Since he first hit the charts with Russ Ballard’s “Back in the New York Groove” in 1978, Ace Frehley’s been marked as a man who loves covers. Despite being a competent writer and surrounding himself with others who were more than capable, there a remains a perception that if Ace could only line up with the perfect remake, he’d be riding the charts from now until hell won’t have it. In truth? That strategy hasn’t always worked.
In 1989 he took a stab at “Do Ya”, originally recorded by the Move, then remade by ELO. The Bronx native’s rendition had its charms but there are hardcore fans who shake, froth, and recoil at the mere mention of that ill-fated single. That’s minor compared to the furor over his 2014 rendition of Steve Miller’s “The Joker”. After it appeared, online message boards and podcast tables were aflame with hatred. “Stop wasting Ace on stupid covers,” the fans would say. But, of course, Frehley’s handlers weren’t listening.
Nor should they. The former KISS guitarist is a wild card. Planning what will and won’t work for Ace Frehley is like a crossing guard directing radioactive atoms. The only thing we can rely on him to do is turn up and wail on his guitar with abandon like a starry-eyed kid who grew during the British Invasion. That’s mostly what he does on this new 12-track collection loaded with songs originally recorded by Thing Lizzy, the Kinks and those Rolling Stones. There are others too. He takes on Steppenwolf, Free, and even himself. In a way. He’s joined by a cast of players that includes John 5, Paul Stanley and Slash. The results? Exactly what you’ve come to expect from an Ace Frehley record.
The choice of material reveals how deeply immersed in the mainstream (and counterculture) a young Paul Frehley was. Many of the pieces here are songs that populate drive time classic rock shows any old afternoon. Some of them probably didn’t need a new airing, least of all by this spaceman. You can hear “White Room” butchered at the local blues jam every Tuesday. Your dad’s rockin’ combo probably wheels out “Magic Carpet Ride” at least once a set during gigs at the corner bowling alley.
Yet they work here and probably better than they have a right to. Frehley and drummer Scot Coogan trade vocals on the former, making for an especially seamless rendition of the Cream chestnut. Frehley, who covered the Stones’ “2000 Man” on KISS’s Dynasty, handles “Street Fighting Man” remarkably well, probably because it comes as much from his experience as from the collective Jagger/Richards imagination. It’s no surprise that his “Spanish Castle Magic” wins because Frehley and Hendrix are both cats who embraced the possibilities of a magical world existing parallel to this one. Who else could convince you that a shared destination is just a hop, skip and jump by dragonfly?
Ace has never been a singer’s singer, but his voice has an undeniable charm for those willing to deal with its imperfections. Those quirks and cracks are on display throughout and most of the time they work in his favor. Not always. His take on Thin Lizzy’s “Emerald” isn’t a good match in either the musical or vocal department. He and guest artist Slash lack the passion and finesse of Scott Gorham and Brian Robertson on the original. The same might be said for Coogan’s drumming which seems to fight too hard for our attention. The solos traded are a clanging clatter that’s almost unlistenable. As much as the star’s imagination works for him during “Spanish Castle” it all but abandons him here. He seems incapable of relating a story that Phil Lynott felt on a very personal level.
Quick redemption comes in the form of Led Zep’s “Bring It on Home”. Sure, Coogan handles the Robert Plant parts, but Ace sounds very much the aspiring bluesman during the intro. He also has the same music embedded in his DNA as Jimmy Page and thus his lead lines are as good as anything heard on the original. That redemption is short-lived however. Lita Ford can sing well but her abilities are no match for material that’s beneath her talents or those of her partners on “Wild Thing”. It’s been done to death and beyond and its appearance here is about as unwelcome as the Grim Reaper himself.
What works best, better than the rest (at least most of the time), is when our star reconnects with his past. His old chum Paul Stanley turns up for Free’s “Fire and Water” and although a full-on KISS reunion seems out of the question, one wonders who an Ace and Paul duo record might go down. Stanley knows what makes the original tick. He seizes upon that, expands it but does so with an appropriate balance of chutzpah and respect. “Parasite”, the second of two pairings with John 5 sounds as good as it ever did in the hands of KISS, maybe better.
Some will bemoan the inclusion of “Cold Gin”. The definitive version no doubt appeared 40 years ago on Alive! and so this feels like it’s trying too hard to recapture that magic, whether Ace sounds comfortable with it or not. McCready’s lead playing neither adds nor subtracts from this version. It’s just flat and forgettable. But “Rock and Roll Hell”, a song that appeared on 1982’s Creatures of the Night, a record that bore Frehley’s likeness but little if any of his playing, serves as a perfect closer and answers questions about what Creatures might have sounded like with our favorite alien fully present.
It also confirms something we’ve known all along: Hearing Ace Frehley play lead guitar remains one of the great pleasures in rock ‘n’ roll and his solos are almost spot-on throughout this collection. That alone stands as reason enough to buy the ticket and take the ride.
Origins Vol.1 isn’t perfect but if you’re an Ace fan you know you wouldn’t have it any other way.