Kiss are probably one of the bands I have known about for the longest, but didn’t necessarily put their image and their music together right away. I may have heard “Rock and Roll All Nite” or “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” on a radio, and seen a variety of parodies of groups with their over-the-top makeup, costumes, and stage show, but I never put two and two together until the original lineup had their first reunion in the mid-90s.
Around that time, I had an issue of Toy Fare magazine that showed the band promoting their line of action figures. I never entered the attached contest, possibly because you needed to reside in the United States to qualify, but did they ever look impressive! An educated guess would lead me to believe they were from the original McFarlane line from 1997. While I currently think the hair on those things is a bit odd, the super/action hero element of mixing their instruments with weaponry was a nice touch. They certainly appealed to the toy collector in me, but I would soon push aside that urge since I was getting to high school age, and I temporarily left a few so-called ‘uncool’ interests behind me.
Seeing a music video to “Psycho Circus” is one of my earliest exposures to seeing them in performance, or a mock performance to be more accurate. I remember it featuring lots of fire, Gene Simmons spitting out blood, and Ace Frehley winking at the camera. Not the world’s greatest video, but it’s one of my earlier Kiss memories, so it is what it is. It cemented the band into my memory, and as I learned more about music, I naturally learned more about Kiss. Considering how a quick glance at them make you think they are a bunch of clowns or children’s entertainers, some religious book I found at a rummage sale told me there was a far more sinister side to the group. Knights In Satan’s Service was one possible acronym. Further controversy stemmed from the fact the S’s in their logo looked rather close to the Nazi SS (a stylistic choice that was coincidental, as Gene Simmons’ mother was a holocaust survivor). Most of those examples of conspiratorial literature I read out of amusement since they’d take issue with just about any musician you could think of. I took them as face-value, a loud rock band that developed a look all of their own.
I didn’t begin to embrace the band and get my hands on some of their music until I was around 17 or 18. My brother and I received Kubrick figures of each band member on a birthday around that time. We both assembled a small collection of their albums, only a few each without digging too deeply into their discography. However, I definitely watched Kiss My Ass: The Video so many times in such a short span that I’m surprised I didn’t wear the spools out.
Still, my relationship with Kiss has never been a full-blown love affair. Here are things that have turned me off Kiss, in the past, present, or both:
The Kiss brand
The merchandising aspect is a blessing and a curse for those getting into the band. It’s no hidden secret that they like to slap the Kiss brand on virtually any type of product that money can buy. There is something out there to satisfy any level of fan, but there are many, many examples that boggles the mind. Off-hand, I can recall press releases announcing their coffins and condoms (spelled with K’s rather than C’s), but there are several lists on the internet that chronicle their long line of blunders. Still, I have to give credit where credit is due. Many of their marketing methods caught on with other musicians and bands, with items such as band-branded shoes and pint glasses being commonplace today as ways for bands to expand their revenue streams. Kiss have taken so many chances with theirs, so when they miss the mark, they really miss the mark.
Haters can point to Kiss as the source for capitalism gone batty, but even I often neglect that having grown up through Beatlemania, they may have been taking cues from the masters.
The Makeup-Free Years
Or was it just a different style of makeup?
This era didn’t have much appeal to me when I was introduced to it. A copy of Kiss Exposed on DVD that my brother was gifted didn’t get more than a watch or two from us in spite of the female eye-candy scattered throughout the main feature. Still, compared to what other hair bands of the era were doing, they actually held their own. It’s not the first thing I’d go for, but songs like “Unholy” and “Lick It Up” aren’t terrible. I think they got a bit too heavy on the power ballads, and didn’t have a strong enough musical identity to separate from the pack. Not notably better or worse than their contemporaries.
Paul Stanley did most of the lead vocals in the era, at least he did on the singles, and his frontman prancing and the band’s stage moves didn’t seem nearly as cool as it did on their makeup counterparts. He looked like an aerobics instructor half the time! You can tell by some videos, especially in the perfectly-named “(You Make Me) Rock Hard”, that Gene wasn’t the most comfortable not playing The Demon. Their big reveal on MTV in 1983 may have been just the thing needed to stop them from fading into obscurity though, for better or worse depending on your viewpoint.
The characters of The Cat and The Spaceman are an iconic part of Kiss, but it was and remains controversial that they handed these identities off to Eric Singer and Tommy Thayer after things stopped working out with Peter Criss and Ace Frehley. I get that the personas they adopted for Eric Carr (The Fox) and Vinnie Vincent (The Ankh Warrior) weren’t met with the same level of excitement as these. I actually did The Fox makeup, and like that they were trying something different in Vinnie’s case. Apparently each band member got a say in their own on-stage appearances, so to start this tradition up again would have been bold but an amusing idea. Their Farewell Tour with Ace and Peter would have been a good opportunity to put those two characters to rest. In a way, it seems a bit more deceiving to fans in comparison to other bands that replace original members because at least in those cases, the absence of a certain musician is visibly obvious.
I got to a point where I was listening to things away from your so-called standard rock and heavy metal, and was looking for artists that demonstrated more technical ability on their instruments. I tend to think more rock star than musician with these guys. Neither Simmons or Stanley are talked about much as musicians and they never really gravitate towards discussion of the craft of the music, which I tend to flock to. Ace Frehley may be the most discussed in terms of having some good chops or a style of his own, but even he doesn’t play on many of the bands studio tracks. They also worked with a wide range of outside songwriters, some of which served as ghostwriters from rumours I’ve heard. This makes the band seem to have more in common with the pop music world than their most ardent defenders would have you believe. I’m not so bothered by some of these elements now, but it’s still not the way I typically think of rock bands operating.
Gene and Paul
I remember Gene’s autobiography to sound like a bunch of bragging. Hearing overviews of someone’s sexual exploits always comes across as exaggerated. When I got the book as a gift, I hoped to learn more about the inner workings of Kiss. I did, but stories about how he lost his virginity or who he dated didn’t do much to impress me, nor did the discussion of his acting career. On the other hand, Paul’s autobiography sounds like a whole ton of complaining from the sections I’ve heard in audio book format. It came across as him having a poor working relationship with pretty much every Kiss member ever. He also needlessly takes shots at bands that critics enjoyed more than them, particularly other New York area bands like Television. Stuff like this is, ironically, what sells books to the wider public. They may have changed a bit with age, but I often find it hard to dig past their rock star posturing to see them as relate-able people.
Nonetheless, I am back. What was it that lured me back, to a degree, into the Kiss Army fold? A performance of “Black Diamond” from the Midnight Special show that I found in a YouTube compilation of that show’s 1975 performances. It is such a raw and powerful display, and it made me remember what drew me to Kiss in the first place. The fact they weren’t the best musicians in the world maybe pulled me away at one point, but it doesn’t stop me from listening to other bands, so why would I hold Kiss to a higher standard? A large part of music to me is the escapist element to it, and their showmanship, flair, and catchy choruses are perfect for that. I listen to different styles of music for different reasons, and with Kiss.. they’re just straight-up fun! There’s not much more to it than that.
What albums did I decide to start with to bring Kiss back into my collection? Destroyer and Rock and Roll Over. I happened to be browsing eBay like I often do, and I saw 2014 reissue LP pressings of both at very reasonable prices. They are consecutive albums in their discography, and they also happen to feature two of their most iconic album covers.
Destroyer represents something of an experiment, stepping outside of their comfort zone with additional orchestration and an overall cleaner sound under the guidance of producer Bob Ezrin. He helped Kiss make short and relatively simplistic material have such an epic vibe. Ezrin has several writing credits on the songs, and if he’s to thank for making that irresistible call-and-response “Shout It Out Loud” verse, then that’s all it would take to earn his place in Kisstory. Ken Kelly was the cover artist, which captures the band in their superhero statures atop a fiery landscape.. This looks like it could be ripped straight off a comic book cover, and researching Kelly’s background shows that’s not to far from how he typically pays his bills. He largely illustrates book covers for fantasy stories, but has even done box art designs for toy lines like Micronauts and Masters of The Universe. Aside from also handling Kiss’ Love Gun cover, Kelly has had a long-term working relationship as visual artist for traditional/power metal band Manowar. Their Triumph of Steel once had a place in my collection, but Richie Blackmore’s Rainbow’s Rising (featuring another Kelly creation) remains on my shelf as a bona-fide high recommendation.
Rock and Roll Over has that spiky design that recalls (to me) both psychedelia and disco at once, two sounds that aren’t explored on the album. This eye-catching display was created by Michael Doret. Letterform and inventive font usage is the focal point of many of his works, ranging from designs for sports team logos to restaurant signage. In the music world, his covers have included James Brown, Brownsville Station, and Squirrel Nut Zippers albums, as well as gig posters for the likes of Simon and Garfunkel. My particular copy of Rock and Roll Over includes a sticker that can be divided into sections just as it did originally. I like the idea of this inclusion, but don’t like the idea of separating this piece into smaller components. Anthrax payed homage to the design on their Kings Among Scotland live album. The balance of the four heads seems to work perfectly. Kiss even revisited the familiar style when they employed Doret for 2012’s Sonic Boom cover. Rock and Roll Over may be a more harder-rocking album than Destroyer overall, but with every track running between roughly two-and-a half to three-and-a-half minutes, is arguably as tailor-made for radio as the predecessor.
What comes next for me and Kiss fandom? I already have my eye on various merchandise and collectibles, so I’m certain there’s much more to discuss here in the future. In the meanwhile, I’ll just sit back and get familiar with my newest arrival, Kissology: The Ultimate Kiss Collection Vol. 1 1974-1977, before planning the next move.