Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal: my five favorite KISS songs
Guns N' Roses guitarist Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal became a KISS fan early. He was just five years old when some of the older kids in his neighborhood played him the band's classic 1975 live album, KISS Alive! "It was one of those life-changing moments," he says. "I was immediately inspired. All at once, I knew that I wanted to play the guitar and do what KISS did."
Borrowing a friend's guitar, which he banged like a drum ("I had no idea how to actually play guitar at the time"), Thal began writing songs about space exploration for the rock band he dreamed of forming one day. "I called it The Solar System," he says with a laugh. "It was all KISS and Star Wars – the kinds of things a little kid knows."
Thal's KISS obsession extended into his adolesence – he had the records, the dolls, the posters and the requisite KISS Army decal on his bedroom door. One year, he made a convincing Ace Frehley for Halloween. "I was pretty good-looking," he recalls. And his first concert? "KISS, Madison Square Garden, 1979. I was too young to see them in '77, but I went to the Dynasty tour. And it was great because it was the original dudes in the makeup, doing the whole show. They were remarkable.”
Now that he's a grown-up rock star playing arenas himself, Thal is paying tribute to his boyhood heroes. He recently donated a cover version of Detroit Rock City to a KISS 40th anniversary tribute album called A World With Heroes. "That was the track I just had to do," he says. "I told [album producer] Mitch Lafon, 'I'm in, but I've got to do Detroit Rock City.' Luckily, nobody else claimed it yet."
Former Whitesnake drummer Brian Tichy and Kill Devil Hill bassist Rex Brown played on Thal's original guitar, vocal and click-track recording, which immediately caught the attention of concert promoters. "The thing was mixed and mastered, and suddenly people are asking me about dates," says Thal. "We all talked about it and decided, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ We’re all KISS fans, we know the songs – let's play some shows."
Pulling Kill Devil Hill guitarist Mark Zavon into the fold, Thal, Tichy and Brown formed A.L.I.V.E.!, a tribute band dedicated to early KISS. The band has three West Coast gigs coming up (24 July at the Whiskey in Hollywood, 25 July at the Las Vegas Country Saloon and 27 July at the Tiki Bar in Costa Mesa, CA), and Thal promises a no-frills, kickass set geared around the albums KISS Alive! I and II. "We’re not going to wear the makeup, so it’s not those other KISS tribute bands," he says. "You see that with Beatles tribute bands, too – they dress up in Sgt. Pepper outfits. We’re not going to do that. We’ll just play great music and have a good time."
On the following pages, Thal runs down his five favorite KISS songs, some of which very well could end up in the A.L.I.V.E.! setlist.
Ladies In Waiting (1975)
“This is a great track from Dressed To Kill. Oddly enough, what I really like about it are the moments in the song when they’re not playing. There are spaces of silence that I find absolutely mesmerizing.
“Listen to the song. The band will be playing, and they’ll stop on these chords and continue just half a second later. Those moments are so tight – it’s as if somebody pulled the plug and put it right in as the record was playing.
“It’s a brilliant trick, this complete nothingness. It makes me give the song my full attention. There’s such value in those spaces – they pack the song such intensity and tension. I never get tired of hearing it.”
Let Me Know (1974)
“This one ends Side One. It’s a really nice rock ‘n’ roll song – very poppy, almost like something from the late ‘50s or early ‘60s. But then a very cool thing happens at the end: The songs stops and there are these vocal harmonies that are followed by a double solo from Ace. The whole thing fades from there.
“On KISS Alive!, this is the ending that they gave to the song She. It’s such an interesting thing to do, to have this happy, feel-good rock song that stops on vocal harmonies and then goes into the coolest damn riff that Ace solos on. A brilliant construction.”
100,000 Years (1975)
“I’m choosing the version off of KISS Alive! It has one of the longest drum solos, but it never gets boring. I love how they put the phase on it, too. And then you have Paul doing his thing, getting everybody worked up. [Imitates Paul Stanley.] ‘How many people believe in rock ‘n’ roll?!’
“This one was on the first album, and I do like that version a lot, but I have to go with the live version. It makes you feel as though you’re there. The way that Paul connects with the audience jumps right out, and that connection extends to the listener. You’re at the show, and he’s talking right to you. When you’re a little kid, that’s pretty important.”
I Want You (1976)
“It starts with an acoustic, and you think the song might be a ballad, but then it goes into the build-up; it does a brief stop and then it explodes. That’s one of the best openers I’ve ever heard.
“Another cool thing about the song is the guitar solo. There’s a slower, melodic part with harmonic overtones that sound incredible, and then it takes off into a more fast-paced bit of licks. Very memorable.
“Great dynamics throughout. After the solo, they go back into the acoustic part from the intro. I just love everything about the song. The arrangement, the production, the spirit – it’s all there.”
Detroit Rock City
“There are many reasons to pick this song, but the biggest one is the solo. It's THE solo – one of the best guitar solos to ever appear in a rock song, ever.
“I have the demo of Detroit, and it was such a different song originally. Thank God it evolved into what it did. It’s so dramatic, especially the opening. That’s a long intro, but it works – it takes you somewhere.
“But again, it’s all about the guitar solo. I learned how to play it as a kid, and I’ll never forget it. That’s the thing about KISS songs: The guitar solos are oftentimes the most memorable parts. You can sing every one of them. They’re songs within songs.”