New Year's Kiss: Memories of My First Rock Concert
Every time January 15th rolls around I pause to fondly remember a cataclysmic event from my past. It doesn’t have anything to do with the birth of Martin Luther King Jr., although I wish it did somehow. And it’s not the anniversary of losing my virginity (sadly, long after the event under discussion). In this case, the date is magical for me from a strictly musical perspective. It is, specifically...
January 15, 1978
The date of my first rock concert: Kiss at Chicago Stadium.
I routinely ask people about their first concert experience and most respond with mild bemusement, sometimes embarrassment, at their answer. Others have great stories to tell, like me. I suspect some amend their answers conveniently to make their story seem cooler than it really was, conveniently glossing over their “real” first concert in the process in favor of something more profound and mystical. (It was Leo Sayer, NOT Led Zeppelin, I bet!) Perhaps, based on my first concert story, some might accuse me of similar artifice. I got lucky. I couldn’t think of a better band with which to kick off a lifetime of listening to live rock and roll than Kiss, my very first full-time musical obsession. Everyone needs a launching pad, and mine included four comic book characters in platform shoes—a fire-breathing, blood-spitting, bass-playing demon, a space alien with a smoking guitar, a cat with an elevating drum platform, and a campy, over-sexualized starchild lead singer. What more could a kid in elementary school ask for? The show, and it was a show in every sense of the word, easily ranks high on my short list of the greatest concerts I’ve ever seen and I proudly display a KISS ARMY sticker on my car to this day, thus completing a story arc that seems more than worthy of yet another nostalgia-based column like this one.
Actually, I had no intention of writing about this moment until this morning—after all, it’s only the 42nd anniversary of the show, which isn’t cause for celebration usually—but while I was checking on a few items up for bid on eBay, I stumbled onto an item for sale and for a lingering moment asked myself, “How can I make this happen?”
Yes, it was the fireman’s hat Paul Stanley tossed into the crowd on that very same night, January 15, 1978, during their debut-album classic “Firehouse,” a song written solely so the band could incorporate fire engine sirens into their concert while Gene Simmons prepared to execute his trademarked fire-breathing stunt. It goes without saying, at this point, that Kiss never passed up a chance to “fire” up a gimmick during their live shows and my friends and I devoured everything they could dish out with relish. (Kiss certainly weren’t alone in this regard; AC/DC basically wrote “For Those About to Rock (We Salute You)” in order to shoot off some canons during their shows.) During “Firehouse,” Paul Stanley would briefly wear the fire hat above (so as to not muss his perfect mane) and then toss it into the audience, prompting a mad, highly dangerous scramble insurance companies would surely discourage these days. I didn’t have seats close enough, so I never even had the chance to snag it, but this morning I found myself with another opportunity to “catch” it one more time (albeit via an anonymous financial transaction) and I didn’t even balk at its seemingly preposterous $10,000 price tag. It seems like a fair price to me! For a moment, I even mulled over the financing options, only to close out of eBay reluctantly as rational thought set in. I can’t buy a stage prop for 10K, can I? Someone tell me I can’t. Please!
As the day went on, and the more I thought back on that glorious night, more memories flooded back to me. I am still amazed at how clearly that concert imprinted on my mind and how lucky I was to be there during the band’s prime years. Big concerts just aren't the same anymore. I know that sounds a lot like an old-timer with yet another exaggerated "back in my day" complaint, but this time it's true. One thing that stands out most about concerts from the 1970s, and something most kids can’t relate to these days, is how dangerous the atmosphere seemed back then. Not physically dangerous, necessarily—more like morally dangerous—something that could lure a wayward and/or vulnerable kid over to the dark side once and for all. When I walked into Chicago Stadium that night, I felt like I had descended into the belly of the beast once and for all. The scene was electric, much more so than I had ever dreamed. Kiss’s concert on New Year’s Eve this year was a spectacle, but it was far from dangerous. Nobody in Dubai was in jeopardy of being corrupted at this New Year’s party, that I assure you. It was the opposite of rock & roll, whatever that is. And the same goes for most other major concerts at modern, corporately-sponsored arenas throughout the world. Arenas that now feature safety lighting, wide, navigable walkways, relatively clean and spacious bathrooms, and cinnamon-dusted churros for sale in the marble-floored lobby. These days, we have smartly laid-out parking lots, professional security firms, skyboxes for the rich, and smoking restrictions catering to the health conscious. When you see almost any show now, there’s barely a trace of menace, debauchery, or danger when you walk in. And trust me, rock & roll is best absorbed when there’s a thick haze of decadence in the air. True, there are still drunk people and pot smokers today (often one and the same), but the overall atmosphere is still only a couple levels down from a crowd at the Ice Capades or a typical NBA or NHL game. If you want that dangerous feeling these days, your best bet is to hit a smaller club specializing in bands on the rise rather than those who have fully arrived. You still won't get to smoke, but at least you'll get the spirit of rock & roll in the bargain. I have been going this route for decades, and it serves me well. That said, there’s also something truly magical about catching a rock band at the height of their popularity on a massive scale. The fact rock & roll itself isn’t what the kids want these days anyway is beside the point. Music is missing, for the most part, that unique concert experience which pairs a hot band, a distinct venue, and an “anything can happen” aura. It's missing the danger.
When I walked into Chicago Stadium back in 1978, the place seemed transformed from my previous visits for Bulls and Black Hawks games. Now, the entrances were covered in red velvet, and by the time of my arrival, was already shrouded in a deep haze of cigarette and marijuana smoke. Old Chicago Stadium (pre-United Center) was a cramped, antique venue that was built for a different world with different needs. It featured impossibly steep seating, with fans seemingly stacked on top of each other, packed in like sardines awaiting the satanic ritual that was moments away. Even Kiss, now considered the ultimate in crass commercialization, came off as positively dangerous in this environment. I didn’t know what would happen at any moment and that feeling was electric. To a young kid like me, it was both scary and exhilarating at the same time. And I was immediately enthralled by the sensation.
Until the stoned and drunk guy behind me began vomiting up what looked to be cottage cheese mixed with chicken gravy, that is. Thankfully, the police sergeant who took me and my friend to the concert (along with the boy’s grandfather for some unknown reason) traded places with me about the time the vile mixture reached my sneakers. After a few stunned and uneasy moments, I was able to put the image behind me when the lights went down and Kiss kicked into “I Stole Your Love,” but I was shaken to my core by the experience. To this day, it will pop into my head when I least expect it, a sort of post-vomit stress disorder. (Full disclosure: I returned the favor years later during a Schnapps-driven incident at a Bob Dylan/Tom Petty concert at Alpine Valley, Wisconsin—my apologies to any young witnesses).
Suffice it to say, the show was absolutely incredible. As long as you live, you will never match the enthusiasm you have when you're a one-band kid. That's what you do when you're young—you focus on one band at a time. You may have a favorite band later in your life, but you'll likely never have only one band that matters to you again. All my liquid income at the time was tied-up in Kiss records, Kiss Halloween costumes, Kiss magazines, and Kiss memorabilia—and I admit that fact surely clouds my objectivity substantially, but I’m still confident in my critical assessment of that night. I had just had my life altered forever by a Kiss concert and things would never be the same for me again. It sounds over-dramatic, but I was right. The Kiss craze lasted a little longer, but soon the craving for the next big thrill was on. Years later, I do wonder how that already monumental memory would’ve been transformed if I also somehow lucked into catching Paul Stanley’s fireman helmet during “Firehouse.” I don't know if I would've been able to sleep ever again. The mere thought of having it in my possession even now is almost impossible to fathom even though it's not going to happen unless someone has 10 grand to spare no questions asked. If you do, please let me know. I would really love to put it on my shelf and stare at it until I die.
A Brief Review of the Set List from January 15, 1978.
“I Stole Your Love”
This Kiss tour was technically the “Alive II Tour” because the band had just released their second live record a few months after 1977’s Love Gun. Four songs from Love Gun, despite being a little over 100 days old at the time, are also included on the live album (great turnaround time!). Those same four songs show up in this set list. Kiss was never very flexible with their set lists presumably due to stage show limitations and pyrotechnic tie-ins. Me and my pre-pubic friends loved this song because we thought Paul was singing, “How does it feel to find out I’m feeling your tits?” (with heavy echo on the word “tits” for effect) when in fact, as we thankfully found out years later, was actually, “How does it feel to find out you’re failin’ your test?” I would argue that our version of the lyrics was a better fit for the band's hyper-sexualized aesthetic. A solid set opener even if it’s not one of their best tunes.
“King of the Night Time World”
My full indoctrination to Kiss was through their Destroyer album, so the more songs from the album the better in my opinion. And the band feels the same way, thankfully, as this set is loaded with almost all of my favorites, with the notable exception of “Flaming Youth.”
This terrible song will not be winning the Nobel Prize for poetry any time soon, that’s for sure. I assume it was in the setlist as a catalyst to entice groupies into Gene’s dressing room “for romance” after the show or possibly to justify schlepping Peter Criss’s cowbell from town to town. Maybe both. It’s absolutely jam-packed with second-grade rhymes and freshman-year come-ons and I would’ve preferred it stay on Rock and Roll Over where it came from. If I had my way, I would’ve replaced it with one of the “studio songs” on side four of Alive II, ideally “Rocket Ride,” but I would’ve settled for their cover of the Dave Clark Five’s “Any Way You Want It,” too. One burning question remains to this day: Why did Kiss shun Alive II’s underrated side four altogether when performing live? To this day, I don't think they've ever played any of those songs in concert. Irony!
One of two songs in the set from Kiss’s debut and, as I’ve explained, the main reason you’re reading this homage right now. For as long as Gene does his fire breathing routine, this is going to be in the set list. It's that simple. Which means it will be with us until Gene breathes his last breath. And how cool would it be if his last breath resulted in one last plume of fire? That would be a fitting way to go out. It's a tribute to Kiss's stage show that we're already getting fire-breathing only four songs into the set! Most bands would save such a highlight until deep into the show, likely the encore.
This is not clinically proven, but I’m going to estimate that 60% of all Kiss songs reference, in one way or another, a dick. If you want it, Kiss has got it, and they're more than willing to share it with you. After all, they’re All-American men, larger than life, loving you all they can, any way you want it, all nite and every day, rocket riding in the U.S.A., lovin’ ‘em and leavin’ ‘em, as doctors of love are known to do. This is the kind of song I could’ve written back in 1978, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t still rock. I got the Love Gun album for Christmas in 1977, complete with a working cardboard "love gun" that made a popping sound when you snapped it in just the right way (an appeal to their sophisticated fan base, I presume). That gun lasted me about 25 minutes before it ripped, but I loved it nonetheless. I remedied the problem 35-years later, buying a near-mint copy with the included gun in perfect working condition, but never to be "shot" again. I believe in love gun control, always have, always will. The NLGA would not be happy with me.
“Let Me Go, Rock ‘n’ Roll”
The sole representative from Hotter Than Hell in the set has been a staple of their live shows since 1974. It’s got a hot little Chuck Berry riff (by Paul Stanley, not Ace), but it’s basically an equal-opportunity showpiece for the whole band depending on the moment. It's killer each and every time, too. And yes, in case you're wondering, it references a dick. And a hard one at that. Plus, you also get the bonus come-on...“Baby, won’t you squeeze?” in the deal. This might not fly in today's world, but for me it's grandfathered in as a relic from a looser, more prehistoric time.
This is the second song in the set list I would’ve replaced if I had full creative control. “Makin’ Love” is, predictably, yet another song about fucking, or wanting to fuck, and it’s a total mess in all ways; lyrically, thematically, structurally, vocally, instrumentally, you name it. Important Warning: Do not pay attention to the lyrics or risk retroactively stunting your emotional development back to a middle school gym locker room. It does have a good riff now and then, but the rest is pretty rough. That said, ham-fisted sexual references and meaty guitar riffs are pretty much all I wanted or needed in 1978, so this was, at least to me, high art at the time.
This is one of the greatest pop singles in the Kiss catalog assuming you can ignore the pedophilic overtones of the lyrics (“I don’t usually say things like this to girls your age...”), but if the Chuck Berry and the Beatles can get away with it, why not Kiss?
Ace was the not-so-secret weapon in Kiss and this was his moment in the spotlight, and I must say it was long overdue. Love Gun rectified the problem by giving him a song perfectly suited to his silver alien persona. His smoking guitar solo was super cool, too. Right up there with the fire breathing and blood spitting.
“I Want You”
Rock and Roll Over was still getting a lot of live love on this tour and rightly so. This was an opportunity for the ludicrous stage banter of Paul Stanley to come out and play for a while. The tender, contemplative opening and closing has always been a favorite, even if it only lasts for a few moments. It shows range, man. Deal with it.
“Calling Dr. Love”
This is one of the dumbest songs of all time and contains perhaps the most unneeded and obvious lyrics in the entire Kiss catalog, sung by gentleman Gene himself: “You need my love baby, oh so bad / You’re not the only one I’ve ever had.” Has anyone in the history of the world ever needed that clarified? Nonetheless, this song is all about attitude, and if any band got away with more than Kiss, even the hair metal bands of the 1980s, I’d like to hear your case.
“Shout It Out Loud”
This song was written with the stage in mind and it is one of the reasons Kiss became the live juggernaut they were. I was jumping out of my shoes when this song started as a pre-teen and I was jumping out of my shoes the last time I saw them in the early 20th century. Its appeal never changes.
“God of Thunder”
Blood doesn’t spit itself, does it?
“Rock and Roll All Nite”
The entire confetti industry is built around this song and when the band’s “farewell” tour finally (if it ever) ends, there will be some really grateful custodians at arenas around the world. Perhaps the greatest live song of all time? Hard to argue.
“Detroit Rock City”
The band’s signature song in my opinion. It has more substance than most Kiss songs and is nearly perfect from front-to-back.
As the band’s biggest hit ever, it has to be in every set, and I was happy to hear it. But in retrospect, I would’ve loved “Hard Luck Woman” even more.
I like a show that ends by taking us back to where the band began. An origin story, if you will, just like this column. The perfect way to end a life-changing show. A night I will never forget for the rest of my days.
That's all for now. See you soon parishioners! Welcome to the new year!
Rock and Roll All Nite, but don't party every day. Wait until the pandemic is over to do that.