The Rolling Stones, Kiss, and The Police

Those of a certain age, and perhaps many of their children, can look back at Chuck Berry with his signature duckwalk, or Elvis with his ‘swivel hips’ and cite them as the first of the theatrical performers of American rock music.

From there one can almost draw a straight line to the Rolling Stones, Kiss, or Police. Musically, these groups (and the individual musicians) added something to the music. A stage presence beyond the musical performance.

Like Berry and Presley, Mick Jagger used the stage as if he were the only one on it. He danced, he gyrated, he played to each and every inch of the stage carving out a unique place in the annals of live rock performance art. Jagger’s band mates—Watts, Jones, Wyman, Richards—accepted their roles as equals within the band, but not necessarily on stage. The last time I saw the Stones (2003), it was at the cavernous Meadowlands in New Jersey. If it’s possible, he played to every single corner of the stadium, or at least we all felt that he was playing to each of us, whether the VIPs in the audience or those in the cheap seats.

Unlike the sort-of everyday street clothes of the Stones, Kiss took a different tack. Signed to Casablanca Records (and its P. T. Barnum-like label president Neil Bogart), Kiss brought the circus to concert halls, arenas, and stadiums. With the four members wearing makeup suggesting Kabuki theater, they lived up to that Japanese counterpart by being out of the ordinary, avant garde’, and even a bit bizarre. But that was the point. Looking at the cover of the band’s 1974 debut album Kiss, many music fans then (and now) can see an intended takeoff of the Beatles’ Meet The Beatles album released a decade earlier.

The Police came to prominence with their first album Outlandos d’Amour (1978), released as punk was peaking, reggae was rising, and jazz was being reinvented. All three genres were sometimes merged within an American Rock ’n’ Roll ethic. The Police’s music was often labeled as “New Wave”, although their American label sometimes described them as “no wave” suggesting something new entirely. These were three equally talented musicians, each of whom found a way to distinguish himself. Sting as the principal songwriter and vocalist, Andy as a superb musician, performing brilliantly but almost always physically understated (occasionally described as somewhat stiff), and Stewart, the drummer and one-man rhythm-section.

Rock ’n’ Roll was never to be a singular sound, an easily definable genre. These three groups, the Rolling Stones, Kiss, and Police—one British, one American, and one a blend of the two—helped change music. Good thing, too.