I love writing about Kiss. I love it too much, probably. I’ve written about this band semiconstantly for the past 20 years, sometimes for reasons that weren’t justified and sporadically with motives that weren’t justified and intermittently with logic that wasn’t justified. But Kiss go into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame tomorrow, so today I’m Timothy Olyphant.
The New York rock-and-roll group Kiss was formed in 1972, when two workaholic Jews (guitarist Stanley Eisen and bassist Chaim Witz) aligned forces with two boozehound Christians (drummer Peter George John Criscuola1 and guitarist Paul Frehley). Their adopted stage names are household, unless you are very young, crazy old, or not interested in loud music: Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Peter Criss, and Ace Frehley (the last adopting “Ace” because the band didn’t need another Paul). The group was spawned upon the dissolution of Simmons and Stanley’s previous band, Wicked Lester, a folk-rock five-piece Simmons likes to compare to the United Nations (due to their mixture of ethnicities and nonuniform physical appearance). Wicked Lester scored a record deal with Epic, but most of the music was never officially released.
1. Oddly, many sources suggest that the sequence for this name should actually be "George Peter John Criscuola" (which transposes “George” with “Peter”). But Peter Criss’s autobiography, Makeup to Breakup, says differently.
From the standpoint of how instantly recognizable they are to people who barely care, Kiss are among the most famous rock bands in the history of the idiom. This is a function of appearing in public, for the first nine years of the band’s existence, only as theatrical characters allegedly representing their inner natures, once categorized by critic Chuck Eddy as “a cat, a bat lizard, something with one black star on one eye and something with one silver star on each eye.” Soon after its inception, the band knocked out three albums in 24 months, all on the ill-fated, drug-enriched label Casablanca. None of the records sold particularly well; combined sales were fewer than 300,000 units. Kiss responded to this failure by counterintuitively rerecording many of these unsuccessful songs in concert and releasing a double live album, titled Alive! It charted for 110 weeks. Kiss fans classify Kiss as the best live arena act of all time, almost to the point of utter obviousness; those who hate Kiss will usually concede they were (once) a competitive live act, but only if you were in middle school.
Throughout the last half of the ’70s, Kiss operated as the biggest band in the world — although not because of record sales (groups like Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles sold way, way more). Kiss simply declared that their enormity was reality, and reality elected to agree. They were popular enough for every member of the band to release a solo album on the same day and to have their actual blood mixed into the ink of Marvel comic books; they were popular enough to star in one of the most structurally irrational movies ever made and to sleep with the likes of Diana Ross. They were popular the way Pepsi is popular. But somewhere around 1979, a lot of odd and foreseeable things started happening in persistent succession: They made a disco album, Peter was fired, they made a concept album, Ace quit, they took off the makeup, they fired the guy hired to replace Ace, the guy who replaced the guy who replaced Ace got a bone disease, they sued a record label, they temporarily rediscovered popularity, the drummer who replaced Peter died from heart cancer, the original quartet reunited for $144 million, they created a 3-D concert experience (even though life is already three-dimensional), Peter quit twice, Ace quit again (and was replaced by a guy who once painted Paul Stanley’s house), Gene blamed the Internet for ruining music, Paul played the lead in Phantom of the Opera, and every original member wrote an autobiography. And now it’s today, and Kiss are still my favorite band, for reasons I incessantly attempt to articulate to varying degrees of imaginary success.
Is his essay collection The Disappointment Artist, Jonathan Lethem writes about his insecurity over analyzing the legacy of literary hero Philip K. Dick, an author whose best work had already been chronicled and whose worst work is relatively awful. Early in the piece, Lethem sums up his feelings with a lyric from Bob Dylan: “I’m in love with the ugliest girl in the world.” I strongly relate to this sentiment, particularly since that’s what Gene Simmons literally resembled in 1986.
Kiss do not make it easy for Kiss fans. There’s never been a rock group so easy to appreciate in the abstract and so hard to love in the specific. They inoculate themselves from every avenue of revisionism, forever undercutting anything that could be reimagined as charming. They economically punish the people who care about them most: In the course of my lifetime, I’ve purchased commercial recordings of the song “Rock and Roll All Nite” at least 15 times2 (18 if you count the 13-second excerpt used in the introduction to “Detroit Rock City” on Destroyer). Considered alone, this is not unusual; there are lots of bands who capitalize on the myopic allegiance of their craziest disciples. In 2009, Pavement announced a reunion tour and asked their most dogged fans (myself included) to purchase tickets a whopping 53 weeks in advance. Every decision was premeditated for maximum fiscal impact. “Instead of one announcement mapping out the entire tour itinerary,” noted the Washington Post, “concerts have been announced one by one, in a fine-tuned sequence seemingly designed to maximize profits in every possible way.” It was savvy business (and almost no one complained). Yet Pavement would never brag about this level of calculation. They would rationalize their actions, or they’d remind the media that they never explicitly said they wouldn’t add extra shows, or they’d chuckle about the swindle only when no one else was around. Pavement would always take the money, but they’d simply (a) say nothing, (b) feel bad about it, or (c) pretend to feel bad about it.
2. This is mostly because “Rock and Roll All Nite” tends to show up on pretty much every record Kiss have been involved with since 1992. I originally purchased the song on the studio album Dressed to Kill on cassette when I was in high school, and then again on CD in college, and then a third time when they remastered their existing catalogue in 1997. I performed the same triple-buy for Alive! and for Double Platinum. I purchased the import Killers only once (on CD), and I had Smashes, Thrashes & Hits only on tape. I think I might have found Alive III used, but I know I got both You Wanted the Best, You Got the Best!! and Greatest Kiss at Best Buy. “Rock and Roll All Nite” appears on all of those collections. It’s also on the symphonic album they recorded in Melbourne, Australia, the soundtrack to Dazed and Confused, and it appears twice on the Kiss box set. The fact that it’s not included on the Detroit Rock City movie soundtrack still shocks me.
But not Kiss.
Whenever Kiss cajole people into paying more money than the market demands, they tell everyone they know. They give instructional interviews about how future bait-and-switch endeavors can be designed, and they adopt the newest dodgy model for all prospective undertakings. Moreover, they’d insist the exchange was mutual. They would say the experience they offer is singular and nontransferable, and that anyone who isn’t willing to pay for the Kiss experience isn’t a Kiss fan (and therefore does not matter, or perhaps even exist). It’s the guiding principle behind everything Kiss does: To “qualify” as a Kiss supporter, you have to be a Kiss consumer. And this is nonnegotiable — it doesn’t work any other way. If you try to enjoy Kiss in the same way you enjoy Foghat or Culture Club or Spoon, you’ll fail. You might like a handful of songs or appreciate the high-volume nostalgia, but it will inevitably seem more ridiculous than interesting. To make this work, you need to go all the way. And this is because the difficult part of liking Kiss — the manipulative, unlikable part — is how you end up loving them.
This Thursday, Nirvana will also be inducted into the Rock Hall, in their first year of eligibility. (It was the 15th try for Kiss.) No one disputes the validity of this inauguration. Coincidentally, a pre-famous Nirvana covered a Kiss song in 1990, performing “Do You Love Me” on a compilation titled Hard to Believe. Nirvana historians care about this because it’s one of the only Nirvana recordings for which forgotten ex-guitarist Jason Everman plays in the studio; Kiss historians care about it because it gives credence to the theory that Kiss directly influenced Nirvana (and should therefore be credited as rightful progenitors of grunge, not unlike Black Sabbath and Neil Young). I’m not sure how sincerely one can take the latter claim, since (1) Nirvana seem to be making fun of the song as they play it, and (2) it was often impossible to differentiate between what Kurt Cobain liked and what he mocked, and it was sometimes hard to tell whether Cobain’s mockery had any relationship to his actual feelings. (Kiss are also Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready’s favorite band, which might have been enough to make Cobain hate them at the time.) My gut feeling is that Nirvana covered “Do You Love Me” because they thought it was comically masculine. But there’s one moment in their cover version that I always think about: It’s when the singer is directly addressing the song’s female antagonist, an opportunistic groupie obsessed with the trappings of fame and success. Among the various things she likes is “All the money, honey, that I make.” But Nirvana were singing this song in 1990, when they were broke and unknown. This being the case, they changed the words: Instead, they sing, “All the Mudhoney that I make.” Which, I suppose, was intended as a funny little in-joke for Mark Arm not to laugh at. But 24 years later, it feels different. When I hear it today, it seems like Nirvana were both fascinated and amused by Kiss; it seems like they liked the structure of the song, viewed the lyrical details as ironic, and enjoyed the process of recording it. But the idea of directly talking about how rich they were — even before they actually were rich — was just too unnerving for them to accept and replicate, even sardonically. It was so counter to what they valued (or — more accurately — what they aspired to value) that they felt more comfortable making a joke about the word “honey.”
They couldn’t even force themselves to pretend to talk like the band they were pretending to honor.
Here’s a statement only a fool would contradict: There’s never been a band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame whose output has been critically contemplated less than the music of Kiss, at least by the people who voted them in. I can’t prove this, but I’d guess 50 percent of the voters who put Kiss on their Rock Hall ballot have not listened to any five Kiss records more than five times; part of what makes the band so culturally durable is the assumption that you can know everything about their aesthetic without consuming any of it. That perception doesn’t bother me, and I certainly don’t think it bothers the band. In many ways, it works to their advantage. But I definitely disagree with anyone who thinks these albums are somehow immaterial. It’s traditionally hard to get an accurate appraisal on their value, because most people who write about Kiss either don’t care at all or care way too much. My publishing this essay arguably puts me in the latter camp (and the argument is not terrible). But it doesn’t feel that way. I know what I know: A few of these records are great, most are OK, several are bad, and some should be buried in sulphur. An objective person could assess the Kinks’ catalogue with identical language. I, however, have not listened to all 31 Kinks albums enough times to properly do so. But I’ve listened to all these Kiss records enough to do this …
Kiss (1974): The first song on the first album is “Strutter,” which (coincidentally or unfortunately) might be the clearest, classiest rock song Kiss ever produced. I suppose a cynic might claim it was all downhill from there. But that’s stupid: All five tracks on the A side are unambiguously excellent — simple, chewy, and stylized (employing the best possible connotations of all those modifiers). “Cold Gin” makes poverty3 as exhilarating as alcoholism, and “Let Me Know” remains the most underrated song in the band's 40-year history. The stuff on Side 2 is slightly weaker … but if Paul Westerberg considers it canonical, the prosecution has no further questions. 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. GRADE: A
3. “Cold Gin” (written by Frehley) is supposedly what you drink when your heating system breaks down and the landlord isn’t around to fix it, and “the cheapest stuff” is all that’s required for these purposes. However, I’m still not sure why you would specifically want cold gin if you were trying to stay warm. Why not room-temperature gin? Too many syllables?
Hotter Than Hell (1974): This is one of the most poorly mixed albums ever released. Not surprisingly, that type of technical failure — when awarded the luxury of time — ultimately becomes romantic. Hotter Than Hell now seems ultra-honest: In the ’90s, a handful of indie weirdos tried to make their records sound this cheap on purpose. The songwriting is exceedingly minimal and uncommonly naturalistic (“Comin’ Home” and “All the Way,” in particular). “Parasite” is one of the rare early Kiss riffs that qualify as traditionally metallic; it’s also inventive and influential, which is rarer still. Of course, the main artifact people tend to recall about this album is “Goin’ Blind,” a dirgelike Gene Simmons power ballad about a 93-year-old man having an affair with a 16-year-old girl. (The detail about the age difference was actually concocted by Paul.) It’s hard to understand why this would be a fantasy for a normal 25-year-old person, but I suppose it has a certain Dark Crystal appeal. There’s also a general consensus that the narco-woozy solo on “Strange Ways” is the most arresting guitar work Ace Frehley ever got on tape, but the universality of that sentiment is heavily based on Dimebag Darrell’s expressed opinion before he got murdered. Audiophiles may note that Hotter Than Hell was remastered in 1997, thereby making its appalling production extra loud. GRADE: A-
Dressed to Kill (1975): Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster thinks the first track on this album (“Room Service”) is the worst song ever made by anyone, but his logic is flawed. Wurster seems skeptical that a stewardess on a commuter airline would decide to have sex with Paul Stanley simply because his body language implied he was annoyed by an impending flight delay. Anyone who truly understands Kiss knows that this sort of thing happens to Paul constantly (he even wrote a song about it in 1989 — “Read My Body” — in which he compares his penis to a font). More importantly, the guitar riff on “Room Service” is borderline life-affirming (sort of glam-pop Chuck Berry). “Getaway” is a snappy Ace track (sung by Peter), “C’mon and Love Me” is an introduction to the black magic of astrologist Susan Miller, and the blandly titled “She” has got to be the only rock song in history to rip off the Doors, reference John Wayne’s Hondo, promote prostitution, and launch the future commerciality of grunge.4 It should also be noted that “Rock and Roll All Nite” closes the album, although this fledgling version sounds like it was recorded on a microcassette inside an aluminum grain bin. GRADE: B+
4. It directly influenced Pearl Jam’s “Alive,” although I don’t think anyone would have figured this out if the affable Mike McCready hadn’t directly said as much in a Guitar School interview.
Alive! (1975): Side 1 is 80 percent perfect, eradicating whatever sonic problems the first three studio albums may (or may not) have had. Side 2 is 75 percent perfect, albeit slightly less bombastic (which matters, since that’s the whole idea here). Side 3 lasts for fucking ever. Side 4 is loose and clichéd and joyous and indefatigable, and it proves that Paul Stanley truly had zero interest in drinking culture (since he somehow doesn’t know there’s a proper name for vodka mixed with orange juice). I don’t enjoy live albums, but I enjoy this one. GRADE: A+
Destroyer (1976): Produced by conceptual taskmaster Bob Ezrin and considered the closest Kiss ever came to making a conventionally classic album, Destroyer is actually more uneven than most of the band’s output from this period. “Detroit Rock City” is overrated and monotonous, an opinion validated by the fact that people who hate Kiss tend to begrudgingly concede this song is OK. Conversely, the sleazy flash of “King of the Night Time World” sounds better every year it ages. “God of Thunder” would have been cooler had Ezrin retained the proto-disco tempo of its original demo. “Shout It Out Loud” is supposed to remind people of “Rock and Roll All Nite,” which would feel more practical if the public somehow failed to remember that “Rock and Roll All Nite” is the only song Kiss always, always, always plays. The guys in the group can’t retrospectively agree on whether they initially thought “Beth” was brilliant or terrible, but they all concede it paid for itself 100 times over. “Do You Love Me” springs off the speakers like a mongoose and allows the listener to imagine the members of Kiss reading about themselves in magazines and worrying that all the abundant glossy photographs will prompt women to expect them to pay for dinner. Ace doesn’t play on “Sweet Pain” (allegedly due to a local card game, although this has never been confirmed), so Ezrin brought in some guy from Alice Cooper to pretend he was a castrated Ted Nugent. The cover art makes for an excellent T-shirt and a decent golf visor; the spoken-word intro displays questionable news judgment; if this record were weather, it would be partly cloudy with a 40 percent chance of mastodons. GRADE: B
Rock and Roll Over (1976): Rock and Roll Over is a collection of 10 songs, eight of which are explicitly about human physicality but only one of which intersects with human emotion. Many of these tracks exhibit a distance between personal actions and interpersonal feelings, including the ones with functioning narrative threads. (“Baby Driver” is about a single-minded obsession with rudimentary transportation.)5 “Hard Luck Woman” was originally written for mid-period Rod Stewart and sounds exactly like a song originally written for mid-period Rod Stewart; this is, of course, exceedingly positive. “Makin’ Love” is the closest Ace ever comes to Jimmy Page, which is as positive as positive gets. Mostly unrelated, but not totally: 1976 also marks the period when Gene Simmons was briefly obsessed with behaving like an animatronic robot. GRADE: A-
5. This isn't "science," but it is interesting: There’s a 2007 documentary about a teenager with Asperger syndrome titled Billy the Kid, and the kid in question (Billy) loves Kiss. Another person with Asperger’s, John Elder Robison (the brother of memoirist Augusten Burroughs), was actually employed by Kiss and designed a lot of Frehley’s guitar equipment.
Love Gun (1977): This is Kiss at their utmost Kiss (so if you don’t like this, you don’t like Kiss): excellent Eddie Kramer production, the third-best Peter song, the second-best Ace song, and no dead weight (unless you hate the Crystals cover at the end, which I don’t). Personally, I’ve never been a big fan of the title track, as the faux-Bonham drumming reminds me of hearing a jackhammer at 6 a.m. But I guess it’s not bad for a song written completely inside Paul’s head while he stared out the window during a cross-country flight (although this also means Paul was sitting on an airplane and thinking about metaphors for his cock, a preoccupation that skews uncouth). GRADE: A
Alive II (1977): “Not having to be in the studio with each other for all those hours certainly made sense to everyone” was the retrospective analysis of ex-Kiss manager Bill Aucoin. That’s a curious reason for recording a second live album, but — with Kiss — the ends always justify the means. “I Stole Your Love” is the musical equivalent of giving five Heinekens and an El Camino to a 14-year-old who thinks 2 Fast 2 Furious was based on real events. A lot of this material isn’t actually live (I believe Paul once said, “It was as live as it needed to be”), but these oversexed diplomats never claimed to be Bon Iver. The extra studio tracks on Side 4 allegedly exist to fulfill an arcane contractual obligation, but a few are quite likable (“Rocket Ride” and the Dave Clark Five cover especially). GRADE: A-
Double Platinum (1978): The first of about 547 greatest-hits packages, all of which will contain “Rock and Roll All Nite.” The song selection is appropriate, but everything was remixed and compressed (and somebody took the guitar solo off “Strutter” for no defensible reason). GRADE: C-
Kiss: Ace Frehley (1978): This record includes “Rip It Out” and the definitive cover of Hello’s “New York Groove,” which is just about as vintage as any of these jokers are gonna get from here on out. GRADE: A
Kiss: Gene Simmons (1978): This record features Joe Perry, Cher, one Doobie Brother, Janis Ian, Donna Summer, a homage to silent-film star Lon Chaney, and a faithful cover of a song off the Pinocchio soundtrack. It’s also about having sex in a Holiday Inn, with a drum intro that vaguely mirrors “Escape (The Pina Colada Song)” and a passable Big Bopper impersonation. GRADE: B
Kiss: Paul Stanley (1978): This record has a track where Paul Stanley insists it’s alright if a woman wants to have noncommittal sex with him, because he’s just that kind of open-minded dude. The Cheap Trick–ish “Wouldn’t You Like to Know Me?” should have been a minor hit; “Hold Me, Touch Me (Think of Me When We’re Apart)” did crawl up to no. 46 on the Hot 100 and might have gone higher if the song title didn’t seem like Jewel’s unpublished poetry airbrushed onto the side of a unicorn. GRADE: B+
Kiss: Peter Criss (1978): This record was released by Peter Criss in 1978. GRADE: D
Dynasty (1979): This is the sellout, frozen-face, Studio 54–obsessed plexiglass superdisc, which makes me want to like it. Perversely, I do not. “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” is a wide-angle disco caricature with a paint-by-numbers guitar solo; it sounds like what would happen if you hauled a $79 Casio keyboard into a cave and hit the "Disco" function. Paul has claimed he was simply trying to prove that absolutely anyone could write a disco song and have it chart in the top 10. It got to no. 11. Space Ace covers the Stones for coincidental symbolism, and Gene rhetorically asks if the illusion of celebrity defines his improbable charisma. These are the high points. The worst songs (“X-Ray Eyes” and “Save Your Love”) are classified as “songs” only because that seems to be the accepted nomenclature. GRADE: D+
Unmasked (1980): Here we have the group’s unabashed pop album. The dreadful cartoon cover appears confused by its own irony. Much of this material is underrated (except for “Torpedo Girl,” which is worse than advertised). “Shandi” sounds silly the first time you play it, but it’s an authentically beautiful song with sincere sentimentality — and it was so popular in Australia that Kiss were able to leverage a stadium tour across the continent. “Tomorrow” and “Is That You?” showcase Paul’s considerable aptitude as a working-class creator of formalist radio fare. The Simmons number “She’s So European” is one of his most oblique attempts at romantic exposition, although the phrase “She’s So European” might just be code for “She’s So Annoying.” All told, Unmasked remains an absorbing period piece and an essential text for anyone trying to figure out what these guys consider mainstream pop. Peter Criss was still officially the drummer for this release, but he doesn’t play on any of these songs (it’s all Anton Fig, who now works for David Letterman). That doesn’t hurt. Of course, Unmasked is also Ace at his absolute septic-tank worst, which does. GRADE: B+
Music From "The Elder" (1981): Indisputably the most fascinating Kiss album by a factor of 10, this is the soundtrack to a movie that does not exist,6 fueled by mountains of cocaine the band members did not ingest.7 Only two songs have any relationship to the rest of the group’s catalogue: the exceptional Ace cut “Dark Light” (cowritten by Lou Reed) and the confrontational closer “I” (perhaps the first translucent glimpse into Simmons’s Randian ideology). There’s now an urban legend suggesting this is the only Kiss album that ever got a positive review in Rolling Stone magazine, but the writer merely compared it to Jethro Tull (and it’s not really a compliment). This is the Rubicon that signaled a permanent change within the band: They actively made a record for the critics, earnestly believed the work was exceptional, and found themselves humiliated in front of an audience who now saw them as desperate and confused. In response, Paul and Gene reversed their original feelings (they now claim to hate all the songs), rejected the entire notion of taste, and decided to view any art created for noncommercial purposes as inherently false. This album will never be appreciated objectively, unless we can find a way to play it for someone who (1) likes theatrical classical rock, but (2) has no idea that Kiss ever existed. GRADE: A-
6. Due to its nonexistence (there is not even a script), deducing the plot to The Elder solely from its corresponding music is more or less impossible. It appears to be set in a version of the past that is actually the future, focusing on a boy recruited by a medieval organization called the Order of the Rose. A British metal writer named Seb Hunter is currently trying to make this film happen, but there’s absolutely no chance Kiss will give him the rights to this music. Which means we will eventually have the soundtrack to a film that does not exist and a film inspired by a soundtrack it can’t actually use.
Killers (1982 import): Kiss were so embarrassed by The Elder that Paul grew a beard. They also sheepishly sent this greatest-hits collection around the world (with the most popular edition landing in Japan). The track listings vary from country to country, but all versions include four new songs — “I’m a Legend Tonight” (dumb and boring), “Down on Your Knees” (dumber still, but less boring), “Partners in Crime” (meh), and “Nowhere to Run” (blah). Killers was hard to find, overpriced, and repetitive, so if you own this album, you obviously love the band already (regardless of what they were trying to accomplish). GRADE: B-
7. The ingestion was performed primarily by Ezrin, an amazing producer who probably got caught up in his own genius. Which he now admits: “There are some great moments [on The Elder] for sure, and some classics buried in the mix. But on the whole, it’s way too self-indulgent and way too overproduced. It’s also not fully realized.”
Creatures of the Night (1982): This tends to be the album “real” Kiss fans are supposed to adore and the musical project most lauded by the band itself (“I like Destroyer, Creatures, and Revenge,” Simmons once remarked, although I’m pretty sure he was promoting Revenge at the time of this remarking). To this day, Paul continues to unsuccessfully deny he wrote “I Still Love You” about the actress who played Tom Hanks’s girlfriend on Bosom Buddies. Overall, Creatures of the Night is the most metal Kiss record (in response to The Elder), and the worst-selling (because of The Elder). At times, it traffics in heaviness for the sake of heaviness, which would be OK if Kiss were a legitimately heavy band. Still, Eric Carr is like the ’85 Bears on drums and the best material is pulverizing. (“War Machine,” cowritten with Bryan Adams, is the last monolith Simmons ever made and an indispensable snapshot of his militaristic persona.) The songs are worth spinning if you’re lifting weights or moving furniture or oxyacetylene welding. Ace had exited the band at this point, so a then-unknown Vinnie (Cusano) Vincent provides most of the recognizable guitar playing (although I get the impression the number of uncredited session players employed here falls somewhere in the vicinity of Steely Dan’s Gaucho). This was also the period when Eddie Van Halen allegedly asked Gene Simmons if he could join Kiss, an anecdote Gene has told approximately 4,000 times and Eddie has told approximately never. GRADE: B+
It was at this juncture in the Kiss chronology that they stopped wearing makeup and became a straightforward hair metal band, albeit with more credibility and less youthful indiscretion (no drugs, basically). Readers of early-’80s rock magazines may recall many bizarre interviews with Paul and Gene where they were asked if it would be difficult for them to record music without the greasepaint, thereby suggesting that many reporters somehow assumed Kiss wore makeup in the studio. Still, the visual alteration meant the records now had to stand on their own, so many (most?) people stopped caring. Some of the group’s creative limitations were pushed to the surface: “You’d be hard-pressed to name another band that wrote all its own songs over such a long period of time without ever learning how,” noted Rob Sheffield for Rolling Stone. Here again, I am forced to disagree, even if I can’t think of another band that fits that description better. And at least I know Rob put in the work (he classified Hot in the Shade as “polished and diverse” when he was still writing for Spin in 1990). For those keeping book in the outfield, Kiss re-donned the Kabuki gear in ’96, affecting their songwriting exactly as much as logic would dictate.
Lick It Up (1983): This was a successful comeback project (with Vincent updating the guitar sound and writing material competitive with the rest of popular culture, or at least competitive with Dokken). With the face paint vanquished, Paul holds the singular spotlight (Gene becomes just the tall guy on bass). “All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose” deserves some credit for inventing rap-rock, although that’s a little like complimenting Vlade Divac for inventing flopping. The title cut remains a live standard; it actually sounds better when played faster than intended (which usually happens), but — at least in the studio — Gene wanted everyone to stay in the “monster plod.” I’ve also been told the central “Lick It Up” lick can be learned and memorized in less than 10 minutes by anyone who knows how to properly hold a guitar, so that’s convenient. GRADE: B
Animalize (1984): Vinnie was fired by Kiss and replaced by Mark St. John (who would make only this one album before contracting Reiter’s syndrome, a rare strand of arthritis). Simmons contributes almost nothing except a lyrical passage that compares someone’s vagina to a fireplace (I still dig the primordial riff, though). Paul Stanley handles everything else (including the production and the album art), almost like McCartney after the other three Beatles lost interest. “Heaven’s on Fire” is a great effort, and all the nihilistic grandstanding on Side 2 is uninspired but understandable. I realize this isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, but the group was in shambles and still managed to yield a competent double-platinum rock record. Time has proven that Paul is the only member of the band who never stopped caring about what they were doing musically. GRADE: B
Asylum (1985): Writing about how the visceral physicality of unencumbered intercourse offers fleeting escape from the constructed tedium of day-to-day existence is not a bad premise for a song. However, naming that song “Uh! All Night” slightly detracts from that premise. In ’85, Gene was still acting like a deadbeat dad and poor Paul was running out of ideas; Bruce Kulick had taken over on lead guitar and had to make the milk shakes for everyone else. I guess it’s admirable that Kiss were still trying to put out a new album every goddamn year, even if the main motive was avoiding bankruptcy. GRADE: C
Crazy Nights (1987): The album title is Crazy Nights. The single is titled “Crazy Crazy Nights.” The chorus of the single states that these are “crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy nights.” Well, that escalated quickly. The penultimate track is “Turn On the Night.” The ultimate track is “Thief in the Night.” A lot seems to be happening nocturnally. Were Kiss actually raccoons? As usual, the mainstream media refused to investigate. Your appreciation of this music will be proportional to your appreciation of Desmond Child and/or your awareness of who Desmond Child is. GRADE: C-
Smashes, Thrashes & Hits (1988): Another greatest-hits cash-in, except this time it sounds like Paul remixed or rerecorded almost everything on the record. This required Eric Carr to sing his own studio version of “Beth,” which seems like a lot of work for the sole purpose of making Peter Criss feel bad. The anthology includes two new songs that are humiliating for all involved, although enough time has passed to make “Let’s Put the X in Sex” moronically enchanting. GRADE: B
Hot in the Shade (1989): Considering the year this was released and the year I was born, I probably listened to this album 300 times, roughly 296 more than necessary. It’s most noteworthy for Simmons’s brazen decision to start singing about the wonders of merciless capitalism without any fear over how that might look, hence “Cadillac Dreams” and “The Street Giveth and the Street Taketh Away.” The rest is pretty much sleepwalking, though. GRADE: D-
Revenge (1992): Created in the wake of Carr’s death and released within the vortex of grunge, Revenge was well received by Kiss fans and opened at no. 6 on the Billboard album chart before dropping like a donkey down a mine shaft. Ezrin was back as producer, as was Vinnie Vincent as a cowriter. Gene grew a goatee and Paul bought a leather duster, so you know a lot of deep consideration went into this. This record might seem OK if it weren't alleged to be outstanding; not unlike Zima and Las Vegas, every single exposure is slightly worse than the one before. I would not travel through time to hear this again. GRADE: B-
Alive III (1993): There’s a decent version of “I Love It Loud” on here, which I think was even on the radio for two or three weeks. They stick “Rock and Roll All Nite” in the middle of the set, which is absurd. Francis Scott Key gets a writing credit. A reasonable comparison is The Godfather: Part III. GRADE: D
Kiss Unplugged (1996): Contrived by MTV to reunite the original band (Paul and Gene were complicit in this decision, suddenly finding an "outside" reason for the reunion everyone always suspected was inevitable), this is of high interest to completists (an earnest “See You Tonight”!) and fundamentally irrelevant to everyone else (an earnest “See You Tonight”?). GRADE: B+
Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions (1997): Recorded before the reunion agreement was signed and released to kill time, Carnival of Souls illustrates the direction late-period Kiss were going before people remembered they used to be awesome. That direction, it seems, was the New Sincerity — songs about child abuse, songs about hate, songs with titles like “I Walk Alone” (sung by the recently exiled Bruce Kulick), and absolutely no anthems or memorable melodies. This is the anti-Kiss; I might add that it’s also anti-good, but that would be cheap. I’m bumping it up one half letter grade for the peculiarity of its ambition. GRADE: C
Psycho Circus (1998): The long-awaited reunion of the original Kiss lineup and the worst album the band ever made. Frehley’s “Into the Void” is the strongest cut on the album, and also terrible. GRADE: F
Kiss Symphony: Alive IV (2003): This was recorded with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra in Australia. If you own this album, it means (a) you own every album on this list, (b) “Shandi” was your wedding song, or (c) you are a member of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. GRADE: D
Sonic Boom (2009): Those who believe Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason” is the best song of the ’70s might vaguely enjoy the track “When Lightning Strikes,” and it sometimes seems like C.C. DeVille is playing guitar on “Never Enough.” The lead single (“Modern Day Delilah”) is akin to something off Revenge that was supposed to sound like Creatures of the Night. I know a few people who like this album, but they always start their positive proclamations with the sentence, “You know, I actually thought this wasn’t so terrible.” That’s almost supportive, kind of. GRADE: C-
Monster (2012): The 20th Kiss studio album, recorded so Kiss could say they’ve made 20 studio albums. The 20th Rolling Stones album was Dirty Work, which sounds like Sticky Fingers by comparison. When R.E.M. made an album titled Monster, it felt like the least-heavy record ever made by a band trying to be heavy on purpose. Yet it’s still heavier than this. GRADE: F
I don’t think there’s much risk of any member of Kiss entering the Rock Hall as a solo artist, particularly since the Hall isn’t even willing to induct any member who wasn’t in the original lineup (not even Eric Carr, who was in the band for 11 years). But to quote a wizened miscreant with excellent judgment: “Just in case … ”
Out of Control (Peter Criss, 1980): This is probably cheating, but Out of Control becomes pretty fascinating if you pretend Peter Criss is actually Harry Nilsson. You just have to listen to the lyrics of a song like “In Trouble Again” and imagine how they’d come across if they reflected problems and scenarios that actually happened in Nilsson’s life, as opposed to things that may have happened to Peter Criss. You might also want to get super-high for this, but I would never advocate drugs. GRADE: D
Let Me Rock You (Peter Criss, 1982): No, seriously, I insist … allow me to rock you. GRADE: D-
Vinnie Vincent Invasion (Vinnie Vincent Invasion, 1986): A Joycean masterwork. The Reagan administration’s Blow by Blow. Nine and a half perfect songs (because even I get a little bored during “Back on the Streets”). This was either the second- or third-best rock album released in ’86, depending on your relative feelings toward Master of Puppets and The Queen Is Dead. GRADE: A+
Frehley’s Comet (Frehley’s Comet, 1987): It took almost 10 years to make this album, which feels about right: The opener (“Rock Soldiers”) is the rare example of a man writing a song about the defining moment of his own life while somehow managing to misremember almost all of the details.8 “Love Me Right” is direct and “Dolls” is obtuse, yet both are closer to Old Kiss than what New Kiss was doing in 1987. The best cut is “Calling to You,” which was (not exactly surprisingly) written by the bass player in 1982. Is this the Kiss corollary to All Things Must Pass? Yes, if we are somehow legally obligated to pretend such a thing exists. GRADE: B+
8. A first-person story describing a near-fatal car wreck, “Rock Soldiers” states in its first lines: “It was back in the summer of ’83 / There’s a reason I remember it well.” However, the accident actually occurred in the spring of 1982. Later in that same verse, Ace claims, “The Devil sat in the passenger’s side / Of DeLorean’s automobile.” However, Ace wasn’t driving the car (Anton Fig was), and the vehicle was a Porsche. It should be noted that Frehley did have an unrelated incident with a DeLorean in 1983 on the Bronx River Parkway, but there was no accident (just a DUI).
Second Sighting (Frehley’s Comet, 1988): Ten songs, written in about 10 minutes. One is pretty good. Two or three are OK. Difficult to remember which are which. GRADE: D+
All Systems Go (Vinnie Vincent Invasion, 1988): Featuring vocalist Mark Slaughter9 and his 287-octave range, this was a perplexing step backward for the self-absorbed Vinnie. The shredding on “Dirty Rhythm” is a respectable rewrite of “Fits Like a Glove,” and “That Time of Year” might work at a really dismal prom — but there’s something disenchanting about a record where the music is fast and the atmosphere is ponderous. Vincent performs a few bars of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the front of Side 2, which I’m sure was very inspiring to all the Soviet emigrants who defected to America to work at Tower Records. GRADE: B-
9. Following this album, the other three members of Vinnie Vincent Invasion managed to kick Vinnie Vincent out of his own band. They proceeded to form Slaughter and opened for Kiss in the summer of 1990. In 2011, Vincent was charged with domestic abuse in Nashville, but the charges have been “retired,” whatever that means. Simmons regularly refers to Vincent as the most self-destructive person he’s ever met and insists he was never an official member of Kiss (as Vincent refused to sign the paperwork necessary for liability insurance).
Trouble Walkin’ (Ace Frehley, 1989): There’s a leathery cover of ELO’s “Do Ya” on this post-Comet project, and a few members of Skid Row make cameos. But the main thing this record did was give people an excuse to purposefully mishear the phrase “I am trouble walking” as “I have trouble walking,” which was a far more accurate categorization of the person singing the lyrics. GRADE: C+
Euphoria (Vinnie Vincent Invasion, 1996): The main thing you need to know about this four-track EP is that it includes a song called “Get the Led Out” that does not resemble Led Zeppelin in any significant way, almost to the point where I suspect Vinnie honestly misspelled the word “lead” and just had to pretend like this was artistically intentional. GRADE: D
Union (Union, 1998): Bruce Kulick seems like a decent person with a reasonable sense of self. The singer on this album is the vocalist from Mötley Crüe who is not Vince Neil. Kulick is now a member of Grand Funk Railroad (who still play 40 shows a year). This is not actually a record review. GRADE: I
Asshole (Gene Simmons, 2004): Too on-the-nose. GRADE: F
Live to Win (Paul Stanley, 2006): I sometimes suspect this record is a heavily veiled description of Paul’s fractious relationship with Gene. Stanley’s memoir halfheartedly insists their relationship has slowly improved over time, and they evidently like each other enough to co-own a minor league football franchise. But Stanley also writes, “[Gene] chose to ignore his underlying issues and instead committed himself to creating an external façade and persona that, unfortunately, he felt required to knock down anyone who threatened his singularity in the spotlight.” He also deflates the notion that Simmons is some kind of financial genius: “Gene’s most successful venture in business was promoting the perception that he was a savvy businessman.” When Stanley got married in 2005, he did not invite Simmons to the wedding. GRADE: C-
Anomaly (Ace Frehley, 2009): For eight consecutive minutes (the wobbly “Pain in the Neck” and a cover of “Fox on the Run”), this is a B+ effort. But there are 46 additional minutes. GRADE: C-
So where does this leave Kiss “academically”? My grading system10 saddles the group with a cumulative GPA of 2.56, although it jumps to 3.16 if you count only the albums released during the first makeup era (which seems to be how the Rock Hall is viewing the band). If you include all the later solo projects, the grade point dips to 2.34, arguably below the Mendoza Line for inclusion into an institute that supposedly rewards eminence. But one must also realize (1) my grading reflects no larger consensus, (2) great works amplify an artist’s musical legacy more than subpar works erode it, and (3) we all know this is beside the point, anyway (because this, as always, is about Kiss — the rules are different).
10. I counted each album as a three-credit class; solo albums were worth two credits apiece, and double albums were worth four. I have to assume the mathematical accuracy of my grading would matter to Kiss, or at least to Gene Simmons (since he started his professional life as a sixth-grade teacher at P.S. 75 in Spanish Harlem).
I support the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a physical building. It’s a pleasant structure in which to walk around. There’s a futuristic room where you can lie on the floor and watch videos on a massive TV, and it’s right next to the Great Lakes Science Center (so you can visit both venues without reparking your car). Of course, as an institution, the Rock Hall is totally devoid of meaning. But this is no one’s fault. There’s no way the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame could ever be definitive or authoritative, simply because there’s no shared consensus over what rock music is supposed to do. Say what you will about the Baseball Hall of Fame, but at least we all agree on the point of the game it celebrates. We know that individual success at baseball reflects (a) the ability to generate runs, or (b) the ability to stop an opponent from generating runs. But what is the point of pop music? What constitutes success? Everyone has an opinion, but no one knows for sure. There are players in the Baseball Hall of Fame who might not deserve induction, but I can’t think of a single inductee considered "terrible" by a subset of baseball fans; there are, however, many people (including members of the Rock Hall committee, most notably Dave Marsh) who’d classify Kiss as terrible. So how does one rationalize the canonization of a group that some people don’t even view as satisfactory?
Well, maybe like this:
If you want the Rock Hall to be exclusively composed of serious artists who’ve been granted elite status through critical consensus, that’s fine. That’s an acceptable thing to want. But the facility won’t have much utility as a tourist attraction (because only critics will care) and it won’t eliminate the central problem (since art is still subjective). If you make mass popularity the main criterion, things get even worse — the Rock Hall becomes Twitter. If you think voters should equally consider both of those qualities simultaneously, you end up with what we have now — a club that places Laura Nyro alongside Metallica, regardless of how unconnected they seem to anyone with a relationship to both. But there is at least one metric that makes sense to me: the sheer number of people who really care about an artist, demonstrated over time. This does not privilege the taste of an exclusive class of people who get to decide for everyone else, nor does it mechanically reflect a raw numeric census of anyone who once purchased an album or once attended a concert. I’m referring to the long-term accumulation of people who are exceptionally invested in a particular artist’s existence; essentially, I’m referring to the kind of people crazy enough to care whether a few musicians they’ve never met are inducted into a mythical society that serves no nonsymbolic purpose. Certainly, every major artist has a handful of fans who fit into this category. But some have way more. And if an artist’s career output fosters that kind of following on a mass scale for multiple generations, they’ve obviously done something right. They’ve created art that validates itself, and which doesn’t need to be validated by anyone else.
One thing I’ve learned in my life is that — creatively — it’s better to have one person love you than to have 10 people like you. It’s very easy to like someone’s work, and it doesn’t mean that much; you can like something for a year and just as easily forget it even existed. But people remember the things they love. They psychologically invest in those things, and they use them to define their lives (and even if the love fades, its memory imprints on the mind). It creates an immersive kind of relationship that bleeds into the outside world, regardless of the motivating detail. In pop music, the most self-evident example is the Grateful Dead, although Rush and the Smiths fall into the same class. Another example is Fugazi. Two others are Bikini Kill and the Insane Clown Posse. These are artists who diametrically impact how substantial factions of people choose to think about the universe. The social footprint they leave is far deeper than their catalogue.
This is why Kiss must be accepted as meaningful.
As a counterexample, take a band like Boston: The first Boston record has more good songs than any Kiss record, and Tom Scholz is more talented than all the members of Kiss combined. The eponymous 1976 Boston LP sold 17 million copies, which roughly equates with the aggregate sales for all Kiss studio records involving the original members. I’m a big fan of Boston, as is much of middle-aged America. There are more reasonable people who like the music of Boston than there are reasonable people who like the music of Kiss. But Boston are not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and very few listeners care. Nobody feels betrayed or outraged. And this is because there aren’t enough humans who love Boston for nonmusical reasons. Such creatures exist, but they are few and far between. Those of us who dig Boston tend to think about them only when “More Than a Feeling” or “Something About You” comes on the radio; conversely, those of us who dig Kiss think about them all the time. We buy new Kiss records we know we won’t like, and the purchase still feels essential. It almost wouldn’t matter if the CDs were blank, because Kiss has transcended music and become something else entirely. And if you are not going to lionize the transposition of creation and emotion — if you’re not going to lionize the ability of a musical band to matter more as a concept than as a mere producer of sound — I’m not sure what we’re pretending to do here.
When asked the question, “Why Kiss?” there’s a temptation to respond with, “Why anything?” It’s the kind of existential response that spikes the whole argument; its implication is that all obsessions are fundamentally identical and that the chosen subject is just an arbitrary, unambiguous placeholder for the desire to care about anything at all. It’s definitely the easiest way to make a nonridiculous case. It does not, however, seem accurate. I don’t think loving Kiss is the same as loving the X-Men or Anne Rice or Veronica Mars or Manchester United, or even the same as loving Alice Cooper or Marilyn Manson. There is something unique about how the process of fixation metabolizes with Kiss, and — as I consider what the quality is — I find myself a little disturbed by all the possible answers. But it still gets us closer to what truly matters. The question is not “Why Kiss?” and it is not “Why anything?” The question is “Why would someone love the obstinate, outlandish version of something when there are so many alternative options that would be easier to appreciate and more credible to espouse?” In other words, what is so extra-good about something the intellectual world tells me is ultra-bad?
I think it comes down to three things.
The first part involves self-imposed Stockholm syndrome. The second part involves a fallacious sense of ownership, which is related to the first part.
The third part involves most of the world being wrong.
Part 1: I know Kiss are fucking me over, and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know this. I know they view me as a robot. As far as they are concerned, I exist only to buy the same old material they keep repurposing while unconditionally investing my thoughts into the same self-mythologizing anecdotes11 they keep telling, over and over again. But here’s the thing: I like it. It seems insane, but I know it’s true. I enjoy giving Kiss my money; it’s one of the few extensions of consumerism that provides me with genuine gratification. At this point, the process of acquiring Kiss minutiae is not that different from actually experiencing it. If someone sends me a Kiss book, I read it the same day it arrives, even if I’ve read every fact and detail before. That’s almost preferable, somehow (it reminds me of who I am). I might start casually following Arena League football now that Gene and Paul own a team, the L.A. Kiss. In fact, I might buy an L.A. Kiss T-shirt. (I once purchased an Ace Frehley baseball jersey, although I can’t recall ever wearing it.) Have Kiss trained me to think like this? I suspect they must have, because I don’t feel this way about anything else. By interweaving capitalism so intimately with the very idea behind why they exist, wasting money on Kiss is actually pleasurable. I like being a prisoner. I wouldn’t if the stakes were higher, or if it weren't my choice. But the stakes are low and the choice is my own. And within this slavery comes an interesting kind of freedom, elucidated in Part 2.
11. These anecdotes include: Ace showing up to his band audition wearing sneakers that did not match, Gene asking Peter if he would be willing to wear a dress in order to join the band, how the photo session for the Hotter Than Hell album cover was insane and debauched, how “Rock and Roll All Nite” was written as an attempt to consciously create an anthem in the style of Sly & the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music,” how the original title of “Beth” was “Beck” (short for “Rebecca”) but Gene thought it would make people assume it was about Jeff Beck, et al.
Part 2: I own Kiss. I mean, not technically. I don’t own the trademark to their logo. I can’t request that they clean the leaves out of my storm gutters.12 But I have complete intellectual autonomy over my interaction with Kiss, as does every other person immersed in the Kiss Lifestyle. This is what happens when a band surrenders itself to total commoditization: Because Kiss do not pretend that what they do is motivated by some romantic, idealistic truth, you are able to eliminate the blind hero worship that so often comes with pop idolatry. Kiss are adored by their base, but only when they’re literally onstage, exercising the overt signifiers of arena rock; the moment they exit the arena, that same fan base views them skeptically and objectively. Ask a crazed Kiss fan if he or she thinks Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley are “good people” — you may be surprised by the response. Kiss fans tend to be unusually obsessed with the band’s greatest missteps (Kiss Meets the Phantom, the failure of The Elder, the exact year Gene and Paul started wearing wigs, etc.). We love hearing about the unintended darkness. The single-best book about the group is Kiss and Sell, written by their former business manager and built on gossipy details about their byzantine (and sometimes mortifying) financial framework. It’s just totally accepted that Kiss fans can love Kiss and still think they’re jerks; as such, it’s a balanced relationship. It’s a real relationship. Which brings us to …
12. Although this is allegedly how Tommy Thayer became the band’s current guitarist. Thayer started his career in the ’80s pop-metal band Black ’N Blue. Two of the group’s records were produced by Gene Simmons. Thayer left Black ’N Blue in 1988 and went on to portray Ace Frehley in Cold Gin, one of the better Kiss tribute bands. He eventually started working for Kiss in a business capacity, sometimes as a tour manager (whenever I interviewed Kiss in the ’90s, he would set up the phone calls) and sometimes as a gopher (he helped paint Paul Stanley’s bedroom and once claimed to have cleaned Gene Simmons’s storm gutters, although Thayer now denies this ever happened). When Frehley quit in 2003, Thayer adopted the same role in Kiss he had played in Cold Gin. He became Fake Ace. The only flaw is that his technical prowess prompts him to play the old Kiss songs a little too accurately, which sometimes makes the concerts oddly clinical.
Part 3: There are multiple levels of realness, none of which are absolute. A movie is composed of actors pretending to be other people on a set that represents a place that isn’t there, so it’s not real; the ideas and themes of a movie, if created and performed by talented people, can be acutely, profoundly real. This paradox is understood by everyone. Yet that contradiction confuses people when applied to Kiss. When the critical world looks at Kiss, they see adults pretending to be characters they are not, projecting unsophisticated music about fantasy emotions, presented as a means of earning revenue. What they do not see is that this is how almost all rock music would appear to an alien. It is inside the genre’s very DNA, all the way back to Elvis. So Kiss are not a cheaper, exploitive translation of rock; Kiss are the living definition of rock’s electrifying unreality, presented with absolute transparency. And the many rational, intelligent people who disagree with that are simply wrong (not about everything, but certainly about this).
Full disclosure as we touch rock bottom: I did not want Kiss to make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I thought it would be cooler if they didn’t; I liked the idea of Kiss coming to represent the opposite of whatever the Rock Hall purports to be. I find it strange that the people who hated Kiss at the height of their powers will now be allowed to amend their preposterous position in retrospect. Still, I know they deserve it, and I know the band is happy about it,13 and I want the band to be happy. You know, it’s so crazy: I always refer to the guys in Kiss by their first names, as if we’re somehow friends or acquaintances. It feels stupid to do this, and sort of childish. But that’s what happens when something enters your life and (impossibly, inexplicably, irrevocably) never leaves. I’ve thought about Kiss way too much over the past three decades, but still not as much as I’d secretly prefer. There is just no group that’s more fun to think about. There are some that are more fun to listen to, but that’s a different question. Whatever Kiss did, they did it right, including the things they did wrong. They have no rival and they have no peers. Advertising worked on me.
13. Actually, this might not be totally accurate. Gene Simmons has slammed the Hall for failing to include any non-original KISS members and Paul Stanley recently gave an interview to Classic Rock where he said he didn’t feel honored to be inducted or nominated. I was glad Paul said this. This, of course, isn’t quite the same as saying he wasn’t happy about the award, but it did make me wonder if he’s lost interest in the part of his job that requires pretending.