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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 say.
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 interest."
DM:   Well, that's fine, as long as he's happy.
VM:   He 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 disengaged.

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 some bills.

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 this!

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 fantastic job. 

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 happiest with?
VM:   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 LifeOther 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, Van!
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 tried.

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. (laughs)

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 know.
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 like.

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 will.

You can find out more about Shooting Star and get a FREE DOWNLOAD (Use download code 1980of their latest album, Into The Night, at

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