KISS: Sphinx Ain’t All They Should Be (1990)

By STEVE MASCORD

GENE SIMMONS swivels his demonic head and directs a deathly, horror movie glare towards the sound-desk.

“Slow black—out!” he barks into the microphone at a hapless lighting roadie. “Yes sir,” comes the meek, intimidated response. “I understand what you’re saying.” “No,” Simmons retorts solemnly. “This is ‘what I’m saying…”

The multi-millionaire bassist mimics the cocking of a gun and sends a deafening “KA-POW!” shuddering through the obscenely loud PA.

It’s the day before the kick-off of KISS’ back-to-bombs-’n ‘-pyro world tour and Gene is seething at a lighting cock-up. The next night, a stage roadie is out of a job and most of the lighting crew are on a warning after the 35-foot talking Sphinx uttered nothing but gibberish and some of Gene’s worst production fears came true.

Half of the giant KISS sign spluttered and died, there was none of the green sludge that was supposed to spew from stage-front pipes, and lighting during Eric Carr’s drum solo was obviously out of synch.

The Greatest Show On Earth was off to a shaky, although undeniably spectacular, start. 

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KISS HAVE been holed up in the sleepy Texan ‘ burg of Lubbock — birthplace of Buddy Holly — for nine days, putting the finishing touches to a tour that almost never was. But now Paul Stanley is sitting beside me in a Holiday Inn hotel room, insisting: “I can safely say we’re ready.”

The Stanley/Michael Bolton-penned power ballad ‘Forever’ had dropped out of the US top 10 two weeks before, after after becoming the having becoming the band’s first bona fide Stateside hit in a decade. Back in February, the tour was postponed because of a lack of interest. Are KISS, I wonder, touring on the back of one single? Was this whole massive jaunt – with Slaughter and Faster Pussycaty in support – conceived as a reaction to just one song?

Paul struggles to overcome the local Lions convention singing ‘Give Me A Home Where The Buffalo Roam’ in the enclosed courtyard outside.

“I’m not one for bullshitting and I’m not one for lying,” he says. “When you’re going to undertake a tour of this size you’re not going to do it for your health. To go out and launch a massive tour makes no sense unless there’s a reason to do it.”

So are you, as you told Kerrang! back in ish 286, putting your ‘ass on time line’ with this tour?

“That makes things sound too much like a do-or-die mission, and nothing is a do-or-die mission. We wanted to do something massive — in terms of the range of songs as well as staging.”

FOR KISS fans who have remained loyal and  believing, there is something rather contradictory about Slaughter’s inclusion on the bill. Slaughter are a band containing two ex-members Vinnie Vincent Invasion, Mark Slaughter and Dana Strum. Vincent was, of course, once KISS’ guitarist. First, we hear that Vinnie Vincent was the bad guy, that he was (and I quote Paul) “riding on KISS’ coat-tails”. Now we buy an album by Slaughter, the band whose name in itself takes advantage of Vinnie’s success, and read the liner notes which proclaim, ‘Thanks to KISS fan dubs around time world’. Are they not claiming fame for being in band for five minutes with a guy who was in KISS for 10 minutes?

“They’re not riding on his coat-tails because in a matter of weeks they’ve got further than he ever got,” Paul observes coldly. “So, if anything, I think you’d have to believe he was holding them back.

“I’d dare say … Vinnie would like to ride on their coat-tails…”

JOINING UP with the KISS caravan for three days is an intriguing experience. Half of America’s media was invited to Lubbock, but only Spin magazine, MTV’s ‘Headbangers’ Ball’, local scribes, some radio stations and of course Kerrang! bothered to show up. Meanwhile, kindred ‘70s demi-gods Aerosmith are sitting pretty on the cover of Rolling Stone. If was Paul Stanley, it would annoy me.
Paul seems, at least, to be annoyed at the question.
“I don’t give a fuck,” he says. “The truth of it is that we’ve secured our place, and what people choose to write will be unbiased – which I prefer – or based on their own insecurities.”
Paul doesn’t like these questions and I really wish I didn’t feel compelled to ask them. But here KISS are. 17 years on, and everybody who’s not wearing a KISS T-shirt is sniggering at their overblown theatrics and school toilet lyrics just as they did all that time ago. Only now, KISS are old as well as overblown and juvenile. That’s what ‘they’ say.

When I enquire if KISS really arc still sufficiently hungry, the words play on Stanley’s mind enough for him to bring it up out of the blue in an interview later that afternoon, saying it had pissed him off.
“This whole nonsense about being hungry is a way of glamorizing something for critics that is totally irrelevant for the fans or the band,” he informs me, peering out from under neatly curled hair.
“If you want to starve, you go do it.
“Maybe some of the critics, their writing would improve if they went hungry for a while. Quite frankly, I don’t sec enough starving critics.”
Touché.
As one punter remarked at the gig, KISS have never received serious press and it’s a sore point. For me, it’s a sore point that such influential figures should even care by now. Asked how aware he is of criticism, the Starchild pauses:
“That’s an interesting question…”
Paul reacts carefully when I tell him Axl Rose has described his music as sludge rock. Paul, conversely, rates Axi as one of the few true rock stars of the ‘90s.
“I didn’t know about that. Do I follow him? I’m certainly not an aficionado of what AxI Rose has to say. I don’t know him any more than I know anyone else.
“If you’re an interesting personality in rock ‘n’ roll, then that’s great, but respect to me is something that comes with time. As far as I’m concerned, you’re just an interesting personality until – with time – you prove yourself to be something more.
“If somebody takes swipes – which is sometimes natural – well the truth is you sometimes get attention by doing that. Whether  you have something valid or not to say will on1y play ’ itself out in five or 10 years, because by then people might be saying, ‘Who said that?’ “

PAUL DOESN’T turn when I say goodbye for the last time. An answer to whether he thinks KISS (generally) get the respect they deserve is cleverly avoided, but I think I have the anser anyway.
There’s an  ominous rumble swelling from 10,500 Texans by the time the ‘Hot In The Shade’ World Tour is ready to be unveiled. Slaughter got the girlies interested, Faster Pussycat entranced the punters with no taste, and there are fights, chants and can throwers.

A grandiose fanfare, the sort of stuff you hear in ‘Curse of Tutankhamen’, rises above the buzz. The lights are killed – on time! – the smoke billows and the curtain drops to reveal the (unbespectacled) monolithic Sphinx.
The Sphinx appears on the cover of the ‘Hot In The Shade’ opus wearing giant sunglasses. But backstage, there’s a 25-foot pair of dark sunglasses left surplus to requirements, victim of a last minute Simmons-Stanley creative decision. The rest of the stage is a chaotic concoction of pipes and girders, presumably a re-creation of the New York rooftop in the ‘Hide Your Heart’ video.
The Sphinx’s mouth opens slowly and a line of pin-like lasers fire outward, hitting the back of the ageing. spherical  arena. Between the beams of_light stand Gene, Paul, Bruce Kulick and Eric ‘Sign My Tits, Please’ Carr.
Fireworks explode, the boys take their places and a concussion bomb bloody-near deafens us as they launch into ‘I Stole Your Love’. from the ‘Love Gun’ opus.
Yeah, pretty damn heart-warning. Excavated artefact ‘Deuce’ sounds  positively filthy and yeah, even HUNGRY.  That riff sends a 100-below chill down my spine and to every extremity as Paul rocks from side to side with his hair in the wind like it’s 1975.

NOW, GIVEN this is a  two-and-a-half hour, I25 song set, I’ll spare you the minute details. Things went wrong, sure; but a lot of other things went awfully right. Gene’s stalking, kicking and jumping. Paul’s strutting along the catwalks and grimacing at the power of the stuff as much as he’s pouting.
Eric bang-s away reliably, Bruce concentrates on his playing and ambles around unassumingly. The set list boasts ‘C’mon And Love Me’, ‘Detroit Rock City’ and the sleaziest reworking of ‘Fits Like A Glove’ imaginable.
Four tracks, yep, four, from the 1974 debut album, three each from ‘Hot In The Shade’ and ‘Destroyer’ and double servings frona ‘Love Gun’, ‘Lick It Up’ and ‘Animalize’.
Paul’s raps, adorable as they are, were kept to a minimum by the sheer amount of material. His intro to ‘Strutter’, in which he reveals it could have been written about any girl because “they’re all the same”, could do with a bit of’90s enlightenment, however…
‘Heaven’s On Fire’ looms predictably but seductively and flame-throwers spit fireballs on cue. ‘Hide Your Heart’ confirms itself as one of their greatest hits-that-never-were, with lasers making undulating patterns on the back wall
before dying chillingly as Carr beats out the gunshot at the songs climax.
It turns out that the lasers are quite capable of doing more than patterns but Simmons has ruled that writing ‘Kiss’ on the back wall is not cool.
On the last day of rehearsals, he had ordered a change to the voice synthesizer – the wiggly lines you see on cardiac machines. Simmons wanted the laser synthesizer to appear IN the Sphinx’s mouth, not be projected from the mouth onto the back wall.
When the time came around for it all to happen on opening night, the synthesizer did appear in the Sphinx’s mouth, but started talking one riff too early, stuttered, and when it was supposed to say, ‘I am the lord of the wastelands’… mumbled nothing but rubbish.
The lights during Carr’s gadgetry-aided solo were also less than spot-on, and there was no sign of the water that was supposed to fall from the Sphinx’s nostrils. Stage-front, instead of green sludge from the pipes, there was only trickling water. (Maybe they should have tried it the other way around — Ed.).
But the show went on. ‘Detroit Rock’ City’ was as devastating as you’d hope, the Sphinx sunk and disappeared, the extinguishers fired and the concussion bombs went off.
The special FX verdict…? Impossible to compare to the ‘70s extravaganzas simply because even if there are as many bombs and lights this time around, they are now spread over a much longer show. By necessity, some songs in the current show are completely pyro-less (!).
But they came back after a break, they played ‘I Want You’, and the familiar moniker rose from behind and at least began to flash before faltering. And with ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll All Nite’ cut ‘n’ thrusting, the pyro exploding overhead and the flashpots going off, it could have been 1983, 1977 or 1974.
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EARLIER – SOMEWHERE mid-set – sheer exhaustion had created something of a lull among the mere mortals in the stalls.
Stanley had paused and announced: “People have been asking us why we started the tour in Lubbock. When we couldn’t even fill clubs in the rest of the country, we came to Lubbock and you treated us like kings. We’re never going to forget that”.

Showmanship maybe, but a close look at the kids who are roaring overwhelming approval shows them to be just that — kids. Here, in the American heartland, KISS aren’t old and they’re not even survivors, they just ARE.
“We defied all the laws, we defied the critics, we defied the norm, we set the standard for what a show should be… we showed an audience what they should expect and not accept less from anybody,” Paul had gushed the day before. “I think we showed there’s no reason for an audience to accept complacency or lack of respect from a band.”
Clearly, it is the unfashionable nature of KISS that is the very key to their popularity. If the whole game is about rebellion, KISS need only stay afloat and unpopular with critics to win every time.
But what more can they possibly hope to achieve in the ‘90s?
“That’s an interesting question, but one that is probably more important to you than me,” Paul answers delicately.

“What’s left is to continue.”

Filed for: KERRANG!

2 Comments

  1. That was a lot of fun to read. The funny thing about Kiss is I think two of their best albums are two of their least successful and most unheralded- Creatures of the Night and Revenge. Yet aside from those albums, most of their post-1980s material doesn’t appeal much (there are exceptions- Lick It Up has some good tracks and Sonic Boom was decent) at all.

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