Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #8

Ace Frehley – New York Groove

Unlike a lot of hormonal boys in the 1970s, I was not the biggest Kiss fan. The makeup and overall schtick was undeniably cool, and I loved the movie “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park” (though I remember nothing about it other than some of the band members’ character names). But I was far less enthused by their music. I had their 1979 disco-tinged atrocity “Dynasty”, but it mercifully was soon scratched, and its arresting of my musical development brought to an end. Much better was 1978’s Christmas present from my parents “Double Platinum”, but even this collection of “hits” (only “Beth”, a real outlier for the band, had reached the Top 10) had an awful lot of drudgy filler. The record also irritated me because, for reasons that are unknown and could never make sense anyway, two of their more popular tunes, “Shout It Out Loud” and “Christine Sixteen”, weren’t even included.

So when the band members, either through misplaced confidence in their individual abilities or corporate greed, released solo albums on the same day in late 1978, I mostly shrugged. That they were almost universally dismissed by critics, and performed way below commercial expectations, gave me no reason to reconsider my position. The one exception was the effort from Ace Frehley. It received by far the best reviews – I still remember (meaning I didn’t have to look it up!) a critic saying he was like a .350 hitter on a last-place team who should go play somewhere else. It also sold the most copies. And, for today’s purposes, produced the only hit single.

I don’t know if I loved “New York Groove” from the first listen, but it sure feels like it from the vantage point of 43 years now of playing it. I have never owned a physical copy, but as I moved between delivery models, I usually found a version – a radio-recorded play (cut off slightly at each end to remove the disc jockey’s contribution) on cassette in the ’70s until it become unplayable, a Napster download in the ‘90s, Spotify now – to include on my playlists. It owns a permanent spot on my all-time 100 favourite songs.

I finally used this exercise as a reason to listen to the album, and it is bloody good. More power pop than rock for the most part and not like most of the Kiss that I remember (I think I need to revisit “Double Platinum”, but Spotify is of no help with this). Space Ace did not disappoint.

But the standout remains “New York Groove” – even in a sea of pretty decent tracks, it is the earworm port in the storm. Starting with stomps and handclaps that dare you to not join in, then paired with a guitar that chugs along with a subtle, slowed-down disco churn, it builds to a perfect balance between the vocal and backing track. The ooooooo’s leading into the chorus encourage you to sing along. Against the main guitar line, Ace interjects simple-sounding rock-star flourishes that are in harmony with the rest of the song. His singing conveys the wonder of a traveller getting his legs under him on his return to the site of his greatest triumphs. There is a sense of not believing his good fortune in having a “wicked lady” by his side in HIS Cadillac as he heads into the enticing night. The song never fails to make me want to bounce around and sing along (even after playing it about a dozen times while writing this). It’s 3:03 of pop perfection, ending right before it overstays its welcome.

As an object lesson in how the artist can make the song, check out the original version by Hello. It’s still a pretty good tune, but Ace’s cover – with his more impassioned vocal and slightly-altered grittier lyrics – is the one that has endured. It’s a cleaner and poppier production, and a more fully realized work. Plus, it’s the one, for most listeners, that benefits from the tinge of nostalgia that improves almost everything it touches.

The promise of this record was never fulfilled, and the rest of his tenure with Kiss was filled with drama. He’s still going, 70 now but always rocking, with his last album out in 2020. Not a true one-hit wonder, more a star who exploded with one moment bigger than anything else he could have imagined. If there’s a party in my honour after I’m gone, this absolutely better be played, or I will haunt everyone present until their own final day. Heed these words!

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