Kiss in Our Time
The world's greatest--or dumbest--rock 'n' roll band refuses to die. Pucker up, buttercup.
By Serene Dominic
When intellectual punk Paul Westerberg led the Replacements through a halfhearted cover of "Black Diamond" on Let It Be, it opened the floodgates for other alternative bands to finally come out of the closet and admit to once being members of the Kiss Army, devotees of Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. The Melvins modeled solo albums after Kiss' infamous four-solo-albums-at-once approach. Alice Donut's current live set lampoons Stanley's song introductions from Kiss Alive ("How many of you out there like to drink Robitussin?"). Even Nirvana got into the act, covering Kiss' glam-rock anthem "Do You Love Me" on an early Kiss tribute album. Who wouldn't want to hear the late Kurt Cobain sarcastically singing "You really love my seven-inch high heels" and "Money can really take you far"? It was probably this album's notoriety that prompted Kiss bassist Simmons and PolyGram to assemble their own tribute album, Kiss My A$$. Which is sorta like trying to round up all the popular kids at school to throw you a surprise party.
Sure, hipsters love 'em, Kiss memorabilia sells for big bucks, but what do we really know about those painted faces from New York? The band is celebrating its 20th anniversary--reuniting and performing at Arizona State Fair--so let's take a good look at the albums that built a career. They tell the band's story far better than a Kiss comic book, or the group-sanctioned, megalomanic rockumentary Kiss Uncensored ever could! It may not be hip to be square, but as Kiss has proved beyond a doubt, it pays to be dumb.
Kiss (1974). Someone actually has this bright idea--"If these guys cover Bobby Rydell's first hit, 'Kissin' Time,' they'll have their first hit, too!" Nope. Not even the most Neanderthal drumming since Dave Clark can push this puppy any higher than 90-something on the charts. Criss' makeup design is drastically simplified after this first LP, possibly because applying extra cat whiskers on his face was seriously eating into his groupie groping time.
Hotter Than Hell (1974). Paul Stanley wins the Brian Jones Memorial Award for Most Wasted Appearance on an Album Cover since Between the Buttons. Criss is literally holding up the drunk-off-his-high-heels Stanley for the cover photo. On the back, Stanley's on a bed getting licked up by a leather-clad lovely, but looking like he's about to heave star-shaped vomit chunks all over her shoulder. Talk about yer "wasted elegance"!
Dressed to Kill (1975). The first Kiss album to dent the Top 40, and supremely listenable to this day. "C'mon and Love Me" is the great Kiss hit that never was, with lunkheaded lyrics worthy of Slade: "You were distant, now you're nearer/I can feel your face in the mirror/The lights are out but I can feel you baby with my hands." Duuuh!! "Rock Bottom" starts off with wispy, "Time in a Bottle" guitars, then launches incongruously into a standard Kiss rocker about some chick with a hard ass. Kiss never claimed to be subtle!
Kiss Alive (1975). This album pretty much renders the first three expendable. Late, great rock critic Lester Bangs called it the second-greatest rock album of all time, behind Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music. Who are we to argue? Paul Stanley's between-song banter reaches its nutty zenith when he wholeheartedly endorses alcohol as a cure-all for the world's ills. "When you're down in the dumps and you need something to bring you up, there's only one thing that's gonna bring you up the way you want it." To which the throng of 14-year-olds screams, "Cold Gin!" Cold gin? It probably had 'em puking in the back of their parents' Impalas on the way home from the show. And it's not even a good song.
Destroyer (1976). Kiss' most sterling studio effort--produced by Bob "It's gotta have sound effects and kids' voices" Ezrin. "Detroit Rock City" is as rebellious as the band ever got, glorifying drinking and smoking before getting behind the wheel. Regardless, it's the best song about being catapulted through a car windshield since "Dead Man's Curve." "Everybody's gonna leave their seats!" Indeed! Kiss collaborates on the songs with Ezrin and with Runaways mastermind Kim Fowley, who raise the dumb-can-be-clever quotient several notches. The saccharine "Beth" reprises the trick Ezrin perfected with Alice Cooper--getting housewives to buy glam-rock records.
Rock and Roll Over (1976). This recording's a sonic step back after Destroyer's lush orchestrations. The band's stunted musical development is mirrored by Stanley's and Simmons' preoccupation with screwing and dumping as many groupies as possible. Whaddaya expect with titles like "Love 'em and Leave 'em" and "Mr. Speed"--Jackson Brownelike sensitivity? Girls, there's no escaping their oppressive advances--they'll even follow you into the "Ladies Room"! The album's saving grace is "Hard Luck Woman," Criss' best moment with Kiss. He takes a simple Rod Stewart homage a step further by naming the woman in the song Britt, after Rod the Mod's latest ex, Britt Ekland. Not even Bonnie Tyler thought of doing that!
Love Gun (1977). This album's first few pressings came with a cardboard gun that didn't do anything. Neither does most of this material. The exception is "Christine Sixteen," which has a ludicrous spoken passage by Simmons that would make Elvis blush: "I don't normally say this to girls your age, but when I saw you coming out of school that day, I knew, I knew, I've got to have you!" Why? Because "She's been around but she's young and clean." Quite the reverse held true of the Plaster Casters, two hags who've been around for ages, immortalizing rock stars by making clay models of their cocks. Simmons' "Plaster Caster" ode goes limp after a verse. If he really injected these homely gals with his love, like the song says, it only proves the Bat Lizard will screw just about anything on two legs. Ace Frehley's first-ever vocal performance on "Shock Me" sounds like Rick Derringer, but only if you and a few pals stand on Rick's chest.
Alive II (1978). A more varied concert program than the first, featuring vocal performances by all four guys--just like the Beatles! The audience proves it can be as deliciously dimwitted as its heroes by trying to clap along to mushy old "Beth." Side four's studio tracks tread water, but include a fine, lobotomized version of Dave Clark Five's already vacant "Anyway You Want It."
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In 1978, Kiss did two things to stretch the devotion of its fans. First, it put out the Hanna-Barbera-produced movie Kiss Meets the Phantom, essentially an excuse to string together a bunch of songs on film. Despite the roar of the members' greasepaint, there's not one Laurence Olivier lurking in the group. Hell--there's not even one David Hasselhoff! Next, the members each released solo albums simultaneously. To quote Kiss--"Woo hoo hoo! Got to choose! Who's your baby?" Ace Frehley recorded the hardest-rocking solo album, with David Letterman's future rhythm section. He also scored the only hit single of the four with "New York Groove." Criss' album (the only one not to make the Top 40) was a likable, Ian Hunterish effort with lame lyrics. Gene Simmons' LP had a star-studded cast that included Bob Seger, Joe Perry, Helen Reddy (?), Cher, Jeff "Skunk" Baxter, Donna Summer (!!), Rick Nielsen, Janis Ian (???!!!) and the Azusa Citrus College Choir. On "Living in Sin," Simmons' phone exchange with Cher proved that underneath all that makeup, he was really the Big Bopper with a reptile fetish. Paul Stanley's album sounded as if the Phantom in the Park had turned him into a Dan Fogelberg clone.
Dynasty (1979). The solo albums give Kiss the courage to offer more variety on its next album--read: disco. For the mighty teen Army, seeing its heroes follow the Stones, Rod Stewart and the Kinks onto the dance floor is scarier than spotting a new pimple. Stanley pens the group's lone disco hit, "I Was Made for Loving You," with Vini Poncia, co-author of Ringo's "Oh My My," and Desmond Child, who'll later be called on to ruin albums by Aerosmith, Cheap Trick and Heart. Other questionable moves include covering a Stones song from Their Satanic Majesties Request and hiring fashion photographer Francesco Scavullo to shoot the cover. The famed lensman proves that his usual flair for beautifying his subjects doesn't work if they're made up to look like cartoon characters. Kiss Unmasked (1980). Really a misnomer, since it would be another two albums before Kiss' members would reveal themselves without makeup. Maybe they were just waiting for crater-faced Ace Frehley to quit! It's the first Kiss album with synth solos, and the first since Dressed to Kill to not go platinum. On close listening, you'll still hear cretinous lyrics no one else was smart enough to think of. Like "It's easy as it seems 'cause it's easy as it seems/When you're walking out on your dreams you just walk away."
Music From the Elder (1981). Whoever thought a huge knocker on a Kiss cover would ever be attached to a door? Peter Criss' departure from the band (prior to Kiss Unmasked) results in this radical departure from the usual Kiss formula. The band temporarily misplaces its genitals, turning in a Styxlike concept album about a boy who is either going to become king or join the priesthood. The lone nod to the band's crass past is "Mr. Blackwell," in which Simmons condemns the snooty fashion critic to eternal damnation just for insulting gal pal Cher's taste in clothes! What's more shocking is that Lou Reed helped pen lines like "You're not well, Mr. Blackwell/Why don't you go to hell?" Well, after "Vicious/You hit me with a flower/You do it every hour," no one could ever accuse ol' Lou of being too bright.
Though not the kiss of death, Elder signaled the band's fall from teenybopper grace. Seven albums were released after '81, and--apart from the retrospective Smashes, Thrashes & Hits--they were more or less crap. But it's been almost 15 years since the glory days, plenty of time for all those kids who used to carry Kiss lunchboxes to grow up and start bands of their own. Bands that the teens of the Nineties worship. Bands that play songs by--Kiss! Kiss is scheduled to perform on Saturday, October 21, at Veterans' Memorial Coliseum. Showtime is 7 p.m.