Review Summary: Gene Simmons' college band recordings are invaluable as an historical document, but worthless as a musical release.Before the First KISS: First Date
Many of you reading know that Gene Simmons is the driving force behind KISS, and one of its founding members. What you may not know is that before the Masked Foursome, Simmons had a couple of bands of little to no relevance. The first of those bands, founded when Gene was still in college, was named Bullfrog Bheer, and lived on through an incredibly obscure series of demo recordings. Originally recorded in 1968, these recordings were apparently shelved, resurfacing only years later as a collector’s item bootleg. It is that material that we will now analyse.
(or, as it is sometimes called, The Bullfrog Bheer Sessions
) is a collection of only seven tracks, the last of which, Love Is Blind
, is incomplete. With a running time of merely twenty minutes, this is an obviously amateur affair, the work of three guys playing for kicks and maybe a little money now and then, who just happened to want to leave something of their own for posterity.
As such, this record is best regarded as an historical document, rather than a musical oeuvre, since for the latter purposes it is nearly useless. The production values are horrible (this might as well have been recorded at one of the musicians’ home), the musical style is inconsistent and the performances are raw. However, this is invaluable to any KISS fan, as a testament of what the twenty-year-old Simmons could do.
In fact, Simmons seems to be the brain behind these songs, much like he was with KISS. Taking on bass and lead vocal duties, he is accompanied by childhood friend Steve Coronel on guitar and by Brooke Ostrander, who is credited with “keyboards, percussion and flute”, even though there are no keyboards or
flutes to be found on this record! As such, he pretty much just becomes the drummer, completing a typical power-trio formation whose style is best described as an uneven mix of the Yardbirds, The Beatles, The Animals and any number of psychedelic outfits of the time.
In fact, apart from Coronel’s uncannily heavy guitar tones (for the time, anyway), Bullfrog Bheer were pretty much your standard late-60’s flower power band, as spoofed by Spinal Tap in the genius Listen To The Flower People
. This album brings plenty of “aah-aah” vocals, shuffle beats and pop leanings, in a clear effort to side with the bigger bands of the time. However, some of the elements here already hinted at what would come later, with the first two songs both bringing familiar elements. The opener, Rotten To The Core
, mixes the musical part of KISS’s own Calling Dr. Love
with some lyrics the fans will recognize from one of the songs on Sonic Boom
. The next song, High and Low
, even brings a full verse that would later be incorporated into Calling Dr. Love
, making it apparent that that one song represented Simmons’ life work!
However, after these initial two songs, the album turns into something else entirely, as third track Leeta
introduces an overbearing influence: The Beatles. In fact, both this song and Love Is Blind
could have come out of a mid-period Beatles album, while the beginning of Stanley The Parrot
is a copy of Cry For a Shadow
, an instrumental from the Fab Four’s earliest years. The latter part of that track, as well as High and Low
, could have been penned by the Yardbirds or The Animals in their earliest recordings, while Daily Planet
predates Black Sabbath by about two years, with its murky, hypnotically repetitive riffs. The only common trait among these songs is that they seldom capture our interest.
In fact, apart from Jelly Roll
, whose unbridled energy overcomes the pitiful production, none of these tracks manage to assert themselves completely. A large chunk of the blame has to go to the production, which is both wavering and murky, leaving the guitar too high on the mix and the drums and vocals way in the background, with the bass all but chopped off (arguably a good thing, since it’s Simmons we’re talking about here). The final indignity comes when Stanley The Parrot
fades out, only to suddenly come back up, in an inexcusable piece of sloppy production. I know it was a college band recording in 1968, but come on guys, have some standards!
However, that is not the only problem these songs face. The fact is, most of them seldom grab our attention, and the only worthwhile choruses here are Jelly Roll
and Stanley The Parrot
. The rest of the time, we’re just admiring Coronel’s guitar, by far the most interesting thing on this record. It is surprising that, only a few years later, a recording company would request that Coronel be replaced with “a more technically capable” guitarist, since his avant-garde heaviness and competent soloing can run circles around his bandmates. Simmons’ bass is practically inaudible, as stated, and his somewhat timid vocals tread too close to any number of vocalists from the period, often sounding uncannily like John Lennon. As for Ostrander, he merely keeps time, often in a shuffle beat, and never really shines. Not that it would help, with his drums as buried in the mix as they are…
In the end, then, this is bound to interest very few people, apart from KISS collectors and the odd curious soul, like me. Other than the historical context, this could just as well be your average college-nerd band – and God knows nobody wants to buy a record by those
Stanley The Parrot