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Kiss is still Kiss, as sung by diverse devotees

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was a phone call Dean Dinning would not soon forget.

"I was just sitting around my house when I got a call from our manager," recalls Dinning, bassist with the band Toad the Wet Sprocket. "He said, 'I just got off the phone with Gene Simmons from Kiss. And he is a Toad fan.'

"I couldn't believe it. [Simmons] really liked 'Walk on the Ocean' and he bought 'Fear' and liked the whole album. He wanted us to be on the Kiss tribute album, and he was waiting for me to call him back. Out of the blue one day. It was unbelievable."

Dinning wasn't the only one to hear the call. Toad the Wet Sprocket is just one of more than a dozen acts that wound up contributing to "Kiss My Ass" (Mercury 314 522 123, the CD and cassette of which arrives in stores Tuesday). A truly bizarre tribute album, it features cover versions of Kiss tunes by an un likely cast of Kissoholics, including Garth Brooks (who does "Hard Luck Women"), Lenny Kravitz with Stevie Wonder ("Deuce") and the Lemonheads ("Plaster Caster").

Garth Brooks and Stevie Wonder on a Kiss album? Whose demented idea was that?

Ours, answers Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, the two remaining original members of Kiss. As Simmons tells it, the concept of a Kiss tribute album had been kicking around for some time (in fact, an unauthorized tribute called "Hard to Believe" came out independently a few years back), but the band balked at letting label executives call the shots.

"I just wanted to keep the record company at arm's distance," he says. "The only way to have a party that you're going to enjoy is to throw it yourself. Because the record company -- if you're going to let your mom throw your party for you, all of the corny people are going to be there. Nobody that you want to talk to."

Coming up with names to invite wasn't difficult, Simmons adds. "I'd been reading interviews in magazines, same as everybody else does, and I was stunned to see how many different bands point to a Kiss record as something that changed their lives," he says. "Or changed their point of view, or something.

"Whether it was Dean Dinning getting dressed up in Kiss makeup during Halloween and then deciding to put a band together, or the guys in Metallica -- I mean, Lars Ulrich used to stand outside our hotel room in Denmark for hours, waiting for an autograph. Jason Newsted, the bass player, wanted to be Gene Simmons, if you believe everything that's written."

"When I met Garth [Brooks], backstage at one of his shows," adds Stanley, "he literally got misty-eyed and said, 'If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be here doing this tonight,' and he put his arms around me. Well, call me a sap, but I got misty-eyed, too. I find stuff like that very, very flattering and humbling."

"I was stunned that, all of a sudden, after years of being the black sheep of rock and roll, people were coming out," agrees Simmons. "The confessional was happening: Yes, I was a Kissoholic, I don't want to hide in the closet anymore."

Respect is something of a sore point with the band, in large part because the band for many years didn't get any. It wasn't just that critics dumped on Kiss, calling them "heavy-metal clowns" and worse; even rock fans got their digs in. Back in the early '80s, for example, it was not uncommon for one would-be cool teen to dismiss another's musical opinion with the words, "Yeah, well, you probably like Kiss, too."

Such antipathy mystifies Stanley. "I don't like to draw comparisons, but when Townshend smashes a guitar, or Springsteen jumps up in the air, it's artistry," he says. "If I break a guitar onstage, it's to cover something up. The double-standard is so obvious, it's bewildering to me.

"But who really cares, you know? In terms of awards and adulation, you can go to Tower Records, and our awards are under 'K.' There are 25 of them. That's the people speaking, and ultimately, they're the ones who count."

It's that "people's choice" aspect to the tribute album that most pleases Simmons and Stanley.

"This is the graduating class of the Kiss Army," says Simmons. "The fans who went on to form their own bands. That's what this story is really about. I thought only a couple of people would come, but we had close to 100 different artists who wanted to be involved, from Sir Mix-a-Lot to Cypress Hill to Smashing Pumpkins. You name it. Even Kurt Cobain and the Melvins did a track together. Ironically, it came in too late, and another group, Dinosaur Jr., had already recorded the same track."

Traffic management was probably the trickiest aspect of the project. For the most part, Simmons and Stanley let the bands do what they wanted. "The only role I played in it was juggling the balls, and letting each artist know what the other artists were doing," says Simmons. "Actually, Garth Brooks wanted to do 'Detroit Rock City,' and at one point, Lenny Kravitz and Stone Temple Pilots with Ozzy were both going to do 'Deuce.' So it got fairly complex.

"As you let each artist know who else wants to do stuff, one would bow out and be nice about it and switch to another song. Or, in the case of the Cobain/Dinosaur Jr. thing, whoever came in first wound up on the record."

"What's so great on that album is that you have very strong perspectives and points of view," adds Stanley. "Although each song is given a new identity, it holds up really well as a song. Sometimes, you'd have to sit down for a minute and say, 'That's the song I wrote?' "

"The song choices were the interesting thing for me," agrees Simmons. "For Toad to want to do 'Rock and Roll All Night,' as opposed to something a little more acoustic, was surprising."

Well, maybe it seemed odd to the guys in Kiss, but not to Dinning and his bandmates in Toad. "When [Simmons] said we could do any song we wanted, I went back to the guys and it seemed that 'Rock and Roll All Night,' being the ultimate Kiss song, would be the obvious choice," says the Toad bassist.

Of course, Toad the Wet Sprocket's version is nothing like the original. Where Kiss treats the tune as a wall-rattling party anthem, Toad takes a wistful, acoustic approach that leaves the song sounding less like reworked metal than some forgotten country rock oldie.

Dinning explains that Simmons didn't want something that sounded like Kiss. "He said to me, 'The most important thing is that the character of your band show through in the song.' So what we really tried to do was look at ourselves, and identify

some Toad cliches that we typically fall back on, then wrap that around this totally different piece of music, a song that we would never write.

"We really liked it, but I was like, 'I hope Gene doesn't think this is insulting or anything.' But he flipped. He loved it."

Of course he did. Because unexpected as it was, Toad's "Rock and Roll All Night" proved a point Kiss had been trying to make for years: That it was the music, more than anything else, that made this band matter.

"A good song will sound good even on just a guitar or a piano," says Stanley. "There's no reason for somebody to explain to you the arrangement that you'll hear when it's recorded. Because if the core of the song is good, it'll stand. And that's how we approached those songs.

"Sure, there was a bombastic stage show, and there were four guys running around the stage in whiteface and nine-inch heels. But it all started with a song. The other stuff, for some people, may have overpowered or eclipsed the music, but the music was there. And if some people didn't hear it, well, so be it."

SMOOCH BY SMOOCH

Here's a track-by-track look at the Kiss tribute album:

* "Deuce," performed by Lenny Kravitz with Stevie Wonder on harmonica. Don't let that by-the-book opening fool you, for Kravitz's take on this tune is faster and funkier than the original. Add in Wonder's madly riffing blues harp, and the result is far closer to "Some Girls"-era Stones than basic Kiss crunch. Good groove, too.

* "Hard Luck Woman," performed by Garth Brooks. Kiss handled the original as if it were ersatz Rod Stewart, and Brooks does the same. Granted, the cover's vocals are smoother and the mandolin part more pronounced, but those differences are noticeable only if you look. Hardly the image-changer it could have been.

* "She," performed by Anthrax. Anthrax may have ditched the original's pretty opening, but that matters less than the teeth this cover adds to the central riff. Good rhythm breakdown toward the end, though, as the song tumbles toward thrash.

* "Christine Sixteen," performed by Gin Blossoms. Despite its smooth, bar-band surface, there's something vaguely subversive about this one. Is it the comic-book lust of narrative overdub? Or the way the arrangement quietly makes the connection between Kiss and the New York Dolls?

* "Rock and Roll All Night," performed by Toad the Wet Sprocket. Sounding less like an over-amped party song than a wistful reflection on lost love, Toad's country-rock take on this classic is the album's funniest -- and most revealing -- moment.

* "Calling Doctor Love," performed by Shandi's Addiction, featuring members of Rage Against the Machine, Tool and Faith No More. It isn't just the added momentum that makes this arrangement take off like a hot rod at Daytona; it's also the way the treated vocals and industrial dissonance these guys bring to the mix lift the song above the sex-expert cliches of the original.

* "Goin' Blind," performed by Dinosaur Jr. Between the broken-voice pathos of J Mascis' vocal and the ragged glory of the string-fattened arrangement, Dinosaur Jr. pulls such tragic power from this song you'd swear it was Neil Young, not Kiss, who did the original.

* "Strutter," performed by Extreme. Unlike Kiss' semi-plodding 1974 original, Extreme's rendition comes on with the kind of boogie-driven cool most fans associate with classic Aerosmith. Not a dramatic rethink, but effective nonetheless.

* "Plaster Caster," performed by Lemonheads. As a concept, it's kind of cool that the 'Heads have decided to do this in the style of the Replacements; as executed, though, it's just so much so what.

* "Detroit Rock City," performed by the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. It's got blaring horns. It's got raging guitars. It's got a phone message from Gene Simmons. But mainly, it's got guts, and that almost makes up for the way the Bosstones turn the vocal line into rubble.

* "Black Diamond Symphony," performed by Yoshiki. You read right -- "Symphony." Yet as unlikely as his orchestral approach might seem, Japanese superstar Yoshiki cuts straight to the heart of this song, even if he does occasionally make it sound like Mantovani.

CLASSIC KISS

To hear excerpts of classic Kiss regrooved, call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call (410) 268-7736; in Harford County, (410) 836-5028; in Carroll County, (410) 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6175 after you hear the greeting.

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