Audio Autopsy, 1979: What Grounded The Starjets?
Marketed in 1979 as another in a glut of punkers, Northern Ireland's Starjets are really the biggest secret in Power Pop. And, they're still pluggin'! God Bless the Starjets!
Think musical mash-up of The Buzzcocks and The Rubinoos: Jackhammer urgency merging into memorable, instantly-hummable, melt-in-your-ear melodies and harmonies.
Even their website unabashedly proclaims, “Born in the days of Punk, we're Punk-ish, we're Pop-ish.” The perfect slogan if their sound was a delicious candy: “Two great tastes that taste great together!”
In a late ‘70s maelstrom of record companies scrambling to sign the latest thing in fast’n’dumb punk rockers—each more derivative than the one before—The Starjets got lost in the era’s safety-pin’n’gob-spittin’ musical mosh pit. But, they’re well worth unearthing—and digging—today.
Assembling the Starjets
The Starjets’ humble beginnings began in West Belfast, Northern Ireland, June 1976. Guitarists/vocalists Terry Sharpe and Paul Bowen joined bassist Sean Martin and drummer Liam L'Estrange to form the band that would, essentially, only exist for a scant four years and only one album (before changing their name for five minutes—to Tango Brigade—and releasing but one single, “Donegal”).
According to Colin Larkin’s august Encyclopedia of Popular Music (1992), “The group sported a mix of punk and mainstream pop influences. Early sets consisted of such 1960s pop standards as ‘Please Please Me’ by The Beatles and ‘Sugar, Sugar’ by The Archies.” The Starjets even tackled the 4-part harmony challenge of John Lennon’s 1963 Beatles composition, “This Boy,” at gigs.
The Beach Boys, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and America were also big influences on the band, according to Bowen in the 2021 interview he did for Beach Blanket Fort Bingo in February 2021 (see Bonus video at article’s end). “I just love American harmonies. I love the way American singers can just come together, whether it’s country singers or whatever,” Bowen continued.
So, even as the grating and sometimes hopelessly derivative sounds of punk were swarming in the mid- to late-’70s air like so many planes circling O’Hare, The Starjets, early on, were bravely wearing their against-the-tide musical influences on their (admittedly tight) white t-shirt sleeves. “Shhh, don’t tell the record company!” they might’ve been heard to say at the time.
It’s almost like, while being marketed to the pogoing, spikey orange hair crowd, they were keeping their deep, dark secret of 3-part harmonies and jangly chords a carefully protected secret.
But, those who heard God Bless the Starjets were certainly hearing chord changes and arrangements far more sophisticated than the one-dimensional punk parodies (SNL’s Candy Slice aka Gilda Radner, or Edge of Etiquette’s “I Hate You” come to mind) TV networks would dim-wittingly trot out on a regular basis, not to mention much of the “real,” recorded punk labels were scrambling to wrangle.
Launch and First Stage Orbit
“There was something happening there, and that there were bands we really should be seeing.”
The band, beginning to write more and more original material, saw many of the “covers-only” clubs in Belfast too confining, prompting a relocation to London. As guitarist Sharpe told Spit Records (UK) recently, “We had now started writing our own material, and coupled with the emerging punk scene in London, we decided there was something happening there, and that there were bands we really should be seeing.”
Their many gigs in and around London provided the perfect opportunity to be seen by label reps, and The ‘Jets eventually drew the attention of Epic Records (UK), a CBS/Sony Records affiliate. They felt the lure of Stiff Records at the time, harboring, as they were, “cool” artists at the time like Nick Lowe, Wreckless Eric, Rachel Sweet, and Elvis Costello. But, having just secured a manager, he led them to the more promisingly lucrative (and stable) Epic.
They were the first signing by CBS’s new UK head of A&R, Muff Winwood (older brother of Steve Winwood, and former bassist with The Spencer Davis Group), who saw the band in London’s legendary punk haven, the Hope ‘n’ Anchor Club.
Winwood had spent the previous decade as Island Records’ A&R chief following the disbanding of the Spencer Davis Group. First order of business was getting The Starjets into the studio to lay down a demo.
A handful of singles in 1979 were the first issues by Epic (including “Here She Comes Again,” released in November ‘78, but pulled off shelves by Epic almost immediately—more on that song later), before their debut, God Bless the Starjets hit the streets later in the year.
Another single released pre-album was “It Really Doesn’t Matter” b/w “Schooldays.” The A-side was not included on the album, a decision solely made by Epic, as was the entire track listing. Here’s “It Really Doesn’t Matter,” which sounds like a “Rock’n’Roll Love Letter”-era (1976) Bay City Rollers with an edge producer Phil Wainman didn’t dare afford them.
As with other Starjets songs, a killer guitar solo takes center stage, but here, the song is also punctuated by unusual-for-the-genre (punk, anyway, but not in power pop!) an actual whistle “solo,” a Farfisa organ, castanets, a cowbell, and even a Manilow-esque modulation 3/4 through(!). Who does that? Seriously, Epic, how could you drop the ball on these guys?:
It should be noted that Epic, loaded with big-name talent like parent monolith, CBS Records, had little time (or took little time) to do much to promote The Starjets, a fledgling act that needed the traditional aggressive “massaging” to get the radio play and retail traction necessary to break a nascent artist.
But, nothing more than a promotional, branded “The Starjets” ashtray was made available to record industry insiders and UK radio programmers. No promo t-shirts or posters. Epic was quick to jettison The Starjets from their roster shortly after the God Bless The Starjets album was released, but not before one more, final 45rpm gasp, “Shiraleo,” in 1980:
Dropping the Needle on a Few Tracks
The album was produced by David Batchelor (Sensational Alex Harvey Band, Oasis), Rhett Davies (whom Winwood knew from his Island days), and Pip Williams (Status Quo, Moody Blues).
The single which gained the most traction (in the UK, anyway) was the driving “War Stories,” which barely missed the Top 50, peaking at #51 on the UK Singles Chart.
At the time the Starjets’ album was released in the US (spring ‘79, and like in the UK, on Epic; more specifically the Epic boutique affiliate, Portrait Records), I was working retail records in Houston, and had free reign of the Columbia Records regional sales office in NW Houston (with credentials from my mid-’70s days in radio), and picked up my promo copy there. If CBS released a single off the album for the US market, I can’t recall. If they did, domestic radio greeted it/them with thunderous indifference.
Nevertheless, here’s “War Stories” (with lyrics celebrating the World War II comics prevalent in the early- to mid-20th century), the single that hit the Top 60 in the UK:
The album was on heavy rotation in my apartment upon release, so a couple of personal favorites follow. The album opener, “Schooldays” was, and is, a stand-out:
“Run With the Pack” has some searing guitar work, as well as high falsetto harmonies befitting the Beach Boys:
Leading off Side 2 (which, back in the day, I played repeatedly…the whole side) is the Paul Bowen shoulda-been-a-hit, “Smart Boys,” with endearingly cheeky lyrics like:
“Are you like us, have you got suss? We are the smart boys; we finished school, we are so cool, Starjets, we are number 1, smart boys we are number 1.”
Note the dramatic ‘50s-ish street-corner intro, replete with triumphant, harp-like rising arpeggio before chugging into a proud proclamation of teen supremacy, minus the West Side Story turf wars (these are a different, exultant kind of ‘Jets), or Rebel Without a Cause planetarium knife fight.
“‘Smart Boys’ refers to those of us aware that the way through our lives was not to take up arms…”
As it happens, Bowen’s lyrics have less to do with school pride (or anything else) as they do with the actual 30-year Northern Ireland conflict still in play at the time.
In a brief social media exchange in early December 2021, Bowen was kind enough to share his original intent for the song’s message at the time: “As for the lyrics, ‘Smart Boys’ refers to those of us aware that the way through our lives was not to take up arms for one of Northern Ireland’s paramilitary groups. I should have been more specific when I wrote those lyrics.”
Nevertheless, the Starjets, here, seem to flick a figurative spit-wad in the direction of Alice Cooper and his “School’s Out,” and other “school sucks” anthems, including (gasp!) The Ramones and their celebration of violent school immolation, “Rock’n’Roll High School” (“I hate the teachers and the principal; don’t wanna be taught to be no fool.”):
Why school boards across America didn’t pick this up for a PSA (public service announcement) at the time is beyond me. Imagine hearing this roar out of a car radio amid the disco drivel of Donna Summer, Village People, Anita Ward, and Gloria Gaynor, and the syrupy ballads of Barbra & Neil and Robert John!
War is the subject of another song, “War is Over,” with its exasperated declaration that “nobody won,” punctuated by a machine-gun snare riff:
“If it sells 10 million copies I’m going to buy a new house.”
Underscoring the influence The Starjets had on popster/punkers that followed, Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong covered “War Stories” during lockdown in Spring 2020. Apparently, according to BelfastMedia.com, Billie had weekly quarantine sessions, “No Fun Mondays,” that he recorded and Zoomed out to fans.
Speaking to the Andersonstown (West Belfast) News, Starjets guitarist Terry Sharpe said the song [was] released as a double A-side single with plans for a Spotify release and also a hard copy in June .
“We got an email from [Green Day’s] manager on the songwriting credits, Sharpe continued, “and that an album is going to come out, so if it sells 10 million copies I’m going to buy a new house,” he laughed. Billie’s arrangement is not just faithful to the original, it’s virtually identical, with only a few vocal choices he makes that differentiate.
“I think Billie Joe Armstrong did a really good version of ‘War Stories’; he really nailed it,” Sharpe said. “There are some really flattering comments on the YouTube post; their sound was what our sound was. We wrote the song over 40 years ago, and it hasn’t dated. A thing of beauty is a joy forever.
“It does put a bit of a spring in your step,” Sharpe concluded, “knowing that someone of that stature is doing the song. It gives it a real sense of validation. If and when Green Day come back to Belfast, I’m sure I’ll be able to blag my way in!”
Interestingly enough, shortly after Epic (UK) released, then scrapped, The Starjets’ first, pre-LP single, “Here She Comes Again” (mentioned above, with few copies known to still exist), former Kursaal Flyers lead singer, Paul Shuttleworth, released his cover (also on Epic!) in 1979:
The four original Starjets reformed in January 2019, and are performing live again. Their 2020 release, “Geordie Best,” hit the top spot in the UK Heritage Chart. The song was a paean to Belfast native and renowned soccer player, George (or Georgie) Best, who passed away in 2005 at 59.
Also from the upcoming album, Please God…Bless The Starjets, “Titanic Town” was released as a single, and similar to “Geordie Best,” was recorded during the 2020 pandemic shutdown, and went to No. 1 in the UK. Paul Bowen on lead vocal, with late 1977-era Starjets photos mixed with shots of present-day Belfast:
Recent releases also include “Diana ‘96,” written about Lady Diana a year before her untimely death, and “Legendary Girl,” a tribute to LGBTQ rights activist/journalist, Lyra McKee, who was murdered at age 29 in Derry (the second-largest city in Northern Ireland) in April 2019.
The Starjets’ Second Chapter
The Starjets have a new EP about to drop, appropriately titled “Four Martyrs.” They regularly update their band website, TheStarjets.com, which features recent live videos, available music downloads, photo gallery, and more.
Having sputtered off the pad prematurely in 1979, it’d be nice to see some well-deserved love finally come The Starjets’ way, even if it’s 43 years late.