20 Years Ago: Kiss ‘Kiss’ Their Own Ass
It’s a question that might have seemed a little ridiculous in the ’80s, when they had to struggle a bit to remain relevant during a stretch of middling albums and lineup changes, but as a new decade dawned, the members of the band realized a funny thing: they were being name-checked as influences by a surprising number of up-and-coming young bands.
“I was stunned that, all of a sudden, after years of being the black sheep of rock and roll, people were coming out,” recalled Kiss co-founder Gene Simmons. “The confessional was happening: ‘Yes, I was a Kissoholic, I don’t want to hide in the closet anymore.’”
Inspired by ‘Hard to Believe: Kiss Covers Compilation,’ a 1990 release from Seattle-based indie C/Z Records that featured contributions from future stars Nirvana and Melvins, Simmons and partner Paul Stanley set about putting together a higher-profile release — one they decided they wanted to assemble completely on their own terms.
“I just wanted to keep the record company at arm’s distance,” Simmons insisted. “The only way to have a party that you’re going to enjoy is to throw it yourself. Because the record company — if you’re going to let your mom throw your party for you, all of the corny people are going to be there. Nobody that you want to talk to.”
The fresh outpouring of affection left Simmons and Stanley with plenty of potential acts to choose from. “This is the graduating class of the Kiss Army,” he nodded. “The fans who went on to form their own bands. That’s what this story is really about. I thought only a couple of people would come, but we had close to 100 different artists who wanted to be involved, from Sir Mix-a-Lot to Cypress Hill to Smashing Pumpkins. You name it. Even Kurt Cobain and the Melvins did a track together. Ironically, it came in too late, and another group, Dinosaur Jr., had already recorded the same track.”
“What’s so great on that album is that you have very strong perspectives and points of view,” Stanley argued. “Although each song is given a new identity, it holds up really well as a song. Sometimes, you’d have to sit down for a minute and say, ‘That’s the song I wrote?’”
It was a question echoed by a number of fans once they listened to the final results. The finished album, dubbed ‘Kiss My Ass: Classic Kiss Regrooved,’ arrived in stores on June 21, 1994, and — like many tribute records — included contributions from a number of bands who were popular at the time, regardless of whether or not they seemed to have any musical affinity for the artist being feted. Among the more eyebrow-raising cuts were Toad the Wet Sprocket’s sleepy cover of ‘Rock and Roll All Nite,’ a new version of ‘Hard Luck Woman’ featuring country superstar Garth Brooks backed by Kiss, and an orchestral arrangement of ‘Black Diamond’ from Japanese metal legend Yoshiki. But much as some songs may have seemed like cynical attempts to glom onto trendy younger acts, each performance came with its own purpose.
“We knew that no matter what we did, there would be some Kiss fans who would think it was hilarious, and some Kiss fans who would be upset a band as non-rock as us was taking that song,” laughed Toad the Wet Sprocket’s Glen Phillips. “So we decided we’d turn it into a waltz and do like a really silly campfire version of it. The thing was Gene Simmons loved it. He thought it was the bravest thing we could’ve done with it. There were also a lot of Kiss fans who wanted to take a hit out on us, and were very upset. But we had a great time doing it and it actually makes a great campfire song. Why not?”
“[Simmons] said to me, ‘The most important thing is that the character of your band show through in the song,’” explained Toad guitarist Dean Dinning. “So what we really tried to do was look at ourselves, and identify some Toad cliches that we typically fall back on, then wrap that around this totally different piece of music, a song that we would never write. We really liked it, but I was like, ‘I hope Gene doesn’t think this is insulting or anything.’ But he flipped. He loved it.”
“At that time I had a manager named Doc McGhee,” explained Yoshiki Hayashi. “He was telling me Kiss was making a tribute album, and then somehow I met Gene Simmons and we became good friends as well. He found out that X Japan was very popular in Japan.” That put him in the position of figuring out, as he laughed, “How am I going to make a piano concerto version of ‘Black Diamond’? Somehow I made it. In the beginning, I was participating only for the Japanese version — they had the same album in Germany, but a German version. But towards the end he liked it so much, he said ‘I’m going to put your song on the international version for the whole world.’”
“The guys in Kiss had read in an article that they were very influential to me as a teenager. So they flew to L.A. to see a show of mine,” recalled Brooks. “After the show I came backstage. Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons were there. I reached out to shake Paul’s hand, and he didn’t say, ‘Hi, nice to meet you.’ He just said: ‘I see it. I see it in your show. I see it in your clothes. I’m flattered.’ Man, I was beaming. My whole chest was out. I was like, ‘Wow, thank you.’ And the great thing, too, about Paul Stanley standing there with Gene Simmons is that these guys are not small people. They’re huge. In real life Paul and Gene are well over six feet. They’re bigger than life.” (Admittedly, a true fan should have said ‘Larger than Life.’)
“He literally got misty-eyed and said, ‘If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here doing this tonight,’ and he put his arms around me,” added Simmons. “Well, call me a sap, but I got misty-eyed, too. I find stuff like that very, very flattering and humbling.”
Whatever its failings, it’s hard to fault the ‘Kiss My Ass’ project for that earnest spirit. And even though it was greeted with generally mixed reviews and a lukewarm commercial reaction, it served as an opening salvo in a period of reappraisal for Kiss, during which a band once widely derided as cheesily theatrical came to be appreciated for its songwriting.
“A good song will sound good even on just a guitar or a piano. There’s no reason for somebody to explain to you the arrangement that you’ll hear when it’s recorded. Because if the core of the song is good, it’ll stand. And that’s how we approached those songs,” pointed out Stanley. “Sure, there was a bombastic stage show, and there were four guys running around the stage in whiteface and nine-inch heels. But it all started with a song. The other stuff, for some people, may have overpowered or eclipsed the music, but the music was there.”