Hang On For Your Life:
The Van Mclain Interview
Shooting Star guitarist Van Mclain talks about popularity gain, opportunities lost, and the giving away of his band's latest album
The story of the band Shooting Star is a frustrating tale of music business Murphy's Law. Whatever could go wrong did go wrong and Van Mclain and the rest of Shooting Star spent their formative years watching stardom slither away from them. This is also a story that involves some of the biggest, most successful names in the industry. It started with Mclain getting signed by Clive Davis with a song he wrote called "Take The Money And Run". He went into the studio to record and two weeks later Steve Miller released a huge hit called.... you guessed it, "Take The Money And Run". Because of Miller's success with the song title, Mclain's deal fell apart.
Mclain forms Shooting Star, gets signed to Virgin Records, and releases the self-titled debut, which comes complete with a lush production from Elton John producer Gus Dudgeon and a number one AOR radio hit in "Last Chance". Virgin pisses off Atlantic Records, who was doing distribution for them at that time, and the record is held from store shelves for six months. What should have sold hundreds of thousands at a minimum had to settle for residual, after-the-fact sales.
Shooting Star, being the resilient juggernaut that it is, returned with Hang On For Your Life, a high energy set that found the band climbing the charts. The album sold around 200,000 copies, spent 30 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, and yielded four successful radio singles. It was a time of success, but one has to wonder if the band wasn't trampled under the foot of a monster named MTV. The network made its debut on August 1, 1981, just as Hang On For Your Life was starting to gain momentum. At that time, every radio hit was accompanied by a music video, something Shooting Star did not have for any of their songs. Moderate success was achieved, but massive success remained elusive.
"We’d been slugging away at this for ten years, through about five different record deals, four sets of managers, three crooked lawyers, two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree. I’d had enough."
Fast forward to 1985. The band signs with Geffen to record the album Silent Scream with elite A&R guy, John Kalodner, and veteran producer Ron Nevison. Anticipating this being "the one," Kalodner chooses ten songs from a cache of 50 that he demands from the band. The first single, "Summer Sun," gets all kinds of radio attention and it appears that this really is going to be the breakthrough release - then it happens. David Geffen gets into a personal fight with Don Henley, cuts off all promotion funding, radio drops "Summer Sun" and any future singles - game over.
Singer and key songwriter Gary West had had enough heartache and permanently halted his entire music career after the Silent Scream debacle, but Van Mclain would continue to soldier on. Major success got close again, as a song called "Touch Me Tonight" garnered extensive airplay on MTV and reached #67 on the Billboard chart, but the breakthrough still remains hidden from the 36-year Shooting Star veteran guitarist/singer/songwriter.
Going into this interview I honestly expected some bitterness. I thought Mclain might be a little harsh or short tempered due to the beating he's taken from the music business over his career. I thought he might see an interview as another music pitfall, a stumbling block within the industry. What I got was quite the opposite.
Van Mclain continues to be a positive force and considers himself lucky to still be doing the thing he loves to do - create and play music. He spent over an hour of his evening talking to me on the phone, gladly answering any questions I threw at him, and he seemed to do it with a youthful excitement that often comes more from the up-and-coming artists.
Join me now as we talk to Van Mclain....
DM: So many artists, especially veterans like
yourself, find recording new music to be a waste of time and money because
there doesn't seem to be anyone buying music anymore. Why did you choose to make Into the
Night, a full length album of new music?
VM: Somebody had asked me to do a song
for a movie soundtrack. It was like a low-budget movie being made in Lawrence,
Kansas, but it was going to have somewhat national distribution, and it was
gonna go to Sundance, so it was a small little film. I wrote a song, and I liked
the song, but I didn't think the song was right for the movie. So then I wrote a
couple more, and that turned into a couple more, and all of a sudden I've got
half of an album written and it kind of went from there. I don't know why but
the songs just came out of my head, it just came together, and I'm really proud
of it. I think it turned out great!
DM: It’s classic Shooting Star stuff,
and Todd (Pettygrove) is the closest we get to Gary (West), I'd
VM: It’s hard to replace
Gary, in fact you can't. Gary retired. He was pissed off at the music business.
We made the last record for Geffen called Silent Scream with a ton of promises. We spent a year and a half
writing songs. It was just a long and hard process, which you don't mind going
through if the record company follows through, and they just totally dropped the
ball and he just quit. He had had enough and he quit. (laughs)
DM: And that was 30 years ago.
VM: Yeah, and he hasn't done anything musical
since. It's not like he's out playing in another band or did a solo
album. I’ve asked him multiple times, "do you want to
get back and do a tour or do something," and he's like, "No. No
DM: Well, that's fine,
as long as he's happy.
seems to be happy. I think he'd be happier if he was back doing some music, but
it's his life not mine, so…
DM: Have you played the new stuff for him? Is he
interested in hearing what you have?
VM: He is
not interested. We still talk. I still talk to him,
not as much as I'd like, but a couple times a year. We get on the phone and see
how each other's doing, but he doesn't even pay attention to music. He's
DM: Every Shooting Star album has songs that are written or co-written by
Gary - even though he has not been involved for three decades. Where are those
songs from, and are any of the songs on Into The Night written or
co-written by Gary?
VM: I'm not exaggerating. We wrote 50 songs for the Silent
Scream album to pick 10, and I like some of those songs. I was kind of
disappointed some of them didn't make it to Silent Scream, so I felt like
if I could use a few of those songs that Gary and I wrote together it would help
keep a real Shooting Star flavor into those other albums.
This album I started from scratch, and I didn't want to use them. There are
still some older Shooting Star songs that are good songs but I was just in the
mood this time to start fresh. A lot of that has to do with Todd being in the
band. It's really re-energized me. He's a really good guy, and I like his voice
a lot, and every time I call him to work he's here in two minutes. He just loves
it, and he loves the opportunity to be in Shooting Star, and that's kinda
re-energized everybody. You know, a lot of this whole thing coming together I
would attribute to Todd and his enthusiasm for everything.
DM: Why give the album away for free?
VM: I’m approaching it
from a different point of view. I want people to hear the music. Okay, maybe
we'd sell 25 or 30,000 copies of an album if we slugged away at it. I want
hundreds of thousands of people to hear it. I want people to like Shooting Star
again, and think about our music, and come see us play and be interested in the
band again. The standard line we get after the show is, "I didn't know you guys
did all those songs." They know all the songs, but they don't know it's us. So
my feeling was, let's get this music out to people. If they like it they might
buy one of our other albums, and they might come see us in concert and
re-energize our fan base. So maybe we're crazy, I don't know, but I think it's
cool. We've had close to 40,000 downloads already. I don't know that we would've
ever sold 40,000. And you'd be amazed... I'd say maybe 1 out of 10 people does
leave a tip. So we've generated some revenue, not huge money, but enough to pay
It's been really fun and it's been really interesting because I've heard
from a lot of fans that I know didn't even know we existed anymore. They're just
so excited to hear this music, and that's what this is about for me at this
stage in my career. I get the biggest thrill out of people diggin' the music. I
know some people probably think we're nuts, but we're having fun doing
DM: Now, Gus Dudgeon
produced the first album, and I know you were happy with his efforts. Why
doesn’t he produce the second album, Hang On For Your Life? Why change
producers from album to album?
VM: That was all record company driven. We loved
Gus. We would've loved nothing better than to have him do the second album. We
talked to him, and I think it was a cost issue. I think Virgin spent a lot of
money on the first album, and they pushed us to use Dennis McKay for Hang On For Your Life. At that time, Virgin didn't have the deep
pockets. Five years later they were a big huge rich record company, but when we
were involved on those early albums they were not a big huge rich record
company. It's kind of funny because at the time I really didn't like Dennis's
production after coming from Gus and that lush and beautiful sound, but the
truth is it was perfect for Hang On For
Your Life. It had this raw edge, and he
kicked the guitars up, and I think we were wrong - I think Dennis did a
DM: Out of all those producers, who
best captured the Shooting Star sound?
VM: Well I
enjoyed Gus the most. He's a genius. I mean literally a genius. Part of it was
it was our first album, his studio was storybook. It was in the middle of
Cookham, England, built in 1100, and he had all that money from that Elton John
stuff. There were swans out on the water and waterfalls; I'm tellin' ya', it was
Heaven on Earth. It was the most beautiful place you've ever been. He ended up
having financial problems and Jimmy Page bought that from him. But I can't even
put into words this place, it was insane how nice it was. So the whole
experience: going to England, our first album, Gus was awesome… You just
couldn't top that, but I think Dennis McKay captured the rawness. It's hard for
me to say. When I listen to Silent
Scream - I know in Europe that's a highly
acclaimed record of ours, and some people still put it in the top 10 of all
time, and that blows my mind - I think the production is too 80's. Now that I
listen back to it, it's so reverbed out and echoed out. I really don't like it
at all. I love the songs, but the production to me is extremely dated. It's very
1985. I liked it then! I thought it was really cool when we did it, so I'm not
putting Nevison's stuff down. I think he's a really good guy, but it just sounds
like 1985 to me. So, you know, they're all different. Kevin Elson is still one
of my best friends. I think Kevin did a good job. I’m not sure we did as good a
job on III Wishes and Burning.
There’s some good moments in those albums, but we were heavily touring at
the time and I don’t think we put the amount of time into the songwriting that
we probably should have. But I love the way Burning
sounds, and I think Kevin did a great job. That would be my critique, but who
knows? If we had had a hit on one of those albums I’m sure I would’ve thought it
was the best! (laughs)
DM: What’s the best shooting star album? Which one are you
The first album. I hear everything there. "Bring It On" rocks. Obviously, “ Last
Chance" is our signature song. But I love “Rainfall"… I mean, to me it captures
what we are. We weren’t just a hard rock band. Gary had a softer side, and I
think that album kind of plays to that. That’s my favorite, personally, but I
love Hang On For Your Life because I think it kicks butt! And half our
set or more is still Hang On for Your Life. It seems like we connected
the most with Hang On For Your Life. Other than "Last Chance”….
“Breakout,” “Hang On…,” “Flesh & Blood,” “Hollywood”… those are the songs
that I think most people think of when they think of us.
DM: If you could play one song for someone that’s never heard Shooting
Star, what would it be?
VM: It’d be “Last Chance”. I’m the most proud of that.
DM: That song comes out, hits #1, and there’s no records to be found!
There’s so many tragic stories in the band’s history, you have to write a book,
VM: Yeah…. My problem is when I tell it, I always feel like I’m making up
excuses or something. I feel like the person on the other end is like, ‘Oh yeah
right, Van.’ But it’s the truth! The whole thing that happened on Silent
Scream… We had done all this work for John Kalodner at Geffen. We’re very
proud of this record. The first week we released “Summer Sun” over 200 radio
stations added it. That’s a huge number for a breakout song; usually you get 50
or something. So it looked like we finally were gonna have a big hit. David
Geffen got in a personal fight with Don Henley and cut off all Geffen’s money to
all of the independent promotion people in the country. Unfortunately, back in
those days, you had to pay money out to these guys to get your stuff on the
radio. It was kind of the underbelly of the record world, but it’s the truth.
Everybody did it. He cut it off the second week. Basically, half the stations
dropped the record, no one else added it, and it was over. We just got caught in
a fight that we had nothing to do with!! And, of course, it didn’t affect Don
Henley because he was a multi-millionaire, and his management just kept paying
the indies without Geffen. They fought their fight but it killed us. Now, I tell
that story and I know people are like, ‘Yeah Van, right. Sure. Sure.’ That’s why
Gary quit. That’s what caused Gary to go, 'I’m not doing this ever again. I’m
gonna get a job and enjoy my life.’
"Maybe I didn’t get the whole pie, but we still got a slice, and that’s good enough."
DM: It would be very easy to live in regret and throw in the towel.
What’s the main thing that keeps you going?
VM: I just love it! Do I wish we were living in Beverly Hills in a
mansion and had 20 platinum records? Well yeah, of course, but we did pretty
good. I mean, we sold 5 or 6 million records over the last 25 years. I lot of
people, like you, telling me you enjoy the music - that’s HUGE for me. I love
playing guitar. I love writing songs. I just played in front of 12,000 people
the other night... I’m doing it again this weekend… So, yeah, I still just get a
kick out of it and I enjoy everything about it. Gary - and I’m not making
excuses for him, but - he loved the writing and the recording, but he never
really liked being out on stage. He was kind of a shy guy, and it was a lot of
work for him to go on the road and be away from his family. So, for him to hang
it up was a lot easier than it would’ve been for me. I just still love getting
out there and doing this. Maybe I didn’t get the whole pie, but we still got a
slice, and that’s good enough.
DM: Being from the same general area and having a
violin in the band gets Shooting Star pegged as a mini-Kansas quite often.
You’ve said that Kansas wasn’t really an influence on you, though. So tell me,
what did inspire you to bring a violin into the band?
VM: I hope people don’t misunderstand,
because I love the band Kansas. I think they’re great, but that wasn’t what we
were trying to do at all.
Gary and I started this with Steve [Thomas] and Ron
[Verlin] and Bill [Guffey], and Steve and Ron or Bill couldn’t sing at all. Gary
and I were writing this stuff that required a lot of harmony stuff; background
vocals. So we had seen a band here in Kansas City and Charles [Waltz] was
playing keyboards and violin and singing. He rarely was playing violin. He was a
keyboard player that sang really good and he looked cool. So we were like ‘Let’s
get Charles. He can play keyboards and help us with the singing; and he does
play violin, maybe that would be cool on a couple songs.’ So that’s how it
really was. The problem is, the second you put a violin in a song people
go, ‘Oh, Kansas.’ (laughs) I understand people probably draw the conclusion that
we were sort of trying to be a mini-Kansas, and of course “Last Chance” doesn’t
help us with that argument because that probably could be a Kansas song.
But, “Hang On For Your Life” is not a Kansas song. “Breakout” is not a Kansas
song. You know what I mean? (laughs) You know, that’s okay. That’s sort of how
people tried to pigeonhole us a little bit, but we certainly weren’t influenced
by Kansas. We liked them. Thought they were great. But Gary and I really came
from loving The Beatles and that British sort of 60’s stuff is where our
songwriting came from, and then we wanted to kick that kind of melody and add a
harder-edged guitar to it. So, that’s where we were coming from, not the prog
rock thing or anything like that.
DM: Is your approach to songwriting the same now as it
was in 1979?
VM: Yeah, I think it is. I have two ways I write a
song. First one is… I’m just downstairs goofing around on my guitar and I’ll
come up with a riff I like. The other one is… Somebody will say something to me,
or I’ll be watching TV and someone will say a catchphrase or an idea. There’s a
song on this album called “She Gives Me Chills,” and I was watching a television
show and somebody was talking about how their girlfriend gave them chills, and I
just went ‘Gee! That’s a cool song title!” So that’s how I approach it, and
honestly, that’s kinda the only way I know how to do it. I probably learned a
lot about songwriting from Gary because he was writing songs way before I ever
DM: Have you ever regretted staying in Kansas City and
not moving to the West Coast where everything is happening?
VM: There was a point there, during
the Silent Scream things that I was asked to move to the West Coast to
get into the producing side of things, but my experiences in the music business
had not been great. My dad was a home builder, and some of the money I made in
Shooting Star I invested in that side of things. And we just decided that music
was going to have to become my passion but not my way to make a living. I’ve
wondered sometimes if I should have, but… We’ve had a great life here. I love
Kansas City. It’s a great place to live.
I guess it almost sounds like I should’ve had more
fortitude. But you have to realize, by 1987 we’d been slugging away at this for
ten years, through about five different record deals, four sets of managers,
three crooked lawyers, two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree. I’d had
enough, didn’t care. It’s a horrible business. It’s the coolest thing on Earth
you can do - play music for people - but it might be the worst business ever.
DM: Do you listen to new music?
VM: I do listen to a lot of new music. I do
like a lot of it. I don’t love a lot of it. I don’t find a whole lot of
stuff that just blows me away, but I hear a lot of stuff that I think is pretty
good. I haven’t heard a Dark Side Of The Moon recently, you
I think Arcade Fire is interesting. I really like
Coldplay, I think they’re great. I know they’re not cool to like, but I
like ‘em. I do not like Radiohead. I know a lot of people love them, but I don’t
like them at all. I don’t care much for it. But I hear stuff all the time that I
DM: Have you ever thought about going back to
your “Take The Money And Run” demo and releasing it? As maniacs [as fans of the
band are called], we’re thinking about how Steve Miller blew that for us. You
had a different song with the same title, and Steve Miller released his song
first and it became a huge hit, of course. This prevented you from releasing
your song, so fans have never heard it. That’s frustrating!
VM: (laughs) You’ve really done your homework on me!
Maybe I'll post that just for the maniacs. It’s kind of funny when you hear it
now. It’s kind of a catchy tune, but it’s pretty dated. I’ll find that and put
that up somewhere. (laughs) I’ll put it on Facebook. It’s the song that got me
signed. It’s a big part of my past. I’ll consider putting that up.
DM: What’s next for Shooting Star? Do you plan to tour
on this Into The Night album?
VM: We’re going to try. We’re going to play as much as we
can. We really want to get to Chicago. We’re working on that. I know we’re doing
St. Louis. We’re doing Cincinnati and Detroit. So we are playing. As far
as an extended tour, we haven’t gotten that far. To make enough money just to
break even, that’s a difficult thing. So, we’ll see. We’ll see how this record
does, see how some of this goes promotion-wise and if we can, we certainly
You can find out more about Shooting Star and get a FREE DOWNLOAD (Use download code 1980) of their latest album, Into The Night, at www.shootingstarmaniacs.com
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