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Gene Simmons: In The Solo Album Spotlight

The man of 1,000 faces make believers of those who don't listen with their eyes.

By Julian Gill



The rejection of KISS' music has long been considered a matter of listeners hearing with their eyes and failing to give the music a fair evaluation. For Gene Simmons, who had been judged by such parameters dating back to 1973, the same could be said to be the case when fans picked up his 1978 solo album. In some ways, it was his own fault: He had allowed himself to generally be typecast growling out the sort of material more aligned with his onstage persona. Offstage, the man behind the mask was musically quite a different creature - but who, in 1978, had heard his softer side, aside from "Great Expectations," a song that lacked any of the subtle introspection or vulnerability? There's a duality encompassed within the whole "Gene Simmons" package. Is it ego or a celebratory thanks that causes the man to thank just about everyone he's encountered since arriving in America in 1958 - except the kitchen sink? Is it a name-dropping narcissist who has a guest list that shouts "look here," or someone who's amazed at the success his work has brought that allows him to celebrate a solo-outing with such guests? It's probably a mix of both, and probably unwise to measure versus how elder-Gene is perceived in 2013. If fans were expecting an album full of "Almost Human" tracks then they'd have had few reference points to consider what Gene might have had in mind. In an interview with Steve Rosen, Gene explained the goals of his solo album: "I wanted to do the songs in a way that when people listened to them they wouldn't say, 'God, listen to all the guitars.' What I wanted is to have people sit down and say the songs are good. The songs were given a nice kind of honest treatment, and the arrangements are such that you aren't constantly distracted by particular instruments... that's part of the sound; you can play with that because you're already comfortable with it. If you're [producer] Phil Spector, you can have a wall of sound that people understand - that's the style you're dealing with, that's the genre - and then the song works naturally and you're not stumbling over: 'Gee, that's a big sound.' If you're Pink Floyd and all of a sudden you sound like KISS, everybody will say, 'Whoa, wait a minute,' and then they don't pay attention to the song" (Guitar Player, 1978).

Of the four members of KISS, Gene was the only one to truly embrace the concept of going solo. That meant breaking away from the concept of KISS, and the boundaries the band imposed in order to remain demographically acceptable. It wasn't just thinking outside of the box, but removing the boundaries the "box" represents completely. Ace and Paul rocked, honing their material to the ultimate versions of themselves, and with few exceptions didn't digress too far from the "path" they followed within the band. Peter too, while straying far from the bread and butter of KISS, remained honest to the sort of material he'd bring to KISS - were one to judge his solo album then it's second only to Gene's at breaking away from the "KISS" mould. Gene, if nothing else, teases and cajoles the listener. He presents the demon in the Ron Frangipane composed introduction to "Radioactive," and then goes off into a classic 50s rock 'n roll direction with piano embellishments and touches of funky bass, along with sound-effects and female backing-vocals. Its pure Vegas in some ways, a precursor to what KISS became, visually at least, in 1979. According to Gene the introduction was, "Janis Ian... Singing in Latin... The Latin says something like, 'I see no evil, I hear no evil, it's not around me at all'" (Rock Magazine). And that perhaps, at the offset, is the album's "I am not just the 'Demon'" declaration, something that it lives up to. The discordant acoustic introduction to "Burning up with Fever" serves as a segue to the KISS cast-off. Again, who would expect classical guitar on a Gene Simmons album? Well, he could and he did. With an almost Southern-revival chorus one can nearly see Gene preaching from the pulpit while a robe-clad choir sings the refrain. While these opening tracks may have been more of the up-tempo and familiar of the material on the album they couldn't be further away from the imagery of his bread and butter band. "See You Tonite" seals the deal with its beautiful and evocative acoustic arrangement. It is quite possibly impossible to be any further removed from the music of KISS than with this song. The harmonies pay homage to the material of Lennon & McCartney, yet orchestral flourishes also take the material into the realm of Simon & Garfunkel.

"Tunnel of Love" returns the listener to more comfortable territory with a song that dated from Gene's involvement with the Van Halen brothers (they'd originally demoed the song with him) after its rejection from the "Love Gun" album. In that sense it's almost inexplicable that they weren't brought in as guests for the studio version. "True Confessions" continues in the same vein as "Radioactive:" Good time rock 'n roll, powered by piano and strong backing vocals, in this case featuring Helen Reddy. According to Gene, "Helen Reddy was incredibly straight. She was like, 'I am woman, glorified.' She had a song called 'I Am Woman' and that was her big hit and I think she was offended by all this male 'cock rock' type of music, but she was willing to do it" (Special Delivery #13). And that must have made her a heck of a trophy for his collection of guests. While the demon may have been celebrating a type of music closer to the 1950s he was also celebrating the lifestyle he had attained by 1978 and perhaps just slightly mocked himself with "Living in Sin." One that one track Gene's "Hello Baby" again harkens back to the 1950s and the "Big" Bopper's famed introduction on his hit "Chantilly Lace." For that matter, so too the hysterical Cher and Chastity Bono telephone conversation alludes to Bopper's phone call and the subject matter to what Gene was known to like!

Returning to the Beatles-esque material is the hybrid "Always Near You/Nowhere To Hide." With a melody generally reused in 1981 as part of "Only You" the piece is more of a lounge music style that ambles in a somewhat directionless manner, building with acoustic guitars, harmonies, electric sections, orchestras, and backing vocals, until it transitions into the "Nowhere to Hide" section. If nothing else it is representative of the "kitchen sink" or blender approach where everything is thrown into the mix, perhaps for the sake of art. "Man of 1,000 Faces" pays homage to the nickname of one of Gene's Hollywood horror film heroes, Lon Chaney, though it also serves as an obvious claim to the title for Gene himself -- if the music on the album were not illustrative enough to make that point. The 1978 form of the song was more autobiographical in nature. Gene recalled, "Although nobody's going to see behind the mask, what I'm trying to tell everybody is that it really isn't a mask. It's just one of the different faces, and everybody's got many, many different faces. And people are not the same with any two people" (Grooves, 1978).

Like other material "Mr. Make Believe" alludes to an exploration of his character with powerful backing vocals and harmonies that had permeated his pre-Wicked Lester compositions. "See You In Your Dreams" was an opportunity to allow Gene to right what he had felt had been a failure with the KISS version recorded for the "Rock And Roll Over" album. Unfortunately, Gene wasn't particularly happy with this version either: "In my head I heard much more a Humble Pie thing, but it came off sounding much poppier than that" (Firehouse #58). It did allow Gene to bring in Michael Des Barres to scream along with the girl backing vocals. Perhaps a result of this second attempt this is the sole song on the album to have a true KISS feel on it. Gene opted to close the album with the unexpected, as if the other material on the album had been "expected" -- a cover of "When You Wish Upon A Star," a sentimental tip of the hat to the Disney cartoons that helped Gene learn English soon after moving to America in 1958. Gene recalled the importance of the song: "When I first heard that song I could barely speak English but I knew the words were true. Anybody can have what they want, the world and life can give its rewards to anyone" (Kerrang #160). Additionally, Gene's belief in the subject matter of the song, that all things are possible, embody the American dream, something he has certainly attained: "The lyrics are the heaviest lyrics that have ever been written because they can apply to anybody. Anybody who's got a dream can relate to them... But I think it's universal at the same time. It can be personal to everybody. It doesn't have anything to do with age or sex or anything" (Grooves, 1978).

Putting the album under the spotlight simply illuminates the incredible amount of influences integrated and expressed by Gene's effort. It's too easy to dismiss the album as pompous and self-gratifying just due to the overload of guest or "thank you" messages. Behind the mask the contents are far more representative of the man and artist than perhaps was obvious.