“100,000 Years” is about a spaceman who returns from home after a long trip to humbly greet his wife: “It must have been a bitch while I was gone.” As far as an insight as to the effects of interstellar time travel on a relationship, it’s pretty limited. But who’s listening to KISS for the lyrics? This song is really all about the chugging jazzy groove and Ace Frehley’s guitar work. The “live” Alive! version incorporates a drum solo, which is not normally a term one would associate with a drummer like Peter Criss, but such were the 70s. And like all Alive! versions, the song is far superior in this bombastic setting, so that after the lengthy solo and Paul Stanley’s stage raps, the spaceman’s plight takes on a transcendent meaning. It’s art, in its own way.
Why should we still care about KISS in 2015? Consider: this month, the Kurt Cobain documentary Montage Of Heck debuts, including unearthed video footage, music, and interviews. We already know that narrative, and it’s a sad, rather pathetic one. Cobain was so obsessed with matters of authenticity and art as commodity that it destroyed him. He appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a ‘Corporate Magazines Still Suck’ t-shirt and the ensuing debate over the twisted meanings and hypocrisies of this move was Aristotelian. And ultimately, meaningless. The idea of ‘selling out’ grows less important in terms of marriage, family, house payments. It’s a juvenile, self-defeating concept. Nirvana’s rebellion, which seemed so significant in the world of MTV and 90s rock music, has not aged well. This is not to bash the talent of Kurt Cobain, who wrote some great songs, who never really wanted all the fame, and who was keenly aware of his own limitations. Too aware, sadly. He was also a music fan, a champion of other artists – Daniel Johnston, The Pixies, Sonic Youth. And KISS.
Again: why should we care about KISS in 2015? Last November, the band held KISS Kruise IV, in which they sailed around with fans, delivering several performances, both full make-up and unplugged. It’s easy to scoff at this, to descend to cynicism, to the familiar attacks of greed and marketing gone amuck. But this is music – it’s supposed to be fun. There might indeed be something pathetic about such a trip with a hacky tribute band as the headliners but to see the real Gene and Paul jam through “Goin’ Blind” while sailing around the Caribbean? I get that. What if Cobain and Nirvana had embraced just a fraction of this sensibility? I propose that a 2015 Nirvana cruise would have been just as fun in its own way. Tacky? Sure. But what’s wrong with that? Perhaps for artists and musicians there is more to learn from KISS than just the “She” riff or how to properly apply catface makeup.
“I heard we got some rock ‘n roll pneumonia out there – better call in the doctor!” Paul Stanley has been shouting out this introduction to “Calling Dr Love” for over thirty years, with all sincerity. He means it, man. Stanley has carried the band through all of its incarnations – great, mediocre, execrable – with tireless industry, filling out album after album of songs and concert after concert of shout-it-out-louds. I suspect that he spends the most time on his makeup before shows, preening and posing for the mirror. But he is so shameless with his combination of self-aggrandizement and commitment to entertaining an audience that it feels empowering. And this band really is about empowerment in its strange ways – consider Gene Simmons’s most recent public exercise, the self-help book Me, Inc. Here are some excerpts from an interview for the book: “But there isn’t a class in high school that teaches you what capitalism is, what the Dow is, what taxes are, they don’t teach you any of this. When you’re 18, you’re thrown off the edge of the cliff, and you’re supposed to be able to fly somehow and figure things out…Columbus discovered nothing. That doesn’t prepare you in the least for how to earn a living.” What’s going on there? Is the blood spurting, fire breathing, groupie banging Demon actually making some sense?
There’s more than meets the star painted eye with KISS. Their self titled debut is a stone classic, one of those albums like Never Mind The Bollocks or Enter The 36 Chambers upon which a band can rest an entire career. It is gritty, catchy New York glam rock at its absolute best. From Chuck Klosterman’s KISS article last year: “If Kiss had somehow died in a boating mishap the week this record hit stores, the very same people who currently hate them would insist this 35-minute document is a forgotten progenitor of punk, on par with the Stooges. Kiss would be remembered as a catchier, savvier version of the New York Dolls, and only Morrissey would disagree.” Amen. The next two albums are spottier, but serve to define the prime KISS formula – simple, Stones-y riffs; sexual metaphors or non-metaphors; jailbait anthems; singalong choruses. The band’s chemistry is palpable: Paul Stanley is the better songwriter though he has a tendency to drift to predictability, while Gene Simmons’s tunes supply the heavier riffs that lift the band’s sound from boogie rock uniformity. Ace Frehley, as we know, rules. Dressed To Kill ends with “Rock And Roll All Nite” which I suppose might have been a decent album filler track, but has since become so ubiquitous that I find it to be unbearable. I don’t need to ever hear that song again in my life and I’m actually a big fan of this band.
The real bid for stardom came with the two subsequent releases: Alive! and Destroyer. The double live album is a studio assisted affair that serves as a greatest hits set and defining musical statement (not unlike the Dead’s Europe ’72, and not the only similarity between the bands.) Here the riff in “Deuce” turns from a Stones rip into something bigger, badder, instantly recognizable as the KISS sound. This is no longer just a New York glam rock band, but an interstellar one. Alive! is a monster album, song after song after classic riffs and tunes that only lets up for some silly shouted stage banter. How many guitarists learned to play from studying this record? Here’s one the keys of KISS: they were competent but not virtuosic musicians, so it’s not hard to pick out the licks and play them even without the makeup and seven inch leather heels. The Bob Ezrin produced Destroyer brings the Alive! ethos to the studio proper – the first few albums suffered from patchy production, so Ezrin’s larger than life eccentricities are a perfect fit for this material. I love the car crash transition from “Detroit Rock City” to “King Of The Night Time World” which in turn gives way to the massive “God Of Thunder.” Nirvana would cover “Do You Love Me?” with expected irony, though Cobain’s admiration for the music was sincere. “Beth” is here too, but that song is so rote and simplistic that it feels like a tossed off peon, even an in-joke at Peter Criss’s expense. And somehow that became their big hit: even in the most marketed band in the world, the success of that song must have been a shock.
The next two albums, Rock And Roll Over and Love Gun, follow the same formula but it’s a good one: “Hard Luck Woman” is a spot on Rod Stewart parody that serves as a more dignified vocal turn for Criss, “Christine Sixteen” and “Ladies Room” are indicative of Gene’s priorities on tour, while Paul for some reason brags that the ladies call him “Mr Speed.” This is a band at the top of their craft, and both albums have strong production from Eddie Kramer. I like how “I Want You” teases an acoustic ballad intro before launching into the riffy song proper; there are no “Beth part II”‘s to be found on these records, though part of that may have been due to the fact that Peter Criss was already being viewed as the weak link by the braintrust.
The four solo albums follow: Ace’s is the best with its truly spaced out New York grooving making up for some uneven songwriting, but Paul’s is a surprisingly well-crafted collection of tunes that incorporates some 70s Cheap Trick as it anticipates 80s pop metal. I find Gene’s to be intolerable, too immured with its rock star status: the backup singers, odd stylistic choices, and Cher phone calls completely ruin the better moments. I’ve never listened to Peter’s album because it’s Peter Criss. Sorry, Cat. As if there was any question whether they might be running out of ideas, Alive II was released around this time, but it’s nearly as good as the first even with one side of studio toss-offs.
The glory years pretty much end there. Dynasty is a bit of a mess, though the band is still strong enough so that it’s not unlistenable. Ace’s cover of “2000 Man” is the oddest of the bunch, a fine Stones rarity that loses the offbeat psychedelia of the original in this plodding rendition. Sure it’s cool because it’s Ace Frehley singing “2000 Man” but it’s also an indication of the limits of KISS as a band. On the other hand, Stanley’s disco moves (“I Was Made For Loving You,” “Sure Know Something”) are as convincing and self-assured as Jagger’s. So perhaps the album serves more as an example of fracturing sensibilities and ethics within the band. Either way: Dynasty is not so good, a clear end to the classic KISS run.
The band’s next (and arguably final) artistic statement was Music from “The Elder” in 1981. “It’s a good album, but not a good KISS album,” Paul Stanley is fond of saying in interviews, and this actually makes some sense. “Odyssey” sounds so much like 70s Genesis like it could have easily slotted in to side two of Selling England By The Pound. [And speaking of Genesis – is there a more appropriate Paul Stanley anthem than “I Know What I Like (In Your Wardrobe)”?] The record was lambasted by critics and misunderstood by fans, but I like it a lot in spite of its pretensions. Nonetheless, it marks the end of KISS as a creative force – never again would they stray so far from the formula or attempt something so musically adventurous. The Ace-less follow up Creatures Of The Night is good but it feels reactionary rather than inspired, as the band is no longer setting the pace but trying to keep up.
The rest of the KISS catalog stinks. No, let’s rephrase: I’m sure the slew of non-makeup pop metal albums that followed have their moments and I’ll never begrudge fans for sticking it out through the doldrums. [I say this as an admirer of 80s Dylan and post-EPMD Erick Sermon albums.] There is something to be said for loyalty, and what band demands more loyalty from their fanbase than KISS? But musically these records sound pretty useless to me: massed shoutalong choruses, insipid lyrics (even by KISS standards), and most egregiously, soulless guitar work. What happened? More than anything else, it seems that KISS lost the insular focus of their prime period. In the 70s, each guy in the band played his role, contributed his songs, or took a turn on lead vocals – sort of like The Band in makeup. This was not a band that could allow guest jam sessions at their shows, both for musical and safety concerns, as a wrong step onstage could get an unsuspecting player blown up by the pyro. The list of collaborating songwriters in the 80s is horrifying, with bone chilling names like Bryan Adams and Michael Bolton. I’ve tried to listen to these albums and I can hear bits and pieces of good songs, a riff here or there, but it’s always ruined by an awful chorus, production style, or shreddy guitar solo. It sounds like music as a business, by committee. Criss was long gone but the loss of Ace Frehley was the unkindest cut, as the other guitarists who followed were professional hacks who either copied his licks or just supplied some metally mediocrity. I don’t want to hear a band play to studio perfection or insanely fast atonal guitar runs. Give me some soul, spirit, dark light. It’s an intangible thing, but many fans felt the same way. They wanted the best and they weren’t getting it, so the band was sinking commercially.
Their 1992 Unplugged performance was a turning point, witnessing the return of Ace and Peter to the fold. It’s one of the better shows of the MTV series, along with Nirvana’s two years later. Again, an interesting contrast: KISS are absolute pros, digging deeply into the catalog for song after song of note perfect performances, then bringing the old guys back for a fitting finale; Nirvana appear disarmed but defiant in an occasionally shaky but still inspired performance building to the harrowing “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Listen to both sets back to back and you’ll hear musical similarity but emotional dissonance; KISS’s feels like a celebration, Nirvana’s a denouement. I like them both – and notice how Gene’s “See You Tonight” and Kurt’s “About A Girl” prove that, deep down, all great bands really just want to be the Beatles.
By now it’s hacky and unoriginal to complain about KISS’s marketing schemes. They’re a business, just like any other rock band, and at this point their shamelessness actually feels something like sincerity. KISS have a straightforward relationship with their fans: give us money, we’ll give you product. Either buy it or don’t. The band continues to tour arenas and the 2015 Kiss Kruise is already sold out, even though Paul’s vocals are in decline and the band itself has been halved with replacements for Ace and Peter. The fans are still buying it: the shows are full of spectacle, explosions, classic songs, and “I heard we got some rock n roll pneumonia out there!” KISS have forced their way into every corner of consumer culture, without apology. The most egregious example is the KISS Kasket, which is often proffered by naysayers as the nadir of rock music marketing. I find the KISS coffin to be a tremendous idea, an amazing totem of loyalty to a rock band. Imagine the confusion of other family members arriving to attend a viewing of their loved one in a casket with Paul Stanley’s face on the side. The man who wrote “Love Gun.” That’s a beautiful thing. To anyone who has purchased or plans to be entombed in a Kiss Kasket – god bless you, you magnificent bastards.
My position is this: I’m more naturally inclined to the Kurt Cobain outlook, the dissidence, depression, the difficulty accepting praise or success. It feels easier to shield oneself with cynicism, drugs, or some imagined value to one’s art. Artistic integrity is not enough – you must sell yourself to the masses on whatever terms you are comfortable with. And we often allow these terms to be decided for us, even unconsciously. KISS defined their own terms, though within a dialectic that doesn’t seem so artistically valid for critics. They preached base ambition over sheltered principle. They have never denied their detractors, nor claimed for themselves anything less than the world on their terms. Gene Simmons: “Make yourself as big as possible. Fake it. Stand up tall, and you know, that sense – if you don’t feel it, if it’s not in your inherent nature to be big and bold, fake it. Opportunity is not going to come to you: you’re going to have to come to it.” The song remains the same: you got nothing to lose.