by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & I & lt;/span & t's rare for any band's lead guitarist to sell a ton of records solo. It says something both about how huge the band is and also how rabid its fans are that the guitarist can step out from the shadow (and ego) of the lead singer and be a marketable, even popular solo act. That's what Ace Frehley did in 1978. Despite being neither the face of the band nor much of a songwriter, the Kiss guitarist's self-titled debut album went platinum and had a top-13 single in "New York Groove." That popularity lasted for years after Frehley left Kiss. His second solo album, released under the moniker Frehley's Comet, went gold in 1987, with releases in '88 and '89 charting respectably.
That's impressive for a dude who doesn't do much more than shred, and it shows how centrally important lead guitar was to the overdriven party rock of the late 1970s and '80s. Unless something fundamental about the music world changes, Ace Frehley's popularity during that decade won't be matched by anyone. Dude still has fan fiction written about him, for God's sake.
Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood may come the closest to approximating Frehley's path, from virtuosic setup man to successful, even worshipped, solo artist, but Greenwood doesn't have Frehley's designs on super stardom. Indeed, record sales have never mattered much to Radiohead as a whole, Greenwood himself preferring his solo work to be stranger than Radiohead's already avant oeuvre, a mix of hypnotic, lyric-less albums; long, drone-y neoclassical pieces; and most recently the film score for There Will Be Blood.
Following one's muse is probably the right road to take. Whoring for the mainstream certainly isn't. Remember Slash? Even into the early '90s, in every video for every Guns N Roses song with a guitar solo (which is to say: every Guns N Roses song), Slash would perch on a rocky cliff or in a storm drain or whatever alone, shredding away. While Axl Rose was shrieking and wailing and grabbing himself, Slash would lay back in the cut, smoking a cigarette, effortlessly blowing eardrums. He, not Rose, was the coolest guy in America. Things change though. Velvet Revolver, Slash's new band, lives and dies with the popularity of its relatively less-well-known frontman Scott Weiland (formerly of Stone Temple Pilots).
An even better example is Tom Morello, formerly of Rage Against the Machine. Political views and hip-hop vocals aside, Rage and Kiss were similarly-guitar-centric, similarly popular bands. For Morello, who was one of the two faces of Rage, the popularity had little carry over. The moment he changed bands (or, really, only changed vocalists, from Zach de la Rocha to Soundgarden's Chris Cornell) interest evaporated and the focus shifted. The resulting union, Audioslave, is seen as a Chris Cornell project. Few people know Tom Morello (or the rest of Rage) is even in it.
The few virtuoso axemen who attain big, lasting mainstream fame these days are also competent (John Mayer), even skilled (Jack White) songwriters. It took the star power of baby-faced moron Rob Thomas to sell copies of Santana's Supernatural. With the splintering of the music market -- especially rock and pop -- into a million sub-sub-genres, it's unlikely there'll ever be a band as big as Kiss again. It's even less likely that band will have the cultural weight to propel its guitarist to platinum sales. No, the era of the superstar shredder is over.
Ace Frehley with The Trews and Paid Under Envy at Big Easy on Tuesday, March 18, at 7 pm. $31. Visit ticketswest.com or call 325-SEAT.