Back in the spring of 1972, heavy rock trio BANG were shaping up to be the proverbial Next Big Thing. Signed a few months earlier to Capitol Records the band’s first single, ‘Questions’, was taking off in the Billboard Hot 100. With the enthusiastic support of their record label, Capitol, their debut album titled BANG, was also climbing the charts. Their management company had them opening shows for just about every major band of the era. Moreover, they had recently opened for their all time favorite band, Black Sabbath, and, by common consensus of opinion, stole the show. With two band members, guitarist Frankie Gilcken and lead singer/bassist Frank Ferrara still in their teens, and drummer/lyricist Tony Diorio, BANG seemed to be unstoppable.
Somehow, though, it didn’t quite work out. Even as ‘Questions’ was charting, a corporate shakeup at Capitol saw the band’s supporters moving on and replaced by A&R men who had their own signings to promote. With the band’s producer, Michael Sunday, also leaving the label, BANG’s support system was crumbling. Their new producer engineered a change in personnel that left Tony Diorio, the band’s drummer and lyricist, out in the cold. Meanwhile Capitol Records insisted that BANG develop a more mainstream, pop-oriented sound. They actually told the band to “write a song” like “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy. Trying to keep the dream alive, they changed management companies, only to discover that they were being blackballed, leaving gigs hard to come by. By 1974, just a couple of years after their initial success a tired and disillusioned BANG had lost their direction, momentum and self-belief. They went their separate ways.
“Must you be a superstar To find your means of living” (Questions)
Despite the relative briefness of their career, BANG left behind a powerful recorded legacy. Four albums, including their unreleased 1971 concept album Death Of A Country, as well as adding a trio of non-album tracks that were recorded as singles when their deal with Capitol was about to expire. As can be heard, BANG may have changed musical direction for a while, but irrespective of whether they were pursuing a blistering, proto-heavy metal sound or a more mainstream power-pop feel, their recorded work was never less than excellent. This is their story.
The BANG odyssey begins in Philadelphia in August 1969, just a week or two after Woodstock. Lead guitarist Frankie Gilcken and bassist Frank Ferrara, started playing in bands together since their early teens. They were 16 years old and had recently dropped out of high school and placed an advertisement in a local newspaper for a drummer. Their ad was answered by 26 year old Tony Diorio. On the surface, the two Franks had little in common with Tony, who was not only ten years older than them but had a wife and children to support. Nevertheless, the three of them quickly gelled, and they worked hard, rehearsing and practicing endlessly.
“The Beatles were everybody’s inspiration,” Frank Ferrara recently said, but “we worked hard at getting our own sound.” Other acts like Black Sabbath and Grand Funk Railroad were about to make their mark, and it was the proto-heavy metal sound that most influenced the trio’s embryonic approach.
“Don’t run from your dreams when you know they’re right!“(Slowdown)
The first few months the trio commuted to a practice hall in South Philly from Linwood, Pennsylvania and Claymont, Delaware, trying out different keyboard players and front men. We had a couple local guys for management. One manager arranged for them to pick up Jimmy Hendrix and “The Experience” at the airport in Tony’s Vista Cruiser station wagon-perfect car for a family man. But only the drummer, Mitch Mitchel, rode the wagon and as Tony recalls “was wearing these incredible knee high laced boots”. This is what a rock and roll star looks like! That night they were on stage watching Hendrix play. Towards the end of the set, he started burning his guitar and kicking his Marshal amps offstage. Nobody had seen this kind of thing before! Frankie got excited (his amp was a Vox Guardsman ). He asked the roadies if he could have them but they said the Marshalls would be re-coned. That night was the first time they were on a concert stage, and said of the experience, “We knew what we were meant to do.”
“If by touching, we all can agree, Nothing can stop us” (RTZ “Return to Zer0″)
Tony was running Dess Discount stores, raising his family and painting a giant peace symbol on his backyard deck. Frankie was “experimenting”. Their hair was growing long. One job Frank had was painting the Dess building in Claymont with a 1″ brush. Workers across the street at the Post Office, had a pool going to when he would finish. The building could have been sprayed in two days. Frank took 3 months.
In those early days the band rehearsed by playing the Beatles or Black Sabbath, quickly developing their own songwriting aspirations, with Diorio supplying the lyrics to the riffs and melodies of Gilcken and Ferrara. “A lot of the times, the way we’d write songs is that I’d write something and give it to the Franks, and they’d make it into a song,” explains Tony. “Or they’d have a riff, and I’d come up with a lyric line, and we’d go from there. I would write as they were playing. They put it to music, basically. Some of the songs, we’d have an idea and we’d just go with it musically and lyrically at the same time. Frank usually comes up with the melody, and Frankie usually comes up with the riff, the hook of the song.” We practiced, we worked, we ate cheese steaks from Claymont steak shop. A good friend Don Naples took care of our technical needs. We played a local gig at Rockford Park and people around town got to hear about us.
Lacking confidence in their own vocals, they decided that they needed a lead singer as well as a keyboard player to flesh out their sound. They went through quite a few short-term keyboardists as well as enlisting the services of a front man, now recalled only as “C.J.” Now C.J. could sing and had all the moves but was into shooting crystal. He would suddenly just run out of practice yelling “You guys sound great! See you later”. It was C.J. who sang vocals during the band’s first gig – which, purely by coincidence, happened to be at a local mental hospital where he was a resident!
“My windows there the scenes the same… I’m not here they’ve lost my name” (My Window)
Electing to revert to a three-piece, the Magic Band (as they were now calling themselves) left Philadelphia for Claymont, Delaware, where they practiced in the basement of the Dess Discount Store (run by Tony).
For the next eighteen months or so, they only played live 4 times, instead working part-time while writing and arranging what they intended to be their debut album. With Tony into “writing about death, pollution, the meaning of life, God, space and time travel,” The trio came up with a number of songs: ‘Death Of A Country’, ‘Lies’, ‘Spoons Of Crystal’, ‘Lord You Created A Mess’. These were all intended to form the basis of a concept LP, Death Of A Country.
“Keep abreast of turmoil times… Prudent people mouth their lines… Watch them work at being not… Pump their ears make them hot”(Certainly Meaningless)
Although they were already planning their first album, they had nothing going for them except their desire to make it! Eighteen months were spent in the basement, “playing for ourselves and the kids who would be outside hanging around the metal sidewalk doors left open for air. The ceiling was so low, you had to duck pipes whenever you moved around.
At times we would give a “performance” for our friends who would squeeze into the wall of sound and encourage us. We were learning how to write songs, building Voice of the Theater speakers for a sound system and dreaming of the things every band dreams. We were young, loud and determined to make it!”
It was during the “basement” period that they changed their name from the Magic Band (a name already being used by Captain Beefheart’s band). Tony had been reading Rolling Stone when he came across the headline “English groups bang in USA,” a reference to the explosion of British bands that were causing a sensation in America. The word “BANG” leaped off the page at him, and the erstwhile Magic Band became BANG. “We wanted to find a name that was short and powerful”, explains Frank Ferrara. “BANG was short, sweet and to the point. It fit our music.”
Subsequently they would live up to their name by employing a 12-gauge shotgun and fireworks in their act, but at the time, BANG had little idea about how to promote themselves. Their hard rock approach hardly fitted in with other musical events in Philadelphia, and managers, record companies and A&R men only came to the city to pursue the brand of sweet soul music that was becoming widely known as the Philly Sound. However, there were one or two venues where they could play, and it was as a result of this that they got an unexpected lucky break, as they now relate:
“The Anvil Inn was a bar that we went to in Kennet Square, Philadelphia, that always had great live music. The owners, Joe and Benny, loved us – one of our few gigs was their annual picnic. One night, Tony started talking to the bass player of the band performing. He had overheard this guy say that he had been in the Classics IV, who had the hit ‘Spooky’. Hey, this was big time – this guy had a hit! At some point in the conversation, the guy talked about a record distributor in Miami, Tone Distributors. They had a novelty hit going (‘Window Washing Woman’), and were looking for acts to sign.
“Within a week, Tony went to the bank and borrowed $1,000. We bought a tent, rented a trailer, packed up our equipment, and headed down Interstate 95 in the Vista Cruiser to Miami.
On the way, we mailed out hundreds of postcards to everyone from Walter Cronkite to Lassie, from Warner Bros Records to Daffy Duck. Each postcard was stamped, ‘BANG is in Miami’.
Something was about to happen!
“We don’t need nobody to tell us what we want Cause now we know” (Don’t Need Nobody)
Leaving Philadelphia behind, BANG drove south towards Miami, stopping in Daytona Beach. At Frankie’s suggestion we went for a walk on the boardwalk. As we’re hanging around, another long hair freak , who looked a lot like us, came up and asked if we wanted to buy some grass. Frank bought an ounce (4 fingers of Colombian Gold) for 15 bucks. All we needed now were some rolling papers. This is how the need for rolling papers launched our careers.
It was 5 minutes to closing when we stopped in a record shop called Duck Soup, for papers and noticed a poster promoting a local Battle of the Bands competition. Asking the manager of the shop if we could take part in the competition. He told us it was an old poster, and the event had already taken place. Rubbing salt into their wounds, he mockingly told the band that Rod Stewart, Faces and Deep Purple were playing in Orlando the following evening, and why didn’t they go there and play! This guy was busting our chops. We spent that night in the tent getting high and discussing what had happened earlier. At some point, a red-eyed Tony announced “were going to Orlando and play with Rod Stewart!” What did we know? Ignorance is bliss! We packed up the tent, climbed into the Vista Cruiser and headed to the next portal waiting for us in Orlando.
“The sun was just coming up as we pulled into the Orlando Sport Stadium,” recalls Tony. “The gate was open so we drove right onto the floor. After sitting around in the arena for a while, it was time for us to make a move. We started looking for somebody – anybody – to plead our case. We eventually made our way back to the offices, and banged on a door marked private. As soon as this tall thin guy opened it, Tony announced, ‘We’re BANG from Philly, and we’re as good as any f@#%#&# band here tonight! We have our equipment ready to set up and play. It you like us, let us open the show. If not, we’ll leave. You’ve got nothing to lose, and you will see and hear something that will astound you!’ The clanging of our balls in this guy’s face actually pushed him backwards and impressed him enough for him to agree to hear us.” “The tall, thin guy was Rick Bowen, owner of East Coast Concerts. We can still see him standing in the middle of the empty arena watching us, arms folded, listening intently with his assistant Jimmy as we played ‘Death Of A Country’ and a few other songs. The set went great, and of course we were on top of all our moves. In our minds and hearts, we knew we had what it took to be rock’n’roll stars. We were ready; all those months of practice, all those hours honing our craft, all the sacrificing each of us had done had prepared us for this moment in time. We passed the audition. Later that night, 8,000 kids would be screaming at Rod Stewart, Faces, Deep Purple, Southern Comfort and a new opening act named BANG. This was only the fifth time in eighteen months that we had played anywhere except the basement…”
After we performed our 30 minute set, and while the excitement of the night was still all over us, we had to go back out on stage and haul off our equipment in front of the crowd we had just left yelling for more. We had no roadies. The shocked looks from the people down front watching us move our stuff was something to see.
Thinking we had done all and feeling like our trip was a success we were surprised when the promoter approached us and said he owned a motel in Ft Lauderdale and wanted us to go there and wait for him. The Escape motel was a party place. For the next few days that’s what we did.
Give me two smokes two tokes, And a couple of rum and cokes (Redneck Riviera)
When we met him at the airport the first thing he said to us was “How would you like to play with Steppenwolf in Richmond this weekend”? Was he kidding? Steppenwolf! Born to be Wild”! We played in a baseball stadium where the stage was on the pitcher mound. From that performance we have the only recorded film of us playing together.
“That show in Orlando was the beginning of our career,” agrees Frank Ferrara. “Rick Bowen let us play while the crowd was coming in. We only played four or five songs, but there we were. Barely forty-eight hours after we left Philadelphia, we were opening the show for Rod Stewart, Faces and Deep Purple! ’ At that point Rick became our manager. His company, East Coast Concerts, was a partner with Concerts West, which at the time was one of the biggest promoters in the country. Based out of Dallas, they booked all the super groups of the day. With East Coast and Concerts West as our managers, it meant we would be opening and touring with the top bands of that era. We were about to step onto the largest stages in the country with Bands that were household names like,,,, Rod Stewart, Deep Purple, Steppinwolf, Guess Who, Kinks, James Gang, Mountain, Ike & Tina, Fleetwood Mac (opened for us), Cactus, Uriah Heep,Bloodrock, Dr. John, The Byrds, Alice Cooper, Allman Bros, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, 3 Dog Night, Black Sabbath, Emerison, Lake and Palmer, J. Giels Band, Billy Preston, Peter Frampton, Doobie Bros, Yes, Nazareth, Jethru Tull, Joe Cocker, Savoy Brown, Bruce Springsteen (opened for us), Bob Seger, Edgar Winter, Steve Miller, Buddy Miles and last but not least the Funkadelics…that’s how we started to build our fan base.”
One of the band’s strongest memories from this period is the time they supported, Black Sabbath. Tony Diorio: “We were in North Carolina, opening for Black Sabbath… Here we are, playing with our hero’s!
We were one of the first groups to use fireworks. At the end of our set, I had the double bass drums going. into this cymbal crescendo. The music’s just building up and building up. A roadie would light the fireworks display over the top of my head as it spelled out “BANG”. Red, white, different colors. When it went off the whole audience – about 15,000 people - stood up and started rushing the stage. I mean, this just blew their minds. They were just wild-eyed.
I got an email from a guy that said, ‘I’ve waited twenty years to tell you that you blew Black Sabbath off the stage that night”. We knew that we had stolen the show from them. It’s something to have idols that you look up to. It’s another thing to play with your idols. And it’s an even greater thing to blow your idols off the stage!”
Looking like giants Tasting the sweet (Eve of the End)
With their reputation growing all the time it was decided that it was time for BANG to record an album. The idea was that the LP would be recorded independently, and then hawked around the major labels. Of course, BANG had already been working for many months on what they had intended to be their debut LP, Death Of A Country, and so the songs were already licked into shape: this was just another case of a dream becoming reality.
“Can you hear the sounds of progress landing on the moon“(Death of A Country)
“We went to Criteria Studios in Miami to start work on Death Of A Country,” relates Tony. “Ron and Howie Albert were our producers, and they were great to work with. Karl Richardson was our engineer, and he went on to do most of the Bee Gees hits, including ‘Staying’ Alive’. What fun we had.
This was our first time in a recording studio, and hearing our music played back loud on those big studio monitors was incredible.
We knew ‘Death Of A Country’ so well that we were able to record it on the first take, with very few overdubs. At the time, Frankie was the lead singer, and Frank sang mostly back-up. We used all kinds of effects on different songs, lots of panning and phasers. Originally Death Of A Country was conceived as a concept LP, so at the end of the album is a recording of the first atomic bomb blast at Yucca Flats. We tried it fast, slow, forwards and backwards, trying to make it sound right. We finally settled on slow and backwards.”
With Death Of A Country complete in August 1971, BANG’s management started shopping the album and songs around. A deal was done for CAM-USA for the band’s publishing, while Capitol Records signed them to a four album deal. As Tony now says, this was it – a deal with the label that the Beatles were on. Everything they wanted was coming true. Except that, having signed the band on the strength of Death Of A Country, Capitol decided to reject the album itself. According to Frank Ferrara, the record label “didn’t want to release Death Of A Country because they thought a heavy concept album would go over people’s heads”. Instead, Capitol requested that the band come up with a less raw, more commercial offering.
Thus it was that BANG’s great opening statement, Death Of A Country, was to be left on the shelf. It would be another twenty-eight years before the album would eventually see the light of day.
The important thing was that Capitol
wanted the band. The label brought in producer Michael Sunday, who had overseen the fourth, self-titled Blue Cheer album and therefore had all the right credentials to handle a heavy metal power trio.
Sunday changed the band’s lead vocalist, pointing out that Frank Ferrara looked like a hard rock lead singer, and should therefore take that role! He also listened to Death Of A Country, after which he said that he was going away for a couple of weeks, and that they needed to write a new album before he returned. And that was what they did. Tony Diorio: “When Mike Sunday came back after two weeks, we went back into Criteria Studios and started recording.
The first day was spent with Mike getting Frankie’s guitar sound. Initially Frankie had a Vox amp when we did Death Of A Country, but by the time we got to the “BANG” album, he had gotten Marshalls. His speaker bottom finally ended up outside facing the ocean with a mike in front of it. Mike Sunday basically got the sound – you know, the heavy metal sound. He inspired us.”
With Sunday in the driving seat, BANG had a tighter, more disciplined feel than the rawer, slightly meandering Death Of A Country, with only ‘The Queen’ breaking the five-minute barrier. The psychedelic era hangover that had seen the band experimenting with studio effects was jettisoned in favor of a leaner, meaner sound, with Frank Ferrara’s lead vocals – pitched midway between Ozzy Osbourne and Robert Plant – complementing Frankie Gilcken’s Iommi-inspired fretwork to give the band an even more pronounced Black Sabbath vibe, particularly on ‘Come With Me’ and ‘Future Shock’ (the latter inspired by Alvin Toffler’s hugely influential book of the same name). Nevertheless, the songs, melodies and riffs were strong enough to ensure that BANG was far more than the work of a surrogate Sabbath.
‘Last Will And Testament’ and ‘Our Home’ were outstanding compositions, with Frankie’s wistful harmony work reflecting the relative subtleties of the songs, while ‘Redman’ and the superb ‘Questions’ were tight, catchy little rockers that seemed to have considerable commercial potential.
“We were very pleased with the record”, says Frank. “I remember all of us getting high and listening to the playback for the first time. The opening notes of the first track, ‘Lions, Christians’, sounded awesome. We were lucky to have a great producer in Michael Sunday… he helped us to create our own sound.”
“We stand tall on a hill, Playing our song, Touching the clouds” (Eve of the End)
Capitol certainly pulled out all the stops when it came to promoting the album, which was released in February 1972. One of their most memorable promotional stunts was to declare “BANGday at Capitol Records”,
although this nearly went ahead without the band’s participation, as Tony explains. “It’s about three a.m., the morning of BANGday in Hollywood. Frank and I are walking the strip heading back to the hotel from somewhere. At the time, longhairs are viewed with suspicion, especially by the authorities. Being in the middle of the block, we casually crossed the street, like we would in Claymont or Philly. There is no traffic, and few, if any, people. Suddenly, police are yelling at us. Stop, put up your hands, don’t move! They cuff us roughly, and drive us to jail. Here we are, a few hours from BANG Day, and we’re sitting in jail for jaywalking. Eventually we get in touch with our manager, Rick, who bailed us out in time for the party.”
“Not having slept yet, we enter the Capitol Tower building later that morning, where we are met with BANG posters, balloons, album covers, guns and explosions. In the elevators, BANGmetal music is playing. I still remember riding up to the offices of the “big guys” in their expensive suits listening to ‘Future Shock’ as background music.
There are times when you feel.. What your living’s not real
(There Are Times)
Things are strange and exciting… our management hired a helicopter to fly around LA and the Capitol Tower, dragging a sign that read, ‘Capitol BANG loves you!” After posing for promo pics and such, we made our way to the party on a lower floor. For some reason the promotion department associated our name BANG with sex, so when we walked into the big party room, they were showing porno movies made in the 1920s, something like Debbie Does The Keystone Cops. At the time, it was all a little embarrassing, but it was our day, and everybody loved us. Hello rock’n’roll!”
Keep on the path is clear, see the truth It’s coming near (Keep On)
“I’d like to say we were totally humbled by our good fortune, and to a point, we were. But we had worked long and hard preparing for this time. The high from BANG Day gave us a confidence and swagger… we knew we were good, and had what it takes to make it. Later that week, when we went to court, we brought some BANGalbums and promo stuff for the judge and cops. Everyone was happy. They still fined us.”
The album was housed in a memorable sleeve design that featured some Roy Lichtenstein-like pop-art lettering of the band’s name. As Tony explains, though, the finished article wasn’t quite what the band had been expecting.
“Originally the artwork had an ink drawing of the three of us standing in the gun barrel. Capitol’s art department came up with the cartoon-like BANG explosion, which proved to be eye-catching worldwide and still remembered today. We expected the cover to be a fold-out with this great futuristic painting in the inside.” But at this point life was good!
The album BANG received positive reviews from the era’s pundits, with Billboard commenting that the band “on first listen sound incredibly like Led Zeppelin… they play at the same frenetic pace as Zeppelin, and Frank Ferrara’s vocals are so similar to those of Robert Plant’s as to be downright amazing.” Bolstered by such comments, Suddenly, it seemed, the band were on their way to stardom.
“I can still remember the first time we heard one of our songs (‘Last Will And Testament’) on the radio”, says Tony. “We were in two cars heading to Miami for conk chowder at Ernie’s with the windows down and the music blaring, screaming at each other. Fort Lauderdale and Miami were rotating cuts from our album heavy, since that’s where we lived. Once we were walking out of the Escape motel where we were staying and could just barely hear ‘Future Shock’ playing in this hippie van coming up the street. What a trip as it got louder and zoomed past us!” BANG started climbing the US album charts.
The success of the album was cemented by the release of arguably the most contagious track, ‘Questions’, as a single. It was climbing on the Billboard singles chart (according to Frank Ferrara, it also reached the No. 2 spot in Hong Kong) – a performance that vindicated the band’s faith in the song, which apparently hadn’t been shared by their producer. “When Michael Sunday told us that we had to write a new album in two weeks, he said that he wanted it to sound like a mixture of Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad,” recalls Frankie Gilcken. “But when he returned, and we played ‘Questions’ to him, he said that he didn’t like it, and that it didn’t fit in with the rest of the album. Eventually, though, he agreed to let us include it on the LP. Capitol then decided to release it as a single. “It just goes to show that, most times, the band knows what’s best when it comes to their own music,” says
Tony. “I wrote ‘Questions’ at the place we were staying, the Escape Motel. I remember writing it sitting up against the wall with a mattress on the floor. We were high. At least, I was!” There was a lot of that going on back then. Nevertheless, Tony believes that ‘Questions’ could have been a much bigger hit had Capitol really thrown their weight behind it. “‘Questions’ could have been in the Top Ten, if not the Top Five, because there was a point there when they stopped working it. What was happening at Capitol was that everybody was fired who were working in some way with Bang, and a whole new group of people came in who had their own bands that they were trying to push. It was like, ‘Hey, I have my band, why do I wanna push BANG?’”.
At the moment when BANG should have been on top of the world, the rug was being pulled from underneath them. In addition to the personnel changes within Capitol’s hierarchy, producer Michael Sunday left to take up a better offer from another label. He asked BANG to follow him, but the band had signed a four-album deal with Capitol, who refused to let them go. Instead, the label placed BANG with producer Jeffrey Cheen, who had previously been with Tetragrammaton and Mercury Records before moving over to Capitol’s A&R department, where he also worked with legendary Hollywood hustler Kim Fowley on his International Heroes album. Cheen arranged to record the follow-up to BANG’s first Capitol album at the Sound Factory in Hollywood, with Dave Hassinger (Rolling Stones, Strawberry Alarm Clock, Chocolate Watch Band etc) engineering. “Top engineer, top place – the best”, enthuses Tony. “So we go out to California to record. We come to the studio the next day, and there’s some guy sitting in the drum booth. It’s Bruce Gary (subsequently with the Knack) – I mean, one of the best rock drummers around! “I’m suddenly not playing on the album?” Producer Sheen, decided that Tony wasn’t going to play.”
“Pain and Sorrow won’t let me be” (Humble)
“I’m crushed; Frank and Frankie are wide eyed! Here we are – going from a basement to having BANG Day at Capitol Records and now this. All this incredible stuff is happening, and suddenly the three of us… the marriage, I mean someone’s coming in between us. This happens to so many bands. Some asshole screws things up. So, I said, ‘Fine, I’ll go along. And in the meantime, I’ll practice more so I can get better for the next album, the next whatever. I’ll play on it.’ I started playing drums when I was 25 till 4 years later when Bruce retired me.
Watching this guy play, wow, he was so good, incredible. If there’s anyone to replace me, it’s Bruce.
So then we get into a thing… The band –the three of us – this whole thing separating the Franks and me. The bond we had. Brothers on a quest together. I left the group. I said, ‘I’m gone.’ And I went back home to Claymont. The Franks finish up the album. We’d already written all the songs. We had been in Criteria and recorded a bunch of the songs. The producer took them back into the studio and brought in Duris Maxwell and Bruce Gary to record over all the stuff that I had done for the Mother/Bow To The King album. And I’m back up in Delaware in the retail business, selling white socks, wondering how my life has gone down the tubes. At the same time this is affecting my wife and kids. I remember them watching me play at the Sportatorum in Hollywood Florida standing off stage. They were little kids, wondering “what daddy doing”?
Lost in the distance, of another Life (Isle of Hope)
When the Franks come back, they’ve got the acetate of the album, and I’m in tears listening to this thing, it sounds so good. Hearing all the songs finished. They dedicate the album to me, and all that kind of crap. I was still tight with the Franks, even though I was initially very pissed. They didn’t know what to do. They were seventeen years old, just a couple of kids. I was already married, had kids, and could appreciate what was happening to us because. I had already had a gig. I mean, I had the day job. So to me, this was incredible. This was a dream come true. To them it was just part of life. ‘Okay, I’m seventeen, now I’m a rock star.’”
“So many things happened to the group in that six-month period between the BANG album and Mother/Bow To The King,” admits Frank Ferrara. “We lost Tony as our drummer, and also our producer, Michael Sunday, went to Epic Records. Our second producer didn’t have the same vision for us that Michael had. With Tony gone, we used session drummers, one of which was Bruce Gary. Bruce did a great job…”
Right from the rural, acoustic-based beginning of the opening track ‘Mother’, BANG’s second album for Capitol widened their artistic horizons. Tracks like ‘Keep On’ (issued as a single just prior to the album’s release), ‘Idealist/Realist’ and the guitar-fest ‘Humble’ were straight-ahead, balls-to-the-wall metallic rockers and pretty much business as usual, but in general, Mother/Bow To The King boasted plenty of light and shade. ‘Feel The Hurt’ hinted at the radio-friendly ‘classic rock’ sound of bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd, while ‘Tomorrow’ and the mellow, melodic and utterly magnificent ‘Bow To The King’ – inspired by world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, and featuring some highly effective Mellotron – occupied the same early ’70s progressive rock territory as Wishbone Ash or even early Genesis.
And then there was ‘No Sugar Tonight’. Penned by Randy Bachman, ‘No Sugar Tonight’ had been the B-side of the Guess Who’s ‘American Woman’, which had topped the US singles chart a couple of years earlier. Recorded because, in Frank Ferrara’s words, “Capitol were trying their best to make us a commercial band”, BANG disliked ‘No Sugar Tonight’ so much that, when they made Mother/Bow To The King available via their website a few years ago, they excised it from the album. Nevertheless, the track clearly had commercial potential, and it was released as a single to coincide with the November 1972 appearance of the album. Like its predecessor, Mother/Bow To The King was favorably received by the critics. Billboard listed it in the ‘Special Merit Picks’ section, claiming that the album “features strong, commercial rock which should receive both AM and FM play. Frank Ferrara shows strong vocals throughout and Frank Gilcken (sic) complements this with his guitar. Strong treatment of the old Guess Who rocker ‘No Sugar Tonight’, which is getting some radio action…” Frank Ferrara: “By the time the “Music” album came out, our label support was almost nil – everyone at Capitol that believed in BANG was gone. We also parted ways with Rick Bowen, and at that point Tony became the manager of the band. We recorded the album “Music” in LA at the Sound Factory with Dave Hassinger. Again, Bruce played drums, and did a great job. I love the drum tracks on the Music album. Every album was unique in its own way, but the “Music” album was probably my favorite.”But ‘No Sugar Tonight’ failed to give the band the hit single that Capitol craved, and “Mother/Bow To The King” didn’t sell as well as the album “BANG”. Nevertheless, the band remained optimistic about their future, particular when they managed to get out of their management contract with Rick Bowen, with Tony Diorio taking over the reins. Tony: “We got guitarists and drummers to fill in with the band, and I went to Capitol to negotiate a third album, Music. We also had renegotiated our publishing deal. I’m managing, and things are looking good…”
Frank’s comment that “Music” is probably his favorite BANG album is interesting, because it bears little or no resemblance to the band’s previous work. Notwithstanding a couple of tracks (namely ‘Don’t Need Nobody’ and ‘Exactly Who I Am’) in which guitarist Frankie Gilcken seemed to hanker for days of yore, Music was a compendium of tight, radio-friendly, three-minute pop songs, with jangling guitars and occasional piano/Mellotron fills matched to hook-laden melodies. Moreover, Frank Ferrara’s vocals had lost the wailing Ozzy/Plant inflections, to be replaced by an understated, more wistful approach.
Indeed, “Music” could be considered to be the great lost early ’70s power-pop album, operating in the same field as the likes of Big Star, Blue Ash and even the Raspberries, who contributed backing vocals to the careening ‘Must Be Love’. Despite a couple of misfires, the album is an attractive, cohesive work, with highlights including ‘Glad You’re Home’ (a song about returning Vietnam POWs), the irresistible ‘Page Of My Life’, ‘Little Boy Blue’ and a fabulously witty vignette about groupies, ‘Pearl And Her Ladies’.
As Frankie Gilcken explains, there was a reason for the sudden shift in BANG’s sound. “We’d just signed a deal with a publishing company that was run by Raspberries producer Jimmy Ienner. Both Jimmy and Capitol said that they wanted us to go in a similar direction to the Raspberries, which is why Music sounded the way it did. It was a chance for us to do something different, but even so, it wasn’t really what BANG was about.”
A success on its own terms, Music must nevertheless have been something of a shock to the band’s fan-base. “I love heavy metal, but I also love other things too”, says Tony. “By the time we got to the “Music” album, we thought that we probably lost part of our edge and got too light. Our musical tastes were expanding. We were just going through what every band goes through. We don’t say, ‘We need a heavy tune’. We start writing a tune, and it is whatever it is… we just take it wherever it goes.”
BANG suddenly came up against a brick wall. “Music” and the single ‘Must Be Love’ failed to make a mark, and they suddenly found gigs hard to come by. The reason for this would take a while to reach the band, but meanwhile, Capitol’s idea of a solution was to implore BANG to become just another pop group. “Capitol actually came to us and asked us to write a song like ‘I Am Woman’ by Helen Reddy, because that was a hit”, laughs Tony. “They said we needed to write a song like ‘I Am Woman’. Are you kidding!!”
In the end, BANG saw out their contract with Capitol with one or two non-album singles. Frank Ferrara: “The ‘lost’ singles were recorded at the end of our contract with Capitol. Even though ‘Slow Down’, ‘Feels Nice’ and ‘Make Me Pretty’ were great tunes, they died on the vine, getting no support at all from Capitol. Most BANG fans never heard those songs. By then the writing was on the wall: Capitol had lost interest in us, and in turn we were very unhappy with their lack of support.”
(Just to clarify this, there is actually only one post-Music Capitol single. A return to their earlier hard-rocking sound, ‘Feels Nice’ b/w ‘Slow Down’ was issued by the label on 16th August 1974 [catalog number Capitol 3816], but the haunting ‘Make Me Pretty’ – with a very similar feel to the Music album – didn’t make it to the shops. “It was never released”, confirms Tony. “A real shame, as it’s my favorite BANGsong…” (See Video)
Already at a low ebb, the final straw for BANG came when they discovered the real reason behind their difficulty in getting gigs. “Unbeknownst to us, we were being blackballing ”, says Tony. “We could not get a gig. No promoter would hire us. They were told, ‘If you hire BANG, you’ll never get another act from us.’ These guys controlled the whole market. As we finished the album, I was talking on the phone with this guy in California. We were gonna go out on tour with Van Morrison. I’m talking to him for weeks, and when it’s time to leave, the whole thing was a sham. It never existed – it was all part of a trick for us to think that we had this whole tour lined up – and it didn’t even exist. Wow! So, here we are back in Claymont, Delaware, with a new album, three singles time going by – and we can’t work. Nobody will hire us. It finally got to the point, where it was like, “Hey…”It’s over. Incomplete.. It ended.”
“We became so frustrated by all the bullshit that we decided to break up the band,” says Frank. “Frankie had the opportunity to join a band in Texas. I stayed home working on solo projects before moving to Texas, then LA. We moved back east in the mid-1980s, and ended up reforming BANG in 1996…”
With the original BANGtrio now back together, a new CD album, “Return To Zer0″, was recorded and released at the end of 1999, with the more metal-oriented “The Maze” (featuring new versions of old favorites ‘Love Sonnet’ and ‘Bow To The King’) following in 2004.
A lot of water has passed under the bridge since the boys first came together at the end of the ’60s, but, now they are back with a BANG (if you’ll pardon the pun). “The three of us realized that BANG was still a musical force,” says Frank Ferrara, “and even though a lot of years had passed, we were writing songs as if it were yesterday. The dream is alive, and with a renewed thirst and love of the music, we are resuming our quest. With drummer Matt Calvarese, and the Franks, the band will stay 3 piece and “Sound like the record” and webcast all it’s shows.
Remember, you don’t stop playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing…”
By Frank Ferrara, Frankie Gilcken and Tony Diorio with David Wells