For every Kiss, Cheap Trick, Rush, or AC/DC that the 1970s gave us, there were dozens of hard rock bands signed to major labels that had equally good or sometimes better material, yet those acts didn’t find wide recognition. In this article, I will recommend four (technically, five, if you look closely) 1970s hard rock groups that should have been huge and one that did become quite successful, but only after a name change. If you like wailing guitars, power chords, and thunderous bottom in your rock, I hope you find some new discoveries or remember some old favorites as you read on.
New Jersey hard rock/power pop band Starz had all the talent and material it needed to make it big in the 1970s and beyond, and even had their first two Capitol Records albums produced by Jack Douglas, who had previously worked the knobs for Aerosmith. They never exploded the way I and many others thought they should, though. Through the years, however, their influence on bands that followed and a devoted fan base has kept them at a cult status level, and the group is still touring.
Starz released four albums between 1976 and 1978 (including two in 1978). My favorites are their sophomore effort, Violation, and their fourth release, Coliseum Rock. Powerul vocalist Michael Lee Smith’s lyrics can be heart-wrenching (“My Sweet Child”), alarming (“Subway Terror”), or a bit blue in the humor department (About a date at the movies, he sings “She reached over and she squeezed on my rocks/I lost it all in the popcorn box” in “Cool One”). In one song he sings about how the FBI is booking him because “They wanna know where I was/Ten o’clock last night/Man, I was in the arms of/The police chief’s wife,” and in another, he paints a picture of a grim future where a government controls its rowdy younger citizens with methods “based upon electric shock/A daily dose of microwatts.” From sexual bravado to social commentary and many places in between, Starz was not afraid where it tread lyrically.
The band’s musical chops on those first four albums are first-rate, with Richie Ranno providing some of the best unsung guitar work of that era. Brendan Harkin held his own as rhythm guitarist, drummer Joe X. Dube was a standout drummer, and Pieter “Pete” Swevall was a top-tier bassist. Bobby Messano took over on rhythm guitar and Orville Davis did the same on bass on Coliseum Rock, which had the hardest edge to it since the band’s self-titled debut.
“Coliseum Rock”/”It’s a Riot”:
“Sing It, Shout It” (edited single version; shorter than the album version on Violation, but the video shows the band in action):
Speaking of Michael Lee Smith, his brother Rex Smith was well known as a teen idol in the 1970s, but before that, he put out two solid hard rock albums with his band Rex. Check out “Do Me”:
and “You’re Never Too Old to Rock & Roll”:
The Godz (the Ohio band, not to be confused with the earlier New York group) were Casablanca labelmates with Kiss and Angel; though their 1978 eponymous debut album was packaged to make the band look like a mystical biker group that had Chariots of the Gods?/ancient astronauts leanings, the quartet was actually a gritty, hard-edged rock band with a blues influence. The cover belied the platter’s no-nonsense lyrics about the comeuppances of cheating and both the benefits and drawbacks of a “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” lifestyle. The cover for their 1979 follow-up platter, Nothing is Sacred, did away with the pretense and gave us the band on motorcycles.
There’s a lot of fun, funny (sometimes the humor is on the dark side), raunchy material on The Godz’ first two albums, with no political correctness filter on tap. From power chords to boogie-rock progressions to boozy blues, this music is guitar-driven and meant to be played loud and to annoy the neighbors. Founding member and bassist Eric Moore is the sole original member of the band and still keeps the group busy; besides live dates, a new Godz album titled Last Rites is set for release this year.
“Gotta Keep a Running” (the band’s magnum opus):
“He’s a Fool”:
I first learned about the American/British band Detective when I saw an ad for their self-title album debut album in Circus magazine. I took a chance and bought the album with a sense of teenage rock optimism, and my investment paid back in spades, especially when I heard the fat drum intro and the mighty guitar riffage on the closing track, “One More Heartache.” To this day, the song resides on my list of all-time favorite hard rock tracks.
A rock supergroup of sorts, Detective featured original Steppenwolf guitarist Michael Monarch, former Yes keyboardist Tony Kaye, ex-Sugarloaf bassist Bobby Pickett, former Silverhead vocalist Michael Des Barres (side note: If you dig 1970s hard glam rock like Sweet and David Bowie, you owe it to yourself to check out Silverhead’s “Sixteen and Savaged” at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XCpE7S8XCMk here and now!) and Monarch’s ex Hocus Pocus bandmate, drummer Jon Hyde. Detective was one of the first bands signed to Led Zeppelin’s Swan Song label, which may have been as much a curse as a blessing to the group. Comparisons to Led Zeppelin were many, even though the band had several other influences and offered a more soulful spin on things at times. Still, those comparisons led to outright dismissal by many would-be listeners at the time, and the group disbanded after two years (1977-1979) and two albums (Detective and It Takes One to Know One) together.
Michael Des Barres’ throaty vocals and wide range are front and center, as well they should be, an compliment perfectly the crunchy, groove-edged crunch that his bandmates bring. Detective deserves to be much more than a footnote in the history of Led Zeppelin’s record label. Crank up these tracks below and see if you don’t agree.
“One More Heartache”:
Legs Diamond’s “A Diamond Is a Hard Rock,” the Los Angeles group’s sophomore effort, was an impulse 8-track tape purchase for yours truly one night in its release year of 1977, based mostly on its cover, which instantly appealed to my teenaged hard-rockin’ heart. You can easily see why here:
I wasn’t disappointed. “Waitin’” is a mid-tempo rocker that taught me how to start getting over a break-up with a girlfriend before my first one ever happened. With its opening organ riff with drum accompaniment, followed by a catchy bass line and power chords mirroring the organ riff, I was sold before I even heard the cool couplet “Waitin’ for my eyes to stop cryin’/Waitin’ for your lips to stop lyin’” for the first time. With more fist-pumping tunes like the title track, I became an instant fan.
The band released three albums for Mercury records between 1977 and 1980, broke up, and then reformed. They recorded several more albums and performed live well into the early 2000s. I recommend diving into those first three releases — Legs Diamond, A Diamond is a Hard Rock, and Fire Power — to get acquainted with the group, though. Michael Prince’s keyboards help the band stand out from the pack, along with Rick Sanford’s soaring vocals, Roger Romeo’s solid lead guitar work, Jeff Poole on drums, and Adam Kury on bass.
“A Diamond is a Hard Rock”:
Yesterday and Today
This entry is a bit different because the group I will discuss now did, indeed, achieve commercial success after a name and label change. Their first two albums have been largely overlooked, though, compared with their later output.
Before Oakland, California’s Y&T found mainstream success with albums like Black Tiger and In Rock We Trust, and hit singles and MTV videos such as “Forever” and “Summertime Girls,” the band recorded its first two albums as Yesterday and Today in 1976 and 1978 for London Records. They were the first rock band I ever saw live in concert, opening for Blue Oyster Cult on the latter’s Agents of Fortune tour.
Dave Meniketti’s amazing guitar work is reason enough to give Yesterday and Today a listen. His blistering solos are nothing short of fantastic. The rest of the band was top-notch, too, though. Leonard Haze’s drumming is tough and tasty, and the man knew how to use a foot pedal. Joey Alves on rhythm guitar complimented Meniketti perfectly, and Phil Kennemore’s bass guitar provides classy bottom to the mix.
The band became too commercial-sounding for my tastes after they became Y&T, but the eponymous Yesterday and Today debut is a fun, raw, high-energy effort that boasts both tender love lyrics in “Beautiful Dreamer” and, in “Animal Woman,” some of the raunchier lyrics committed to vinyl up to that point. The group’s sophomore effort, Struck Down, offers more heavy riffage and solid rhythm section work.
“25 Hours a Day”
“Dreams of Egypt”:
Here’s some rare live footage of Y&T performing “Beautiful Dreamer” in 1974:
This installment is the first in a planned series meant to bring wider attention to musical acts or albums I have enjoyed throughout the decades that, for various reasons, didn’t receive as much exposure in their day as I feel they should have. Future articles in the series will include power pop acts, 1980s new wave singers and bands, and a few surprises.