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!