Phoenix New Times

Originally Published: November 26, 1998

Kiss the Culprit

Did Kiss rip off an old Alice Cooper anthem, or is this just a case of sincere homage?

Author: Serene Dominic

When the Rolling Stones staged the first genuine rock 'n' roll circus in 1968, they distributed gold-embossed metallic tickets to their fan-club members and lucky NME readers, fed them, gave them 20 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' overpriced raveling carnival would've been soaked nonstop for his 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 to 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' 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' original concept of being four Alice Coopers onstage instead of one has always been acknowledged by the band, as recently as the last 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' 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 Dave Pratt comparing the two songs on his morning show."

Nelson, aware of the marquee value of such a story, cautiously steers clear of engaging Cooper into 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? We owe it to Kiss to put that lameass 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 celibrate alter-boy hymns of its disastrous (Music From) The Elder album. Instead, Kiss focused on the smutty sexiest ditties that ignited it predominantly young male fans in the past. The recent return of the make-up 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-size 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 McFarlene 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 Hurray." Both songs have an "I can't wait for this show to begin" undercurrent that, surprise, surprise, turns up in Psycho Circus' title track as well.

Bruce Kulick's Motive: There's no $70 throw blanket with Brice 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 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 Carobi 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 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 verse. 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 famour 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 subconscious plagiarizing the melody of the Chiffons' "He's So Fine." Harrison admitted he thought he was consciously plagiarizing "Oh Happy Day" by 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' 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 of Kulick in the middle of dreamin' and shove a guitar in their hands, and their respective left hands would find that riff, no problem.

You-Can't-Copyright-a-Riff-Defence (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" bass line? 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 percentage 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 actually called to stand with an acoustic guitar to demonstrate the minute differences of the song in question.

Having already heard how wimpy Kiss sounds unplugged, the jury could turn ugly. And given Kiss' 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 boxed set The Life and Crimes of Alice Cooper, should both call attention to the band's contribution 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 exiled guitarist. But for now he" got nest egg all over his face. It" 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' 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 style book at Frehley for ripping off all its space-age costume ideas. Mocha choke-a-latta da da! Or as Ace might say, "Ack Ack."