Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Detroit Rock City

Detroit Rock City
seen on TV @ Comedy Central

The first time I saw KISS I thought they were a fictitious band. I distinctly remember seeing commercials for their action figures as a little kid and I'm pretty sure I thought that they couldn't be real. After all, what kind of musicians look like that? I don't know what I assumed they were. Perhaps I thought they were characters from a grown-up movie that I was too young to see. I was partially right on that score, anyway.

They must have been all over the radio at the time, but the only song I remember hearing and knowing it was them was, big shock, "I Was Made For Loving You." I gotta say that at the time, I didn't think it sounded that much like disco, and I still don't. Someone seriously needs to explain to me what makes this song a disco record. It's danceable? So is "Strutter." So are a lot of KISS songs. Are KISS fans disinclined to dance to their records for some reason? Or dancing in general? I dunno, to my ears, this song is a far cry from the likes of KC and the Sunshine Band or the Bee Gees or Chic. Rod Stewart's "Do Ya Think I'm Sexy" - now that's disco! And I'd take either one of those songs over "Beth"!

I was too young to get caught up in the disco vs. rock wars of the 70s. To me, music was music back then. Besides, my sister was clearly on the disco side back then (though even she had at least one Styx record, as I recall), so I heard a lot more disco growing up. It wasn't until high school that I got heavily into rock, and by then, disco, as I was being told over and over, was "dead."

Besides, it's difficult to look back at the disco vs. rock wars and not see an element of race in the great debate. There's a fantastic book about baseball in the 70s called Big Hair and Plastic Grass by Dan Epstein (highly recommended; more than just a sports book). One chapter discusses the infamous "Disco Demolition Night" at Chicago's Comiskey Park in 1979, where a bunch of disco records got blown up by a local rock DJ between games of a doubleheader, and pandemonium ensued as a result. Epstein touches on what made the disco/rock divide such a heated one:
...In decades to follow, "Disco Demolition Night" would be singled out by many social and pop-cultural commentators as an example of the racist and homophobic impulses that drove the late-'70s backlash against disco music. While it's debatable that most white rock fans of the era were even vaguely aware of the connection between disco and gay nightlife, there's no question that they generally viewed disco as "black music" - i.e., something that no self-respecting Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd fan would be caught dead listening to. But mostly, it was disco's innate trendiness that rankled rock fans; in their eyes, white people who bought disco music and danced to it at clubs a la Saturday Night Fever were merely vapid followers of fashion, superficial losers who didn't appreciate "real" music.
I don't deny that back in high school, I would've come down hard on the rock side of the debate, despite growing up on the opposite side (something I worked hard at publicly denying in those days). Over the ensuing years, though, I've found value as well as vapidity in both genres, and I've learned to be less snobbish about the whole thing. Besides, it's all "old" music now, and all of it sounds much better than new music, anyway!

Getting back to KISS, though. I have nothing against them. I like their music as well as their carefully cultivated image. I woulda loved to have seen them play live during their prime. What amazes me so much about them though, is not so much the music as the way they've marketed themselves over the years, how utterly commercialized they were, and still are. This is something that Gene Simmons makes absolutely no bones about, either. I've read interviews with him that confirm his relentless drive in marketing the KISS brand name on everything you can imagine. It's bizarre, to say the least, but other bands push their brand-name merchandise almost as much - and given the way many record companies have treated musicians throughout history, who can blame them for wanting to milk a cash cow?

KISS, along with Alice Cooper and David Bowie and Elton John and other 70s rockers, made bombast and spectacle part of their image in a way few rock bands do today. Indeed, one sees that kind of thing more from pop stars like Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus more than one sees it with rockers. Could that be part of the reason why rock has declined so? Does rock need to get back to such theatrics in order to be relevant again? I'm not sure, but I have a feeling it may not hurt. KISS went all-out to make their shows an unforgettable experience, beyond simply the music, and people responded to that in a huge way. When it comes to live performers these days, it's still the senior citizens of rock that continue to top the charts (alongside the pop, R&B, country and rap stars, of course). Methinks we may not see the likes of KISS in rock again.

Even if we don't, though, at least we'll have movies like Detroit Rock City to remind us what they were like in their heyday. This is a completely silly movie, derivative of other movies about fans of a certain band/movie/celebrity, but hey, it's not the worst way to kill a couple of hours. The underrated Natasha Lyonne is in it, as is Melanie Lynskey from Heavenly Creatures. There are some nice shots of Detroit, including the legendary Fox Theater, seen here showing a kung fu double header! And of course, KISS themselves show up at the end. Still, I think I'd probably sooner put on KISS Alive again.


  1. Interesting post. As a kid growing up in the '70s, I never saw any racial component to the disco backlash and I'm still not sure it was there. After all, at its height, the biggest "faces" in the public eye representing disco were John Travolta, the Bee Gees and Donna Summer. When I was in Jr. High, I did have friends who hated disco, but their reason was simple: it didn't rock! If polka music had been rock's rival at the time, they would have had polka LP burning nights.

    Epstein says: there's no question that they generally viewed disco as "black music" I find it preposterous that that would be a reason why rock fans would dislike disco because they all knew rock was based on the blues (and disco wasn't). Besides, Funkadelic was putting out blistering rock and they had a big white fan base.

    FWIW, I liked - and still do - it all: disco, rock, progressive, jazz, classical. But not polka.

  2. Well, you were there and I wasn't (so to speak), so if you say that's how it was for you, I believe you. Perhaps some more reading on the subject might help.


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