Take a brief moment and thank the year 1974 for its existence. Aside from being the year that saw the Ramones and Van Halen play their first gigs, Queen tour North America for the first time, Stevie and Lindsey join Fleetwood Mac, and Rush release their self-titled debut, 1974 introduced the world to the band formerly known as Wicked Lester: KISS. Formed in 1973 by Gene Simmons (vocals/bass/fire/blood) and Paul Stanley (vocals/rhythm guitar/can’t hear you), KISS wasted little time in establishing themselves as the band that would become synonymous with all things controversy, marketing, drama, face paint, pyrotechnics, and even riffs. That’s right. Riffs. Soon joined by Peter Criss (drums/”Beth”/guns) and Ace Frehley (lead guitars/smoking guitars/space riffs), KISS embarked on a journey that, despite countless breakups/reunions, multiple memoirs, a rotating-door lineup, and a parody-level celebrity mythos, has allowed fans worldwide to experience all that is amazing, infuriating, and timeless about rock ‘n’ roll.
KISS potshots are a dime a dozen and while some of it is well deserved, the fact still remains that very few American rock ‘n’ roll bands have managed to accomplish even a fraction of what the Starchild, Demon, Spaceman, and Catman did in the 1970s. What’s more is that KISS owned the whole of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1970s, were completely aware of it, and as such capitalized on that success in every possible avenue they could find or even invent (because every camping trip should be a K-amping trip). In the four decades of their existence, KISS have sold 40 million albums in the US and now well over 100 million worldwide, making them one of the most successful rock bands of all time as well as one of the most derided bands by the crossed-armed, easily upset listener with much more refined tastes. But while the jaded elite cuddle up next to what’s often the equivalent to an ingenious home recording of someone microwaving a fork, KISS will always be the ultimate rock ‘n’ roll band.
Still unsure? Consider the fact that those elements of utter decadence, shamelessness, egomania, and brilliantly well-timed theatrics both on and off stage have been synonymous with this music since the beginning, and you’ll likely find yourself on the losing side of the argument that posits KISS as being anything less than the greatest American rock ‘n’ roll band of all time. Before dismissing that hyperbolic assertion, understand that “greatest” does not mean “best,” nor does it insinuate that KISS claiming that crown for all time will besmirch the good name of your favorite band. The story of KISS is precisely what critics love to romanticize about rock ‘n’ roll, yet in some strange act of irony it’s that same concept that’s used as a point of dismissal for the band. If rock ‘n’ roll isn’t four marginally-to-exceptionally talented meatheads from New York City finding worldwide fame and success playing simple rock tunes while dressed up like transvestite Martians doing kabuki theater that features pyrotechnics and blood, then nothing is.
10. “I Love It Loud” (from Creatures Of The Night, 1982)
After the absolute disaster-so-horrific-it’s-almost-genius Music From “The Elder”, KISS wisely reverted back to their original formula, which thankfully didn’t include epic storylines or unfortunate purple headbands. “I Love It Loud” was a not so subtle reminder to the at-the-time quickly dwindling fanbase that KISS did in fact love it loud and could still play it loud. Much of that bombast and sonic clout comes courtesy of Eric Carr’s heavy-footed percussion. If Carr’s replacement of longtime drummer and founding member, Peter Criss, ever needed a point of favorable argument it would be found in the dominating percussive style heard on “I Love It Loud” as well as the rest of the album. Penned by Simmons and the Ankh Warrior (Vinnie Vincent) who’d joined the band after the departure of Frehley, “I Love It Loud” is as heavy as it is hook-friendly — a combination the glam rock kings had, at least for a few releases, distanced themselves from completely. The gang-style vocals threaded throughout the verse and chorus punch with the kind of hook-ready rhythmic sensibility that causes songs to go from being merely catchy to truly memorable. Simmons’s turn at the mic in “I Love it Loud” is one of his most successful turns in that role if only for the fact that he’s not going for any kind of shtick outside the one that’s carried him so far: rock ‘n’ roll.
09. “She” (from Dressed To Kill, 1975)
Originally conceived as a Wicked Lester song by Gene Simmons and his then-bandmate Stephen Coronel (who was very recently arrested on child pornography charges), “She” opens with a straight blues riff that takes its cues from the likes of Blue Cheer and Cream, if only with a slightly harsher edge to the sound. At just over four minutes, “She” is the Dressed To Kill’s longest and most anomalous track, with Coronel’s contribution of the slower, more deliberately paced rhythm an obvious digression from the rest of the album’s more straightforward rock sound. The track is especially powerful given its placement in the band’s catalogue, coming at the very cusp of the ridiculous success that had so far evaded them at every turn. The song’s biggest moment comes courtesy of Ace Frehley’s blistering solo — a characteristic trend for nearly all of KISS’s most memorable tracks. Frehley’s solo on “She” manages to turn an otherwise by-the-numbers rock ‘n’ roll song into a track that sneers with the kind of arrogant swagger that KISS would nearly trademark (if they could!) for the next forty years.
08. “Goin’ Blind” (from Hotter Than Hell, 1974)
Yet another track featuring Stephen Coronel and Gene Simmons as credited writers, “Goin’ Blind” is a slow burner that, when paired against the rest of much of KISS’ discography, looks just as bizarre as the song’s subject matter: a 93-year-old man essentially sings a mournful breakup song to his 16-year-old lover. Lyrically there’s not much here, but then again that’s never been the point with KISS. Just as with so many other KISS songs, the bravado works here because the four dudes touting it believe in every fiber of the product they’re selling. Frehley’s guitar buzzes with a slow, gritty minor-keyed call and response to Simmons’s near-shouting vocals, with both working in near-tandem to take an otherwise average rock song and give it just enough of a weird edge that it can stand on its own. “Goin’ Blind” does this with what seems like little effort, and it’s no surprise to know that heavy/experimental bands like the Melvins would find a perfect form of inspiration both vocally and musically from what might be the sludgiest song KISS ever wrote.
07. “Calling Dr. Love” (from Rock And Roll Over, 1976)
God bless the Demon. Since the very inception of KISS, Gene Simmons has ensured that his own personal brand as a cocksure sexual hellhound has stayed the course both on and off the stage. Aside from appearing in damn near every kind of media (soft drink commercials, films, video games, and even a Stephen King novel), “Calling Dr. Love” is the ultimate Gene Simmons song, as unabashedly sleazy as it is musically appealing. Coming from any other band, “Calling Dr. Love” would likely have been a tough sell even in 1976, simply for the fact that lines like “So if you please get on your knees” or better yet “You’ll let me through, there’s nothin’ you can do” read like the Trapper Keeper asshole manifesto of some suburbanite adolescent. Even Zeppelin, a few years earlier, had managed some level of subtlety, but again, that’s a product that isn’t for sale (amazingly!) in the KISS Army. Coming from a band whose entire lyrical and musical aesthetic is dedicated almost entirely to sex, “Calling Dr. Love” is a near-anthem for the sordid sermonizing of the Demon. The song’s been a live staple for years now and for good reason: It’s pop rock at its crassest and catchiest, straight from the band that wrote the manual.
06. “Love Gun” (from Love Gun, 1977)
One of the KISS’ most recognizable live staples for good reason, “Love Gun” is the brainchild of Paul Stanley, who’s made it a point over the years to declare the song as one of his favorites. Granted, Stanley played both guitar and bass on the track, which might lend itself to bias, but even with that, “Love Gun” is the archetypal KISS song as it perfectly captures the band’s go-to aesthetic of hyper-sexual ridiculousness. While the running joke for some is that the only KISS song not about sex is “Detroit Rock City,” the best and most unabashedly phallic-centric of their songs is “Love Gun.” Stanley’s voice is a powerhouse on the title track for the record that sadly proved to be the band’s last remarkable effort start to finish, with Stanley’s often hammy vocals replaced with a stratospheric baritone and tenor. For all its somber sound, though, “Love Gun” is still very much a KISS song. “You pull the trigger of my/ Love Gun” is about as lyrically subtle as the band singing it. Pair that with the fact that the catchy-as-hell harmonizing chorus is some of Stanley’s best vocal work, and you’re left with what’s not only one of the best songs in the KISS catalogue, but one of the best songs in all of rock music.
05. “Lick It Up” (from Lick It Up, 1983)
The title track to the album that showed KISS fans everywhere the real hideousness that Gene Simmons had been hiding under his face paint the whole time is a kind of bittersweet reminder of (a) how ridiculously talented and possibly even batshit insane Vinnie Vincent was, and (b) how KISS could never possibly hope to replace the raw compositional tenacity of someone like Ace Frehley. Sure, “All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose” is also a great rock song, complete with writing input from all four members, but Lick It Up’s title track signals much more than just the formulaic riffs of a band wrapped around the axle of more than enough drama to supply infinite material for Behind The Music a decade or so later. Vincent’s first “official” appearance as a member of KISS, Lick It Up is worthy of more than having just its title track be a setlist standard. There are other very good songs on the record (“Young And Wasted” and “Gimme More” being examples), but “Lick It Up” itself is a standalone force to be reckoned with as well as a striking reminder that KISS were not simply a band riding the coattails of their own shtick. Makeup or no, the four boys from NYC were more than the sum of their theatrics and offstage shenanigans. Stanley, Simmons, Carr, and Vincent could write a fantastic rock song, complete with Stanley’s thankfully non-falsetto sky-scraping vocals and the unadorned crew walking lockstep and sneering in the music video.
04. “Detroit Rock City” (from Destroyer, 1976)
KISS’ fourth full-length, Destroyer, opted for a tracklist of crowd pleasers that still managed to bring as much rock clout as they did sing-along potential from the audience. With its two-note bass line intro and rolling upbeat tempo, “Detroit Rock City” opens the album up with a well-placed call to action for audience members to alternate between getting up and getting down. Driving its 4/4 time signature with a verse, hook, chorus, rinse, repeat formula, “Detroit Rock City” takes a quick turn for the macabre with the song’s narrative veering (literally) into the reality of teenage traffic deaths. Despite the dark subject matter (especially so for the time), the music maintains its upbeat pop-rock mood save for the minor-key harmonizing guitar work led by Frehley and backed up Stanley. Even in its most strained moments, Stanley’s voice was showing a confidence and swagger on Destroyer from the very start. It was a bravado that would be fully and best realized on the band’s next release, Love Gun. “Detroit Rock City” may in fact be the only KISS song not containing at least one blatant sexual reference. “Get down” is the only possibility here, and even then it’s a stretch given the context. The fact that an entire feature film was named after the song and inspired by the trials and tribulations of KISS fandom in the 1970s is at least a partial testament to the kind of arena-ready anthems KISS would corner the market on for the duration of their career and what would inevitably cement their status as one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most memorable bands.
03. “Rock And Roll All Nite” (from Alive!, 1975)
Conceived from the very start as an anthem for the band’s invariably dedicated fanbase, “Rock And Roll All Nite” is the quintessential KISS song, but it’s not the band’s best. At the risk of fielding “contrarian” accusations, the lone caveat for the song’s success is that the original studio version from 1975’s Dressed To Kill is a nearly three-minute snoozefest, devoid of even the famous Frehley guitar solo that thankfully found its way into the song for the band’s live version featured on that same year’s Alive! Listening to both songs back-to-back is essentially like following a a sip of Crystal Light with a shot of whiskey. Alive! was KISS’ breakout album for good reason. The band’s live shows were and are an experience hard to describe, and impossible to duplicate by a band with any other name. Regardless of whatever mythology might exist regarding the album’s use of — wait for it — overdubs, Alive! remains the user manual for live rock albums. That seemingly intangible component of the live KISS experience that so many fans had attempted to convey to nonbelievers was suddenly in a very tangible format, allowing for fans who’d not yet fully grasped the raw energy and eager-to-crowd-please attitude the band has undoubtedly tried to trademark at some point during its forty-year existence. Even those completely unfamiliar with KISS have likely heard “Rock And Roll All Nite” with its two very brief verses and endlessly repeated refrain echoing out to the roars, whistles, and excitement of the crowd. It’s that snare drum pop from Peter Criss. It’s Paul Stanley screaming like a maniac banshee that he can’t hear the crowd. It’s Ace Frehley’s bluesed-out guitar riff giving birth to thousands of guitar players in mere seconds. It’s Gene Simmons howling like gravel-throated lunatic, summoning up all manner of glam-rock darkness to entrance the masses. “Rock And Roll All Nite” is the kind of catchy that even lyrics on par with “It’s A Small World” can’t undo its resiliency and power.
02. “Parasite” (from Hotter Than Hell, 1974)
Yes. KISS’ first three albums are far and away the band’s best. It’s not a knock against the entirety of everything the band produced afterward, but it’s certainly a sendup of what was an absolutely singular and exciting sound for American heavy music in 1974. In a year where records like the Scorpions’ Fly To The Rainbow, Blue Öyster Cult’s Secret Treaties, David Coverdale’s Deep Purple debut Burn, and the masterpiece Nightlife from Thin Lizzy were all making their own respective waves in heavy music, KISS was a wonderfully anomalous band, painted up and writing records like the near-perfect Hotter Than Hell. The shoddy production of the album is precisely what makes songs like “Parasite” that much more commanding, beyond their already dark and gritty tone both lyrically and compositionally. The opening riff, which sounds like straight Motörhead worship, was written a full year before the Right Reverend Kilmister was even ousted from Hawkwind. It’s no surprise the brains behind the explicitly guitar-driven “Parasite” was the 23-year-old Ace Frehley. Thanks to his insecurity as a vocalist, Frehley passed along the duties to Simmons whose baritone/bass cuts through the signature riff like a rusted straight razor. Frehley vocals are in fact the only ones absent on the song’s all-hands-on-deck chorus. What works best for “Parasite” is the simple but heavily distorted repeated broken chord riff from Frehley in between those breakout full force moments of Simmons’ verses and the all-out rock choral refrain. It’s as simple a riff as any in rock ‘n’ roll, but in the song’s context, it provides a musical narrative and punch perfectly capturing the fact that the band’s true musicianship wasn’t limited to the live setting.
01. “Black Diamond” (from KISS, 1974)
The finest moment for KISS came at the very beginning of the band’s journey, with a song that closed out their eponymous self-titled debut. Written by Stanley, “Black Diamond” is absolutely stunning largely due to the fact that the vocals of Peter Criss are comparable to the wail of soul singers like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. At just over five minutes, “Black Diamond” is the album’s longest and most furiously executed track, roaring out of Stanley’s softly delivered intro over acoustic guitar. The scorching vocal takeover from Criss presents the kind of dynamic contrast that KISS had seemingly already perfected from the very start. A band whose image alluded to far more sinister music were in fact creating blues-heavy rock songs and ballads whose lyrical content, of course, was squarely focused on that topic that is the summation of all things rock ‘n’ roll: sex. “Black Diamond” capitalizes on every one of KISS’ strengths and immediately puts to bed any suspicion that their merit is solely in theatrics and shameless promotion schemes. Echoing Bowie as much as it does Blue Cheer, “Black Diamond” doesn’t place the whole of its investment in a single hook or an earworm chorus. There’s nothing overtly virtuosic about “Black Diamond” save for Frehley’s bafflingly overlooked guitar work. Whether the harmonizing trio of “ooh-oohs” or the gang-style vocalizations of the chorus or that absolutely blistering solo and leadout from Frehley, “Black Diamond” is far more than just a great KISS song. The track moves beyond the enclosed categorization that tends to trap a band that has unabashedly built their empire on a gimmick, albeit a highly entertaining and singular one. That kind of distinction is both damning and revealing for KISS because it ultimately allows a clearer picture of those moments when the band doesn’t simply sound like they’re applying the old-reliable formula and churning out another KISS rocker. “Black Diamond” stands alone for being the kind of rock song that moves well beyond the moniker of its creators and instead signals a truly remarkable moment for a band at the threshold world domination. For KISS, that story, warts and all, has thankfully been told, screamed, shouted, and sung along to — and no doubt will be for generations to come. It’s everything that’s decadent, ridiculous, magical, and undeniably amazing about rock ‘n’ roll. It’s KISS.
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