Saturday, December 19, 2020

Rock steady: 4 bands, 1 story

Doug Brod's terrific They Just Seem a Little Weird: How KISS, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, and Starz Remade Rock and Roll does what all successful music books do: finds the pulse of an artist or a band and then tunes in the larger vibrations happening all around them. In this case, Brod tells the complex story of four bands, KISS, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, and Starz, that form a sonic and cultural constellation beginning in the mid 1970s and never truly leave each other's orbit. 

Man, he's spending an awful lot of time on Gene Simmons's solo album, I thought as I read the Introduction, until I realized that, like a lens focusing, that's Brod's modus operandi; he's drawn to sometimes surprising moments of synthesis. Simmons's solo album features members of each of the four bands; Brod spends the rest of his book detailing the many ways these bands, their members, and/or their associates collided in studios, stages, and hotel rooms. Among countless examples: Cheap Trick recorded their debut in the Record Plant in New York City, where a bit earlier KISS had recorded Destroyer, Aerosmith Rocks, and Starz their debut, similar producers, engineers, and managers in the heady mix. The bands met and re-met in various iterations, and in differing degrees of admiration and rancor, for decades. Brod must've affixed a giant, police investigation-style evidence board on his wall as he wrote, the connections between and among the bands, in studios and boardrooms, and among management, radio, promoters, and fans, having created a thick web. Frankly, it was hard for me to keep track of all of the ways these bands intertwined down the decades. That Brod's dogged flow chart of a book is as readable and narratively appealing as it is is testament to the author's considerable writerly and research gifts for gathering up the many pieces and assembling the puzzle. 

What was it about these four bands that spoke to Brod? "For one thing, all of them are just a bit . . . different," he writes late in the book in an insightful passage. "So were a few other American bands at the time. Alice Cooper, the Tubes, and Sparks, to name three, all trafficked in theatrics and humor."
But with the exception of Cooper’s, their music was too brainy and their appearance too outré to garner any lasting mass success. The kids didn’t want their rock in quotation marks or, in the case of Sparks’ Ron Mael, a Hitler mustache.

The kids were, however, "ready to embrace maximum exaggeration. KISS might have seemed like supernatural comic-book beasties, but anyone could tart themselves up to look just like them (and many still do), in defiance of peers who’d mock the band and, by extension, their devotees."

The two studs and two duds in Cheap Trick did nothing if not upend the traditional notion all members of a band had to look cool to be cool. Aerosmith, with striped unitards, flouncy scarves, and gonad-squishing dungarees, took typical hard-rock chic to its logical illogical extreme. As for Starz, they were ultimately an endearing composite—KISS and Aerosmith fighting to the death armed with Cheap Trick’s pointed hooks—spangled perpetual openers punching the clock for rock and roll.

The metaphor I walk away from the book with is of the four bands as close but squabbling siblings: KISS and Aerosmith the older, bossy twins; Starz the gifted middle child clamoring for attention; Cheap Trick the laid back little brother with attitude and a cynical sense of humor. Unsurprisingly for me, the true heroes of the book is the band from Rockford; they've made their suspect career moves, to be sure, yet their jaded humor, endless gigging in whatever venue would have them, and shoulder-shrugging modesty in the face of industry indignities are appealing, and appealingly narrated (especially when Bun E. Carlos's holding forth). KISS and Aerosmith come across exactly as you'd expect. (As I look at the book's sources and notes, it appears that Brod didn't obtain access to members of Aerosmith, the few folks he didn't directly talk to for this supremely well-researched book. As a consequence their presence in the book is relatively muted.) I wasn't terribly familiar with Starz—though I was happy to learn that an earlier version of the band, Fallen Angels, had released one of the first songs I fell in love with as a kid, a cover of "Just Like Romeo and Juliet"—yet their story is sadly familiar: they had the looks, chops, live appeal, and management to break big but it never happened for them on the scale of the three other bands. Their ongoing intersections with those bands make for a rich, multi-leveled story and reveal the seemingly infinite interconnectedness among musicians, producers, management, and bookers. Amidst petty jealousies mixed with genuine admiration, friendly rivalries developed among the bands, who alternately opened and headlined for each other, appeared on each other's records, and/or co-wrote (or attempted) songs with each other. 

Brod's as interested in the legacies of these four bands, and of the influences they had on younger musicians. Among the folks he spoke with are Sebastian Bach (Skid Row), Kim Thayil (Soundgarden), Ginger Wildheart (Wildheart), Gary Cherone (Extreme), Robert DeLeo (Stone Temple Pilots), Ken Stringfellow (Posies), and Steven McDonald (Redd Kross and Melvins), nearly all of whom shared a love of the bands from adolescence onward, coming of age in an era when spectacle, sleaze, excess, and humor came in equally potent measure on the radio, the turntable, magazines, and television. Brod quotes Jonathan Daniel, of Candy and Electric Angel and later a manager of Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, and Green Day, who acknowledges that "all it took was one magazine’s promotional effort to introduce him to KISS and Aerosmith and set him on a career path."
Creem had an offer where if you subscribed you got either Destroyer or Rocks,” he recalls. “So that, for me, is the link between those two records, because I got Destroyer and my friend got Rocks. Then we taped each other’s records.” Which led to his discovery of Starz. "I bought Starz because it had the Rock Steady logo on it. And then Cheap Trick opened for KISS. So they’re all super-connected."
I think of Brod's book as companion of sorts to Michael Walker's What You Want Is in the Limo: On the Road with Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, and the Who in 1973, the Year the Sixties Died and the Modern Rock Star Was Born. Although Brod brings the four bands up to date by its finish, the roots of their connectedness took in the mid- and late-70s, and his book's a "finish" to Walker's look at Rock Stardom in the early-70s. The decade—sprawling, excessive, gross, and beautiful—gave us a loud spectacle of arena-ready, over-the-top bands, some of whose songs birthed Classic Rock, others of whose songs radio ignored. In telling the story of KISS, Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, and Starz, Brod provides a detailed time- and date-stamped journey back to a time when bands could be a little wild, a little weird, sell millions of records, and, if not precisely remake rock and roll, can guarantee a future of like-spirited bands.

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