Kiss: On The Road Again

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"Damn, I'm sorry that you're not here, man. The guys are having a great time swapping war stories!” This is the line Classic Rock is greeted with upon learning that, along with 20 million other US citizens, the biggest power blackout in history has screwed things up.

ALIVE!

But at least here in the US capital we still have electricity, hot running water and hotel doors that will accept those state-of-the-art electronic key thingies. Kiss and Aerosmith have none of these comforts. There they are, huddled together in the stillness of their hotel foyer, gathered around good ol’ fashioned candlelight like a gang of scheming n’er-do-wells, exchanging tales harvested from over 30-odd years of hard rocking.

That’ll be Kiss’s Gene Simmons we can hear in the background, gleefully telling the one about the naked nun doing a striptease down a flagpole outside his hotel room in ’76. And that schoolboy cackling in the background? Well that’ll be the no less world-renowned Steven Tyler. Sod the light, the warmth and the bloody TV, I know where I wanna be right now. Can you just imagine the stories being swapped in the gloom?

Fast-forward 24 hours and we’re in Chicago, where I’m greeted by the early afternoon face of Gene Simmons as he sits business-like behind his very expensive-looking laptop. He barely takes his gaze from the screen as we walk in. But he isn’t being rude, he’s sizing up the competition in a ‘hey, buddy, have you got one of these things?’ kind of way. That and the fact he wants to show off that there’s an electronic avalanche of emailed photos titled ‘ladies in waiting’ being downloaded from his own website, genesimmons.com (you already know what these pictures are like before you even look).

“I keep the really interesting photos on here,” he says, tapping his eBook. Some would call him a pornographer, but Simmons sees it as being “a true connoisseur of the flesh”. Whichever way you take it, he’s already playing for hard laughs. Originally Classic Rock had wanted to get a superb rock’n’roll history take on the connection between Kiss and Detroit, what with Alive being recorded there in Cobo Hall in ’75, and Detroit Rock City being one of the greatest heavy rock tunes of all time. But the unforeseen power failure pulled the plug on that.

“Oh, you wanna do a serious piece? Cool. I can do serious,” Simmons goofs. “Listen, Kiss has always done well in the working-class heartlands of America because we are working-class music. Escapism, living your dreams – that’s what we sell to people who want out of the drudgery and who are seeking entertainment.”

Whatever you may think of his prehistoric attitude to women, Simmons has a remarkably likeable personality. Brought to America by his concentration-camp survivor mum in the mid-1950s, the young Chaim Weitz was weaned on a steady diet of US horror comics and films and The Ed Sullivan Show. His early heroes were always characters of fantasy, and that, combined with his mother’s inbred sense of self-preservation, left a deep impression on the man who would create Kiss’s darkest and most magnetic stage persona. Simmons never, not even for a second, stops thinking about Kiss and what he can do next. And now, with “two New York Times best-selling books” under his belt (the new one, Money, Sex, Kiss, was just out; cost: $24.99 direct to your door), he feels he has even more of a legitimate platform from which to spout his life’s collected wisdom.

“In many ways Kiss has a lot more to do with rappers, both spiritually and aesthetically, than with grunge rock music,” he says without even the slightest hint of irony. “We’re both about tits ’n’ ass and bling-bling; we’re both about succeeding in the American dream. The lowest rungs of society can have access to the power. Hey, the president of this nation, the last and only remaining true world super-power, is a leader who can’t correctly pronounce nuclear – he consistently pronounces ‘nuucler’ – and he’s aware of it and makes no apologies.

“Why have Kiss lasted in a town like Detroit? ’Cos we appeal to the real masses, the great unwashed of America. And like George Dub-ya, we too make no apologies for it. If the people didn’t want us, then we wouldn’t be touring in our 30th year, taking $2 million a night on the gate, now would we?”

And he has a point. As Simmons will go on to remind us, the Kiss/Aerosmith tour was then the second highest-grossing tour of 2003 in America (Metallica’s mammoth ‘Summer Sanitarium’ stadium-hopper took some beating). Given the legacies of both Kiss and Aerosmith, and the sheer size of the egos involved, how was it even feasible to begin to bring a tour like this together? Someone always has to go on first.

DETROIT ROCK CITY

But, unlikely as this seems, given their reputations for being business hard-asses, it was Kiss who volunteered to open on every single night. Now surely the stockholders of the Kiss Army plc weren’t too impressed with their favourite men in make-up opening for another band?

“When we get up on the stage I like to think we pee on the ground and claim our territory,” Simmons answers with a smirk. “Any champion worth his salt does that, ’cos males can’t help but compete for who is powerful and who’s bigger in the pecking order. But any true champion will never be in competition with anyone but himself.”

Pausing for a split second to push aside the bravado, he adds: “We’ve known each other [the two bands] through the years, and we’ve always wanted to do it, it’s just been a matter of waiting for the planets to line up. Joe Perry played on my solo record in 1978, and he’s been to see Kiss many times socially; likewise I’ve seen them. I think you can fairly say this is a mutual admiration society. No one does what Aerosmith does but them. That said, there are those who would’ve rather bet evens on the imminent arrival of the second coming than believe that a made-up, bomb-wielding Kiss would have ever agreed to step out on to a stage before another band. After all, isn’t the Kiss mantra bigger, better, louder than anyone else?

“We had long discussions about who was going to go on first. We took all the ego out of the discussions and just said: ‘Who cares? It doesn’t matter. We’ll do it.’ If at this late date in our lives we are still concerned about what people say about Aerosmith going on after us, then we’re wearing a hollow crown. All the ego is gone.

“Backstage, where the managers are carefully circling each other like growling guard dogs, Steve and I are in the hallways tossing bad jokes at each other. ‘Why do men die younger than their wives? ’Cos they can!’ ‘What do all women do with their assholes? They send them to work!’

“Both bands set up a dinner the day before the first show, to sit there with no managers or handlers. We don’t need bodyguards. I’m six-two and 215 pounds; what do you want to say to me? There are no wars to be had on this tour, and only the crowd is gonna get annihilated.”

Soundbites aside, the bonhomie (and the cash, never forget the cash) is flowing so well that the dynamic duo have been busy extending the tour from its initial 25-date, one day on/one day off run in the US to 40 shows, and then on through Australia, South America and Japan. Kiss have also rather cannily reserved the first five rows of each arena for die-hard fans who are paying $1,000 per head for a platinum package which includes a meet and backstage photo with the band. That’s about 100 seats per row. You do the maths.

Paul Stanley strides into the room with an almost royal air. Simmons has just tried to set him up by prompting me to continue a line of questioning about why Robbie Williams is failing to catch on in the States.

“Too much of a mommy’s boy,” is Simmons’s summation, before adding that you can be a screaming queen if you like, as long as that’s exactly who you are and make no bones about it. “Anyway, Paul Stanley’s here so you can ask him about camp frontmen, can’t you?” he says with a devilish grin, before grabbing his laptop and scuttling off, satisfied with his mischief. For his part, Stanley simply rolls his eyes with a well-practised air of tolerance.

As Stanley settles himself down there’s an intriguing difference in confidence in the room now. Where Simmons demands attention and is prepared to entertain you with a variety of jokes, potted wisdom and salacious scandal in order to get his due, Stanley already understands that you’re there to see him. Then aged 53, Stanley is a surprisingly well-preserved rock star; he looked 10 years younger than his weathered partner. But when he spoke it was very different from the verbal diarrhoea that Simmons delivered on cue. You got the feeling that, when the two got down to discussing the Kiss empire, while Simmons brought the thunder and lightning, Stanley may actually have brought the real plan – it was he who brought about the original re-formation tour in 1996, for example.

SYMPHONY: ALIVE IV

“Some other members were not so keen on it,” Stanley recalls. “I was adamant and made it very clear that now was the time. All the planets had lined up; it was now or never.”

Be sure that despite the outward softness and quiet tone, when Stanley speaks his mind it can stop even Simmons dead in his tracks. The pair may share the same unyielding world vision for Kiss, but they have dramatically differing views on what they have achieved and how to go about climbing the next mountain. It was also Stanley’s idea to get the Kiss/Aerosmith show on the road.

“The Kiss mentality has always been to think large. That’s our way of looking at things and, certainly during the 70s, we approached Aerosmith about doing a stadium tour together. For a lot of reasons – scheduling, and all the other problems that were going on within both bands – it didn’t happen then. But I clearly remember three years ago being at a party with some of their management and saying: ‘Kiss and Aerosmith – why don’t we do it now?’

“It took a few more years to get this to happen, but now we’ve got this moving we don’t want to stop it. There is no reason not to take this everywhere. It is such a great night of music. It isn’t about trying to annihilate the other band, it’s about having pride in what you do. We’ve never played this well before, and the bombs have never been this big before – they’re so powerful that they shake me and rattle my teeth!”

The ebullient figure sitting before me was a far cry from the Paul Stanley who completed Kiss’s Farewell Tour in 2001. Back then it seemed unlikely that the singer would ever climb into Kiss make-up again after publicly criticising the performances of guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss. But now, well, he was a refreshed champion back in the ring defending his prize.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Stanley insists. “Everything you did got you where you are. Peter, for whatever reason, has come back in great spirits, playing as well as I can remember. Certainly better than he played on the previous few tours. There have been nights when the humidity has been up to 85 per cent and you might as well be in a steam room. I can barely hold the guitar some nights, and I think to myself: ‘Wow, that guy is out there pounding those drums.’ We are all out there doing our job. When we are on stage now I look into people’s eyes and I think: ‘Damn, we are hot shit, aren’t we?!’”

According to Simmons, Criss – Kiss’s eldest statesman – had a complete personality switch: “I’m the same guy that said Peter was a fuck-up for decades. I’ve said it to his face, in print and in my books. But Peter has had an epiphany, has been born again. At this late stage in his life he has matured. We used to joke that his name should be the Ayatollah Crisscoula – the moaner. But now Peter is great to be around. Whether it’s God that he has found, or his new wife Gigi, I don’t know. But I hope he continues to take the spiritual medicine for as long as he lives, because he’s a happy guy. And when Peter is happy the whole world is happy.”

However, not everyone was as happy with this Clash Of The Titans venture as Simmons and company. Erstwhile Kiss guitarist Ace Frehley, the chemically fuelled rocket man who many believe put the real excitement into the band’s increasingly corporate appreciation of rock’n’roll, certainly wasn’t. Frehley refused to join the band for the tour, citing that the Farewell Tour was supposed to be just that, and anyway, he had a solo album to make. Kiss didn’t miss a beat. They’d been faced with a similar blackmail situation two years previously when Criss refused to take part in the Far East leg of the aforementioned globe-trot. The band simply called upon non-make-up-era drummer Eric Singer – complete with kittycat facepaint and black hair dye. Two years on, Criss was back, but ex-Black ’N Blue guitarist Tommy Thayer had replaced Frehley.

Following the Kiss tradition of never doing things by halves, Thayer made his live debut with Kiss in February, dressed in full Frehley spaceman mode, while the band were recording Alive IV: Kiss Symphony in Melbourne, Australia, backed by a 30-piece orchestra. In fact it seems that had Ace wanted to tour, not everyone in Kiss would have been that happy about it.

PSYCHO CIRCUS LIVE

“When you have people in the band who are ambivalent about being there, then they shouldn’t be there,” a bristling Stanley comments. “A year and a half ago Ace put us in a position where it was impossible to have him back again. There were certain things that he was requesting that were not to be. Maybe it was his way of putting us in a position where we would reach the end of the relationship. It always goes back to the idea that the team doesn’t go home if one person doesn’t want to play. Ace is better for this, too.”

While Stanley speaks of the errant guitarist as he would of a rebellious teen, it’s clear from his stiffened posture and the finality in the voice that there is a great irritability stirring inside. But like the proud mom of Kiss that he is, he isn’t the type to hang that dirty laundry out in public.

Surprisingly, when it came to discussion of Frehley, it was Simmons who spoke with affection, albeit in a tired, fatherly way: “Ace is one of four guys that started a band with us more than 30 years ago,” he says. “We all shared the same spirit and the same drive back then. But not everybody is built of the same stuff. Ace has had health problems. On the Farewell Tour, Ace succumbed to whatever demons that have haunted him and continue to. We love him and we wish him all the best but I don’t want Ace to die on tour. It’s the wrong place for him.”

So there you go: Ace Frehley was a royal pain in the butt and still got loaded too many times for Kiss’s comfort.

Unfortunately for Frehley, one of the conditions of his readmission into Kiss in 1996 (for a cool $5 million, we are led to believe by ‘contracts’ posted on various Kiss fan websites at the time) was the stipulation that his trademarked ‘Space Ace’ make-up would be owned by GAPP [that’s Gene And Paul Productions to the rest of us]. That meant anyone they wanted to could wear that Ace make-up. No arguments and goodnight, Mr Frehley.

For Simmons it was simply a business matter, being allowed to exist as a touring entity beholden to no one individual: “Tommy shows up on time and there are never any arguments. Tommy is actually a better guitar player than Ace, too. He may not be the originator, but when we got back together to rehearse in 1995 Ace and Peter were damaged goods and Tommy had to teach both of them their parts. He continued to rehearse with them for many, many months until they were ready,” Simmons argues by way of justifying Thayer’s place in the band.

Indeed, it was Stanley who offered the most telling soundbite of all when he quietly, yet very firmly, stated: “If it looks like Kiss and it sounds like Kiss, it is Kiss.”

But how valid was Kiss in this day and age? Unlike Aerosmith, who had the perennial capacity to swoon MTV every year with a new hit, Kiss’s best songs were now all old classics; they hadn’t delivered any truly stirring songs since the end of the 70s. Yes, they consistently delivered hits throughout their unmasked 80s era, but that success was never enough to rank alongside the heady days of the 70s when the average American teen could hop TV channels to watch The Six Million Dollar Man, Charlie’s Angels and The Incredible Hulk, then catch a glimpse of a young Gene Simmons, illuminated by a back wall of flame and drooling blood onto the front rows of an awe-struck audience.

A generation on, and nearly every US band going cited Kiss as an influence in some way, even if only aesthetically (Slipknot, anyone?). So if you’re looking to assess the impact of Kiss on the world, then perhaps the cultural factor is more pertinent than any musical one?

“I understand what you mean about our cultural significance – although we have had everyone from Garth Brooks to Cher cover our songs,” Simmons says with obvious pride.

“Led Zeppelin, still, to this day, have yet to attain any mainstream credibility. You and I think they are great, but if you walk down the street and ask Joe Public who was in Zeppelin, they won’t know.

“I think that’s appalling. That says something about how you market yourself. Because if you just approach it from the point of view that you’re only a musician, then remember that the masses don’t necessarily only buy into music, they go to concerts because they’ve read a story in the paper and believe that there is something of interest. It’s all about the seduction of people to buy into you. And if nothing else people know the name Gene Simmons, because that’s the guy that sticks his tongue out!”

However, as the keeper of Kiss’s musical flame, Paul Stanley disagrees: “Musically our impact has just been diversified, that’s all. We permeate many different musical forms. During the 80s it was a lot more blatant, I would see bands that were pretty godawful versions of us. But I think that the impact we’ve had musically is obvious when you see all the other younger rock bands out there today who cite us as an inspiration.”

After such a long time in the music industry nearly every veteran act will reach the point where, business-wise at least, it’s simply not advisable to record an album of new material for fear that it will only taint the legacy and dampen enthusiasm for a mega-tour. AC/DC manage an album every four years, Ozzy and Aerosmith about the same; even Metallica had slipped into a greatest hits modus operandi that summer, leaving perhaps Iron Maiden as the only established metal act on the scene knocking out new albums with regular aplomb.

Kiss hadn’t had a new record since 1998’s Psycho Circus, and since then it’d been one greatest hits collection after another, a box set and a millennium-eve live recording of Alive IV canned at the last minute by the band in favour of 2003’s full symphony-backed extravaganza. By then in control of their own record company, Kiss Records, which was run through the giant Sanctuary organisation, all that seemed about to change. The Kiss Symphony double album was Kiss’s first release on the label, and both Simmons and Stanley fully intended to release second solo albums at some point through the label, too. But what of a completely new Kiss record?

“It’s definitely possible,” Stanley says. “My only concern is that there are no bands around who have stood the test of time like us; whose albums, no matter how good they are of late, aren’t hummed and hawed about: ‘Oh, it’s not as good as Kiss Alive, is it?’” the singer chides playfully.

“We’re up against a legacy. And whether I think we live up to it is one thing, people on the street will think differently. We are competing against their past and everything that is attached to it. They are remembering when they were 15, bought Destroyer and got laid for the first time; they were going to parties and life was fun. So it’s not just about the music. While we can certainly package a lot into a new album, we can’t package your life. Would I like to do a new Kiss album? Yes. And my guess is that we will do it, too.”

DESTROYER

One other major production that kept getting bandied around in Kiss’s world – next to the theme park ride (well Aerosmith have one!), the casino, the credit card, the cars and the bikes… – is Kiss: The Musical.

The success of the Queen and ABBA productions hadn’t gone unnoticed by one G. Simmons of Beverley Hills and his accountants. With Stanley already having guested in the lead role of the Vancouver run of Phantom Of The Opera, you’d think a return to the boards playing the Starchild on Broadway might be the next stage role the singer undertook. Stanley, though, remained unconvinced, and had a sharp reproach for his glib-tongued and verbose partner: “Things get bandied about, but maybe you’ve noticed that most of these things never happen. I’m big believer in keeping my mouth shut, because otherwise the more you talk the less credibility you have. The more you build things up, the more people will come back and question you. Is there a Kiss musical? Anything is possible. Whether it will actually come to pass, we shall see. I went to see [the ABBA musical] Mamma Mia and thought it wouldn’t work, but it was fabulous. You can’t argue with good songs. You just need a great system to deliver it.”

One big question that has buzzed around the Kiss universe ever since day one has been whether it even matters who is behind the famous make-up. Back in the 70s there were constant rumours that both Frehley and Criss were deputised by roadies. (For the record, the band maintain it never happened in a live gig scenario until the re-formation tour in 1997, when Criss damaged tendons in his arm and his drum tech took over for a few shows, with the Catman’s full backing.) Both Criss and Frehley have been publicly replaced by doppelgängers at different points, so is it feasible to suggest that Kiss could become the first major band to go out with no original members at all? Maybe Simmons nurtures ideas of selling little Kiss franchises the world over?

Publicly at least, Simmons had no problems with such a concept: “No one is irreplaceable in this band – and yes, that does include me,” he proclaims.

Stanley, however, was more realistic about the implicit difficulties in replacing some of the most iconic figures in rock history: “If I was in agreement, then fine, let’s go find someone to replace me on a tour. But they wouldn’t be able to sing like me,” he maintains. “Truthfully, the funniest thing I find is that in all the Kiss tribute bands I have seen, I’ve always found a great Peter and a great Ace and sometimes even a great Gene too, but I have never seen anyone and thought it was a great Paul Stanley.

“Maybe what I have learnt is that Kiss is really timeless,” Stanley concludes. “When someone talked to me about a 2005 tour a few days ago, I first thought that they were out of their mind. Now I can see that it’s possible. If we can get up there and be as ageless and timeless on stage as we are as in people’s memories, then we can do it. These shows just reinforce in me and the band the viability of what we do.”

It looked like Kiss 40th Anniversary Tour tickets might be on sale soon.

I WANNA ROCK AND ROLL ALL NIGHT