Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Greatest Lousy Band In The World, 2009

I wrote the following appreciation of the band Kiss almost a decade ago for my old proto-blog "Will's World." I'm bringing it back this morning to commemorate last night's concert in Atlanta, and also to thank Paul, Gene and company for doing some very nice things along the way.

Kiss is really going out of their way on their current tour to recognize and help out military veterans. Not only is the legendary Kiss merchandising machine featuring proceeds-to-charity Kiss Army t-shirts for the Wounded Warrior Care Project at the shows, they've set aside a ton of prime seats to give away to military personnel.

A work buddy of mine who's in the Air Force Reserve got a few of those seats, which were just a few yards from the stage, and judging by the haircuts around us, most of the section was filled with military folks and their friends and families. Here's a bit of what it looked like:

Once again: well done, guys.

And no further ado, from April of 2000 (very little has changed, other than Ace Frehely and Peter Criss having been retired from the band), here's "The Greatest Lousy Band In The World":

Jimmy Buffett, a great western philosopher, once advised his listeners, "Don't try to describe a Kiss concert if you've never seen it."

The band, founded in New York City in the early 70's by a teetotaling jewish schoolteacher named Gene Simmons, is perhaps the worst consistently successful rock group of all time. Kiss songs rarely rise above three-chord bar band tripe. Their only genuine radio hit was a syrupy ballad sung by the band's drummer ("Beth" in 1976). But they rank below only the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in total gold record awards over their career, with 25 (Kiss is tied for third place with a very different group, Rush, but that's another column for another time).

The secret to their success was a Simmons brainstorm. Looking to get noticed on the New York club scene, the band started painting their faces with distinctive black-and-white designs and wearing outlandish costumes on stage. Suddenly, Simmons, a brainy elementary school teacher, was transformed into "The Demon," a tongue-wagging, fire-breathing, fake-blood-spitting marvel, thrashing away on a bass guitar shaped like a headman's axe and stomping across the stage in 9-inch platform boots.

The other three members of the band joined in to the makeup schtick, and teenage legends were born. During the 1970's, Kiss was unquestionably the most successful live act in rock and roll, consistently filling halls of every conceivable size with fanatical members of the "Kiss Army." The group pioneered the modern stadium show, using video screens, over-the-top light shows, and more fireworks than the average small town uses on the Fourth of July.

Simmons' marketing genius helped to keep the band's mystique alive as time went by. For years, the band refused to be photographed without their stage makeup on. A set of Kiss dolls (or "action figures"), lunchboxes, and t-shirts sold briskly to adolescents, and the band even made a so-bad-it's-good TV movie, starring themselves, as a group of superheroes moonlighting as a rock group.

By the early 80's, the old Kiss magic started to wear out. Two of the founding members, guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss, were booted from the band because of their drug addictions. Simmons and singer Paul Stanley soldiered on, adding additional sidemen and even losing the greasepaint by 1983. For the next ten years, Kiss kept making albums and playing concerts as a fairly conventional heavy metal band. They maintained their fan base, still sold records and sold out halls, but gradually drifted away from the notice of the mass audience.

Then, five years ago, a one-off appearance on MTV's "Unplugged" program turned into a full-fledged reunion of the band's original lineup. Figuring that everything old was new again, Kiss pulled their makeup and platform shoes out of storage and announced a worldwide tour. To the surprise of most (including, they eventually admitted, the band members themselves) the new shows sold out in record time. The 1995-96 Kiss tour produced some of the most lucrative rock concerts of all time.

There wasn't much new here (Simmons noted that the band had "forgotten ever song we've written since about 1978" for the tour), but for the thirty- and forty-ish fans who'd been around the first time, and for younger people who'd missed the circus the first time around, the tour was a two-hour time machine back to the glorious excesses of the '70's.

I was one of those 'younger people' back in Kiss's heyday. I was never a fan of the group--let's face it, their music stinks, and I was about seven years old when they were in their prime, way too young to go to a rock show. But I did catch a show on the '95 reunion tour, and I freely and happily admit, it was probably the most entertaining of the scores of concerts I've seen in my life.

This is not a "musician's band." Peter Criss plays drums like a girl. Paul Stanley is in love with himself. Ace Frehley could make a freight train take a dirt road. Gene Simmons is scary looking without makeup. But put them all together with some greasepaint and about a million lights, and it's somehow unspeakably cool.

The sheer spectacle of it all is staggering. There's a massive stage set, the band really does look like they stepped out of a comic book, the lightshow is dazzling, and just about every song has some kind of special effect involved. Simmons spits fake blood and breathes fire, then flies over the audience on a wire harness. Frehley shoots laser beams from his Les Paul Guitar, and Stanley runs around the stage like he's 22 instead of well-over-40. And Criss stays behind the drumkit and plays like a girl, but you can't have everything.

The cheesy '70's "dance" moves haven't changed any, but those who aren't impressed by the staging are still well-entertained--I was laughing my head off for most of the show. And maybe most surprising of all--Kiss has actually become family entertainment.

At the concert I saw, there were hundreds of kids there with their parents, soaking it all up, and other than the ear-splitting volume, there wasn't a thing about that show that could be considered bad for children. Nobody on stage so much as uttered a four-letter expletive (which was entirely unique for a heavy metal act), Stanley offered a "don't drink and drive" spiel before launching into a song titled "Cold Gin." For a ten-year-old, it must have been the most impressive night out with mom and dad imaginable.

Kiss has just embarked on what's billed as their "farewell tour." Reading between the lines, this actually looks like a second hail-and-farewell to Frehley and Criss and the greasepaint, as opposed to an actual disbanding of the group. But still, this is probably the last chance to see the '70's reconstructed on stage, in living color and at 100 decibels. I've got my ticket, and I'm heading to Pensacola as soon as I can get out of my office tonight. I'll have to drive back and hour-and-a-half after the show so I can blow up stuff at 7 AM on Friday, but what the heck.

After all, how many chances to you get to see the greatest lousy rock band in the world?

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post. Sad thing is these guys were big when I was 12. I am now 46. I have Kiss Alive on my Ipod, no one is going to mistake any of the guitar playing to Beck/Clapton/Hendrix/Page (alphabetical rate them as you wish)...but that stupid album has been played quite a bit on the train ride to Manhattan.