Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Vs. Kiss

Let's start with a couple of things I believe...


I believe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is absolutely justified and correct in reaching beyond the narrow confines that many vocal fans (and artists) have about what "Rock and Roll" is. It's important to include outlying genres, because they strengthen and influence the direction that the form moves in. Make no mistake, the reason we're still taking about Rock and Roll is because it, as a from, evolves. Rhythm and Blues is a stone in the foundation of Rock, which begat Elvis Pressley's Hound Dog, and Cuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode, but also begat Chic's Le Freak, and Snoop Dogg's Gin & Juice.

It's absolutely silly to dismiss music that's designed for dancing. When Little Richard blasted into Tutti Frutti, his goal was to git those teenagers in 1956 on the dance floor. Likewise, you cannot dismiss the clear influence of folk artists like Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie on undeniable Rock artists like Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. I, personally, see "Rock" as a rainbow of styles and genres with Robert Johnson sitting at the end like the proverbial pot o' gold.

What the critics miss, and it's kind of unforgivable, is that the Hall of Fame is not just about honoring artists for record sales or fame, but providing education about the history of the form. One of my favorite exhibits in the museum (which is separated from the Hall of Fame, proper), are kiosks where you can search for your favorite artists, and explore a graphic diagram of their influences, and then explore their influence's influences. Using this display, you can see how interconnected the tapestry of Rock is. This sort of education is something these vocal opponents might benefit from.


I believe Kiss deserves induction into the Hall of Fame. They fulfill the requirements I would personally have for such an honor. They were influential, they inspired other musicians, they have a legacy that deserves respect.

But, really, is their legacy about music?

I mean ABSOLUTELY no disrespect with that statement. There are plenty of truly amazing Rock artists who are important, and it has nothing to do with musical skill, originality, or creativity The Punk movement, honestly, was important because they didn't have any of those qualities, as an example. Kiss wasn't doing anything revolutionary, on a musical level. They wrote good, catchy songs that were aimed to be just that, not compositional achievements. I think any members, current or former, of that band would agree.

That should not be taken as me saying the music is bad. I quite like a lot of the early Kiss material, and it is "classic" for a reason. The wrote songs that people liked, and a big reason was because they weren't overly challenging. A lot of artists did the same thing.

The Original Kiss
What Kiss had that was different was, frankly, image. The reason the band became a phenomenon was because of their make-up, the stage show, the tricks and stagecraft. They brilliantly came up with the make-up, costumes and personas that made it possible to immediately "get" what each guy in the band was about - regardless of music. Paul "Starchild" Stanley was the preening frontman. Gene "Demon" Simmons was the dark creature holding down the bass. "Space" Ace Frehley was the lead guitarist, with out of this world leads. Peter "Catman" Criss was the drummer, away and above it all.

When I was in elementary school, EVERYBODY loved Kiss, but I'd actually lay money that the vast majority of the kids I knew had never heard a single song. The music was, in the end, irrelevant to the image and marketing. They had built a marketing machine that led kids into the fold with four-color superhero imagery, toys, games, model kits, and kept them as they reached their teen years with suggestive lyrics and a general naughty vibe. Kiss owned the world from 1976-1978, and I would, again, with respect, say that had very little to do with music.

This is why I totally understand why the Hall of Fame, firstly, seemed to drag their feet on inducting the band, and, now that they will be inducted, are only inducting the original four members. While Eric Carr (who replaced Criss, officially, in 1980), Vinnie Vincent (replacing Frehley, officially, in 1982), Mark St. John (who had a brief tenure as lead guitarist in 1984 - cut short by illness), Bruce Kulick (lead guitar 1984 - 1996), and Eric Singer (Replaced Carr after he succumbed to Cancer in 1991) are all talented and did good work for the band, they existed in a time when Kiss didn't feel like a truly distinctive group. They, speaking bluntly, felt like a lot of other 80's hair metal bands inspired by Kiss. Especially after they removed their make-up in 1983. They were in a good band, but not a Hall of Fame band.

Then, of course, there's the issue of the return to make-up. Which began when the original lineup reunited in 1996, and toured until their "Farewell Tour" of 2001. Criss left the group again, during this "Farewell Tour," and Frehley departed afterward. After that, money was still there to be made, and Eric Singer returned as drummer, with Tommy Thayer taking the lead guitar spot. The difficult choice the band made was that Singer and Thayer are now touring with the group as "The Catman" and "The Spaceman," and wearing the make-up and costumes that Criss and Frehley made famous.

(For the record, Eric Carr performed with the band in make-up, but with his own persona, "The Fox," as did Vinnie Vincent as the Egyptian-themed "The Wiz." Since you're probably never heard of these characters, or know what they looked like, you can probably guess that it wasn't the most successful idea.)

So, you have six other musicians who have played on Kiss albums (seven if you could Anton Fig, who ghosted for Criss), and are technically eligible for induction. Yet the Hall of Fame has decided they will not be inducted. I think this is the correct choice. I think Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Foundation CEO Joel Peresman does a good job of addressing the issue over at Billboard

The heyday of Kiss, the point where they were truly a band who's accomplishments made them worthy of induction, really ended when the four original members simultaneously released solo albums on September 18th, 1978. When the TV-Movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park aired on October 28th, 1978, the cracks had begun to show. Kiss began to become a caricature of itself, which is deadly for a band that was conceived as a bit of a caricature. Then the make-up came off, and they just became fairly generic.

Again, not BAD, but they just seemed to become interchangeable with acts like Ratt. Los Angeles sleaze-rock, and with the whimsical quality of the make-up gone, the sleaze could be overwhelming.

Current Kiss lineup
Then after Criss and Frehley left again, and different musicians were asked to  wear their costumes and make-up, he whole thing just felt like it was edging toward a sham. The shows may still be impressive, technically better than with Frehley and Criss, but I think Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley know EXACTLY what they created in the 70's. The personas are the band members to anyone who's not a hard core fan, and the general audience just wants to see a Kiss show, and it doesn't particularly matter if Frehley or Thayer is under the Spaceman make-up. Gene, especially, has even hinted at a point where the band could continue without ANY of the original members, with paid stand-ins doing the work while "the organization" (controlled by Simmons and Stanley) takes it's cut.

The fallout has been that when Kiss is inducted to the Hall of Fame on April 10th, apparently no version of the band will perform. The HOF was pushing for a reunion of the original members, Frehley and Criss appeared to be open to it, but it was apparently nixed by Simmons and Stanley. Simmons and Stanley have also been pounding this idea that's it unfair that the other members are not being inducted.

I call bullshit, and I'll tell you why.

Aside from what I said above, most of these guys didn't play in a Kiss that was a Hall of Fame-worthy band, this comes down to what Kiss has always been about - marketing. This is about the Kiss marketing machine. The machine that has moved more and more strongly toward a model where the band members are personas, not people. Who's the lead guitarist of Kiss? The Spaceman. Not "Ace Frehley," not "Tommy Thayer," but "The Spaceman." Then the band can put anybody up there who can play the tunes, and no one need know the difference.

Long gone are the days when Bruce Kulick could stand on stage as "Bruce Kulick," a member of the band Kiss. Long gone are the days when Eric Carr would be tasked to attempt to figure out a new costumed persona for the band. This is gone in favor of a Kiss "concert" that resembles a play with music. New performers portraying your favorite characters.

By singling out Ace Frehley, Peter Criss, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley the Hall of fame has made a distinction between the people who created those characters, who defined and lived them, and any replacements the Kiss organization may hire to tour in the future. When the day comes, and it will, that "Kiss" is made up of four guys who have no connection to the original four members, other than the signature on their paychecks...is that really Kiss? To Gene Simmons it is, because he'll be getting paid.

As Mr. Peresman said, and I think it's fair:
"Sometimes there's an entire body of work up until (the artists) are inducted, other times it's a specific period of time that established the band as who they are. With Kiss there wasn't one person here who didn't agree that the reason Kiss was nominated and is being inducted was because of what was established in the 70s with Ace (Frehley), with Peter (Criss), with Paul and Gene (Simmons). That's what put them on that map...(Kiss) is a unique situation where you have artists who wear makeup as part of what the band's about...(later members) are fine musicians who...basically have the same makeup and are the same characters that Ace and Peter started. It's not like they created these other characters with different makeup and playing different songs. They took the persona of characters that were created by Ace and Peter."
Beatlemania, or Rain, are fine, entertaining shows, but no one's trying to sell you on the idea that you're ACTUALLY seeing the Beatles. Likewise, the fan-based Kiss Tribute Bands, aren't saying they ARE Kiss. It's just damn creepy, to me, that the Kiss Organization continues in this direction.

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