Why Should You Care About the KISS Reunion Shows?
Astonishing statistic: KISS have put out twenty-six albums since 1974, and twenty-five of them have been certified gold, platinum or multi-platinum. The Rolling Stones can’t match that track record. ABBA can’t either. In fact, the Beatles are the only artists to have had more disks certified gold (or higher) than have KISS.
Why don’t you know this? Because most music critics hate KISS, so their legacy has been written almost entirely within the devoted, pictorially-oriented fanzine world — as opposed to within the “serious music criticism” world, wherein we contemplate Beatle arcana and our own furry navels with equal zest and fervor. Most critics, however, if pressed (when properly lubricated) would confess to hating KISS less for their music than for the fact that Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss maintained an incredibly high media presence throughout the mid-70s by manipulating the public in all the ways that we wish we could manipulate it, but are unable to do so.
Remember KISS’ Kabuki-on-acid make-up and pyrotechnic stage shows? Remember the comic books that allegedly contained the band members’ blood? Remember arguing over whether Gene Simmons had had his tongue surgically altered to allow him to lick his own eyebrows? KISS may not have started all those (sub)urban legends — but if and when they denied them, they did so as if they were hiding something, thereby making John Q. Public, Jr.’s parents believe in them all the more strenuously.
Offering too much of a too much thing finally caught up with the band in the late ’70s, however: Between 1977 and 1979, KISS issued three studio albums, a live album, a greatest hits disk and the band members’ four solo records. Saturated fans finally refused to buy 1980’s Unmasked. Burned-out drummer Criss was then pushed out of the band to be replaced by Eric Carr (who died in 1991) and Eric Singer. Guitarist Frehley followed Criss out the door in 1982; Vinnie Vincent (1982-84), Mark St. John (1984) and Bruce Kulick played in his stead.
Fast forward to 1996. KISS soldiered on. The gold records kept on coming when the platinum ones didn’t. The Kiss My Ass tribute album made it cool to be a fan again. Last year’s Unplugged concert featured Frehley and Criss playing with the Stanley/Simmons/Kulick/Singer line-up. The make-up kits and costumes came out of the storage trunks. Kulick and Singer suddenly found themselves with a lot of extra time on their hands. Another generation of metal-heads get to see KISS in all their over-the-top primal glory. Serious music types turn green with envy again over how easily KISS resume their places as major-league headliners. The metal universe is back in balance. That’s why you should care.
The Concert Review
Okay, let’s cover the music up front so we can talk about the other important stuff that goes down at a Kiss concert when founding demon Gene Simmons, starman Paul Stanley, alien Ace Frehley and cat-guy Peter Criss don their kabuki-on-acid duds. Saturday night’s set-list bore an uncanny resemblance to the one I rapturously shouted along with some seventeen years ago when I was young, hyper-hormonal, and easily impressed by things that went “boom”. The band opened with “Deuce” and closed with a triple-encore of “Detroit Rock City”, “Beth” and “Rock and Roll All Nite”. Each band member got a solo turn, and Stanley’s rhythm guitar solo still doesn’t make sense. Frehley took the mike away from Simmons (the yeller) and Stanley (the shrieker) to sing “Shock Me” and “Back in the New York Groove”, with the grinding concert version of the latter song once again bearing absolutely no resemblance to the spry studio single version. “Love Gun” remains one of the band’s most puerile numbers (which is saying a lot) but also carries one of the biggest, meanest, sludgiest riffs to be found on this side of the River Styx since John Bonham hopped a one-way ride with Charon. “Black Diamond” and “Cold Gin” are still the greatest songs the band ever wrote. In summary, the rock was rudimentary and dated, but you could sing along with it all, so most everybody did.
Now . . . onto the important stuff. Gene Simmons in costume remains one of the most perversely fascinating human objects imaginable. It’s not just the make-up, nor the fire-breathing (not as impressive as the 1979 version), not the blood-spitting (much improved since 1979), nor even the tongue (which became impossibly repulsive when blown up on the big-screen TV’s) — it’s the man’s deeply evil eyes and insectoid body movements that really make him something grotesquely special to watch. His facial reaction when Stanley showed him a porno shot tossed onto the stage by a zealous, desperate audience member was absolutely priceless. Give this man an Academy Award (TM) now, dammit.
Frehley, possibly the most talented member of the band when sober, played guitars mounted with blinking lights, cannons and fire pots. Things went “boom” right regular and true, just as you’d expect them to, every time he dipped a hip and dropped into solo mode. Stanley still looked surprisingly buff without his shirt on, belying the “old fat guys having to resort to the make-up to hide their jowls” rumors that accompanied the band’s reunion. Criss remains, well, Criss. He grinned throughout the evening, obviously quite pleased about getting a second chance to play in the big leagues, and issued a hearty “God bless you all!” when the audience was kind enough to cheer him after he warbled “Beth” to a canned backing track while his band-mates left the stage. As my friend Mike noted, when you saw a group of teen-aged boys dressed as the band, you knew the one wearing the cat make-up was the guy who had drawn the short straw during the costume planning meeting. Bless him.
And speaking of costumes, there were plenty of them in the audience, ranging from extraordinarily sophisticated (i.e. expensive looking) replications of the band’s ensembles all the way down to the costume the guy sitting next to me wore: he just painted a star on his face, wrapped his Doc Marten’s in aluminum foil, clapped his hands and declared himself Kiss Army material.
Of course, to my eyes he looked no objectively sillier than (say) David Bowie and Mick Ronson during their Ziggy Stardust era or (say again) any member of the Cocktail Nation dressed to the nines at any Combustible Edison concert. Costumes are fun, and I’ll never get the worldview of those who dismiss artists like Kiss while swooning over glam or punk era fashion. But, yes, I admit I may be biased on that front, as my soul was stolen by the Knights in Satan’s Service in the 1970’s and all I’ve wanted to do since that time was to rock and roll all nite.
Oh, and also party every day.