Ken Sharp | Goldmine
Outspoken and brash, arrogant and opinionated, profane and vulgar, supremely narcissistic and sexist, are among the colorful descriptions both the public and media foist at KISS founding member Gene Simmons. Acutely aware of how he is perceived, Simmons even named his last solo album, “Asshole.”
When meeting with the “God of Thunder,” he’s polite and gracious proving there’s much more behind the self-proclaimed “Man of 1000 Faces.” The band, or brand, as Simmons often likes to describe the Roll and Roll Hall of Famers, are not content to rest on their laurels and count their mountainous pile of greenbacks, but continue to press the envelope with a keen understanding of the transformative power of how a rock ‘n’ roll band can be marketed in the 21st Century. Yet as Simmons attests, his aspirations for KISS have far exceeded his expectations.
“It is really weird that KISS, which never really started out as anything, but this bizarre dream of four knuckleheads off the streets of New York just wanting to do one record, that four decades later, the RIAA crowned us as the No. 1 gold record award-winning group of all time in America. It’s amazing especially since we’ve only had three hit singles, ‘Beth,’ ‘I Was Made For Lovin’ You’ and ‘Forever.’”
For a group routinely dismissed by short-sighted critics as a flash in the pan, a joke band comprised of talentless cretinous musical goons soon to be forgotten and quickly discarded on the junk heap of failed rock bands past, KISS are having the last laugh. Detractors be damned, 43 years since the original band — Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss — first came together, KISS continue to transcend the parameters of what a rock band can do; whether starring in their own Scooby Doo cartoon (“Scooby Doo & KISS: Rock & Roll Mystery”), teaming up with menswear designer/clothier John Varvatos or collaborating with Japanese teen sensations Momoiro Clover Z on “Samurai Son,” the band’s first No. 1 single in the “Land of the Rising Sun,” yesterday and today KISS stubbornly follow the beat of their new drum and continue to thrive, loudly.
We sat down with the band’s resident “God of Thunder,” Gene Simmons, who offered a primer in all things KISS, past, present and future.
Goldmine: The act of songwriting was something you worked hard to master.
GENE SIMMONS: Well, initially I just sang in bands. We did cover songs; everything from Otis Redding to Wilson Pickett to The Ventures and, of course, Beatles songs, whatever was happening at the time. Listening to The Everly Brothers helped me learn how to sing harmony, too. Then my mother bought me a Gibson SG Standard and I didn’t know what to do with my fingers so initially I was just pressing single notes. Then I noticed the way people were holding C chords and G chords and all that and started to fool around.
GM: How would you describe the early songs you wrote?
GS: The first songs, in retrospect, were the kind of things Lennon and McCartney wrote but I don’t mean anywhere near as good. People would ask them what their words mean and both of them would say, “We have no idea, we just put words on there that sounded good.” And initially, the kinds of songs that I wrote as a kid didn’t really mean a hell of a lot. I had a song called “My Uncle is a Raft.” One of the lyrics was “My uncle is a raft and he always keeps me floating.” I had fond feelings about my uncle George and I’m sure all that McCartney stuff like “Uncle Albert” and the lyrics “hands across the water” really don’t mean anything. It’s not like “Penny Lane,” which really meant something about his childhood memories. But a lot of the words in Beatles songs like “I Am The Walrus” don’t mean a lot; they’re just interesting words that are stuck against the melody and the meter. So those first few songs of mine were very simple. Stylistically, they were vaguely Beatlesque or Everly Brothers-ish, “Wake Up Little Susie,” that kind of stuff.
GM: What was the breakthrough for you as a songwriter?
GS: The irony was that I noticed if I was gonna be in a band, I didn’t see myself as a lead singer. Physically I was too big and I didn’t see guys my size doing that. I could sing well enough I guess, at least as good as Eric Burdon and (Mick) Jagger, those guys, who sing pretty straight ahead. I mean, anybody can sing “Satisfaction.” There’s no vocal histrionics on it but I noticed everybody was looking for bass players because there were plenty of guitar players and plenty of drummers. So I could play a little guitar. My mother bought me a Kent bass, a bass which looked like a Hofner, the one Paul McCartney played in The Beatles, but of course was a cheap version made by the Japanese. Bands immediately wanted me to join their group because they didn’t have a bass player and because I knew chords. If someone said, “Play an A or B or G,” I knew where they were on the fretboard. So I immediately joined bands. The first band I joined might have been The Missing Lynx and then I really hit my stride with a group called The Long Island Sounds and then after that we had a group called Cathedral which had a Hammond B-3 organ. By that time I’d been starting to write my own songs or co-writing songs. One of the early ones was a song called “She,” which KISS later recorded for the “Dressed to Kill” album. I wrote that with the guitar player in one of my bands, Stephen Coronel; I used to go to school with him. That song and a few others including “Goin’ Blind,” which was initially titled “Little Lady,” wound up being recorded by KISS. Continue reading