Gene Simmons: the 10 tracks that blew my mind
Even without the make-up, the eight-inch platform boots or the fire-breathing bass guitar, Gene Simmons cuts an imposing figure. A shade over six-foot, regulation sunglasses clamped across his eyes, he has a drawling low-frequency rumble of a voice that seems to rattle the coffee cups on the hotel table.
The Kiss frontman was in Vancouver, entertaining guests and, ostensibly, talking about the forthcoming UK live dates that form part of their mammoth Kissworld 2017 Tour. But the 67-year-old couldn’t resist giving us the songs that blew his mind and spent a very happy hour talking about the songs that helped create the God of Thunder.
“I was actually born in Israel, six months after independence,” he says, tucking into a lightweight breakfast cracker.
“For the first eight and half years of my life, I never saw a TV or heard music on the radio. We didn’t even have a toilet! It was just an outhouse, with a few rags to wipe your ass.
“My mother and I emigrated to the US in 1957, right in the middle of the rock ‘n’ roll explosion. This is pre-Beatles; we’re talking about Fats Domino, Little Richard, Chuck Berry… Elvis, of course. This music just hit me at the side of the head like a 2 x 4. Wham!
“You asked me to pick 10 tracks that blew my mind. I could have picked a hundred… a thousand. That was what it was like to be a music fan in the 50s and 60s.
"You had the Beatles next to Diana Ross next to Zeppelin next to Hendrix next to Yes next to James Brown next to the Kinks.
"Every week, there seemed to be another 20 new songs that just stopped you dead in your tracks. Can you imagine hearing Waterloo Sunset for the first time? Or Twist and Shout? Or Tutti Frutti?
“These days we have the talent – Gaga, Bruno Mars, Adele, all great artists - but they’re handcuffed by the industry. The industry sets the rules and says rap has to sound like this; soul has to sound like this; EDM has to sound like this. Fucking pathetic!
“I don’t want to sound like one of those miserable, moany guys that says, ‘Man, everything was better back then’. But when it comes to music… shit, it was so much better! When I heard it, it changed my life forever!”
1. I Want To Hold Your Hand - The Beatles
“Like so many American kids, I first saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. I’m not kidding… they looked and sounded like they’d landed from another planet.
“These thin, weedy guys seemed so much smaller than American artists; almost like little girls. This was the era when everything in America was BIG! Then there was the strange, Scouse accent.
“In my eyes, these guys were outsiders. Just like me. I didn’t look like all the other kids at school; I had a funny accent. But the Beatles showed me that you could be an outsider and still reach for the stars. And you could still be fucking cool!”
2. Long Tall Sally - Little Richard
“Some years back, I spent a lot of time with Diana Ross and she was telling me about touring the US in the 60s. The Supremes had six number ones, but when they pulled into town, people started firing guns at their tour bus!
“There was a particular mindset in white America, but music - more than religion, more than politics - became the catalyst for change.
“Listening to Little Richard was like being kicked in the nuts. He grabbed hold of pasty-faced, little white kids like me and said, ‘This is where the party starts! Right here, right now!’ Y’know what we were listening to before Little Richard? If I Had a Hammer. If I Had a Fucking Hammer! Hey… fuck you and your hammer!”
3. Baby Workout - Jackie Wilson
“I saw Jackie Wilson perform this on some TV show. The producer had obviously said, ‘Now, Jackie, I don’t want you to do much gyrating ’cos it’ll scare all the folks out there’. Jackie didn’t give a shit!
“He went straight into the whole histrionic song and dance routine, moving his - for want of a better word - cock like I’d never seen a man move his cock before. He moved like the whole earth was shaking underneath his feet.
“Jackie was saying, ‘Music equals sex’. He wasn’t singing about taking a girl home and reading a few passages from Canterbury Tales. And when I saw how girls reacted to Jackie, I finally understood that, hey, girls like sex, too.”
4. Friday on My Mind - The Easybeats
“This came out around the same time that I was trying to learn guitar. Up until that point, I’d been playing songs like Twist and Shout; basic songs that you could learn in a couple of hours.
“Friday on My Mind came out of the radio with about 50 chords and it took me weeks to learn. It wasn’t blues, it wasn’t psychedelia… this was a guitar-heavy, almost symphonic pop-rock. But it was also a seriously beautiful song with a very simple, memorable melody.
“It was the first time I’d heard that mixture of complexity and simplicity, all wrapped up in a seven-inch single.”
5. Fire - The Crazy World of Arthur Brown
“Here’s this guy, covered in make-up, half-naked, dancing around like a lunatic. And he’s wearing a crown of flames! Even as a young kid, I felt a connection. This is cool!
“We were still seeing bands come out in three-piece suits singing love songs, but this guy comes out screaming, ‘I am the God of Hellfire’. Did Arthur Brown influence Kiss? I think so. God of Hellfire… God of Thunder. The flames, the make-up, the craziness.
“This isn’t just music; it’s Victorian opera mixed with Greek tragedy, all filmed by Hammer Horror. Oh, how I wish there were more bands like this today.”
6. Truth (album) - Jeff Beck
“What a line-up! 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.
“When we are out on tour, this is the album I play right before I’m due to go on stage. Even if it came out today, it would grab your attention. What do you Brits say? Best thing since sliced bread!”
7. Communication Breakdown - Led Zeppelin
“OK, so Beck takes the blues and gives it some balls. Like I said before, Pagey was part of that scene and he understood what Beck was trying to do.
“So, what did Led Zeppelin bring to the table? More balls! Fucking great big, huge balls! Steam hammer balls! Once they get rollin’, there’s nothing that can stop them. Even before the song starts, you’ve got that machine gun riff. What the fuck is that? Woah!
“Then, bang, the song really kicks in and you’ve got Plant’s voice wailing over the top like some kind of demented witch. And don’t forget that this happening at the same time as Miles Davis, Hendrix, the Beatles and the fucking Bee Gees. Enough incredible music to make your head explode!”
8. 21st Century Schizoid Man - King Crimson
Ha Ha! Talking of music to make your head explode. Dissonant guitars, stabbing the air like an alarm… baaahh baaahh baaahh baaahh.
“Distorted vocals that unsettle you right from the first syllable. Drumming that comes from all these weird angles. Then you see the band, and there’s Fripp… looking like some evil scientific genius from the Second World War.
“This song has no chorus, but the whole thing is held together by that monster riff. You can imagine Sabbath doing a version of this. Or late-period Beatles with Lennon screaming his lungs out.
“No wonder they put that artwork on the cover. Listening to this makes you understand what the frightened, red-faced creature is going through.”
9. Theme for an Imaginary Western - Mountain
“I used to go and watch Lesley Weinstein - as he was back then - with his old band, The Vagrants. They did a lot of gigs out on Long Island. I remember walking in and there was this big guy, playing so… sweetly.
“He had the kind of pure tone that would have made Clapton jealous. Such majesty coming from a Les Paul Jr. that looked like a toy in his giant hands. Yeah, we all know Mississippi Queen, but this is something completely different; a pastoral lyric that feels almost English and yet captures the grandeur of America.
“Go back and listen to Mountain’s first album. What you’ll hear is rock music that refuses to be defined.”
10. Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag - James Brown
“You had Little Richard, Chuck Berry… and here comes James Brown. Have you seen that film, T.A.M.I. Show? It’s a concert film with James Brown, the Stones, Beach Boys, Marvin Gaye.
“James was kind of the headliner, but the Stones were big news, so they wanted to close the show. Unfortunately, James Brown and the Famous Flames were on right before them and destroyed the place. Tore the roof off that motherfucker. Showmanship, soul, passion.
“He had everything. There are pictures of Jagger, sitting in the wings, biting his nails and wondering how he’s gonna top that. No one tops JB.”