They were not the first rock’n’roll band with a strong visual identity: The Beatles had their mop-tops and dandyish suits.
The were not the trailblazers in rock theatre: Bowie and Alice Cooper went before them. But if there is one band that has understood and exploited the power of image in rock’n’roll, and the importance of putting on a show, it’s Kiss.
With painted faces, outlandish costumes and seven-inch stack-heeled boots, Kiss arrived in the 70s like superheroes straight out of a comic. They had superhero names: rhythm guitarist/lead vocalist Paul Stanley was The Starchild; bassist Gene Simmons, The Demon; lead guitarist Ace Frehley, The Space Ace; drummer Peter Criss, The Catman. What they presented in concert was the greatest show on Earth, with explosions, blood, fire-breathing, a rocket-launching guitar… At a Kiss concert, it was possible to believe a man could fly.
And at the heart of it was a great all-American rock band. While derided by serious music fans (and, of course, critics) as nothing more than a circus act, Kiss didn’t sell 100 million records by fluke. In the band’s vast catalogue are some of the greatest and most influential rock albums of all time.
In the 40 years since the release of the first Kiss album, there have been 19 more studio albums, numerous live albums and compilations, and – most ambitious of all – four solo albums from the original band members, released on the same date: September 18, 1978.
Much of the classic Kiss material dates from the 70s, but in the following decade – without Frehley and Criss, and more importantly, without the make-up – Kiss rode the glam metal wave they had done so much to inspire. When Stanley and Simmons founded Kiss in New York City in early 1973, their primary influences were British, from The Beatles and the Stones through to Led Zeppelin, The Who and Slade. In turn, Kiss influenced a generation of rock musicians, especially in America. Their music was an inspiration for such diverse acts as Mötley Crüe, Anthrax, Pantera and Stone Temple Pilots.
In 1990, Nirvana covered the Kiss song Do You Love Me? and in April 2014, both Kiss and Nirvana will be inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame at a ceremony in New York, where the Kiss story began so many years ago.
ESSENTIAL - CLASSICS
When the first Kiss album was released on February 18, 1974, the band’s make-up design was not yet perfected – but the music was fully formed. From the start, Kiss wrote anthems. Seven songs from the album would become Kiss standards:_ Strutter, Cold Gin_, Firehouse, Deuce, Nothin’ To Lose, 100,000 Years and Black Diamond. Boozehound Ace Frehley wrote Cold Gin but lacked the bottle to sing it. Instead, the staunchly teetotal Simmons did.
Kiss was not a hit at the time – US chart peak: No.87 – but it stands alongside Aerosmith, Montrose and Van Halen as one of the classic debut albums that built American hard rock in the 1970s.
The title screamed for attention, and it came. This double-live album turned Kiss into superstars. Their first two studio records had bombed. The third reached the US Top 40 but had no hit single. A live album was a no-brainer for a band that had built its reputation on stage, but a double album was costly, a high‑stakes gamble. It paid off when Alive! hit the Top 10.
The album was a tour de force and a coming of age for Kiss as an arena-rock behemoth – as illustrated by the band’s definitive, crowd-pleasing anthem Rock And Roll All Nite, which became, at last, their first hit single. Alive! marked the birth of a legend.
With their fourth album, Kiss reached for the stars and created their masterpiece. Their first three studio records were simplistic rock’n’roll, banged out fast. For Destroyer, they hired Bob Ezrin, producer of Alice Cooper and Lou Reed. As a result, Kiss sounded bigger, better and smarter.
Detroit Rock City is a juggernaut. God Of Thunder is an epic befitting its title – written by Stanley but sung by Simmons on Ezrin’s orders, it became the bassist’s signature song. And Ezrin transformed a soppy love song by Peter Criss into the orchestrated hit ballad Beth. “It’s an ambitious album,” Stanley said, “and it stands the test of time.”
Kiss made their big breakthrough with Alive! Two years later came the sequel, and it was another blockbuster. Recorded on the Love Gun tour, Alive II reached No.7 on the US chart, two places higher than Alive! It was also a better representation of the Kiss live experience. The band sounded more powerful on tracks such as I Stole Your Love, Shout It Out Loud and Makin’ Love. The audiences were more hysterical. And the original vinyl-issue gate-fold cover opened to reveal the full OTT splendour of Kiss on stage.
Also included were five new studio tracks. The best of them, Frehley’s Rocket Ride, is as woozy as the man himself.
SUPERIOR - REPUTATION CEMENTING
Hotter Than Hell
The second Kiss album was, like the first one, a flop. Hotter Than Hell peaked at No.100 in the US. Even so, it’s one of their most influential records.
Producers Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise, who cut the band’s debut, gave this album the rawness and hard edge of garage rock. The heaviest song, Parasite, was later recorded by Anthrax, and Gene Simmons’ twisted ballad Goin’ Blind (‘I’m 93, you’re 16’) was covered by grunge oddballs The Melvins.
Best of all were two songs by Paul Stanley: Got To Choose, one of the band’s loosest and coolest numbers, and the thumping title track, which was inspired by Free’s All Right Now.
Dressed To Kill
The band’s third album is their purest rock’n’roll record, with a stripped-down sound and a spontaneous feel typified by its most famous song, Rock And Roll All Nite. Neil Bogart, the head of Casablanca Records, took a hands-on approach with Dressed To Kill, co-producing the album with the group. It sounded much cleaner and punchier than the preceding album, Hotter Than Hell. As Ace Frehley said: “There’s a lot of energy in this record.”
It’s also full of great songs: Room Service, Rock Bottom, C’mon And Love Me, and, of course, Rock And Roll All Nite. And the album’s cover is a classic too, with the guys posing in suits borrowed from manager Bill Aucoin.
Rock And Roll Over
Eight months after Destroyer, Kiss returned with the symbolically titled Rock And Roll Over. Destroyer had been considered a sell-out. “The fans hated it,” Simmons said.
The band responded by ditching all the fancy stuff to recreate what Stanley called the “primitive quality” of Alive! To this end, Rock And Roll Over was recorded at the disused Star Theatre in Nanuet, New York, with Eddie Kramer, the producer of Alive! The theatre’s ambience was perfectly suited to crunchy, no-frills rock songs such as I Want You and Calling Dr Love.
Stanley wrote Hard Luck Woman with Rod Stewart in mind. With Peter Criss singing it like Rod, it was another huge hit.
There was a joke about the Kiss solo albums that became received wisdom: they shipped platinum and returned double platinum. Gene Simmons put the record straight, telling Classic Rock: “They all sold at least a million apiece.”
The surprise – and a kick in the balls for Simmons and Paul Stanley – was that Ace Frehley’s album was the most successful. The wayward guitarist scored a Top 20 hit with a breezy version of the Russ Ballard song New York Groove. What Ace delivered was a smoking, balls-out, hard-rock record with flashes of his goofball humour. And without Gene and Paul around, he could sing on Ozone: ‘I’m the kind of guy who likes feelin’ high…’
The band’s sixth studio album was the first to feature all four members singing lead vocals. It was also the last Kiss album to feature the full original line-up on every track.
Ace Frehley would be absent for most of the studio tracks on Alive II, and Peter Criss would appear on just one song on Dynasty. But on Love Gun, they still sounded tight.
The album’s title track is the ultimate expression of Paul Stanley’s oversexed persona, and an all-time classic Kiss song. On Shock Me, Frehley sings lead for the first time, sounding effortlessly cool – or maybe just pissed. And on Hooligan, Criss delivers the brilliant payoff: ‘I’m a hooligan/Won’t go to school again…’
Creatures Of The Night
On the simplest level, Creatures Of The Night is the heaviest Kiss album. More complex is the story of its creation.
By 1982, Ace Frehley had quit. His appearance on this album’s cover was purely to reassure fans as the band’s popularity waned.
Behind the scenes, several guitarists auditioned. Amazingly, Eddie Van Halen was briefly in the frame. In the end, the job went to Vinnie Vincent, who co-wrote and recorded three tracks. Somehow, Kiss pulled it off. Although the album wasn’t a hit, it restored their credibility via thunderous songs – I Love It Loud, War Machine and the title track – with a drum sound bigger than John Bonham’s.
Lick It Up
It was the big reveal: the make‑up was finally off. And as Sounds joked: “What ugly bastards they turned out to be.”
The reinvention of Kiss was Stanley’s idea, and it worked. Beginning in 1983, the new-look Kiss achieved a remarkable comeback. Having already used the perfect title for this album – Unmasked – they named it Lick It Up after a song that was classically Kiss. The tone was fast, flashy heavy metal, typified by Simmons’s Young And Wasted. Less impressive was Stanley’s rapping on All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose.
Guitarist Vinnie Vincent would be fired after the Lick It Up tour, but the album sold well – proof Kiss could survive on their music alone.
Kiss’ most underappreciated record. The band’s 16th studio album was dedicated to the memory Eric Carr, the drummer who had served Kiss for 10 years before succumbing to cancer on November 24, 1991, the day that Freddie Mercury also died.
But with former Black Sabbath drummer Eric Singer in place of Carr, and producer Bob Ezrin back for a third time, Revenge was a shrewd repositioning of Kiss at a time when grunge was king.
A heavier sound was established with Simmons’s sinister opening track Unholy. And another Top 5 UK hit came with God Gave Rock ’N’ Roll To You II, an update of an old Argent song, supersized in classic Kiss style.
It had been 11 years since Kiss had made a new studio record, and Paul Stanley was determined that they should come back with a bang. “Sonic Boom is the perfect title for this album,” he said. “It’s earth-shaking and deafening!”
Guitarist Tommy Thayer made his debut on Sonic Boom. He even sang lead on one track, as did Eric Singer. But it was Stanley who hit the home runs with the Zeppelin-influenced Modern Day Delilah and the triumphant Say Yeah. And Simmons was back to his best on the sneering Russian Roulette.
It was followed in 2012 by the band’s 20th studio album, Monster. That was decent enough, but with Sonic Boom, they really nailed it.
GOOD - WORTH EXPLORING
Of the four solo albums, Paul Stanley’s sounded the most like Kiss. Essentially, it was an extension of his role as the band’s primary songwriter and lead vocalist – with, in his words, “my personality magnified”.
Tonight You Belong To Me is a sensational song with an intense emotional charge – rated by Stanley as one of his best. Similarly, It’s Alright is pure kick-ass Kiss. But on two tracks, he pushed the envelope. Take Me Away (Together As One) is the deepest song he’s written, and Hold Me, Touch Me (Think Of Me When We’re Apart) is the height of camp. Ultimately, it’s the best Kiss album Kiss never made.
Where Stanley and Frehley took the route-one approach to their solo albums, Simmons went completely off-piste. He enlisted an all-star cast of backing musicians, including Joe Perry, Bob Seger, Donna Summer and his then girlfriend Cher. Others on his wish list were unavailable: Lennon and McCartney, and the world’s most famous dog, Lassie.
Simmons later said his album was “disjointed”, but it includes some of the best songs he’s ever written: Radioactive, Man Of 1,000 Faces, the Beatles homage See You Tonite. And on a version of When You Wish Upon A Star from Disney’s Pinocchio, Simmons cried as he sang it.
Timing is everything. In 1979, rock fans launched the protest campaign ‘Disco Sucks!’ At a baseball game in Chicago, a crate filled with offending records, mostly by the Bee Gees, was blown up on the pitch. And in the same year, Kiss put out a disco song. I Was Made For Loving You was a brilliant synthesis of disco and hard rock, and a US Top 20 hit. Parent album Dynasty reached the Top 10. But this one song alienated many Kiss fans, and precipitated the band’s decline in America.
For all that, Dynasty is a good album, with genius pop-rock songs, alongside Frehley’s grittily autobiographical Hard Times.
Unmasked is a fantastic pop-rock album, although Paul Stanley has a different assessment: “We lost our balls,” he said. The producer on Dynasty and Unmasked was Vini Poncia, who had worked with Ringo Starr and Wonder Woman actress Lynda Carter, and also on Peter Criss’ solo album.
In hindsight, Stanley felt that Poncia “sanitised” Kiss. But there are great songs on Unmasked: Stanley’s power-pop doozy Tomorrow, Simmons’s Naked City, even Frehley’s barmy Torpedo Girl.
The album featured Criss on the cover, but was recorded with drummer Anton Fig. By the time Unmasked was released in May 1980, Criss was out of the band.
For much of the 80s, Paul Stanley carried Kiss, while Gene Simmons was busy acting in movies and producing and managing other artists. The success of Crazy Nights owed everything to Stanley.
In contrast to the guitar-heavy style of 1984’s Animalize (the only Kiss album to feature guitarist Mark St. John) and 1986’s Asylum (on which St. John’s replacement Bruce Kulick made his debut), Crazy Nights had a lighter sound, with keyboards high in the mix.
Stanley delivered three strong singles: power ballad Reason To Live, the euphoric Turn On The Night, and Crazy Crazy Nights, a Top 5 hit in the UK, and an 80s hair-metal classic.
Hot In The Shade
Some 14 years after Kiss had their biggest hit single in America with Beth, they returned to the US Top 10 with another ballad, Forever – the standout track from Hot In The Shade. For the only time in their career, Kiss used additional writers on every track on this album. Paul Stanley wrote Forever with Michael Bolton, and Hide Your Heart with Desmond Child and Holly Knight. An AOR classic, Hide Your Heart was also recorded in 1989 by Ace Frehley.
But among the 15 tracks were some clunkers, including two tracks written by Simmons with future Kiss guitarist Tommy Thayer. The band’s lengthiest studio album proved that size isn’t everything – even for Kiss.
It wasn’t the worst solo album ever made by a drummer – that was Keith Moon’s risible Two Sides Of The Moon. But this was undoubtedly the worst of the Kiss solo albums.
A fan of pop and soul music, Criss turned MOR crooner on lightweight toe-tapping tunes such as Don’t You Let Me Down and That’s The Kind Of Sugar Papa Likes. Tellingly, the best song on the album is a ballad, I Can’t Stop The Rain, written by long-time band associate Sean Delaney, and perfectly suited to Peter’s raspy voice.
To the horror of Kiss fans, this was music that their parents would like. As Paul Stanley said: “Peter’s album was ghastly.”
In 1996, the prayers of Kiss fans were answered. The band’s original line-up reunited, put the slap back on, and toured to huge success. Two years later came Psycho Circus, the first Kiss album since ’79 to feature Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. But all was not as it seemed. Criss played on only one track, Frehley on two. Paul Stanley later admitted: “There was no real band.”
Psycho Circus went Top 10 in the US. It had some good songs: Frehley’s Into The Void, Simmons’ We Are One. But so much of it sounded hollow and contrived – You Wanted The Best was just an advertising jingle. For the original Kiss, this was a miserable swansong.
This article originally appeared in Classic Rock #196.
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