Even among the eccentrics and characters of the Los Angeles rock scene in the 1960s and '70s, Kim Fowley stood out.
A gadfly, scenester, and attention-drawer, he flitted from role to role as a record producer, band manager, songwriter, and singer/musician who seemed to know everybody and found a niche with involvement in pop novelty songs like “Alley Oop,” “Papa Oom-Mow-Mow,” and “Nut Rocker.” But his biggest claim to fame was as creator/manager of the Runaways, the teen girl rock group that launched the careers of Joan Jett and Lita Ford.
But fewer people know about the band he put together before that, one that has since become a cult favorite. In 1973 when glam/pop rock was at its peak, Fowley wanted to create a West Coast equivalent of the New York Dolls (albeit without the cross-dressing). That band became the much-hyped (but short-lived) Hollywood Stars.
“Kim was awesome and hysterically funny. A barrel of monkeys! I couldn’t stop laughing around the guy. A lot of people didn’t like him in Hollywood because he would say things for shock value. And if you freaked him out, he would pretend that he knew karate!” laughs Ruben De Fuentes, lead guitarist then (and now) for the Hollywood Stars.
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“But he was also a true Svengali. He would take raw talent, whip it into shape, mold it, present it, and collect the royalties!”
De Fuentes even recalls the Runaways' first gig – opening for his band at the Whisky a Go Go. He remembers the then-trio of singer/guitarist Joan Jett, drummer Sandy West, and bassist Mickey Steele (who would later find fame as a member of the Bangles) were “scared shitless” and couldn’t really tune their own instruments—until de Fuentes showed them how.
“And even before that, when they first got in the van on the way to the first rehearsal, I realized they were all underage jailbait girls! I was laughing and said ‘Kim, are you out of your mind? How are you going to talk to their parents!” De Fuentes laughs. “And Joan Jett was looking at me really weird. I think she thought I was laughing at her.”
Today though, De Fuentes is both looking back and forward concerning the Hollywood Stars. First with the recent release of their “lost” 1976 record, titled Sound City (Burger Records) after the famed studio where it was recorded. And also their reactivation as a performing unit with an upcoming July 18 gig at that same Whisky a Go Go.
De Fuentes is thrilled that Sound City is finally seeing the light of day. “We had the masters from the producer, so we just decided to put it out. This is the album that we’re most proud of, with the earlier versions of many songs that we like better,” he says.
The career trajectory of the Hollywood Stars is a cinematic-worthy plot of its own full of missed opportunities, bad timing, ambition, and changing tastes. The original group put together by Fowley started with Terry Rae (drums) and included De Fuentes (lead guitar), Scott Phares (vocals), Mark Anthony (guitar/vocals), and Kevin Barnhill (bass). They began to gig regularly at the Sunset Strip’s hottest spots like the Whisky a Go Go and Troubadour before scoring a deal with Columbia Records.
Unfortunately, after that record was in the can, shifts in the label’s management and a controversy about studio billing led the Stars to be dropped. Though that record would eventually appear in 2013 as Shine Like a Radio: The Great Lost 1974 Album (it included the Stars’ version of “King of the Night Time World,” which KISS would later record for Destroyer). And the band broke up.
In 1976, a second lineup with De Fuentes, Anthony (now on lead vocals), Rae, Michael Rummans (bass), and Bobby Drier (percussion) coalesced. This is the lineup that made Sound City. But it was scrapped after they signed to Arista, though many of those songs were re-recorded with new material added. That became their 1977 debut (and finale) album, The Hollywood Stars. But popular tastes had shifted to punk and new wave in Los Angeles. And the band broke up.
Many of the song titles on Sound City (largely penned by Anthony) are telling in their titles: “Sunrise on Sunset,” “All the Kids on the Street,” “Too Hot to Handle,” “Make It to the Party,” and “Houdini of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” “Escape” was co-written with Alice Cooper, and the shock rocker’s own version would later appear on his Welcome to My Nightmare.
“I was always the harder rock guy than everybody else, and I wanted that big Marshall sound,” De Fuentes says. “It was the same era of guitarists as Mick Ronson [one of David Bowie’s Spiders from Mars] and Andy Scott [of Sweet]. I wanted clear guitars up front. And Sound City was a great studio to do that in.”
He insists that the Sunset Strip scene of clubs and bands and groupies at the time was even more wild that the later ‘80s era of bands like Mötley Crüe, Poison, and Guns N’ Roses.
“The ‘70s were so decadent that even the hair metal period years later couldn’t compare with it. It was literally Sodom and Gomorrah!” he recalls.
“If you were in a band with long hair, you could get laid by two or three girls a night. And then the Quaaludes! But it was all the pre-AIDS era. We used to go up to Hugh Hefner’s house and there would be orgies in the grotto!"
De Fuentes then put together a third lineup in 1978 with Rummans, Drier, Al Austin (vocals), and Bryce Mobray (guitar). They played with a harder rock sound, but once again quickly dissolved.
The band would stay dormant until November 2018, when the current lineup (De Fuentes, Rae, Phares, Rummans, and guitarist Chezz Monroe) played a well-received one-off show. They are currently recording an album of both new compositions and songs written by Mark Anthony, who died in the early 2000s. They also hope to tour.
Outside of the Hollywood Stars, De Fuentes has been part of several other bands (The Sloths, Firefly-1, the Equalizers, Secret Service Band) as well as a latter-day touring member of classic rock bands Steppenwolf and Blue Cheer. In fact, Blue Cheer singer/bassist Dickie Peterson, his wife, and daughter moved in with De Fuentes for a while.
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“Playing with Blue Cheer was something else. Those guys didn’t take any prisoners. And they were loud. So loud. I think they were really ahead of their time and helped invent heavy metal,” he says. “Dickie was a true innovator. Black Sabbath gets the credit, but Blue Cheer were before them. If you think Spinal Tap had one amp that went to 11, Blue Cheer had six of them!”
But for now, the guitarist has only Stars in his eyes. And he hopes that the fourth time might just be the charm.
“The interest in this band refuses to die, which is interesting because we never had a hit record, were relegated to the West Coast, and never got too far out on tour,” he sums up. “But writers keep mentioning us and [fans] keep talking about us. For some reason, we strike some fond memories in their hearts.”