When thinking about Vinnie’s time in KISS, most people tend to reduce it to a simple binary choice: did Vinnie save KISS or not? Personally I think that, not only is it an uninteresting query, it isn’t even the right question to ask. (Save KISS? From what? Irrelevance and oblivion? Sorry, the indomitable will of Paul Stanley assured that the band wasn’t a helpless damsel in distress in need of saving.) No, the most interesting question when it comes to Vinnie and KISS is how Gene and Paul—who both seemed to detest working with Vinnie on a day-to-day basis while on tour—still managed to have such a ridiculously fecund creative partnership with him.
[P]eople always talked about Vinnie’s talent and ability, but they never had good things to say about him as a person. […] As far as his knowledge of and understanding of the guitar, Vinnie was terrific. I’d written with him and heard him play and sing, and knew his talent.Paul in Face the Music
When we started working on Lick It Up, it was a good time musically. We had Michael James Jackson producing once again, and Vinnie Vincent was our guitarist and a contributing songwriter. Vinnie and Paul were particularly successful during this period; the two of them wrote “Lick It Up,” the title track from that album.Gene in KISS and make-up
Gene and Paul both agreed, Vinnie’s talent was undeniable but outside the writing process he was hard to work with. Thus Vinnie’s legacy in the annals of KISS—if we side-step the whole ”saving” issue—has boiled down to his supposed character defects while his musical contributions are mostly overlooked. (I will admit that Vinnie’s odd personality traits have been repeated by too many sources to not have some basis in fact, but I will leave that discussion to others.) To try and remedy that, if ever so slightly, we will take a look at the quite unique position Vinnie has in KISStory and how much influence he had over what ultimately became Lick It Up.
I happen to have a Master of the Arts in Musicology and although I don’t think there is too much interesting to be said about the music KISS recorded through the years, there are two albums that are obvious outliers in the canon: Lick It Up and Carnival Of Souls. Both of these were attempts at reinvention but where the latter was more or less a number of stylistic tropes strung together, the former was songwriting as usual filtered through the influence of Vinnie Vincent. Vinnie brought three things to the songwriting that the band had rarely dabbled in before and has not really used since, and that helped make Lick It Up the most cohesive album KISS has ever recorded. But before we look at those three things we have to look at how far-ranging Vinnie’s contribution was and establish a few basic points.
When the band recorded Lick It Up and Vinnie was more or less a full member of the band, not just an outsider brought in for co-writing or playing duties, he was the most prolific co-writer in the band’s history. Out of the ten songs on Lick It Up Vinnie is listed as having co-written eight of them. That’s 80%. Remember that figure. Even the ”main writers” couldn’t approach those numbers most of the time. Paul only got close on Asylum where he had his fingers on seven out of the ten songs. He also had seven songs on Crazy Nights but there were 11 songs on that album so percentage-wise that is less. Gene actually matched Vinnie’s total of eight songs but that was on Hot In The Shade which had 15 songs.
I’m well aware that the comparison between Vinnie’s contribution and that of Gene and Paul is a halting one. Even though it might not have been explicitly stated there seems to have been a tacit understanding between Gene and Paul that after Ace left the band the main writing would be divided more or less equally between them. Co-writers were not limited in the same way but, for the most part, Gene and Paul wrote with different people. Looking at Creatures Of The Night, Paul did most of his work with Adam Mitchell whom Gene didn’t work with, and Gene gravitated towards Bryan Adams and Jim Wallance. The only co-writer they shared was, you guessed it, Vinnie. The only other people who up, until that point, had worked with both were the hands-on producers Ezrin and Poncia. And then, along came Bruce Kulick.
Bruce would also work extensively with both Gene and Paul as a co-writer and he would eventually out-do Vinnie in absolute numbers on Carnival Of Souls where he had a grand total of nine co-writes. However, that album had 12 songs which means that percentage-wise Bruce’s contribution is lesser; Bruce contributed to 75% of Carnival Of Souls while Vinnie, as you probably remember, contributed to 80% of Lick It Up. It’s also important to note that leading up to Bruce’s massive contribution on Carnival Of Souls—when Vinnie was briefly welcomed back into the fold for the writing for Revenge—Bruce only managed one measly writing credit. For all his alleged defects, there’s no denying that Vinnie had a priveliged position when it came to songwriting in KISS.
As I previously stated, for the writing of Lick It Up Vinnie had his hand in everything and he did so in fairly subtle ways that most people will never notice. But before we get to that, some ground rules.
I’m going to try and keep the music theory to a minimum here but, alas, it is all but impossible to avoid theory when trying to make certain points. When talking about chords it’s sometimes necessary to not only talk about the chords themselves but also how they relate to each other and unfortunately both of these can be problematic. When talking about straight chords there are no less than three accepted standards to choose from. These are all ways of representing the same chord: CM7, Cmaj7, and C∆7. (The chord contains the notes C-E-G-B.) Some ideas based on a simple text-based representation models have been put forth to alleviate this confusion but to those in the know they are rarely seen as helpful and, more importantly, they won’t make it any easier for readers not versed in chord notation. (The interested reader can peruse a paper by Hart, Sadler, Abdallah and Gómez entitled Symbolic Representation of Musical Chords: A Proposed Syntax for Text Annotations which is one of the recent ideas. It’s kind of a combination of the popular style and figured bass notation.)
In music such as KISS’s, the representation of chords are rarely controversial. True, the suspended chords that reigned in the early-to-mid 70s can look a little ugly when written out—and I’m sure some people interpret them differently than I do—but for the most part it’s either power chords or straight major and minor chords with the occasional altered bass. I happen to prefer the ”popular style” of writing chords, the way any guitar song book tends to write, and I will use it here. Thus, a C major chord is just written as ‘C’; an E minor seventh chord is written ‘Em7’; and an E flattened fifth chord is written E(b5) in order to distinguish it from an Eb5 which is just an E flat power chord. Since extended chords are also rare in KISS’s music we don’t really need to cover those. If there are questions I can field those in the comments.
Form can also be a little opaque in some representations. Some prefer just labeling parts of a song alphabetically as A-B while others prefer Verse-Chorus. The A-B version can be a great tool if there are many sections to a song and they don’t really fit into the Verse-Chorus mold; think of the various sections of ”Only You” or if one might even consider anything a Chorus in a song like ”Strutter”. The A-B form language might allow for more variation than the Verse-Chorus model, but it’s also overkill for most pop and rock formats. I’m going to use the Verse-Chorus and also make reference to specific times in the song so that nobody should get lost. All time designations will refer to the Spotify version of Lick It Up simply because it makes things easier. Got it? Good, let’s go.
Dissonance is a funny thing. It’s usually defined as the lack of harmony or clashing musical intervals, but depending on the context it can be hard to get a grip on. The tritone strike a lot of people as dissonant and needing to be resolved, but in jazz it’s more or less neutral since it’s part of any dominant major 7 chord. (It should be noted that since Black Sabbath and Metallica have been virtually pile-driving flattened fifths into our skulls for the better part of 40 years, many listeners are fairly used to the interval.) Hardly anyone would view a minor second—two notes a half-step apart playing at once—as anything but dissonant, but in certain places it works. Even in our favorite band, believe it or not.
Now, KISS has never been much for dissonance but it has reared its head now and then. Everybody can hear the main riff to ”Cold Gin” in their heads but few people realise that Paul’s complementary riff creates a pretty gnarly half-step dissonance. Yep, while Ace plays his D/A Paul throws down a regular open A chord which means that there’s a D and a C# at the same time. Partly because of the panning and partly because the riff is played fairly staccato (short) the ear doesn’t pick up on it, at least not so that it sounds obviously dissonant, but there it is: a minor second.
Something similar happens in the main riff for ”Sweet Pain” where Ezrin layers an acoustic beneath the main riff which plays sus2 versions of the straight major chord inversions played by the electrics. Even though this means we’re treated to simultaneous notes a whole-step apart (a natural second), it’s dissonant in this context. It gives the riff a nice kind of ethereal quality. And as far as dissonance and KISS goes… that’s about it. Riffs we traditionally think of a demonesque, like ”God of Thunder” or ”Almost Human”, are basically just straight pentatonic riffs. They don’t focus on any non-scalar notes like the pronounced use of the evil flattened fifth in ”Black Sabbath” to achieve their heaviness. That is emphatically not true when it comes to Vinnie’s time in KISS.
It starts on Creatures Of The Night. Vinnie’s contributions are relatively few, just three songs, but those three songs point the way to his massive inluence on the next album. Most of the the elements I will discuss in relation to Lick It Up are present on Creatures Of The Night. Most obvious is the use of the flattened fifth in ”Killer”. That songs sails along like a standard hard rock song with a triplet feel until the chorus (at 1:02) when that flattened fifth hits. It really evokes how evil the song’s protagonist is—she is, after all, a ”stone cold killer”—and not having that flattened fifth completely alters the feel of the song. (Just try playing the riff with a natural fifth instead, suddenly it’s a very different chorus.) In ”I Still Love You” the section right before the chorus has a G and an F# rubbing up against each other for that minor second action again (at 3:36-3:42). That’s all Vinnie, and it carried over to Lick It Up.
Dissonance is all over this album. The flattened fifth defines a song like ”Not For The Innocent”, in the intro there’s even a B and Bb ringing at the same time (0:00-0:02). It doesn’t really get much more dissonant than that. This particular song is one of the most interesting on the album because we have the 1982 demo to compare it to. It’s almost like a controlled sociological experiment: ”Here are the songwriters in their natural habitat. Let’s see what happens if we drop an interloper in their midst.” What happens is that dissonance prevails!!
The main riff of the song in its Lick It Up guise (0:11-0:16)—a riff that milks the flattened fifth dissonance for all it’s worth—is nowhere to be found on the ’82 demo version. That version has what later became simply a part of the verse as its main riff. Personally I much prefer the proper studio version but I know a lot of people really like the demo. These are the same people who are now standing on their chairs screaming ”BUT WAIT!!! That riff is in the demo version!! It’s in the CHORUS you moron!!!” No it’s not. The riff that plays in the chorus of the ’82 demo is rhythmically very similar to the main riff in the Lick It Up version, and it toys with the same basic chromatic idea, but there’s no dissonance there. It’s simply using chromatically descending power chords: G5-Gb5-F5. In fact, if you play those two riffs back-to-back (see below) they are not much alike.
Another interesting use of this flattened fifth dissonance is actually in one of the songs where Vinnie isn’t credited: ”Fits Like a Glove”. In the chorus there is a wonderfully dissonant tritone that hints at an added flat ninth (1:18-1:23). So why does this matter, you say, if Vinnie isn’t a credited writer on the song and, even more to the point, there is a demo that clearly shows that Gene had this all written out? That demo should prove that the dissonant riff obviously was Gene’s idea. Fair point. My rebuttal is simple: look at the other known Gene demos from this time. Where is the dissonance? ”Not For The Innocent” didn’t have any dissonance as a demo; ”It’s My Life” is just a straight up rock song, albeit a pretty awesome one. The demo to ”Legends Never Die” is apparently harmonically identical to the Wendy O’ Williams version and there’s no dissonance there .(See Alex Bergdahl’s rundown of The Vault, unfortunately only available in Swedish, for more on the similarity between Gene’s demo and the Wendy O’ Williams version.) There’s also a little ditty called ”It’s Gonna Be Alright” which could have fit right in on the 1978 solo album but it has no trace of dissonance. Don’t get me wrong, Gene did some harmonically cool things every now and then. The augmented fifth and the major-minor harmonic ambiguity in ”Only You” is outstanding but that’s just Gene’s Beatles influences. (And we know it’s a really old chord progression anyway.) Dito the Amaj7 in ”Mr. Make Believe”; cool and not very KISS-like, but not dissonant.
No, Gene wrote a riff like the chorus of ”Fits Like a Glove” because he had been influenced by Vinnie. He didn’t write like that before and he didn’t write like that after. (Well, until Vinnie returned on Revenge and, once again, milked a flattened fifth for all it was worth on ”Unholy”.) The interval in that chorus rifff, that flattened fifth interval creating an added flattened ninth, also plays a major role (no pun intended) in the pre-chorus of ”Not For The Innocent” (1:05-1:11) but we’ll put that to one side for now and come back to it later. Instead we need to look at variation.
If we look at the KISS ouvre there is relatively little variation within the basic framework of the songs. There are the odd additional guitar licks sprinkled throughout a song like in the second verse of ”Deuce” (1:10-1:18), or the two different pre-chorus licks in ”Makin’ Love” (0:23-0:33 uses an lone acoustic while 1:11-1:21 adds two electrics), but there’s very little full-band variation. When there are section endings they’re usually marked by a drum fill and, at times, a bass fill, but these are almost always independent of one another. KISS has never employed much planned-out variation with, say, syncopation, accents, or stops and starts. No, for the most part KISS songs have had a fairly tight structure where—lyrics aside—the second verse really is ”same as the first”.
Not so when it comes to Lick It Up. Variation plays a major part in a lot of the songs and it’s usually very subtle until you realise what’s going on. In ”Exciter”, the fourth bar of the chorus riff suggests a classic hard rock bVI-bVII-Im progression as seen in example [A] below. This is the way it’s played throughout the song until the very last chorus, after the guitar solo. The first round of the chorus riff after the solo does feature this original ending (at 3:35) but the rest of the way (starting at 3:42) there’s a new ending to the riff. This uses the diatonically descending run from last bar of the pre-chorus (see 0:51) but alters it so that it leads towards the Em tonic (root) from two directions. It still implies a classic metal bVI-bVII-Im progression but with a substitution (the IVm in lieu of the bVI, a classic parallell subsitution).
Listening to the studio rehearsals that are available for this song, one can hear how this alteranate ending slowly takes shape over the course of three (relatively) complete takes. In take 1 it doesn’t appear at all which isn’t remarkable since that take also has a slightly different chorus riff. There’s a hint of it in take 3 (which unfortunately cuts off), and by take 5 the idea has been solidified but not quite found it’s final form.
But there are more prevalent examples and the best one, again because there is an available rehearsal demo, is ”Young And Wasted”. During the verses on this version there is a nice little riff at the end of each vocal part that leads back to the main riff—example [A] End 1 below. Once the band had played around with this song a little more, the version that ended up on the album had two additional ”section endings”, one of which was a unison riff where even the drums play in unison—example [C] End 3. On the studio version, the original ending bar only appears in the song once!
(There is more variation during the last chorus of ”Young And Wasted” where there are stops to leave room for some fills from Vinnie. I hesitate to mention this as a songwriting move though because it sounds as if it was created by muting channels in the mix rather than during the recording. Compare the stop at 3:01 to the one at 3:09. That errant and unnaturally cut off hi-hat hit at 3:09—and again at 3:17—doesn’t sound right. Considering how Eric played on this album I simply don’t think he’d play the stop like that, he’d accentuate it more.)
The mother of all variations on Lick It Up, however, is ”A Million To One”. This is one of my favorites on the album and it’s also the song where I noticed the variation right away. The main riff is a classic metal riff with a muted open E-string which, during the majority of the song, is augmented by the bass playing a pedal point low E and the second guitar has an arpeggiated figure which uses the open B and (high) E strings. For all intents and purposes the entire chorus is just an E5 repeated over and over. And then, when the song is almost over, there appears THE RIFF.
Looking at the examples below, every single chorus up until (and including) the one that starts at 3:06 has the version shown in example [A]. It is only more or less static depending on whether or not the bass is playing straight eight-note E’s or not. But at 3:22 the riff suddenly changes to example [B] which is essentially an Im-III-bVI-bVII progression and the bass follows the chords!! The effect is startling and it’s all because of tension.
Tension and release
When the variation chorus riff in ”A Million To One” hits, it’s an almost perfect release. It feels as if that riff is one of the best riffs of all time and you wonder why on Earth they didn’t play it more in the song. When the riff is only repeated twice and then gives way to the return of the original chorus riff it feels a little like being cheated. It doesn’t even help that the variation re-appears for the very last repeat of the chorus. It just doesn’t feel like it’s enough!! And that’s the whole point. If that variation riff had been the main riff it would have been an OK riff and chorus. The song would still have been a great song and we would be none the wiser. But that release of tension—a tension that the listener isn’t even aware of—is what takes the song up a notch and makes a decent riff sound like the greatest thing since sliced bread.
Much like dissonance and variation, the use of tension wasn’t really used by KISS before Lick It Up. For the most part songs were straight-forward and even though Paul eventually started writing some very nice pre-choruses which drew the listener to the chorus, he didn’t use tension to achieve that effect. No, that was something that Vinnie brought to the table. As an example, it’s there in the pre-chorus to ”And On The 8th Day”. The guitar plays a simple E5-F5-G5-Gsus2 (0:57) but underneath that the bass actually plays a low E under the first three of those chords. When the bass finally hits the G root of the Gsus2 (at 1:00) the release of tension is palpable.
And that brings us back to ”Not For The Inncocent”. The better part of the pre-chorus is lifted straight from the demo version but where the demo connects the pre-chorus to the chorus with a G-F#-F figure that hints nicely at the upcoming (demo) chorus riff, the studio version adds some tension. The way Vinnie does that is by going to the V chord but instead of resolving it to the Im right away, he adds a flattened ninth, releases it back to the V chord, adds the flattened ninth again… You get the point. In the end the pre-chorus leads to the chorus not via a V-Im as the listener might expect but (eventually) through V-bVII-Im.
For some reason, Vinnie seemed to bring out this side of his writing only when he worked with KISS. The Vinnie Vincent Invasion albums have nary any dissonance and there’s very little variation of the type I’ve written about here. No, he only brought out that side of himself again when he wrote with Gene and Paul again for Revenge. Personally I think that Vinnie really brought his ‘A’ game to KISS and that Lick It Up—an outlier though it may be—is a better album because of it.