[Truth: Demon Germ]
There’s a demon germ that dwells at the heart of human experience whose presence is exposed and exploded through improbable intensities. The demon germ, guardian of the militant seed, is the stormbringer of truth whose power is perpetually undermined by its misappropriation and misapprehension by subjects (people) who struggle to deal with it truthfully, faithfully, incisively and unscrupulously, and who tend endlessly to labour the question as to whether such power is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ while failing to perceive that it’s precisely such labouring that erodes its power to emancipate the divine spark it embodies.
[Claimer: Worrying Wrat]
I’ve gotten into trouble with writing, simply because the way my life is set up right now is unsustainable and among several casualties is the ability, or capacity, to see a piece of writing through to sufficient closure as to be able to ‘put it out there,’ whether that be this blog or trying to get it published by someone else or getting something finished that I’ve been asked to write. This is a major problem for me, the source of much anxiety. So I’m going for it, here, having accumulated big chunks of text on what sporadically feel like great ideas and then letting them sit in the digital purgatory of document folders. This is the first of these, then, a mad dash for the line, hoping I don’t trip myself up too badly. I’m no longer sure if any of these pieces are any good, or that they’re really what I’d want to write or be read for (not long term anyway) but I’ve always known (and taught) that the actual doing and committing is far more of a priority than inventing per se.
When I first had a go at starting this piece, it was called ‘The Underground Legacy of KISS: A Token of Their Extremes.’ That’s because the initial idea was to explore the influence of KISS on less obvious or less likely artists whose work tends to garner a more nuanced and erudite critical acclaim (i.e. beyond ‘simply’ being an astutely marketed brand of epochal merchandising, based around a hard-working rock & roll outfit who write some decent songs, but whose primary value is judged on commercial success). I think it was originally, also, centered around their 1976 album, Destroyer, because I’d revisited it and had all these amazing insights as to why and how it was so important and influential; though once I set about writing up some notes I couldn’t recall them, and still can’t. But like all pieces of writing, like all pieces of idea, once implanted, it grew into something much bigger and, to my mind more interesting, touching on broader issues than merely how one bunch of musicians might have affected another. However, because I wrote those first thousand words, being a lifelong hoarder-recorder, I can’t just throw away morsels of endeavor; so the first bit of the article proper will be those first thousand words under their original title – the starting point is still the same in my head anyway – then I’ll reinsert the new title (neither title is satisfactory to me anyway, they both have bits of what I want to say) and get on with the rest of it.
The Underground Legacy of KISS: A Token of Their Extremes
I don’t want to labour the preamble, but I should just say where I’m coming from with this. I’m not a faithfully dedicated, lifelong KISS fan. I have met plenty of people my generation and younger who are, often to the point of obsession… I’d stopped anticipating the next KISS album by 1980, after being bemused by Dynasty (it sounded too Beatles-y and I’d never really liked them, certainly not when I was a kid), and was thus already listening from a distance by the time Unmasked came out, even though (taping from a friend who’d bought it) I thought it was OK; by 1983, the extent of my interest in the release of Lick It Up, their first genuinely unmasked outing, was going to WH Smith (which was still a record outlet then) and gazing for a few minutes at the cover, imagining what the younger me would have felt seeing their real faces (well, Gene’s and Paul’s) revealed so candidly at last. KISS have, though, always held a huge importance for me in terms of how they shaped my musical personality, my sense of what a pop/rock project could/should be, and, above all, how I approach performance; therein the provenance of thoughts, reflections and insights which feed into this piece (my personal reasons for writing it). My reason for actually making it into a semi-formal blog post has to do with (like so much of what I’m posting here) being a music academic by profession; more specifically, my experience of being a member of a Russell Group music department which sought to embrace popular music studies in the late 1990s, having been up to that point like every other Russell Group music department (i.e. founded on the traditional model as a place for teaching and researching music of the European Classical tradition) and the various difficulties that have emerged from that still uncomfortable (incongruous, even) cohabitation – or perhaps, rather, a union that refuses to gel because it needn’t and can’t anyway. Essentially, there have tended to be two problematic dynamics within this conflict: the attitudes of staff who work within that traditional field, not least a tendency to assume that ‘pop = trivial’ (the old Radio 3 ‘light music’ chestnut), while conceding that offering studies in ‘popular music’ recruits well and has a contemporary relevance that can’t be circumscribed; and the perspective of those staff who willingly embrace and accommodate pop, while still suffering the same misapprehension, manifest in a tendency to presume that the commercial mainstream is not only sum total of what warrants attention, but that the values that define it also wholly define popular, vernacular, non-classical music (the vast majority of pop music courses on offer, especially outside Russell Group, are of this ilk: a kind of survey training for the industry, a pedagogy of dos and don’ts that take the commercial mainstream as both starting point and boundary while almost completely foregoing – Christ, often forbidding – any research imperative to question).
As a performing artist I’ve always operated at the outermost edges of the ‘pop world,’ to varying degrees of exposure and attention; I have been able to identify plenty of reasons for intuitively resisting mechanisms of compromise and self-promotion-for-the-sake-of-it, many of which are either laid out or implied in different posts on Claws & Tongues. One thing I never overlook, however, either in writing about music or teaching about it, is that for the vast majority of musicians and artists in the West, their entry point will have been (as it was for me) some form of expressly commercial, corporate-backed, show-business production emanating from the heart of what we term the ‘mainstream’ media, the entertainment machine. …Because that’s how it works – corporations own the airwaves and the TV (well now, of course, the internet, above all), and one way or another it’s almost impossible to either avoid, or not be distracted by, what they channel their efforts, energy and money into, what they foist upon us. For all that, the actual material they promote, and its momentarily distinctive character, has to have something that’ll make it jump out of the speakers and seize hold of the otherwise unsuspecting imaginations – kids are prime market territory because of an already-suspended disbelief and lack of skepticism, and because their satisfaction is generally a prime concern for the wage slaves who parent them (economic exploitation of children revolves around a neurosis of ‘keeping them happy’). But corporate cultural investment in prepubescent kids goes far deeper than simply making a showbiz killing; pop music is one of the most important communicators of dominant ideology, instilling values that need to be taken as a given in order for the current balance of power (its exploitations and repressions) to be maintained – aside from the relentlessly paranoid-neurotic reinforcement of heterosexual conjugal power dynamics (sustaining patriarchy by tirelessly agitating desire for opposite-sex relationships, simultaneously eroding the adolescent impulse to doubt, question and challenge), pop music’s complexly interwoven narratives and imageries play a huge role in identity formation; the sexism, racism, misogyny, homophobia, Randist individualism, hyper-vanity and class consciousness that help define our age need to be delicately sustained with ethereally effluent substance that supplants our spiritual food in order that the present conditions of exploitation and enslavement can be maintained. While it’s easy to trace the dominant power narratives within the great masterpieces of mass cultural marketing, the extent to which the content of that marketing shapes the expressive character of the more imaginative among those kids who are seized and captivated by them requires a more nuanced enquiry. In considering the remarkable phenomenon that is/was/are the American Hard Rock/proto-Metal band KISS, one would have to say that above all their entire project can be viewed as just one such masterpiece. The self-sustaining legendary status of KISS depends not on whether the music was good, per se, nor the excessive spectacle of their shows, nor even their pioneering exploitation of merchandising, but, above all, the extraordinary example they set in terms of focus, energy, drive, commitment, tenacity and, crucially, a readiness to renege on anything they’d already established if it were proving a burden and a hindrance to sustaining a level of popularity and success that, in the end, remains almost unparalleled (there is nothing sacred and there never was: you wanted the best, and you got the best). There’s a daring in KISS that is reckless in none of the ways historically associated with Rock & Roll (i.e. drugs, alcohol, fast-living, financial ruin etc.), and which would seem to have inspired ensuing generations to, on the one hand, believe in the (fantastical, theatrical and romantic) pursuit of an indistinct absolute, and, on the other, to not-give-a-fuck in a really productive way.
[The actual piece, now]
Flaming Youth: How KISS the Destroyer(s) Radicalize(d) Live(s)
So, as it happens, the first thousand words were pointing more in the direction of what this piece has subsequently become than what I was setting out to write. Why bother even telling you this? Whatever.
… But it does set the scene for what was the original idea for this piece and its original impetus.
At some point I decided to try and write a piece that exposes and explores KISS’s influence on certain artists, musicians and bands who, for one thing, most of the truly dedicated members of the KISS ARMY are probably not aware of. For instance, the various lifelong KISS obsessives I’ve enjoyed chatting to over the years had often never even heard of Melvins, let alone Harvey Milk, until I brought them up, and even then I’m fairly certain that none of them actually followed up the conversation by checking them out: for true KISS ARMY infantry, KISS is all there needs to be, their place in the greater continuum of music and culture is irrelevant. Yet the idea to write this piece almost certainly came from listening to Harvey Milk’s The Pleaser, an album on which the Athens, GA trio whose reputation was founded on excessively slow and pessimistic Sludge, decided to pay homage to the Hard Rock gods of their youth by making a record of largely up tempo songs (as in, the appropriate tempo for 70s hard rock) which, rather than being cover versions, were newly penned homage-pastiche paeans drawing on specific groups and, in at least one case, specific songs – ‘We’re Having a Rock & Roll Party,’ for example, is basically a remake of KISS’s ‘Rock & Roll All Nite’ (replete with penultimate chorus sung over just drums).
One of the unintended effects of mainstream commercial music being momentarily good (in that it ‘sounds great and has something, albeit transiently, special, cathartic or irresistible about it such that it helps make it sell and constructs the necessary myth for extended marketing) is that the impressionable kid whose attention is grabbed by it begins to develop a sense of music-being-good (and exciting) as a basic working principal: music ought to be good and there is always a vein of ‘really, good’ music waiting to be tapped if you’re prepared to pursue it relentlessly and tirelessly enough (with uncompromising commitment). Which is why it’s possible to sit down and go through an oeuvre like Harvey Milk’s with a critical mindset and conclude that actually this shit is way better, more substantial and sustainable, than anything their forebears could manage (of course they have the benefit of history and hindsight, which can’t be underestimated). And yet the spectre of mass-market success looms in too many fans’ – and aspiring artists’ – frame of reference: I can remember bumping into someone from York that I knew (a fellow musician whom I respected as savvy) on the way out of Leeds’ Brudenell Club after the only time I ever saw Harvey Milk and them saying, ‘Man, what a great band… It’s such a shame they don’t get more exposure.’ He was right of course, but the tragedy isn’t in their lack of corporate backing and commercial success (‘exposure’) so much as the dire levels of hyperbole, hypocrisy and intransigence that commerce has consigned us all to. It’s probably really important, actually, that Harvey Milk go on scraping together a livelihood from day jobs (singer-guitarist Creston Spiers is a guitar teacher; I seem to recall reading that bassist Stephen Tanner is a chef…), because that allows them (like so many of the most amazing artists in music) to focus on getting the music right on its own terms rather than being distracted by one or other element that might be compromised in order to pander to the demands of some label/promotion administration who’s looking to see what profit, if any, can be squeezed from a group. Therein one of the sweetly, almost satirical, ironies of Harvey Milk’s The Pleaser: a resolutely underground band telling fans about how they forged an uncompromised/uncompromising vision out of the detritus of gratuitous commercialism. It was the band’s third LP (the first two having been far more austere and experimental) released shortly before splitting up, only to reform eight years later in 2006. It’s not unlikely that the kind of vision they had for a post-Metal darkness and heaviness might’ve not been readily understood by audiences and this clearly ironically (acerbically) titled ‘final’ missive could be seen (at least with hindsight) as a similar rebuke to audience misapprehension to Nick Cave’s Kicking Against the Pricks in 1986.
Once you start making a bid to appeal to people beyond your natural fanbase, you’re trying to appeal to people who’d ordinarily not give a toss about what you stand for, which then leads to your making music you could care much less about. What I’m really interested in is trying to discern what defines the divergent circumstances between a group like Harvey Milk or Melvins and any of those countless groups over the decades who were just as inspired by KISS but succumbed to a base kind of epigonality that simply wanted a taste of some comparable superstardom. Or something. It’s tempting to suggest that an intelligent band who are also rigorously focused on the aesthetic they embark from actually have a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of humanity (its sociality and cultures) as a whole. But to make that my overall thrust would be pointlessly pompous, so I’ll back away from it, mindful nonetheless of dropping it in there as a passing thought.
So the idea began with Harvey Milk, but then a few dormant reminders emerged from the fog of memory, like the set of EPs the Melvins released in 1992 (King Buzzo, Dale Crover and Joe Preston) which revived the KISS solo album ruse from 1978 when they (as it turns out from later memoirs like Paul Stanley’s) tried to deal with increasing discord within the group by franchising out their extra-KISS ambitions as b®and-certified solo ventures, uniformly marketed with a portrait of each member on their respective covers (brilliantly painted by Eraldo Carugati whom I now see was responsible for Rush’s Fly By Night among other things – unfortunately there won’t be space, here, to explore the Rush-KISS connection, such as it is). I now know that those albums basically broke Casablanca (the independent label that put out every KISS album until 1983’s make-up-removing Lick It Up), their lack of judgement in pressing up 500,000 copies of each record (thus 2,000,000 for, essentially, a staggered quadruple album!), and was a commercial and critical disaster that catapulted the group from the dizzy heights of their Alive!-through-Alive II apotheosis (which had lassoed my favour, for one) to a state of panic and identity crisis that set them on a long journey back to significant ‘acclaim’ and credibility (probably only arrived at – or something like it – with 1992’s Revenge). But at the time of the four ‘solo’ albums I was 12½ and massively into KISS, and I totally bought it – which is to say I was on board as a fan, but even then I only bought two of them because of the cost implications: Gene Simmons (the only one I’d planned to buy) and Ace Frehley, simply because daytime Radio 1 (who never played KISS) had his cover ‘New York Groove’ playlisted for a couple of weeks (I didn’t know it was a cover version, I didn’t even realise people did that). Buzz Osbourne, Dale Crover and Joe Preston all fit into that age bracket (born between 1964 and 1969) so one would presume that what they later parodied was grounded partly in homage to something they once took very seriously and saw as something bona fide cool (as I did).
But the homage was neither surprising nor arbitrary. The very stuff that the Melvins’ records are made of is substantially KISS; it’s as if they’d stumbled on same clay pits KISS had once had access to and moulded much more intricately conceived forms from the same stuff, resonating deeply with their predecessors without ever mocking them (King Buzzo even sounds like Ace Frehley). And why would they? Because for them, like me, on the threshold of adolescence, KISS were the shit, a reality that doesn’t suddenly become false just because you get older and read books and discover worlds beyond the corporate foist.
It’s important here to distinguish between the category ‘bands/artists influenced by/who were fans of KISS’ and those who (like Melvins and Harvey Milk) can be seen to build, musically on their actual legacy. Not least because those that count among the former are legion: there was an explosion of guitar bands, especially in America, during the 1980s which can be seen as a coming-of-age of kids my age who were similarly seduced by the same music-and-marketing alchemy spearheaded by KISS (but just as substantially manifest in a Hard Rock heyday shared in, and co-toured in, by Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, The Runaways, Blue Oyster Cult, Rush, among others who weren’t so visible to provincial UK audiences) and experienced its public shaming through paradigm shift(s) defined by Punk, Post-Punk and Hardcore. It would be hard to find a way of illustrating how a band like The Minutemen were substantially infused with the musical substance of KISS, yet KISS were as huge as presence in their upbringing as anything else, and, as Mike Watt explains, his bass playing owed a lot to Gene Simmons:
Mike Watt: Me and George [Hurley, Minutemen drummer] been playing together for ten years now. You know, the way we met him was, me and D. Boon, you know it was very hard, growing up in the projects, to really play LOUD anywhere. Cause ya had to play in a bedroom. So, we would find drummers with sheds and stuff, and George had a shed. But George is a real personal drummer man. He don’t approach it as…like a …. An accepted thing to do man, he goes and manhandles it his way. I like that.
Jeff Schwier: (to Craig [Cunningham] and John [Barsdis]) Yeah, you missed it; they were playing 100,000 Years (old Kiss song) during the soundcheck.
Watt: That’s right. Paul Stanley. I saw him once on the street in NYC.
Watt: Yeah, and I shook his hand and he didn’t know what to think. I said, “Paul Stanley, you’re one of the dudes who fired me up to play bass guitar.” And then just walked away.
Jeff: What’s your favorite Kiss album?
Watt: Oh, Hotter Than Hell. In fact, that one and Tyranny & MutationBlue Oyster Cult, two of the best recorded albums ever. I like that LOUD sound man, and Hotter Than Hell had LOUD sound and some good tunes.
Watt: Yah know, Goin’ Blind.
Jeff: Oh hell yeah, we’re old Kiss fans from way back.
Watt: Alright, I saw them play get this me and D. Boon [Minutemen guitarist] were playing, we had a band called the Bright Orange Band. And this is in 1973. And there was a show called “In Concert” on ABC, do you remember that show?
Jeff: Yeah, yeah.
Watt: And Kiss was on there. They did Firehouse, Black Diamond and Nothin’ to Lose, before they had their first album out, and we recorded it. I would tape ‘em all. Show you what a primitive asshole I was, I’d tape ‘em right off the TV. Ya know WHOOOO big ol’ hum and everything. And I learned them songs, and we were doing Kiss before there was a Kiss album. And Gene Simmons has a lot to do with the way I play bass. He really does, that slidin’ stuff.
Jeff: (to Craig and John) He was sticking his tongue out during soundcheck too (ala Kiss bassist Gene Simmons). MUCHO HAHA (everybody laughs)
Watt: 100,000 years.
Our generation straddled this cultural threshold, and, crucially, it coincided with our own transition from childhood to adolescence, which meant both sides of the Punk moment were equally valid, equally serious, equally important and, of course, equally formative. As a result, bands like Minor Threat cite the likes of Ted Nugent as key formative influences (as unpalatable as that now may seem) and Black Flag followed up the seminal Damaged with My War, an extraordinary LP that famously slows everything down to a brilliantly messy resuscitation of (predominantly) Black Sabbath at around the time (1983) when Aston’s Godfathers of Metal were trying to keep the show on the road with Ian Gillan replacing Ozzy and Dio, before being cast into the purgatory of being essentially a Tony Iommi solo project for the best part of the next decade (employing future permanent KISS drummer Eric Singer along the way for a few years). My War’s seemingly (at the time) incongruous (and to many fans unthinkable) clash of Hardcore with proto-Metal classic Hard Rock perfectly illustrates this notion of conflicting sensibilities and allegiances that define that generation’s rock & roll consciousness. For those of us at the later, younger end of that generation, we were prone to take both sides that much more seriously, at face value, earnestly epochal and definitive.
That seriousness, above all, was characterized by a continuity across the Hard Rock/Hardcore divide manifest in kids’ intuitive tendency to be skeptical about (and thus cynical about and resistant to) the picture of the world that the institutions of family (parents) and school were trying to make them believe in. KISS were part of a corporate-invested entertainment drive to profit from that skepticism through a handful of tricks picked up since the late ’60s and the turn of the ’70s which played on the intuitive desire for naughtiness, transgression and daring. The establishment’s genius in marketing teen rebellion lay in the music’s capacity to pander to cynicism and disaffection while withholding any substantial content that might convey any practical means to effective (or even significant) activism. The nakedly obvious lesson of that era, now, is that the corporate entertainment industry managed to make millions by stranding adolescents in a critical and political myopia of vagueness through which their only option, come adulthood proper, would be to capitulate to the ruling order and fall into step with America’s globe-choking imperial strut.
For me, as a kid growing up consuming all this, albeit at a distance imposed by the Atlantic Ocean, losing much of American culture’s finer detail and imagining plenty else in the process, there was a definite sense – a kind of national character to white American youth – of who this music was about and for. In one snapshot, that national character is captured in the opening line of ‘Flaming Youth,’ the first track on side two of KISS’s Destroyer album (perhaps their finest hour, recorded in the heady atmosphere generated by Alive!’s unexpectedly viral success):
My parents think I’m crazy,
And they hate the things I do.
I’m stupid and I’m lazy…
Man, if they only knew… how
Flaming youth could set the world on fire!
For all that it’s ‘just’ the first verse of a song that was otherwise written for a ‘next album’ and also released as a single (i.e. all part of the entertainment and dissemination ritual), those lyrics say it all. Or at least they did as far as I was concerned aged 10 or 11 (I actually can’t remember how I first found out about KISS and who might’ve turned me and/or my mates onto Alive! so I’m not sure exactly what age I was when they entered my life). It also left me with a lasting impression of what American teen (white male) non-conformism looked, sounded, and smelt like, an archetype, to my mind, that pervades and defines movies like Dazed & Confused, River’s Edge and Gummo (all films that feature Metal and Hard Rock in ways that gave their respective soundtracks major roles).
Those films expand upon a dichotomy, a trap between impatience for meaning and truth, and submission to the powers that be, represented by the authority of an older generation: their parents, teachers and the law. The hard rockin’ soundtracks to those movies represent how such music is marketed in order to foment intuitive teen skepticism and questioning, leading fans into an imaginary opposition, then down a blind alley at the dead end of which they find their Rock & Roll idols have deserted them to a fate of enforced conformism. All three of those films feature kids who have no idea how to deal with life’s contradictions, yet they possess a conviction that what they’re being taught can’t be right because it doesn’t tally with real-life experience; music by the likes of KISS, Aerosmith and Ted Nugent (all featured in Dazed & Confused) lent urgency and purpose to any impulse to resist, refuse and rebel. The socio-cultural progression from Hard Rock to Extreme Metal can be traced across all three films, tracking the mood of a nostalgia tinged with false optimism quelled by imposed realities in Dazed & Confused.
Dazed & Confused is a film set in 1976 made in the early ’90s; its soundtrack, like its version of adolescent malaise, was pieced together as a retrospective tale of, presumably, writer/director Richard Linklater’s own high school experience. A far more authentic and visceral precursor, and the apparent originator of Hard Rock/Metal soundtracks, was the incredible Over the Edge, from 1979, a film directed by Jonathan Kaplan who tells of how they sourced the movie’s cast by seeking out truant weed-smokers outside various high schools across America in order to fuel the project with a redoubtable authenticity and, presumably, an improvisational anti-professionalism. The movie was shot in 20 days in a collaboratively unorthodox way, the teen actors (who really were 14-year-olds acting their age) providing much of their own dialogue, while the music was chosen according to what was blasting out of the boom-box that Pamela Ludwig, who played the principal female part, carried around on and off set. There’s no KISS, but they do feature nonetheless: in the first piece of actual dialogue a kid says to the film’s central character, Carl, ‘Pretty sure my brother can get us tickets to that KISS concert…’ ‘Where?’ ‘Middleton.’ Carl’s bedroom also has at least two KISS posters on the wall, and in the final riot sequence one of the kids is wearing a Destroyer t-shirt. Above all, Over the Edge is about as literal an account of ‘Flaming Youth’ as you could hope for, the supposedly delinquent kids (who are depicted sympathetically throughout) locking their parents and teachers inside school during a public meeting to discuss how to deal with them, then smashing shit up and setting fire to cars in the parking lot.
Over the Edge (Kurt Cobain’s all-time favourite movie) is remarkable for its buoyantly positive portrayal of disenfranchised youth and its willingness to allow the narrative to pursue extremes. The film-makers’ risk-taking didn’t do the venture any favours, however: it was briefly screened at a handful of theatres in New York and L.A. before being pulled due to fears about copycat rampaging. One of its co-writers, Tim Hunter, went on to direct River’s Edge. According to New York Times literary critic, Janet Maslin, Hunter possessed ‘an extraordinarily clear understanding of teen-age characters, especially those who must find their own paths without much parental supervision.’ By the time he made River’s Edge America was six years into the Reagan era, a time when unscrupulous and amoral neo-liberalism that was consigning a large proportion of America’s working class to the kind of hopelessness and despair that would eventually provide the catalyst for Trump’s own unexpected presidency. The movie’s soundtrack had a huge impact on me at the time, aged 20, having abandoned Heavy Metal by 1981 (because it got so shit, basically, but also because what John Peel was playing was far more interesting); one of the movie’s high spots, Crispin Glover’s fet-wired Layne, habitually plays Slayer, Fate’s Warning and Agent Orange while driving around in a constant state of urgent desperation ranting to his mates about needing to stick together at all costs, to show solidarity in opposition to authority. That was my first exposure to Slayer (all the tracks come from Show No Mercy), music that would set the tone for subsequent generations bent on pursuing exponentially harder and sharper extremes. I was just in time for Reign in Blood, a record that has nothing obvious to connect it with KISS, yet feels entirely like one of many logical steps triggered by what they started.
In as surprising a way that Over the Edge is so uncompromising, River’s Edge is a very bleak film. The visceral effervescence of the soundtrack fizzing away around the story’s edges provides gravity and definition to the kids’ disaffection, as if the music was expressly made for that precise adolescent condition. But unlike either Dazed & Confused or Over the Edge, there’s no optimism to speak of (and by now, of course, no sign of KISS): there are several scenes where characters talk about how little there is to look forward to in ‘growing up,’ but Linklater’s whimsy feels light years away. Harmony Korine’s Gummo manages to go even further but in a completely unsensationalized, un-selfpitying way. The film’s two main characters, Solomon and Tummler, scrape together money to buy wood-glue solvents to sniff by killing stray cats to sell for meat to a local Chinese restaurant. Their directionless story is framed through a montage of irreverently bizarre ‘found’/incidental footage (mostly shot by crew members on various DIY formats like Super 8 and VHS) that furnishes the mood with freaky tales of perversion, exploitation and feral-quotidian surrealism. And the musical backdrop this time comes from Burzum, Sleep, Bathory and Corrosion of Conformity among others. And again, like the previous movies, the music seems to be the sound inside the kids’ heads… except that the only time one of them actually puts a record on, it’s ‘Like A Prayer’ by Madonna, which, given the context, comes over as somehow even more perverse and nihilistic. There are several resonances with Over the Edge; Korine recruited almost exclusively ‘non-actors’ (still a stupid term) from among friends and acquaintances in Nashville where he grew up and where the movie was shot; there was also a distinctly collective ethos to how the film was made – how Korine describes this is strikingly similar to how Jonathan Kaplan talked of directing Over the Edge:
[Kaplan] My attitude was to treat these kids as equals. I didn’t want to be an authority figure, necessarily. I wanted to be one of them; I wanted to hear the truth in them.
[Korine] Everything in this movie is about access, the trust that they give me. If an actor is a crack smoker, let him go out between takes, smoke crack, and then come back and throw his refrigerator out the window! Let people feel they can do whatever they want with no consequence.
But unlike Over the Edge, any dialogue (even dysfunctional) between adolescence and authority has gone from Gummo, for the simple, and very real reason, that no one gave a fuck anymore what happens to poor kids (and poor people in general) in what by now was an America firmly grounded in neoliberalism – something that hasn’t changed, or has only gotten worse, since the film was made in 1997.
[As an aside I want to just allude to a Matt Dillon thing that’s flying around my head while I’m trying to piece all this together. After his debut in Over the Edge he goes on to make a string of youth rebellion flicks, from Tim Hunter’s directorial debut, the S.E. Hinton adaptation Tex (1982), through two further Hinton pieces, Coppola’s The Outsiders and Rumblefish (both 1983). In 1992 he stars in Cameron Crowe’s godawful Singles, which seeks to revisit the Rock soundtrack formula as Hollywood’s way of creaming some profitable scum off the surface of the record industry’s gratuitous inflation of Seattle’s post-Hardcore underground framed as ‘Grunge’, a bogus denomination that was clumsily duct-taped over what was otherwise the dense undergrowth that harboured the Melvins/Thrones/KARP/etc. – the nerve centre which this piece is partly about. Dillon’s Singles character is an unsympathetic caricature of the modishly vain Grunge Rock God persona, hamming a send-up of non-conformism. I love the FACT of Singles: it’s the most fittingly unwitting tribute to the Seattle/Grunge circus in all its corporate capitulationism.]
The music in Gummo is predominantly Extreme Metal of different shades, among which the Black Metal of Burzum, Bathory and Nifelheim is more conspicuous (although I’m taking a liberty here: the Burzum track is actually the extended, ambient ‘Rundtgåing av den transcendentale egenhetens støtte’ from Filosofem). Within the tradition of Rock & Roll iconoclasm and stylized, theatrical rebellion part of Black Metal’s ethos was to go further and to mean it more than anything that went before. As an expression of adolescent determination to resist establishment forces and to keep its flame burning strong without pretending its commitment was something to grow out of (thus engendering a cynical defeatism, capitulation among its fans – in the now-time-honoured tradition already articulated here) it’s pretty much unparalleled. If you look at the three or four predominant influences on what gets termed the ‘Second Wave of Black Metal,’ i.e. the, mostly, Norwegian groups that established the form as a kind of global pagan-satanic-dystopian cult, there’s a definite drift towards a kind of we-really-mean-it aesthetic, but their work still belongs within an entertainment industry framework. Above all this was the case with Venom, whose first three albums were works of genius in pushing a Hard Rock and Metal aesthetic to its logical ends, both in terms of recorded content and image (satanic iconography, stage outfits, mocked-up ritual and so on, which by the by, bear little relation to KISS, an indicator of how distant the UK still was from the US in the early ’80s). Along with Hellhammer and Bathory, they unlocked doorways to certain kinds of as-yet-uncharted extremes with regard to what a lead vocalist could sound like; the dismantling of studio orthodoxies in terms of mixing, mastering and effects; the importing of anti-virtuosity and anti-professionalism from Punk; and the extent to which you might really seem to espouse satanic, pagan, and anti-Christian doctrines, even if Venom, like Slayer, insisted it was all for (the) show. The received wisdom from the legend of Black Metal’s evolution tends to be that Venom’s principle contribution consists in their sound, the graphics and, of course, the title of their third LP, Black Metal, while it’s generally understood that they didn’t necessarily mean any of it, that it was just artifice. Most of that is true, to an extent, but it would be wrong to presume Venom weren’t serious about what they were doing, or unaware of how important their music (and its attitude) could be in the wider scheme of things:
Despite the sinister lyrics, [Venom] were a far cry from the bloodthirsty devil worshippers they playfully portrayed in their songs. That’s not to say they didn’t share an interest in Satanism and the occult – Cronos had been interested in the neo-paganist religion known as Wicca since going out with a girl who was interested in the subject, and the pseudonyms and cover art found within Venom’s work reveal at least a passing knowledge of and admiration for LaVey’s writings. All the same, Cronos chose not to draw on these subjects directly and instead wrote far more melodramatic, horror-style lyrics that drew on people’s fear of the dark side […] [as Cronos explains] …‘since people assume all sorts of bad things when you mention Satanism, we were hell-bent on using that against them, to create something that would shock people, the same as punk shocked people or Sabbath shocked people. What we do lyrically is anti-Christian, what we sing about is the opposite of what the church says. We’re not really preaching Satanism, we’re just writing fantastic rock ’n’ roll lyrics about anti-Christianism, lyrics that would scare the ignorant deliberately.’
Mercyful Fate were a different matter. Or at least lead singer Kim Bendix Petersen, aka. King Diamond, was. It may simply be that he intuitively understood that the next logical step for artists who dabbled in Satanism needed to be that they were seen to mean it, but he was unequivocal about his dedication to it. While Venom, Bathory, Hellhammer and others all daubed black pigment around their eyes, King Diamond was the only person then using full face make-up to enhance his evil stage presence:
[Mercyful] Fate became the first band to pioneer [the] aesthetic [of starkly contrasted black-on-white face paint that Arthur Brown, Alice Cooper and KISS had pioneered] within a resolutely metal (rather than rock) context, and the group continued to break new ground, not merely using Satanic themes in their metal, but extending that interest into reality – King Diamond declaring himself to be a Satanist (probably metal’s first musician to do so), and specifically a follower of the form of Satanism espoused in Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible. In fact, Diamond would become one of the few rock musicians LaVey would ever have direct contact with, the High Priest even inviting him to visit him.
“I was so fortunate to be invited to the Church of Satan in San Francisco and spend the whole night there with Anton LaVey. […] It was very interesting […] seeing how serious he was about what he wrote and at the same time the aura that he had, and the humor he was in possession of, in particular.”
What we see emerging through the first wave of Black Metal, and with Mercyful Fate especially, is the erosion of any distinction between ‘real life’ and the performance of what Julian Cope terms rock’s ‘metaphor’ to the point where Second Wave Scandinavian bands such as Emperor, Ulver, Enslaved and Beherit did everything (sometimes anything in the case of church burnings) to reinforce the sense that they really meant what they were singing about; in most cases, their espousal of Satanism provided the platform for a more nuanced and informed pursuit of true meaning, such born of their initial recognition of contradiction, the lie of authority and how it cultivated overwhelming ignorance. Beherit’s Nuclear Holocausto (Mark Laiho) is as good an example as any, here speaking to Dayal Patterson:
“Since I was a teenager, I’ve been interested in the deeper side of life, searching for answers of our existence, a spiritual meaning,” he explains. “After my Satanist youth and years in Odinism, I went to experience various hippie new age movements, paranormal lectures, channeling, and read all possible esoteric books. They had valid points but were too often based on superstitious belief. In the late nineties I finally went to the East and found Tao and Buddhism and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was quite remarkable reading.”
Apart from the excessively hammy and camp ‘God of Thunder,’ a song whose use of tapes and environmental sound must have had some effect on my generation’s sense of what a record might make use of, KISS themselves never really dabbled in anything remotely Satanic; their songs were predominantly about relationships (mostly just sex, actually) and partying. But there was something about the feel of their whole aura (particularly where we encountered it on KISS Alive!) that we ten-year-olds treated as deadly serious. I can remember how kind of naughty it felt to put KISS Alive! on the record player, like it was giving you something you weren’t allowed to have. I guess it was partly the way they looked on the cover, and the kind of behaviour they seemed to indulging in, somehow riotous and excessive; but it was above all how that apparent perversion exploded into a sound that felt illicit and raw. For all that, it was actually only the second disc, and side three, that I went for almost invariably, turning over for side four as a reflex because that’s what you did with LPs. Sure, I loved ‘Rock Bottom’ and ‘Cold Gin’ (side four), they were somehow part of the come-down, or the aftershock, following the apparent detonation of several bombs that followed ‘Black Diamond’ at the end of side three; I was never that taken with ‘Rock & Roll All Nite,’ and the final song remains completely blank for me – it has ‘Rock & Roll’ in the title again, I’m pretty sure. Side three is like an ark bearing the codes for a generation of pre-teen fans to unlock the secrets of Rock & Roll but also how to define yourself in contradistinction to the institutional authority of teachers and parents with their rules and regulations, their categorical imperatives. Above all it was a document, a sacred text, that proved those authorities were wrong to suppress life’s true energies.
Side three of KISS Alive! has three tracks on it. ‘Watching You’ has a bare-bones pentatonic, Blues Rock, riff that maintains single-string austerity save for the three sparsely deployed bar-chords of the chorus. When bands like Sleep heralded the inception of what got termed Stoner Rock in the early 1990s, it was precisely that kind old school bluesy riffing that was being revived, only this time luxuriating in the strangely naked carnality of those formations. ‘Watching You’ is an uncomplicated affair, a kind of statement of intent whose voyeurism and lechery went completely over our heads at the time (‘Well I’m standing here, not far away, ye-ee-ye-ah/And I’m tryin’ baby, tryin’ not to stare…’). It sets a smouldering scene into which Gene Simmons introduces ‘100,000 Years’ with a couple of menacing bass octaves before the song launches into its propulsive (again proto-Stoner) riff. The excellent lyrics are apparently completely meaningless, brilliantly creating a kind of open space for an extended Ace Frehley guitar solo to fill, and finally Peter Criss’s absurdly long and largely unshowy drum solo. I can’t remember listening to any music as a kid in as social and collective a way as we did for KISS. And it was that drum solo that was the event we were all gathered together for. The way the repeated refrain of Frehley’s guitar solo suddenly gives way to the nakedness of just the drums bashing away, as if stirred into a frenzy amid all the excitement of the gig, was somehow so exciting for us. My enduring memory is of three or four of us standing around sort of grinning at each other whenever we weren’t staring into space in rapt attention to the sounds, occasionally offering up some imagined version of the real-life events that took place in the context of the impossibly wondrous occasion of the live [wow!] concert. Then, unexpectedly, the intensity level drops and we suddenly hear a voice cry out ‘Aaah!’ (in what initially sounds like pain, but on later reflection is probably, ‘Alright!’) before Paul Stanley announces, ‘I gotta question for you…’ instigating what much later YouTube uploads of ‘rare’, exclusive footage would affirm was Stanley’s standard routine of breaking down the show into a cathartic call & response ritual in exultant praise of Rock and Roll, but to us it seemed so spontaneous and authentic as something that could only have ever happened once, on that momentous occasion captured within the great document. …
‘I’ve got a question for you…’ the essence of enquiry and challenge, the need to interrogate everything and everyone became one of the core dynamics of Rock & Roll performance as far as I was concerned; and given our age, as ten/eleven-year-olds (1976-77) we saw KISS as synonymous with the seemingly scandalous explosion of Punk, which also made perfect sense to us as the logical next step, culturally, in the wake of KISS Alive! The band follow up the euphoria of all that raucous, antiphonal shouting (it was that part of the record my mum hated especially, having to put up with it blaring out of the living room at maximum volume) with ‘Black Diamond,’ which represented another crucial device, that of beginning a song with some gentle and ‘soft’ neoclassical or balladic intro which is then (un)ceremoniously crushed by the full force of whatever heaviness the full band, at full volume, can muster.
Out of all the KISS-influenced bands I’ve discussed, and beyond all those who’ve covered KISS songs (not least several who’ve covered ‘Black Diamond’ itself, like Bathory or the Replacements), Harvey Milk have gone further than any in attesting their KISS credentials in various explicit and implicit ways, not least their celebration of the ballad-crushing device (which became a staple for many Metal bands later on, not least Metallica). On each of their first two albums Harvey Milk deployed the device by borrowing directly from two other KISS examples of it besides ‘Black Diamond,’ seeming to be embarking on literal cover versions, before following the KISS intros with their own, excessively heavy offerings. On their first album, My Love is Higher Than Your Assessment of What My Love Could Be (Yesha Inc. 1994) the song ‘Jim’s Polish’ starts out as a cover of ‘Rock Bottom,’ a faithful and sensitive rendering of the original’s neoclassical descending arpeggios (the full version of it as it appears on Dressed to Kill), before replacing the song proper with a monstrously chugging, quasi-hardcore up-tempo riff that gives onto a more idiomatically consistent sludge exposition. The gesture is repeated more emphatically on their 1995 follow-up, Courtesy and Good Will to All Men: ‘Sunshine (No Sun)’ starts with the intro to ‘I Want You’ (the opener to KISS’ Destroyer follow-up Rock & Roll Over from 1976) whose wistful early morning musings (‘In the morning I raise my head/And I’m thinking of days gone by…’) are monolithically pulverized by a seven-minute single-note monodic trudge with Stephen Tanner’s bass tuned so low that its actual pitch is not discernible (at least as low as the bottom A of a piano, but probably, perversely, lower than that) through which Creston Spiers’ drastically slowed down voice emerges sporadically while his guitar delivers shards of percussive noise redolent of a combination of Eddie Van Halen’s flanged scrapings (as per ‘Atomic Punks’ or the lead-in to ‘And the Cradle Will Rock’) and the intermittent motoric hi-hats that punctuate ‘Ted Williams’ on the Thrones album Alraune, which actually came out the following year (1996).
The whole purpose of Harvey Milk as a project seems to be to continue to luxuriate in the material substance of Heavy Rock, to wallow in the cathartic hugeness of its sounds, long after the pre-adolescent euphoria of experiencing it for the first time has passed; and yet without succumbing to the institutional stupefaction that submersing yourself in that music seems to have been designed (or mediated) to bring about. The first two albums journey so away from their Rock/Metal points of departure that some of the music is decidedly avant-experimental, with those two moments of KISS homage positioned to expose their incongruity. Harvey Milk’s third album, 1996’s The Pleaser, eschews experimentalism in order to deliver nine (on the LP version) lovingly crafted short and succinct essays on the material derivations of their mission as a whole. Each track addresses a certain posture within the lexicon of Hard Rock: the serious business of dealing with hard times in a beleaguered, manly fashion (‘Down’); the exuberant euphoria of simply being young and not really knowing what it is you’re excited about (‘Get It Up and Get It On’); the broodingly pseudo-political suspicion of a paranoid relationship that doesn’t feel right (‘Shame’, which revives the strident riff and unaccompanied vocal antiphony of Led Zepplein’s ‘Black Dog’); and so on until the out-and-out KISS pastiche of ‘Rock & Roll Party Tonite’ – I’m assuming the other tracks on the album have directly referential components that revisit Southern Rock like ZZ Top and Lynrd Skynrd, but I really don’t know those bands well enough to spot them. While various other influences are easy to discern – the attitude of their riffing is steeped in Southern Rock, but Leonard Cohen looms, too – the stuff of KISS is woven into the fabric throughout, and from the very start: the otherwise Southern Rock riffing of ‘Down’ is cadenced with the repeated acciaccatura-ascending-glissando 4ths of the kind that dominate Ace Frehley’s early soloing and dominate KISS Alive!; the solo for ‘Down,’ then, opens with a neoclassical arpeggio burst that is a direct quote from Frehley’s solo to ‘Cold Gin.’ And so on throughout the LP, with varying degrees of discernibility.
In terms of a Heavy Metal aesthetic the ballad-crushing device is almost like a mission statement, a ritual that proclaims a group’s allegiance to a doctrine of extreme musical force. For me and my mates listening avidly (vividly), seemingly daily at the time, to KISS Alive!, the twice that they deploy the trick on there were among our absolute favourite moments on that album: first, brilliantly, with ‘Black Diamond,’ with which they emerge from the wreckage of the epic ‘100,000 Years’; and then at the start of side 4, for (presumably) the first encore with ‘Rock Bottom.’ In the case of ‘Black Diamond’ I feel like I remember we would actually cheer and punch the air when, as the little intro verse ends and Paul Stanley shouts ‘Hit it!’ unleashing what felt like the monstrously huge riff of the song proper (I’ll come back to ‘Black Diamond’ later), even though that seems somehow too ridiculous to be true…
Coming back to ‘Black Diamond,’ then: I never considered that the song was about a prostitute or even a woman at all. First of all, I just assumed that the subject was (randomly and abstractly but hey, whatever…) a stone that was black in colour and could actually be, or was, a diamond. Listening back as an adult, you realise that Paul Stanley and Peter Criss are just a couple of blokes singing what’s probably a puerile piece of proto-racist misogyny… So the true conservatism at the heart of the whole endeavor turns out to have always been a part of the content. Yet to my ten-year-old mind (and part of my whole point is that I believe many fellow pre-adolescent fans responded in the same way) the song was a potent explosion of visceral energy that seemed to have a purpose, namely pissing off the authorities that sought to reign in our wilder inclinations and undermining the moribund, passionless, unimaginative world they were trying to make for us (force on us… force us to accept…). The title seemed wholly correct because, ‘wow, man, imagine a black diamond… kind of spooky and rad at the same time…’ This black diamond was a moment, or a site, of resistance, a symbol of material protest. Perhaps, since it was ‘out on the street for a living’ it was actually part of the tarmac (asphalt) and thus accessible to anyone inclined to take decisive action on things.
However, the most extraordinary thing about ‘Black Diamond,’ and the part that we ten-year-olds found most thrilling, was how Peter Criss (who takes up the lead vocal for the rest of the song once it goes heavy) somehow didn’t bother trying to sing properly (i.e. precisely pitched and appropriately metric as in the studio album version) after the first line or so of each of his two verses, ultimately exploding into a straight-up, high-pitched screaming of the last line, in a manner that bizarrely prefigures the extreme vocal styles of much later forms, especially Norwegian Black Metal. Given the extent to which KISS are already recognized to have been a significant presence in the early formation of Black Metal’s pioneers, I am convinced that Peter Criss’s brief moment of vocal insanity was, for all that it was fleetingly brief, actually seminal. (Alive! and its wake-release Destroyer, are full of little avant and extreme precedents like this, e.g. the tape sounds already mentioned on ‘God of Thunder’ or the interpolation of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique for ‘Great Expectations’). The way KISS close out ‘Black Diamond’ on Alive!, for instance – a morbidly slamming repetition of a single chord that eventually speeds up before its final reiterations in tandem with actual incendiary explosions – is re-conjured by Melvins at the end of their debut LP Gluey Porch Treatments, ending the final track, ‘Over From Under the Excrement’ with the same gesture, but without the acceleration or the fireworks. For the original LP version of ‘Black Diamond’ the repeated chord figure is subject to a gradual tape deceleration that lasts nearly two minutes; as a sound, as a piece of aesthetic, this must’ve sewn yet another seed of mischievous antics that could form the basis for many future acts’ mode of practice – I’d make more of it here, but for the fact that I didn’t actually hear either of the first two KISS albums till about 10 years ago, since, at the time when it mattered to me, finding a copy in Bridgend without ordering extortionately priced imports was impossible; and besides, part of what I’m trying to set out here has to do with Alive! (principally side three) specifically anyway.
Apart from their KISS solo-project album-cover tribute-EP homage, Melvins have recorded several KISS covers. Their position seems to alternate between a certain ironic reminiscence on the band’s giant status in 1970s America, and a kind of earnest homage that signposts the building blocks of their own style (which, by the by, has a deeply-rooted KISS-ness to it throughout their career). Apart from the obvious parody of those EP covers, a good example of the former would be their take on ‘God of Thunder’ (in which King Buzzo hilariously renders the second verse in the ridiculous faux-scary voice Gene uses on Alive II); while, for the latter, the 1993 cover of Hotter Than Hell’s ‘Goin’ Blind’ offers an illuminating glimpse at how KISS were clearly fundamental in helping Melvins forge their style, as well as their attitude towards a more general Rock aesthetic (although there is a sweetly subtle irony to that song’s inclusion on what was their major label debut, Houdini, thanks to a deal which itself probably came about as a result of Seattle’s bloated industry investment). Harvey Milk’s own take on KISS, on the other hand, treads a careful and conscientious line that seeks to remain faithful to the original moment of pre-adolescent excitement and inspiration, despite a subsequent recognition of the show business conservatism that lay buried within it. KISS’s place in the evolution of Black Metal, while much more easily discernible, is far harder to gauge.
The influence of KISS on the Second Wave of Black Metal in late-80s/early-90s Norway is well documented. In the first of his excellent and indispensable (ongoing) series of books on Black Metal, Dayal Patterson tells it thus:
Like the majority of Norwegian black metallers, [Emperor’s] Samoth had entered the world of heavy metal through a childhood fascination with Kiss and then WASP, later developing a more serious interest in the thrash and death metal movements of the eighties.
Darkthrone co-founder, drummer and lyricist Gylve ‘Fenriz’ Nagell, who (especially since his central role in the equally excellent documentary Until the Light Finds Us) has become the primary spokesperson for the Black Metal movement as a whole, relates the evolution of his own musical sensibility in a way that makes clear exactly how KISS came to be so present in these kids’ lives:
“I started [musically] with stuff like Waiting for the Sun by the Doors in ’73. I was really young [he was born in November 1971] but my uncle already understood that I wasn’t cut out to listen to normal children’s music at the age of two when he once played me some Pink Floyd, and so he started pushing other stuff on me like Uriah Heep. We moved in ’77 so I didn’t get any more help from him, and I kind of started from scratch with AC/DC and Kiss. That was a normal route, it was inevitable to get into Kiss and the Kiss trading cards ’cos they came in candy bags and everyone wanted those.”
The crucial element in the developmental process I want to draw out here has to do with the steep trajectory from the innocent thrill derived from collecting these trading cards (whose attraction is testament, above all, to the fabled genius of KISS merchandising) to becoming an integral part of one of the most ‘serious’ (in terms of we’re really serious about this, we really mean it) movements in Rock (‘popular music’) history. What actually takes place is complex and paradoxical, and brings to mind, especially in relation to ‘candy,’ Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘invasive sensualities’ and their capacity to seize control of an individual’s self-determination and autonomy:
The most basic luxury food is suitable to convince me that an incorporated object, far from coming unambiguously under my control, can take possession of me and dictate its topic to me. If a banal case of sugar consumption already hollows out the subject through the flaring up of an aroma presence, however, and makes it the scene of invasive sensualities, what is to become of the subject’s conviction that its destiny is self-determination on all fronts? What remains of the dream of human autonomy once the subject has experienced itself as a penetrable hollow body?
A simplistically reductive version of what I’m trying to put across would suggest that the ‘invasive sensuality’ within the KISS trading cards (which primarily has to do with sugar and sweetness) is coupled, in the KISS product as a whole, with genuinely exciting and provocative sounds of apparent spontaneous subversive action (the music, the riffs, their attitude) that unwittingly encode the experience with the capacity to trigger a belief in ‘the dream of human autonomy.’ In the case of KISS trading cards, the candy was peddled in tandem with the allure of the legendary marketing brand that comprised those four iconic painted faces whose otherness contradicted normative authority. If I can try and recall what it was like myself, I would say the image of KISS leapt out from the fabric of ordinariness suggesting a secret order of naughtiness, mischief and a kind interventionist mysteriousness (I am finding it hard to find apt terminology).
I’m pretty sure KISS merchandising didn’t really reach Bridgend during the late 1970s (if ever): the only places to buy records prior to 1980 (when Eagle Records opened on Nolton Street) were WH Smith or Boots. I managed to pick up a big (A1) poster of Ace Frehley with fireworks shooting out the top of his Les Paul when I was on holiday abroad, and that was the sum total of my KISS merch acquisition. So I never experienced the trading cards thing. But just gazing at the cover of Alive! for hours while listening to it was enough to provide that frisson of illicit excitement that the band’s image possessed. The cover remains quite distinctive and atypical: in what is now fairly obviously a staged mock-up of one of their shows (which the band themselves have confirmed), the three ‘outfield’ members (the ones playing guitars) appear to be in the middle of some instrumental section (no mics in view), offering poses loosely befitting their masked personae: Gene, his trademark tongue extended, is elevating his bass so as to display his studded codpiece, his stance and expression like someone performing a ritual human sacrifice; Ace has his guitar swiveled round so that the fretboard and pick-ups are facing towards him, which seemed strangely subversive; and Paul’s posture and red-lipped pout felt sort of carnal, somehow, even though ‘carnal’ for an ten-year-old means someone nude, which in this case meant a bare chest and abdomen, the oddly maroon nipples peeping out from a light thatch of chest hair especially signal, somehow. Peter Criss, the purveyor of ‘100,000 Years’’s crucial drum solo, is set absurdly far back, as if almost excluded, pointing his sticks oddly timidly up above his head. Above all, crucially, they look like they’re just cocking about, like they’re kids cocking about, in a manner that the kids who bought the record (like us, like me) could immediately, intuitively, relate to. I’m struggling to find a way to articulate something else here, which has to do with the sense of anarchy, irreverence and abandon that the picture conveys purely down to the fact that what they appear to be actually doing couldn’t possibly produce anything musically coherent. I’ll very likely revisit this elsewhere.
Something that has always slightly puzzled me is that most of the members of that seminal Norwegian Black Metal moment (i.e. the teenagers that would gravitate towards Mayhem and Darkthrone, who were old enough to have been impressionable prepubescents during KISS’s 70s heyday) were born in the mid-1970s, which means that by the time they were, say, 8 years old, KISS would’ve already passed through the first few stages of disintegration and erosion with regard to the Rock culture pinnacle they achieved around Alive!/Destroyer – The Elder and Lick It Up, not least, would have become indelible blots on the KISS landscape (part of an internal system failure they would only begin to recover from, (im)probably, with 1992’s Revenge, for which, incidentally, they reunited with Bob Ezrin, one of the architects of that mid-70s apotheosis). The power of their homemade iconography, the enduringly exciting image of those four masks, clearly surpasses all that, such that its allure obscured attendant historical contradiction. And I guess that must still be the case.
Maybe, then, there was enough in the initial collision of KISS’s striking iconography with an abrasive, raucous delivery for kids of any generation to overlook the ways in which the project as a whole suffered an embarrassing decline. In fact, that does seem to be how history treats apotheoses which become totemized far above the trivial matter of subsequent failures which, by the by, reveal flaws embedded from the start. Am I right about this? Whatever, for us, pre-teen, KISS was real and for us they had to mean it. Why wouldn’t they after all? Why go to all the trouble? The point is, whatever it was within the show business charade that KISS Alive! embodied that we took so seriously sewed in us a militant seed. When I say ‘us’ I mean me from among my peer group, but also at least the Melvins-Harvey Milk axis. Except, actually, the Harvey Milk-Melvins axis is itself not so much an axis as part of an intricate nexus of collaborators that extends deep into a zone of contemporary non-classical, post-pop vernacular culture whose aesthetics can be seen as part of this beyond-KISS experi-metal-ism. And in a funny way it all seems, if not to revolve around Joe Preston, to always lead back to him, in so far as he’s the point of connection. Preston was not in the Melvins for very long, but has maintained a close association with Osbourne and Crover; he had a spell with Harvey Milk (he’s on 2008’s Life… the Best Game in Town; and he has also played with High On Fire and, perhaps more significantly, Sunn O)))). That seed was subsequently nourished by an intuitive skepticism of the kind pretty much all kids (I’m assuming) experience in the transition from childhood to adolescence; the extent to which that skepticism grows into a critical faculty capable of helping an individual navigate through the myriad fronds of coercively repressive interference while keeping their sanity depends on incredibly slight discrepancies between consuming and not being consumed.
The intuitive skepticism concerning authority and its institutions that pre-teens experience comes to (often incendiary) fruition in adolescence. The way things work, in the schematic of regular-ordinary-normal, is that such skepticism seizes on concrete elements in politics and art during adolescence, garnering expressions of resistance, activism and counterfire, and those elements are predominantly marshaled by corporate-oligarch-serving forces which have, over time, evolved deeply sophisticated mechanisms to encourage such expression, while encoding each particular project with sufficient vagueness as to offer no clear pathway beyond adolescence into ‘adulthood’ and its requirement to function as part of the broader socio-economic fabric. Even within this schematic, there will always we a small percentage of ‘fans’ whose intellectual fervor will be virulent enough to pursue inherent counter-cultural strands in a more subjectively autonomous manner, such that they begin to find their own way through the cultural materials they consume; thus potential pathways beyond mere spectacle and identity begin to establish themselves. This is why Over the Edge is such an anomaly within the cultural continuum of American cinema: it feels incredible, watching for the first time, that the kids really will win; which they sort of do and don’t: they end up going of to prison together, but they’re all smiling on the bus and there’s a celebratory mood, suggesting that while basking in their victory over authority they’ll take a couple of months in juvenile detention as a fair price.
The French philosopher Alain Badiou has made this situation one of the foundational principles of his whole oeuvre. He articulates it as ‘truth’ as distinct from ‘opinion’:
Every truth, as we have seen, deposes constituted knowledges, and thus opposes opinions. For what we call opinions are representations without truth, the anarchic debris of circulating knowledge.
Now opinions are the cement of sociality [socialité]. They are what sustain all human animals, without exception, and we cannot function otherwise: the weather; the latest film; children’s diseases; poor salaries; the government’s villainy; the performance of the local football team; television; holidays; atrocities far away or close to home; the setbacks suffered by the Republican school system; the latest album by some hard-rock group; delicate state of one’s soul; whether or not there are too many immigrants; neurotic symptoms; institutional success; good little recipes; what you’ve been reading; shops in which you find what you need at a good price; cars; sex; sunshine.…
‘Anarchic debris’ is a great way to articulate the nature of cultural emissions whose ‘representations without truth’ (KISS Alive! for example, here casually alluded to as ‘the latest album by some hard-rock group’) must nonetheless have their basis in something recognizably credible, since they are, as Badiou points out, the ‘cement of sociality.’ This is the demon germ which implants the militant seed which may or may not take root; whenever it does, it becomes a lifelong quest committed to with unrelenting passion. But the majority of those affected by a commercial-cultural monstering such as KISS (the many fans and imitators who contribute to the swelling of a project’s yield) remain trapped within the schematic of representation, forever resistant to (or incapable of) deposing the ‘constituted knowledges’ which are that very encoding of vagueness, myopia and conforming acquiescence.
I don’t think I would go as far as to say that the weeks/months (I can’t remember) I spent listening obsessively to the second disc of KISS Alive! could constitute what Badiou terms an ‘evental site,’ or the ‘immanent break,’ through which the subject discovers a ‘truth’ that disposes of ‘constituted knowledges,’ but who knows, maybe…? Perhaps I’m still prone to underestimate the extent to which it did change my life. Certainly Alive! dropped into my world from nowhere that I can remember, anyway, and dramatically altered and advanced my sense of what Rock music was, and, as an emerging guitarist-songwriter-wannabe-rocker, what a band and a show could be. But as an intuitively skeptical pre-adolescent with a sense that the world had more to offer than what institutional authority was telling me about (a sense that I was getting from music above all), I was turned on by the vivid alterity of the image and sound of KISS and was ready to imagine, and buy into, any amount of subversion the record had to offer. It wouldn’t occur to me for years, until I bothered to really think about it, that Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss (with the first two at the helm, essentially, obviously) were just a bunch of New York lads looking for fame and fortune, above all trying to get laid and paid (strictly in that order, mind you). And in the process they applied impressive levels of imagination, initiative and industry to forging a package that would not only take them to the very top of the show business pyramid for several years (they never fell that far from it, either, despite the various low-points), but would capture the imaginations of at least one generation of kids (mostly boys) and inspire them to make something commensurable of their own. But true to the pattern any ‘representation without truth,’ setting kids on the path of autonomy, critical self-definition and praxes of adventure was never really meant to be part of the package; my point, of course, is that is nonetheless something that did (that does) happen. In his autobiography, Face the Truth (that title…) Paul Stanley takes a classic conservative line in addressing politics by trying to claim an exemption from it:
The way I saw it, KISS wasn’t going against anything, whether it was religion or politics. KISS wasn’t even about rebellion. We didn’t tell people to tear anything down or to refuse to play by the rules. We said, Become who you want to be. It was about self-empowerment. It was celebratory. For me, it wasn’t about fighting the system, it was about picking your path and believing in yourself. The ultimate rebellion wasn’t fighting the system, it was circumventing the system and living your life fully.
This is a great tangle of emancipatory declamation and reactionary smothering: it works fin so long as what what you happen to believe in fits perfectly with the dominant culture and the ruling order (which in our desperate neoliberal times is one controlled by corporate oligarchies). Circumventing the system is only possible so long as you are already free to do so; it’s a prerogative of privilege and/or advantage – thus, already definitively political. People generally think of politics as something you make a conscious decision to get involved in, as if not being involved is to inhabit this neutral space where you’re not affected by, or affecting, anyone else; but not caring about ‘politics’ in order to pursue individual well-being is even more politically ‘active’ than those who are seen to choose activism.
The tenor of exnomination in the previous quote is further reinforced later on when he relates an interesting tale from their 1980 tour of Italy, a country where it seems that people are self-consciously politicized more widely from much earlier age:
The second night of the tour, on August 31, 1980, in Genoa, Italy, we heard a commotion outside the locker room that was serving as our dressing room at the sports arena where we were playing. Then we started to hear people chanting, “KISS Fascista! KISS Fascista!” Security started screaming, “Lock the doors!” baseball bats started pounding on the door and smashing things outside. They wanted to kill us. It was bad enough that we were going to get killed for playing music, but worse still that I was apparently going to die in platform boots and makeup.
We consciously avoided espousing any political views, and yet to them we represented all the evils of American capitalism. That was the first tour where people asked us about politics – Europeans’ way of thinking seemed to be more tied into politics and world events. Gene took any opportunity to be seen or heard; his Achilles heel is his need for attention, regardless of the source of the attention. I had no intention of making political statements. At the end of the day “Love Gun” wasn’t about guns – I was just singing about my dick.
I honestly can’t remember what I thought ‘Love Gun’ was about aged 12, but I sure as hell wasn’t picturing Paul’s cock (erect or not) while enjoying a song whose winning feature was its hammering, machine gun single-note riff. I have to say I felt kind of sad reading that. Thankfully, apart from that bit, Paul lays off the auto-biology for the rest of what is a highly readable and illuminating book. In respect of ‘representations without truth,’ I was thrilled to learn that Alive!’s producer Eddie Kramer had painstakingly collaged together crowd noise to edit into the recordings (which were, besides, subject to extravagant overdubbing) to make the record sound more ‘live,’ since when we made the first Radioactive Sparrow (entirely fake) live album during spring half-term of 1980, I’d less than painstakingly recorded all the music-less (KISS-less) crowd noise from the same record to give us a pretend audience to play to.
Speaking of KISS’s dicks: when it comes to Cope’s Rock metaphor, Gene Simmons clearly made a decision very early on that sex – his having loads of it, as much as possible – was the defining feature of his. Rather than ever reneging on it, though (save for some of those bizarrely sensitive ballads on his ‘solo’ LP) I would suggest he has been guilty of gratuitously over-egging it. In an interview with Terry Gross for her Fresh Air NPR interview show, he maintains an obtusely, chauvinistically oppositional stance (a bit like what his stage get-up looks like, which I guess is either clever or inevitable) in relation to anything that could be perceived as more meaningful or sophisticated (in terms of performance or anything else) than fucking and getting rich:
I believe in my heart that anyone who gets up there and says what they’re doing is art is on crack, and is delusional, and that in point of fact, what they really … their modus operandi initially — perhaps it changed when they started to question their sexuality, but clearly, initially — it was to get laid and make lots of money. And anybody who tells you otherwise is lying to you. The reason we all wanted to pick up instruments initially … you know, publicly, anyway — I will grant you there are those people who really love music and simply want to do it as a private pleasure. The jury is out, I have no comment, but as soon as you get up publicly and want other people to hear it, it seems odd that we really get off on the notion that the opposite sex, the fairer sex – that’s you – like what we do. And perhaps, if we do it really well, you’ll think, “Gee, he’s not only talented and bright, but he’s kinda cute, too.” That’s what we’re hoping for. Against all odds. And in music, it’s the great aphrodisiac that says that even though I’m short, fat, ugly, bald, and … and I’m hung like a second-grader, but if I’m in a rock band, I’ve got a better than average chance of bedding you down than if I was a dentist. I didn’t make those rules. I come from Israel. I’m … I’m simply a student at your feet. This is what I’ve noticed.
The thing is, one key point of this piece is to illustrate how the power of an otherwise cynically show-business gambit like Project: KISS can affect others (kids especially) in a way that yields more meaningful socio-cultural results than it intended. I, for one among many, am living proof: the incentive to do gigs, for me, came initially from my fixation on the album KISS Alive! Of course my sense and understanding of what the mythic Rock Concert entailed was subsequently informed by numerous other contributions before my own first gig, but side three of Alive! remained evident as a deeply internalized template for at least 2-3 decades (in so far as I would say that maybe now, after a few years of YEAH YOU, the last traces of Alive! have been flushed out of my system). The fact that my impetus to play gigs was to emulate KISS, not ‘to get laid and make lots of money’ is even more ironic when you factor into the scenario that my first proper gig was a charity do with an audience of 300 at a girls’ boarding school: I’d met a girl at a party in Cardiff who was at Malvern Girls College; when I told her about my band, The Sculpture Drinks (a short-lived rehearsing parallel to Radioactive Sparrow in 1983) she booked us to play this event without hearing a note. My girlfriend at the time was naturally deeply suspicious of the idea of us playing at a girls’ private school, so she came along in tow, driven by Heaving Stews, Radioactive Sparrow’s (our real band’s) tone-deaf lead singer in his dad’s ’70s Rover, who himself was taunting The Sculpture Drinks (who were Sparrow without the tone-deaf guy + 1 other) as ‘sell-outs’ for not using the occasion to deliver Sparrow’s trademark improvised cacophony (dubbed ‘Kak’). On top of that, there was already a kind of troublingly strategic flirt-thing going on between my girlfriend and Stews’s better-looking younger brother, something that was preoccupying me at least as much as my terror of playing to a real audience for the first time over the 90-minute drive from Bridgend to Malvern. In fact, only a few days before, having been going out for about 9 months, we’d traded our virginities in an excruciatingly inept (on my part at least) episode on the living room floor of my house, the embarrassment of which was still hanging heavily between us. So Gene’s theory (which as far as he’s concerned is not theory but plain fact) not only doesn’t stand up (fnar-fnar) but manages to exclude the notion that anyone might perform music because they believe that music might have a deeper human purpose. Therein, perhaps, lies the rub…
Ever since then, I can’t think of an occasion when I did a gig specifically with the aim of getting laid – when I was single, such an outcome would always have been welcome had it come to pass – sex has a lot going for it – but it never happened: Radioactive Sparrow were not the kind of band that attracted groupies; the kick we got out of it was in pissing off people who submitted to ordinariness and, by extension, a dominant cultural economy bent on erasing from people’s minds anything, I guess, not fixated with genitalia and their orgasms. Ultimately, I’ve toured more widely with YEAH YOU than any other outfit: when you’re in a duo with your daughter, I’m not sure where Gene’s thesis (which is feces) fits in…
[What follows is a conclusion of sorts, except that it neither seeks nor manages to conclude anything; rather it’s an opening up, and irresponsibly leaving open, of portals into further discussion emanating from subject matter like this – an IED set ticking by the roadside for anyone who feels inclined to follow me down such discursive avenues.]
The thing is, you see, it’s still the case that neither critical theory nor music academia know really what to do with ‘popular’ or ‘vernacular’ music, which is to say any socially generated and self-sustaining music that lies beyond the realm of the European Classical Tradition; I’m sidestepping ethnomusicology here because I’m never sure what exactly that is, in the end, since, despite the fact that its academic framework has produced some great work by great writers on music, there seems to be more than a hint of Europeanism in its very coinage – to my mind, certainly, I don’t find it helpful to be expected to fence off any social-commercial records coming out of, say, Senegal, Malaysia or Brazil as not part of the same continuum of human beings’ collective endeavor to make great music that has a social purpose and value (that’s more true now, of course, than ever before). By fetishizing non-European musics as ‘other’ (colonizing them as exotic) you continually render their core dynamics powerless to affect ‘your’ inherited (as in European-Imperialist) thinking, perpetuating the tendency not to question your own heritage, all of which is symptomatic of the condition known as ‘exnomination.’ Above all academics don’t know how to take pop seriously unless they’re spinning some dodgy hermeneutics intended to enlighten a reader as to the unheard gravity of an otherwise vacuous or throwaway song lyric. The situation has been improving, and there have been a few academically affiliated writers, like Mark Fisher, Kodwo Eshun and Tim Lawrence, who write about musics that are easy to dismiss as trivial (chart pop, Disco, even Fusion) in a credible and illuminating fashion without managing to either miss the point or patronize the source. But the general situation remains pretty dire, the likes of Slavoj Žižek priding themselves on being able to draw pertinent examples from across the perceived divide between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture while remaining a long way off ever citing really obvious and ubiquitous sources like Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush or Joni Mitchell, who reside firmly within a commercial mainstream, let alone Carcass, Bikini Kill, The Minutemen or any other act whose music meets the challenge of immediate social contexts in need of spiritual, intellectual or critical sustenance.
Non-classical music is actually regarded as trivial and superfluous to the more serious, grown-up concerns of ‘daily life,’ economic infrastructures, administration and governance. That’s because the vast majority of people who enjoy music don’t even begin to wonder whether there’s more to it than a nice sing-along chorus, a cathartic enhancer for self-pity or something to dance to on a night out (not that all those things aren’t deeply complex and interesting in themselves, and by and large the lesser-known, under-promoted exponents of them tend to be way, way better at what they do than those inflated by corporate investment). The most visible and audible forms of music, of any sort, are the corporate-playlisted tunes and their videos which are (especially nowadays) at least 99% vacuous for very deliberate, multiple reasons that are highly complex; the pop industry has gotten to a point in its evolution where it can reap the greatest revenue from a surface-level mainstream while farming out special interest sub-markets of varying degrees of substance and intelligence that could probably be illustrated quite clearly in some graphic chart that places mainstream Hip Hop/R&B and Kerrang-reader post-Emo/Indie-Pop not far beneath (the surface-level mainstream), all the way down to various, no less industry-marshalled), hardcores intended for adolescents and post-adolescents who take either themselves or life more seriously. From across that spectrum, any constituent element could sew a seed of doubt in a young listener’s mind about the version of their life-world that they’re being furnished with by institutional authority (amongst which I always include the market). In order for it to grow into a conviction that there’s actually a whole lot wrong with the authoritarian version of things (Guy Debord’s spectacle), through which a subject learns to mistrust official channels of information and learning, that seed needs to take root. And yet it’ll never mean, or achieve anything, unless it’s fun – and the true, core essence of Rock & Roll is that it is fun: spiritually emboldening fun rather than self-gratification sort that very often vampires its pleasures from the suffering of other individuals.
Fun brings us all the way back to Sloterdijk’s ‘invasive sensualities,’ remaining as it does the primary site of conflict between the individual and its captors: the sweeter something tastes, the more powerful it is to deceive, and the ruder the awakening once a more acute perception discovers that deception. As far as I’m concerned, given its literal meaning (a seed taking root), that’s where radicalization begins. The main problem with how the notion of radicalization as a blanket term is, (very worryingly and depressingly) bandied about by the mainstream media and politicians is that it seeks to ward off any inclination (among young people especially) to question and challenge what they’re being taught, told and force-fed through increasingly ossified, reactionary and archaic institutional mechanisms. While ‘we all know’ that the term is ‘meant’ to denote young Muslims who take the desperate step of volunteering for some extreme cause devoted to Wahhabist revisions of Islam, our clumsy, crude and idiotic use and acceptance of it manages to make sure we forego numerous more nuanced interpretations as to why an individual adolescent with their ‘whole life ahead of them’ would choose a path of violent self-checkout taking as many people (who are innocent outside of their being Kuffar and implicated through subjecthood in their imperialist state’s historic and ongoing atrocities) with them. A staggeringly (again, depressingly) simplistic view is promoted in the wake of terrorist attacks which posits a frankly childish and incongruous axis of ‘evil’ and ‘radicalization’; incongruous because ‘evil’ suggests a pure and innate intent to harm and destroy as if purely for the sake of it (shrouded in the nonsense of ‘our way of life,’ which, by the way, includes enslaving our youth with the shackles of lifelong, irreducible debt) while radicalization can only occur through some initial impetus towards emancipation that, in the case of a group like Islamic State, makes for an easy diversion towards desperate acts through the supposedly higher calling of a divine order. I know that the seeds sewn in my consciousness through experiencing aesthetic intensities like Dark Side of the Moon-then-Relics, KISS Alive!, Reign in Blood, ‘Fight the Power’/Do the Right Thing led to my own (ever slow-on-the-uptake) radicalization. I also know that the students that arrive at university from school have been increasingly disinclined to question and challenge what they’re taught, and I would put this down partly to the climate of fear and suspicion that a widespread paranoia surrounding radicalization (and stepping out of line) which now prevails throughout ‘news’ casting, social media and popular culture. And I’d maintain that pop music is the most pervasive among these due to the subtlety of its ‘invasive sensualities,’ even without the candy.
There’s nothing new in this of course. The Welsh writer Gwyn Thomas, in his 1946 novella Oscar, perfectly captures the nuance in mainstream pop song’s purpose for stupefaction:
[Oscar] took up a part of that song they had been singing in the Harp. ‘Roll Me Home To Where The Good Old Wife Is Waiting’, a song especially made for weak-headed elements who have been warned off thinking.[my emphasis]
However, plenty can be seen to have changed in the past 30 years in terms of how well the corporate entertainment industry directs mainstream cultural movements and development. The most likely music to inspire an adolescent and set them on the path of ‘truth’ (in Badiou’s terms) and radicalization since at least the late 1980s is Hip Hop. It’s not unremarkable that so many young jihadists who were born and grew up in the West (not least ‘Jihadi John’) can be seen (through posthumous, post-atrocity, exposés in the press) to have had an early passion for Hip Hop and Rap.
In Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, Badiou ultimately suggests that the essence of ‘evil’ lies in a subject’s failure to remain faithful to the ‘truth’ that emerges from the evental site, that ‘deposes constituted knowledges’:
In sum, our first definition of Evil is this: Evil is the process of a simulacrum of truth. And in its essence, under a name of its invention, it is terror directed at everyone.
So it is that the defeat of the ethic of a truth, at the undecidable point of a crisis, presents itself as betrayal.
And this is an Evil from which there is no return; betrayal is the second name, after simulacrum, of the Evil made possible by a truth.
Exnomination continues to be a major impediment to progress in Western thinking and its manifestation in popular opinion and attitudes. It’s just as discernible in KISS as anywhere else. For example, I find it remarkable that Paul Stanley, in Face the Truth, can discuss at length the emergence of Casablanca Records and the band’s close association with the label’s success and not actually make any mention of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic. This oversight, redolent of the deep-seated conservatism that had always been the heart of the matter, is extended further when Paul talks about the video shoot for ‘Lick It Up,’ which was to be the MTV inauguration of a veteran Rock act no longer wearing their trademark make-up:
We shot the video in a burned-out area of the Bronx. Aside from a few props, like the skulls, that was all real—we didn’t do anything but show up. It looked like Dresden in 1945, a postapocalyptic wasteland. But it wasn’t a stage set. I’d never seen anything like that before; I hadn’t spent much time in the South Bronx. The crazy thing was that it wasn’t just one small area. It was huge, like an entire bombed-out city or a massive movie set—broken down and decaying buildings as far as you could see, piles of bricks and rocks and garbage everywhere. It was the weirdest, most surreal thing I’d ever seen.
What’s fascinating about this quote is that it exposes what to me is the surprising extent to which someone from New York, not least one who is supposedly worldly and successful, can be so ignorant of the condition of huge parts of the city, not least in 1983 when Hip Hop’s explosion onto the scene was already nearly four years in. Above all, though, it’s the casual disinterest with which he seems to respond to the situation: not as some shocking human tragedy made all the more shocking in its being New York City, probably the West’s most iconic centre of power, culture and wealth, but as ‘the weirdest, most surreal thing I’d ever seen.’ It wasn’t in any way weird or surreal for the people living there, you can be sure of that. Ultimately, the core politics of Paul Stanley’s worldview is that that if enough people don’t really care what’s going on outside of their immediate sphere then forces of power and exploitation can get away with anything, especially murder, and much worse. The key here is that KISS’s greatest contribution on a general scale is in having helped consolidate exactly that status quo – they’ve done a great job in cultivating outlooks that don’t look outside their own private concerns: making life better for self, mostly worrying about not being liked, or not getting laid.
In one story from Face the Truth, Paul tells of going to a school reunion not long after Lick It Up, and bizarrely shares his reflections on how all these, presumably working class, characters from his adolescence are now no longer the beautiful people who’d embarrassed and humiliated him as a teenager. In one uncomfortable passage he tells how ‘the coolest girl in school, Victoria… the hottest chick in class’ had now, in 1983, lost those looks which had given her such status:
Fifteen years later, Victoria had short mousy hair and was wearing clunky orthopedic-style shoes and a frumpy skirt—she wasn’t so hot anymore. At first I felt a brief jolt of vindication at seeing her like that, thinking of the way she had never let me live down the folly of our one date. But then I wished she could have looked as good as she had fifteen years before. This was just depressing.
Of course in another way it’s kind of sad to see the extent to which, by this stage in his remarkable showbiz odyssey, Paul is living in such a bubble that he’s still actually thinking about those people and caring about their opinion albeit in a now-vengeful sense; and everything still revolves around girls – his comments about the once-hot Victoria are cruel, insensitive and plain shallow. He concludes the sorry tale of the reunion:
The whole thing was uncomfortable and disappointing. I left quickly and picked up my waiting girlfriend and went out for a nice dinner. I had found no joy in rubbing my success in people’s faces. And I never wanted to go to another reunion.
I’m trying not to feel like this little backroad jaunt into Paul’s personal worldview is straying too far from the main purpose of this piece. But I followed a signpost to exnomination and wanted to investigate the extent to which people not caring about the plight of others is deeply ingrained as something perfectly reasonable and part of being, otherwise, a good person. For instance, in ordinary life, in any given Western city (no less Newcastle upon Tyne, where I live), any random prosperous high-earner that chooses to drive an opulent SUV or some especially classy Audi/Beamer/Merc might very probably be a ‘lovely person’ within their own sphere, generous, kind, forgiving. But from another, broader socio-economic perspective, what does it take to decide that it’s OK to spend £80,000 on a car? And what are you saying to the rest of the world about yourself, and about how you see the rest of the world, by doing so? Paul Stanley exemplifies a world of moral ‘goodness’ that relies entirely on a widespread commitment to individualism and self-interest (if not self-obsession): ‘goodness’ because he’s genuinely a lovely guy, a nice person, generous and forgiving. Who’d not like him? Ultimately his ‘I had found no joy…’ closing line says everything he doesn’t intend it to: it actually exposes his inability to deal with a disruption of his worldview.
The thing is, the point is: white, corporate backed rock is responsible in no small part for cultivating prevailing attitudes and norms; so a critique of their orientation and how it is manifest in all of our lives provides an important perspective on how ‘we’ have gotten to where we are… which is, among other things, a point in our collective history where something like Black Lives Matter is even necessary. It’s instructive, I think, to compare Paul Stanley’s description of the Bronx, along with the blanking of his label mates George Clinton’s massive contribution to music with David Bowie’s critical vigilance to the racial undertones of a corporate cultural agenda, emanating as he does a distinct unease of his own part in it, at exactly the same moment in pop history (the early ’80s) when MTV was dramtically changing how we think about culture and our place, as consumers, within it. In an amazing interview in 1983, that would have been a coup for MTV, conducted by one of its founding VJs, Mark Goodman, Bowie turns the tables on Goodman to challenge him about the station’s dearth of black artists:
David Bowie: I’d like to ask you something… It occurred to me having watched MTV over the last few months that… it’s a solid enterprise… it’s got a lot going for it. I’m just floored by the fact that there’s… so few black artists featured on it. Why is that?
Mark Goodman: I think that we’re trying to move in that direction. We want to play artists that seem to be doing music that fits into what we want to play for MTV. The company’s thinking in terms of ‘narrowcasting.’
[skipping ahead a bit – it would be getting ridiculous to quote the whole exchange here, but I do urge the reader to watch it all]
DB: There seem to be a lot of black artists making very good videos that I’m surprised aren’t used on MTV.
MG: Well I – of course also we have to try and do what we think not only New York and Los Angeles will appreciate but also… some town in the Midwest which would be scared to death by Prince… or a string of other black faces.
DB: That’s very interesting. Isn’t that interesting. […] Do you not find that it’s a frightening predicament to be in?
How frightening that predicament was (and is) has been born out more emphatically by what was exposed through Trump’s success in 2016. Presumably the core of his support were the same people who would be ‘scared to death by Prince… or a string of other black faces.’ Something else that was exposed more transparently than previously imaginable was a particular characteristic of staunch, maverick American individualism which so many non-Americans (speaking for myself as a white European, aware of a certain US fetishism that seemed especially prevalent in the 1970s and 1980s, not just in the UK but across Europe) took to be redolent of a countercultural, anti-authoritarian attitude no less embodied by KISS than anyone else. I’m sure that when I watched Clint Eastwood movies in my teens, I was seduced by that seemingly anti-authoritarian spirit to the extent that I failed to notice how obviously it reinforced the dominant values of the ruling order – something, moreover, that became impossible to avoid in 2016 when Clint came out in such emphatic support of Trump, staunchly coming to his defense in the wake of the ‘locker-room talk’ tapes. The thing is, it’s not that Clint somehow grew more embittered and right wing with age: such revelations make clear that those politics were always entirely part of those early films. Of course… except that I guess I’m trying to say that the power of movies and Rock music to seduce allows for a certain myopia that can be hard to cure.
The logic of the Harry Callaghan persona is that you need to embrace a certain amorality if you want to deal with the true evils of the world properly and decisively. It’s the exact same logic whereby civilian, autonomous terrorist groups accept that their attacks on the public are a justifiable, if in principle regrettable, necessity in the context of the greater quest. It’s actually through our collusion with Clint in the Dirty Harry movies, our ‘knowing it’s wrong, really,’ that we become acquiescent to government justifications for bombing civilian targets in Afghanistan, Iraq and wherever, whenever, else. It’s a simple thing to point out, but in the broader context of what we share in as a culture more generally, as ‘Westerners,’ such an amoral twist is situated on exactly the same threshold between what’s meant and what isn’t as pseudo-resistant circus acts like KISS, U2 and countless others. Am I trying to equate Rock & Roll with the monstrous aggressions of empire? Of course not, but I am suggesting that our collective confusion and myopia over what British and American policies of widespread ideological suppression actually constitute is instilled in us through cultural frameworks inhabited by the likes of KISS. That cultural framework appeals to an intuitive skeptism about institutional and state authority by providing it with a platform for expression which it then uses to lead you on a merry dance, though not before taking your money. And the money itself has little to do with it really – apart from paying for costs; above all the process exists to keep people from reaching out to life and living it.
When I was googling to see whether Destroyer was actually KISS’s highest seller, I found a 2016 post on a site called teamrock that lists all 29 KISS albums from worst to best, with Destroyer unsurprisingly at number one. There were a few surprise rankings, to me anyway, like the Ace Frehley solo LP at number six; the tone of the whole post suggests a KISS-obsessive consensus that Ace was actually the ‘real true rocker’ of the outfit, perhaps the one who truly believed. Truth is such a heavy burden to bear, and so often substance and alcohol abuse is symptomatic of that hardship: within the ongoing, unfolding, KISS mythology, Ace’s legacy has sadly been dominated by his alcoholism (although he’s now 10 years straight, apparently) and its various outbursts to TV journalists now much shared on YouTube… Anyway, I was amazed to see Carnival of Souls ranked second worst! Carnival of Souls provides a real insight into what KISS was really about: inventing and devising a project that would, or could, cut through the tangle of myriad over-eager rock groups hideously exaggerating the importance of their efforts. Maybe the exponential tendency to exaggerate the importance of your own band’s contribution is most less-achieving (and hopelessly failing) groups’ fundamental flaw? Because KISS certainly never suffered from that. Which is why they could so gloriously undermine their own metaphor with a chart-topper like ‘Beth’ right at the moment they were hitting their creative and commercial peak. What’s so impressive about Carnival of Souls is how authentic a pastiche of ‘Grunge’ it is. According to Paul, it was on Gene’s insistence they update and adapt to keep up with the changes brought about, actually, by the industry’s absurdly disproportionate injection of money into Nirvana the Seattle scene. As the post’s author relates:
It was a strange turnaround for a band that had been cited as a major influence by so many grunge stars, including Kurt Cobain, the Melvins and Stone Temple Pilots. Moreover, the notion of Kiss as an alternative rock band was ludicrous. But in the end, a potential disaster was averted. In 1996, the release of Carnival Of Souls was shelved when the original line-up of Kiss reunited, in make-up. This album eventually snuck out a year later as a kind of ‘official bootleg’ deal.
As a kid who had been Rock & Roll-radicalized by KISS Alive!, none of the early ’90s ‘Grunge’ impressed me (‘Grunge’ forever in quote marks because it was never a style, nor really an aesthetic, but just a journalist-market invention – except it clearly became an aesthetic with Soundgarden, Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains, which KISS so brilliantly mimic here). I was a full-time guitar teacher working in private schools when Nirvana suddenly globally outsold Michael Jackson; so I actually even learned all of that stuff in order to teach it to the upper-middle-class kids who bought (into) it. Besides, by then I was listening more to Hip Hop and early UK Hardcore Jungle Techno (as it was initially dubbed) than anything else, and through those discovering Coltrane, which meant I was one of those that the paranoid corporate entertainment monster hadn’t managed to coerce back towards white-bloke-husbands with guitars in the wake of the industry panic brought about by Public Enemy and NWA. It took me a few years, probably the second half of the ’90s, to find out that the Pacific Northwest had had some much more interesting and penetrating things happening on the fringes of bloody ‘Grunge’ – Melvins, for a start, but Bikini Kill, Beat Happening, K Records, Kill Rock Stars… Or even KARP (Kill-All-Redneck-Pricks – the documentary about them is as good a glimpse of the ‘true’ Olympia-Seattle axis as anything else). It would be still more years before I’d come to realise that all of these people were really part of the same scene anyway – Kathleen Hanna having briefly dated Kurt Cobain, being also responsible for providing the title ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’; watching Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck in which a tape is played of a speakerphone ‘interview’ between Cobain and Buzz Osbourne discussing their fondness for Over the Edge; and Dave Grohl actually writing, and performing all the instruments on, ‘Skeeter’, the final track on the KISS-emulating King Buzzo ‘solo’ EP.
I didn’t hear Carnival of Souls until only a few years ago. The astuteness, attentiveness and accuracy with which they executed the project, managing to sound significantly unlike them, suddenly brought moments from their history like ‘Crazy Nights’ into sharper perspective: KISS had always been a pair of sharp creative imaginations (in Stanley and Simmons) who were capable of seeing deep into the intestinal churnings of pop culture and craft out of them something that they could claim, and then market, for themselves. When it comes down to it, in a world that’s dominated by record companies tirelessly shafting audiences through any given fatuous promotion of the new album by yet another bloated white-bloke-husband assembly endlessly plumbing the same depths, that quality in KISS is really quite rare. And in spite all the other ways I’ve picked them apart here, you can’t not respect and admire them for that. Can you? Can you can’t?
And you know what’s funny? – and could be the basis of a whole other discussion… When I hear ‘Flaming Youth’ now it brings back an intense association embedded deep in my memory bank of Charlie Brown and Snoopy. Because at that exact same time, the late ’70s, towards the end of my pre-adolescence, I was also obsessed with Charles M. Schulz’s Peanuts, which I collected by going into the same Bridgend branch of WH Smiths where I would look out for new KISS records, buying each new volume in the UK Coronet imprint, but also cutting out the colour strips that appeared in the Observer Sunday supplement whenever I could. More often than not I would listen to Destroyer while reading Peanuts and the lingering sense of those two cultural universes would intermingle in my brain while I got on with the more mundane routines of daily life. Who knew?
 In case anyone doesn’t know, the reshaping of the expression ‘a token of one’s esteem’ into one that replaces ‘esteem’ with ‘extreme’ comes from Zappa (‘A Token of my Extreme’ is a track on Joe’s Garage), and is among many Zappa-isms beautifully examined in Ben Watson’s The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play.
 I must stress that I have major respect for those dedicated fans and I really enjoy the chance to ‘talk KISS’ with them. I really like Dynasty now, but more importantly I see it as part of a story within KISS that defines the sustainability of their whole project (of which more further on, here).
 I feel like I should include ‘Glam’ in there somewhere, but I still don’t know how to articulate that term as a denomination of musical style, even though its initial spectacular moment ca. 1972-73 was precisely when I started really getting into music. I think I need to read more Julian Cope, and better absorb his notion of the Rock-act metaphor in order to grasp how the orientation of image and attitude affects the actual sound and form of its music.
 According to Wikipedia, ‘the band has touched upon such artists as ZZ Top, Led Zeppelin, Leonard Cohen, and Kiss as influences in their music.’ You can hear all of these in their work – the clash of Leonard Cohen with very heavy Metal is distinctive anyway – but on The Pleaser their presence becomes emphatic. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvey_Milk_(band) [accessed 23-07-17].
 ‘Sustainable’ in the sense that it’s work that can tolerate posterior scrutiny by people who really want the good stuff much better than most of what the mainstream has to offer.
 When you think about it it’s staggering how much music gets released and heavily promoted that its makers actually don’t genuinely have any passion for – consumer apathy becomes a vital waste-byproduct (like bitumen, bitchy men) that helps perpetuate exploitation and enslavement on a global scale.
 … since he was the one member I identified with, probably because I too have an unusually long tongue, plus kind of a hooky nose so that I was able to sort of do lingually contorted face impressions for my mates…
 Even though to call anyone or anything ‘the shit’ in 1978 could only ever be disparaging…
 I don’t use ‘New Wave,’ which, like ‘Grunge’ was merely a category invented by a corporate-governed music press struggling to commercially justify (in both senses of the word) the adventurousness of inspired adolescence.
 Mike Watt in conversation with Jeff Schwier, Craig Cunningham and John Barsdis: http://www.varmintcong.com/wattinterview.htm [accessed 02-05-16]. (I have entirely John Pope to thank for sending me this!) To paste in 401 words from that post seems extravagant, but I wanted the whole exchange in its being framed by the reference to ‘100,000 Years’ (for reasons that will become clear later) not least Watts’ plain utterance of the title as the conclusion to that part of the conversation.
 I’d be interested to know who, if at all, and where, anyone has called out Chris Shiflett for playing ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ in his solo turn at the Foo Fighters’ Glastonbury show – a really weird moment of creepy seediness, the kind of faux pas an England football manager would get the sack for.
 For anyone who doesn’t realise (and I’m always surprised to talk to long term Metal fans who don’t), the Gillan-fronted album Born Again features the track ‘Stonehenge’ which really was the direct inspiration for the Spinal Tap classic; the Stonehenge stage-show debacle also has its origins in a similarly ridiculous tale from the Gillan-Sabbath US tour that followed. I seem to also remember reading that Born Again was Dylan Carson’s favourite Sabbath album…?
 KISS, ‘Flaming Youth’ (Ace Frehley, Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons & Bob Ezrin) Destroyer (Casablanca, 1976). Punctuation obviously added by me as enhancement of my own transcription. I was delighted to hear from KISS obsessive James Robertson that the band slotted this back into their setlist for their 2017 UK shows…
 Dazed & Confused (Dir. Richard Linklater, 1993) River’s Edge (Dir. Tim Hunter, 1986) and Gummo (Dir. Harmony Korine, 1997)
 Famously, Matt Dillon was one such ‘non-actor.’
 Including no less than four cuts by the then relatively little known (i.e. not yet mega-famous) Cheap Trick.
 There’s an informative little piece about Over the Edge (all interview content) that Vice published in 2009 to mark the film’s 30th anniversary: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/wdz5bb/over-the-edge-134-v16n9 [accessed 120717]
 River’s Edge (Dir. Tim Hunter, 1986). After a handful of cinematic features, Hunter went on to be a veteran TV director, his credits include Twin Peaks, Breaking Bad and Mad Men.
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Hunter_(director) [accessed 120717]
 Gummo (Dir. Harmony Korine, 1997)
 Korine himself describes this as ‘surrealistic realism’ in a discussion with Mike Kelley included in Harmony Korine: Interviews, Eric Kohn Ed. (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi; 2014)
 From Mike Sacks, ‘Over the Edge,’ Vice, 1 September 2009 (https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/wdz5bb/over-the-edge-134-v16n9 [accessed 120717])
 Harmony Korine: Interviews (from the same discussion with Mike Kelley).
 Dayal Patterson, Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult (Port Townsend, WA; Feral House, 2013) pp. 10-11
 ibid. p. 19
 ibid. p. 121
 I keep meaning to ask my colleague Mick Wright if there’s actually a guitaristic term for this move…
 I did experience this once, though, when I was driving round London (ca. 1990) with the legendary outsider musician Nick Alien in the back of my car. He was getting irritatedly impatient with what he thought was some ‘boring,’ classical guitar music I’d chosen to stick on; his unfamiliarity with Master of Puppets meant that when Metallica do their own crushing of delicateness on the intro to ‘Battery’ he really did punch the air yelling, ‘YEEEAAAAAHH!’
 It’s especially odd, then, that when First-Wave Black Metal progenitor Bathory recorded a cover version of the song, Quorthon (Tomas Börje Forsberg) opts to sing it ‘straight,’ like the original, without nastying up the vocal. By contrast, when Melvins covered ‘God of Thunder,’ King Buzzo sang it like Gene does on Alive II, as a vocoder down-pitched chant which always sounded ridiculous, hence the later band’s maintaining an ironic stance towards the KISS legacy.
 Melvins, ‘God of Thunder,’ Leech (booleg compilation)(Egg One Records, 1996); Melvins, ‘Goin’ Blind,’ Houdini (Atlantic, 1993).
 Dayal Patterson, Black Metal: Evolution of the Cult (Port Townsend, WA; Feral House, 2013) p. 215
 ibid. p. 194 (the parenthetical inserts are Patterson’s.)
 Peter Sloterdijk – Spheres. Volume 1: Bubbles. Microspherology (Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2011)
 In trying to check dates for this I found some old chat-room discussions about 70s/80s record shops in Bridgend. Information is hazy… There were also 33 1/3, Roxcene (later) and Yestertrax (not long after) among other short-lived ventures… Someone should write a book.
 In my zine for Good Food, ‘The Eternal Fire of Darkness,’ I discuss the etymology of adolescence and the word’s derivation as ‘burning.’ http://goodfoodtapesandzines.co.uk/post/130803707323/gf010-gustav-thomas-the-eternal-fire-of [accessed 28-08-17]
 Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (London/New York: Verso, 2001) pp. 50-51. It means nothing to actually point this out, right, but my brain nonetheless wants to make something (and can’t) out of Badiou’s referring to ‘some hard rock band’ and ending the passage with ‘Sunshine’… Sparking, for me, an echo of Harvey Milk’s second KISS appropriation being a song called ‘Sunshine (No Sun)’, further whose reflexive negation thus takes on yet deeper undertones…
 Paul Stanley, Face the Music: A Life Exposed (New York: Harper Collins; 2014) pp. 212-213
 ibid. p. 253
 https://archive.org/details/TerryGrossInterviewWithGeneSimmons [accessed 22-08-17]. For this I thank Craig Pollard who sent me the link after I’d been telling him about ‘my KISS piece,’ a sporadic topic of conversation which has long felt like a tepidly running joke.
 I did want to make something out of KISS being both irrepressibly randy and deeply Randian, constructing a neat bridging to Rush, Tool and other groups besides, but that’ll have to be for another endeavor now.
 This phrase is forever coming out of Dennis Hopper’s mouth in Rumblefish, as the no-good father he plays tries to explain to Matt Dillon’s otherwise myopic-rebel Rusty James what makes his ‘true-rebel’, widely respected older brother, The Motorcycle Boy (played by Mickey Rourke) so special. (Rumblefish, dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1983).
 Gwyn Thomas, The Dark Philosophers (Carmarthen: Parthian Library of Wales, 2006) p. 22.
 Badiou, Ethics, pp. 77 & 80.
 Paul Stanley, Face the Music: A Life Exposed (New York: Harper Collins; 2014) p. 287
 ibid. p. 307
 ibid. p. 307
 Paul Elliot, ‘Kiss albums ranked from worst to best.’ http://teamrock.com/feature/2016-05-28/kiss-albums-ranked-from-worst-to-best [accessed 30-08-17]
 ibid. The album’s producer, Toby Wright, worked on Carnival… just weeks after completing work on Alice in Chains’ eponymous ‘dog/tripod’ LP (late 1995).
 Kill All Redneck Pricks (Dir. Bill Badgley, 2009) http://www.karplives.com/ [accessed 27-08-17]. That and Nick Broomfield’s Kurt & Courtney, even just for Dylan Carson’s zoned out mumblings about Cobain’s suicide.
 Thank you Stuart Arnot for telling me about this.
 I was first told about it while discussing KISS with David Robson.
[For reasons they’ll be familiar with I dedicate this piece to James Robertson and Graham Parker. I also extend thanks to Stuart Arnot, Michael Bridgewater, Craig Pollard, John Pope, Michael Blenkarn, Kevin McCaighy and anyone else who’s helped or humoured me whenever I’ve sidetracked onto talking about this piece over the last year or so]