No sane person can honestly defend Gene Simmons’ bullshit at this point. Unless you’ve been indoctrinated to the church of KISS from birth, chances are you know he’s kind of a piece of shit. From telling those battling depression to kill themselves, to his disgusting sexism, to his really creepy sense of jingoism, there’s a lot not to like about him. Combine that with the band’s endless infighting, accusations of antisemitism, and the fact that they now appear to exist purely as a merch factory, KISS are extremely easy band. Nevertheless, looking back, it’s hard to argue that KISS had a profound impact on rock culture in the 70s due to their live show and genuine charisma. Being a dumbass millennial like myself, I never had a chance to live the mania firsthand. The closest thing I’ve got is probably the movie Detroit Rock City.
One night, my mom came home from work and randomly threw a VHS tape of Detroit Rock City at me. I wasn’t really sure why she bought this for me—I hadn’t expressed any interest in the band previously—it must’ve been because I was a weird looking kid, and I perhaps vaguely resembled one of the losers on the cover of the VHS. But after putting the tape in, I was amazed. KISS seemed like the coolest fucking band ever, and I wanted to buy all their stuff, thirty years removed from when the movie was supposed to take place. Night after night, I’d watch that movie until I knew every single line, word for word. I considered myself a member of the KISS army, despite not owning a single record of theirs.
Detroit Rock City is KISS’ best merchandising move ever. Released about six years after Dazed and Confused, this movies follows four Cleveland teens on a trip to Detroit to see the greatest band in the universe: KISS. You know you’re in for an amazing time when the biggest name in the movie is Edward fucking Furlong. Edward Furlong, pre-downward spiral into drugs and irrelevancy, plays Hawk, the group’s leader. The rest of the cast includes Shannon Tweed, Sam Huntington, Nicky from Orange Is The New Black, and a few others. The movie is actually pretty funny, and while it is a giant KISSadvertisement, it’s one of the movie’s endearing qualities. You’d be hard pressed not to see some kind of KISS merchandise on screen, and in that sense, it feels like some used car salesman trying to get you to buy a bunch of shit.
The biggest surprise though, is despite the blatant peddling of KISS shit, the soundtrack feels like a sampler of some of the best rock from the decade. And when I say soundtrack, I’m not referring to the album that was released for the movie. For whatever reason, instead of putting the tracks that appear in the movie on the CD soundtrack, you’re treated to weirdo covers that make absolutely no sense. Who the fuck wanted Marilyn Manson to cover “Highway to Hell”? Was it all a ploy to get people to pick up the CD, because you could probably get a record from all the artists for about three bucks? Who knows.
On a rewatch of the movie, it’s kind of incredible how much music they’re able to fit in every scene of the movie. It’s rare that a scene doesn’t have a song playing in the background; even during really mundane dialogue pieces you’re bound to hear a snippet of some tune. It’s smartly done, too. You’re not watching this movie for artistic or narrative merit; you’re probably either getting high or just want some semblance of escapism. Which is why the soundtrack choice is perfect.
T. REX - "20th CENTURY BOY"
I can never think of school starting, or the beginning of fall without this song playing in my head. The exterior shot of the high school that accompanies this song is probably my favorite of the whole movie. Our weirdo protagonists really hate people into disco, and start shouting at a bunch of girls that walk by. This does bring up a nice point about the movie, that there’s actual character development in some of these dudes. Lex goes from saying he likes “Stellas” as much as dogs, to digging one. Who would’ve thought there’d be an actual script in the KISS movie?
This song made skipping school seem so glamorous. The scene in the movie has the three dudes decide to bust Jam out of the Catholic boarding school his mom sends him to after finding out he stashed KISS tickets away. Back at normal high school, the trio have to thwart school security extraordinaire, Elvis, who’s the grossest, weirdest dude you’d probably see working at a high school. After they decide to book it, Elvis chases after them, and the song blasts. In running away, they knock down some pizza-faced AV nerd, and are able to run away (zing!) from any responsibility, and onto the next adventure.
KISS - "SHOUT IT OUT LOUD"
This is probably my favorite KISS song. Compared to some of their other songs, it definitely isn’t the most theatrical or complex, but man it’s fun jam. This song plays the guys are stoked as hell to be back on the road (and eat shroom covered pizza, but who wouldn’t be stoked). Thus, any time I’ve ever gone on a long car trip, it’s necessary to have this playing. Low key yet triumphant.
DAVE NAUGHTON - "MAKIN' IT"
The biggest villain in the movie, aside from the dudes’ stupidity, is the ever-present threat of DISCO CULTURE. While on the road to Detroit, Trip tosses a slice of pizza (I dunno why to be honest—whatta waste) into the windshield of four disco lovin’ peeps’ Firebird. The “guidos” and “stellas” in the car were jamming out to “Makin’ It,” and then there’s a confrontation between both groups! Our heroes eventually win the brawl, tying up the disco fiends, and sailing their Firebird into a ravine.
DAVID BOWIE – “REBEL REBEL”
My parents must not have raised me right, because I had no idea that this was a David Bowie song, or any Bowie song for that matter. This song is really fun though, and is the background track for Trip, the meathead, threatening two children for their Stretch Armstrong. On a recent viewing, I was pretty high and was convinced that Trip was some kind of narc, trying to get information on what horrible deeds KISS fans were up to. Wouldn’t be surprised either, since his wig looks super fake and he’s almost obnoxiously thick. But whatever, he rules.
KISS – “BETH”
Every love interest in the movie is named after a KISS song. If you don’t think that’s the dopest writing conceit ever, I don’t know what to tell you. Jam and Beth were the cutest couple, and hooking up in a church is way cooler than a car, convenience store, or a junkyard. Seeing KISS’ soft side in music is also never not funny. Given the band’s twists and turns in genre and direction, I guess it’s not too strange to see total bullshit ballads by the band, but it’s still hilarious. The scene right after Jam and Beth banging in the confession booth is my favorite “fuck you mom” scene ever. Here Jam’s mom leads an anti-KISS rally and Jam comes out, calling her a shitty mom and takes back her drumstick. A hero for all.
SWEET – “FOX ON THE RUN”
The soundtrack team probably lifted this off Dazed and Confused with total intent, but I can’t blame them at all. Lex has the best plan in the movie: to sneak into the KISS concert, and get backstage where it’s ~really wild~. I wonder how much gear it actually takes to line up a KISS show. It’s got to be a ton, especially nowadays. Anyways speaking of Lex, he probably has the best hair in the movie. Not the cutest (that’s obviously Jam,) but still, really great hair. In summation, I think this track is what made me really dig the soundtrack as a whole.
This is potentially the best song on the soundtrack, or any soundtrack to be honest. It plays when they enter Detroit, and they’ve have finally made it. In a movie filled to the top with dumb innuendos and jokes, the group’s love for KISS seems genuine, and in that way humanizes the KISS machine as something boys grow up loving and want to become. You have to surrender all jadedness when coming face to face with the group you love.
John is extremely thankful that his mom flung him that VHS that one fateful day. Thanks Mom! He's on Twitter - @JohnxHill.