Trying (and failing) to crack the KISS code

kisshalifax
I’ve got posters on the wall
My favourite rock group KISS
I’ve got Ace Frehley
I’ve got Peter Criss

When I rediscovered the Blue Album years after its initial release, I remember being befuddled by those lyrics. What on earth did Rivers Cuomo see in a bunch of made-up dudes playing cookie-cutter riff rock? Having grown up in a world where KISS’ relevance appeared to have dissipated, I reasonably presumed that they were nothing more than a joke, a one-note gag that may have seemed groundbreaking in 1975 but was every bit as comically out-of-date as the disco craze that they seemingly stood in opposition to.

There are a lot of my hipster brethren that share this point of view; maybe I still do as well. But the KISS army is still strong continues to recruit new members and find supporters in interesting places. So it was with a healthy curiosity that I agreed to volunteer as event staff for Saturday’s Halifax Rocks 2009 festival, which featured “the hottest band in the land” – technically still true thanks to their ridiculous amount of fireworks – and a collection of their more current rock brethren.

I use “current” as a relative term. There was something fascinatingly odd about seeing both Econoline Crush and Thornley on the bill, both still relying on the highlights from their 1997 breakthrough records – Crush’s The Devil You Know and Big Wreck’s In Loving Memory of… – as the touchpoints of their sets, with the rest of the material just sort of ‘there.’ The Trews, who played the evening’s penultimate set, fared better not only because they’re a success from this century, but because they remain an incredibly tight live band with one of the best vocalists in Canadian rock music right now.

But what is “rock music” exactly? The narrowcasting of “rock” is as much about identity as anything else, with the “meat and potatoes” riff rock that dominated the bill fitting into a cultural signification that involves an alpha-thought simplicity and a conformist-approved radical edge. It’s formula, but played loud with the sex drive turned up high to make it sound more rebellious than it actually is. People listen to rock music because they want to rock – sincerely or ironically – just as people listen to indie music because they want to be indie. We aren’t what we listen to, necessarily, but we do listen to what we want to be; an important distinction.

Were KISS just about the music, I probably could stop here in explaining the band’s appeal. But as my friend Adam points out in his quality review for The Coast, the band hasn’t really been about the music for some time now. Not only is the quality of their playing a bit suspect – the vocals, in particular, are never quite top-shelf – but, frankly, a lot of their music is crazy redundant. There’s no denying the greatness of their biggest hits, and the encore, made up of many of them, was top-shelf entertainment. But even a set based around their Alive record drags in repetition of riff after riff. And don’t get me started on the 10-minute solos for guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer; 70s rock indulgence at its worst.

KISS are not about creating NEW music either. Saturday night’s show saw the band build their entire main set around tracks from their first Alive live record, playing them more or less in the same order. This meant that every song came from the band’s first three studio releases until the encore, and even then they played nothing later than 1983’s “Lick it Up.” I had to have a good chuckle at the moment when Paul stopped to hype their new album (due out October 6) by claiming it would be every bit as good as anything we’d be hearing that night. And yet, the band never let us put that claim to the test by playing anything from it.

So is KISS really just about the spectacle? That’s clearly a big part of it, for sure. We got fireworks, we got fire-breathing, we got flying Paul Stanley AND flying Gene Simmons, we got guitars that shoot explosives, we got piles of confetti. All fun and good, and it was certainly entertaining but it was done with a curious lack of irony. I mean, this stuff is all patently ridiculous, and yet the band and the crowd both seem to treat it as if it is truly, authentically entertaining. At a certain point – I think it was Paul Stanley awkwardly asking the crowd to invite him to join them, like he was a vampire desperate to find a way into the house – I began to wonder if my brain was just not wired to appreciate KISS.

The closest I came to understanding the band’s appeal didn’t occur at the show itself but afterwards, as Adam and I were comparing notes. I was complaining about how silly it was that Thayer should get a 10-minute solo, considering that he’s not even one of the band’s original, iconic members. Adam replied, “well that’s Frehley’s solo.” Something clicked: there’s a ritualism to the whole experience that’s more important than any silly details like “original band members.” People love KISS because they perform as KISS should, because they go through the motions and perform exactly what people expect of them. For KISS fans, the fact that they know in advance that Gene is going to breathe fire doesn’t ruin things; hell, they demand it. No surprises, sure, but no disappointments either. 100% reliable.

It made me think about something I said to one of my coworkers earlier in the day. We were watching this silly Guitar Hero competition taking place on stage, with one guy playing stiff as a log and the other (in full KISS makeup, no less) rocking out like he was having the time of his life. I said that the latter should win even if he gets less points, because rock and roll is 5 per cent what you actually play and 95 per cent how you look doing it. KISS may not hit all the notes, and they certainly aren’t interested in challenging their audience, but so long as they look so good doing it I’m pretty sure that the audience couldn’t care less.

Watch: KISS – “Detroit Rock City” live in Halifax

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One response to “Trying (and failing) to crack the KISS code

  1. Pingback: …in which McNutt gives some sober thought to the Halifax concert scandal hangover « McNutt Against the Music·

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