Gene Simmons recalls producing early Van Halen demos — and why he tore up their contract: 'They owe me nothing'

KISS’s Gene Simmons is chatting with Yahoo Entertainment about his new G² line of Gibson guitars and basses, which kicks off this month with the release of the G² Thunderbird Bass. But the axe-oriented conversation soon naturally pivots to guitar god Eddie Van Halen, whose 66th birthday would have been this Tuesday, Jan. 26. Eddie tragically died last October after a years-long battle with cancer, and at that time, Simmons was one of many peers to pay tearful tribute.

But Simmons wasn’t just a peer — his role in the Van Halen’s band early career, when he discovered them playing at a Hollywood nightclub and offered to sign them and record their demos — is the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll legend.

In a rare moment of modesty, the usually boastful Simmons stresses, “This whole [false] idea of ‘you discovered Van Halen’ … the people who literally discovered the Van Halen brothers were their mom and dad. After that, the two brothers made themselves. Nobody handed them anything. They worked hard for it. They put the years in, paying their dues.” However, the KISS superstar does concede that by being there at the beginning, he might have put Van Halen on the right path — especially since he gave them some key business advice.

“I was invited in the ‘70s... to go to a place called the Starwood. My date that night was a young lady named Bebe Buell, who would then go on to have a child with [Aerosmith’s] Steven [Tyler], Liv Tyler. And I was busy upstairs in the ‘ass**** section,’ the whole ‘who do you think you are?’ thing, looking down on everybody else,” Simmons recalls of that fateful evening, when the young and hungry Pasadena band’s soon-to-be-legendary live show blew him away. Simmons initially assumed that the “flurry of stuff” and “classical melodies” he heard emanating from the Starwood stage were created by multiple guitarists, and he was amazed when he realized that it was the work of Eddie Van Halen alone.

“I ran to the front of the fence on the top floor, so I could see everybody underneath us — and there were only four guys onstage,” Simmons marvels. “One guy [frontman David Lee Roth] had his shirt off, defying gravity, jumping up and down. [Alex Van Halen had] giant drums, playing double-kick. The bass player [Michael Anthony] had the highest voice I ever heard, real pure, like a banshee. And then the guitar player — I didn't know their names or anything — he steps up and starts doing this stuff and tapping, which I'd never seen before. ... I’d never heard a guitarist, certainly a rock guitar player, do that. And he was playing not only fast and furious, but sometimes in harmony on the tapping. I just was so astonished. I was waiting backstage by the third song.”

By the time Simmons ambushed the Van Halen members after their exhilarating half-hour set, he was “gushing,” grilling them about their future plans — only to be told, “‘Oh, we got a guy outside. He's a yogurt manufacturer, and he's going to invest in the band.’ And I begged them, ‘Please don't do that, please don't do that. Don't give away any percentages of the band at the outset. That might be the only profit margins you'll ever see — which is to say, you'll take a dollar now, and like anything, later on in life you're not going to see a profit and somebody else is going to have a say in what you can do.’ So, the short story is I offered to fly them to New York, put them up in a hotel, and take them to Electric Lady studios produce a 24-track demo. And that's what I did. I signed them to my company, Man of 1,000 Faces.’”

Simmons and Van Halen wound up recording 15 songs, including early versions of “Runnin’ With the Devil” and “On Fire,” as well as a now-famous version of “House of Pain” that says is “maybe my favorite van Halen song ever.” He’s still surprised that that demo version never ended up on any Van Halen album, and is so proud of that track, in fact, that he even pauses Yahoo Entertainment’s interview to bring it up on YouTube, describing it as “like a steamroller, like a locomotive coming down. … And the astonishing thing is, almost all of it is live, the guitar, the solos, all that stuff. They were one of the few bands — AC/DC is another one — one of the few bands that actually sounds like the record. You know when you hear a record and you go see a band live and ugh, it’s never quite as good? Nope. That's who they were.”

Simmons was incredibly excited about the Van Halen demo sessions, which took place at both Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady and the Village Recorder studio in Los Angeles, and he went to KISS’s manager at the time, Bill Aucoin, hoping to bring Van Halen into the Aucoin Management fold. But much to his shock, no one in the KISS camp shared his enthusiasm or vision.

“Aucoin, Paul Stanley, none of the guys from the band, Ace — they didn't hear it,” says Simmons, shaking his head. “They would just go, ‘So what?’ I’m like, ‘No, you don't get it. I'm telling you, listen to Uncle Gene, I know what I'm doing. We're going to take them out, have them open for us. They're going to be a mega-band, and we'll be there also with them!’” But an unimpressed Aucoin still passed. That’s when Simmons the shrewd businessman, knowing that he had a potential goldmine on his hands, had to make a tough decision. And that was when he experienced another rare moment of humility.

“I had a choice of, because they were assigned to me, keeping them locked up with my thing, or doing the ethical thing, which is: ‘Guys, you don't owe me anything. I'm tearing up your contract. You're free to go,’” explains Simmons. He chose the latter, also giving his demo masters to the Van Halen brothers, although those officially unreleased sessions have been bootlegged and circulated for years under the title Zero Demos. “And of course, within two months, they got a deal with Warner Bros. and skyrocketed.” Van Halen’s self-titled debut album, produced by Ted Templeman and released in February 1978, eventually sold more than 10 million copies.

Simmons remembers the Van Halen guys as always being down-to-earth: “Eddie has always been like that — no rock-star air, none of that Gene Simmons ‘what do you think you are?’ kind of stuff, none of that ‘oh, that guy's an ass****, he's so full of himself!’ No, he was just a regular sweetheart, even when they became megastars,” he says. So later on, Simmons explains, “They kind of paid me back, because when [KISS] went to Japan on that tour, we came back to L.A. and I'd written a few songs, new songs, ‘Christine Sixteen’ and two others, and I was going to go into the studio. I had this habit of going in at night where the phones didn't ring, nobody cared, none of the chicks were around.

“And what happened was, I didn't have enough time to do all the instruments, because usually I'd go in there, play some drums and guitar and stuff, and then do it all. I called either Alex or Edward, and I said, ‘I'm going to the studio, I've got some songs. I don't know what you're doing tonight. Wanna come in and help me?’ And they did, both Alex and Eddie, and the ‘power trio’ was there and we recorded,” Simmons continues. “It was on my vault, Gene Simmons’s Vault, the largest boxed set of all time — you can hear the trio doing that. In fact, I forced [Kiss guitarist] Ace Frehley, when we finally did [the KISS studio version of] ‘Christine Sixteen,’ to copy Edward’s solo note-for-note — which of course he wasn't thrilled about! That’s how good that [Eddie] solo was. One take.”

Since Simmons is a savvy entrepreneur responsible for everything from mammoth boxed sets to his new Gibson G² partnership, it would be expected that he’d be either smug about the fact that he’d predicted Van Halen’s success, or that he’d still be kicking himself for letting them go and not getting a piece of the profit. But he insists, “No, none of that, none of that, none of that. I make a living, and all my dreams have more than come true. … I didn't give [Van Halen] their talent. I didn't invent them. I happened to be there as this magnificent beast sort of walked by. I was there at the beginning; that's all you can honestly say. Whether they would have gone on a while longer and maybe made some wrong turns initially, yeah, it might've killed their career. So, maybe I said, ‘Don't go this way, let's go this way,’ and that led right into… I'd like to think that demo helped them get the Warner Bros. deal. But they owe me nothing.”

Check out Yahoo Entertainment’s extended interview about Gene Simmons’s Gibson G² collaboration, which has a family-oriented mission that might lead to the formation of the next Van Halen-style sibling band:

Read more on Yahoo Entertainment:

· Wolfgang Van Halen premieres touching musical tribute to father Eddie: 'I love and miss you, Pop'

· Patty Smyth on how she almost became Van Halen's singer: 'I went the route I was supposed to go'

· KISS revisits 'Phantom of the Park,' 40 years later — 'Wow, that was weird'

· Sophie Simmons on finding her own voice: 'I was just a normal preteen, and that wasn't enough for the industry I was born into'

· #NoMakeupSunday: When KISS bared their faces on MTV

· Yoshiki and Gene Simmons unite via shared love of rock, Hello Kitty dolls

· Ace Frehley says he would join KISS farewell tour 'for the right price'

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Produced by Jon San, edited by Jason Fitzpatrick.