interviewtext: Joop van Pelt
Virgin drummer Chuck Billings: "KISS, Virgin and Aucoin was one big family"
From 1977-1979 there was this rock ‘n’ roll "boy band" in the USA by the name of Virgin. They were put together by KISS producer Kenny Kerner, managed by the same management as KISS (Aucoin Management) and in 1978 they were on the second highest grossing tour of the year, opening for ‘70s teen idol Shaun Cassidy. Their debut album (which unfortunately never saw the light of day) was produced by none other than Gene Simmons. Yet, they were taken off salary when Aucoin was experiencing financial trouble and also having problems with KISS and not long after the band fell apart. Virgin originally was made up of Dirk Etienne (vocals), Tommy Moody (lead guitar), Steve Kramer (guitar), Gary Van Dyke (bass) and Chuck Billings (drums). Recently, we tracked down drummer Chuck Billings - who once was very good friends with Gene - to talk about the heydays of Virgin, KISS and Aucoin Management.
Tell me a little bit about your background please.
"I was born in San Francisco, California, on May 31, 1955. I started drumming when I was 12 years old by a fluke. The first thing that I heard that made me want to play was by The Seeds and The Yardbirds. My mom’s boyfriend had them and I listened to them all the time at the age of 9. Then at 12, I was living in Topanga Canyon, and my next door neighbor’s dad was a jazz drummer, his drum set was always set up in the living room and I always wanted to screw around on them, but my friend said his dad would get mad. Finally one day I did not care and sat at the drums and started screwing around. I did not realize it but I was keeping a beat, my friend’s dad walked in while I was playing his drums. When he walked in I stopped, I got scared and he just stared at me. He did not say anything and I apologized. He just stared at me and I just sat there, then he said: ‘Chuck, I sat outside and listened to you for about 5 minutes then I came into the house. You have a natural rhythm and drum beat. You play very well for a kid who has never sat at a drum kit before.’ He asked if I liked music a lot, and I said: ‘I love it’. He says: ‘Do you want to be a musician?’ I said: ‘More than anything.‘ ‘Since you feel that way about it, I don't like anybody to touch my drums, but you were good so you can play them anytime you want.’ So I would go down 2 or 3 times a week and play his drums with records. Then I bugged my mom to get me a drum set and after borrowing sets my mom finally bought me a set when I was 14."
For those readers who were too young - or living outside the USA - in the late ‘70s and therefore aren’t (very) familiar with Virgin, please give us a little history on the band…
"Virgin was an assembled ‘pretty boy’ band, assembled by Kenny Kerner in 1977. Kenny Kerner had mentioned to Bill Aucoin that if he ever had a band like this would he be interested. Bill said ‘yes’, so Kenny put the band together with a man named Con Merton who owned Cherokee Studios in Hollywood. The first member was Tommy Moody, followed by myself, then Stevie Kramer and Gary Van Dyke at the same time, and the last member to join was Dirk Etienne."
How did you get involved in Virgin?
"I was at a restaurant in Hollywood, and a man approached me and asked if I was a musician. I told him ‘yes’, and he asked if I was in a band and I wasn't at the time. He asked if I had any photos of myself and I asked ‘why?’ He said he knew of a major producer who was putting this band together and that I would be perfect for the band. A few days later I met with him and gave him an assortment of pictures. About 2 or 3 days later, he called me and said that the producer turned me down saying I looked too old because on the photos I looked 22 or 23 years old. He said to me, that he thought I was perfect for the project but there was nothing he could do and gave me the pictures back. A week or so later, I ran into some other guy that approached me and said the same thing that the first guy said to me. He said you would be perfect, do you have any pictures - I want to submit them for you. I asked him is this a producer who is putting together a ‘young’ looking band? He said yes, and I told him that I had already submitted photos and was turned down. At that time I asked who the producer was and he told me it was Kenny Kerner who had produced some KISS albums. He told me to give him pictures that I had not given to the other person, so I met him a couple days later and gave him different pictures than the ones I submitted the first time. He called me a few days later and said I'm sorry but they turned you down. I told him that was what happened the first time and why did they turn me down now? I asked him what are they looking for? He said they were looking for guys who are in their late teens. About 2 weeks later I had gone to visit a friend of mine, named Joey Newman (who ended up being the guitar player for Shaun Cassidy when we were touring with Shaun). Meanwhile, Joey was an A&R man for A&M Records when I went to go visit him. When I walked into A&M Records, the first words out of Joey’s secretary were: ‘Are you a musician and are you in a band?’ She said she knew somebody who was putting a band together and that I would be perfect. I asked if it was the Kenny Kerner deal and she asked me how I knew about it? I told her I had submitted photos twice through two different people and they turned me down. She asked if I would bring her the photos I had submitted and bring any other photos that I may have. So I went home and brought everything I had. At this point I was frustrated and did not want to do it and she told me to just do it for her please. So I got the photos for her. She had me show her the ones I had submitted. She looked at them and said: ‘No wonder, they make you look like you are in your early 20's.’ She asked if I had any other photos that nobody has seen, I had about 3 or 4 that they had not so I showed her. One of them was a polaroid snapshot taken when I was 19 at a high school gig I was doing. She picked that photo and said this will sell them. I left and that night she called and said that they loved the picture and wanted to meet me. She said: ‘By the way, they do not know that you are the same guy who was turned down before.’ She told me to bring my drums to a studio in Studio City and to be there at this time and date. I showed up at the audition and about 3 or 4 other drummers were there along with Tom Moody, Gary Van Dyke and Steve Kramer and that is when I first met Kenny Kerner and Con Merton. They asked if I would let other drummers audition on my kit and I agreed as long as I could be the last guy to audition. I did the audition, Kenny said thank you to everyone who auditioned. Kenny said: ‘We will contact you.’ The next day, I got a call and it may have been Kenny, I am not sure, asking me to come to Cherokee Recording Studios because they wanted to have a meeting with me. So I went in to the office of Con Merton and sat with Kenny and Con and Tommy Moody. They asked if I was in a band or signed to a label, band or whatever. I told them ‘no’. At that point they went over an agreement with me and I signed and agreement to joining this band that they were putting together. I believe it was about 5-7 days later I went back for another meeting and Tommy Moody and I had walked out of the office after our meeting and that is when we found Dirk Etienne across the hall playing in a rehearsal studio. We asked him: 'What are you doing for the rest of your life?’ And that is how Dirk ended up in the band completing the line up. Virgin became: Tommy, Chuck, Dirk, Steve and Gary."
Were there any line up changes in those 2, 3 years?
"There was a line up change right at the time Bill took us off salary. Stevie Kramer was replaced by former Alice Cooper guitarist Mick Mashbir. No disrespect to Mick but I always felt that the original line up should have stayed the way it was because it was working. I loved Steve a lot. It broke my heart when Steve left, but I was young and stupid... oh, well..."
How did Bill Aucoin get involved with you guys?
"Through Kenny Kerner."
I take it, Gene Simmons got involved through Bill - but why did Gene want to produce your album?
"Back then, at the time he liked us and he convinced us that it would be a good thing to have him - with his name and KISS being huge, and Aucoin Management was big in the industry - that it would be a slam dunk. We were told by the management company that there was talk of other major producers - who produced major acts at that time, that I do not want to mention - who were interested in producing us ."
Why did you want Gene to be the producer of your debut album, considering he pretty
much had only produced Van Halen’s demo prior to doing your album?
"We went and had a dinner with Gene and I believe, don't quote me, but I believe it was at Mr. Chows in Beverly Hills. He just sat us down and talked to us about producing our album, how it would be a great thing for us, Aucoin Management and himself, and he offered to pay for the cost of the album and when the album comes out then he would recoup his investmend and his producers fee. He also said if nothing happened or it fails that he would take the loss. This is what I remember about our meeting... at that point when we were having dinner, we considered Gene like a big brother and KISS, Virgin and Aucoin was one big family. So we agreed to have Gene produce the album. In hindsight… big mistake!! Not only do I feel this way, but I believe some of the other members of Virgin feel the same way. (No disrespect to Gene Simmons)."
Did Gene really invest $ 100,000 out of his own pocket on the Virgin album?
"If memory serves me right, what I was told through a few people involved with the Aucoin Management organization, it was around $99,000. However, don't quote me on this."
What other people from the KISS/Aucoin organization were involved, and what were their roles in all this?
"Sean Delaney helped in choreographing our show before touring, and one of our road managers, I believe, was a road manager for KISS. And he went on the road with us because KISS was on hiatus. And, some of our road crew guys were road crew for Starz or Piper or a mixture, I am not sure. Obviously, people who worked in the Aucoin company also worked with us, though I can't possibly remember everyone’s name. Remember it was many moons ago..."
What was it like to be an up-and-coming rock star in the late ‘70s?
"It was everything and more than I expected it to be!! In fact, I am pretty sure that the rest of the guys in Virgin felt the same way."
What’s your fondest memory of those days?
"Playing in 18,000-32,000 seat arenas (sold out) all over the United States, being on the road and the unlimited amount of trim [girls - ed.]! Being with my bandmates, and Gene became my closest friend during the recording of the album. I loved him a lot... Also, recording Gene’s demos with Gene... And Paul Stanley coming to a couple rehearsals and jamming with us."
What KISS or Gene Simmons demos did the Virgin members play on?
"I can not remember the names of the songs but I do know that I played drums and background vocals on 4 or 5 songs of Gene’s, and Gene allowed me to put my 2 cents in on arrangements and ideas for these songs. Also, Tom Moody recorded some rhythm and lead tracks on I think 2 or 3 of the same songs that I was on. By the way, I thought that was a cool thing for Gene to do, having Tommy and myself play on his songs, we were very excited about that."
Were you also excited to be with the same management? Were you guys at all familiar with KISS before you hooked up with Aucoin Management?
"Absolutely, who wasn't familiar with KISS?! Although I was not a fan, and Gene knew that because I told him. Again absolutely, who would not be excited? Aucoin Management was the biggest at the time."
Why didn’t Virgin tour with KISS?
"I'm not sure, I am thinking because we were more geared toward a bubblegum, teeny-bop type audience. Such as the likes of Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett [another ‘70’s teen idol - ed.], etc. Even though that is not what we were ‘really’ about or what we wanted to be about."
Did you hang out with Gene or any of the other KISS guys? Was it hard to built a relationship with them?
"I never met Peter or Ace, and as far as I know, none of my bandmates did either. Paul Stanley came to a few rehearsals and we saw him at a few parties. But as for Gene, he and I became very close friends. On nights off of recording our album, Gene would rent a studio and have me play drums and do background vocals on his demos, songs that he wanted to bring to KISS. Gene and I spent many nights in the wee hours at different restaurants in Hollywood having late night breakfasts just chatting and hanging out. I was also friends with Lydia Criss when she was separated from Peter. She came out to LA and we hung out. Last year I found Lydia again through Kerry Hudson and we are great friends and talk all the time."
When Peter Criss had to leave the band, were you ever considered as the new drummer for KISS?
"Kind of... when Virgin had ended, Gene Simmons was in Hollywood staying at the Beverly Hills Hotel, and he had called me up and invited me to come over and visit with him. When I got to his hotel room, there he was in his bathrobe eating cheesecake. He proceeded to tell me about Peter being out of the band. I said to him: ‘I am not in a band anymore, what about me?’ Then I said to Gene that ‘when we were recording your demos, you liked my drumming and my recordings better than Peter's. So, what about having me be the new drummer for KISS? You know I love playing and recording with you, and that you loved playing and recording with me.’ Then Gene said to me: ‘Chuck, I seriously considered auditioning you for the band and I would love to have you as our drummer, but, your face and name has been in every teen magazine all over the world. And that won't work, we need a drummer that nobody knows or that nobody has seen. If your face and name had not been publicized, you would have been my first choice’."
What do you remember of the KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park filming where you guys were hanging out.
"All I can remember, which is not a whole lot about that particular day, but, what I do remember is that it’s where I met Leif Garrett through Gene. Myself and a few of my bandmates were making fun of Leif because he was a young bubblegummer, and Gene said to us that ‘you don't know that for sure, you need to meet him and talk to him.’ And Gene’s bodyguard, Eddie Balandas, said to me: ‘Hey Chuck, you guys are the same thing he is. How could you put him down for that?’ And I said: ‘Yeah, but we are really into Aerosmith, Zeppelin, we are not into this bubble gum crap.’ At that time Eddie said that we ‘should really talk to him that maybe he is into the same thing as you and that he does not like what he is doing either...’ After talking with Leif for about an hour, I realized that Eddie and Gene were 100% right. In fact after about 15 minutes of talking to Leif, he offered me a line of ‘blow’. I said: ‘Let’s go…’ After that we became good friends and hung out all the time for a couple years. That’s about all I can remember from that day."
What did you think of the KISS members as human beings (instead of the rock stars
that they were in the public eye)?
"At the time of doing our album, I thought Gene and Paul were great. But, as of about 8 - 10 years ago, I had a conversation with Gene on the phone... keep in mind I had not spoken to him since about 1980, my thoughts of him as a human being did a complete 180... If you want to hear about that story, that is a whole different bag of worms."
Yes, I want to hear that story! What exactly happened there that your opinion of Gene changed 180 degrees?
"I had not talked to Gene in many years and when I did find him he says: ‘Why are you calling me after all these years... you must want something.’ And I said: ‘I don't want anything. I did not know how to get in touch with you, I would like to see you. After all, you and I were very good friends at one point.’ And once he said that to me, he said if I have a tape or something to send to his office. I told him I had no tape and ‘that is not why I got in touch with you.’ We were great friends, I thought we still had a friendship, obviously in his eyes we did not have a good friendship. So I told him: ‘there is nothing I want from you and I never want to talk to you again’... As far as I am concerned, he is a prick."
Did you ever sense some sort of competition between Gene and Paul?
"Back in the day, no I did not, but, the rest of the guys and I discussed it after the fact, and we thought is was just a pissing contest because Gene was producing us and Paul was producing New England. I believe it was a selfish move on Gene’s part, but I may be wrong."
Was there ever any (unhealthy) competition between all the bands that were managed by Aucoin Management, such as Virgin, Piper, Starz and Toby Beau?
"No. Why would there be... We were all in the same family, doing our own thing."
What were the politics behind the fact that the Virgin album never saw the light of day, and that the band had to break up eventually? Did it have anything to do with Aucoin having to cut back on things and almost going bankrupt in 1980?
"My opinion, I may be wrong... Don't quote me on this... But, Bill Aucoin was trying to go after the big million dollar type deal for us. He wanted to do major promotion, such as billboards, TV commercials, etc. The record companies at that time were not putting that type of money out for bands. Although what I had heard, again don't quote me on this, was that there were offers on the table from various record labels offering between 3 and 4 hundred thousand dollars and Aucoin Management turned them down. If memory serves me right, my assumption, because at that same time Aucoin was having financial problems. At that time we were taken off salary and everything just fell apart. The reason we were taken off salary we were told, was that KISS had told Bill that they (KISS) were their bread and butter, that he should not be spending so much time on these other acts."
What have you been up to since Virgin broke up, and did you keep in touch with people like Bill Aucoin over the years?
"Immediatly after Virgin I joined a band called Eulogy featuring current Paul McCartney guitarist Rusty Anderson. We had done local shows around the Southern California area with bands such as Quiet Riot (with Randy Rhoads), London (with Nikki Sixx), The Jonathon Cain band (the Babys, Journey). After Eulogy I joined a band called St. Valentine which had Pete Comita from Cheap Trick. Pete was the bass player and toured in Cheap Trick for a short time, although he played guitar in St. Valentine. After that I stopped playing for a few years and later hooked up with a few other bands and played local clubs and what not. Then I found my old friend Leif Garrett after 20 years and he had a band called Godspeed. At that time I had just put a band together and needed a lead singer. I asked Leif if he was happy in the band he was in and he said ‘No’. So I asked him: ‘How interesting would it be if you and I put a band together?’ Leif said he loved the idea and said: ‘Let’s do it…’ At that time [2001 - ed.] we started playing and after changing members in the band a few times, we finally completed the band and it was called F8 ["Fate" - ed.]. We started touring in 2001 right after 9/11 and we toured 3 times around the United States - from 2001 to the end of 2002. We also released a couple CD’s. Leif decided at the end of 2002 that he did not want to be in a band anymore, he wanted to be a solo artist again and the band broke up. Right at the verge of some great things that looked like they were going to happen for the band. As for Bill Aucoin we still talk all the time and he stays at my place when he is in LA. Sometimes. Bill is still one of my dearest friends."
Is a Virgin reunion a possibility?
"I would love a reunion, but only for the fact of playing with my old bandmates because I loved them and I loved playing with them. Not to resurrect the band but just to play and have some fun again. I still talk to all the guys from time to time, although I lost contact with them for many years. And thanks to best friend Kerry Hudson, he has located some of the band members for me and now I am in contact with all of them. Some of the guys have said they would love to get together and jam and have some fun."
Very special thanks to Kerry Hudson.