Who They Are: While KISS are not quite at Neil Diamond, David Bowie, Elvis Presley, or Fleetwood Mac levels of cultural, critical, and commercial ubiquity, they have sold upwards of 80 million albums since their formation in 1972, and their stage make-up is pretty much instantly recognizable to anyone with a passing awareness of the American world around them over the past half-century. So I’m guessing that if you are culturally attuned enough to read my website, then you know who Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss are (and what they look like in their stage regalia, if not what they sound like), even if you’re not enough of a metal nerd to be fluent in the latter day incarnations of the group, where Stanley and Simmons have long reigned as the sole permanent members. I, on the other hand, am well-versed in the both the group’s heyday releases and those issued in their after-years, so you can thank me for listening to many of those records so that you don’t have to. Community service is always important, here at mine blog.
When I First Heard Them: Some time in the mid-’70s when they were emerging as cultural juggernauts. I was trying to think whether I had seen them or heard them first, and I can’t recall any explicit, particular moment on either front. I do know, though, that in the late ’70s, after my parents had a born-again religious awakening, that KISS somehow came to stand as the exemplars of everything bad and evil and wicked about modern pop culture, with church leaders declaring that the band’s name stood for “Knights in Satan’s Service,” which was nonsense, but worked well from the pulpit, apparently. I smile to remember a time when I was in high school, and my parents said they needed to talk to me about something after dinner one night. “Uh oh,” thought I, trying to quickly get in order whatever story I needed to defuse or deny whatever malfeasance I was about to be accused of. But, instead, I heard a terrible tale about my friend, Andy, whose parents had (as good Christian parents do) rooted around in his bedroom, finding something awful in his underwear drawer: a copy of Gene Simmons’ solo album from 1978. Gasp!! I was interrogated at length on what I knew about this depravity, and how I felt about it. I was, legitimately, ignorant of what Andy kept with his tighty-whities, and was actually a bit surprised that he was into KISS, since he’d not shared such a secret with me. It made me like him more. I did not directly admit to the fact that I actually liked KISS in that conversation, since there was nothing to be gained by doing so. Headphones were, to my mind at the time, invented for the sole purpose of hiding what I was listening to from my parents, and that was fine by me. I saw KISS live in 1979 (I’m not sure where I told my parents I was going to be that night, but it certainly wasn’t the truth), and it was a wonderful, memorable show, with explosions and lasers and blood and boobs (being flashed from the audience) and almost all of the other things that make teenage boys function and tick. It was among the stupidest shows I ever saw (well, until I saw KISS again in 1996), but also among the best. And what’s more rock and roll than that, really?
Why I Love Them: Parents hated KISS in the ’70s, as noted above, which made kids of my age and acquaintance love them all the more. They were utterly ubiquitous and extremely prolific in the latter half of the ’70s, so if you didn’t like their latest album, you only had to wait a few months to see if the next one rocked better for you. The imagery and the personalities were a big part of the story, of course, but none of that would have worked without some really good, really memorable music, which KISS delivered by the bucket-load at the peak of their powers. There’s a lot of dross in their catalog, for sure, but the high points are true pinnacles, catchy, memorable, and totally fine for shouting along with in concert, or while driving, or around the house when nobody else is there to hear your Gene imitation. While Stanley and Simmons were and remain the primary songwriters and singers, Frehley and Criss also wrote, and also sang, and also anchored a pair of the group’s most successful commercial moments, with “Beth” (by Criss) as an unexpected breakthrough pop ballad hit, and “New York Groove” (from Frehley’s edition of the four solo albums issued simultaneously in 1978) standing a fine fist-pumping anthem and singalong, a perfect embodiment of its time and place. As noted above, I saw KISS again in 1996 during the reunion (and re-masking) tour of the original quartet, and it was even bigger, and louder, and stupider than the ’79 show I caught. I reviewed it for the local newsweekly at the time, and also did a standalone piece explaining why you should care about such a KISS reunion tour. Both of those articles, which more deeply explain the “why I love them” factor, are available at this link.
#10. “War Machine” from Creatures of the Night (1982)
#9. “I Was Made For Lovin’ You” from Dynasty (1979)
#8. “New York Groove” from Ace Frehley (1978)
#7. “Black Diamond” from Kiss (1974)
#6. “Detroit Rock City” from Destroyer (1976)
#5. “Calling Doctor Love” from Rock and Roll Over (1976)
#4. “Goin’ Blind” from Hotter Than Hell (1974)
#3. “Shout It Out Loud” from Destroyer (1976)
#2. “Rock And Roll All Night” from Dressed to Kill (1975)
#1. “Cold Gin” from Kiss (1974)