Rock City AngelsJohnny Depp, late-night threatening phone calls, perhaps even an attempted murder. Sounds like a Hollywood thriller, but in fact these are the alleged ingredients in the story of Rock City Angels. Formed in the early ’80s, and signed to New Renaissance Records in 1985, the five-piece band seemed destined for greatness. Forging a style that fused blues, glam, punk, and hard rock (lead singer Bobby Durango once described the group as “Muddy Waters meets the Sex Pistols”), the band made one brilliant album and then dropped off the public radar.

Theirs is a convoluted tale, but in brief it goes as follows: After relocating to Los Angeles the same year they signed to New Renaissance, the band quickly established a massive West Coast following, comprised in large measure of early Guns N’ Roses fans who had seen their beloved Gunners go on to bigger things. During this period, Johnny Depp was a charismatic member of the band, boasting a distinctive, riff-oriented guitar style that figured prominently in the group's songwriting. A debut album was recorded, and singles were shipped to local radio stations.

It’s here that the story takes some odd twists. Purportedly, two weeks before the debut was to be released, New Renaissance executive Ann Boleyn began receiving anonymous phone calls warning her to “stay clear of Rock City Angels.” Boleyn also maintains that, during this same period, someone tried to force her off the road late one night as she was cruising along Mulholland Drive. Concurrently, rumors began swirling that Geffen Records was interested in the band, allegedly because the group constituted direct competition to Guns N’ Roses. As it turned out, the rumor had some basis in fact. Before the debut album hit record stores, Geffen bought out Rock City Angels’ contract, brokering a deal that gave the band a 6.2 million dollar advance against future sales.

21 JumpstreetOn the very same day the Geffen deal went down, Depp was offered his own deal to star in the TV show, 21 Jump Street. Depp remained loyal to Rock City Angels, but in the end he couldn't sustain the dual-career track. Meanwhile, rather than release the New Renaissance album, Geffen shuttled the band off to Memphis to work on new material with legendary producer Jim Dickinson. Dickinson brought some swampy R&B components to Rock City Angels' blues-glam style, but after hearing the mixes Geffen insisted the album be re-made. Delays ensued, as the songs were re-mixed and polished in a way presumed to be more palatable for public consumption.

In mid 1988 Rock City Angels’ Geffen debut, Young Man’s Blues, at last saw the light of day. Rave reviews greeted the disc, along with inevitable comparisons to Guns N’ Roses. To the band's surprise, however, Geffen ponied up very little money for publicity, electing instead to put the bulk of its financial resources behind the GNR machine. Still, as Durango later explained, the band felt no animosity toward their label brethren.
“There was absolutely no personal rivalry between GNR and the Angels,” he reflected, years later. “We simply were competing for the same publicity money. A label has only a certain amount of money to spend. Even though both bands were signed at roughly the same time (GNR about nine months before), by the time our record was released?at least a year and a half later?Appetite had already sold at least six million copies. We only wanted the same break they got.”

After touring with Jimmy Page, Joan Jett, and the Georgia Satellites, Rock City Angels went back into the studio to record new material. Sessions were split between Memphis and Los Angeles, but it became progressively clear that Geffen was pulling the plug on the band’s financial resources. Durango estimates the group recorded enough material for two additional albums, but it would be years before any of these tracks surfaced. Meanwhile, Young Man’s Blues  slowly attained cult-classic status, with many journalists ranking it among the best blues-rock albums of the ’80s.

So, did Geffen Records quash the burgeoning rise of Rock City Angels, fearing the band would undermine the rocket-like ascendance of Guns N’ Roses? Durango doubts dark forces were at work, but there's no question that fate conspired against the band.

“Bad luck, bad timing, bad management, indifferent label support, bad legal counsel,” he says. “We had it all.”