CRAZY, CRAZY NIGHTS: KISS INTERVIEW
FIRST PUBLISHED: Phaze One, 1988
Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons take to the stage of the Wembley Arena. They look old and fat. The infamous Kiss make-up isn’t so much gone, as replaced by subtly youth-enhancing pastel shades. It really is a case of wallpapering over the cracks.
Kiss are getting old, and yes, they are a mite Spinal Tap, but despite both their age, and the absence of the spectacular party tricks and pyrotechnics for which their stage show is renowned, they still put on a performance that many in the business would struggle to match. Indeed, after seeing so many fourth division glam and metal bands running through the clichés, year in and year out, it’s good to see the kings of the professional pout in action. I’d even go as far as to say that a Kiss concert is an experience that everyone should go through at least once in their life.
Offstage, in the quiet of the dressing room, it is apparent that Paul Stanley is the man in the driving seat of the Kiss machine. He is softly spoken, he thinks, he talks, and, as he rationally holds forth on both his music and his reason for being, he sounds intelligent. Elsewhere in the room, bass-player Gene Simmons enlivens another interview with animal noises. As the band’s highest profile ‘rock-star-about-town’, he also feels that it’s his duty to affect a poor impersonation of an English accent, an attempt that lies halfway between Michael Caine and Nigel Tufnel. It’s not particularly funny but you have to laugh out of politeness.
Kiss are a phenomenon. Throughout the Seventies they were one of the world’s biggest bands. Now, late into the Eighties, they are enjoying a vigorously renewed success. Tonight’s gig is among the final handful of concerts at the tail-end of their Crazy Nights world tour. In fact, Kiss have been on the road for so long, the success of ‘Crazy Nights’ – the record that the tour was supposed to be promoting – is now just a distant memory to the English fans, who over a year ago vaulted it’s first single far higher into the English charts than any previous Kiss seven-inch. The long player sold just as well, and just as quickly.
“The album took off immediately,” explains Stanley, “but we’re actually hitting here on the end of the tour. So it was actually a year ago, but it just shows you how time flies.”
Paul is equally bemused by the success of ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ in the singles charts. Although Kiss were at their height in the Seventies, they never managed to strike gold in the British “hit parade”. Indeed, they had never before broken into the Top 30. ‘‘I can’t believe we finally got a hit here’’, he screamed to the packed Wembley Arena. It really is genuine surprise.
In the dressing room before the gig he tries to understand the success of the record. ‘‘As a single ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ is very much like ‘Heaven’s On Fire’, very much like ‘Tears Are Falling’, very much like ‘Lick It Up’, so why one song in particular gets picked up on, I don’t know. I don’t try to figure it out, I’m just pleased.”
Perhaps Paul Stanley sees the record as merely one of a series of Kiss singles, but the British public latched onto to ‘Crazy Crazy Night’ because of it’s outright commerciality. Because for all its anthemic rock qualities, ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ is in fact a damn good pop song. Everything is there and in the right place; the addictive hook is hard to forget. Ironically, the spoken introduction to the record announces: “Here’s a song for everybody out there!” It couldn’t have been more prophetic. But how on earth are Kiss going to follow it up?
‘‘We’ve never been a band that has ever felt the pressure of following up what we do,” days Paul. “Maybe part of what makes it real and genuine for us is that we just continue doing what we do.”
So honesty amounts to longevity? ‘‘I think when you do something that’s honest, it’s kinda like blue jeans or Levis or something: you can always go on to very fancy trousers and today’s new style and the fad of the week, but ultimately you’ll go back to something that’s real. The fact is that the music is really pure rock’n’roll. It’s not heavy metal, it’s rock’n’roll that’s played loud. It’s Elvis through Marshalls.’’
Kiss will always be remembered for their face-paint image, having spent the entire Seventies behind a mask of make-up. The policy was even taken to the extent that no member of the band was ever photographed without facial cosmetics, so why did it all come to an end? Was it an attempt to move with the times or did they just finally run out of cleanser?
“A lot of people wanted to believe that the only reason we made it was because of the make-up and the big shows. Well the shows aren’t that big any more and the make-up’s gone – now they’ve got to explain that…
‘‘You have to be allowed the freedom to progress or continue, and you can’t be locked into a look. That wouldn’t be healthy. I mean that would be like thinking that the haircut you have when you’re 25, you should have when you’re 40 or 50! The way that you look is usually a reflection of how you’re feeling and who you think you are. And to be doing a nostalgia show and re-creating the past…’’
Wait a minute, though. This all looks good on paper, but in reality Kiss did stay locked with their image for over ten years. The make-up was very much tied to the Kiss of the Seventies; was the break an attempt to move into the Eighties?
‘‘It wasn’t an attempt,’’ insists Paul. ‘‘Most bands don’t have the luxury of being around that long. It didn’t happen in 1980, it just happened when it felt right. Most bands have a lifespan of five years, if they’re lucky. Eric is the second drummer in the band and he’s been in longer than the original drummer, so most of the rules don’t apply for us.’’
Even after a career this long, however, Paul Stanley doesn’t let the thought of the 1990s affect him. So what that Kiss will be entering their third decade when The Beatles only lasted one? If Mr Stanley is to be believed, the prolonged success of Kiss hasn’t been luck, it’s been a case of guided control. ‘‘It’s based on knowing what we should do,’’ he says with a degree of shrewdness that comes from so much time spent in the music business. ‘‘I know what I want us to be, I know where I think we should go, and when I wrote the songs for ‘Crazy Nights’ I had a very clear picture of where the band should be going. It wasn’t chance, it was very much me saying that this is the direction I think we should be in, and everybody saying: ‘OK, then let’s go!’ The songs were a little different in that they were broader, there was new colouring to them… I don’t know where we’ll be in five or ten years, we’ll have to see.’’
Age must always be a factor. Rock’n’roll is a young man’s game, and there must be a point when every self-respecting career pop star can’t face going on any longer. Mustn’t there?
‘‘Anything is possible. When that happens I’m sure that I’ll be honest enough not to show up. I was at a point where I felt if we didn’t take off the make-up, there wasn’t much sense continuing. Then it wouldn’t have been fun, because then we’d be re-creating something that we had done, instead of trying to create something new.
‘‘I don’t know that age is a factor as much as losing interest, then it would be time to stop. Age isn’t important – ask Robert Plant or Jagger.”
Even though they’ve stripped their stage show down to the bare rock’n’roll basics, Kiss really are a live act worth seeing. Early in their career Kiss realised the strength of their stage performance and put out a hugely successful live album.
‘‘In essence, the reason that we put out that first live album was because we were frustrated not being able to get the sound in the studio that we thought we had live. Technically we weren’t capable of it because we were new to the studio, and the people we were working with didn’t seem to be able to do it.
‘‘At this point I’m very pleased with what we do in the studio. When I work in the studio, I know exactly what I’m going for and I try to make sure that my songs are transferred as accurately and as faithfully as I hear them, as my demos are. Being a live band is very important but it’s only 50 per cent of what we’re all about.’’
Over the years the Kiss line-up has had it’s share of changes. Ray Davies has said that once the original line-up splits, you lose the essence of the band and, for however long you continue, you never quite re-capture the same feeling again.
‘‘Maybe that’s so for Ray Davies and The Kinks, but I think that the essence of Kiss is very much intact. The group hasn’t changed as far as the heart of it and the direction of it. I don’t really feel that anything has changed with a member leaving or coming in – I’m always very clear on what I want to do, and that hasn’t changed in 15 years.’’
American heavy rock, as a genre, is an avenue for pre-packaged outrage and innocuous rebellion. As far a Stateside society is concerned it’s a way of keeping the kids in control, and letting them think they’re outta control. After all, it was a country that never quite understood what punk was all about. As the band who went against that trend, Kiss could be seen to typify this pseudo-rebellious feeling better than anyone – bar Alice Cooper, of course. Paul Stanley doesn’t see it quite like that.
‘‘I don’t know if rebellion is what we’re about, because I have no war to fight with anybody. I think what we’re about is freedom to do what you want. I don’t know if that’s rebellion. Rebellion for the sake of rebellion is a waste of time. To stand your ground and pursue whatever you think you should, that’s valid, that’s what we stand for.
‘‘Sometimes people reach a point where they throw in the towel and decide that they have to stand more in line with what society expects of them. So those people may ultimately not come to see us, whereas sometimes younger people are a little more aware of the possibilities – you don’t have to be like everybody else; and because someone else fails trying to achieve a goal, it doesn’t mean that you will. If you believe that you can do something, you’ll do it.’’
But doesn’t Paul Stanley ever feel so moved about an issue that he has to stop, think, and scream: “No, you can’t do that!”
‘‘Not particularly,’’ he says. ‘‘Often people think that because they’re famous, they’re experts on the political scene, and they’re no brighter or smarter than anybody on the street. The only reason I’d ever stand on a soapbox is to sell soap!’’
Paul Stanley may not feel the need to preach, but he certainly sees the importance of staying close to his roots. Ivory towers are not part of the Kiss rock’n’roll fairytale.
‘‘If you do lose touch with the street, you lose your success. What ultimately helps you make it in the first place is the fact that you’re in touch with what everybody else’s into, because you’re part of it. When you become famous, it’s very easy for you to cut yourself off from it. I’m on the street everyday, I walk around, I’m not in some big mansion with people serving me all the time and telling me how great I am.’’
It’s hard to believe that someone in Paul Stanley’s position could, in reality, keep in touch with music on a street level, but Kiss always were a band for ‘the kids’…
‘‘I’m in the studio right now producing a young band and I’m always looking for new groups,’’ he boasts. ‘‘Part of my responsibility is if there are people around who deserve to make it, then I should help them. There’s a company set up now called Paul Stanley Entertainment Ltd, it’s at 1414 Sixth Avenue, New York, 10019. If somebody sends tapes, I listen to them, and they may wake up tomorrow and be a star.’’
In the Seventies Kiss were universally detested by the music business, the pop press, and just about everybody else. Everybody, that is, except for their legion of fans who assembled under the blanket title of the Kiss army. The two way dedication between the band and their fans was always something special.
‘‘It’s like a conversation. If you’re not listening to what someone else is saying, they’re not going to be there for you when you talk. It’s very much a mutual thing.’’
‘‘Kiss have always been the underdogs,” says Stanley. “Even when we succeeded we were the underdogs, the band that people looked down on. It takes an army to make that happen. And quite honestly, we’re still detested by a lot of people; and those people will never understand. At first they wanted to try to believe that the only reason we made it was because of make-up and big shows. Well, the shows aren’t that big anymore and the make-up’s gone – now they’ve got to explain that. And the people who said it would last a year or two… well, it’s 15 years later and I’m still playing!’’
© Words copyright Chris Hunt 2007