You Wanted the Best: The Dystopian Halloween Party Guide to KISS

You Wanted the Best: The Dystopian Halloween Party Guide to KISS

You’d never have guessed it from the way we talk about them, but we’re actually pretty big fans of KISS here at Dystopian Dance/Halloween Party. And yet, even we–two otherwise relatively normal adults who spend way too much time listening to, talking and thinking about KISS–would never actually suggest that you dive into their discography all willy-nilly. That’s why we’re making KISS the subject of our first Dystopian Dance Halloween Party Guide.

The Guide is exactly what it sounds like: a recurring feature that gives a broad overview of an artistic body of work–discography, filmography, video game franchise, what have you–without the deep dive of our conceptually similar series Oeuvre. We’re starting with KISS because, frankly, theirs isn’t a body of work that requires more than just scratching the surface: the 35 songs on the Spotify playlist below are, as far as we’re concerned, the cream of the crop, and they amount to more than enough KISS songs than any sane person would have cause to listen to.

So that’s why KISS. But why KISS now, specifically? Well, aside from this blog’s usual answer (because we felt like it), it’s also because, whatever else KISS might be, they’re also the ultimate Halloween band. Put it this way: how many people do you know who have dressed up as KISS for Halloween–still, approximately 20 years after the last time they were even remotely relevant? Hell, one year, Zach and his best friend went trick-or-treating as just the first two KISS drummers, Peter Criss and Eric Carr. In a way, Halloween is the only time of year when it’s truly acceptable to like KISS–just like it’s the only time of year when it’s acceptable to eat an entire bag of candy in one sitting. So let’s do this now, while we still can: hit “Play,” bust out that candy, and enjoy the Dystopian Halloween Party Guide to KISS.

 © Casablanca Records

© Casablanca Records

The self-titled debut album by KISS occupies an odd position in their canon: on the one hand, it introduced many of the band’s most well-regarded songs; but on the other hand, those same songs have been largely eclipsed in fans’ esteem by live versions recorded the following year. As we’ll soon see, compared to the superior versions on Alive!, even many of the best songs on KISS seem plodding and leaden–and not just in the sense that pretty much every KISS song is plodding and leaden to some degree. One notable exception is the opening track, “Strutter”: the first in a long line of KISS songs about being angry at women for existing, but with a classic big, dumb Gene Simmons riff that plays off against Paul Stanley’s ludicrously camp vocals. Speaking of Stanley, the authors of KISS: Behind the Mask – The Official Authorized Biography apparently claim that his lyrics to “Strutter” “display his Bob Dylan influence.” If that’s the case, then they must mean Dylan while he was suffering from a concussion after his motorcycle accident, because lines like “Everybody says she’s looking good / And the lady knows it’s understood / Strutter” are about as Dylanesque as…well, any other KISS song.

As alluded to earlier, KISS makes especially lumbering, flat-footed music, even in the realm of 1970s heavy metal: hell, even Black Sabbath could get funky once in a while, but KISS always sounds like they’re tripping all over their own oversized heels. In their best songs, however, they make it work; take, for example, “Cold Gin,” a song about getting stumbling drunk that is also a perfect musical approximation of drunken stumbling. “Cold Gin” was sung by Gene Simmons, but written by lead guitarist Ace Frehley–no stranger to drink, unlike the notoriously teetotal Simmons (who, not wanting to embarrass his grandparents, merely stuck his dick into everything that crossed his path). This raises an important point about KISS: though the group has been historically dominated by founding members Simmons and Stanley, at least its “classic” lineup of Simmons, Stanley, Frehley, and Peter Criss was a band in the fullest sense of the word, with all four members contributing to the songwriting and, eventually, singing.

Which, in turn, brings us to a weird thing about KISS that is nevertheless crucial to understand. Listening to their first album, a lot of comparisons to other artists come to mind: a less tongue-in-cheek Alice Cooper, a self-consciously macho New York Dolls, a more thoroughly lobotomized Beck, Bogert & Appice. But what KISS really wanted to be was the fucking Beatles. And as ludicrous a proposition as that might be, “Let Me Know”–originally known by the Beatleseque title “Sunday Driver”– is a surprisingly decent stab by Simmons and Stanley at channeling their inner Lennon and McCartney–albeit a Lennon with chronic laryngitis and a McCartney incapable of singing in a register below “nails-on-chalkboard shriek.”

 © Casablanca Records

© Casablanca Records

It took only eight months for KISS to release their second album, Hotter Than Hell–and while, like the previous album, many of its tracks were later made obsolete by their breakout double album Alive!, this one was quite a bit more consistent overall. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the album’s opening track, “Got to Choose,” is my personal ideal for a KISS song. It has it all: the plodding, yet weirdly melodic riff; the fractious anti-harmony of Simmons’ guttural bellow and Stanley’s high-register caterwauling; the lyrics that are written at a third-grade reading level, but sung as if the band’s mutual lives depended on it. Is “Got to Choose” dumb? Of course it is; it is a KISS song. But it’s the perfect, glorious kind of dumb that hard rock is all about.

Significantly stranger, but also appealing in its own way, is the cult favorite “Goin’ Blind”: a holdover from Simmons’ and Stanley’s pre-KISS band Wicked Lester, which was basically just KISS with an extra, heaping dollop of prog-rock pretension (the Wicked Lester version of another early KISS track, “She,” features a fucking flute in the intro). You can detect the Wicked Lester influence in the song’s lyrical conceit, about a 93-year-old man in a doomed romance with a 16-year-old girl, which is the kind of thing only a progressive rock band (or, to be fair, Gene Simmons) could come up with. But what I find most striking is how ahead of its time it feels, especially coming from a band as profoundly of-their-time as KISS. It almost sounds like an early-‘90s grunge track–hence, probably, why it was covered in the early ‘90s by both Dinosaur Jr. and the Melvins.

Finally, rounding out our Hotter Than Hell selections, we have the title track, which boasts one of the clumsiest and yet oddly catchy riffs in the KISS songbook. Seriously, just listen to that opening: it sounds like it was assembled from the fragments of three or four other, discarded riffs, and yet somehow it just works. Even the song’s writer Paul Stanley–not normally one to pass up an opportunity for self-aggrandizement–later admitted that “Hotter Than Hell” was a cobbled-together mass of influences: the bulk of the song copped from Free’s “All Right Now,” with “kind of like a Black Sabbath kind of riff” tacked onto the end because he “didn’t know quite how to end it.” But such is the idiot-savant genius of KISS at their peak: they can take a few clearly derivative ideas, patch them together with the seams still showing, and make them rock out of a combination of brute force and pure chutzpah.

 © Casablanca Records

© Casablanca Records

The gap between Hotter Than Hell and the third KISS album, Dressed to Kill, was even shorter than the last one: a mere five months between October 1974 and February 1975. And, frankly, the ruthless efficiency was starting to show: even at a mere 30-minute runtime, there is way more filler on Dressed to Kill than on either of the preceding records. Of course, there’s also their most popular song, the deathless party anthem “Rock and Roll All Nite,” but I don’t really feel the need to spotlight that one here; if you’ve turned on the TV or attended a sporting event in the last 40 years, you’ve heard it.

Instead, we’re spotlighting two slightly lesser-known tracks. “Rock Bottom” is basically a rehash of “Black Diamond” from KISS: opening with a slow, proggy acoustic guitar pattern, then kicking into high gear when the whole band comes in. The riff isn’t nearly as inspired this time around, but the song is an improvement overall, with less melodramatic lyrics and one of Stanley’s most assured vocal performances to date. Better still is “Love Her All I Can”: another Beatles homage, with a beat that actually grooves (check out the cowbell!) and one of the weirdest throwaway lyrics I’ve ever heard, as Stanley announces that he’s “a lucky guy” when he’s with his girl because he “hardly ever” cries. So you’re saying that sometimes you still cry for no reason? Is everything okay, Paul?

 © Casablanca Records

© Casablanca Records

It was another six months after Dressed to Kill when KISS finally got it right. Alive! is perhaps the one truly unimpeachable classic of the KISS discography: it’s the one album you need to hear if you want to “get” this band, and if we had any sense, we would have just posted a link to the album 1500 words ago and called this guide done. But since we’ve committed to a more extensive analysis, just listen to what the more energetic performances on Alive! do to some of the highlights from the first two albums. It’s impossible these days to hear the studio version of “Deuce” from KISS, and not miss the telltale sound of pyro effects blowing up as the band launches into the main riff; and on the Ace Frehley-written Hotter Than Hell burner “Parasite,” they sound as limber as a bunch of six-foot-tall goons in platform boots could ever hope to be.

But the most important thing about Alive! is that it offers a strong sense of what KISS–one of the ultimate “better live” bands in rock history–actually sounded like at their peak, up close and in person. Or, maybe it didn’t: Peter Criss and producer Eddie Kramer both maintain that the album was heavily reconstructed in the studio, with only the drum tracks actually recorded live. This seems unlikely (and, for Criss, pretty damn convenient), but even if it is true, in the end it doesn’t really matter; whether by studio trickery or by sheer luck, Alive! captured the visceral energy of a live KISS show so well that it set a gold standard for live rock albums–a standard that KISS themselves would never meet again, despite releasing four more goddamn entries in the Alive! “series.” Another, largely unsung achievement: with its epic version of the first album’s “100,000 Years,” Alive! introduced a whole new set of fans to Paul Stanley’s sublimely ridiculous stage banter, which livens up even the obligatory nine-minute drum solo with a combination of shameless pandering and cartoon drag-queen theatrics (“I wanna know, how many people ovah hee-yah…like to pahhh-ty?”).

 © Casablanca Records

© Casablanca Records

If there is another “essential” KISS album after Alive!, then Destroyer from 1976 is it. Having at last captured their live theatrics on wax, this is when they made themselves larger than life–even commissioning fantasy artist Ken Kelly for a comic book-inspired cover. And how better to go larger than life than with Bob Ezrin in the producer’s chair? Ezrin’s production flourishes are all over the album: notably on the Gene Simmons feature “God of Thunder,” which uses the sped-up voice of the producer’s young son to appropriately demonic effect over the song’s lurching heavy metal riff.

But the peak of Destroyer‘s musical excess comes on “Great Expectations”: another Simmons-led song, unaccountably pairing a regal pomp-rock arrangement with leering come-ons to an unnamed (and almost certainly underaged) girl in the audience. The difference between a good KISS song and a bad one is, at best, razor-thin, and it’s never more true than with “Great Expectations”; ultimately, however, we had to give it the nod for this guide, if only because it has to be heard to be believed. And anyway, plenty of rock bands wrote highly suspect songs about teenage groupies–but who other than KISS, or Ezrin, would then hire the Brooklyn Boys Chorus to help them sing it?

Last but not least, Stanley contributed a slightly more tasteful groupie anthem with “Do You Love Me?” Like the aforementioned “Love Her All I Can,” it’s kind of oddly vulnerable for a KISS song: Stanley starts out all strutting machismo, bragging about his limousine and his “seven-inch…leather heels,” but then once the chorus hits, he spends the rest of the song unironically begging his jailbait “queen” to affirm that her affections for him are real. Jesus, Paul, don’t be so goddamned needy.

 © Casablanca Records

© Casablanca Records

Seemingly incapable of building  on a success–or maybe just incapable of waiting more than eight months between albums–KISS followed Destroyer with Rock and Roll Over, arguably their weakest early album after Dressed to Kill. As the title suggests, Rock and Roll Over was a “back to basics” move for the band: they went from performing with children’s choirs and the New York Philharmonic to recording “live” at the Star Theatre in Nanuet, New York, with Alive! producer Eddie Kramer behind the boards. They also went, by and large, from well-crafted songs to phoned-in filler and half-hearted retreads of earlier material; though “Calling Dr. Love,” at least, is a nicely self-parodic bit of chest-beating caveman sexuality from a master of the art, Gene Simmons.

One of Rock and Roll Over‘s phoned-in filler tracks that we still unaccountably love is Paul Stanley’s “Mr. Speed,” a cowrite with the band’s road manager and choreographer Sean Delaney. Part of it, I suppose, is the sprightly, Chuck Berry-esque riff, which comes like a breath of fresh air after four albums of lumbering heaviosity. If we’re really being honest with ourselves, though, the real reason we love it is for the lyrics “I’m so fast / That’s why the ladies call me Mr. Speed,” which sound hilariously like Stanley is bragging about a premature ejaculation habit.

Easily the best song on Rock and Roll Over–and one of the best KISS songs, period–is “Hard Luck Woman”–a song that wasn’t originally meant to be recorded by KISS at all. Stanley wrote it with the intention of shopping it to Rod Stewart, apparently operating under the assumption that the way you get an established artist to record your song is by openly plagiarizing one of his biggest hits. Serving in his rare capacity as voice of reason, Simmons talked Stanley into recording the song with Peter Criss on vocals, and the result was the band’s first Top 20 single since the soft-rock smash “Beth”–which Criss also sang. Now you might think that this would set off some lightbulbs for Gene and Paul, and we’d be hearing more of Criss on lead vocals in the near future; he was, quite frankly, the best traditional rock singer in the band. But nope–it’s pretty much all Simmons’ constipated growl and Stanley’s tortured-parrot squawk from here on out.

 © Casablanca Records

© Casablanca Records

Another seven months after Rock and Roll Over, KISS came back–again–with Love Gun: effectively a more muscular retread of Destroyer, with another great Ken Kelly cover and Kramer once again replacing Ezrin as producer.  The album is solid on the whole, but carries a distinct whiff of diminishing returns: as with the previous record, it’s hard to shake the feeling that only three years after their debut, KISS are already retreading past glories (“Tomorrow and Tonight,” anyone?). But when they weren’t phoning it in, they could still craft a lunk-headed cock-rocker better than most: like Frehley’s “Shock Me,” a classic cut in spite of a decidedly underwhelming lead vocal debut by the “Space Ace.”

Taking the term “cock rock” a tad more literally was the Love Gun’s title track, a fast and heavy ode to Paul Stanley’s most enduring muse (his dick…I’m talking about his dick). I could uncharitably call it a rewrite of Destroyer‘s “Detroit Rock City” with an added phallic obsession, and I wouldn’t even be wrong, but I have to admit I have some grudging respect for that sledgehammer of an opening riff. More interesting in my book, however, is Simmons’ “Almost Human”: a sleazy, underappreciated funk-metal track with an auxiliary percussion groove that somehow manages to take the band’s usual, flat-footed riffage and make it slither.

In their now-customary fashion, KISS released their next product, Alive II, less than four months after Love Gun. This would almost have been acceptable, were the album another purely live affair; this time, however, the ever-prolific band decided to include a vinyl side’s worth of freshly-recorded studio material. Unlike the original Alive!, pretty much none of Alive II is truly essential; that goes double for the studio songs, none of which were even good enough to make it onto the last two, filler-heavy albums. But we’ll still give the nod to Frehley’s “Rocket Ride”–the guitarist’s only contribution to the studio tracks–as it’s better than the rest, and also a long-overdue opportunity for the band’s resident “spaceman” to compare his dong to a rocket.

 © Casablanca Record

© Casablanca Records

After a staggering eight albums in less than four years, interspersed with a grueling tour schedule, you might think that 1978 was high time for KISS to give themselves (and us) a break. But in that case you’d be wrong, because instead the band decided to release four separate “solo” albums on the same day: September 18, 1978, a day that would live on in infamy as the worst thing to ever happen in September. The solo album gimmick was, without a doubt, the peak (or, perhaps more accurately, the nadir) of KISS’ hubris, and it marked an irreversible turning point of quality in the band’s work.

On the surface, it sort of makes sense. From the beginning, KISS had attempted to establish distinct, comic book-style personalities for each band member; what better way to express those personalities than by giving each member their own album’s worth of free range? The problem is that some personalities are best left indistinct: when you zero in on any one of the original KISS “characters,” it only underlines how ridiculous they all were. Thus Stanley’s solo album framed “the Starchild” as a bedroom-eyed heartthrob type–which makes sense, because who else do women want to be seduced by, if not a hirstute man in clown makeup with an audible lisp? Criss, on the other hand, clearly tried to cash in on his success with ballads and softer rockers–only to learn that, even in the late ‘70s, there was a limit to how many melodramatic power ballads people wanted to hear performed by a grown man with his face painted like a kitty cat. The Frehley and Simmons albums fared better, largely because their themes weren’t as sharply defined: Frehley’s was basically a true solo album by a guy who already seemed to be sticking one foot out of the KISS door, while Simmons’ was at least honest with itself about its origins as a bugfuck vanity project. Overall, however, even if we were to trim these eight vinyl sides down to two, the result would be a middling KISS album at best.

So let’s just rip this Band-Aid off and hit the high points. Paul Stanley’s least offensive track is probably “It’s Alright”: a slight tweak of the KISS formula toward arena-ready power pop, with reasonably listenable results. Gene Simmons actually gets two standouts: “Radioactive” is basically just a KISS song, with Simmons’ bassline front and center (it even got an airing in the band’s schlock-classic 1978 TV movie, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park), while “Man of 1,000 Faces” is both the strongest evidence of his Beatles obsession to date, and a seemingly confessional song about the mental and emotional toll of living behind a greasepaint mask for four years. Meanwhile, Ace Frehley had a well-received cover of “New York Groove” by glam rockers Hello–which also happened to be the biggest KISS single since “Beth” in 1976–but my personal preference is for “I’m in Need of Love”: another confessional track, with surprisingly stark lyrics about Frehley’s deteriorating emotional state and some appropriately spacey phased guitar licks. Finally, there are no highlights on Peter Criss; but if you absolutely need to hear something from it, I recommend “Rock Me Baby,” a sprightly blue-eyed soul number written by Sean Delaney that finds Criss adding shades of Tom Jones to his well-worn Rod Stewart impersonation. It’s also one of only two songs on the album that doesn’t crack the three-minute mark, so I consider that a point in its favor, as well.

 © Casablanca Records

© Casablanca Records

After putting their fans’ devotion to the ultimate test with the solo records, KISS deigned to release only one album in 1979: the widely heralded “Return of KISS,” Dynasty. This album has a somewhat controversial reputation among KISS fans, because it made a definitive shift away from hard rock and toward, of all things, disco: just listen to lead single “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” with its undulating bassline, soaring chorus, and sixteenth-note hi-hat beat. The real problem with Dynasty, however, is that its stylistic departures made for its most interesting songs. “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” was only the band’s second Gold single in their career, and it deserved that distinction: for one thing, unlike the vast majority of the material released by KISS in (at least) the last two years, it actually had hooks and was pleasing to listen to. Stanley’s arena-ballad followup “Sure Know Something” perhaps dwelled a bit too far into cheese territory, but at least it demonstrated that the band was trying to do something other than write their thirtieth riff-heavy dirge about fucking groupies.

Indeed, it was arguably when Dynasty hewed closest to the established KISS formula that the album was at its weakest: many of the more conventional “rock” cuts are faceless and unmemorable. One possible exception is Simmons’ “Charisma,” which if nothing else distinguishes itself by its sheer, undiluted monument to the writer’s ego: “What is my charisma?” Simmons growls. “What is it I’ve got?” Well, Gene, it just so happens that we’ve been asking ourselves the same damn question.

The impossibly goofy-looking costumes from the 1979 Dynasty tour; photo stolen from Anything Kiss.

The impossibly goofy-looking costumes from the 1979 Dynasty tour; photo stolen from Anything Kiss.

After Dynasty, it was all pretty much downhill for KISS, but we still have a few more jewels in the rough to unearth. Despite its arriving a whopping 12 months after its predecessor, 1980’s Unmasked was the band’s worst album yet; but opening track “Is That You?”–a lesser-known post-glam rocker by British singer-songwriter Gerard McMahon–is a rare post-‘70s highlight. Even more surprisingly, there are also a couple of salvageable tracks on 1981’s monumentally ill-advised, Bob Ezrin-produced rock opera (!) Music from “The Elder”: one of the rare entries in the KISS canon that has been unilaterally condemned by both current and former members. “Mr. Blackwell” suffers from the usual concept-album problem of being about characters and stories nobody but the songwriter cares about, but it at least has a prowling Gene Simmons bassline and some nice atmosphere. The single release “I” is, if anything, worse: a distressing portent of Paul Stanley’s future career in flaccid self-affirmation rock masquerading as a conventional KISS song. But if you ignore the corny lyrics, it at least sounds like KISS–which is more than the vast majority of The Elder (sorry, Music from “The Elder”) can say.

It’s tempting at this point to say that KISS went out with a whimper, but anyone who’s listened to as many Paul Stanley vocals as us–and, by this point, anybody else who’s been listening to this playlist–knows that that just isn’t possible. Though billed as a “return to form” after the excesses of The Elder, 1982’s Creatures of the Night was mostly mediocre; it did, however, contain at least one decent arena-rock shouter in “I Love It Loud,” a prominent feature for new drummer Eric Carr. The following year’s Lick It Up is mostly remembered as the album when an increasingly desperate KISS took off their makeup, but its title track remains a glam-metal guilty pleasure. And, speaking of guilty pleasures, there was exactly one listenable song on 1984’s Animalize“Heaven’s on Fire,” a step even further into the hair-metal genre featuring some supremely goofy heavy breathing from Mr. Stanley.

And there you have it: the last truly recommendable KISS song (and, in case I haven’t made it clear, “Heaven’s on Fire” really stretches the definition of the word “recommendable”). But I can’t help but feel, even after all that, that we haven’t quite done justice to our love-hate relationship with KISS. I’m convinced that, in order to truly understand this band, you need to hit the deepest troughs as well as the highest peaks. So look out next week for a second installment of this feature: a guide to the worst of KISS. We listened to every album in their discography, front to back, so you wouldn’t have to; I hope that you’ll join us again soon to share in at least some small part of our torture.

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