Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Can the Setlist Ever Change?

KISS is on tour.
That may seem a little silly to mention for most of you reading.  You probably already know that and I might as well be saying, “KISS is wearing makeup and there’s pyro effects at the shows!”  Thanks for the obvious there, Dale-O.
Still, here we are with KISS finally on another tour.  Not just a one-night-stand here and there like we’ve seen sometimes, but a full traveling-around-the-country tour, this time with Motley Crue in a co-headliners show.  (At least this time KISS managed to get the closing spot for the tour, unlike that earlier Aerosmith/KISS tour where KISS was always opening … but perhaps that’s a touchy subject for another time.)
As you can expect from the KISS Army, there’s been some speculation as to what songs would be included in the setlist.  As usual, fans couldn’t help but hope to hear some obscure favorites pop up, even though the band has made it quite clear in recent years that the setlist really is not one to change much between tours these days.  “People come to hear the classic songs,” as the band would say, “so there’s no point in disappointing them for a handful of fans that feel they HAVE to hear something else.”  Thus, we have another tour where the band pulls out the old chestnuts: “Detroit Rock City,” “Love Gun,” “God of Thunder,” “Black Diamond,” “Rock and Roll All Nite,” and several others.  One new song made it into the show at least; the new song off the forthcoming album, Monster, “Hell or Hallelujah”; but nothing else that seems uniquely different.
While newer fans always seem surprised, older fans take it the norm.  The band made it clear with previous tours over the past 15 years that things were not going to change, so another tour just like the others was not a shock.  Besides, this tour is a summer one that is in support of … nothing really.  As mentioned, the new album isn’t out until October (after the tour is over) and they’re already promoting the only thing there is to promote, the new single, so there’s no reason to go nuts with the setlist.  It is more of a “let’s have fun” concert tour rather than “let’s push that new album down their throats” one.
Yet, could they have changed things a bit?  Sure – people are buying tickets for the one-two punch of seeing KISS with Crue, so the band really could have been a bit more playful with the list and inserted some unusual older songs into the list.  Certainly, the list seems very heavy on the anthems this time around; perhaps a few alternatives could have made their way in replacement of stuff like “I Love It Loud” or “Shout It Out Loud.”  How’s about a couple of older songs that were concert standards like “I Still Love You” or “Tears Are Falling” in there to spice things up a bit instead of anthem, anthem, anthem?
Some fans also wonder why the band seems determined to have Tommy Thayer go through the motions of being Ace #2 again by having him do “Shock Me.”  Why even do there?  Why not highlight him with a song from … okay, there’s not much signature Thayer music in the band, but that’s not his fault, he just hasn’t been around to contribute much in the way of new music for the band.  However, he did co-write the third single off the Sonic Boom album, “Never Enough.”  It would have been a nice way to incorporate that album in the setlist and not make it feel like the throwaway it now seems (can’t even be bothered with “Modern Day Delilah” anymore?).  All right, obviously they want Tommy to take center-stage for a song and maybe “Never Enough” doesn’t do the job, but why not give him something to make him stand out more as himself instead of “Ace-clone”?  Heck, give him “Miss Mystery” from his Black ‘N Blue days – now THAT would have been something of his own, something out of the ordinary, and also something that was a big enough hit fans in the audience would probably remember it.
Ah, but we know the score.  We’re getting away from the familiar that KISS feels ticket-buyers want when they walk into the arena.  Besides, heaven forbid we remind people Thayer had a career before KISS; it may cause a riot of confusion in the audience. 
The bottom line is people are STILL buying tickets to see those same songs again, so it is not as if the band has a reason to back-up and say, “Oh, okay, you want a different list!”  The fans that wish there would be some type of shake-up can only shrug and watch the same motions to the same songs once again.  It’s fun – like watching a favorite episode of your favorite TV show – but not quite as much fun as discovering a new show for the first time.
Saying that, however, many fans for years have held out hope that KISS would suddenly decide to go in a new direction and shake up the setlist.  We still do it today, even though it’s just as obvious as my saying the band wears makeup and has pyro on-stage that things are not going to change.  With the majority happy in comfort, it probably never will.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Having a Little Fun

video

This is a video I did for a KAOL project back in 2001.  KAOL was a fan-project done by Kathy LaBonte and her MusiCare Online project that put together tribute albums for KISS where proceeds went to charity.  She had been involved in releasing my KISS novel A World Without Heroes back in 2000 as another charity project and was finishing the last in a trilogy of KISS tribute albums that same year, when I had the idea of this video.

The video involved enlisting the help of the man commonly seen as the creator of the KISS Army, Bill Starkey, back in the 1970s.  He also wrote the intro to my new book, KISS FAQ, which will be released in September.  Coming along for the ride was that of Steve Stierwalt, Jr., creator of the fanzine KISS Freaks, who was a good enough sport to let us film this in his home (and use the actual KISS gong he had won in an auction).

It's a fun, silly piece and I like to think we all had a good time with it.  Still, I know that some fans may find a couple of things that seems like an insult about KISS.  Okay, really one - the whole wig gag.  While I think a lot of us fans can easily joke about the many, many hair ... things that the band members have worn over the years, I also know that some fans take offense to any joking about the band at all.  It's understandable - you spend your life with people around you who make fun of your love for KISS and you think you can find some type of sanctuary around other fans, only for them to do much of the same at times.  "If you're a big fan, why are you always ragging on them?"

But no one is a fan of anything if they hate everything about it.  No one joins a fanclub of something they hate. I wouldn't be writing so many books about the band if I wasn't a fan. But a sense of keeping things in perspective helps as well.  Star Trek fans certainly can laugh about terrible episodes like "Spock's Brain," knowing that it's the bad things stand out so well because the rest of it is so good.  A sports fan can laugh about a bad season for their favorite team because "next year, it'll be better." The same holds true for the KISS Army - we may sometimes joke about the hair, Gene's tendency to go for the hard-sell, or the band's limited concert set-list, but we do while loving so many other things about the band and its history that the little annoying things stand out so much more for that reason.  In doing so, it keeps the band human and makes it even more exciting when they do pull things off that make them the band we love so much.

So, hopefully, everyone can have a laugh once in a while to keep it all down-to-earth.  We can't be sold 100% of the time on everything the band sends our way.  Some grains of salt always add a little flavoring to any meal dished out.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Eric

Eric, in one of his favorite shirts & one of his favorite ads.
Eric Carr was born July 12, 1950.  He would have been 62 years old today.

I can't really add much to what has already been said about Eric.  Many people have written and talked about him over the years, with documentaries and books.  I did so in my Black Diamond book (both the original 1997 release with a CD of some badly edited audio and the 1999 edition, with a complete transcript of the interview I did with him back in 1990), and in a piece I wrote for KISS Asylum years ago called "Encounters with Paul Caravello."  You can read those for more of my few chances to talk to Eric over the years.  I won't bore you with it all again here.

Eric has been gone nearly 21 years now.  Typically, we tend to remember the years gone when we get closer to the anniversary of his passing.  This is our own disservice to those that have gone before us.  We really should be looking more to his birth instead - his first hello instead of his last goodbye.  That's how it should be.  That's how he would have wanted it.  The guy really did try to do his best to have fun and get those he knew personally to have a good time with him.  It's also the reason fans remember him so well that did get to meet him, because he always pushed himself to try to make fans feel important. 

Oddly, people who tend to be this way are usually the ones we lose too early, but in that time we had with them, they made us all a little more special by just being there for us.

So let's remember the kid who wanted to draw.  The guy who played drums with his classmates.  The man who saved a human life during a terrible fire.  The blue-collar, psychedlic weirdo that worked hard during the day burning his hair on gas-stoves just so he could play with his band at night.  The drummer who somehow never broke through until he made a crazy, last-ditch move to reach for the stars.  The rock star who always went out to meet the fans and treat them so well.  The man who could laugh and get others to laugh, even when things were the darkest.

Death is the end, but it's also a blink.  Before that, we come into this world wide-eyed and - with hope, luck, whatever you want to call it - get a few years to see the adventure Life has for us.  Those are the years we must remember.  Death is nothing - a whisper - in this equation compared to the Big Brass Band called Life that is carved into time by those who were once with us.  Even if we forget, the years blow by and the world turns to dust, Life will remain defiant because Time will forever have those actions, and smiles and laughs etched into it.  Nothing can take it away. 

Eric may be gone, but in this day of sweet remembrance to his birth, Life gives us the gift of his being here.  Here.  Because of that, Eric can never be taken away from us.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Hell or Just Bad Timing



Eric Singer is fast approaching 15 years in KISS.  Tommy Thayer is coming up on ten years.
Just let that soak in for a bit.  We’ll come back to it in a bit.
As fans know, the past couple of days have seen interviews with KISS promoting a great number of things:
1)      The release of their first single in years, “Hell or Hallelujah,” which is getting some positive feedback from fans already.
2)      The upcoming release of their first album in years, Monster, in October.
3)      The release of their mammoth-sized (and priced) picture book, also called Monster.
4)      An upcoming co-headlining tour with Motley Crue.
5)      A show for Help For Heroes to help raise money for wounded soldiers.
And what has been the biggest headline that has come out of those interviews?  The topic of discussion that has generated the most heat amongst fans?  None of these projects listed above.  Instead, the media and fans have been focusing on Paul knocking Peter Criss and Ace Frehley in an interview.
“I don’t miss them.”  “We were never friends.”  And, of course, the ever-popular adamant “removal” of the two from the band (aka, “We had to fire them!”).  All these things came back to haunt fans like some nagging boogeyman, as the newspapers and other sources grabbed hold of the quotes, licked their chops, and threw them back out for the public to read.
You would think fans would be used to it by now; certainly most after reading about it just sighed over the repetitive nature of it all.  Both Paul and Gene have gone through cycles since the 1980s of putting down Peter and Ace in interviews (initially to the surprise of fans, Peter and Ace, after years of everyone trying to play nice about the strain the band members went through at the end of the 1970s).  Such stories were always about Peter and Ace “not advancing” as Gene and Paul had; wanting to destroy the band with their shenanigans; and focusing on stories of drugs and alcohol to the point that one would think Ace and Peter were either under constant psychological supervision or dead. 
Every time it happens, fans split off into camps, either defending Gene and Paul or Ace and Peter.  Then everyone cools down again for a while; typically when one current member does something with a former one; until Gene and Paul say something again and we go on the merry-go-round of potshots and hate again.
The big question is - what is it getting anyone?
Not to be unfair to Paul; if one thinks about it a bit, it is easy to see where perhaps such anger came from.  Look at it from Paul’s point of view: “Here we are, having completed an album, a book, starting a tour – let’s get to talking about all the exciting things we’ve been and are doing!”  Then the reporters come up and some of the first words out of their mouths are “When are you going to get back with Peter and Ace?  Y’know, those guys that you’ve stated over and over again as having failed the band?  That you’re sure have fallen out of the public picture years ago?  That haven’t done anything with KISS for a decade?  We reporters don’t care about your new stuff, we want some juicy stuff about prissy rock stars hating each other!"
Well, under such circumstances, perhaps it is understandable that Paul would want to lash out.  Same with Gene.  You work to put out something that you want to promote and the attention is on something or someone that you feel isn’t significant to what you’re doing anymore.
Yet, that’s the problem in lashing out as Paul did.  Gene and Paul aren’t kids; they know the game.  The reporters are looking for something that will attract readers and a few snide comments about former members of any group always generate some copy.  Gene and Paul know that.  And they know that there is considerable merchandise featuring Peter and Ace still being sold, so the public still remembers those guys.  Such a topic is bound to come up.
So why are they removing all the heat from their big, current projects with this old thing about Peter and Ace again?  Only the longtime fans and the tabloid readers are going to get anything out of that kind of toxic dialogue.  It would have been much easier to shut it down by saying, “It’s been many years since those guys have been with us and we’re all doing different things; like our new album with Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer, who always blow people out of the water with their performances.  Could another reunion happen some day?  Hey, it’s happen before.  But we’re too busy with KISS in the present to go back to the past right now.”  (Heck, Paul has said things like this before, so it isn’t really any new stance from him or Gene.)
I think part of the reason this type of thing usually goes over badly with fans is that KISS has always preached a positive attitude.  They are a party band, and no party is fun if people are grumbling about something nagging them.  You move on, have a drink and dance or you get out and let everyone else have their fun.  So, although it is easy to want to go negative, it doesn’t help anyone and detours the point of the interviews in the first place – to promote all the new things.  (As an aside, Gene has always made mention of the line, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” but I don’t agree with that – Paul turned his chance to promote the band’s activities into one about Peter and Ace, and that doesn’t help promote Monster.)
Funny side-note to all this: an official video has been released for the new single (which you can see here).  The song, which seems to have traditional Paul Stanley lyrics about “girl, you are making me miserable, but I’m going to win in the end,” plays over a series of photos of the band in action over the years while lyrics also appear on-screen.  This may seem like a cheap alternative to shooting the band actually performing the song on stage, but such a montage in a KISS music video isn’t a first (I cover all of them in one chapter of my KISS FAQ book coming out in September).  Even so, fans noted one oddity: photos of the band cover both the original foursome and the version with Tommy and Eric.  This even though there’s been plenty of activity by the current line-up of the band over the years to generate enough photos and videos to avoid anything to do with Peter and Ace.  Yet, there they are, the two members Gene and Paul “don’t miss” but continue to use in promoting the band. 
That’s a shame.  Because if we’re really to take this band solely on the level of Tommy, Eric, Gene and Paul in the new video, we should be focusing on that era of the band and not this other thing.  After all, Tommy has been there for nearly a decade; Eric nearly longer than any other member besides Gene and Paul.  Why must the impression be that the band is stuck in this past with Peter and Ace?  If this is truly about KISS in the NOW, then focus on the current line-up with the new stuff.  Let the past take care of itself (it certainly seems to be doing quite well on its own anyway).  Besides, it would be nice to see these guys get some respect for sticking with it even though they have to sometimes feel they’re in a glorified tribute band.
Of course, such a question gets into the whole “Tommy playing Ace/Eric playing Peter” thing that has split the KISS Army for years.  After this much time, there’s really not much to contribute in defense or attack of that argument.  However, one thing that fans noted in the video is Ace’s solo album cover is displayed with lyrics superimposed over it stating “No lies, No fakin’” followed by Peter’s with the line “Goodbye.”  After Paul’s off-the-cuff remarks in the interview, it did make some fans wonder if that was a coincidence or something more.  (Then again, if Gene’s point a few years back is that the makeup characters are no longer Ace or Peter but Spaceman and Catman, are they suggesting that the current men wearing the makeup are faking and lying?  Okay, okay … calm down.  Just a little observational joke there.  Couldn’t be helped.)  As it is, it manages to pull fans out of the video as a possible cheap-shot and probably should have been rethought on the editing side in order to avoid such thoughts running through the minds of viewers.  It seems like Gene and Paul can't get away from the spectres of Peter and Ace; not that they were really trying here.
Oddly enough, the song does make a statement we can tie into the original question asked by the press.  Will Peter and Ace someday perform with Gene and Paul again?  Unless something unfortunate happens to one of them beforehand, it is bound to happen.  After all, as “Hell or Hallelujah” tells us, “Money makes the rules.”

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Good Ol' Days of KISS Collecting

Still-sealed 8-Tracks of the '78 solo albums - $1
Attached to this blog post is one of the scans for the KISS FAQ book that we didn't have room for.  I picked up these four still-wrapped 8-tracks of the 1978 solo albums probably around 1984 at, oddly enough, a hardware store in Louisville, Kentucky.  The stickers on each, which are hard to read here, state that they were four for $1.

Well, of course, 8-tracks were considered a dead music trend.  Still is for the most part. These four were only a handful out of a large barrel of 8-tracks the business was trying to sell-off., and at $1 for all four, it was easy to convince myself to buy them.  Sure, I knew I'd probably never bother tracking down a player in order to listen to them, but just having them as a novelty item was worth the $1 investment at the time.

Which bring up a point about the early to late 1980s: it was pretty easy to find KISS items for fairly cheap back then.  The one I remember the most was seing a large shipment of KISS lunchboxes that turned up at Odd Lots (aka Big Lots) back in '84 for $3 each; all in mint condition and with their themoses included.  But such finds were not that common by that point; typically, it was the thift shops and Salvation Army stores that were the best place to look for KISS items.

By that point, all the kids that had grown up listening to KISS in the 1970s and buying all the merchandise, were throwing things out because either "KISS isn't cool anymore" or just didn't care one way or another by that point in their lives.  Perhaps some of them regret today getting rid of those items so quickly, but at the time, the whole "we've got to save everything because it's all going to be collectible some day!" attitude of many people - leading to people hoarding a lot of junk that will never be worth anything because everyone else is hoarding the same junk - was simply not there.  To the majority of people, it really was junk and it became easy for a time back then to find KISS puzzles for a quarter, the KISS ON TOUR game for a dollar, or the dolls for a couple of bucks. Sure, it wasn't quite the same on the album front - many retailers knew by around '85 that those KISS albums were becoming collectible, but for a while at least you could still find some treasures among the many copies of FRAMPTON COMES ALIVE and SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER soundtrack albums that littered the record bins of used record stores at the time (not to mention that there was a pretty big blind-eye to bootlegs back there and it wasn't uncommon to see well-known independent record stores carrying such items out in the open for everyone to see).  It made every trip to any type of thrift shop an excavation in a way; one never knew what treasure could turn up in even the smelliest, broken-down dive or flea market back then.  Heck, it wasn't even uncommon to run into the KISS pinball machine selling for a few hundred dollars back there.

These days, as stated above, the fun has gone out of the hunt for the most part.  Everyone thinks everything is worth a fortune, and albums that would never sell for more than a few dollars even in mint condition today have jacked-up prices because ignorant sellers think "it has to be worth that much, it's KISS!"  Perhaps once in a while you can still run across an item or two if one knows where to shop, but those days are sadly long gone.  Now, everyone is ready to make money off anything with the KISS logo on it.  Unfortuantely for them, so is everyone else, and the glut of merchandise from the late 1990s hasn't help any (especially as those items are what is crowding out all the really cool, old items that one used to see at the KISS conventions).  Not to say that some of the items that have been released in the last twenty years haven't been really unique and interesting, but sometimes four old 8-tracks for $1 just makes for a more interesting history for the items than "Spencer's leftovers."

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Creatures of the Night - 5 Reasons to Remember


A very dynamic photo from their last days in the Carr-Frehley era.

With the 40th anniversary of KISS right around the corner, the band has been rapidly approaching a lot of milestones.  More so, they've been making sure that fans remember those anniversay just as well; to the point where they were promoting the 35th anniversary of the Alive! album with a tour two years before it's anniversary.  (Ah, but my biography about them, Black Diamond, came out in a revised "tenth anniversary" edition twelve years after the first edition, so who am I to nitpick?)

We just saw the 35th anniversary of Love Gun (released in June 1977), and it too got a bit of a push by the band and fans.  Still, there's one rapidly approaching that probably will get glossed over and that's the 30th anniversary of Creatures of the Night being released (October 1982).

Yet, there are so many milestones associated with this album that they really do need to give it some love in the coming months.  With this album we saw:

1)  The final album of the band in their makeup personas before dumping them with the Lick It Up album in 1983.  It would never be the same after this.  We had gone nine years with them building upon their makeup and costumes to the point we saw these characters on-stage singing songs rather than just four guys in makeup playing characters.  "God of Thunder" and "War Machine" never sounded the same after this, even with Gene standing there and singing them just as before with the makeup, because on that tour in 82-83 and before it was always the DEMON singing them, not Gene.  We could lose ourselves in the magic of the moment.  Even Gene knew this and chose not to sing "God of Thunder" for many years without the makeup.  Now he does it again in costume and makeup, but we know Gene too well these days.  It's no longer the DEMON there, it's this rich old guy who fronts a burger and a mini-golf joint, while strong-arming fans to buy merchandise.  Gene's not alone there - the return of the makeup was a nice reminder of the past, but it was never THE past.  The original band would die after the Creatures tour and be reborn as KISS with regained strength, but it would never be THAT band from the 1970s ever again.

2)  The first album where fans REALLY knew something was wrong.  Before this, we had inklings that something was up.  We could sit there listening to Unmasked and say, "Boy, that doesn't sound like Peter," but there he was in the "Shandi" video and there he was with the other three publicly wishing each other well as Peter left the band (true, we would later find out that they were patting each other in the back with knives in their hands, but for the moment at least, it felt like sincere best wishes from all involved).  Here, however, we could instantly tell, "I see Ace on the cover, but I'm not hearing him on this album."  Then the word got out that Ace was "sick" and would have a substitute for "part of the tour."  Yet, we accepted it, because we believed in these guys and thought, "Hey, cool, maybe this concert will be the one that will see Ace return!"  We believed. Even when we got to the shows and saw the "tenth anniversary" t-shirts with Vinnie on them instead of Ace, we believed.  And we kept on believing until Vinnie turned up on the next album cover.  And we all felt a bit suckered at that moment, even if we knew they were lying to us all along.

3)  The first album to have a really, really screwy front cover.  Okay, that's pretty much a lie in some ways, as the cover photo by Bernard Vidal is brilliant.  The problem is that it has a lead guitarist on there that isn't represented on the vinyl therein.  Instead, it's a number of performers, with Vinnie Vincent picking up a lot of the slack.  Then they re-release it in 1985 with a revised cover ... only this time (A) without makeup and (B) with Bruce Kulick there.  As discussed in my new book KISS FAQ, Neil Zlozower's photo wasn't even intended for the cover, but used as an afterthought because it was a good photo of the then-current band.  And the fact that Bruce isn't on the album?  Ah, who's gonna care, right?  Saying all this, it is also ...

4)  The first album with Vinnie.  Vinnie would throw in enough ideas for this album that you can immediately tell why Gene and Paul decided he would be a good catch for lead guitarist.  And with that addition, Vinnie would go on to really become a central part of the success in the follow-up album, Lick It Up.   For years, fans have been split on if it was his influence that saw the band reignite in the 1980s or because the makep came off, but it's all "chicken or the egg" stuff 30 years on.  The relationship would soon sour (something for another blog in the future), but there's no denying the fact that Vinnie had a strong say in creating songs for the band that would do very well for KISS on the subsequent album.  It all started here.  Yet, on the other side of that argument --

5)  The turn of the band back up from the bottom began here.  Unmasked had been a popular tour for KISS ... but in Europe and Australia.  In the U.S.A., there was even a wonder if perhaps the band had broken up (and maybe that was a hope by a few critics as well).  Then we got Music From "The Elder" and no tour, which seemed to have everyone on edge (including members of the band, and in particular Eric and Ace, who thought The Elder was a big mistake for the band, but couldn't get Gene and Paul to listen to them).  At a time where the British Metal movement was proving that the Hard Rock of the '70s could still sell well in the '80s as Heavy Metal, here was KISS doing a orchestrated rock-opera aimed at kids.  No wonder there were questions about the band.  Yet, as Eric Carr once told me in an interview, then came Creatures, which was a hard-rocking album with a lot of "take no prisoner" songs on it.  If, as Eric put it, that album had come out in 1981 instead The Elder, the band would have never seen the problems they ran into in 82-84.  Maybe he was right, but as it was, the album and tour sold poorly based namely on the perception that KISS was no longer relevant, even though Creatures demonstrated that perception was incorrect.  They would prove those naysayers wrong, but it would take the removal of the makeup to get the general public to even look their way again.  Yet, as much as Lick It Up is seen as a turning-point for the band's popularity, without Creatures there never would have been a Lick It Up.

Even with all this, Creatures is typically pushed aside, as the band and fans concentrate on the albums around it today.  Even The Elder gets more love, it seems.  But for those of us who were there, remember running out to buy the album that October and standing in the freezing snow to get tickets to that tour, it was a glimmer of light in a period of darkness for the band.  KISS would soon be back on top as the 1980s moved along, relieved in knowing that somehow they had gotten back in control of their career(s), but for those of us listening in October 1982, we knew.  We knew.