Thursday, September 4, 2008

Guilty Pleasure #2 or "You wanted the best, you got the best, the hottest blog in the world..."


About 15 years ago, KISS was doing a decent job of taking the guilt out of the pleasure. They'd just released their best album in almost a decade. They reunited with the original line-up in its full grease-painted glory. They had a definite cache among the grunge bands so popular at the time. It almost got to the point where I didn't have to defend my membership in the KISS Army any more.

Well, they certainly took care of that... Two miserable studio albums, a never ending "good bye" tour in which various members of the original members didn't take part, being replaced by ringers in full make up, bad solo releases by Gene and Paul, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, the endless recycling of their earlier material in semi-annual compilations of widely varying quality, and, of course, the continued bizarre packaging of the KISS brand (y'all have your official KISS coffin yet?) all served to put the guilt back into being a KISS fan.

More than a few people have commented that KISS was always more of a concept or a brand-name than a rock band. I take issue with that. KISS started out as a rock band. One whose most distinguishing feature for many - the black and white stage dress - wasn't all that original in the time and place they were coming from. I sometime fantasize about what would have happened if Alive! had tanked back in 1975 and Casablanca had dropped the band. KISS would have been remembered as the missing link between the New York Dolls and the Dictators. They'd have been filed right in there with a bunch of other pre-punk New York bands that never put out more than a couple albums and were more famous posthumously than when they were when actually alive.

Don't believe me? Check out Mojo Magazine (I'll update with the exact issue) and check out the picture of Paul Stanley and Dave Johanssen hanging out at a party in c. 1972, both with white face paint on. There are two major differences between KISS and a number of their New York City contemporaries: They were much more successful and they stuck around much longer. But the similarities, at least at the start of their career, were more than the differences. They were just as girl-group and pop-obsessed as Blondie and the Ramones. In fact, I think the Ramones is a good point of reference. Both bands were simply starving to be super-stars. Both were criticized as musical hacks and gimic groups. The Ramones received the eventual critical praise, KISS had the multi-platinum albums.

A great look at KISS early in their career is the first volume of the KISSology DVD collection. You can see that they had their on-stage personas fully developed from a very early point of their career. The "easter egg" of the 1973 club show shows them going though all the same stage moves during "Deuce" that they would throughout their careers. The evolution that you see is in their off-stage attitude. You see them move from menacing zombie street-gang punks to weirdo kabuki super-heroes.

But the music... the music. KISS wanted to be the heavy metal Beatles. Very ambitious, but largely they pulled off the ambition.

Their eponymous first album (1974) is arguably their best studio album. It's full of songs they'd been playing together live for years. These are road tested, solid songs that still stand the test of time. "Deuce," "Strutter," "Gold Gin," "Firehouse," "Black Diamond." All songs that would feature prominantly in KISS's live shows for the remainder of their career. I think "Deuce" and "Black Diamon," in particular, are quite strong on this album, being better than the numerous live versions that would be released over the next few decades. The production is raw and garage-y. It's KISS's punkiest album. It's also one of their deepest. Beyond the well-known songs, you have "deep tracks" like "Let Me Know," "100,000 Years," and "Love Theme from KISS" that stand up against any of their later work. The guitar interplay between Paul and Ace is fantastic, and secret weapon, Peter, is in great voice, adding his gritty voice to "Nothin' to Lose" and "Black Diamond."

Hotter than Hell (1974) is also made up of songs that had been played together on the road for years. But these are "the bottom of the barrel." Largely all of the best songs on Hotter than Hell are found in better versions on other albums, Alive! in particular. However, such obscurities as Gene's bizarro old-man love ballad, "Goin' Blind" (excellently covered by the Melvins on Houdini) are worth checking out for all but the most casual fans.

I'll continue part II soon.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Guilty Pleasures

I hear "guilty pleasures" a lot when us music snobs are talking about the music we actually listen to, rather than the music we say we like to listen to. Like when you hear a guy talking about how cool he thinks the new Radiohead album is, when you just KNOW he's got a Justin Timberlake CD in his car stereo... Guilty Pleasure. He ain't man enough to cop to what he's really groovin' to.

Anyway, here's my top three guilty pleasures (although some readers would probably argue that I don't show much guilt in the first place in listening to low-quality music... be that as it may...) in order from least guilty to most guilty.

#3. Alice Cooper. I don't know if Alice qualifies anymore. He's become rock n' roll's slightly eccentric older uncle with some really great stories about the crap he pulled back in the 70's. This in comparison to Ozzy's bat-shit-crazy-who's-going-to-pay-for-Uncle-Larry's-stay-in-the-home-after-we-have-him-committed burden on the family. As Alice's utterly insane peak has receded from memory, leaving a middle aged father who likes to golf, it's become a lot easier to listen to his music when no one's beheading a dwarf or sacrificing live chickens on stage while slugging an entire fifth of rum during the instrumental fade out of "Eighteen."

What you end up with is a bizarre combination of vaudeville show tunes, hard, hard, hard garage rock, an incredibly perceptive and funny lyricist, and a singer with a fantastically warm, charismatic voice. Just take the Billion Dollar Babies album... and I won't even talk about the hits... the hidden masterpieces only...

"Raped and Freezin'" a fantastic garage rocker, flipping the rock star/groupie relationship around, turning the pursuer in the pursued, with our hero only escaping by running out the hotel room naked into the cold Mexican night. That the rock n' roll collapses on itself into a Mariachi band only serves to seal the deal.

"Unfinished Sweet" a tale of everyday terror: going to the dentist. Featuring the mouth harp. Of course. "De Sade is gonna dance on my molars tonight." "Take it to the doc 'cus he ought to know... He says my teeth are o.k., but my gums got to go." And then the electric drill solo guaranteed to make everyone in the room squirm, painful moaning, followed by a break into the Peter Gunn theme, guitar solo, a strange yanking sound, tension mounts, tooth pulled, back to the mouth harp. Genius.

"Generation Landslide" A great, great song. Maybe my favorite ever by anyone. What if babies were in charge? In this case, what if babies were really aliens and decided to take over the world? "They looked just like humans in Kresge's and Woolworth's, but decadent brains were at work to destroy." "Brats in batallion ruling the streets, said generation landslide closed the gap between them."

"Molotov milk bottles." "Bankers son's hours." How many fantastic throw away lines do you need in one song? And then the jaw-droppingly beautiful guitar solo. I'm not a shred-head. I like my guitar lyrical. And this is as lyrical as it gets. Glenn Buxton was a fantastic guitarist, and I have no idea why he never did anything of consequence (musically, I mean... I don't know the man, I'm sure he did something of consequence outside of music later on) after this album.

"I Love the Dead" Rock n' Roll's appeal in many respects has often been founded on making the forbidden seem appealing. I think a straight faced argument can be made that the fear of miscegenation (you know, black folks and white folks getting it on in bed or wherever else together) was what caused the orignal backlash against rock n' roll in the late 50's. The whole "jungle beat" complaint was racist code. Basically, what they were really saying was, "This music makes you wanna dance like an African, and if you want to dance like an African, sooner or later you're gonna want to dance with an African, and if you're dancin' with an African, sooner or later, you're actually gonna talk to that African, and go maybe share a chocolate milkshake, and before you know it, I've got me a bunch of mixed race grand kids running around, and how will I ever explain that to my buddies at the next Klan rally?"

So, with "I Love the Dead" Alice takes things one step beyond. Well, it's more than one step... "Hey Ma, if you don't like me running around with that black girl, get a load of this!"

This is a basic truth: THERE HAS NEVER BEEN A BAD SONG ABOUT NECROPHILIA!!! Alice just happens to do it better than everybody else. (And by "everybody else," I mean Slayer, because I don't think anyone else has ever done a song about necrophilia.)

What's so mind-blowing about "I Love the Dead" is that it's not even Alice's best song about necrophilia. That's "Cold Ethyl" from Welcome to My Nightmare.

In all seriousness, though, no lesser person than Bob Dylan has said that Alice is one of America's most overlooked songwriters. And in Alice, you get all the great American contradictions: gauche but somehow classy, dumb in a really smart way, sexy, ugly, endlessly creative and talented, but using all that talent and creativity in ways that nobody would have thought of and certainly never approved of.

#2 next time...