Often in pop culture, even the wildest whims have more depth in the welter than you would imagine. Pry beneath the surface of the seemingly berserk theory that Gene Simmons has a cow’s tongue, and you find a reason for the madness that reflects an even more deranged truth back onto our madcap society. Let’s jump down the absurd rabbit hole of the Kiss frontman’s supposed bovine oral appendage and marvel at the weird wherefores of this crock of gold we call the American civilisation along the way.
When Kiss emerged in 1974 with their self-titled debut album, the animal face paint now rendered ridiculous was a shocking radical attack on conformity. ‘He’s dressed as a cat!’ you can imagine conservative fathers yelling, ‘that’s sick, you can’t listen to that!’ The album initially flopped as a result. Thus, the band scurried away to the studio in a hurry and released their second album, Hotter than Hell, that same year. This album also initially failed, and fatefully, as we will soon see, it contained ‘Hell’ in the title and the album cover had an Eastern influence, both of which proved alarming—both of which would build towards the theory of a cursed cow’s tongue in the mouth of the band’s bassist.
Before we go any further, however, let us say that although Gene Simmons’ tongue is almost disturbingly long and mobile, the average cow tongue is roughly 19.2 times larger than a human’s. Thus, while Simmons might be orally endowed, it is self-evident that he is not quite in the licking realm of being 20 times larger than average. In fact, the world record for the longest human tongue is 10.1cm whereas a bog-standard cow laps in at around 31cm—the human record is also not held by Simmons, but rather Nick Stoeberl from Salinas, California. Furthermore, when I reached out to a doctor friend about whether it was possible to replace your tongue with a cow’s, he responded, ‘Why the hell do you ask’ and latterly, with a blunt, ‘Of course not’. Why then, has this ridiculous rumour persisted for literally decades; even before the internet could render it a cultural meme-ified joke?
Well, if you look at Kiss’ discography from a Christian Evangelist perspective, words like ‘hell’ and titles like Dressed to Kill, Love Gun, Lick it Up, Creatures of the Night and Destroyer look less like indicators of camp irreverence and screeching solos, and more like secret satanic portents. Kiss were one of the first progenitors pushing glam towards the dark side in their own kitsch way, but in time, heavier bands and the death metal genre would flourish. Although, Kiss remained gaudy and glam, never even remotely venturing into the genuine darkest edges of the black metal that would emerge—many other bands did.
As the permutations of the music that Kiss heralded – with their once bold look in 1974 – grew gradually darker, Simmons and co remained the mainstream face of what conservatives might have covered with the blanket term of heavy metal. The issue with blanket terms, however, is that when one isolated extreme event occurs it tars everything under the shrouded quilt with the same denigrating brush.
Take, for instance, the dark tales of the uber-niche Norwegian black metal scene. In truth, ‘The Black Circle’ would only contain a few bands and a small cluster of people for a short period, but it would have lasting reverberations. One such echoing incident occurred in 1991 when Per Yngve Ohlin, the frontman of the band Mayhem who went by the nickname of ‘Dead’, turned a shotgun on himself in a shared house and committed suicide. When discovered by Mayhem guitarist Euronymous, rather than immediately call the police, the musician inhumanely took graphic photographs (that later appeared on a bootleg sleeve for the band) and collected parts of his skull to make into a necklace and distribute around the scene.
This was a world away from America and an incident so extreme that it can barely be reconciled even amid the tiny fraction of members in the so-called ‘Black Circle’, nevertheless, it proved to be proof in an increasingly divided America that satanism was rife in pop culture. Thus, even a band like Kiss, essentially writing pop songs with occasional lude lyrics ran through the power chord mill, were whisked up into the notion that the occult overtones of rock were anything but performative.
In fact, in a weird way, Kiss as the accepted mainstream face of the emerging scene took the brunt of the Satanic panic that pervaded the late 1970s through to, well, today, sadly. After all, why go for some niche band that nobody has heard of. And even though there were dark and condemnable elements to certain scenes, there is forever a fascination that, as often proclaimed by white men with wild hair behind a lectern, ‘This problem runs deeper than that! It is everywhere in our once-great society!’
Thus, conservative discussions in America began to cast a close eye over the metal music scene and all sorts of oddities came forth. For instance, in 1982, Pastor Bob Larson began hosting a radio phone-in whereby he tackled bands on various issues and condemned them as Satanists. The dark flipside was that rumours of cults in every part of society soon began to spring forth. The soundtrack to this satanical hysteria was undoubtedly metal.
In fact, even Bob Dylan, who at the time was in the midst of a born-again phase, was caught up in the mire. In 1980, when he performed a concert at the University of Arizona, his old fans rallied against the new Christian tracks and demanded the hits. Dylan yelled back at the angry mob, “If you want rock ‘n’ roll, you can go see Kiss and rock ‘n’ roll all the way down to the pit!”
Believing Kiss fans would burn in hell was extremely mild considering some of the rumours that were widespread. The weirdest of which was that in unnamed nefarious buildings, Satanists were gathering and somehow pulling each other through the rear end of farmyard animals in a sick ceremony of unknown occult intent. Thus, animal mutilation became a hot topic associated with heavy metal and because, in remote areas, deceased cows do often succumb to having their tongues eaten by scavengers, the blame was inexplicably put upon metal bands as opposed to birds of prey and other natural carrion eaters.
The weird offshoot of this was that none other than Gene Simmons was partly responsible and had not only mutilated a cow but actually grafted a bovine tongue into his own beastly mouth. The whole thing might sound utterly incredulous (because it is!) but the changing pop culture and inability to rationalise extreme events as isolated incidents in the face of a media bombardment meant that some very extreme things were believed and entered the cultural discourse forevermooooore.