‘Tis the season: Wistfully wincing at Angel’s simplistic and insipid “Winter Song”

By on December 11, 2015

Each year, as the weather here in Southern California finally begins to get cold enough that I will at least consider wearing a jacket in the cool mornings and evenings, I inevitably begin to hear winter solstice-y themed songs of one type or another, on mixtapes or posted on the interwebs.

There’s one in particular that, whenever I hear it — although I wistfully wince every time I hear its simplistic, insipid lyrics, which begin “Winter is here, and it’s cold this time of year…” — I get instantly transported back to the year 1977. I’m talkin’ about Casablanca Records rock band Angel’s largely unremarkable and benignly-titled “Winter Song.”

The non-hot tub time machine teleportation back to my hormone-raging teenage youth isn’t due to any particular wistful feelings for Angel’s seasonal song, but for the simple fact that I popped my rock ‘n’ roll writing cherry to the virginal-looking band, so to speak: they were the very first group to ever grant me an in-person interview, for my high school newspaper, the Lamplighter, which started me off wanting to be what was then charitably called a rock critic.

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Now, we all have to start somewhere, of course, those of us who have pursued any kind of passionate writing about music — even those of us who continue to do so while leading on our impoverished lives in penury — and for me, the starting point down that path was Angel, a band that I also must admit I have no particular nostalgic affinity for other than they were my first.

That being said, I certainly know that Angel do continue to have a huge cult following to this day, and they may have their fans out there who might be reading this and thinking just how cool it would have been to interview the band in the winter of ’77, so I don’t want to be too unkind or to disrespectful here: it is a nice little memory, being able to say you interviewed Angel in their prime, the 70s.

If  you’ll indulge me a little and allow me to drop the standard plural first person perspective we typically use here on Night Flight, I’ll tell you all about it.

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First, a little background about myself: I’d already been writing for my school newspapers since junior high, and by the late autumn of ’77, when this interview was set up, I was a senior at Magnolia High in Anaheim, California, famously described by sci-fi author Philip K. Dick in his novel A Scanner Darkly this way:

“Life in Anaheim, California, was a commercial for itself, endlessly replayed. Nothing changed; it just spread out farther and farther in the form of neon ooze.”

Mr. Dick has it exactly right here about my hometown, the home to Disneyland but otherwise it seems to have been a largely unremarkable sprawling Orange County city of no other obvious distinction. There was too much neon in the Anaheim ooze for my tastes, I knew that even then, and the city just kept spreading out and oozing all over the place, blurring right into its neighboring suburban cities, and so I’ve never felt a particular connection to living there the way that some people do when they think back fondly about the town or city where they grew up.

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Music was already a huge part of my life by this time, though, the same for me just like it was for nearly everyone else I knew, really. Listening to music was providing an escape from the daily drag of living with my parents, and I’d already begun collecting LPs and was spending a lot of my free time at home wearing headphones and zoning out on a yellow vinyl couch while listening to my Aerosmith or Led Zeppelin or Cheap Trick albums, kind of like that scene in Over The Edge.

Earlier in the summer of that year, on August 27, 1977, I’d gone to my first big outdoor rock concert, at Anaheim Stadium, where I spent an afternoon –and an evening — getting high with my summer girlfriend Janice Phillips, laughing a lot and watching and listening to the Motor City Madman Ted Nugent, who swung out over the stage on a rope like a bare-chested Tarzan, clad in just a loincloth and knee-high fur-topped laced-up suede boots, probably made from deer skin from some poor buck he’d strangled to death with his own hands.

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I remember Nugent’s voice booming out over the crowd, “We’re gonna have to come out here more often, I love looking out there and seeing all that Southern California tanned pussy,” and then asking if we loved “wang dang sweet poontang” as much as he did, to which my girlfriend raised her fist in the air and gave a loudly affirmative and resolute “Whoo!” Lynyrd Skynyrd was the other headliner that day, and remember… this was just a few months before the horrible plane crash in October 1977 that killed Skynyrd’s lead singer Ronnie Van Zant, guitarist Steve Gaines, his sister Cassie, an assistant road manager and the pilot and co-pilot.

I also remember I was always carrying around the latest copy of Circus or Creem or Rolling Stone, or half a dozen others magazines and music newspapers (mostly the glossies, though), and as I said above, I’d already been thinking that maybe I’d pursue being a rock critic. If you’ve seen the movie Almost Famous, well, my story was sorta like that, I guess, without, you know, getting to hang out with any of the foxy groupies or the valued mentoring from a wizened Lester Bangs.

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I’d also started working at a Licorice Pizza record store in November ’77 — they’d hired me as part-time Christmas help but kept me on after the holiday season came and went, and I ended up working at that store until they closed it, which was sometime in 1981 — and my music tastes really started to change, almost immediately, as I was being exposed to a lot of music at work that just wasn’t being played on the FM radio stations I listened to at the time — we’re talkin’ new wave and punk bands, a lot of British artists — and I remember a lot of this new music sure didn’t go over so well with the other kids at my high school.

I found this out because I was also an occasional lunch-time deejay at my high school’s radio station, KMHS, and some of the students would be upset about some of the records I’d played for them over the radio station, which you could hear all over the quad areas of the campus. They’d write these negative letters of complaint to the school newspaper, which is where, of course, I was then put in an awkward position of having to not only publish them but also personally defend my music taste. I also remember an article published in possibly the same issue of the Lamplighter which carried a warning headline that, if memory serves, said “Punk Rock is Growing Like A Fungus in America.”

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At the time, Angel were just then beginning to get noticed in the rock magazines I was reading, and I’d liked Angel’s earlier albums, which had a heavier sound, a more prog-rock based with spacier synth elements. A youth minister I knew from church (yes, I went to church back then) had given me the band’s eponymous debut album after he’d mistakenly purchased it for himself thinking it was Christian Rock, and he knew I loved music so I became its next owner.

Have a listen to “The Tower” from their first album:

By ’77, I wasn’t as hot on their latest album at the time, though, On Earth as It Is In Heaven, which was the first of their releases to feature their amazing new ambigrammatic logo — conceived by graphic designer Bob Petrick — which read the same when inverted as it did when viewed right-side-up.

The album had been produced by the legendary Eddie Kramer, and I knew his name from KISS’s Alive! album, and from him previously working with Jimi Hendrix, among others, and I’m not even really sure I understood the importance of having Kramer behind the boards on an Angel album, not like I do now, mainly because I was so disappointed in the results.

Angel,  by album number three, had begun to veer away from their earlier more Dungeons and Dragons-inspired, heavier keyboard-and-synth/guitar sound (lots of interplay onstage and on the deeper LP cuts — check out the clip of “Feelin’ Right”), and it’s interesting to note that their On Earth album was the only one recorded in an actual castle, high up in the Hollywood Hills, even utilizing the acoustical effects of a tall, circular little room that the band dubbed the “Rapunzel” room which went all the way to the top of the castle.

The songs, you see, were getting shorter and sweeter, and I remember my first pang of disappointment actually came when I’d bought their On Earth album and realized that the Angel I had known from the eponymous debut (1975) and their follow-up, Helluva Band (1976), were evolving, and not in a direction I was likely to follow, as I wasn’t into any kind of commercial glammy bubblegum rock at the time, not during my high school hessian rock days, no sirree.

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I realize now that this overt move toward a poppier sound was probably at the insistence of their record label Casablanca that they needed to develop a more commercial sound that would start translating into record sales. I was too young to know or ascertain for myself if the band’s new direction was being forced on them in a desperate attempt to recoup the money that Casablanca’s Neil Bogart (or their band management, perhaps, or both) had invested in the group, or if it was just due to the band’s own desire to change their direction.

I’ve since learned that record companies back then would start to get a little concerned by album number three if there weren’t any radio hits they could promote, and that focus on giving them a hit single would forever alter a band like Angel’s original direction as they attempted to focus on Top 40 AM radio fodder while also trying to maintain a decidedly FM rock structure in their longer album tracks. They did have some minor success with “That Magic Touch”, a song that reached #77 on Billboard‘s Hot 100 in 1977 and stayed on the chart for 6 weeks.

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Most of what I read in the rock rags at the time was the fact that their record label Casablanca were keen to keep promoting them as a kind of antithesis to their much more popular band KISS. Angel had their white stage costumes — the white gloves and shawls and scarves and such — and all the angelic imagery in their marketing, of course, but the focus of most of the articles I’d read was usually not on their albums, or even any of their songs, but on their kickass live show, which rivaled something you might be able see in later decades from the big Las Vegas jaw-dropping illusionists in those big shows on the Strip.

In fact, it was supposedly Johnny Gaughn, who is today known for creating some of professional magic’s most celebrated stage illusions — for magicians like David Copperfield, Ricky Jay, David Blaine, Harry Blackstone Jr., and Siegfried & Roy, to name just a few — was hired to create something a bit special for Angel, which involved the band’s crew stacking what appeared to be empty plexiglass boxes on top of each other onstage, from which each member of the band would miraculously appear from seemingly from out of nowhere, all while being introduced by a huge Angel logo which would hover above the stage, and speak to the audience. I learned later was the Archangel Gabriel summoning his angels unto him and urging them all to go to Earth to bring forth the music of Heaven.

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(Sidebar: In this recent and interesting interview with rock journo Ken Sharp, guitarist Punky Meadows contradicts this, saying that it was magician Doug Henning who designed their magic tricks. He also says that he animated 11-foot-tall “A” logo was designed by Jeremy Railton, who worked for the TOBY organization. Meadows says that they filmed the band’s junior manager, Warren Entner, then rear-projected him talking, just like the holograms used in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland. It’s a great interview, titled “We Used To Trash Hotel Rooms With Playboy Bunnies…”, and well worth your time if you’re wanting to dig deeper into Angel).

There were other moments during their live show that were memorable, and then they would apparently disappear at the end of the show too, but at the time of our interview, I’d never seen them in concert before, and had only read about what happened onstage in Circus.

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Probably the band’s biggest achievement to date — again, late ’77 — was that Angel had just been voted Best New Group of the year in the Circus magazine annual readers poll, coming out ahead of  Boston (who had a hugely successful debut album that year), Heart and others that have truly stood the test of time and had what seems to have been more resilient careers, while Angel sorta faded away into the mists of time. The change in their sound seemed to be having the opposite effect on most of their fans from how I’d felt, in that they were becoming more and more popular all the time, and I remember saying to anyone who didn’t know them and would listen to me spouting off like some kind of Angel expert: “Ah, you should hear their first album.”

I wrote to all of them, though, requesting an interview, but Angel were the only band to ever write back to me to say they’d sit down and chat with me for my little high school newspaper, and honestly, I was pretty excited about it at the same time even as I was a little disappointed that no one else had bothered to respond.

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Based on the publication date on the piece I wrote — curiously headlined “On Cloud Nine With ‘Angel'”, December 16, 1977 — it seems that our interview must have been set up in the last weeks of November or perhaps early December. I got my friend Craig Barker to drive us up to L.A. and then sit with me in the interview. I don’t think he knew anything about the band, and he probably didn’t care, and really only did it as a favor to me. I’d just turned seventeen in October, and had only been driving for about a year, so maybe driving fifty miles to L.A. was a big deal, I don’t know or remember, maybe I felt that I needed to have someone go with me.

The interview was held in the penthouse office of their manager David Joseph of TOBY management, who had offices at the top of a building which I believe was on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills, although I could be wrong about that. I remember walking out of the elevator and being greeted by the amiable Australian-born Joseph, who then brought me into this huge office he had and he introduced me to the band members one by one: guitarist Punky Meadows, vocalist Frank DiMino, keyboardist Gregg Giuffria, drummer Barry Brandt and… wait, who’s this? A new member of the band: bassist Felix Robinson, who had apparently replaced original bassist Mickie Jones that summer. It was the first I’d heard of it.

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First impressions: they were all wearing designer jeans and platform shoes, and most of them were wearing expensive-looking leather jackets. I remember that Punky Meadows’s hair had a blue-black sheen to it that night, and it was the first time I’d really ever seen a man’s hair glistening in the light like that (and I didn’t know he had some kind of endorsement deal with a hairspray company at the time, or I might have asked him about it). When I shook Punky’s hand, I took notice of his extremely long fingers and the fact that his hand was softer than any girl’s hand I’d held up to that point.

Frank DiMino was much smaller than I’d imagined, and he had an easy smile. Gregg Guiffria’s hair was just incredible, the longest mane I’d ever seen on a woman or man up to that point. Barry Brandt seemed shy, or stoned — hell, they could have all been on drugs, I had very little experience with that at the time, and I wouldn’t have known. Maybe he was just awkward during interviews.

All of them were nicer to me than I’d expected they’d be — I was just a high school kid, and wasn’t expecting them to be happy about doing an interview for my stupid high school newspaper — and so it was a little surprising to me how we settled in and I hit “record” on the little Panasonic tape recorder I’d brought with me.

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I remember one of the first things I saw in the room was an oversized painting sitting on an easel, right by the doorway, and I was told it was going to be the cover of their upcoming album, White Hot, which they’d just finished mastering. It might have been the original used for the cover portrait, and, honestly, I remember thinking to myself, oh shit, it’s gotten way worse.

The painting — by artist David MacMaken — had the band looking almost cartoonishly feminine and androgynous, and nothing like they did that night in their manager’s office. It was as if the painting were intended for the cover of fantastical bodice ripper romance novel, one of those books you might see with Fabio and some pirate wench or something, but this time there were these demented-looking devil-faced people in the bottom half of the photo (and on the back of the LP cover) turning away from the band while they burned “white hot” at the stake, their luminescent white gowns slipping down to show they were actually Mattel Ken Dolls below the waist. I hated it then, and still do.

I remember the band referring to the painting at least once or twice and all of them saying at least once how they loved the cover art, and how it was a new direction for them, not using an actual band photo, but every time I look at it, I’m reminded of how they seemed to be a band that were going to go their own direction even at the cost of losing some of their fanbase, which included me.

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Overall, I remember they all joked around a lot, especially Punky Meadows, who I remember was pretty quick-witted, and a real joker. He didn’t want to take any question seriously. It was explained rather curtly to me that Mickie Jones had left the band (read: asked to leave) and Punky even joked that he’d had a sex-change, so I realized it wasn’t a topic I should focus on for too long, not with the new bassist sitting right there (add to this the fact that Jones had actually taken out a lawsuit against the band for being dropped and you realize how it was a topic best avoided).

I remember learning that they’d been on tour for most of the year, including their first trip over to tour Japan (the only time they’d ever play shows outside North America, back in the day), and they’d gone into the studio with producer Eddie Leonetti in October, and the new album was due to come out early in the new year, Casablanca’s first release for 1978.

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It was at this point I think that they asked if I wanted to hear their new single, “Winter Song” — it hadn’t yet been released as a single, but it was planned to be included on their new album, and so I was interested to hear what they were doing. I remember their manager even asked me to turn off my little tape recorder as it started playing, but I think it was DiMino who spoke up then and said it would be okay to leave it on, recording the song as I’d been recording the interview, he didn’t think I wasn’t going to bootleg it before its release.

Honestly, I remember being more than a little underwhelmed and unimpressed at what I was hearing, and I remember I tried not to show on my face any disappointment that it wasn’t anything like the tracks of theirs that I actually did like. To me, “Winter Song” — with the addition of thirty-six young men comprising the California Boys Choir — reeked of desperation, sounding to my teenage ears like some kind of obvious cash-in to try to get radio stations to play at least one of their songs, even one as atypical as this.

I learned years later that they’d actually written (and sung it) first as “The Christmas Song”, and it was intended to only be a promo single for radio stations, a kind of “thank you” to their fans and a wish for a happy Christmas, something that hadn’t really been done a lot since the Sixties, back when the Beatles had recorded their fan club Christmas singles and Phil Spector was putting out his Christmas album.

Casablanca heard “The Christmas Song,” however, and decided it needed to be on the new album (they’d have to remove another song to make room for it), and they were going to rush-release it as the first single, but they also decided that they wanted it to be more of a winter solstice-y song, and I’m not sure, but I think the band, and their manager David Joseph, may have actually been trying to figure out how I might react to it as a way to gauge its potential. If I’d known then what I know now, I’d probably have just been honest and told them how I felt when they asked me about it, but I think I probably tapped my foot along to it and pretended to like it at the time.

When White Hot was released in January 1978, it gave Angel their best-selling album, and their only Top 50 hit, a cover of the Young Rascals’s minor hit “Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart Anymore,” which went to #44 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart that same year, where it charted for eight weeks.

There’s an interesting story about yet another cover version that Angel apparently recorded for release on White Hot, and according to a 2008 issue of Guitar World magazine, in the article celebrating the 30th Anniversary of the release of Van Halen’s debut album (p. 58),

“Eddie Van Halen would soon make one more screw up, only this one wouldn’t go down so well. With the album release still moths away from release, he went to the Rainbow Bar & Grill and hung out with the members of a band called Angel. As alcohol flowed, drummer Barry Brandt began to brag about the forthcoming Angel record. Eddie, flush with pride over the album he just cut, responded in kind. When the party moved to Brandt’s house, Eddie, hell bent on blowing every one’s mind, put on a tape of  Van Halen - and jaws were dropped. Eddie thought nothing of it ~ for weeks he had been playing the tape for his friends, but when he got a call from furious producer Ted Templeman, informing him that Angel were in a studio frantically recording a version of “You Really Got Me” with the intention of beating Van Halen to the punch, he realized the magnitude of his mistake. As a consequence, Warner Bros. had no choice but to rush release Van Halen’s version of the song. ( It should be noted that Angel would soon join Piper in the Oblivion bins at the record shops.) “

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Overall, I thought the interview went pretty well, even though I had no real frame of reference for that at the time (I thought interviews always went well, but trust me, they don’t!). Craig took a couple of photos of me with the band (both of them were published with the article I wrote, which and I shook their soft hands again and departed, and the article came out a few weeks later as I recall, and for a time most of my friends who had heard they band’s new music were swift with their pronouncements that they sucked now, something I didn’t quite disagree with.

Honestly, I think I was embarrassed to have made such a big deal about them in the school paper and was annoyed when anyone at school ever brought it up and reminded me, and then I hid it all away for many, many years until it was revealed to me that actually sitting down and interviewing a band like Angel for a high school newspaper was something that was worth mentioning because there were people who might be interested. And so, I mention it here for those of you still reading this.

There’s going to be other opportunities here on Night Flight to discuss more in detail about Angel — including the band’s appearance in the movie Foxes, for instance, which they filmed at the end of 1978, and Punky Meadows’s connection to Frank Zappa — but for now, I just wanted to provide some of the details of my first interview for this post and reminisce a little about the band that I am actually happy I got a chance to meet when I was still young enough to appreciate it.

In the interview following their appearance on “American Bandstand,” host Dick Clark asks the band some of the same questions I’d asked them, about like how they liked being compared to KISS, etc.

Incidentally, I did end up seeing Angel’s live show, nearly six months later, on June 5th, 1978, at Long Beach Arena, where the band headlined on a bill that also featured Head East and The Godz; this apparently was an infamous show in which Angel’s band members fought with the venue’s security team, and were then escorted to their dressing room by members of the Casablanca band The Godz afterwards in case there was going to be further trouble.

I remember being particularly impressed by the giant hologram Angel face logo thing when it began speaking to the audience…a stentorian voice booming out over the venue, and saying something like “On earth as it is in heaven… “ but I also remember being a little stoned at the time too and probably wouldn’t have thought it was all that cool had I not been a little bent at the time.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.