KISS: ‘Gene Simmons’

KISS
GENE SIMMONS
Released on September 18, 1978 (Casablanca Records)

Review by John Stoney Cannon:
Of the four KISS solo albums co-released in 1978, perhaps the most ambitious is the one by bassist / vocalist Gene Simmons. At least ambitious in terms of star power as the lists of guests far outweights Simmons’ creative power. Yeah, to this day, it’s still a cool listen and makes his 2004 solo follow up Asshole sound like a trail of musical farts in comparison. Aside from stepping out on a limp for a couple tracks, it’s merely a lesser version of the killer tunes he had already created for KISS starting in 1973. Far better than half his creative output since the mid-’80s, Gene Simmons, while a solid solo debut, could have and should have been even better considering the effort, time and that previously mentioned star power. To put it mildly, Simmons went Hollywood — fans have to be certain that Simmons was most likely all googly-eyed over his part in Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park which premiered around a month later — filling up his solo album with more known names than Heidi Fleiss’ reported client list but according to reports, still far less than his list of sexual conquests. Call it style over substance, Hollywood over rock and roll, whatever…it is what it is, which is cool and with plenty of rocking moments, but could have been way cooler.

If I was handing out grades for the bits and pieces of the Demon‘s first solo offering, I would most definitely give out an “A” for the start of the album. The first time I heard the spooky opening while sitting in the dark wearing a huge pair of headphones, I had to smile with all my horror movie-loving heart. Right off the bat, sound is used to mark the album as the Demon. It’s just a shame that there wasn’t more of that monster personality to be found but regardless, the thing started off cool and once it kicked in? Man, the eventual chug that officially tears into opener “Radioactive” borders on soul-snatching. It’s no wonder the song turned out to be Simmons’ “single” from the album. “Radioactive” is one of his best tunes and in my opinion, the single best thing to be found on the record. Not that the soulful and infectious “Burning Up With Fever” right after isn’t cool and full on classic Gene, but “Radioactive” is just that great of a song. Could things have kicked off better? Maybe but not too shabby of a start not to mention, a great set up for one of the biggest stretches on the record — Gene’s venture into ballad territory.

Taking a page from what many KISS fans would more expect from bandmates Paul Stanley or Peter Criss, Simmons not only offers up his own unexpected take on a Beatles meets Rod Stewart style ballad, but he wrote the dang thing as well. In 1978, few had yet to hear the sounds of previous band Wicked Lester setting up fans for the pleasant surprise of “See You Tonite” — a soft rock tune every bit as good as previous KISS softies like “Hard Luck Woman” and “Beth.” For the Demon, this could have easily been crash and burn but actually, what’s scarier than stepping outside of your skin — or in this case, bat wings and makeup — and risking a monster of a character rep by getting a tad cuddly? Along with “Radioactive”, “See You Tonite” stands as a high spot on the Demon’s solo debut.

Even with spending so much time scribbling down perspective guest stars to boost his album, the Demon still managed to pay attention to some of the sequencing following up a ballad with a pair of tunes bordering on danceable starting with “Tunnel Of Love”, a kind of semi-funky version of classic Simmons and “True Confessions”, a tune that falls somewhere in the space where the Demon, Meat Loaf, and Rocky Horror meet.  The chorus vocals by the Citrus College Singers gives  it that Rocky sing-a-long feel and well, no one in rock history has ever taken up the ’70s Broadway rock opera sound better than Meat but Simmons does an admirable job fully adding his own KISS style in to the mix. It’s cabaret meets carnage as only Simmons in 1978 could do it.

“Living In Sin” is cool standard Simmons in a sort of “very similar but not nearly as cool as ‘Sweet Pain’” kinda way. Definitely retaining that ’70s Simmons groove, it’s all Demon macho bravado in a way that revisits KISS’ early days including piano and despite playing it safe, stands out as one of the better tracks on the album. So far, aside from the odd (but great) ballad, the first solo outing from Simmons sticks pretty close to KISS territory but one had to figure that somewhere along the way, things had to stretch a bit and it’s about this point on the album that Gene starts to swerve from some semblance of his brand of rock and roll and into his attempt at, art?

Possibly culling inspiration from chief influence The Beatles, and entering territory that would be rarely seen again from Simmons until Music From The Elder, “Always Near You / Nowhere To Hide” reeks ’60s pop rock including swirling choral and falsetto vocals in a very Phil Spector kind of way. It’s full bodied and while not exactly Simmons-sounding, it works on some levels at least when compared to “Man Of 1,000 Faces” and “Mr. Make Believe.” This trio of tracks might be the Demon paying respects to his musical upbringing and definitely would appeal to fans of ’60s pop but stretching your wings is one thing, flying a long distance is another and three straight throwback tunes is about two too much. Yeah, it’s cool and yeah, it’s fun and back in 1978, I thought it was awesome. But then again, back in 1978, I also still thought the Bay City Rollers and Rosetta Stone were awesome so maybe it WAS overkill but then again, it’s probably just based on how far away you were willing to go from the sound of KISS back in 1978. As a guy who over the years has been a huge fan of ’60s and ’70s power pop, I can dig these tunes, but nowhere near as much as I did as a wide-eyed kid listening while being hypnotized by the giant illustration of the Demon on the album  cover.

To this day, I still don’t get Simmons’ cover of his own “See You In Your Dreams.” I have always loved the original version released just a couple years earlier on Rock And Roll Over and have never seen any need to attempt to recreate the greatness and feel of the original version. Supposedly, the redo was to try and improve on an original Simmons wasn’t remotely happy with but in my opinion the 1978 rendition lacks warmth, soul, and overall rock and roll feel. The vocal alone is far less cooler than the rawer more rocking 1976 original. Between that and the “karaoke”-like version of “When You Wish Upon A Star”, Simmons’ first solo effort ends with space that could have been better filled with a couple more 1978 Gene Simmons originals or if anything, a more rocking new original and a Demon-infused version of the Disney classic. Yeah, maybe sometimes it’s sacrilegious to screw with something like a classic Disney song but isn’t that the point of a solo album or rock and roll for that matter? To test boundaries? To break the rules? OK, so maybe the big bad Demon singing a dead-on orchestrated version of a pop culture classic is stepping over the boundaries… but then again, maybe it’s still just easy karaoke.

In 1978, all four KISS guys created their own solo album each meant to shine on their personality or character and in many ways, Gene Simmons stuck close to the sound of the Demon created for KISS. Yet, in some ways, Simmons sold his soul more to the Hollywood devil than the Gods of rock and roll that brought him to the masses. Years later, Gene Simmons is still a cool album to pull out, drop the needle on and topped with cover art that to this day still inspires but overall as a musical release, fails to stand the test of time quite like Ace‘s or Paul‘s. That’s not a knock, just a fact. Sure it rocks, but let me ask any fans reading this, if given the choice of picking just one of the 1978 KISS solo albums to listen to for the rest of your life, would you pick Gene’s over the other three?

Review by Lance Lumley:
When KISS fans discuss the solo albums of 1978, most of the time they compare the albums to each other, as opposed to looking at each one separate. Since I don’t own the Paul and Ace albums — I’m definitely a non-traditional KISS fan — I’m going to view Gene‘s in a way that doesn’t compare it to the other solo albums.

Gene‘s album cover, in my opinion, is one of the most iconic rock album covers, ever, not just in hard rock. Many people who are not KISS fans can find this design at shopping malls during Halloween on t-shirts and other merchandise — some not even official KISS merchandise — and can recognize it as Gene Simmons. The album cover has the Demon looking intensely at the audience, ready to inflict fear with its horror like makeup, with blood dripping out of his mouth ready for the next victim. But is the album as good as the cover?

Track one “Radioactive” was a song that I was not familiar with until college, when I purchased a KISS VHS tape that had live concert footage of the band performing it. The album opens with a spooky introduction filled with laughter and multiple voices coming out of the background, with orchestration that comes at the listener much like a horror film soundtrack. The song then kicks into a rock/pop song, similar to “Christine Sixteen” from the KISS Love Gun album. This song doesn’t stray from the KISS brand of the late 1970s, so the listener can be happy with this song.

The second song is called “Burning Up With Fever” and starts off with a mystical introduction before turning into a disco type groove that was relevant of the times — not surprisingly since KISS were on a disco label. The music has a slow rhythm to it, that reminds me of Love Gun‘s “Almost Human” or something off of the Hotter Than Hell album. The chorus, with guest Donna Summer, has the normal 1970s pop feel. “See You Tonight” is a song I first heard off the 1995 Unplugged album, and is one of the underrated songs in Gene‘s catalog. The song is a nice mid-tempo song that could have been a radio hit during the AM radio era of the time. This song should have been a single. Track Four “Tunnel Of Love” has strange lyrics like “You jump off the roof if I say.” The music is good, but the lyrics are nothing special.

Another song I enjoyed off the release is “True Confessions.” The song features Helen Reddy, and has a catchy melody and chorus. The only part that kills the flow is in the middle where the Azusa Citrus College Choir sings a part that could have been a left over from the Destroyer album. Other than that, this is a good song off the album. Tracks six and seven — “Living In Sin” and “Always Near You/Nowhere To Hide” — are songs that aren’t too exciting. “Living In Sin” features his then girlfriend Cher, and has the lines “Living in sin at the Holiday Inn.” Enough said there. Track seven is a slower ballad that has a nice orchestration that would fit at the end credits of a movie.

Simmons‘ love of horror films, especially Lon Chaney Sr, is shown with the title “Man Of 1,000 Faces.” The lyrics is what the listener would expect from Gene; horror themed, with a possible stalker coming after the audience. Track nine is called “Mr. Make Believe” and is another rarer song that isn’t mentioned much. This is a nice radio style song for the time, with an acoustic feel to it, a la Rod Stewart. This is a nice pop sounded song. Track ten is a remake of the KISS song “See You In Your Dreams”, which was off of 1976’s Rock and Roll Over. Guitar player Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick plays on the song, and it is just not as good as the original.

Closing out the album is one of the most questioned songs in Kisstory. Gene ends with the Disney song “When You Wish Upon A Star.” Simmons has said in interviews that he recorded the song due to the biographical nature of his childhood, coming to America and living his dreams. Although many KISS fans criticize the song, the listener can hear that Simmons has a different singing range from his normal grovel voice. Is it worth being at the end of the album? That’s hard to say, but it was his album and he wanted many different styles on it, so it fits his overall goal.

Overall, the album is filled with many different styles, where in one of his books, he claims he wanted to have all different types of music going on. Simmons achieves this goal, and has some good songs on the album that is typical of the 1970s radio hits that was played on AM radio. There are fillers on the album as well, and the cover deceives the listener with the scary look, and turns out to have a few rock and pop songs, with other songs filled with orchestration. I heard stories of how die hard KISS fans were shocked when they first heard Destroyer with the choirs and orchestras. I wonder if the same feeling occurred when they bought this album seeing the cover. To me, the release has good and bad points to it, and was not that different than other songs that was released in the late 1970s; it was just different for a member of KISS.

Track List:
01. Radioactive
02. Burning Up With Fever
03. See You Tonite
04. Tunnel Of Love
05. True Confessions
06. Living In Sin
07. Always Near You / Nowhere To Hide
08. Man Of 1,000 Faces
09. Mr. Make Believe
10. See You In Your Dreams
11. When You Wish Upon A Star

Musicians:
Gene Simmons – lead vocals, electric and acoustic guitar
Elliot Randall, Steve Lacey, Joe Perry, Rick Nielsen, Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, Richie Ranno – guitar
John Shane Howell – classical guitar
Neil Jason – bass guitar
Allan Schwartzberg – drums
Sean Delaney – percussion, backing vocals
Ron Frangipane – symphonic arrangements, conductor
Eric Troyer – piano, vocals
Richard Gerstein – piano
Cher – spoken word
Gordon Grody, Diva Gray, Kate Sagal, Franny Eisenberg, Carolyn RayBob Seger, Helen Reddy, Donna Summer, Janis Ian, Mitch Weissman, Joe Pecorino, Michael Des Barres, The Citrus College Singers – backing vocals

Production:
Produced by Sean Delaney and Gene Simmons
Mastered by George Marino

Band Websites:
Official Website
Facebook

Reviewed by John Stoney Cannon and Lance Lumley for Sleaze Roxx, September 2018

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