Friday, April 15, 2016

With Tongue Firmly Bursting from Cheek: Thoughts on Kiss.

Finding myself in a record store with a coupon felt a lot like it used to feel when my grandparents gave me a small paper bag, said “take what you want” and let me loose in their general store. Under such conditions, I acquired my very first Kiss record. As it was only four dollars, and someone else’s four dollars to boot, I figured “why not?”.

Rock and Roll Over was exactly as I expected: unremarkable, but not unappealing. Lead track “I Want You” pretty much sets the pace, right down to the unambiguous title. It kicks off with a wimpy Boston-esque acoustic intro that’s over before you were really sure it began, switching to its teenaged tantrum of a chorus.  The whole album more or-less follows the formula – “get it out of the way” verse, “more like a chant” chorus, ‘nother verse, short bridge, chant-chorus, chant chorus.  It feels almost factory produced. And lyrically[1], there’s nothing here your average horny fifteen-year old couldn’t have written. Who else could’ve penned a petulant refrain like “I Want You”, or “meet me in the ladies room” with a straight face? Was there ever a band up until that point so unashamedly unsophisticated and unabashedly crude?

Yet for all that, it’s catchy as hell. The secret weapon here is of course Ace Frehely, who, if no Blackmore or Iommi, manages to infuse even the lamest choruses with flare and groove.  I confess, I’ve always liked Paul Stanley’s singing, and ringmaster Gene Simmons keeps it all anchored together. The formula works. I suspect Master Simmons realized early on that whatever else he had planned for this mega-venture called Kiss, the whole project would be dead in the water if they couldn’t write songs people wanted to hear.

I was particularly interested in the production by Eddie Kramer. It’s bass heavy, and muffled. It sounds like the band is performing in your living room, and I can’t help picturing them recording in a studio with a shag carpet. Now, I have no idea if Record Plant Studios actually has shag carpet in their recording rooms, but that’s what it feels like. There is something there absorbing the echoes. Compare that with the approach that would become fashionable in the eighties, when every band on the planet, Kiss included, apparently lost their bass player and took to recording in a tin-can[2].   

For me, it’s all very evocative of an era – the Seventies – which I directly experienced, but got all its detritus growing up. Re-runs, film strips, fashions and furniture my folks hadn’t gotten rid of, movies that were still pretty recent and songs that weren’t yet that old. It takes no great leap of the imagination to place my pre-adolescence a little bit earlier than it actually happened. (Okay, a full decade earlier, but bear with me).

Picture if you will, a nerdy teenager in the Seventies, living in a room stacked high with comic books and Kenner action figures, and recent memories of Hannah Barbara. Chemicals are raging inside, but you’re not sure where they fit in your current world. You find four spandex-clad masked superheroes singing what you’re thinking, and BOOM – lifelong Kiss fan is born.

(Why mention Hannah Barbara? Evocative of the era. And those cartoons were no-less fantastical than the Don Juan world of Kiss. It’s entirely appropriate that Hanna Barbara produced Kiss meet the Phantom in the Park; it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Kiss coexists in the same world as Scooby-Doo).

Of course, this little counter-factual thought experiment only goes so far. I actually was a nerdy teenager in a room full of comic books and Kenner action figures, with recent memories of Hannah Barbara, and Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons and every other badge of nerd-dom imaginable, and I never got into Kiss. I was fascinated by their imagery, but was deeply disappointed to hear how much they sounded like frat-boys. I mean, how could you dress like a demon and never sing about demons? Where were the swords? The Space-ships? The Conan-themed concept albums?  Maybe it was the Catholic abstinence-only education, but I was weary of anything overtly sexual back then, and couldn’t relate to party-bands (mainly ‘cause I didn’t get invited to those kind of parties). Hormones could be channelled into pulp fiction and dime novels, but rarely openly confronted or declared.  More importantly, the music itself, mid-paced rock songs, seemed kind of well, sedate to a kid who’d already discovered Black Sabbath. (And Rush ruined just about every other band).

But. . .remember, we’re evoking the era. The year is 1976, and Rock and Roll Over is Kiss’s fifth studio album. Heavy Metal is a very new, loosely defined thing with only a few practitioners (and more than a few who no longer fit the bill today). There is no thrash Metal, no symphonic Power Metal, no Death Metal, Bay Area and Gothenburg are just points on a map, and   Norway exports nothing but peat moss. The world has yet to discover Sad Wings of Destiny, or 2112[3].  Heck, Star Wars hasn’t even come out yet! We are not yet spoiled by the embarrassment of sonic riches yet to come, and the pickings are slim. Into this world parachutes Kiss. . .

            Consider also, that Kiss were never about the records. Picture if you will, the live show, all explosions and spotlights, a choreographed spectacle which no one else at the time was doing, at least on nothing near the same scale. I can’t help but admire anyone who takes theatre seriously. I’ve been to hundreds of shows and am constantly dismayed by how many “performers” can’t respect the science of the stage – looking bored, showing up drunk, opening with slow songs, mumbling to the crowd. . . While the punks may bristle at the blatant capitalism of it all, there comes with it both professionalism and craftsmanship – ticket buying fans are guaranteed to get what they pay for. Compare this with the contempt artistes like Zepplin or G’n’R often showed to common folk who actually had to work for a living. . .

Back to our fifteen year old. Martin Popoff formulated it thus: kid is enraptured by Kiss show, picks up guitar, learns a few Kiss songs, finds they’re not that hard and soon surpasses Frehely. By the time he’s twenty five, he’s guitar wizard in his own right, has his own band, and BOOM: the year is 1986, and there are Metal bands everywhere.    

Everyone from Anthrax to Zombie cite Kiss as an influence. It’s not really there in the songs – would you have guessed Thomas Quorthon was a huge Kiss fan? (Or Garth Brooks for that matter?). But the performance aesthetic – knees bent, shoulder width apart, rictus-grin, tongue like thrust out like a whale-harpoon, chrome, steel and leather[4] - that’s all Kiss[5].  That, and the lust for glory, to stand on stage and command an audience. More inspiration than influence, their impact has been huge. They’re not really a band, but an idealization of what a band should be like.

Besides, how could anyone not like “Rock and Roll all Nite”?

[1] I swear “Love ‘em, Leave ‘em” sounds a lot like “Normal People”, which is probably the very last thing this band would ever sing about.     

[2] Judas Priest were the worst offenders. Ian Hill was still in the band pics but you’d be hard-pressed to hear him anywhwere.
[3] Alright, released the same year, but the first real statements by either outfit. Consider the era Up Until Then.
[4] Priest played their part here.
[5] Though Gene Simmons did not invent the Malocchio. 

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