The Motor City's influence on rock n' roll is unquestionable. The last 60 years of popular music are unthinkable without Motown, and with The Stooges, MC5, Alice Cooper, Ted Nugent and even Grand Funk Railroad, Michigan's largest city almost had a monopoly on early '70s hard rock and proto-punk. But when I think of Detroit, the first thing that comes to mind is a group of headbanging New Yorkers singing its praises.
For a band that gets mocked for being so unabashedly commercial, "Detroit Rock City" is a pretty weird song. The album version starts with a prolonged intro of background noise, which is still the only part on Destroyer that I skip over, and it ends with a car crash sounds that is terrorizing for anyone who listens while driving. The song's title, one of the best things about it, gets left out of most of the choruses. "Detroit Rock City" doesn't even get KISS' standard structure (the verse-chorus-verse is twice disrupted by that awesome bridge) or subject matter (quick: name another KISS song that isn't about girls or being in a rock band.) For once, Gene Simmons sounds like he cares about playing bass. Ace Frehley, sometimes thought of as the band's only musician, plays it pretty safe during the solo.
Yet it sounds utterly great all together. KISS hadn't learned to stay in their comfort zone yet, and that innocence rewarded them with a stone cold classic, putting them in a league with Black Sabbath and Queen. But this is still KISS, and of course "Detroit Rock City" is best heard from the stage. I love this performance here, captured at the end of the film of the same name.
Listening to "Detroit Rock City" today, I'm reminded of a Bruce Campbell anecdote from a horror convention. During a Q & A, one attendee asked the lantern-jawed Evil Dead star if he had any advice for an aspiring B movie actor. "You don't aspire to be a B movie actor," said Campbell. "You aspire to be an A movie actor, and if you're lucky you end up in Z movies."
It's no secret that KISS wanted to the biggest band in the world, in particular the Beatles--four distinct rock star personalities, run by the guitarist and bassist, with occasional songwriting from the lead guitarist and a few songs written for the drummer to sing. Like everybody else, they didn't quite get there, and "Detroit Rock City" isn't the Beatles. KISS were trying to be an A band, and maybe they'll never be The Fab Four or The World's Greatest Rock N' Roll Band. But in "Detroit Rock City," they're The Hottest Band in the World, a truly incredible B band.