Released: 18 September 1978
Track List: Radioactive; Burning Up with Fever; See You Tonite; Tunnel of Love; True Confessions; Living in Sin; Always Near You/Nowhere to Hide; Man of 1,000 Faces; Mr. Make Believe; See You in Your Dreams; When You Wish upon a Star
Best song: Hmmm. No one big standout. Maybe “Radioactive” or “Tunnel of Love” or “See You in Your Dreams.”
Worst song: “Man of 1,000 Faces” or “Mr. Make Believe”.
For general comments on the four Solo Albums, which all released the same day in 1978, see the review of Ace Frehley.
Gene went into the studio with quite a group of collaborators for his solo album (remember, “solo” for this project simply meant “without the other three members of Kiss”) and put together what is certainly the most interesting of the four. I’m not a fan of Gene in many ways, but I give credit where it’s due: he’s a competent singer, an underrated bassist, and definitely likes to try new things from time to time.
While Peter’s solo album would fit pretty well in the “adult contemporary” section of your local record store, and Ace’s would fit just fine next to Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, or Rainbow, Gene’s is more diverse. But is it good?
I’ll highlight some of Gene’s interesting and famous associates as we break the album down, but I’ll mention one now since she’s simply listed as a background vocalist but not on any specific track: Kate Sagal. You know, Peg Bundy on “Married … With Children” and Leela on “Futurama”.
One other interesting production note: despite being Kiss’s bassist, Gene did not play bass on his own album. He sang and played six-string guitars. I don’t fault him in the least (and for once, the album’s credits are honest about it, crediting the bass entirely to session man Neil Jason): this is his solo album and he can branch out as much as he wants. I actually think it’s kinda cool. So, noted.
The album starts with a bizarre minute of “Prelude” (it’s not listed as a separate track in the list, but the credits call it that) which include diabolical laughter, an ominous string section, and weird pentatonic chanting which seems to evoke Western stereotypes of “Oriental” music. The strings build to a bit of a crescendo and suddenly we’re hit with a good basic guitar riff: “Radioactive” has begun. One of the vocalists credited in the Prelude: Janis Ian (“At Seventeen”).
“Radioactive” would fit neatly on any Kiss album; if I had to pick one, it would have done best on Rock and Roll Over. Drop it at the end of Side One and discard “Baby Driver”, please. It’s very simple and catchy. The problem is, I cannot dock points from Peter for having songs with interminable repeats and not do it to Gene as well; “Radioactive” quickly falls into repeating a short chorus for longer than is necessary. I find it more tolerable because I like what’s repeating better here than I did with Peter’s R&B ramblings; at least this sounds like Kiss. Guest musicians: Bob Seger (background vocals), Joe Perry of Aerosmith (guitar).
“Burning Up with Fever” is groovier and funkier (and correspondingly, less Kiss-like). For amusement, listen carefully to the beginning of the track: Gene plays a nice consonant chord on an acoustic guitar, then plays it again with gratingly dissonant harmony notes and makes the listener cringe, but as soon as you cringe, you hear Gene very quietly, with satisfaction, say “Lovely.”
Then the drums and electric come in and we’re off. Like Peter, Gene is a fan of the female backup singers, but this is solidly 70s rock, not R&B or Oldies. Once again, though, we have like a solid 90 seconds of repeats at the end. To be fair, the variations Gene throws in are a little more interesting: his backup singers throw in more ad libs, doing a different harmony here and there, and the bassist throws in a different fill here and there. It’s not bad I suppose. Again, its chief bonus over Peter’s repetitiveness is simply that I like funk better than Peter’s attempt at blue-eyed (cat-eyed?) Motown.
“See You Tonite” is something different: a nice clean-guitar ballad. It reminds us that Gene has a genuinely lovely voice when he wants to use it. It does not rock, but does not try to. It does not repeat and outlast its welcome (it’s only 2:28 long in all), and even has a proper ending instead of a fadeout! Like “Beth”, it wouldn’t have fit on Destroyer, but it’s a better song. Good one. Guitar on this song (and several others): Jeff Baxter of the Doobie Brothers.
“Tunnel of Love” (no double entendre there, no, not at all) is Kiss-ish, though a tad slower than I like my Kiss songs. But it’s catchy! There’s a decent guitar solo there. The female vocalist going “Tunnel ooooooof love” behind Gene on the chorus is a nifty touch. I somehow love the line “You’re just a victimless crime”. This song can comfortably fit (heh) in the “guilty pleasures” bin. The chorus repeats a bunch, yes, but it’s fun and doesn’t quite overdo it. I think it’s because I find it a guilty pleasure that I give it a pass; I could see someone finding it tiresome. Me, I like it. Background vocals on this (and “Fever” too) include the late Donna Summer.
“True Confessions” gives us a jangly guitar riff and, to tell you the truth, this chorus is the most R&B-like yet. It walks up to the precipice that leads to Peter’s album, but the guitar keeps it from leaping. It’s not all that interesting, but then suddenly there’s this break in the middle, consisting of wordless choir oohs-and-aaahs, before we get back to the endless repetition of the title. Okay, I think it does actually jump into Criss Canyon. Oh well. Background vocalist: Helen Reddy, most famous for “I Am Woman”. The great thing about feminism is that a woman is free to choose to perform on an album even by a guy like Gene Simmons!
“Living in Sin” is just goofy fun. It has a nicely sleazy intro: the drum figure and Gene’s “seductive” whisper of “I know you write me sexy letters” is something that belongs on an early 1980s Prince album. But soon the guitar and bass get going and Gene starts singing about the groupie who has tracked him down and gets up the nerve to call. If you don’t giggle the first time you hear the line “I’m living in sin / at the Holiday Inn”, you probably need professional help. Surely Gene can afford something more upscale, but then it wouldn’t scan, now would it?
Then … wait … the middle section features the groupie herself, on the phone (complete with Gene answering “Hello, baaaaaaaaby!” a la The Big Bopper) … and it is none other than Cher, losing her mind. “Hello, Is this Gene Simmons? Oh my god! …” and it goes from there. And on the later iterations of the chorus, under the “Holiday Inn” line, Gene is doing some sort of tribal grunt chant that reminds me immediately of Blue Swede’s “Ooga chakas” on “Hooked on a Feeling”. This is great. As I said: just goofy fun. Sit back and laugh along with Gene, whose legendary tongue is firmly planted in his cheek.
“Always Near You/Nowhere to Hide” is another “gentle ballad”, and the guitar is pretty enough, but it doesn’t really get catchy at all until the drums and lead make more of an appearance around 1:50. At 2:38ish, handclaps and a big choir get involved; suddenly Gene is channeling Neil Diamond and the Wall of Sound, which this reviewer might like, but Gene himself promptly gets lost in the mix. It goes on that way for a bit but never really cleans up. Some nice ideas that don’t make for a real song. Points for effort.
“Man of 1,000 Faces” starts with a guitar riff right out of the Allman Brothers or perhaps Steely Dan, then the strings come in along with Gene’s “gentle” voice. The chorus is too repetitive, but the song gets away from it and goes off on some interesting string and horn bridges. Then Gene returns with his harsher voice, but dammit, “maaaaaan of a thousand faces” is not engaging enough for the number of times he says it.
“Mr. Make Believe”: once again, gentle guitar ballad intro, then an uptempo beat comes in. “This time I’ll try to get it right / just give me one more chance tonight”, Gene begins. This is actually kinda sweet, Gene, good work! It’s a bit less interesting as it goes; not because it’s overly repetitive, but just because it doesn’t have as much catchiness in the subsequent couple minutes. At least Gene knows when a song needs a tasteful string-section bridge instead of a guitar solo, and this is such a case. But we’re off to the Peter Principle again — that is, making the last minute of the song the same ten seconds over and over. Sigh.
We first heard “See You in Your Dreams” on Rock and Roll Over. This is the sole instance on the Solo Albums of the lads remaking a Kiss song. The guitar parts are a lot more interesting; the lyrics are a bit different; female background vocalists (I’m thinking Ms. Sagal is one of them here, but I cannot say for sure) add to the chorus. However, the song feels less vital now. Instead of feeling like four guys in a band, it feels a lot more like a twelve-person ensemble with an orchestra pit performed for an awards show or something. So it’s different than the original; I don’t care for it myself. The theme I keep coming back to with this album, though, is “Gene tries new stuff” (in this case a new version of something you thought was settled), so why not?
Oh, and the first few notes of Gene’s guitar solo (which makes no attempt to imitate Ace’s solo on the original version) are the main motif from the … next song on the album. Foreshadowing, Gene? If you hang a rifle on the wall in track ten, Walt Disney will be shot in track eleven? Good move.
“See You in Your Dreams” extras: Guitars by Rick Nielsen of Cheap Trick; extra vocals by Michael Des Barres, from the show “MacGyver”, the band Power Station, and one-time husband of legendary groupie Pamela Des Barres (who I’d have to imagine Gene slept with at least once at some point).
… and finally, the track list says “When You Wish upon a Star.” You’re kidding, right? No, dear god, no you’re not. Big sweeping string section and background choir going “ohhh” and “ahhhh”. Then in his softest tone, Gene delivers the Disney classic. He’s apparently sincere on this, folks: he has said he relates to the song, that anyone can have their wishes come true. Christ. I think I’m actually tearing up a little. Picture me trapped inside Regula One space station with a communicator shouting “SIMMONS!!!!!!”
It’s syrupy and silly, but why the hell not? I don’t catch any of the other three guys, not even my childhood hero Ace, going out on a limb this far. As I will say about Music from “The Elder”, the world is better because artists do things like this. So, you know what? Bravo, Mr. Simmons. For this alone, I’d like to congratulate you. Well played. Is it good? Well, if you wanted “a Kiss album”, no; it’s a Disney classic. But he does it credibly and if this version were dropped into a Disney movie, it would fit just fine. So on its own merits? Yes. Yes it is.
The chief failing of Gene’s album is the same as Peter’s: songs which don’t have interesting enough endings and overstay their welcomes. What makes Gene’s album superior to Peter’s are two things: one, he has more songs which don’t stay too long, and two, the ones that do have a greater mix of ideas going on in the first place.
My wife was discussing this album with me and she pulled a metaphor from Iron Chef: “Points for plating and originality, but not for tasting good.” Yup, exactly. Although it might be more fair to say it tastes okay (not great) but the portions are ridiculous.
I have a general idea from years of fandom and watching interviews and reading books as to how I would like the members of Kiss if I hung out with them. I don’t think I’d like Gene for more than about 10 minutes; I don’t think much of him as a person. But once again, credit where due. If you want to hear one of Kiss’s masterminds daring to go out of his comfort zone (and recruiting a bunch of his celebrity friends to go out there with him), give Gene’s album a listen. I don’t think you’ll think you just wasted 40 minutes of your life. You may never choose to do it again, but give it a go once. Have a few laughs and be surprised.