Graded on a Curve: Angel,
Helluva Band

Celebrating Frank Dimino on his 70th birthday.Ed.

My favorite story about Angel, Washington, DC’s glammed-out, all-white spandex retort to Kiss, which seemed poised for superstardom in the mid-seventies (giant billboards on the Sunset Strip, selection by the readers of Circus magazine as the Best New Group of 1976, and tours of the great American arena circuit with the likes of Aerosmith, Blue Oyster Cult, Journey, and Rush) is pure Spinal Tap.

The band, with some major financial backing from Casablanca Records mogul Neil Bogart, had developed one of the most elaborate stage shows in rock, a fantasia of smoke, magic, and mirrors that led one wag to suggest that the band might be better off staying home and sending its props on the road. One gimmick involved the band appearing magically on stage one by one in puffs of smoke, to be introduced by the face on the giant Angel logo—which none other than Ian MacKaye pointed out to me is ambigrammatic, meaning it reads the same when turned upside down as when viewed normally—that served as the band’s backdrop.

One night, as Punky Meadows, Angel’s guitarist and the most androgynous pretty boy in a band full of androgynous pretty boys, told me: “Of course, all we were doing was coming up through trapdoors from beneath the stage. Well, one night, the big talking head introduces [drummer] Mickie Jones, and Mickie isn’t there. We’re looking at each like, ‘Where the fuck’s Mickie?’ Turns out his trapdoor got stuck. And all those stoned kids in the audience are going [Meadows sucks on an imaginary joint], ‘That’s really weird, man…'”

Angel was ahead of its time as a hair metal band, but while publicity photos featuring Meadows sporting hair the females of the era would have died for and a pout that put Scarlett Johansson’s to shame helped increase Angel’s popularity amongst certain sectors—predominantly teenage girls—it didn’t win them any points with critics.

One Circus magazine reviewer concluded, “Plenty of unmitigated garbage passes for commercial hard rock on the strength of its meticulous presentation and shrewdly manipulated production values, and this is the void Angel helps fill.” Another derided the band’s image as “one of the silliest ever, despite stiff competition.” And then there was Frank Zappa, who in the song “Punky’s Whips” mocked the “pooched-out succulence of [Meadows’] insolent pouting rictus” and dismissed Angel’s music in the bluntest of terms: “Punky, Punky, your album’s the shits!/It’s all wrong!”

A very brief history: Meadows got his real start with DC’s Cherry People, a psychedelic pop band that might have gone places had it not gotten the Monkees treatment from its record label, then joined Boston’s Daddy Warbux, or more popularly just Bux. When the bux failed to roll in, Meadows returned to DC with Bux bassist Mickie Jones in tow, and there they gathered together a group of musicians (Gregg Giuffria, a keyboard wizard with decidedly proggish inclinations; drummer and D.C. native Barry Brandt; and singer Frank DiMino) and called themselves Foxy, which is quite the coincidence as they would later contribute two songs to the soundtrack to Adrian Lyne’s 1980 film Foxes, and even make an onstage appearance in the film. But the name Foxy didn’t stick, and they finally settled on the name of their favorite Hendrix tune, “Angel.”

Angel played a unique hybrid of glam, metal, and progressive rock (let’s call it glam-pomp), fueled in large part by Giuffria, who played organ, piano, clavinet, harpsichord, mellotron, synthesizers, and ARP String Ensemble, to say nothing of the dreaded keytar. And on Helluva Band, Angel’s 1976 sophomore outing, prog definitely predominates, starting with the long keyboard opening to “Feelin’ Right.” The verses don’t impress, but the chorus is nice, as if the interplay between Meadows’ guitar and Giuffria’s keyboards that follows. It’s like “Duelin’ Banjos,” kinda sorta, and Meadows in particular plays like he means business.

Follow-up “The Fortune” is a full-blown rock opera, and opens with some astral winds, a bit of a choir, and some plaintive keyboards, which go on and on and on. It’s all very portentous and would do Kansas proud, and I have no idea what the rest of the band was doing while Giuffria was going about his business, other than growing old enough to collect Social Security. Finally Meadows joins in on guitar along with Brandt on drums, and you think something explosive is going to happen but it doesn’t.

Instead Giuffria plays some dramatic keyboards, a gong sounds, and suddenly the song goes acoustic, as DiMino sings some truly bad lyrics: “Empty are the castle grounds when dusk arrives/Silence echoes loudly, for three lives here/Seagull, flying high above the open sky/Flying high and free, past each wistful eye.” I could ask how it is a seagull flies above the open sky, but who knows, maybe it’s a space seagull. Besides, at this point the band finally kicks into gear, albeit not for long, because the tempo again slows for the verse. Meanwhile DiMino is giving it all he’s got, followed by Meadows who plays some more impressive guitar, and is joined by Giuffria who plays one very Styx-like solo. And then the song builds, DiMino commences screaming, and the whole band finishes the song off.

I can only call “Anyway You Want It” Led Zeppelin lite, as Meadows’ opening guitar riff is straight from some Zep song that slips my mind. Anyway, the Zep pretentions quickly dissipate leaving you with a more than decent metal tune, as DiMino sings, “Come on/Makes no difference what you like/Come on/Whatever turns you on is alright,” which ought to bring comfort to sheep-fuckers everywhere. A big but brief keyboard flourish here, and a nice guitar solo there—everything is in its proper place, and I honestly don’t know why this song didn’t become a hit. I wish Meadows’ guitar was louder and meaner, but otherwise it definitely holds its own again Journey, Kansas, Styx, REO Speedwagon, and the rest of Angel’s contemporaries, all of whom were making hay out of similar material.

Meanwhile, “Dr. Ice” may or may not be a cautionary tale about cocaine, a drug the band, who may have been angels but were angels with dirty nostrils, was very familiar with. As Meadows told me, “We’d go to a meeting…and there’d be bowls full of cocaine.” He then added, tongue in cheek, “Of course, this was before cocaine became addictive.”

“Dr. Ice” opens with some cool guitar and drum bash, before turning into the spitting image of every Styx song ever written. Giuffria plays some swirling keyboards before DiMino sings the chorus: “Dr. Ice, he plays the pot/You put in all you’ve got/Dr. Ice, he takes the lot.” The latter verses are followed by some not-very-exciting interplay between Meadows’ guitar and Giuffria’s swirling keyboards, before Meadows breaks free and plays yet another kick-ass solo that both takes the song out and helps to explain why, at around the time Angel was falling apart, his services were being sought by the likes of Kiss (following Ace Frehley’s departure in 1982), Aerosmith, and The New York Dolls.

“Mirrors” is a real live metal tune, and not bad at all, with the exception of the execrable lyrics. I’m relatively certain that if I sat my cat down with pen and paper and instructed him to write some lyrics along the lines of “Immigrant Song” he could come up with a better opening than, “Ooh, magic swords with many lords/For treasures that abound me/Ooh, battle cries that fill the skies with pain.”

But aside from that, Meadows’ guitar possesses the bite it lacked on “Anyway You Want It,” and he sure knows his way around an arpeggio. As for the song it has thrust, much like the sword DiMino sings about in the barely comprehensible lines, “Ooh, at first, I thrust my sword the blood I felt/For warriors that I’ve slain/Ooh, feeling more, the scars of war and pain.” But you don’t listen to a song like this for the lyrics unless you’re an idiot, and if I can add my five cents, I think Angel would have been wise to feed their songs some steroids, tone down Giuffria’s histrionics, and go the metallic route more often.

Unfortunately the next tune, “Feelings,” is that most frightening of all musical apparitions, the power ballad. I’ve heard much worse, believe me, thanks in large part to Meadows, who launches into a fantastic minute-and-a-half guitar solo that takes the song out. But it fails to wash away the bad taste left by the song’s opening, which features Giuffria in concert pianist mode and is far too precious for its own good. Nor does it help that he continues to tickle the ivories in a pompous manner the entire length of the song. DiMino’s hushed “Mr. Sensitive” vocals are hard to take too, although he busts loose during the big choruses, which are a welcome change from the hushed verses but still sound like they came straight off the power ballad assembly line.

“Pressure Point” is fast-paced hard rocker, and reminds me of Deep Purple, thanks to the sound of Meadows’ guitar. I’m afraid I’ll never be a fan of DiMino’s voice, but he pulls this one off, and it has lots more to recommend it in the way of guitar and keyboard solos, with Giuffria playing a pair of brief mindbenders, while Meadows plays a solo so far freaking out it’s almost cool enough for me to buy the album.

As for the oddly titled “Chicken Soup,” it’s a start-and-stop affair that opens with some truly exquisite guitar wank by Meadows, at which point DiMino, who sounds better on this one than on any other song of the LP, joins in. It’s also vaguely reminiscent of the Zep, that is until Giuffria launches into a long keyboard solo and Meadows follows him with some fierce guitar riffs, which serve as punctuation to DiMino’s vocals. The song goes out with DiMino singing about how he needs a bowl of his “Momma’s cure, by which he means chicken soup although the lyrics are just ambiguous enough to make you wonder whether what’s he suffering from isn’t the common cold but the clap.

The LP closes with “Angel Theme,” a short instrumental whose melody is nothing special and opens with some church bells and intergalactic space noise before Meadows steps in and plays a solo that gets better as it goes along, and reminds me of Mick Ronson. Then the song stops, and suddenly starts again at three times the speed, and I only wish the boys had kept it up rather than fading out after 20 seconds or so, because they might have invented speed metal.

Angel never reached that celestial level of stardom Meadows called the “crystal wave,” and part of the reason (or so I suspect) is that their sound was all over the place. They couldn’t decide whether they wanted to play hard rock, heavy metal, glam, or just prog out. Or perhaps not, as the same can probably be said of Kansas, Styx, and their like. One thing seems relatively certain; had they come along after the advent of MTV, they most likely would have become superstars, as they possessed all the attributes (AOR sound, good looks, a great shtick, and 1,001 gimmicks) that spelled success in the early video era.

But they missed the MTV boat, and DiMino and Meadows both split the band in 1981, which carried on briefly before dissolving, then reforming in the late 1990s with a line-up whose only original members were DiMino and Brandt. Nowadays, Meadows owns a tanning salon in Oakton, Virginia, and is a country music fan. He even keeps a guitar at the salon and plays along with the songs on TV’s Country Music Channel. As for “Punky’s Whips,” Meadows found it amusing, and gladly agreed to make an on-stage appearance playing the song with Zappa at an LA gig—wearing his white Angel regalia and with a giant photo of Meadows in full pout serving as a backdrop—after which the two men went to Zappa’s home to drink beer and listen to music.

I’m almost certain I’ll never listen to Helluva Band again, but I will always love Angel for their outfits, their hair, and their P.T. Barnum approach to rock as pure entertainment. And I’ll always laugh when I think about poor Mickie Jones, whose death in 2009 means he’ll be a member of Angel forever, impotently pounding on that trapdoor, while the rest of the band stood around not knowing what to do except ask, “Where the fuck’s Mickie?”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B-

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