Music » Music Lead

KISS the Culprit

The hottest band in the world was inspired by Alice Cooper, but did emulation lead to thievery?


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When the Rolling Stones staged the first genuine rock and roll circus in 1968, they distributed gold-embossed metallic tickets to their fan club members, fed them, gave them twenty hours of music, clowns, and amusements, and then arranged for buses to take everybody home. All free o' charge!

In stark contrast, anyone attending Kiss's current tour would be soaked nonstop for their last remaining dollars. Just look at the shameless merchandise huckstering packed inside the band's new Psycho-Circus CD: "Limited Edition Commemorative Psycho-Circus Silver Proof Coins"--$279.00!! "Psycho-Circus Throw Blanket"--$70.00!! "Kiss Army Jacket"--$650.00!! Then there's that damn Kisstory book--naw, wait, now it's KISStory II! The Kiss Collector's Bible, packed with all sorts of crazy extras: "Hardcover & Bound"! "9 Pounds Per Book"! "Shipped to You Direct"!! Gosh! Imagine paying $158.95 for a book and then having to go pick it up at the airport! What an unbelievable value!

Kiss never gives anything away for nothin'. Even the damn sweepstakes card enclosed in each CD requires you make a $1.99 phone call to enter. So when the costumed creeps sing "You are me, I am you" on their new album, you just feel like saying "If I am you, why don't you cheap-ass chiselers pay me?"

Nor are the members of Kiss strangers to frivolous litigation. After all, didn't Gene Simmons take the concept of rearranging someone's face to new heights when he dragged Kiss copycat act King Diamond into a court of law, forcing him to change his original unoriginal makeup design?

Ironically, in the early '80s, when Kiss's career was going down the toilet, Paul Stanley's dad, the president of 2,000 Flushes, sued the Clash for sampling his sparkling bowl commercial on "Inoculated City." There's even a ska band named 2000 Flushes. Go kick some punk ass, Stardad!

No one, not even the self-appointed "Hottest Band in the World," is above trafficking "hot" ideas. Kiss's original concept of being four Alice Coopers on stage has been acknowledged by the band throughout the years, and even in a recent issue of Goldmine. So when word recently filtered out that Paul Stanley was being sued by Six Palms Publishing for ripping off Alice Cooper's "I'm Eighteen," it was easy to regard it as a form of poetic justice, with the possibility of Kiss's spiritual debt to the Billion Dollar Baby transferred into cold hard cash.

"Alice isn't suing Kiss," Cooper's personal assistant Brian Nelson is quick to stress. "Six Palms Publishing, which owns the controlling percentage of Alice's early songs, is suing Paul Stanley of Kiss and [former Kiss guitarist] Bruce Kulick. In fact, Alice had no idea about the song "Dreamin'" sounding like "Eighteen" until he heard [Phoenix DJ] Dave Pratt comparing the two songs on his morning show."

Nelson, aware of the marquee value of such a story, won't engage Cooper in any negative comparisons of the two camps. "If nobody imitated Alice after he came out, he would've just fallen off the edge of the earth," Nelson says. "Alice always looked at what he was doing as opening the door for others to walk through."

One wonders, did Kiss merely walk through the door without tipping its hat and make a beeline straight for Alice's fridge? Since Mercury Records, Kiss's label, won't comment, we owe it to Kiss to put that lame-ass Stanley-Kulick song through every conceivable evaluation. If there's a DNA probe that can incriminate a guilty song-stealing party, we'll find it. First let's examine the motives:

Paul Stanley's Motive: After ditching the makeup and scaling down its live show in 1983, Kiss found itself with an identity problem, or what guitarist Ace Frehley once termed "a musical vasectomy." No longer could the group pen superhero anthems. Nor would it be wise to return to the celibate altar-boy hymns of its disastrous (Music From) The Elder album. Instead, Kiss focused on the smutty sexist ditties that ignited its predominantly young male fans in the past. The recent return of the makeup-clad Kiss (and the band's original lineup) came with the hidden responsibility of having to be larger than life again--they couldn't just sing about human-sized hard-ons.

Possibly as a return to their roots, Stanley and company ransacked Cooper's crib for song inspiration. While "Dreamin'" plunders Alice's earliest hit, the Psycho-Circus album and comic book--created by Todd McFarlane of Spawn fame--voraciously feed off Alice Cooper's most recent studio album The Last Temptation and its corresponding Marvel comic book.

Cooper's album opened with a song called "Sideshow," itself a tip of the hat to his earlier "Hello Hooray." Both songs have an I-can't-wait-for-this-show-to-begin undercurrent which, surprise surprise, turns up in Psycho-Circus's title track as well.

Bruce Kulick's Motive: There's no $70 throw blanket with Bruce Kulick's face on it! Quite simply, the former Kiss guitarist's motivation was to get his share of the giant cash bonanza that has ensued since he was shunted aside, while the original Kiss was reactivated.

For more than a decade, Kulick was a salaried sideman for the sans-makeup Kiss, a thankless job not unlike being a regular on The Andy Griffith Show after Don Knotts left. Early Kiss was a tough act to follow, and now it's put him out of full-time employment. The best he's managed is forming a virtually ignored band with erstwhile Motley Crue vocalist John Corabi, called Union. Now if they called the band Reunion, that would be funny.

Key Differences: The signature riff in "I'm Eighteen" is played over an E minor/C/D progression, the same progression used in "Dreamin'," albeit dropped down a half step to E flat minor/C flat/D flat with two groaning passing notes in F and E flat trying their darnedest to disguise it.

While "Eighteen" remains grounded in E minor throughout, "Dreamin'" jumps to F sharp minor on the verses. But save for one chord, it's the near-identical passage, now transposed up three frets. The experiment to see how many keys Kiss can play this famous riff in before someone noticed it has been stolen renders this second attempt at thievery redundant.

Similar Song Content: Like "I'm Eighteen," "Dreamin'" deals with internal-clock confusion ("can't tell the daylight from the night"), but whether it's about a boy's impending manhood or Paul Stanley's oncoming senility is never clear.

Subconscious Plagiarism: During the infamous My Sweet Lawsuit more than two decades ago, the judge found George Harrison guilty of subconsciously plagiarizing the melody of the Chiffons' "He's So Fine." Harrison admitted he thought he was consciously plagiarizing "Oh Happy Day" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, although thankfully no other parties pursued the matter further.

Subconscious plagiarizing could never apply in this case. Even someone in a coma couldn't mistake the riff. "We loved those early Alice Cooper albums," Stanley told Goldmine while explaining Kiss's habit of tapping Alice's producer Bob Ezrin at every critical juncture of its career. Ezrin was also involved in the early stages of Psycho-Circus. So it's a safe bet you could disturb either Stanley or Kulick in the middle of dreamin', shove a guitar in their hands, and their respective left hands would find that riff, no problem.

You-Can't-Copyright-a-Riff Defense (and the Tip-of-the-Hat Defense): Both are compelling arguments. Most cases are about lifted melodies and words, so this dispute could set a legal precedent. Why didn't the Stones sue the Kinks for lifting the "Jumpin' Jack Flash" riff for "Catch Me Now I'm Falling"? How come Prince never sue-sue-sued Phil Collins for carbon copying "1999" for his suck-suck-sucky "Sussudio"? How come the Jam never felt the hot breath of Beatles lawyers down their necks for giving the world a "Start" that appropriates the "Taxman" bassline? How come Noel Gallagher is still allowed to walk free after ripping off everything from "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing" to "This Guy's in Love With You"?

The reason is that these are all acknowledged tips of the hat from one big act to another. Also, who wants to engender such bad will in the utopian rock world? Why would the Stones risk alienating a segment of their audience that liked the Kinks too? Besides, it would be bad form to sue someone who's paying homage to you. The guys in Kiss most likely figured Cooper would be cool about a tip of the hat, not anticipating that people who own the controlling percentages want some do-re-mi thrown into their waiting tipped hats.

Projected Outcome: Kiss will probably settle out of court. In some landmark litigations, like the John Fogerty vs. Fantasy Records case (in which Fogerty was actually accused of stealing from himself), the artist is called to the stand with an acoustic guitar to demonstrate the minute differences of the songs in question.

Having already heard how wimpy Kiss sounds unplugged, the jury could turn ugly. And given Kiss's reluctance to do any freebie shows, they'll pay up.

Projected Winner: The Alice Cooper Band.
Since "Eighteen" was credited to all five members of the original group, the four surviving members--Cooper, Dennis Dunaway, Michael Bruce, and Neal Smith, as well as the Glen Buxton estate--will see some compensation in a settlement. This, combined with the planned release next spring of Alice's long-awaited four-CD box set The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper, should call attention to the band's contributions to those classic albums.

Projected Loser: Bruce Kulick.
Giving Kulick a token co-writing credit on the new album, which will certainly sell more than any Kiss album since Dynasty, could've made a nice nest egg for the exiled guitarist. But now he's got nest egg all over his face. It's a hotly contested rumor that Kulick actually plays more than Frehley on the new album, but the facts are shrouded in more secrecy than Kiss's pink faces used to be.

Projected Future Kiss Lawsuits: 1999 could finally be the year those battered Nazi stormtroopers get up the pluck to sue Kiss for appropriating their SS lettering. And Labelle can finally throw the stylebook at Frehley for ripping off all its space-age costume ideas. Mocha choke-a-latta da da! Or as Ace might say, "Ack Ack."

Kiss. Sunday, December 6, Gund Arena, 100 Gateway Plaza, $50/35, Ticketmaster, 216-241-5555, 330-945-9400.

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