Arizona in the early 90’s generally is known for jangly rock along the lines of the Gin Blossoms, Refreshments, Dead Hot Workshop, Piersons, and Pistoleros. That wasn’t all Arizona had to offer though as the Meat Puppets would see a surge in popularity after being covered by Nirvana, and other bands like Jesus Chrysler Supercar brought in the grunge and 90’s rock elements in their own ways. In addition, N17 (November 17) found themselves signed to Slip Disc Records. Amidst this musical garden of excellence, the Beat Angels incorporated glam, rock, punk, and a ton of fun in their music that equally set them apart from the “popular” Arizona sound. People often say that timing is everything, and I believe that is very much the case of what went wrong for these guys. If they had been on either coast playing these songs in the mid to late 80’s, I believe they would have been signed and done very well on a national level. They had the songs, the live show, the image, and the charisma to find stardom. Check out the writing credits for ‘Sideshow’ on Alice Cooper’s ‘The Last Temptation’ album, and you will find a Beat Angels connection. Much the same could be said for DGeneration at the time who embraced more punk than glam but found themselves marketed all wrong in my opinion since punk was becoming all the rage at the time. Let’s get this back on the Beat Angels though, and the legacy they left through their two official albums of the time and the songs that snuck out afterwards.
The Beat Angels likely came to my attention via a co-worker who was a huge fan of the band, and we shared a lot of favorite bands so it was only natural that I would find my way to shows by the Beat Angels. The live shows were nothing short of amazing with the raw edge of the band always present along with the vocal harmonies that made every song a ‘raise your glass and sing along’ song. I saw them at many places in the Phoenix area with Hollywood Alley in Mesa probably being my favorite venue to see them. As a side note, I was always extremely partial to Hollywood Alley as the sound there was amazing, and I saw the likes of Tyla (Dogs D’amour), Electric Frankenstein, and plenty of other bands there too. Back to our topic though, the Beat Angels were a blend of visual styles with each member bringing their own identity to the band. The photo from Brian Smith (vocals) Facebook page providers an idea of what you would see when they took the stage each night.
The band released two albums independently on the Arizona based Epiphany Records, who I will note also released tremendous albums by the Refreshments and the Piersons that continue to be played by me. Both of the Beat Angels’ albums were produced by Gilby Clarke who should really need no introduction from his time with Candy, Kill for Thrills, GN’R, and solo work amongst others. The debut ‘Unhappy Hour’ has some rougher edges overall in the production which serves the band well, even if it does not get to the rawness of their live show. The straight ahead power pop rock of ‘Hung Over With Jenny’ serves as a great introduction. Brian Smith’s vocals have an identity all their own and fit the music perfectly. They are immediately accessible, easy to understand, and make you think you can sing as well as him…. until you try and fail miserably. This song also lets the listener know something else right away; these songs are going to tell stories that paint the picture and deliver a narrative. It is a gift Smith has continued to use today as an author. Consider the bridge which goes ‘Work is always the curse of the drinkin classes she said. Midnight and it’s the end of the ball. Little Cinderella’s gotta crawl back in her bottle.’ Where awesome bands like the Dogs D’amour/ Tyla might lyrically feel grittier and more Bukowski influenced, Smith had a more romantic and sentimental tone, even when everything might be going wrong for the character in the song.
‘Grow Up’ breaks down the door while never losing its pop edge in the chorus where you suspect it could have been used in an edgy Saturday morning cartoon back in the day. The sentiment of all the realities of being a grown up leave us wanting to retain our youth and the joys that come with it. Smith again paints a character portrait on ‘The Most Beautiful Loser in Town’ which features an addictive pre-chorus that unloads into a massive hook in the chorus. I always thought this should have been the song featured on a local compilation album (‘Buzz’) back around that time as it is simply perfect. The band kept the adrenalin up with ‘Idiot Train’ being one of my live favorites. Jon Norwood’s (RIP) drums give way to a beautiful melody that combines a quiet verse with an upbeat tempo and a slightly jagged chorus. They then completely turned the tables with the acoustic rock based ‘Too Much Jazz’ being one of those songs that, for me, hits as hard as ‘Motorcycle Emptiness’ does for many Manic Street Preachers’ fans. Smith again paints the scene with his lyrics perfectly with the opening line of ‘shopping malls only bring you down; they’re the last cathedrals in town’ highlighting how much has changed over the years with the shopping malls slowly fading into memory as people shift to staying home and buying everything through the glow of their phones and tablets.
Getting past the halfway point of the album with the glam infused ‘Scaredy Cat’ keeping the album in classic territory with the tasteful backing vocals taking the chorus to a different level. Another song that would have made a great single follows in ‘I Love You Sometimes.’ The guitar work of Keith Jackson and Michael Brooks is awesome across the albums as they give each song everything it needs without going overboard. This song can inspire some air guitar workouts where you find yourself also providing karaoke backing vocals at the same time. ‘Name Your Trash’ might not hit me quite the same way all these years later as I seem to remember it was an early favorite from the album. It is a very nice mash up of power infused pop and glam.
I would consider ‘She’s a Setting Sun’ an exceptional ballad that really doesn’t hit any of the formulas of the day. The guitar at the beginning almost finds a bit of a twang as everything comes down to acoustic guitar and vocals for the first verse before everyone comes back through the chorus. They stay far wide of the power ballad label with this one really feeling more like a mellower song with a really nice brief guitar solo. The driving beat of ‘Jaded’ increases the tempo again but doesn’t connect with me nearly as much as the rest of the album. Closing song on the debut ‘Don’t Kiss Me’ holds the distinction of being the song that was featured on the local compilation I mentioned earlier, which has always been odd to me. At under two minutes, the song carries a bit more swagger and punk attitude. I don’t think the studio version hits nearly the same as it did live though. The chorus is really simple which I thought put it at odds with a lot of the other songs they could have used. It works fairly well as the album closer and is not one to be skipped even if it is not at the standard of the live show.
The band stayed with Epiphany Records (who would soon fade away) for album number two which simply continued the magic. The rocking ‘Snot’ carries with it a bit more venom than their debut album. The album carries a slightly more live feel than the debut, and the release party for this album was an incredible show. Ironically, the opener is probably the one I skip if I am pressed for time. The staccato guitar that opens ‘You’re a Wreck’ gives way to another catchy song that does a fine job of setting the stage for the album and everything that follows. Something funny happens when you listen to this album the first few times, there is a good chance that you will really love the first two songs and think the band has done a great job of building on their debut. What you don’t realize yet though is that this album is only getting ready to explode into one of the most wonderful things you will ever hear.
‘My Glum Sugar-Plum’ starts the trip into the stratosphere with the opening line being ‘She looked like Marianne Faithful in 1965; a pop-tart all gin and cigarettes, lips and heaven.’ The chorus here is huge and gets everyone quickly singing along. In some universe, this song is as huge as other power pop masterpieces. The brief acoustic guitar outro takes us into ‘Glitter Girl’ where the band again find the perfect sweet spot to maximize the melody and give it some rock at the same time. The rhythm work of Tommy Caradonna (bass) and Frankie Hanyak (drums) is simply magical. The chorus slices deep into your memory with each listen. They then follow it up with the incredible ‘Saturday Punks’ which hits hard and again comes with a monster chorus that in part features this opening line ‘Saturday punks, dumber than junk, don’t even know about Strummer and Jones.’ The guitar work of Jackson and Brooks again getting plenty of space to shine. It ends the first half of the album on an incredible high.
Remarkably, the band continue to push the envelope even higher with the classic ‘Crashing Back to Her.’ This is catchier than the plague in the dark ages and a magical elixir that immediately puts a smile on your face as you sing every word. The tempo is quick but still contains a poppiness that shines on the album. ‘Keep It Up’ is an interesting one for me as I remember someone telling me that it would be their huge breakthrough hit. I am thankful that it didn’t as I don’t know if I would appreciate it as much today if it had been played nonstop back in 1997. The hook is simple and designed for everyone to sing which runs the risk of it feeling repetitive. Within the space of the album though, it feels magical and one I look forward to hearing. I’m sure everyone has similar experiences with songs that they initially loved before it was oversaturated on the radio and television. One of mine would be ‘No Rain’ by Blind Melon which I loved within the context of their debut, but I struggle to play it much now.
‘Crashing Back to Her’ might be my favorite song by the Beat Angels which probably means I don’t need to say much about it based on the praise I have heaped on the other songs. It has seemingly collected every nuance of the band and created this amazing 4 minute flawless burst. Another live favorite follows with ‘Hey Little Peep-Show’ keeping the rock swaggering with a pre-chorus that could have been the hook leading into an even bigger chorus. ‘Cinnamon Says’ is the last listed track on the album and would have been an awesome closer on its own as it features a catchy guitar riff with the song only getting more and more addictive as it goes. The band then threw in an unlisted cover of ‘Celebrate Summer’ by T.Rex, which fits the album perfectly.
That was sadly where things disappeared in terms of releases, outside of ‘Liquor Pig Boyfriend’ appearing on one of the ‘Ultra Under Trash on Demand’ compilations put together by Jeff Dahl. I highly suggest you track down those compilations by the way as there are some amazing artists that need to be heard. There was a third Beat Angels album though that was recorded and fell into the darkness of time. Some of these songs were released on the limited edition best of ‘Holy Mother of Christ! It’s the Beat Angels.’ This third album called ‘Let It Beat’ found the group continuing to evolve musically with the opening ‘Girl Walking Backwards’ feeling contemporary and classic at the same time. It could have likely earned a lot of college radio play with its melodic chorus begging to be sung and the guitar popping out of the speaker. The pace increases with ‘She Shoots Starlight’ feeling like something from ‘Unhappy Hour’ with its catchy chorus and guitar licks both leaving their hooks in the listener.
Brian Smith kept spinning creative lyrics that allowed the likes of ‘She Shoots Starlight’ to sit comfortably next to ’24 Hour Porn Star Shine.’ The melodies remained huge with the band maintaining a rocking vibe that still recalled the influences from their debut while perhaps not being quite as gritty at times. Please make no mistake though, this would have in no way been a sell-out album. This was a band that was fully realizing the diversity they could offer while always still sounding like the Beat Angels. With that in mind, ‘Liquor Pig Boyfriend’ could have been written and recorded at any point in the band’s life. The rocking gutter glitter glam giving way to an easy to sing hook and beat that will make you want to hop around the room. ‘Gutter Snobs’ ends the first half of the album with a guitar hook that reminds me of something Andy McCoy might have done post Hanoi Rocks in the 80’s. The chorus here relaxes the backing vocals with the guitar lick being the hook that stays with me after repeated listens.
Kicking off the back half of the album is the politely titled ‘Whorehouse Priest,’ which is another of my favorites by the band. Some tasty backing vocals in the background provide the song even more texture and really showcase that the mainstream could have started phasing in the Beat Angels alongside the Marvelous 3 and other turn of the century rockers. ‘Misery Becomes You’ starts gently before exploding into a straight forward rocker that is an enjoyable album track for me but has not been one I seek out to play on its own.
The acoustic based ‘Little One’ again highlights that the band was not interested in writing straight forward ballads. This feels much more like an acoustic based song from the 70’s with its melodies flying out of the speakers and lifting birds into the air. The band then crank the amps back up for ‘Stay With Me.’ The band lay down an addictive chorus that you want to hear again and again. This remains one of the songs that sadly will never be heard by people and quite honestly feels like discovering a diamond in a mine that was closed. Wrapping up the album is a cover of ‘Terminal Love’ which fits perfectly on the album. I might have made another song the closer, but that seems like useless complaining when this album was never officially released.
Three albums by a band that never had an opportunity to release an album for a major or well known independent record company that should have catapulted them into the spotlight. The packaging on ‘Unhappy Hour’ and ‘Red Badge of Discourage’ are top notch as well so I highly recommend tracking down physical copies of those albums. These albums have remained in my rotation for over 20 years, and I do not see that changing anytime soon. The release of the best of and discovering the third album several years ago were a blessing as I got to hear even more by these guys. If you know these albums, spend some time spinning them and enjoying these songs all over again. If you don’t know them, start searching for them and enjoy some sonic pleasure that needs to be experienced.
Author: Gerald Stansbury