There’s no way to condense the alpha and omega that is Kiss into a single blog post. So much has been written about the band that there’s no way I’ll say anything that a fan doesn’t already know. If you’re not a fan, I probably won’t be able to make you one. For myself, I can’t say I’m a true fan, but last year I went down the rabbit hole with them and came out again understanding what the Kiss Army deal is all about.
Kiss fandom is, like so many other fandoms, about the experience of being a misfit, namely liking something other people think is uncool, and resolving to be uncool as a badge of honor. It’s also the underlying narrative of Kiss themselves. Kiss started out loser wannabes and they epitomized faking it till you make it.
They weren’t the first to put on makeup. They actually came on at the very tail end of the glam-rock era, so they rode the coat-tails of a fad and then propeled glam-rock straight into the excesses of the mid to late 70s. They also perfected the art of marketing and self-promotion, spawning a host of spinoff products as if they were every bit as prefabricated as The Monkees or the Partridge Family, even though they (mostly) played their own instruments and wrote their own songs.
Merchandising aside, I see a strong connection between Kiss fandom and Rush fandom insofar as both are equally uncool. It’s therefore no surprise that Rush opened for Kiss in its early days. The main difference between Rush fans and Kiss fans is that Rush appealed to smart nerds who zoned out on changing time-signatures and lyrics about the theory of evolution and Kiss appealed to a more blue-collar kid who was dreamt of girls and followed professional wrestling and read comic books.
Now if you can imagine, growing up I was more in the smart nerd camp and for “cock rock” I went straight to the source, which was Led Zeppelin. Kiss seemed too simplistic and generic for me. I even attempted to record a cover of Kiss’ Lick it Up just for the giggle-factor of the not-so-subtle innuendo.
Truth be told, the hair-band phase of Kiss is not something most people are nostalgic about, although there’s really nothing more cringe-inducingly 80s than their late-to-the-party acquiescence to the genre they helped spawn in the first place.
But this blog post really isn’t meant to wax nostalgic about 80s Kiss, it’s about getting to the heart of the matter, and that’s the classic lineup of Ace Frehley, Peter Criss, Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley.
I think a big reason to be a Kiss fan today, given that the golden era (and even the reunion era) is long-gone is to be the keeper of lore. In this way a Kiss fan ascends into nerdy geek territory in the sense that he winds up an encyclopedia of knowldge not unlike memorizing the history of Middle-Earth or knowing the exact stardate of the V’Ger incident.
That history is mostly concerned with comedy-of-errors anecdotes and bitter feuds between the band members, usually pitting Ace and Peter (camp party animals) vs. Gene and Paul (camp pragmatic). The decision by Gene and Paul to “recast” the roles of catman and spaceman to the equivalent of day-laborers has left a permanent division in the fanbase, pro vs. con. And yet this sense of ongoing controversy is probably responsible for the band continuing to have much relevance at all, considering that what few new albums they’ve produced have failed to make much impact.
As I explored the endless tunnel of band drama I realized there was one person in particular who has been most responsible for constantly stirring and stirring the pot, a radio host by the name of Eddie Trunk. Of course, the various tell-all books didn’t help either.
But all this actually is an added value to a Kiss fan. Once the music gets old you can amuse yourself with endless gossip about what so and so said about so and so and to get into arguments with other kiss fans about who was more of a dick and who deserved this or that treatment. Just look at the comments under any Kiss video on Youtube and you’ll see these catfights continuing to spiral out of control to this day. Each member is so distinct that they have their own base of fans who relate the most to them or like them the most and dislike others. That friction between the different camps is the energy that keeps the fandom engaged. It’s not really about the members as much as it’s about what each one represents–or what the fans THINK they represent.
This sideshow aspect of the band did nothing to win it any professional respect from rock critics, which is why it took so long for them to finally be inducted into the rock hall of fame, which itself came with its share of controversy.
But again, I have to keep peeling back and peeling back to get to the core of why some people love Kiss so much. The reason is that underneath all that makeup, people relate to them. Kiss had some genuine talent, but they were not the best players or songwriters in the world. Ace and Peter had serious substance abuse problems. Peter in particular behaved mostly like an asshole to his bandmates, whereas Ace was the epitome of the happy drunk, the Arthur archetype.
If you keep peeling and peeling back there IS a fundamental virtue in Kiss. It’s a combination of their aspiration to get to the top and the work-ethic they embodied in the early days. In other words, they were hungry enough, passionate enough, to claw their way to the top despite their limitations. It’s just that once they got there, then the backstage story stopped having anywhere new to go, that is, until the reunion years, which again ended somewhat tragically with Ace and Peter being let go from their contracts, and the last little wrinkle most lately is the reunion of Ace and Paul on Fire and Water from Ace’s solo album.
I know this blog post hasn’t really featured any true classic tracks, so let’s do a few. Much has been written about the way Ace and Peter started off burning bright and then completely blew it with substance abuse, with Peter flaming out first, followed by Ace (who, arguably, did quit the band on his accord, although had long had his studio work replaced by studio musicians by then). Luckily, Kiss is a band that documented its history very well, including its early live performances. This below is one of its very first gigs. I’ve cued it up to their performance of the song Black Diamond, sung by Peter Criss. Black Diamond is probably the most outright heavy-metal song in their early ouvre. It holds up surprisingly well compared to any other proto-metal of the day. Even though Kiss eventually skewed more and more towards power-pop and hair-metal, here they were at their most credible as a scrappy heavy-rock garage band, and it’s a testament to the palpable HUNGER of both Peter and Criss during those days.
This song famously features the false-ending followed by Ace’s extended solo where he descends to his knees. The pattern of chroreography that he set here, repeated endlessly, is what supposedly eventually destroyed his knee joints.
Ace and Peter, despite being their own worst enemy, often gave the band its most distinctive songs that broke out of the usual rock anthems with hooky choruses. For Peter, he had two softer ballads. The better remembered is Beth, but I’d rather feature Hard Luck Woman because it has more full instrumentation. Most people who hear it say it sounds like a long-lost Rod Stewart track. It’s a shame Peter’s solo career never took off because there is charm in his scratchy vocals.
If there was any Kiss song during the original lineup that truly solidified Ace as a credible heavy-metal guitarist it was Rocket Ride from his solo album from 1978.
Probably the single finest moment of the band in its original lineup, though, was Detroit Rock City from Destroyer. This is when everything was firing on all cylinders, including Ace and Peter. Peter in particular has often told the story of how he was whipped and prodded into giving his all in the studio, and you can feel it in the finished product. Classic Kiss never sounded so damn tight and never really did ever again.
For some reason I have a particular soft spot for the Dynasty and Unmasked era sound, maybe because by then, despite all the cock-rock posturing, the band seemed to sort of embrace their reputation as a kid-friendly rock act and began producing deliberately lighter–almost bubblegum fare. It turns out Ace was actually best suited for this sort of thing, as you can see in the video for Talk to Me from Unmasked.
Ace’s mastery of stagey body-language by this point had reached the level of an idiot-savant. All of the winks, pursed lips, head-bobs, androgynous hair-flicks, and other such movements are a tour-de-force and puts Paul Stanley’s lead-singer posturing to shame. Despite how much of a train-wreck he may have been offstage, in full regalia it’s hard to deny that Ace was the most entertaining and charismatic to watch. It’s these little details that are lost the most in Tommy Thayer’s current impersonation. Watching Ace you’re seeing not just a player, but the character, or more appropriately, the caricature of a glam-rock guitar God. You got the sense he knew how ridiculous all of this was, and yet he reveled in it. And that’s why despite how simple and pedestrian this song is, I love this video so much. It just oozes positive and playful vibrations.
I’ll start wrapping up this (really big) blog post by giving a bit more props to the hair-band era. Tears are Falling features some of the worst Kiss fashion sense, but the hooks stand up as well as any 80s hair metal. If you don’t find yourself humming the chorus afterwards, you’re immune from ear-worms.
There were two wannabe rockers in the 80s (and early 90s). Wayne and Garth and Bill and Ted. I related to both, being an amateur guitarist myself and trading guitar and bass off with my high-school budy. So when I saw Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey I was shocked at how GOOD this Kiss song was. It turns out they didn’t originally write it, but it’s still a kick-ass cover which exceeds the original.
The last song of any relevance to me is the title song from the reunion album Psycho Circus. This album didn’t feature much of Ace or Peter’s playing and the songwriting was often a by-the-numbers simulation of classic Kiss, but for what it is, it offers up a reasonable facsimile. It’s just too bad the music video is so dated-looking, but supposedly it was shown on the screen in 3D which is why it has the CGI.
So there you have it. A band with endless twists and turns and incredible backstage antics. Should you choose to check them out, be careful because exploring their history on and off the stage can be really addicting. The sum really is greater than its parts as far as being a fan goes.