I got into rock at a very young age. I was 5 or 6 years old when my parents let me play records on an old portable turntable. I played the usual child fare of Disney storybooks, but soon discovered my dad’s old stash of 45’s. Nothing really exciting: mostly 50’s pop idols, when the conservative record industry tried to make rock n roll “white” and shun the gospel and R&B influences. Lots of Perry Como, Connie Francis, etc. But among these, I found an amazing performer: Elvis Presley. I probably was attracted to these discs because they were bigger. I didn’t know it at the time, but these were relics from another era: 78 RPM records. There were two of them: Jailhouse Rock (backed with Treat Me Nice) and One Night (backed by I Got Stung. Although technically they were both A sides, One Night made a much bigger impression on me).
I was fascinated by Scotty Moore’s guitar, and Elvis’s soulful voice. Jailhouse Rock’s prototype hard rock/metal sound probably laid the foundation for my love of heavy music: the basic, primal opening riff, the angry vocals and the virtuoso solo were all elements I would later look for in music. I remember when Elvis died on August 16 1977. All the headlines said “The King is dead”. I remember asking my mom “Why do they say that when they talk about Elvis?” And she answered “Because he was the King of Rock n Roll”. Woah. He wasn’t just the best, he was… the King! Royalty. That made a very big impression on me.
But I don’t consider these my first records. My first record is the first I got because I wanted it. I’d like to say I worked to earn enough money to buy it, but I just asked my mom for a record until she took me to the store. And I knew exactly which one would be my first. I wanted it, but for all the wrong reasons.
When came time to start the third grade, my parents switched me to a different school, a private school with a very good reputation. This is not a story of rebellion, make no mistake about it: I thrived there. But those first few months, the adjustment was difficult. And I tried to fit in with anyone.
I was seated beside a guy named Marc Parent. I remember him as very popular, a jock. Marc had an older brother, and so all his school books were hand me downs. And all his books were full of KISS graffiti. This was around 1979-1980, so his brother had been smack dab in the middle of their popularity wave, while we were riding the tail. I was fascinated by those graffitis. I learned the names of Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss without even knowing what they sounded like. I knew their faces, from the crude drawings in his books, from the countless magazine covers, and from the records that were in every store (I remember records being sold almost everywhere at the time).
So when I asked my mom to buy me a record, I knew I wanted a KISS record. Not because I liked the music, having never heard a note, but because they were big and fascinated me. And seemed a little dangerous. I’m not sure how I decided on Alive! as my choice. Maybe my friend had recommended it, or maybe I figured that it contained songs from most of the other records. Only problem was that it was a double album, and more expensive. Some sweet talking later, my mom brought it to the cash register. After she paid, the clerk told my mom “My son has that record. Good luck.” As we left, I could see my mom was worried, but I knew I’d made the right choice.
When we got home, I raced to the basement to put it on. As it started with their iconic intro of “You wanted the best, you got the best. The hottest band in the world, KISS!” (which to a young francophone sounded like “You wallaa da ball, tala bala. Ta hawtess baa in da wurll, KISS!”), I was in trance. I kept looking at the cover, with every member occupying his part of the frame perfectly (it was staged during rehearsal), trying to fathom what the visuals to the music would have been. Even back then I wondered why Ace had his guitar backwards.
It was my first introduction to hard rock, and I was in love. The blistering screams of the guitar solos, the pounding of the drums, Gene’s demon growl and Paul’s New-York accent became the be all end all of rock to me. I spent hours wondering what the whooshing sound at the beginning of side 4 was. Until I bought the CD, I had a nagging suspicion my record was warped!
The album had explosions and fire sirens for pete’s sake! How much more intense could you get? The only drawback to the album was the lengthy drum solo on side 3 which I would (sometimes) skip. And skipping part of a song on an LP required serious skills. Right there, the seed for my last blog entry was planted! (See my article on 7 rock concert clichés that need to die)
On the back cover it said “KISS uses Gibson guitars and Pearl drums because they want to use the best”. That lit up something in my head: those had to be what was needed to make such glorious noise! (Back then I still believed it was recorded live instead of being massively overdubbed in the studio) With my dad’s help, I made a cardboard guitar, and would play along the entire record. When I’d get to the end, I’d smash it, Paul Stanley-style to finish it up. Often, I’d tape it back together, and play the album again. But after a while it wasn’t enough. I asked my parents for a real guitar, which they gave me at 14. It was a cheapo electric guitar (they weren’t about to spend all their savings on a Les Paul, and that was way before all the cheap imitations started to appear), but I loved it. It took me a while to start practicing seriously, but once I did, I quickly was able to play some KISS songs. I’d arrived!
Years later, as I was studying classical music for my Bachelor’s degree, there’d be times my head would be on the verge of exploding, filled to capacity with Baroque melody lines, classical voice leading, or Romantic orchestrations. In these dangerous times, I’d go back to the basement, dust off my Alive! album, tune down my electric guitar and rock out for an hour. That cathartic therapy would get me back in a state of mind conducive to my studies. Since my desire to be a musician started with Alive!, I saw it as going back to my roots.
Nowadays, I rarely listen to it. Not that I’ve lost any appreciation for it, but because I know it by heart. And when I do listen to it, it transports me back to those years of youth, when the whole world of music was still left for me to discover. When I had my first. A first who literally shaped the course of my life. Thanks guys. What was your first?
- In the course of taking pics for this article, I realized I got rid of my heavily worn LP when I bought it on CD. How I regret!
- After writing this, I realize how much I’m underestimating the influence of that Jailhouse Rock single. It planted the seed that KISS made grow (that sounds like some dirty lyric they’d come up with…)
- I’m writing this article on January 20th 2013. It is Paul Stanley’s 61st birthday. My childhood heroes are now old men.
- Last year I bought Elvis’s Complete 68 Special. I kept listening to One Night over and over again, without knowing why. I had forgotten that it was the second single I inherited from my dad. I’m sure that’s why I fixated so much on it.