This was the very definition of ‘bittersweet’.
After 19 previous (crazy crazy) nights out for me watching KISS in concert around the UK and Europe since 1983, last night at Arena Birmingham was seemingly the last ever time that the masked wonders will play in my home city. It’s all part of a long goodbye the band are taking – one bloody massive ‘victory lap’ around the world as they prepare to finally wipe off the Dulux for good and then surely house families in their redundant monster boots as retirement begins in earnest. I’m deliriously happy for them to be able to do this ‘End Of The Road’ extravaganza and leave no pyro unlit in their quest for the ultimate show, but also so dejected in the realisation that all good things must come to an end at some point (in 2020?) for Gene & co…especially when you’re plodding around a stage in Clown White and body armour 4 years after your entitlement to a free bus pass. Cheers Drive.
When I first witnessed a KISS show nearly 36 years ago, there was nowhere in Birmingham big enough to stage it – thus, good old Stafford Bingley Hall/Cowshed was used, as with so many other international acts touring the UK in the 70’s & early 80’s. The waft of cattle musk was somewhat oppressive, mixing as it did with the other pervading scents of the time; patchouli oil, Watney’s Red Barrel and Blue Stratos. I have vivid memories of that night in October of 1983…and not just the ones that hit my nostrils. There was the cry of ‘We Want KISS!’ after just one song of opening act Heavy Pettin’s set…and there was still another support band to come on after them…the cheer as Eric Carr’s smoky chrome Ludwig drumset was finally revealed from under large black cloths that had been obscuring it during the support slots…the roar as the house lights suddenly were extinguished and ZZ Top’s ‘Got Me Under Pressure’ ceased playing over the PA system…my 15-year-old bowels loosening at that moment realising my heroes were about to tumble onto the stage in front of me. Still, at least it would have gone undetected thanks to the musk around me.
My Mum & Dad had taken me and 2 of my mates to the gig, dropped us off and gone for a meal at a nearby restaurant, telling us to return to where they’d dropped us off immediately the gig was done. My Mum told me in later years that they’d arrived back to hear the thunderous cacophony of ‘Black Diamond’ booming out from the Cowshed, and then the shock as thousands of denim-clad teenagers swarmed out of the exits, all seemingly making headway towards Dad’s car near the entrance, all looking – to her at least - EXACTLY like me. Maybe that was bowel loosening too…I never delved further into that one.
Each and every KISS concert that followed for me had one special memory or other banked and ready to bore anyone within a ten-mile radius with. Ex-girlfriends suffered chiefly on that count. Some even came with me to see what all this KISS fuss was about…one smoked too strong a spliff in the NEC Reunion gig of 1996 and asked me to take her home 4 songs in. You can imagine my response. One witnessed the worst of all KISS visits to the UK – namely the Psycho Circus show at Wembley in 1999, whereupon a good friend several rows back from me shrieked in a quiet section of Ace’s solo spot ‘FREHLEY’S BACK ON THE CAKES!!!!’ in reference to Mr Frehley’s green-around-the-gills appearance. The missus at the time wasn’t too impressed and nor was I – proclaiming as we walked back to the car that ‘We’ll never see KISS again in this country’.
They came back 11 years later – admittedly having given the errant Ace Frehley and the pedestrian Peter Criss their marching orders to be replaced by willing hired helps Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer, who remain reliable and whatnot to this day.
And the line-up that’s been in place pretty much all this century were back again last night, 2 years on from their last visit. As that 2017 show was still fresh in the memory, they were going to have to go some to outdo what we saw at Arena Birmingham – that’s the NIA to those confused by venue naming, usually thanks to the corporate shilling muddying the waters. Some KISS fans apparently drove to the ‘other’ Birmingham Arena last night (the one at the NEC) thinking the show was there…the ease with which they could park told them something was up. Good job it’s only 7 miles to the right place.
And parking was going to be much tougher in the city centre as the place looked practically sold out. The house lights dimmed and the low rumble noise emanated from the speaker stacks as a short video on the screens either side of the stage showed the band emerging from the dressing room, led by ebullient manager Doc McGhee who - in the first surprise of the night - appears to have grown a full head of hair from nowhere since I last saw him.
As the traditional intro was barked out by the announcer (about wanting the best yada yada yada) the black Kabuki curtain dropped and the band descended to terra firma from individual platforms 50ft above the stage as they chugged out the intro to ‘Detroit Rock City’ with pyro, dry ice & flame throwers belching out left right and centre. They were off and running.
Well, ‘running’ might be a bit of a stretch. It’s worth remembering that Gene Simmons is 70 next month, Paul Stanley isn’t a million months away from doing the same, and even Messrs Thayer & Singer are 58 & 61 respectively. So, running and jumping about the place as KISS did in their 70’s incarnation is not realistically to be expected at this juncture. There are replacement hips to consider. That said, the sheer effort and drive of 2 pensioners and 2 near-pensioners to keep moving and keep engaging with the audience whilst wearing all that clobber for nearly 2 hours is quite staggering. It’s not like they’re stood stock still. And even the man who’s seated has huge reserves of energy - Singer’s drum solo during ‘100,000 Years’ showed him keep the old rapid-fire double bass drums going for a long, long spell that I would be hard pressed to match at 11 years his junior.
Simmons’ vocals have been remarkably consistent on tour since the 80’s. In that particular decade, the songs he was writing like ‘Fits Like A Glove’ and ‘Young And Wasted’ were in a slightly higher register than was the case with his 70’s concert staples like ‘Deuce’ & ‘God Of Thunder’ – indeed, by 1984’s Animalize tour, Eric Carr was saddled with the responsibility of singing ‘Young And Wasted’ whilst Fits Like A Glove continued to be, frankly, a struggle for Gene until the turn of the 90’s when the band’s desire to revisit their back catalogue for live gigs finally meant songs like that could be shelved and Gene could go back to being a solid performer. He’s also a far, far better bass player than the haters would have you believe. No virtuoso, but his tuneful, bobbing McCartney influence is there for all to hear on KISS’ early classics.
As for Stanley’s voice on this farewell tour, this is where the internet has focused most of its attention, especially on this tour. Simply put, it’s been levelled at him that he’s lip-synching the vast majority of his lead vocals, after years of singing in his tenor register have taken their toll to a far more damaging extent than for his co-founder alongside him. There’s been all sorts of conjecture online about this, ramped up especially because KISS have in the past criticised artists like Madonna for allegedly ‘miming’ in live performance. So how disingenuous are KISS being in this instance? It’s hard to tell – it feels like SOMETHING is going on, but if it is, then, based on last night’s evidence, it’s almost impossible to see where the live singing ends and the ‘box of lies’ starts. So I’m not smart enough to be certain. But would I rather see what I saw last night than a Paul Stanley vocal performance without the aid of a technological safety net? Based on the struggles he had in the same venue 2 years ago, I guess I would – although if the accusations of doing a ‘Top Of the Pops’ are as true as those desperate to uncover the ruse would have you believe, some honesty would be nice to hear from the horse’s mouth. Or should that be hoarse?
The set list did what it says on the tin – not too many ‘deep cuts’ to send the die hards all of a quiver, although the aforementioned ‘100,000 Years’ was not necessarily expected, nor ‘Let Me Go Rock ‘n’ Roll’. ‘Crazy Crazy Nights’ has been added into the mix since the tour arrived in Europe (it wasn’t a Stateside hit and therefore surplus to requirements there) and it was nice to have ‘Beth’ back in a UK setlist, as Eric sat at a glittery piano that rose from beneath the stage at encore time…but if he was actually playing that piano, then Blues are Premier League Champions this coming season! And does this mean my old bandmates in UK tribute Dressed To Kill have to invest in a silver sparkle Steinway for their next gig at Stourbridge River Rooms??
I brought along 3 ‘KISS virgins’ with me on the night – a trio of folk who had never witnessed the band in concert, and in one case only knew a handful of their songs (2 of which were played). They all loved it with an 8/10 rating and no one on the way home opined ‘Oh it’s a shame Ace/Peter isn’t there and that traitor Thayer/Singer is stealing a living etc etc’ – much as the Thayer/Singer haters want this conversation to be front and centre, it simply is of no consequence to most attendees. They know Simmons and Stanley are up there and that’s enough for them – I do sincerely doubt, however, the ability of any future KISS post-Gene & Paul to be able to continue touring and playing arenas with 4 individuals playing the parts of the Demon, Starchild, Spaceman & Catman. Doc McGhee might be stretching credulity a tad thinking that idea’s a goer.
Me? I saw quite enough that night in 1999 at Wembley to tell me that Ace & Peter were nowhere near what they’d been not 2 years before at Finsbury Park at the end of the Reunion Tour. I love them both and I sincerely hope they do get opportunities to guest with KISS somewhere on this climactic run, but the drive, energy and consistency that Eric & Tommy have given the band since being drafted in is necessary for the current KISS touring machine in my view. We can all have a Utopian vision of how we want KISS to be, and Ace & Peter will always have their backers - some who make their point reasonably and many who just resort to abuse. And then there’s the celebrity DJ’s with an agenda based on maintaining friendships desperate to stir the pot. A shame really. We all wish we were in charge of KISS – that’d be a decent cut off the top as manager after all!!
As Stanley smashed a cheap guitar he’d not played all night (standard) to round things off and the final ear-splitting boom of pyro combined with the last chord of ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’, we all started to file out and the bittersweet emotions came to the fore as I took one last look at the empty stage when the house lights came up. KISS means more to me than just a band I go and see – 20 gigs witnessed should tell you that. And I have friends who’ve seen 5 times that amount of KISS shows. It’s not a numbers game – it’s not any sort of game. It’s just a way of life that KISS fans have and share with one another in the sort of wonderful camaraderie that is sadly lacking in these divisive times of “Here’s a topic – pick a side! Pick a side! Have an opinion! Have an opinion” – Gene has always said that a KISS concert was perfect escapism from the outside world. “You forget about your troubles for a couple of hours” is a much-used line of his. Once KISS put away the lipstick and the 7-inch heels for good, that will just mean we have to deal with reality for longer in their absence. And what a dreadful shame that is.
Thank you KISS. If indeed this IS goodbye… ;)