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Kiss

+ {Gene Simmons} + {Ace Frehley} + {Peter Criss} + {Paul Stanley}

If there were rewards for the garish and needlessly noisiest rock’n’roll bands, KISS would be up there at the podium to pick up the prize. The first real glam-metal act and stemming from all places, New York City, KISS undoubtedly built their reputation on a garish image and the sensory overkill of their live show; sleaze-meisters the NEW YORK DOLLS and ALICE COOPER had already fashioned out their own punk/hard-rock agenda. Stick in some incognito-styled make-up and onstage schlock, the flamboyant quartet could certainly “Shout It Out Loud”, as suggested in the title of one their biggest hits. The teenage kids of America (and later Japan, Britain, etc.) just loved their stage theatrics and hook-line anthems, although their mystique and cartoon-like personas helped capture an audience ever so willing to dress in their preferred KISS-member apparel.
Formed late in 1971 by ex-Wicked Lester alumni Paul Stanley (vocals and rhythm guitar) and Gene Simmons (vocals and bass), the pseudonymous pairing duly recruited lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss. After a year of touring in ‘73, KISS were signed by Neil Bogart to his fledgling imprint, Casablanca Records, while they cracked the Top 100 with their eponymous debut album, KISS {*8}, early in ‘74. Fronted/penned by either Stanley or Simmons (and sometimes both; Frehley authored the alcoholic-friendly `Cold Gin’), the record boasted some of their best-known cuts in `Strutter’, `Nothin’ To Lose’, `Deuce’ and `Black Diamond’; subsequent copies added the unnecessary Bobby Rydell hit, `Kissin’ Time’.
HOTTER THAN HELL (1974) {*7} – their second produced by Richie Wise and Kenny Kerner (of GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS fame – stalled at No.100. In some respects, an introspective look at relationships through the eyes of disillusioned third-party males (`Goin’ Blind’ was a re-worked `Little Lady’ about a 93-year-old’s doomed love for a 16 year-old), the sludge-fest riffs on `Parasite’, `Got To Choose’ and the title track were the pick of the parade.
Produced by the aforementioned Bogart, the near-Top 30 third album, b(1975) {*8}, set the tone for the greasepaint scene that what was to follow – low-rent glitter-metal so tacky it almost stuck to the speakers. Songs about life on the road emerged no better than `Room Service’, `Ladies In Waiting’ and the celebratory, classic rock anthem `Rock And Roll All Nite’, while former Wicked Lester gemstones `She’ and `Love Her All I Can’ were just dandy next to the acoustically-intro’d `Rock Bottom’ – SPINAL TAP had a similarly-themed pastiche (`Big Bottom’) from their rockumentary movie of ‘84.
Though these early albums sounded like they were recorded on a cheap Walkman in a sawmill, they contained some of KISS’ finest groin-straining moments, anthemic shout-a-longs for white college kids who could trade-in school uniforms for a rebellious night on the town. Accordingly, it was the Eddie Kramer-produced concert double-album, ALIVE! (1975) {*9}, that finally powered the band into the US Top 10 – and the arena-rock major league.
With DESTROYER (1976) {*8} – produced by ALICE COOPER mentor Bob Ezrin – the band refined their sound slightly, even cutting a ballad, the Criss-penned/crooned teen heartbreaker, `Beth’, a record which furnished the band with their biggest ever hit single. Experimenting with backdrop soundscapes and punchy storylines, KISS extracted some of their best moments in `Detroit Rock City’ (the double-A flip of “Beth”), `King Of The Night Time World’, `Flaming Youth’, `Do You Love Me?’ and the aforementioned `Shout It Out Loud’.
This mid-70s career peak also saw a further three releases achieve platinum status, the first of these ROCK AND ROLL OVER (1976) {*7} was recorded with Kramer in a partly-rented Nanuet Star Theater in NY. Boasting two Top 20 breakers, `Hard Luck Woman’ (later covered by country boy, GARTH BROOKS) and the swaggering `Calling Dr. Love’, the KISS canon was further expanded on concert staples, `Ladies Room’, `Mr. Speed’ and `I Want You’.
As the RAMONES and IGGY POP were taking music to a new level in ‘77, LOVE GUN (1977), revelled in keeping hard-rock metal alive and kicking. Showcased by the dangerously un-PC `Christine Sixteen’ (another Top 30 smash) and their tribute to psychedelic-60s groupies, `Plaster Caster’, the record was soured by the power-pap take of Phil Spector’s `Then She Kissed Me’. ALIVE II (1977) {*7} updated their adrenaline-charged, live-double concert appeal – this time at Los Angeles Forum – and it was a good time for the band to take stock; Marvel comics instigated a KISS feature series in their monthly mag.
The group had struck a resounding chord in some back alley of the American consciousness and now boasted a merchandise line almost as long as Simmons’ grotesque tongue, a perverted, proto-SPICE GIRLS marketing job from the dark side. And you couldn’t get a much better marketing coup than releasing four solo albums on the same day, which is exactly what KISS did (one by each member), probably because they knew they could get away with it. Unsurprisingly, most of the material was self-indulgent and, with the threat of a punk takeover never far away, the band began to falter.
KISS: GENE SIMMONS (1978) {*5} showed the man’s love of The BEATLES, at least in style, while his ill-advised cover of Harline-Washington’s Disney song, `When You Wish Upon A Star’ was awkward listening. Orchestral and session-people friendly (DONNA SUMMER, CHER, HELEN REDDY and JANIS IAN were backed by Joe Perry, Rick Nielsen, BOB SEGER and Jeff “Skunk” Baxter), the US Top 30 LP had its moments through `Radioactive’ (a UK hit), `See You Tonite’ and `Burning Up With Fever’.
Helped by a disco-fied US Top 20 rendition of Russ Ballard’s `New York Groove’, the equally fruitful KISS: ACE FREHLEY {*6} rocked-out the most, three songs at least, `Speedin’ Back To My Baby’, `I’m In Need Of Love’ and `What’s On Your Mind’, confirming his worth as an integral part of the quartet. KISS: PAUL STANLEY {*5} – with Anton Fig as drummer – and KISS: PETER CRISS {*4} were a tad weaker, but essential to the collector of everything KISS.
Although the Vini Poncia-produced DYNASTY (1979) {*5} album went Top 10 and provided a massive rock-disco hit with `I Was Made For Lovin’ You’, Criss was nowhere to be seen (with the exception of the sleeve shot); the drum stool was filled by session man Anton Fig. With a TV movie, `Kiss Meets The Phantom’, already in the can (or indeed canned!), older fans became disillusioned by a handful of picks here (bar `Sure Know Something’), even their version of The ROLLING STONES’ `2,000 Man’ alienated their most loyal. Repeating the formula, the Top 40 disappointment, UNMASKED (1980) {*4}, plummeted the band to new depths, only the pop-fuelled `Shandi’ saving them from a bevvy of critics tearing them apart.
A permanent replacement for fill-in Fig was found in Eric Carr, who made his debut on the ill-advised, mythical concept nonsense of MUSIC FROM “THE ELDER” (1981) {*4}. Spurred on by returning producer Ezrin, this was no “Tommy”, but at least KISS were trying to expand their horizons – however elaborate and campy.
The new musical direction was just too much for Ace to take and he wisely departed for a career as FREHLEY’S COMET the following year. His place was filled by new co-songsmith Vinnie Vincent, who played on the back to basics CREATURES OF THE NIGHT (1982) {*6}. When this Top 50 album failed to reactivate their commercial fortunes, the band did the unthinkable, removing their make-up for the LICK IT UP (1983) {*6} album. Perhaps as a result of the public discovering they weren’t blood sucking ghouls after all, but (relatively) normal looking people, the album went Top 30. Ironically, the band had just started to re-establish themselves in Britain, where the set (and its hit title track) reached the higher end of charts, no doubt giving them heart in their struggle back to world domination.
KISS then went through more line-up changes, with Vincent being replaced first by Mark St. John, then Bruce Kulick. Top 20 sets ANIMALIZE (1984) {*4} and ASYLUM (1985) {*3} were predictable, nondescript and almost a pastiche of themselves, but loyal fans lapped up their quick-fire, pomp-metal; made for a MTV-friendly world of cod-rock, `Heaven’s On Fire’ and `Tears Are Falling’ were spawned as hits.
With the unashamedly commercial `Crazy Crazy Nights’ single and attendant set CRAZY NIGHTS (1987) {*4} album, KISS enjoyed their biggest success since their 70s heyday, both releases reaching Top 5 in the UK. Still a major pull in their homeland where the Ron Nevison-produced album went Top 20, the band were accused of latching on to the hair-metal bandwagon od BON JOVI and DEF LEPPARD. But who really cared? Not KISS.
Another reasonably successful album, HOT IN THE SHADE (1989) {*4}, followed in its wake. In this, there was little to set the band apart from their peers, and as ALICE COOPER was having his own renaissance of sorts with `Poison’, etc., KISS were combining forces with poodle-parlour rocker MICHAEL BOLTON for a honey-filled US Top 10 concoction, `Forever’.
Tragedy duly struck the band when Eric Carr (who’d sang `Little Caesar’ on the previous album) died on November 24, 1991, following heart problems and cancer.
Shaken but unbowed the band carried on with seasoned hard-rock campaigner Eric Singer on drums, going back to the hoary sound of old with the Ezrin-produced REVENGE (1992) {*5} opus, an album that saw them showing the young bucks who’d originally patented the moves. Highlighting another Russ Ballard number, `God Gave Rock & Roll To You’ (also from Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey), made famous in the mid-70s by ARGENT, and a tribute to Eric C via `Carr Jam 1981’, the record possessed a certain je ne sais quoi. ALIVE III (1993) {*3} and the almost obligatory MTV UNPLUGGED (1996) {*6} delivered the rock icons to fresher audiences.
It had to happen of course; ’96 marked a money-spinning, full-blown reunion tour with the original line-up and re-applied war-paint, the perfect KISS-off to those who had written them off for dead. Of course, this now meant that Kulick and Singer were surplus to requirement; the pair were duly given their marching orders and the KISS album they’d just worked on, CARNIVAL OF SOULS: THE FINAL SESSIONS {*4} was shelved. With bootleggers having a field day, the album was eventually given a belated release in 1997, although critics were generally agreed that its lacklustre contents should’ve been kept on the master-tape. Still, KISS were flying high after the runaway success of the reunion tour and even decided to record a full album together. The resulting PSYCHO CIRCUS (1998) {*4} cracked the US Top 3 to incredibly become the highest charting album of their near three-decade career! This despite the fact it offered nothing new or even compared to their glory days; examples `I Pledge Allegiance To The State Of Rock & Roll’ and `You Wanted The Best’. Then again, when the mainstream modern alternatives were so bland, was it any wonder people consistently clung to retro fantasies?
The band proceeded to indulge in perhaps one of heavy metal’s most annoying and consistently dull fantasies, that of classical orchestra meets rock band. KISS SYMPHONY: ALIVE IV (2003) {*4} was as dire as anything they’ve done – and that’s saying something. A double-CD set of preposterous, string-backed rehashes, minus Frehley (who’d wisely bailed out by this point, to be replaced by former BLACK ‘N’ BLUE man Tommy Thayer) and plus a musical non-connection between KISS and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, did not Grammy material make.
SIMMONS radio-activated his solo career in 2004 with a couple of very different albums, the first of which, ***HOLE {*4}, was a bizarre mishmash of covers (`Firestarter’ anyone?), earlier writing collaborations – DYLAN(!) and FRANK ZAPPA (featuring son Dweezil Z) no less, the latter made possible by the co-operation of Frank’s wife Gail – and out of character ballads. The other record was a stand-up (as in “comedy”) effort, SPEAKING IN TONGUES (2004), performed before an appreciative Australian audience. From 2005, British fans could tune in to his weekly patter on Reality TV show, Rock School, shaking up a staid, private school music department in much the same way as the 2003 movie, School Of Rock, starring Jack Black. In 1984, Gene starred as a villain in the film Runaway (alongside Tom Selleck), while two years later “The Bat-Winged Vampire” featured in films Never Too Young To Die, Trick Or Treat and Wanted Dead Or Alive. Of late, the man in black was trying to extract charity money through an appearance in the US Apprentice.
Messrs Stanley, Simmons, Thayer and Singer reunited as KISS for 2009’s comeback Top 3 set, SONIC BOOM {*6}; the disguises now handed over to the respective replacements. The record was a full-blown attempt to recreate an old school, back-to-basics feel, while tracks such as `Russian Roulette’, `Modern Day Delilah’ and `Say Yeah’ pleased classic rock acolytes from all ends of the musical and generational spectrum.
MONSTER (2012) {*6} carried on the KISS-ography – their 20th album. Needless to say, this Top 3 album (No.21 in Britain) is dressed-to-kill, belt-and-braces, hard rock’n’roll. Lock up your great grand-daughters, KISS were back in a town near you. Opening salvo, `Hell Or Hallelujah’, tread the thin line between satanic or godly drama, while the odd tongue-in-cheek innuendo came through `Take Me Down Below’. Macho, delightfully cheap and retro-fied, only the neighbours could complain to the blasts of the appropriately-titled `Back To The Stone Age’, `Freak’ and `All For The Love Of Rock & Roll’ – the 70s were re-born.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/GRD-LCS // rev-up MCS Sep2012

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