Gene Simmons Q&A: Career Endurance, KISS’ Legacy and Paul McCartney’s Influence
Written by: Ken Sharp / www.rockcellarmagazine.com
Outspoken and brash, arrogant and opinionated, profane and vulgar, supremely narcissistic and sexist, are among the colorful descriptions both the public and media foist at KISS’ founding member Gene Simmons.
Acutely aware of how he is perceived, Simmons even named his last solo album Asshole. When meeting with the “God of Thunder,” one will notice he’s polite and gracious, proving there’s much more behind the self-proclaimed “Man of 1000 Faces.”
Currently on the road with KISS for their “Freedom To Rock” jaunt of the U.S., the band, or brand, as Simmons often likes to describe the Roll & Roll Hall of Famers, are not content to rest on their laurels and count their mountainous pile of greenbacks. Rather, they continue to press the envelope with a keen understanding of the transformative power of how a rock and roll band can be marketed in today’s world.
Yet as Simmons attests, his accomplishments with KISS have far exceeded his expectations. “It is really weird that KISS, which never really started out as anything but this bizarre dream of four knuckleheads off the streets of New York just wanting to do one record, that four decades later, the RIAA crowned us as the number-one Gold record award winning group of all time in America. It’s amazing especially since we’ve only had three hit singles, Beth, I Was Made For Loving You and Forever.”
For a group routinely dismissed by short-sighted critics as a flash in the pan, a “joke band” comprised of talentless cretinous musical goons soon to be forgotten and quickly discarded on the junk heap of failed rock bands past, KISS are having the last laugh. Detractors be damned, 46 years since the original band–Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss–first came together, in 2016 KISS continue to transcend the parameters of what a rock band can do.
Whether starring in their own Scooby Doo cartoon (Scooby Doo & KISS: Rock & Roll Mystery), teaming up with menswear designer/clothier John Varvatos or collaborating with Japanese teen sensations Momoiro Clover Z on Samurai Son, the band’s first # 1 single in the “Land of the Rising Sun,” yesterday and today KISS stubbornly follow the beat of their own drum and continue to thrive, loudly.
Witness their latest “Freedom To Rock” tour, which is drawing in a significant generation of younger fans eager and excited to be baptized, KISS-style. We sat down with the band’s resident “God of Thunder,” Gene Simmons, who offered a primer in all things KISS, past, present and future.
Gene Simmons: That’s a very good question. When you’re a pimple-faced little kid, we’re all trying to figure out where we fit on the chess board of life. We try to sort of hang to or latch on to that thing that makes us acceptable and it’s usually not mathematics, unfortunately, or sciences. The kid that put in the time to excel at math and science, the rest of the kids at school don’t just go, “Oh yeah, I need to hang out with that guy.”
And the pivotal moment for me — and I think lots of people — was watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was a very clear vision; here are four guys who look alien. They were very small, had very small physical statures and they were a little feminine with crazy haircuts—the rest of us had veryshort hair—and they were singing and playing in ways I hadn’t heard before and the girls were going absolutely crazy!
Because I wasn’t from America and I always felt like an outsider, I connected to them because they also didn’t feel like they came from here. They talked strange, that British and Liverpudlian accent I’d never heard before, not in movies or anywhere else. And I thought, “Gee if I did that, maybe I can be accepted too?”
The act of songwriting was something you worked hard to master.
Gene Simmons: Well, initially I just sang in bands. We did cover songs; everything from Otis Redding to Wilson Pickett to the Ventures and of course, Beatles songs, whatever was happening at the time. Listening to the Everly Brothers helped me learn how to sing harmony too. Then my mother bought me a Gibson SG Standard and I didn’t know what to do with my fingers, so initially I was just pressing single notes. Then I noticed the way people were holding C chords and G chords and all that and started to fool around.
How would you describe the early songs you wrote?
Gene Simmons: The first songs, in retrospect, were the kind of things John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote — but I don’t mean anywhere near as good. People would ask them what their words mean and both of them would say, “We have no idea, we just out words on there that sounded good.” And initially, the kinds of songs that I wrote as a kid didn’t really mean a hell of a lot. I had a song called My Uncle Is A Raft. One of the lyrics was “My uncle is a raft and he always keeps me floating.”
I had fond feelings about my uncle George and I’m sure all that McCartney stuff like Uncle Albert and the lyrics “hands across the water” really don’t mean anything. It’s not like Penny Lane, which really meant something about his childhood memories. But a lot of the words in Beatles songs like I Am The Walrus don’t mean a lot; they’re just interesting words that are stuck against the melody and the meter. So those first few songs of mine were very simple. Stylistically, they were vaguely Beatlesque or Everly Brothers-ish, Wake Up Little Susie, that kind of stuff.
What was the breakthrough for you as a songwriter?
Gene Simmons: The irony was that I noticed if I was gonna be in a band, I didn’t see myself as a lead singer. Physically I was too big and I didn’t see guys my size doing that. I was also heavier as a kid so I didn’t see guys my size fronting bands. I could sing well enough I guess, at least as good as Eric Burdon and Mick Jagger, those guys, who sing pretty straight ahead.