KISS might be one of the biggest rock bands in music but, as fire-breathing frontman and bass guitar player Gene Simmons will tell you, you don’t get to such an exalted station in this business without a comprehensive understanding of the fundamentals of pop music.
The God of Thunder has made no secret of taking inspiration from all quarters of the musical landscape, always eager to discuss his influences and give credit where due, and in a recent interview with Goldmine (opens in new tab) he explains why the Swedish pop institution Abba have lasted the course and had such an influence on him.
In a wide-ranging conversation about the albums that changed his life, Simmons listed Abba’s Greatest Hits, and said the band – like the Bee Gees – wrote songs that “are forever”. This, he argued, was the mark of greatness.
“Yes, we like death metal, and yes, I like The Killers and I like Tame Impala – I like all kinds of things,” Simmons said. “But what is it that rises to a level of greatness no matter the musical genre, it’s the ability to craft songs that are forever. I was going to say the Bee Gees, but it pisses off a lot of people, but those songs are undeniable. So if I’m riding in my car and ABBA music comes on, I turn it up and that’s the sign of greatness.”
Sure, he might anticipate some people not seeing the link between KISS and disco-pop, but then who are these people, and where has I Was Made For Lovin’ You been all their lives?
For Simmons, the appeal of these bands, are the songs. It was instructive that he picked Abba’s Greatest Hits, because that, in essence, is Abba. The cultivation of hits has been their raison d’être since Agnetha, Björn, Benny and Anni-Frid first formed the band in 1972.
“Undeniable songwriting. You just can’t touch it,” continued Simmons. “That’s why I have to pick ABBA because it’s just undeniable. I could have said The Four Seasons or The Beach Boys because there’s a wealth of great material.”
As you would expect from the man who joined Marshall Chess and others in delivering a eulogy at Chuck Berry’s memorial service, Simmons referenced the history of rock ’n’ roll, from the early trailblazers such as Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino, and he discussed the impact they had on a young kid who had emigrated to the US from Israel in the ‘50s. But none made the list on this occasion.
If the likes of Abba and Patsy Cline might raise an eyebrow, it was no surprise to read Simmons citing Led Zeppelin’s eponymous debut and the Jeff Beck Group’s Truth/Beck-Ola – the latter a record Simmons has bought on more than one occasion, and for his money, would just about figure higher in his estimation than the first two Led Zep albums.
“For me, if I had my druthers, playing the first two Led Zeppelin records or the first two Jeff Beck Group records, it’s the Jeff Beck Group, hands down,” said Simmons.
Luckily, Simmons, or anyone else for that matter, does not have to choose. In questions such as: Led Zeppelin or the Jeff Beck Group? An acceptable answer – the correct answer – is both.
When Simmons sat down with MusicRadar to discuss the 10 songs, not albums, that changed his life he said the early Jeff Beck Group was unbeatable, and credited Beck as an innovator without equal – one who take blues guitar and ran with it. He couldn’t just pick one track from Truth. He picked the whole album.
“What a line-up!” he said. “Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart on vocals, Ron Wood on bass – Ronnie’s a much better bass player than he is a guitarist. There’s a rumour that Jimmy Page played on some of this, too. Even before Led Zeppelin and Cream, Beck took the blues and turned up the volume. But it wasn’t just decibels; Beck was pushing the envelope in all sorts of directions. Nuanced little jazz licks that caught you off guard… sophisticated, delicate melodies.”
Simmons says all kinds of music can turn up on the KISS stereo before showtime. But Truth was the album he played just before going out, and it is remains fresh. “Even if it came out today, it would grab your attention,” he said. “What do you Brits say? Best thing since sliced bread!”
As for Led Zeppelin, they brought “steam hammer balls” to the party. Communication Breakdown was the song that hit him the hardest, and was one that KISS would occasionally cover.
“Once they get rollin’, there’s nothing that can stop them,” he said. “Even before the song starts, you’ve got that machine gun riff. What the fuck is that? Woah!”
And Simmons tells Goldmine that what set Led Zeppelin apart was how they replicated that sound live.
“That first Zeppelin record is undeniable,” he says. “The fact that the band had one guitar player, one bass player and drums and were able to sound like that live, that says a lot. Undeniable.”