Wednesday, October 29, 2014

You Wanted the Best, well, you can’t always get what you want…

I just finished reading Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of Kiss (1972-1975).  Surprised as you might be, this was not Gene and Paul tell the story of Kiss exclusively.  While I’m sure they had veto power over every single word,  there’s a lot of voices throughout this far-reaching, even tedious exploration of all things Kiss from a loft on 23rd to Cobo Hall and a “live” album known to all as Alive!.  There’s even some shit-talking – but not on the level of Morrissey’s Auto.  So don’t get too excited.  Still, this largely enjoyable read made this Kiss nerd dig back through their old LPs (even, and especially, the bad ones).  Now go ahead and take a moment to scoff, curl your lip, and/or point your noise skyward.  Ok – now that you’ve purged, warm to the fact that you just can’t escape the cultural institution that is Kiss.  

If you like loud, ballsy, dumb rock and roll, odds are you like Kiss or the bands you listen to like them.  We’re all affected. After having accepted the fact that Kiss is in your DNA and all denials to the contrary are futile and irrelevant, some Kiss is better than other Kiss.  And that’s ok.  You have a lot to choose from as you integrate Kiss into your existence more fully. A copious amount of recorded material is smeared across four goddamn decades of American rock n roll.  The Author has bravely listened to every fuckin’ LP in the past coupla’ weeks for the purposes of this blog.  With that, the handy guide below will help you on your journey.

The first and one of the absolute best. If you like music that has guitar, bass, and drums, you should probably own this one.  Nearly every number is a hit. “Deuce – Strutter – Firehouse – Cold Gin.” When I hear this record, I just think NYC.  Not in a Madball Set it Off kinda a way. More New York Dolls.  Stripped down, primitive, and fun.  The album bombed when it was released.  They even recorded an additional song (the bubblegum cover “Kissin’ Time”) and quickly repressed it in a hasty effort to broaden appeal.  And for those keeping count, there’s a lot of Peter Chris vocals on this one.  Go figure…

Hotter Than Hell
Numero dos.  Here’s what you get: inexplicable Japanese cover art, a muddy attempt to make their tunes heavier, and band photos from some kind of drunken orgy.  The black star covering up the bare breast printed on the back cover was scratched off my second-hand copy as if there might be a nipple down there somewhere and not fuzzy paper pulp. Back to the songs though – not the greatest recording, but great songs. Not as classic as their first shot, but classic nonetheless. 

Dressed to Kill
Despite the rad cover art – Kiss in business suits on 8th Avenue – this album doesn’t stand up as a full length.  A cool mini-album would have been the way to go.  It was basically written on the spot because they were hemorrhaging cash on the road and needed a quick injection.  The first side is almost a joke and the flip is fuckin’ great.  Totally uneven.  But despite this mixed review, "Rock and Roll All Night" is the closer.  So what - it tanked as a single.  It was the “live” one that broke the band.  Today’s radio programmers got it all wrong when they play the studio version.  Get with it Clear Channel!
This is the one that the career-making "RnR All Night" came from. The not-so-live “live” record benefited from some post-performance tinkering. But you know what, every live album does.  Just gonna throw that out there.  Unless you recorded some punk band onto cassette while they played a set on your college radio station, it’s all been enhanced. Reality comes crashing down. If you just want one Kiss record, this is the one.  Well, this and Love Gun and Alive II and Ace’s Solo…aw damn. 

The kabuki boys get all fancy on this one.  Together with Bob Ezrin, they decided since they hit the big time with Alive!, they could stretch out in the studio and really explore the space.  Enter orchestration, piano, soulful back-up singers, and sound effects. There’s even a 1:30 long LP intro that samples, you guessed it, "RnR All Night." That’s basically saying – “this album by the guys that brought you last summer’s smash hit!” Still hustling as the record spins on your turntable.  The cherry on top of all this newfound creativity is the not-so-power ballad “Beth.” It’s a sweet love song that everyone is familiar with.  But it was originally called “Beck.”  I’m fucking serious.  “Beck I hear you calling.”  Still, I kid cuz I love. This album is a personal favorite of the Author’s.  It was one of the first by the band that I picked up as an aspiring metal head.  It has some good crushers like "Detroit Rock City" and "God of Thunder," plus the anthem "Shout it Out Loud" (ahem, "RnR All Night" part deux).

Rock and Roll Over
By this point the band was surging to the top of America’s consciousness, inching ever closer to being a “family-friendly” carnival act.  Rock and Roll Over is sandwiched between two ragers, but it shouldn’t be overlooked. It’s as 1970s hard rock as you get.  Besides heavy rockers like “I Want You” and “Makin Love,” it has the Gene hit “Calling Dr. Love” before it was a Dr Pepper advert.  Let’s not forget Paul’s contribution to English prose with the line “Put your hand in my pocket, grab on to my rocket.”  Peter has another slow number with the Rod Stewart inspired “Hard Luck Woman” where he refers lovingly to a sailor’s only daughter named “Rags.”  Why is Peter’s understanding of standard female names so skewed?  First “Beck,” now “Rags!”
 Love Gun
Up next is the LP subtly named after a penis.  That’s right, imagine if this album was called Cock?  This album is a straight up rocker Side A through B. Possibly the last solid Kiss LP until the 80s.  Own it or stream it or whatever you do to hear music.  It’s fantastic – fast tempos, catchy sing-alongs, blazing Space Ace guitar solos…and fucked up lyric content.  Guys, besides the eponymous title track, there’s a song about pining after a teenage girl ("Christine Sixteen").  What the fuck!?  Gene announcing himself as a willing sex offender.  There’s also another song about cock.  That’s a lot of cock for one record.  "Plaster Caster" gleefully accounts the woman who immortalized rock n roll genitalia (ew).  How did anyone’s parents let them listen to this?  Did they truly not give a shit about their kids?  Is that why seatbelts were optional?  As a parent, the Author might have be at the front of the protest line back then wielding a sign indicating KISS as short for Knights In Satan’s Service.

Alive II
After a worthy trio of 70s heavy metal LPs, it was time to go back in the studio and record another “live” album.  Curiously, you get three “live” sides and one studio side with five new ones. I gotta hand it to the guys.  Rather than recycling numbers featured on Alive!, they stuck solely to post-Alive! tunes for this double LP. So Alive! and Alive II operate more or less as greatest hits albums for their first six studio LPs.  Not bad acquisitions if you are on a budget.  The “live” albums also capture that Kiss feeling better than the studios. 

Double Platinum
A greatest hits of studio tracks.  Huh?  Well, refer to my review of Alive II above and know that this collection is worthless.  A disco-fied rework of "Strutter" is a haunting harbinger of dark times ahead.

The Solo Albums
So Kiss tried something interesting, when one or more members desired to go off and do their own thing, they reached a compromise – release independently-performed solo albums each slapped with the Kiss logo. All four records were issued on the same goddamn day.  And for the year 1978, this made for five fucking releases! As far as the solo albums though, only one was good…and it was actually great.  Leave it up to Ace!  He made a dynamite solo album.  Song for song, it rules.  I like one song…let me repeat that…one song on the other three solos.  In regards to Peter's jazz-boogie fusion, Gene summed it up best when he said, "I think that one showed that the guy behind it didn't really have a clue" [Behind The Mask; David Lead, Ken Sharp]

If you stopped with Kiss at Ace’s solo, you lose out on some legit hits, but you’d also mercifully be spared Kiss’ foray into (gulp) disco.  None of this should be surprising though, given that Kiss was the flagship band for what would become a huge disco label – Casablanca.  Donna Summer, the Village People, and Kiss.  Oddly enough, their most obvious overture is actually a great song and a live standard, “I Was Made for Lovin’ You.”  Ace’s Stones cover of “2,000 Man” is fantastic.  He also continues to keep shit real with “Hard Times.”
Despite the cool comic book cover art on this one, things really go from bad to worse with Unmasked.  “Shandi,” seriously “Shandi”?  They thought it was ok to do this song?!  Every time I hear it I visualize a disco ball spinning, I get dizzy and throw up.  So legend has it, Ace was really on the way out at this point (ditto Peter).  Gene and Paul love to talk about how fucked up he was, but still his songs are by faaaaaaaaaaaaaar the better tracks.  He probably was fucked up, you would be to playing on songs like “Charisma” (Dynasty) or “What Makes the World Go Round.”  To be fair, there are some hard rockers on this and Dynasty, but you really are off in uncharted territory.  You’re exploring the Amazon.
Music From “The Elder”
After Unmasked bombed and with true blue fans forsaking the band in droves, Kiss promised a return to their early heavy metal roots.  Fuck yeah! Only they inexplicably wrapped it in a weak-ass concept album. Even though “The Oath,” Ace’s “Dark Light” and the anthemic “I” are highly defendable, you are subjected to the easy-listening stylings of “A World Without Heros.”  Check out Gene’s teary eye in the video for this one, like a heartbroken Native American stumbling upon a Snickers wrapper on the roadside.  The album also begins with a bizzarely dramatic, symphonic intro that clearly is not a product of this quartet.  Paul’s slow, crooning and frankly embarrassing “Odyssey” makes “Just A Boy” seem like a cathartic anthem.  “Under the Rose”?  I don’t understand this song at all.  What the hell is happening?  You really can’t help but scratch your head on this record.  But the Author has a confession to make.  There’s something in his wiring that makes him enjoy this record. What’s wrong with me?  I would appreciate it if you kept reading this blog, but you would be forgiven if you packed it in at this point proclaiming my taste in music to suck.
Another pointless, confusing greatest hits.  Made even more pointless by the fact that it was only released abroad.  Made even more confusing by the fact that four mediocre new songs are integrated into the track listing.
Creatures of the Night
What Kiss promised on the last record, they deliver on Creatures.  Except for a soon-to-be requisite power ballad, this LP is nothing but heavy. It’s not a return to form though.  Welcome to the 80s, where heavy metal is just different.  Kiss got caught up in (nay, kicked off) the whole hair metal glam thing.  But for one brief moment, they nailed it.  Solid 80s heavy metal.  Incidentally, this one has 50% different membership (so long Ace and Peter).  This was another childhood fav and I still stand behind it.  The title track, "I Love It Loud," "War Marchine."  All great rockers.
Lick It Up
Make-up, off.  The 1970s, not a trace.  Hair metal transition, complete.  This has got to win the award for most subtle album title ever.  Hey, at least they ain’t sexist. It’s totally enjoyable though and probably their best post-make-up LP.  The two videos from this one both take place in some kinda’ post-apocalyptic construction site rampant with scantily clad members of the fairer.  Of course if you were Kiss in this type of situation what would you do?  Engage in a bizarre food orgy, of course.  Save some grape kool aid for me please.
The rare good numbers from this one and the following Asylum could be combined to make a passable cock rock album, but as it stands this is a pretty uneven offering.  You get the killer “Heaven’s On Fire” and KISS’ exclusive (and repeated) use of the word “ fuck” on “Get All You Can Take."  The insert photo maintains the post-apcolyptic motif.  Believe it or not, the costumes get worse…

…because on this jammer Gene dresses (not ironically) as a frumpy middle-aged woman.  While Poison were getting dolled-up like young vixens, Gene considering his age, dressed like your mom on ladies night out.  This LP has the song “Uh All Night,” perhaps the greatest I-hate-my-job anthem of all time.  It advocates sexual intercourse as a way to ease the punch –clock blues (insert hump day joke here).

Crazy Nights
Numero veintidos. So this LP and the following Hot in the Shade hold a special place in my heart.  They’re not great – they’re just the ones that came out as I became a new Kiss fan.  It’s pure pop metal.  “Crazy Crazy Nights” (the song) fucking rules though.  It’s at the top of the heap for Kiss’ many (many) rah-rah anthems.  I guess at this point Gene was more into being an actor (see here and here and here) so this was basically a Paul Stanley solo effort.

Smashes, Thrashes and Hits
Still another pointless and confusing greatest hits.  This time they throw in two understated new ones “Let’s Put the X in Sex” and “(You Make Me) Rock Hard.”  Seriously, the title of the latter is a declarative statement about inspiring an erection.  To make matters even weirder (as they are want to do with these collections), they pull a little “fuck you” to Peter Chris and have their current drummer re-record "Beth."  Wow! Incidentally, I own the picture vinyl for this, housed in a gatefold sleeve and I'll never get rid of it.

Hot in the Shade
Pop metal, but good pop metal.  Well written, catchey pop with guitars.  “Hide Your Heart” tells the story of Johnny and Rosa and Tito (“he was king of streets”). Paul raps on “Read My Body,” as was the style at the time. “Forever” is a great song for awkwardly slow-dancing at arm’s length at your junior high formal.  This tour was the first time I saw Kiss live.  They had a giant laser shooting, talking sphinx on stage that sang the third verse (same as the first) of “God of Thunder.”  13-year-old me was psyched!  Oddly enough this wasn’t the first time a robot sang a Kiss song to me.  Two years prior, I was serenaded with “New York Groove” when a robot spotted me wearing a Kiss shirt at Epcot Center.  True story.  

Things happen. Styles change.  A band that drifts into straight-up pop music every ten years corrects its course once again.  This one still has a pop sheen (as hair metal bands do), but it’s more in line with Lick it Up or Creatures of the Night, than the synth-heavy Crazy Nights.  If you really are compelled by post-make-up Kiss, check this one out.

Alive III
Random selection of songs for this third “live” record.  Best part of this one is the how clear all the fireworks and explosions come across.  It sounds like missiles are being launched during “I Was Made For Lovin You.” I saw them on this tour and the stage set-up for no particular reason looked like the last few minutes of Planet of the Apes.  They even closed with the "Star Spangled Banner" ala Jimi Hendrix.

Two live albums in a row! Kiss reunite!  And it’s confusing.  Cuz it’s not really a reunion is it? I mean, for a few classics they have like two drummers and three guitar players.  It’s like the Kiss ensemble jam band.  It’s a live record, but it’s not a new volume of Alive.  Yeah, when this aired on MTV it was exciting to see Ace and Peter in the company of Gene and Paul, but it was kinda anticlimactic for Kiss, wasn’t it?  Like old men around a campfire, not “you wanted the best, you got the best.”  Still, this foretold the eventual reuniting of the original four and the donning of the make-up and the pyro, and the cod pieces, and the blood spitting.
Carnival of Souls
But before the fireworks could be lit…Kiss wrote, recorded, and released a grunge record.  You read that correctly, a grunge record.
Psycho Circus/Sonic Boom/Monster
Since getting all kabuki again Kiss have returned to form with three new studio albums.  A return to form, sorta.  More like an adequate stab at 1980s hair metal while donning 1970s gear and grease paint.  Of the three, I’ll take Sonic Boom.  If you liked Kiss in the 1980s, you’ll probably like this one too.
Alive IV and Alive IV
As if their various “live” albums needed to be a little more confusing.  There is a properly-titled Alive IV with the Australian Symphony Orchestra (but this is actually the fifth live album, ya’ dig).  And there is an Alive IV preview track on the Kiss box set that is not from the aforementioned symphonic live record from down under. But then there is this thing called the Millennium Concert.  I don’t even know if there is a stand-alone release of this, but there is a Kiss Alive box set (not to be confused with the other Kiss box set) that has Alive uno, dos, tres and the Millennium, but not Alive IV (and certainly not Unplugged).  Finally, there’s something out there called Alive 35.
Ongoing series of nonstop greatest hits collections
Finally, not to be out-done by the series of live albums I just spoke of, their continuous releasing of greatest hits collections is nothing short of amazing. Nobody needs this many thrashes, smashes and hits.  But if you are the kinda’ person who would prefer a new Kiss disc in your stocking at xmas each year, you are in luck!  There’s absolutely no way even the most ardent of Kiss fans can even make sense of all these.  I once bought one that came with a bonus phone card. Remember those!?  It might as well have come with a pager or a palm pilot.  The only one of this plethora I would recommend is the standard five-disc box set chock full of rarities, demos, and a serious book.  If you are a big enough Kiss fan you don’t need to know this, because you probably already own it.  Or if you already own it and you want to own the fucking thing again, you could also buy the version that comes in a goddamn guitar case.
I seriously doubt anybody made it this far.  Not even my mom.  But if you did read this whole thing – then thank you for your ample attention. I wrote this to have some fun with Kiss, because Kiss is all about fun.  You really can’t take it beyond that.  I love Kiss. You will not solve life’s greatest mysteries, but you will have a good time having Kiss in your life.  When I’m riding the train to work or commuting on the bustling, rush-hour sidewalks of NYC (just a handful of blocks from where they originally rehearsed), I know I’m listening to better music than everyone else around me cuz I’m listening to Kiss.  But you know what, maybe they are all listening to Kiss too. 

1 comment:

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