A Fistful of Dollars

Looked at from a Culture Show, Guardian-reading standpoint, there are problems with blood spitting, fire breathing, grease paint wearing, lizard tongued Kiss bassist Gene Simmons. For a start there’s Simmons’ sexual bravado. According to always reliable and easily verified internet sources – e.g. The Sun – the God of Thunder is reputed to have blown the legs off 4,800 women during his prostate-busting bonking career. And then there’s his implicit and absolute faith in capitalism. ‘Don’t live the lie. Be clear, be truthful. Stand there proudly, unapologetically, unabashedly, and say, “I love cash. It will get me everything I want in life.”’ That is just one of many, and not necessarily the most extreme, of Gene’s statement in regards to money – it should be no surprise to learn that Simmons employs the dollar sign for the first character of his surname when signing autographs. The persona he projects – to an extent I feel intentionally – is (to quote Williams from Enter the Dragon) straight out of a comic book. And for the purpose of making Kiss the hottest band on the world between 1975 and 1978 (at least as far as the USA and Japan were concerned) the self-promoting ego and unshakeable self-confidence worked. The larger than life approach played directly into that idea of band members having simple, identifiable personalities – think John, Paul, George and Ringo with the contrast turned up to full, wearing seven inch platform boots and sending Ringo into the rafters on a levitating drum kit. It’s a 2D method of impressing a band into the public consciousness that the managers behind the now ubiquitous boy bands have subsequently employed with such devastating results. Right, Bradley, we’ve got the bad boy, we’ve got the sensitive one, we have got the joker… All we’ve got left is the gay lad… But, Colin, I’m married with two kids… It don’t matter, son, camp it up, we’ve got a demographic to think about… The public get what the public want. Or what they’re told they want. And it is perhaps for this combination of reasons – the groupie sleaze, the uncompromising ego and the adoration of filthy lucre – that Simmons’ song writing and musicianship is overlooked.

 

Which is a shame.

 

Obviously, by and large, the lyrics are spaff. Particularly some of the lyrics to Simmons own songs inside the massively endowed Kiss cannon. ‘Christine Sixteen’, for example. But they serve a purpose and suit the mood of the music. Which is the best that any pop song lyric can hope for. The Kiss general approach to lyrical content feeds into rock music’s highly sexualized, chauvinistic, cock-waving, fist-shaking machismo. But are the lyrics to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’ any more profound? Are they any less damaging to gender politics that Kiss’ ‘Room Service’ or ‘Uh! All night’? And at least – the peculiar Music from the Elder (1981) album aside – Kiss spared us the usual folky babble about fairies, elves and trolls that litter much of the rock music of the 1970s. They followed their own acronym and kept it simple, stupid. As did their music overall. Riffs were copied and absorbed. Ideas from a multitude of sources were drafted in to the Kiss army and albums were released with a Beatles-esque regularity. As Simmons says: ‘Originality is highly overrated. I don’t have an original bone in my body. All I do is take stuff that everybody knows and put it together […] There’s nothing new under the sun.’ Frehley’s lead lines are frequently little more than Chuck Berry licks with a few more fuzz boxes strapped together and those dirty DiMarzios on his Les Paul cranked to 11, though they are no less good for that (I’ve always found the lead break to ‘Callin’ Dr. Love’ – a Simmons song which, according to Paul Stanley in his intro rap on Alive II (1977) is guaranteed to give you Rock n’ Roll pneumonia – particularly melodic), Peter Criss’s drumming is Charlie Watts in a cat suit, and Paul Stanley gave us new Slade anthems long after Noddy and the boys had put the mirrored topper and the Baco foil to one side. It’s all good, wholesome fun.

 

Simmons’s bass playing gets slated on the web forums, but web forums are populated, it has to be said – regardless of whether the forum covers bass guitar, a particular make of car or aspects of the Second World War – by anally retentive know it alls whose only wish is to promulgate their own omniscience about Vauxhall Viva chassis numbers and Nazi troop movements during Operation Barbarossa. So Simmons is no Geddy Lee. But George Harrison was no Eddie Phillips (The Creation) or Jimmy Page (who himself imitated Phillip’s violin bow trick) and yet George still frequently gets listed in the top ten guitarists of all time. Public endearment has a lot do with it. In the Gene Simmons Marmite taste test, a lot of people don’t like the flavour of the promiscuity or the worship of the mighty dollar (which must surely be linked to his understandable, under the circumstances, absolute belief in the American Dream, as the enormously rich and successful son of a Concentration camp survivor who moved to the States when he was eight with only the shirt on his back), or simply can’t see past the Marvel Comics face mask and the two foot tongue.

 

But if you can look beyond all the sexual smoke and the cash flash bombs, the musical rewards are there. Even in Simmons’ bass playing.

 

Take the song ‘Almost Human’ from the Love Gun (1977) album. The guitar riff was a shape he recycled from the Hotter than Hell (1974) song ‘Watching You’ (an anthem for stalkers everywhere), the riff anchored into the bed rock by that open E. But the almost slap quality he gets to his bass in the middle of a heavy song is remarkable, a sound that is perhaps more associated with – God help us – Disco, sitting well amongst all the Hammer House of Horror theatrics. And then there’s the melodic walking bass line he employs in ‘Goin’ Blind’ – a song which is described by Julian Cope in his Kiss essay as, ‘the tragic Mountain-esque tale of a 16-year-old girl and her 93-year-old would be lover. Pete Townshend might have made the guy 45 and we’d shiver; Gene makes him 93 and the cartoon’s intact.’ And Simmons is not afraid of the high registers, notice those little tickles he gets in now and then – like a third of the way through ‘Hotter than Hell’ and in the opening of ‘Saint and Sinner’ from Creatures of the Night (1982) – an album that has a sonic landscape that’s almost as wide as Gene’s ego. Then there’s possibly his finest moment as a bass player – the monumental ‘Detroit Rock City’. The verse bass line in this track has a sense of solid detachment from the main song and the little run he tags to the end of the riff is a delight.

 

No, he’s not the best bassist in the world, and there are no moments like Tom Hamilton from Aerosmith’s (Kiss’ biggest rivals in the 1970s) intro to ‘Sweet Emotion’ in the Kiss catalogue. Frequently he’s happy to hold the beat down rather than engage with it – something which by its monolithic nature, heavy metal music tends to encourage. But listen to Gene and Kiss at their best and you will be rewarded with little moments of beauty and some great, melodic rock songs that will have you shaking your fists and waving your cock. And if you haven’t got a cock? Well, ladies, I’m sure Gene will give you a go with his.