The showmanship must go on

This Week, I had the choice between going to see Celine Dion or reviewing a bunch of superannuated heavy-metal acts. And so, welcome to the Independent on Sunday rock column's Heavy Metal Special. We'll be looking at three different bands, representing three different decades. And while their shows may not seem particularly tempting at first, at least they are shows. I'd rather see glam behemoths Kiss, for instance, than most indie bands. Trainers? Silver platform boots, if you don't mind. Anoraks? Kiss, at Wembley Arena on Monday, preferred black body-stockings with silver accessories: corsets, sequins, and - in the case of vocalist/bassist Gene Simmons, aka "Demon" - wings, shoulder pads and a very fetching codpiece. And that's before you even notice their war-paint. If it weren't for Paul Stanley's having preceded "Cold Gin" with a public health warning about drinking and driving, it could have been 1975 all over again.

This latest rock reunion is unusual for two reasons. First, because Simmons has always had his flicking, prehensile tongue in his cheek, so there are no worries about sullying something sacred. Second, because Kiss never broke up in the first place. They did sack two of their founder members, and they shelved the face-paint and S&M superhero outfits that were their trademark, but a Kiss of sorts kept going, even if its impact became more peck-on-the-cheek than full-on, slobbering snog. Now the original foursome have made up, and put on their make-up. True, this time around it hides the wrinkles, while the bondage chains pull in the stomachs. True, they should alter their name slightly, to Kitsch. None the less, in much the same way as an old piece of junk is eventually a collectable antique, an ailing rock band has been reborn as a long-lost legend.

They gave us all the old favourites. In their case, of course, the favourites aren't songs but gimmicks: Simmons flew up to a ledge high above the stage, blew fire and spewed fake blood down his front (it was lucky he was wearing black or he'd never wash it out); Ace Frehley shot a rocket from his guitar; cranes lifted the band over the audience, from where the guitarists tossed plectrums to the upturned faces as if they were feeding bread to ducks in a park.

It wasn't until much later that I reflected how embarrassingly visible the strings were which pulled Simmons up to the flies, how the pyrotechnics were smaller than those at Michael Bolton concerts, and how the cranes reached over only the front two rows of the crowd. The reason I didn't notice these defects at the time is that Kiss compensate for them with huge energy and evangelical belief in their own rock supremacy. Paul Stanley is as camp, imperious and strutting as Freddie Mercury ever was (and how does he dance in those platforms without wrenching an ankle?); Simmons favours the mock-serious face and salute-me-now outstretched arms of Gary Glitter. Kiss don't rely on their make-up, it just instils the theatrical mood that allows them to unleash their showmanship.

During the show, if I remember correctly, there was also some music going on. For all of the damning reviews that have greeted the compilation album, Greatest Kiss (Mercury), the greasy rock'n'roll stomps were a more-than- adequate accompaniment to the spectacle, and were often rollicking fun in their own right, with all the subtlety you'd expect from "Love Gun", "Calling Dr Love" and "God of Thunder".

I assume the absence of ramps and fireworks from the same stage the next night was intended to make Def Leppard seem mature and sensitive. With three years of this decade to go, they have, after all, realised that the Eighties are over. They have put aside their saccharine, sterile pop- metal: this year's impressive album, Slang (Mercury), is not as far from Garbage or Screaming Trees as those bands' fans would like to think. Def Leppard have changed their spots.

The grown-up Nineties Men weren't immediately in evidence on Tuesday, mind you. Bounding onstage to a tape of Queen's "We Will Rock You", they slipped in just a few songs from Slang, in between old bits of tat called "Rock Rock", "Action", "Animal", and the unforgettable "Make Love Like a Man". (How do you mean? Quickly?) The Viking-haired Joe Elliot sang as if he were trying to eject his tonsils; and Rick Allen is a better drummer with one arm than Kiss's Peter Criss is with two. But without the hydraulics and laser beams, Def Leppard were still a very ordinary metal band. The stripped-down staging didn't make them look mature and sensitive, it made them look as if they'd been burgled.

Skunk Anansie produce a more bludgeoning, thunderous noise than this week's other bands, but they would balk at being called heavy metal. They have a point. Punk, funk and pop are thrown into the mix, Ace's leftfield guitar-playing is more imaginative than that of anyone in Kiss or Def Leppard, and "Hedonism (Just Because You Feel Good)" could be a hit for Tina Turner - not that even she could better the range and agility of Skin's window-shattering vocals. However, not only did I see some headbanging and air guitar in the crowd at the Astoria on Thursday, but the goateed boy in front of me was playing air drums. Heavy metal; I rest my case.

The band's new album, Stoosh (One Little Indian), is a lot patchier than their power-packed debut, but it adds a few songs to their growing pile of classics, and almost all of these sounded better on stage than on record. This is quite an achievement considering the adverse conditions under which the band have to labour. Ace's guitar is yanked out of his grasp mid-solo. Cass has to play his lean basslines while being bitten and kicked. And Skin has to sing while she is abusing her bandmates in the ways just described. She is a hyperactive, mischievous, magnetic frontwoman: it is thanks mostly to her that Skunk Anansie are one of the decade's best live bands. Heavy metal or not, they take the gold.