Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Omnibus Blog Post #2: You wanted the best? You got the best!

If you were to ask me which band I loved the most -- like truly loved and was undyingly loyal to all through my entire life, either openly or behind closed doors -- my answer wouldn't be the Beatles or the Beach Boys or the Rolling Stones, all groups I totally love but don't *love*, not in that, ahem, special way. My answer *might* be the Monkees. But if you preceded the question with a couple glasses of Jeremiah Weed and a cigarette, I bet I'd tell you the truth.

The answer, my friends, is Kiss.

You always remember your first, they say, and the two bands I ever loved were Kiss and the Monkees. But while the Monkees were awesome in every possible way, and made me gleefully happy to listen to (and still do), my love of Kiss bordered on obsession. Just like almost every other pre-adolescent boy in America in the 1970s, I had every single one of their albums, including "Double Platinum," even though I already had all the songs elsewhere. I caught 'em on the Paul Lynde Halloween Special and the Mike Douglas Show. At school carnival every year, I got my face painted like whatever member I liked best at the time -- usually Ace Frehley, but sometimes Paul Stanley. I had it, folks, and bad.

Whenever Kiss did anything, it was a major event amongst kids. Like -- when they put out their four solo albums, we all knew our folks would never buy us all four, so everybody got assigned one album to buy and we figured we'd pass 'em around amongst ourselves, like Bart and Milhouse and Martin did with Radioactive Man #1. I got Paul Stanley, which, y'know -- I wanted Ace, and spent most of my time listening to my pal Tom Nynas' copy, spinning "New York Groove" over and over and over again.

Or when they did the "...Meets The Phantom Of The Park" special, I wouldn't let my parents change the channel for an hour BEFORE the show, just in case they decided to air it earlier.

Or when they put out the comic book where the red ink contained some of their VERY OWN BLOOD, and I begged my folks to get it for me but they wouldn't.

Kiss were HUGE, capital H-U-G-E. They were a combination rock band / superheroes, they were demi-gods, cartoon characters writ large. They were absolutely everything to me, and everything I listen to comes from them (well, and the Monkees). They were the proto, the dinosaurs, the first thing, alpha AND omega.

And part of the reason they were so cool to me was that they were the forbidden fruit. My folks, at the time, were heavily involved in the Evangelical movement, and Kiss couldn't have been more against just about everything it stood for. Or at least it seemed like they were -- they were like the cartoon devil, their songs were vague euphemisms for terrible, awful things, and their very name itself was an acronym for Kings (or Knights or something else with a "K" that fit awkwardly) in Satan's Service. So over and over again I heard "Son, KISS are bad news" from my dad. And even for a little kid, forbidden fruit tastes so good.

Sadly, tragically, I eventually was scared out of listening to Kiss. I attended a service by the Peters Brothers, a St. Paul-based ministry who traveled around from church to church with a seminar entitled "Why Knock Rock?" You've heard about this -- they were the ones who espoused the theory of "backmasking," the notion that rock bands were recording demonic messages backwards on their albums. Their seminar was terrifying to my ten-year-old mind -- they convinced me that my very SOUL was IN JEOPARDY, RIGHT NOW, and I'd better go home and smash my DEMONIC ROCK RECORDS and BEG for Christ's forgiveness.

So I did. The last Kiss record I bought was "Dynasty," and then they all went under the hammer. I'm embarassed about it now, because I pride myself on always having been kind of a free-thinker, but man, they made it sound scary. I'm sure I'm not the only 70s kid that worked on. I made puppy-dog eyes at "Unmasked," when it came out, but for a while at least, my Kiss fandom kind of faded away. I eventually came back to rock, a couple years later, but the 80s were in full swing, and I was all about Duran Duran (oddly, another makeup-wearing band). Kiss, the hair metal version, seemed so horribly passe.

But look! Kiss are releasing a new album! And even though the last truly great record they put out probably happened during the early stages of the Reagan presidency (well, except "Unplugged"...er, and hunks of "Revenge," from '92) suddenly everybody who ever liked the band is talking about them again! There's excited, breathless posts on Facebook! The message board I'm a part of has a TWENTY PAGE THREAD devoted to the group! The buzz is palpable. Even cynical, jaded people are pulling out their battered vinyl and rediscovering the joy that is Kiss.

The timing is just right. All of us who used to like the band, or who liked them, fell away, and came back, or who just liked them all the way through, are now old enough to not give a crap about what anybody else thinks about our Kiss fandom. Part of it is nostalgia, sure, and part of it is just love and devotion. And part of it is just a genuine hope that Gene Simmons' rhetoric about "the best album in 30 years" and "a renewed creative spark for the band" isn't just bullshit hyperbole. I mean, it's possible, right? Right?

'Cause that's another thing about Kiss: their music holds up super frighteningly well. I mean, it's just as back-to-basics rock as the Pistols and the Ramones, but it also has a nice dark heavy edge like Zeppelin and none of it really sounds dated -- well, except disco experiment "I Was Made For Loving You," and we all know disco is cool, now, so who cares? If you're thinking about revisiting the group, here's a quick rundown of some essentials:

Destroyer: A genuine hard rock masterpiece. Bob Ezrin's production adds a bombastic sheen to the group's already humongous sound. Highlights: "King of the Nighttime World," "Shout It Out Loud," "Detroit Rock City," and the weepy, awesome Peter Criss-sung ballad, "Beth."

Rock and Roll Over: The best album cover houses, IMO, their best album. The sophisticated sheen is muted, but the songwriting is strong. Highlights: "Calling Dr. Love," "I Want You," and again, a Peter Criss-sung ballad, "Hard Luck Woman."

Self-titled: The first album, pound for pound, song for song, is probably their most important. A sheer rock and roll blast from top to bottom. Highlights: "Strutter," "Firehouse," "Cold Gin," and the awesome "Black Diamond" -- again, sung by Peter Criss.

Alive and Alive II: Neither TRULY live in the strictest sense of the word (both feature extensive re-records/overdubs, and "II" even has a studio side), both absolutely capture the raw, potent quality of the band's music better than the studio slabs. Essential.

Unmasked: The "pop" album. Closer to Cheap Trick than you'd care to admit. The underrated gem of the catalog -- check out how smooth "Shandi" is, or how pop "Tomorrow" is, or what a massive hook "Two Sides Of The Coin" is swinging. It's a great album, maybe my favorite of my recent discoveries.

Gene Simmons solo: Of the four, I've always liked Ace's best. On re-listen, I suddenly note how damn Beatlesque parts of Gene's is. Check out "Man of 1,000 Faces" -- full of lush, full, 60s-influenced harmonies, or the gorgeous, sweet "Mr. Make-Believe," which could live on a Left Banke LP.

So what does Kiss mean to me, really? I could talk all day about how their pure, innocent (yes! innocent!) rock and roll blast hits right to the soul in a way that other, more intellectual bands can't, or how a sense of shared community with other folks my age gives me a sense of place and context within history like I'm sure the Beatles were for the generation before me, or how surprisingly awesome their music is, and how full of twists and turns you wouldn't ever expect. But that's to over-intellectualize something that shouldn't really be intellectualized. Really, Kiss just is rock and roll. They're what I like about rock and roll music. Riffs. Hooks. Melodies. Harmonies. Big things. Explosions. Whatever. EVERYTHING. It's that simple. It's that boiled down.

So, um, yeah, you can bet that just like it's 1978, I'm going to be the first in line (at WAL MART of all places, see Omnibus Blog Post #3, coming later) when "Sonic Boom" comes out. And I want so badly to buy tickets for the show so I can take my lovely then-to-be-wife and daughter. And you can damn well bet I'm not going to tell her they're "bad news." Which probably makes 'em less appealing to her, but heck, the explosions'll get her anyway. Right?

Check these out, and get rid of your preconceived notions about Kiss, yo:

Omnibus Blog Post 1: Heavy vs. Light

I noticed recently that I'm drawn to extremes in music. The stuff I like -- and by that, I mean the stuff I really like, the stuff I'm obsessed about -- is usually either really heavy or really light. On the one hand, we have stuff like Zeppelin, Sabbath, Kiss (see: Omnibus Blog Post 2, coming soon), the Cult, Wolfmother, Jet. On the other, things like the Free Design, yr. various Yacht Rock groups, Joe Raposo, Carpenters, certain Beach Boys albums, whatever. Heavy as an anvil, couldn't possibly be heavy enough, or so light it's in danger of floating away into the stratosphere. Extremes.

I've also noticed recently that nowadays, you can't really get either. Oh, there's a couple (literally just a couple!) of bands doing Really Heavy -- particularly Wolfmother, they're nicely heavy, and really really good. And a couple bands doing Really Light, too (though I'm hard pressed to name 'em -- certainly nobody doing the Carpenters, or something that blissfully airy). But for the most part, everything's straight down the fucking middle. Think of a band like -- I dunno, Modest Mouse. Good band, I suppose, but they're Middle of the Road in every possible way in the old-school use of the term. Straight down the middle. And safe. Very, very safe. Good songwriters, I'm sure, but they're just kind of...the same. All the time. Not fast, not slow, not hard, not light, just THERE.

And that's why I hate everything nowadays, I think. And not just music, but everything. It's not just that people are AFRAID of extremes, though they clearly are -- "we want to," goes the logic, "appeal to a majority of people, and the way to do that is to never go too far in any direction, to play to the widest tastes, to offend nobody." This goes for every artistic media, from movies to television to music to whatever -- and hell, even in politics and conversation and fashion and everything. Can't be too heavy. Too light. Too theatrical. Too big. Too flashy. Too gay. Too whatever.

But it goes beyond simple fear -- it's almost like people are embarrassed of extremes. Like -- okay, let's do this. Imagine you're in a club and a band is getting on stage. They've got makeup on, and are wearing -- I dunno, purple velvet jumpsuits and feather boas. And they light into music that's loud and heavy and they posture all over the stage. What do you think? What's your first reaction? Ten bucks it's to get embarrassed and laugh.

But I mean -- double-you tee eff? That's cool, isn't it? When did we stop desiring that? Are we afraid that expressing an extreme means it'll reveal something about you? Provoke strong emotion? Strength or weakness?

What's weird is even when artists these days GO extreme -- think of, say, Marilyn Manson -- it seems so half-assed in some way. His music wasn't terribly extreme, for one thing -- it was second-rate watered down Nine Inch Nails. And all he was doing was adding more cock and blood to something Alice Cooper had done already. It was a real sort of SAFE extreme. Like climbing up onto a diving board, yelling "Hey, look at me, I'm going OUT THERE!" and then tiptoeing up to the edge and then climbing down.

And the end result is that there's no band that provokes the kind of SLAVERING ADMIRATION AND ADULATION that groups used to, y'know? Like -- can you imagine 30, 40 years down the line being a part of the Modest Mouse Army? The Daughtry Army? I dunno. I just feel like lack of extremes also means lack of enthusiasm. You like. you don't love.

So, y'know, that's my challenge to you, artists. Go balls out. Do something risky, big, splashy, stupid, loud, quiet, long, super-short. Do something that goes to an extreme, and don't feel like you gotta slide it straight down the middle. That's all.