In a cavernous room somewhere within the innards of London’s O2 Arena, Gene Simmons is being Gene Simmons. Kiss’s bassist, singer and controversialist-in-chief has just been asked what it would take to entice him, Donald Trump-style, into politics when the day comes that Kiss no longer exist. What we get in reply is Gene Simmons’s Greatest Hits.
“The only way I would run for office is if you give me absolute power,” he says. “Give it to me for a week. I would put paedophiles to death, no waiting. What would you do if someone touched your kid? You’d fucking kill them, right?”
He’s nicely warmed up now. “Drug dealers? If you’re a heroin addict, you get a certificate, you report for duty, and if you’re not clean in X amount of time you’re going to be in a work camp some place away from civilisation, chopping wood. Because you’re a vampire, sucking life out of society.”
Then he’s into the grand finale. “Do I believe in the death penalty? You bet your fucking ass I do. But it’s inhumane how we do it. Do it the way the Chinese do it: you’re asleep in a bunk and (mimes shooting a gun). It’s more humane.”
That’s a hell of a ticket you’ll be running for president on in 2020, Gene.
“I don’t like the word ‘president’,” he says with a knowing smirk. “I prefer ‘benevolent dictator’.”
The best thing about Gene Simmons is that you know exactly what you’re going to get, which is either business advice, provocative bullshit or some combination of both. That’s not to say he doesn’t believe this guff – he does, that’s for sure – but there’s a large element of playing to the gallery mixed in too.
But then he’ll only go and pull the rug out from under your feet. Last night, Kiss were supposed to play a show at Manchester Arena – a gig that was cancelled following the terrorist attack at an Ariana Grande concert eight days earlier. Simmons says that the band still wanted to play the show as a show of solidarity with the victims of the atrocity, “but the police, god bless them, wouldn’t let us in”. And then, suddenly, Batshit Crazy Dictator Gene is replaced by Philosophical Gene.
“We held a moment’s silence on stage in Birmingham,” he says. “We will do it every night. It’s emotional for me. I was born in Israel, a country where every day there’s something that goes on like this. These people [the terrorists] are young men and women who are convinced in their religious points of view. During World War II there were entire countries, tens of millions of people, who believed in extreme philosophies. The Japanese were suicidal. And then they woke up. And now Japan’s our closest friend. So is Germany. This too shall pass.”
You sound optimistic.
“Yeah. Because the children of Hitler aren’t Hitler. I don’t believe in nature. I believe in nurture. Which is why I believe Baywatch should be seen around the world by red-blooded men everywhere. That would change your point of view.”
And with that, Gandhi is gone and the God Of Thunder is back in the room. Normal service has been resumed.
This is Kiss’s first full UK tour in five years, and, despite recent tragic events, it’s close to being sold out. There are a few empty seats up in the gods, but for the most part this 18,000-capacity venue is packed. Its testament to the devotion that still surrounds them after all these years that not one person is wearing a T-shirt featuring the name of a band other than Kiss. It’s an impressive achievement, given that their fans’ patience has been tested more than once during the group’s 45-year career. But then so has the patience of the band themselves.
“There have been moments that have been tough,” says Paul Stanley, sitting in the same faceless backstage bunker, an hour after Gene. “But never so tough that it hasn’t been worth it, at least not for me. Everybody is free to leave Kiss, but I’m not going anywhere.”
Stanley is the polar opposite of Simmons. Where Gene is as jokey and as provocative as a slightly deranged old uncle, Paul is serious and attentive. There’s none of the camp ringmaster shtick he wheels out on stage (spoiler alert: it’s an act). Instead he talks repeatedly about being “blessed” at having had such a long, mostly successful and undoubtedly lucrative career. He doesn’t even roll his eyes when the subject of his long and sometimes turbulent relationship with his more outré bandmate is raised.
“We’ve helped create a life for each other that is far beyond anything we could have anticipated,” he says placidly. “I think that with time I have come to realise that if you don’t expect things from someone who can’t give them to you, it doesn’t affect you. The key to a great partnership is knowing its limitations. Once you’re aware of that it’s smooth sailing.”
Anyone with a few thousand pounds to spare can get to see that partnership up close. Part of the Kiss VIP package involves a 30-minute acoustic set held in the trés glamorous confines of one of the O2’s hangar-sized loading bays. There’s a moment of pure comedy when a fleet of jet-black, rock star-approved people carriers pulls up behind the hastily erected flame backdrop, to excited cheers from the 100 or so diehards gathered here, only for the band to come strolling in through the main entrance a few moments later. There’s another when Stanley invites the pre-teen cast of the West End musical School Of Rock on stage, only to summarily dismiss them without them singing or playing a note.
The idea behind the acoustic set is simple: play five or six songs, take some requests, have a bit of a banter. Except no one has told Gene, who spends chunks of the show wandering off to talk to a various people on the edges of the audience (among them his half-brother Kobi Weitz and his family).
“Do you want to come over here and play for the people who have paid to see you?” Stanley says to him at one point, sounding like an exasperated wife whose errant husband has wandered off to chat up the barmaid again. He purses his lips, a look that he’s seen it all before many times over.
While the audience participation aspect seems to consist of Stanley shouting out for requests, then playing whatever the band were going to play anyway (“What’s that? Forever? Here’s Got To Choose”), it’s still a rare chance to see both band and songs stripped down to their metaphorical underpants. Free of the flash-bang-wallop, you can hear the British influences in their music: the freewheeling Who attack of Plaster Caster, or the blatant Faces homage that is Hard Luck Woman. It also gives them a chance to air songs they’d never dare play during a regular Kiss show, namely late-80s radio hit Hide Your Heart and early-90s power ballad Every Time I Look At You, two songs everyone assumed had been buried in a Kiss Koffin years ago along with Simmons’s grunge-era goatee.
Looking on is a tall, skinny guy in his early 20s with tightly curled hair. This is Evan Stanley, son of Paul and frontman with tonight’s opening band The Dives. Father and son are both aware of the accusations of nepotism that can be hurled their way, and both bat them away. “This band stands on its own two feet,” Stanley Jr says politely but defiantly, “no matter who my dad is.”
That would be an issue if The Dives were terrible, but they are a long way from that. There’s little of the headliners’ sturdy stadium rock in their DNA. Instead Man Oh Mandy takes its power-pop cues from Cheap Trick and Tom Petty, and while Everybody’s Talkin’ lifts its title from Harry Nilsson, the tune is Squeeze’s Up The Junction with an expensive American private school education. But The Dives seem to have a hunger that so many bands of their generation lack. Evan attacks both his guitar and the mic stand like a de-geekified Elvis Costello. If this is what nepotism gets you, bring it on.
It’s a long time since Kiss have been truly hungry, in either the figurative or literal sense, and they’re determined to ease into old age as lucratively as possible. With no sign of a follow-up to 2012’s tepidly received Monster on the horizon, these days it’s all about the live show: specifically, the spectacle and the gate receipts.
“Would we make a new album?” says Simmons. “Yeah, there’s a lot more material that can come out. But I’m not thrilled by the business model. Kiss is not a charity. We do lots of things that are free – we work with veterans, we give to charity, all that stuff – but this is a job. Do you get paid for what you do? Yes you do. Well, I want to get paid too. I don’t want to have some college kid decide to download what I’ve paid for and file share it. I’m not going to play that game.”
Criticising Kiss for rampant capitalism is like kicking a dog for licking its balls. And to be fair, it’s not like they stint on the stage show. The sheer amount of pyro involved in tonight’s performance could provide enough firepower to back up a small army invading an oil-rich Middle Eastern country. The explosions begin in the first song and they don’t let up until the end.
The 14-song set-list is predictably predictable. We get the hits (Lick It Up, I Love It Loud, God Of Thunder, Rock And Roll All Nite, Detroit Rock City, Crazy Crazy Nights, Firehouse) and a lone dusted-down deep(ish) cut (Flaming Youth, from Destroyer, a welcome addition). Unsurprisingly, there are no new songs tonight. In fact there are just two that are less than 30 years old: the title track to their 1996 album Psycho Circus (better now than it sounded at the time) and Oh Yeah, from 2009’s Sonic Boom (forgettable then, the dictionary definition of ‘toilet break’ now).
But it’s never been about the songs with Kiss. Or at least it hasn’t just been about the songs. Everyone here is here to see Gene burp blood and get hoisted up to the ceiling during the bass solo (rudimentary, but that’s not the point), or Paul fly across the arena to the small stage in the middle of the crowd.
There are moments where you just feel like face-palming yourself. The moment’s silence for Manchester is a classy touch, but it’s instantly undermined when Stanley introduces the next song literally seconds later with the words: “Are there any ladies here who like getting licked?” Less seriously, but more worryingly, Stanley’s voice appears to be in the process of giving up the ghost: he struggles to hit the notes in the between-song raps, never mind during the songs themselves
Gene Simmons has talked recently of how much gas Kiss have left in their tank (three or four years’ worth is his estimate). Earlier, he’d responded to the question of impending retirement with characteristic candour. “No, we don’t have an expiration date,” he says. “But look at it like this: we’re the hardest-working band in showbusiness, period. I’m a great fan of Bono and Jagger and Sting. They’re in great shape. But they’re not walking around in seven-inch dragon boots that weigh ten pounds apiece. They’re not wearing studded armour that weighs twenty pounds or so, or carrying a twelve-pound guitar guitar. We are. No, we don’t have an expiration date, but I don’t want us to be that band who get on stage and just stand still. You either do this for real or get off the stage.”
For all the wear and tear of age, let’s hope they continue to put both the ‘show’ and ‘business’ in ‘showbusiness’ for as long as it’s physically possible. Because otherwise, Gene Simmons might just run for President. And nobody wants that.