A Downloader's Diary's Guide to KISS: The Make-Up Years

by Michael Tatum

For the last few months, I've been toying with the idea of devoting entire Downloader's Diary columns to individual artists. My objective would be to cover all "relevant" discography (with the word in quotes a hint to prejudicial discretion), rounded out with compilations that would augment the artist's story to my satisfaction. My first entry in this regard may strike many as downright perverse, but there really is a rationale. Artists like the Beatles or the Clash I might (might) be able to pull off exerting very little brain power -- I wanted my first few overviews to be of artists with whom I had some familiarity but a few gray areas, a little understanding but enough question marks that it would present itself as a kind of challenge. As KISS happens to be a childhood pleasure of mine -- 1976's supposedly seminal Destroyer, along with Elton John's Greatest Hits and Paul McCartney's Band on the Run, was one of the first records my doting parents bought for me -- they seemed like a natural for my initial wide-scale foray. For those who like to construct shopping lists -- you know, those who read this stuff because they actually want to get some use out of it -- there will be more of these to come very soon (along with the first column dedicated solely to 2012 releases on March 1st). Until then, enjoy this post mortem for a moldering corpse most people would rather keep buried. As Gene Simmons would probably agree, sometimes grave robbers have more fun.

KISS: KISS (1974, Casablanca) As brilliant as they were asinine, this Brooklyn-based hard rock phenomenon could only have happened in the '70s. And not just because they apotheosized that decade's gluttonous excesses either -- their "aesthetic" (for lack of a more appropriate word) both mastered and fused two very '70s concepts: the Grand Funk approach (in which catchy riffs supplanted actual songwriting) and the Three Dog Night approach (in which cheery singing put over jingly tunes). That's why complaints they later de-evolved into a "kiddie band" don't wash -- clearly, masterminds Chaim Weitz (bassist Gene Simmons) and Stanley Eisen (rhythm guitarist Paul Stanley) coveted that lucrative market from the outset. One could even argue that their respective singing styles identified with two very adolescent archetypes: Simmons' porcine bellow evokes a swinish teen whose trough requires constant servicing, while Stanley's histrionic shriek suggests a young boy in a permanent state of premature ejaculation. And then, the gimmick that became their trademark, that ridiculous makeup -- one can see how a lonely teenager might have found them the perfect band to preen in front of a mirror, tennis racket in hand. Yes, the playing is sloppy, the mix sludgy, and every single one of Peter Criss' beats directly pilfered from Charlie Watts ("Deuce" for example, bastardizes the break in "Satisfaction"). But their mind-boggling chutzpah is rewarded with three stone classics: the elemental bad girl anthem "Strutter," the not-so-inscrutable blowjob rationalization "Deuce," and the slow grinding "Firehouse" (though wouldn't the correct colloquialism be "Get the fire department," or "Call 911?"). But my reservations don't rise merely from the embarrassing Bobby Rydell cover, the space-filling instrumental "Love Theme from KISS" (ah, the 70s), or even the innate childishness of the whole enterprise, but rather two prescient harbingers. "Black Diamond," a laughable paean to a prostitute, needed the Replacements' brutality to illuminate its offensiveness. And while it was one thing when the Beatles yoked the falsetto-hooked "Please Please Me" to a polite demand for oral sex -- some reciprocity was at least assumed, right? -- when Simmons yokes the falsetto-hooked "Nothing to Lose" to a rumination about putting his wang in "the back door," there's no sense he's in it for anything else other than dominating some doe-eyed groupie. Unless of course, he's into pegging, of which we have no corroborative evidence. B

KISS: Hotter Than Hell (1974, Casablanca) Released a scant nine months after their debut failed to take the world by storm, this is more of the same -- or more accurately, less. Having blown their precious wad first time around, they scramble, salvaging rejects and writing on the fly, and boy does it show: the muddy, compressed mix notwithstanding, between the plodding rhythms, indifferent lyrics, shameless posturing, and aggressive use of cowbell, this inadvertently supplied the blueprint for '80s pop metal orthodoxy. Aside from awkward gaffes arising from some peculiarly forced rhymes (i.e. Paul Stanley describing his old lady's need to hump the next door neighbor as a "change of pace") and a few stray left-field musical devices (the girlish woo-hoos that hook "Got to Choose," the surprising key change in "All the Way") there are no ideas here, musical or otherwise, that aren't telegraphed way in advance. The sole exception is the bizarre "Goin'Blind," the tragic tale of a doomed romance between a ninety-three year old geezer and a sixteen year old girl that Gene Simmons (surprise, surprise) does not play for laughs. Guess emoting under that clown makeup makes a man take his statutory rape paeans seriously. C+

KISS: Dressed to Kill (1975, Casablanca) Turn your coke-smudged nose up at former Casablanca label head Neil Bogert all you want -- I say he saw the future. He correctly intuited that the sludge rock that the band slogged through on Hotter Than Hell was a dead end, that the key to the remainder of the decade lay in instant gratification, in the short, sharp, fast: basically, punk and disco. The latter of course, became Bogert's bread and butter, even if he wouldn't have touched the former with a ten-foot toot straw. Although Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder would later execute this sort of pleasure more exuberantly (not to mention more humanely), this is where Bogert made his first move toward reclaiming the bubblegum pop he churned out for Budda -- in fact, because the spiffier tempos ensured the album clocked in at roughly half an hour (about five minutes shorter than the debut), the label was forced to fib about the running time of the songs on the back cover. True, the band still has delusions of their arena rock betters -- they zing Zeppelin on the pointless "Battle of Evermore"-inspired introduction to "Rock Bottom" and the lumbering "Moby Dick"-inspired "She." But slicked down and tricked up, this showcases these callous hedonists at their most eminently listenable, and it helps that their sexual escapades are so outlandish that it's pointless taking them seriously, from the under aged groupie soliciting "Room Service" ("Baby, I could use a meal"), the girlie smorgasbord of "Ladies in Waiting" ("The ladies are so inviting/And the meat looks hot tonight"), and the existentially sleazy, endlessly quotable "C'mon and Love Me" ("She's a dancer, a romancer/I'm a Capricorn and she's a Cancer"). Now if only those were all on the same side as the well-deserved three-time loser of"Two Timer" and the undeniable (note the fudged spelling, like that on hotel signs and theatre marquees) "Rock and Roll All Nite." Nevertheless, their most appealing platter. I mean, really -- how many bands of this, er, quality finally get it half-right on their third album in twelve months? B+

KISS: Alive! (1975, Casablanca) An absolutely astonishing document, beginning with arena rock patter startling in its puerility ("I was talking to someone backstage before, and they were telling me there's a lot of you people there that like to drink vodka and orange juice!") and its mind-numbing predictability (if the band has a song in its repertoire called "Hotter Than Hell," and the lead singer howls excitedly how it "look like one of those hot nights," what song do you think is coming up next?). Of course, connoisseurs swear such hokum actually constitutes part of the "experience," just as surely as the dry ice and fire-breathing -- in a typically glowing review, Greg Prato testifies to their "youthful energy" on this record's AMG entry. Which doesn't make a lick of sense -- that phrase implies to me upstarts like the Pistols or the young New York Dolls. KISS, older and more calculated, strike me as professional to their very core, in the vein of the Coasters or Steely Dan -- which isn't a criticism really, merely an observation (because let's face it -- if those smoke bombs don't detonate at precisely the exact moment at the beginning of "Deuce," someone could really get hurt!). This leads to my other point, the re-recording controversy, which makes sense for guys who took great pains to hide their ugly mugs underneath face paint and is something I'm not even going to begin hashing out. But it's telling how safe they play it -- suspiciously avoiding the comparatively knottier material on Dressed to Kill, they instead spend ninety minutes head-banging familiar warhorses until all that's left is a moist paste, ultimately sounding pretty much exactly as they do on the studio versions, right down to Stanley's "spontaneous," Beatle-esque exhortations on Simmons' numbers. The crucial exception would be Peter Criss' dunderheaded drum solo on "100,000 Years" -- when Stanley returns to the lyric after rote now-everybody-over-here clichés, his "I'm sorry to have taken so long/It must have been a bitch when I was gone" is as close as these staunch anti-intellectuals have ever come to an art joke. So why aren't the screaming teeny-weenies in the audience laughing? Oh, that's right. B–

KISS: Destroyer (1976, Casablanca) I'll concede this is their most "tuneful" record. I'll even acknowledge "King of the Night Time World" is an unsung shit rock classic -- delightfully dumb teen-centric lyric, indelibly memorable guitar solo, galloping drum line, and most importantly,fast tempo, all suggesting the handiwork (or at least intervention) of a smart producer, in this case Alice Cooper/Lou Reed knob-twiddler Bob Ezrin. But on everything else, he proves that the band has no stupid idea that he isn't capable of dumbing down further. He botches the other first-rate song here, the electric "Detroit Rock City," with a moronic wrap around story that asks the musical question: "Could 'A Day in the Life' have been improved by a gunshot in the first verse?" He plasters the torpid "God of Thunder" with not only crunchy synthesizers, but the screams of -- I kid you not -- under aged boys (perhaps primed to be thrown into a hell-pit where Jerry Sandusky lies in wait). Then he hires full choir for Simmons' umpteenth groupie song, which swipes its title from Dickens (alas, not Bleak House) and its opening theme from Beethoven. The halfway decent teen anthem "Flaming Youth" (just how flaming?) gets a calliope, while Gene Simmons' S&M plaint "Sweet Pain" is scored for a chorus of background singers who sound way too cheery to be there (though I love the way Simmons qualifies the line "You'll get to love me" with "anyway I say"). Then comes the first of many "Rock and Roll All Nite" rewrites, then the Peter Criss schmaltz fest "Beth," which a lot of young girls lost their virginity to -- and most of them probably desperately want to get it back from. Though you're free to question sincerity of any song in which the wife waiting at home has to compete with a band specializing in songs about fucking on the road, they counteract that with a closer in which Paul Stanley asks that star-struck fan with the black sunglasses if she loves him as much as his limousine and seven-inch leather heels. I suppose her answer is probably similar to my own qualified affection for this overblown record: of course I love you. But only when I'm shit-faced plastered. C+

KISS: Rock and Roll Over (1976, Casablanca) After years of lobbying, lead guitarist Ace Frehley finally convinced the KISS camp for Eddie Kramer to produce them, and objectively you can appreciate the difference -- aside from the cynical "Hard Luck Woman," which is to "Maggie May" what "A Horse With No Name" is to "Heart of Gold," this streamlines their sound, beefing up the basic guitar rock of the early records. Although I miss earlier idiosyncrasies -- the quirkiness of Dressed to Kill, and to some extent even the griminess of Hotter Than Hell -- they certainly hit upon the turbo-charged formula that briefly made them the greatest selling band in the universe. But although "finesse" isn't an attribute normally associated with this band, I find the tracks that work best here are the ones where Gene Simmons shows off his comparatively lighter touch -- the cheeky "Ladies Room" and the future Dr. Pepper advert "Calling Dr. Love" ("You're not the only one I've ever had?" What will Mr. Pibb think?). Much of the rest however -- particularly Paul Stanley's contributions -- pummels rather than rocks, which doesn't bode well for their increasingly vile sexual politics. Even without the sinister threat "You can run, you can hide/But you can't get away," one could alter the verbs on "I Want You" as an incitement to rape with the song's sentiment basically unchanged. B–

KISS: Love Gun (1977, Casablanca) Although it falls apart completely after the somewhat iconic, single-entendre title track gets its unsavory business out of the way, fans consider this to be the original lineup's last "classic" album. But even without Peter Criss puppy-dogging earnestly after Bob Seger or Paul Stanley's Crystals desecration, you can still hear the band beginning to fracture, resulting in a record far less of a piece than Rock and Roll Over. Compare Stanley's side-openers (both Neanderthal chest-beaters in the classic KISS fashion) to Ace Frehley's passé Foghat tribute, or to Simmons' anachronistic, endearingly sleazy "Christine Sixteen," which purveys the kind of tightly-wound retro-pop Cheap Trick themselves would abandon by decade's end. For all of Simmons' vaunted business savvy, Stanley -- who would controversially commandeer a disco single on their next studio album -- had a better grasp of the changing marketplace, which explains why he dominated them creatively (for lack of a better word) in the forthcoming decade: both "Love Gun" and "I Stole Your Love" point directly toward Bon Jovi and Poison, the future he and Simmons helped create but would struggle finding a place in. So given that legacy, you can appreciate why this last gasp might make some true believers get dewy-eyed. On the other hand, who needs nostalgia? As my friend Ali likes to rib every time I bring the title of this album up -- "Get it? He's talking about his cock." C+

KISS: Alive II (1977, Casablanca) The standard quibbles still apply, with a few bonus developments. Their second live double in two years, their eighth release overall in almost four, you can hear the exhaustion in their husky singing, perhaps why Paul Stanley's double magically appears whenever Eddie Kramer can craftily sneak him in. Poor Peter Criss croaking on top of the pre-recorded track for "Beth" is only marginally more listenable than the horrid "bait" tracks on side four, although sloppy thirds like "All American Man" and "Rockin' in the U.S.A." sound like Toys in the Attic next to Paul Stanley's grotesque Dave Clarke Five cover. And emphasizing the pronominal switch in "Makin' Love" -- from "doin' things that we wanna do" to "doin' things that I wanna do" -- leaves no ambiguity as to who's shoving what where during the after party. C–

KISS: Double Platinum (1978, Casablanca) Appearing at the exact moment these live-action cartoons became parodies of a parody, this solves the KISS problem I bet you didn't even know you had: how can I immerse myself in unadulterated (i.e. completely un-adult) prepubescent rawk classics like "Deuce" and "Strutter" and "Rock and Roll All Nite" without having to suffer through all of their B level dreck? Unfortunately -- and I know this shocks you coming from a band renowned for its integrity -- they cheat big time. Setting aside the two unavoidable Peter Criss-sung hits, the revved-up arena rock that made them famous would have overwhelmed their quirkier and/or swampier earlier material had they adhered to strict chronology. So instead they focus on the heavy rockers, hire Sean Delaney to remix almost everything, toss the results in a blender, and pretend their clunkier early albums never happened. Admittedly, it sounds pretty hot coming out of your speakers -- "Detroit Rock City" in particular benefits from deep-sixing Bob Ezrin's bullshit. But perversely, I actually miss that clunkiness, which at least helped distinguish them from their commercial competition. And I also miss their gooier confections -- not crap like "Beth" or "Hard Luck Woman," but all that hard candy on Dressed to Kill (represented only by three tracks) and actual singles like "Christine Sixteen." Maybe if they had widened the scope a bit, this record might have lived up to its failed titular self-prophecy, which admittedly is much ballsier than Single Platinum, or We're Pretty Sure This Is Going to Sell More Than Gold. B

Peter Criss: Peter Criss (1978, Casablanca) One can only assume Vini Poncia was awarded the honor of producing KISS' next proper studio album as a thank you for being saddled with the embarrassing task of assigning his name to this legendary turkey. Then again, it was Poncia who lobbied Stanley and Simmons to relieve Criss of his drumming duties and replace him with studio musician Anton Fig, so this experience must have been quite an onerous experience indeed. One can almost imagine Criss sitting Poncia down pre-production to explain his vision: "I really liked that Ringo Starr solo album you worked on -- but could we, you know, not make the words so complicated?" The titles tell the story best: "Hooked on Rock and Roll," "That's the Kind of Sugar Papa Likes," "Kiss the Girl Goodbye," "You Matter to Me," all but the latter dating back to Criss' pre-KISS project Lips. Graded leniently only because at least the innocently mangled idiom "rain or come shine" popped up on this album rather than Gene Simmons'. D

Ace Frehley: Ace Frehley (1978, Casablanca) Neil Bogert's half-ingenious, half-batshit insane brainstorm to release four KISS solo records on one day would have been unthinkable without each member on board. Unfortunately, by this point the four of them didn't have enough material for one album as a unit, let alone as individuals. Assuming the assertion that this was the "most critically acclaimed" is trustworthy -- I have no interest in combing back issues of Creem to find out -- I suppose one can intellectually wrap his head around this record's theoretical appeal: without straying too far from the usual guitar-bass-drums, Frehley's record is also the least calculated of the four. Of course, "least calculated" is also my polite way of saying "completely empty-headed," and Frehley's four-note range, complacent backing band, and the chintzy, clap-with-one-hand un-funkiness of his undeserving hit single don't help. And the lyrics! They're almost like random word-associations he temporarily laid over as scratch vocals until something more "interesting" popped into his legendarily spaced-out mind: "I'm the kind of guy/Who likes feeling high/Feeling high and dry/And I like to fly/I'm your kind of guy/And girl, I'm not too shy/And I want you to fly/So I think you ought to try." Of course, you could counter that Clapton wasn't exactly Percy Shelley in the lyricism department either -- he let that expressive slow hand do the talking. But what can you say about a guitarist when the only thing you derive from his solos is that he practices his scales -- a lot? And sometimes when the tapes are rolling? D+

Gene Simmons: Gene Simmons (1978, Casablanca) Gene Simmons has an arsenal of moderately witty comebacks to those daring to challenge his principles. "Sure we've sold out," he would say to detractors accusing KISS of de-evolving into a "kiddie" band. "We sell out every night!" Still, I can't help but wonder if deep down, the guy craves acknowledgment -- his annual tirade against the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nomination committee seems awfully defensive. But if you want incontrovertible aural proof of his need to be recognized as some sort of musical genius, look no further than this record, often described as the most "eclectic" of the four KISS solo records, although a more appropriate descriptor might be "ungodly pretentious." Granted, Simmons is a more reliable song factory than Ace Frehley -- he didn't need to enlist Russ Ballard for his hit single, probably dashing off the formula-pop "Radioactive" in a matter of minutes. And given that his idea of a clever pussy metaphor is "Tunnel of Love," his pretensions don't exactly extend to lyrics almost entirely cribbed from the letters section in Penthouse. But the inappropriately ornate arrangements, the backup soul-ettes, macabre orchestra swells, and precursory cries of "hosanna" define an ambition completely unbeholden to taste or good judgment. Otherwise, why cut a new version of "See You in Your Dreams" without realizing that its failure on Rock and Roll Over wasn't that of his band mates, but rather that the song was limp to begin with? And how to react to that stomach-turning cover of the Disney chestnut "When You Wish Upon A Star" -- the arrangement of which makes George Martin's orchestration on "Good Night" seem restrained -- when Simmons has already admitted a few songs prior his idea of wish fulfillment are the low rent bitches that drop in on him at the Holiday Inn? (Was Ramada all booked up?) Be careful, ladies -- I hear he sneaks out at 4 A.M. and sticks you with the hotel bill. C–

Paul Stanley: Paul Stanley (1978, Casablanca) Neither a boneheaded retreat to the basics nor a feeble stab at eclecticism, Stanley's entry into Neil Bogert's tetralogical gambit doesn't exactly stubbornly adhere to formula so much as slather it with drama -- lots of long intros underscored with acoustic guitars. Yet this is where Stanley cements his status as the Godfather of Hair Metal -- note how many of the songs here, including failed single "Wouldn't You Like to Know Me," get across on his multi-tiered vocal tracks, much as Def Leppard and Bon Jovi would on their smashes in the coming decade. Not an accomplishment to be proud of, I suppose -- but definitely of socio-cultural significance. Other points of interest: "Hold Me, Touch Me (Think of Me When We're Apart)," which makes Christopher Cross sound like Black Sabbath, and "Move On," a mother's advice number in which "shop around" becomes "fuck around." Caveat venditor, either way. C

KISS: Dynasty (1979, Casablanca) By 1979, every hard rock band in existence was piggybacking onto disco, conventional wisdom being if the Stones could do it with "Miss You," they could too. Certainly, after that four solo album debacle, these guys needed a little promotional rescue. So would it surprise you if I told you that the much-derided "I Was Made For Loving You" should be fondly remembered as a cornball classic? Unlike "Beth," essentially directed toward all those wimmin waiting for their man to come home (quite possibly in the kitchen making dinner -- just like "Summer Breeze!"), Paul Stanley strategizes on this song to "lower" himself to the level of the band's theoretical female audience: emoting a lyric that promises sexual equality, delivering it in a "feminine" register, and prancing around to the music that gets them, er, hot. Granted, solely to get into their pants and pocketbook, but the effort alone counts for something. Elsewhere, the changing tenor of the times has the band confused -- the other halfway decent song here, "Sure Know Something," could be Michael McDonald-era Doobie Brothers gussied up with "edgy" power chords. The overall effect is a little like that of the Beatles on the White Album, albeit at a different level of talent -- less two Georges and two Ringos than, oh I don't know, Pete Best, Billy Preston, and any two members of Badfinger of your choice. Questions to Ponder, by Gene Simmons, tellingly down to a meager two tracks: "Is it my fortune or my fame/Is it my money or my name/Is it my personality or just my sexuality/What is my charisma?" Answers: no, no, no, what the hell are you talking about? C

KISS: Unmasked (1980, Casablanca) The cover comic, which chronicles a fictitious journalist's quest to photograph the band without their trademark makeup, not-so-subtly suggests a fear already stirring in the back of Stanley and Simmons' minds: the only way the band's publicity machine would ever again approach the level of their late '70s zenith would be to wipe off that makeup for good. As for the glossy music inside the sleeve itself, I have considerably less to say, although this being 1980 they've given up sounding like the Bee Gees in favor of the Cars. The ghastly exception would be the (extremely) minor hit "Shandi," which is to your local roller rink what "I Was Made For Loving You" was to Studio 54. C–

KISS: Music From "The Elder" (1981, Casablanca) After two years of allowing outside influences to sway their artistic direction -- to the consequence of critical jeers and declining record sales -- the band re-united with Destroyer producer Bob Ezrin, recently on a high from major commercial success (is there any other kind?) with Pink Floyd's The Wall. Secluding themselves for several months, they refused to allow Casablanca executives to listen to their work in progress, which evolved from straightforward rock and roll songs into an incomprehensible fantasy/sci-fi "concept" record, the vapid "libretto" of which reads like Joseph Campbell's third-grade doodling. Don't ask me about the cockamamie plot -- something about a young man readying himself to undertake a quest that doesn't actually occur until the record ends, and they lard with epigrammatic howlers swiped from Tolkien, George Lucas, and, let's be honest, Greg Lake (a sample: "Only you are the manchild/You are the light and you are the way"). Ace Frehley soldiered along begrudgingly, outvoted by Stanley and Simmons, with new drummer Eric Carr a null vote as per his contract (I tell you, you gotta love these guys). Ezrin later demurred that his titanic cocaine habit massively compromised his musical judgment at the time, but unfortunately, Stanley and Simmons, both straight edge types, can't exonerate themselves so easily -- one gets the feeling that had their fortunes been reversed, had this pompous, badly-played and grandiosely-arranged prog-rock found an audience, they would have ecstatically subjected us to a movie, comic book, TV series, and laser light show over the Parthenon. Instead, it's remembered as the worst album with Lou Reed's name on it. Yeah, that's right, Lou Reed, one year away from the triumphant The Blue Mask, who took time out to barf up this bon mot for the abysmal flop single "A World Without Heroes": "A world without heroes/Is like a world without sun." Cher covered it in 1991. E

KISS: The Best of Kiss, Volume 2 [20th Century Masters: The Millennium Collection] (2004, Mercury) Even from his head-banging constituency, Gene Simmons isn't exactly the kind of guy who arouses much sympathy, but this compilation from KISS' Mark II period makes me ponder the identity crisis he must have been suffering through during the eighties. KISS was his baby, and divorced from his genre, wiped clean of his makeup, and mocked for the pretensions of both of his solo album and Music From "The Elder," his involvement with the band decreased, at least in terms of studio hours clocked. Without question, he became less central musically from 1982's Creatures of the Night on, contributing less material, and responsible for only one of the singles here, 1982's totally lame "I Like It Loud" (which I swear Steven Tyler ripped off and snazzed up for "Love in an Elevator"). So while the band would never again sink to the nadir of "Elder," they also would never risk anything remotely as ambitious, settling complacently into pop metal hegemony by adapting to the current fashion: flashy guitar solos, booming drums, cavernous reverb, football-stadium choruses, and the occasional spate of heavy breathing. Note that while the first entry in the band's Millennium Series contains six top 40 singles from their "classic" period (seven if you count the double-sided "Beth/Detroit Rock City" as two), this sequel contains only one: the worst, the vapid power ballad "Forever," co-written by Paul Stanley with none other than Michael Fucking Bolton, who owes Stanley for his mullet -- and so much more. C