to us -- we didn't do drugs -- I'll just speak for myself and not anybody else, and they stopped doing this after the first time around. Around the band there would be executives and they'd be like, "Hey Richie, Richie, come here I got something for you." And they'd take me to the bathroom and open up an aluminum foil thing with cocaine and I'd be like, "Keep that for yourself, buddy." This happened everywhere we went and it didn't matter how high (high up in the company, not 'high') the executive was. They were all a bunch a drug addicts.

Yeah, Larry Harris wrote a book about Casablanca Records and details some of the snow storm and pill-popping that seemed to go on at record labels in the 1970s...
Well, I knew Larry Harris. Not well, but I did know him from when I was in Stories because he had worked with Buddah and Stories was on Buddah. So I knew Larry and Neil [Bogart]. But I know Larry wrote the book, but I've never read it. But I'm telling you Capitol Records, what I can speak for; they can all go down a shitter for all I care. I don't want to ever speak to any of those guys again to be honest with you. But every now and then, one of them says "Hi" to me on Facebook and that's fine. It's not their fault individually. It doesn't matter anyway because here I am, it's 35 years later, and I'm alive, healthy and happy. So it really doesn't matter.

Absolutely!
But they definitely ruined what should have been a stellar career and wasn't. I'm not resentful or bitter. I might sound it, but I'm really not!

"Violation" and "Attention Shoppers" followed in 1977 and 1978 respectively. Wasn't "Violation" supposed to be titled "Red Hot?"
No, "Violation" was supposed to be called "Second Offense" because we got so much shit for the first album by the press because of "Pull The Plug," that we figured we'd offended so many people so let's offend more and call it "Second Offense." But management said, "There's no song called 'Second Offense,' so you can't call it that; you have to have a title track for the album." And "Violation" worked. It's fine.

Give us a snapshot of your career in early 1978? Third album's out, it came out in January 1978...
That album sucked. We didn't use Jack Douglas, I don't know why. I think we were being sabotaged by management, but no one has ever answered the question why. It doesn't really matter. Instead of recording at a top studio we recorded at a shit studio with no producers, us producing it ourselves and we didn't know what we were doing. The album kind of sucks, although a lot of Starz fans tell me they like it. Great. But it really didn't help our careers and then we switched a couple of member around and came back with a new album right away. That was a great rock album, but by then we got so fed up with everything that we just called it quits.

Do you recall how you were offered the opportunity to perform on Gene Simmons' solo album?
Well, Gene and I were pretty good friends back then. What happened was, I'd said to Sean, "I hope I can play on Gene's album you know I've always been such a big supporter of the guys in KISS and Gene." And he's like, "yeah, yeah, I'm producing it." Then I never heard from them and they went over to England. I guess they mixed it in England and I wasn't included, and I thought that kind of sucked -- I would have liked to have been on it. But I didn't really give a shit, ultimately. Then they came back from England and I get this call one day and Sean says, "What are you doing tomorrow?" And I'm like, "Nothing." And he says, "Oh good, could you play on Gene's album?" And I said, "I guess" even thought I thought it was done.

So they went to mix "Tunnel of Love" which they originally had Joe Perry play on but wiped his track and had Jeff Baxter play on it. Then, for whatever the reason, they wiped his track. So they had the whole thing done except that single track. They were going to get Nils Lofgren in New York. But Nils wanted a limo from his house in the D.C. area to the airport, wanted like four limo rides -- he had a lot of demands. So Sean was like, "Number one he's got a lot of demands. Number two he's not a hard-rock guitar player. Number three, Richie Ranno lives like eight miles away and can do this in a heartbeat." And Gene said, "You're right, call him." So I went in there and I played, and other than the very first guitar that you can hear, the rhythm guitar -- Gene was playing that I believe -- other than that I'm playing everything on there. Management didn't properly change the credits so it appears that there are three guys playing on "Tunnel of Love", but there aren't.

So that would have just been and overdub situation, go into the studio and punch the solo in. Do you recall how many takes you took to get the solo you wanted?
I'm pretty much a first take guy on everything I do, ever.

You're not into over-analyzing it or mapping a solo out -- you just go in and do it?
There's no reason to. I know exactly what I want to do and I do it. But I'll say, "If you don't like it, I'll do it again." And they've always said, "No, that's perfect." You know, that's the way I've done Starz albums. That's the way I've done every album. It's just the way I like to work. I know what I want to do and have a real sense of how I play. If you make me play the same thing over and over, I always tell them, "I'm going to play it worse 'cause I'm going to lose interest. I got it right now. My heart's in it right now!" And that's the way I've been. I still record all the time and that's how I do it. It was great -- it was a lot of fun. I think they asked me to play the solo four times and then they pieced it together a little bit taking parts of one and another which was fine...

That's the standard process of comping to get the best overall performance, right...
Yeah, they did that. It was fun; we all had a good time. We had a lot of laughs in the studio that day. Mike Stone was behind the board. He did Queen's stuff and I love Queen. Gene and Sean gave me a hug and I left and then I eventually got a platinum award hanging on the wall for it, which was nice. It was that simple.

When we spoke with Brendan he mentioned that he didn't get an award for his work on Peter's album, so you're one up on him there.
(Laughs) I didn't know that. I don't think Peter's went platinum, I thought it only went Gold [Ed. It went platinum too]. But who knows, back then you could manipulate the market because they didn't have SoundScan. No one really knew... You know who reported sales? The label!

Absolutely, it was all a game. You ship enough, or say you did, and that's your numbers.
Exactly, and you don't tell them how many returns you got. We always suspected that we sold at least 500,000 on "Violation," but they never certified it Gold, but think about it. If they did they would have owed us the money for Gold sales.

There's no interest for the record labels, even today, to be audited.
No, well now the record companies got what they deserved, they're nearly all out of business.

Did you have much interaction with the members of KISS. I'd have thought being a part of AMI that you would have bumped into them?
Of course we did. We were very close with them. We went to parties all the time together.

Did you do any other recording work with Gene? He was known to pull in other musicians who were available to do demo recordings.
Well, he used to bring in Dubé [Joe X.] to play drums all the time. Dubé was the drummer from Starz. We'd be rehearsing and Gene and Paul would be standing over in the corner waiting for us to get done so that Dubé could go to some recording studio with them at midnight. And I believe they actually used some of those recordings, the drum parts of Dubé's, we don't really know, Dubé thinks so 'cause he knows what he played. But there's no proof...

It's entirely possible; JR Smalling discovered some of his drum tracks on some songs on KISS' 2001 box set...
There's a bunch of songs around that 1978 period in particular that Dubé was working out at night with Paul and Gene at night in a recording studio. And by that point we all know what Peter [Criss] was doing and I can't imagine that Peter was on a lot of that stuff to be honest with you.

There's always been a question by some as to whether Peter Criss was the drummer on the studio side of "Alive II" so I guess anything is possible. I think it was once rumored that Cheap Trick's Bun E. Carlos had drummed on some KISS tracks. Perhaps the rumor had some truth and just got the actual band wrong.
Dubé says he remembers some of those songs. But we were in the midst of craziness. We didn't know what was going on either. We were on the road continuously or writing to make an album or recording an album. It was just complete chaos in our lives. It was fun, but it's hard to remember this and that and all that shit!

Were you given any other tracks to work on, on Gene's album, or was it just the one?
No, they just asked me to do that and I was happy to do it. I had a great time doing it. It was great working with Gene, Sean and Mike Stone. Sean was a great great guy. I can't say enough about him. He was a bit manic, a bit crazy, but incredible. I'll tell you what, if you watch the movie "School of Rock." I don't know if anyone knew Sean, but Jack Black's character is Sean Delaney.

That's a good one! He was certainly passionate and creative.
I'll tell you, I spent an unbelievable amount of time with Sean. He came to every single rehearsal and every single gig we did, from the time I joined the band (and probably a bit before then) through our first big tour and then he was off doing some other stuff. He was a great inspiration to us, a driving force. He did the same thing for KISS prior and those guys really don't fess up for that and give him the credit he deserves. I don't know why. I know they don't speak poorly of him anymore -- I know they did for a while. Unfortunately, Sean was involved in drugs and they weren't, and I wasn't either, and it definitely affected his personality for a period of time. But he still was the great person he was.

He was a great personality and incredible music.
Sean was an absolute genius.

So, Starz puts out "Coliseum Rock" [late-1978] and then things kind of fall apart. What happened to Starz in the end?
Stupid management things... We didn't want to make a fifth album on Capitol because we hated their guts by that time. Beyond words! We didn't want to be in the same room with them. We didn't want to talk to them. We didn't want anything to do with them! And Bill said, "Well Ranno, they want you to do a fifth album." And we said, "Then we'll do a fifth album of shitty bubble-gum covers because we don't want to write and slave over our own music anymore where they have anything to do with it." So Bill said, "Okay, I'll tell them that you want to leave the label." We said, "Great!" What we didn't notice, and we felt that management should have noticed, was there was a new form of music starting, called new wave. Now I hate that shit, but it's called new wave. Sorry, that's maybe going to offend a lot of people when they hear that, but I hate that shit. Don't get me wrong, I love the Police, I love Squeeze -- there's always great bands in a genre that you may not like, and I didn't like the genre. What we didn't know was that there was this new thing really building up and the record companies were only signing bands from the new thing. So we shouldn't have left the old thing because we couldn't get another record contract. There were only maybe 12 labels at the time. Whatever it was it wasn't many. Our management should have known that only new wave bands were being signed and that we shouldn't have left that awful label. We would have been better making our fifth album that was already written, on that shitty label.

That would have been the smart thing to do, but that doesn't always happen, right?
So then, when we couldn't get a record contract. We said, "Fuck it." We did get back together a year later and we toured and then people dropped out and we wound up with just me and Michael, and two new guys, drummer Doug Madick and Peter Scance on bass, and we wrote some new stuff. We got a deal with an Atlantic subsidiary, called Radio Records, but we felt bad about keeping the name because so many guys had changed. So we didn't keep the name Starz -- this time the mistake was ours. So we used the name Hellcats. As the album started getting really good national airplay the label went under. As a subsidiary of Atlantic we were hoping they would pick it up and take it from there, but contractually they weren't allowed to do that. And then I just said, "I don't like the music business anymore, I'm out." And I've been out of the music business ever since then, around 1983. I do other things and I play music. I just don't consider myself part of the music business. I don't like it. I just play music, there's a big difference.

There's a gigantic difference. You're out there because you want to perform and enjoy playing music, but not base your livelihood on it.
Right, and I don't live and die for it. When I wake up in the morning I just wake up in the morning. I don't wake up and go, "Where's my career today?" People who do that, I don't believe they're having fun. I've never enjoyed playing music more than I do right now, other than when I was a teenager. To say that at my age, I'm playing at a little club tonight with three other great musicians, and we're going to have a great time. There may be only two people there and it doesn't matter to me, that's not why I do it.

Didn't Starz get back together in the early 2000s and do some gigs?
Yes, we've been doing gigs every year since 2003, three to seven gigs a year. We went over to England in March and did the Hard Rock Hell Festival in Wales, and played a great club in London [Underworld]. We had a great time!

I read an article where Bill had shown up for a Starz gig in the early 2000s and Michael refused to talk to him. I don't want you to speak for him, but had you had a relationship with Bill in the years since he managed the band, before he died?
There was at least 10 years or more that I didn't to speak to him and I was kind of angry with him at the time. And then we reconnected because I ran the New York KISS Expo for many years. We reconnected, and I was a little hesitant at first, but we got friendly. I'm so glad we did. I can't say a bad thing about Bill Aucoin. He was just a great, great person. He was brilliant and he and Sean were just two amazing people I was blessed to have been involved with. What happened when I explained that he should have done this, or should have done that, I don't fault him for that or blame him for that. Yes, he should have done those things, but he was distracted with KISS and I get it. I understand that -- it's where the money was at. But he was just a great person and I'm glad we reconnected and stayed friendly right up until the time he died, which was a real tragedy. I really only have good things to say about him.

Once KISS became that big entity they were like a monster eating babies!
Right, none of the other groups made it and that's why. He did expand his business and that was the smart thing to do. He did try and add on more people, but somehow it just was never the same. KISS got too big, and that's the way it goes. You roll the dice. You look back at Starz music and it still sounds great today. And you wonder, it was just as good as Styx and Aerosmith and Rush, and all the bands that sold 2 million records apiece, and we didn't [make it]. And it bothers me to a certain extent that I'm not playing the big places, I'm playing the little places. I stopped playing music 100 percent, except for in my living room, for eight years. I just really, really got back to do it because I love it. And that's fine with me. If someone asked me to go on tour with them, who was really cool, and paid me well enough, I would probably do it but, until then I'll play every opportunity that I get!

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? As a working musician back then, what was your perception?
I thought it was big! I was a KISS supporter. I wasn't one of those people who hated KISS. Most musicians resented and hated those guys and I was not that way. I loved them and thought that what they did was great. Their show was phenomenal and it was exciting, and I was all for anything that made them bigger or made them better. But that success really ruined them at the same time. It ruins all groups, not just them. That kind of success is hard to handle. It gets competitive within the group. The big mistake probably, and Bill said this for years, when they did the four solo albums they didn't foresee the competition between the four of them and that really ripped the band apart.

That's going to going to happen with any egos. I can understand other bands not being impressed with KISS because they'll never claim they're virtuosos on their instruments, are they?
No. But you know what, if you saw them live, especially between '75 and '78, they were phenomenal. I'm telling you, and I don't care what anyone says. I'm an accomplished musician, and I know that those guys did, what they did... You know, if you play within yourself, that's greatness and if you know your limitations and play to them, that's all it takes. I saw them on big stages and was very, very impressed. They were great.

It goes back to that saying, do one thing very well rather than many mediocre things.
That's exactly right. They really nailed it.

(KissFAQ thanks Richie Ranno for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums.)



About Richie Ranno:
Richie Ranno is a New York born guitarist and musician who was most famously a member of the band Starz. Earlier in his career he had been a member of the Kama Sutra signed band Stories at the tail-end of their career. Recruited as a second guitarist into the band Fallen Angels they changed their name, following the departure of their keyboard player, to Starz. Coming to the attention of Sean Delaney, Starz were managed by Bill Aucoin (AMI) and signed with Capitol Records and released 4 studio albums throughout the 1970s before splitting up. Known for their powerful live perfomances Starz released "Live in Action" on Metal Blade Records in 1989, compiling performances from 1977 & 1978. The band reformed in 2003 and performs occassionally. Richie has also branched out, having for many years run the legendary New York KISS Expo. Richie continues to perform throughout NY/NJ.

Check out is website for more information: http://www.starzcentral.com/