Monday, July 5, 2010

SONG #124: Detroit Rock City

Kiss, Destroyer, 1976

Have you seen this commercial yet?


Well, I have.  Like a BILLION times.  My friend Jorge gave me his old Tivo so I could tape World Cup games, so I've been taping old Scrubs episodes as well, and Cherry Dr. Pepper bought ad space on every single Scrubs episode I've taped.  So I've heard Gene Simmons say "KISS... of Cherry!!" a BILLION times this month. 

It's even worse than the FIRST commercial Gene did for Cherry Dr. Pepper:


How much does Gene's kid HATE his dad?  You can taste the rage in that short little back and forth.  And what about the fact that Gene is apparently getting ready to have group sex with a bunch of his son's classmates?  So creepy.  So sad.  So not getting me to try Cherry Dr. Pepper.

And that's why we need to talk today about "Detroit Rock City."

You have to imagine the little about-to-be seven year-old who moved to Annapolis MD from Gainesville FL in the summer of 1976.  We had moved around a lot, so I entered 2nd grade at the Naval Academy Primary School (motto: Questions Are Subversive) determined to make friends and fit in.  And what did the kids on the bus want to talk about?  Kiss.  Only Kiss.  I was already a music nut at that point, but basically I just listened to the radio, so I had totally unformed opinions and no allegiances.  If it was on the radio, I loved it.  But Kiss was the first band that I actually learned anything about, and through whom I learned that your musical choices made a statement.  If I wanted have friends on the bus, then I had to learn about Paul, Gene, Ace and Peter.  Fast.

Really, it's my parents' fault.  They could have turned me into a Beatle freak with no trouble at all, but they weren't paying much attention to my musical development, and the next thing they knew, I was saving my 25 cents a week allowance to purchase Kiss Alive II, which was, as far as I could tell, the most significant achievement in human artistic endeavors up to that point.

These days, Kiss fandom must seem a little crazy to people.  THIS band sold over 100 million records?  And I admit, if I had been a teenager in 1977, I'm not sure it would have made sense to me, either, even though every teenager I met in 1977 thought Kiss was the coolest thing on earth.  The first Kiss music I heard was at the neighbors' house, where the 16 year-old second-oldest of five played me Kiss Alive!, their 1975 live album (and their best moment, actually).  If you remember this family from Blog #98, you'll remember that these guys played an important educational role in my life.


One drove a Camaro with racing flames and worked at a fish restaurant.  The second had a green AMC Gremlin and worked at Safeway.  The third had Scott Baio feathered hair and worked at an Orange Julius at the Severna Park mall.  They all shared a bedroom, and they had in it:
a) the Farrah Fawcett Majors and Cheryl Tiegs posters that inspired puberty across this great land of ours;
b) a stereo with an 8 track player that had Frampton Comes Alive stuck in it, so they just kept listening to it;
c) some horrible skunkweed pot plants growing in the closet with a sad little gro-lamp;
d) a blacklight poster of the frog sitting at his desk saying "I'm so happy I could just sh-t";
e) an oil painting of the virgin Mary.

In addition to the Frampton, one of the brothers also had Kiss Alive!  I watched them roll joints on the album's back cover, where you can see two kids in the concert audience holding joints waiting for the show to start (look to the right and left of the stoned, sign-holding kids):

As if these these crucial, life-changing educational moments weren't enough, their house was also the first place I heard LOUD rock music.  I thought it was astounding.  I had never seen or heard someone turn up a stereo like that-- the Bee Gees would have blown me away at that volume.  (Mom and Dad kept the stereo around two out of ten.)  Moreover, Kiss wasn't a bunch of old, long-haired guys like other bands I'd seen pictures of.  They were cartoon characters, and therefore mythic and ageless.  I genuinely assumed that these four men were basically from outer space.  They had makeup, distinct one-dimensional personalities, and were shrouded with mystery.  No one had ever seen their faces!  Their concerts featured a man spitting blood and fire!  Things exploded!  There were drum solos!

Remember that it was before the internet and MTV and cell phones.  You almost NEVER got to see a band on TV, or an actual electric guitar and amp, or get reliable information about stars.  Kiss was the best-selling band in the US for three years, and NO ONE SUCCESSFULLY GOT A PICTURE OF THEIR FACES.  Can you imagine that happening now?  It's unthinkable.  To me, it made them seem like superheroes.

I was hooked, and I took everything they did at complete face value and as perfect.  I was as uncritical as you can imagine.  If it was on a Kiss album, then it was music exactly as it was supposed to be performed, by geniuses-- the epitome of rock godhead.

To add to their appeal, they completely horrified my parents.  I think they were expecting me to turn into Linda Blair from the Exorcist at any moment.  (Actually, she looks a lot like Gene on that Alive II cover.)

"I... wanna rock n roll all nite..."

When they saw the cover for Kiss Alive II, my Mom engaged in a classic moment of bad parenting.  She took me to Sears, which was one of the only places you could buy albums in Annapolis in 1977.  There was a music section next to the hi-fi / electronics section and across the aisle from the Garanimals.

I had saved up $5.50, painstakingly, over almost five months, and I was just a week away from having the money needed for II, a double album.  KNOWING I didn't have enough money, Mom took me to the record section, and said, "Look, Jeff, you could buy this other Kiss album right now!"  She pointed to Destroyer, the 1976 single album that had catapulted them to superstardom.  We then had the following conversation:

Me: No thanks.  I want to wait a week.
Mom: But that's a long time from now.  You can buy this one right now!
Me: But that's only one album.  The other one has two.
Mom:  Yeah, but you could be listening to this one tonight!
Me:  I don't have my money with me.
Mom:  I can pay for it and you can pay me back.
Me: Can you lend me the extra twenty five cents?
Mom:  No.
Me:  Well...
Mom:  This one looks pretty cool.
Me:  Yeah, it's supposed to be, but...
Mom:  I think you should get it.
Me:  Well...
Mom:  Great.  Let's go.

My mom, the heroin pusher!  :)

So that's why the first full-length album I ever bought with my own money was Kiss' Destroyer.  Mom did that because she wanted to keep the blood-spitting demon picture on Alive II out of her house.  Instead, she bought me an album on which Kiss trample upon a poor village that they have apparently raped and pillaged (or just set fire to with the power of their mighty rockin').  Here's the back cover:

I'm not sure it was any less demonic.

(Too bad she didn't know about this album)--

As if the cover weren't enough to turn me to the dark side (the pre-Star Wars dark side, by the way-- the REAL dark side!), the first track on Destroyer begins with the sound of a teenager listening to the news about a drunk driving accident, then getting into his car (with Kiss playing, naturally-- I love the part when he sings along badly to the radio) and speeding off to meet his ultimate demise in... a drunk driving accident!!  Don't these damn kids ever listen to their elders?  Not if they're cool Kiss fans, they don't!  I definitely got the message.  Parents and authority figures= square, uncool, non-makeup wearing idiots.  Kiss and its fans= reckless, drugged-up and overglammed hedonists with awesome boots.  No contest.

But that track, this one, is Kiss' greatest moment.  It's the only track they ever recorded which suggests that the band had some musicality.  The drum and bass parts are terrific  (even though they're obviously hanging on for dear life.  Gene can BARELY play that bass line-- every break is an adventure).  It's more complicated than anything the band would try again.  In the middle of the song, the band locks into the best riff of its career, and Paul and Ace engage in some twin guitar soloing that's actually memorable.  And the lyrics, silly as the are, do actually build some suspense.  You know what's going to happen, but you still find yourself waiting for the inevitable crash.  Plus, how can you not love all those gratuitous car sounds?

To my 1977 ears, this was as dramatic and awesome as music could get.  I wanted to be Ace Frehley more than I wanted to be president or an astronaut or even centerfielder for the Orioles (Al Bumbry in 1977, in case you were wondering.)  Even now, tonight, in 2010, I think it's great.  It's Kiss' signature five minutes (even if Kiss Alive! is the record for the time capsule).

Forgive me for celebrity name-dropping, but I have to add a sidebar true story; in 2004, I was playing bass for Rich Price, and we were making an album.  In the studio next door working with another band was Bob Ezrin, the producer of Kiss' Destroyer.  One day, both bands found themselves in the break room watching VH-1's "The Best Hard Rock Songs Of All Time."   And what should come on but... "Detroit Rock City."  I look over at Bob, and he smiles, and we have a "You recorded that song!  Cool!" silent exchange.  A nice moment.  The band he's working with then proceeds to trash the song's production!   I am not making this up.  That song sounds like crap!  I hate the drum track!  Etc Etc.  It is clear they have NO idea what Bob has done in the past.  Bob looks at me again, with a different little smile, which tells me that a) he HATES this band he's working with, and b) that he's going to make them sound like garbage.  Later that day, he came by and lent me his Wurlitzer keyboard to play on a song.  When I remarked to him how good it sounded, he said "Yeah, that's the one we used for "'Comfortably Numb.'"  'Cause you see, Bob Ezrin also produced Pink Floyd's The Wall.  (Though I don't really care for the production on that album, do you?)
So this Kiss album, the first I ever purchased, and I are deeply, spiritually linked, probably forever.

It's now 35 years later.  Time has, of course, passed.  The "Oz" curtain has risen on Kiss, and the men behind it turn out to be not godlike conquerers, but four dumb-ass Long Islanders.  I still love Ace, who laughs like a hyena and was definitely the inspiration for Mick Shrimpton (the "Smell The Glove"-era drummer for Spinal Tap).  But Paul is now a parody of a parody, and Gene Simmons is perhaps one of the most colossal jackasses of our time.

Exhibit A (don't skip this one-- a MUST SEE):

Exhibit B:

Exhibit C... this damn commerical!  I understand that bands sell out, and I really don't care most of the time (I am a Who fan, after all), but this one goes so far beyond what's acceptable.  It just makes me shake my head in disbelief, and soils all my happy memories of air guitaring to Kiss records in the 3rd grade, dreaming of a world not dominated by aluminum siding houses and authority-obsessed teachers.

So while I find this commercial impossible to swallow (see what I did there?  Soft drink ad?  Swallow?  I'm back, baby!), I'm trying to hold on to some of that old admiration.  I think I'll go listen to Ace's solo record instead.


P.S.  If you want more information about Little Kiss (yep, that's a real, touring, midget Kiss cover band in that ad), then you must watch this Daily Show expose:


  1. Welcome back Jeff. Talk about your heroin pusher about you. I've been out here shaking and sweating waiting for my man to write another review. Now I've got my fix and I can think again.

    Kiss Alive II holds special place in my heart. I was a sophmore in college and my best musical friend then was a 20 year old version of that little kid at the Annapolis Sears. We hit the concert with festival seating at Riverfront Coliseum in Cincy and to this day I can't quite get Christine Sixteen, Meet Me in the Ladies' Room, & Ace Frehley Shock Me out of my mind.

    In our post concert exuberance we got snow shovels and shoveled the KISS name (with the killer S's) in the snow on the UC Bearcat tennis courts that we all looked down on from our 24th floor dorm rooms. Our snow grafitti only lasted for a few weeks and the dorm was imploded decades ago but memories of that January night are Alive !!

  2. Nice to see the return. Funny, my first record was Back in Black, so I totally get the appeal of Kiss, but they always seemed too cartoony to me somehow. By comparison AC/DC seemed downright authentic.

    This is a great song and I almost never refer to the city Detroit without adding in "Rock City" afterwards.

  3. Shock Me is CLASSIC Ace. That deserves its own blog soon.

  4. Stupid- KISS is great you just have to get it! Better than listening to a bunch of self indulgent self styled geniuses!

    I'll tkae it loud /hard and simple anyday of the week over drugged out and weak!