Don't look back 

KISS, Rush illustrate lessons of hard rock's midlife crisis

Rock 'n' roll is looking back over its shoulder, now more than ever. The music is well into its 50s, after all, and it's been 40 years since the Beatles came, saw, and conquered America. But while it's old news that many members of the rock pantheon's first generation, either past or approaching retirement age, have outlived their usefulness (Mick Jagger, Pete Townshend, are you listening?), the cancer of nostalgia has now spread to the hard-rock acts of the late '60s and '70s -- bands whose whole mythologies were wrapped up in embracing the present and giving a stiff middle finger to what came before.

In its '70s heyday, no band more perfectly embodied that carefree hard-rock spirit than KISS. Its theatrics created an aura of mystique (and thus of "danger") that peers such as Boston and Foghat lacked. It drew a generational line in the sand -- tour shirts proclaimed, "If it's too loud, you're too old" -- and the band's signature makeup and fire-breathing spectacle seemed designed to piss off parents. And the music was big, dumb and fun, a lightweight canon of odes to sex, drinking and the pleasures of youth.

But by the time the band took off its makeup for 1983's metallic Lick It Up, it had long since begun taking itself far too seriously. When Paul Stanley defended the decision by stating that "the makeup never wrote a song," he made it clear that KISS now wanted its music to speak for itself -- a task for which it was never intended.

Since then, that position has morphed into the even more self-serious concept of KISS as an enduring, self-referential "institution" -- the very antithesis of the classic "live fast, die young" rock model. Its end-of-the-century "farewell tour" has spun into a never-ending greatest hits revue, with new sidemen stepping into the costumes of departed original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. The KISS that tours today, then, is different from nostalgia-circuit, Chastain-friendly acts like the Beach Boys only in that it features explosions and fake blood.

In 2003, KISS made a classic old-fogy move: releasing a live album on which it was backed by a symphony orchestra. This approach rarely signifies freshness -- in recent memory, only Metallica's S&M has been artistically successful. In fact, it's a move usually reserved for prog-rock acts, whose studied self-importance (Genesis) and desire to reconcile rock with classical music (Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer) contravene rock's youthful spirit.

Canada's Rush isn't an act one generally associates with youth; its 1981 anthem "Tom Sawyer" is, after all, a cornerstone of classic-rock radio, which pins rock, like classical music and smooth jazz, in to an easy-listening preserve. But the prog-rock power trio's complex architecture has often made a virtue of the non-hip notion of technical expertise, paving the way for well-regarded, musically precise indie-rockers such as Tortoise, Eleventh Dream Day and The For Carnation. And as it's matured, Rush has honed its expansive aesthetic within a leaner hard-rock sound, shorn of the multi-part suites and grandiose sci-fi/fantasy themes in which it aggressively indulged in the '70s.

This approach is evident, in its own way, on the recent Feedback, a 30th-anniversary EP of unlikely songs that inspired its members as aspiring young rockers. "Summertime Blues," The Who's "Seeker" and Love's proto-prog "Seven and Seven Is" brim with a loose, garage-band abandon that seems at odds with the trio's latter-day formula of tight rhythms and perpetual-motion percussion. But Feedback's fibrous guitar workouts show that Rush has learned its lessons well: It now channels its musical hyperactivity into concise yet relaxed rock, rather than sprawling, meticulous bombast.

Other covers discs released by classic-rock heroes this year -- Eric Clapton's Me and Mr. Johnson, a jarringly exuberant take on Robert Johnson's Delta blues, and Aerosmith's cartoonish blues album Honkin' on Bobo -- seem a form of penance for those artists' slickly produced sins of the '80s and '90s, attempts to recharge waning creative batteries. By contrast, Feedback is an off-the-cuff lark, reminiscent of three kids bashing out chords in the basement. Recapturing some of the spirit of hard rock is the best way, and the only viable rationale, for looking backward -- and a lesson KISS, for one, could stand to take to heart.


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