We were about halfway through assembling last week’s guide to the best of KISS when we realized that we were going about it all wrong. The way we see it, appreciating KISS isn’t just–or even primarily–about enjoying their highlights. It’s also about experiencing the worst they have to offer, while stewing in that intoxicating combination of derision and seething rage which only the most truly terrible arena rock can evoke.
So that’s why we’re making our Guide to KISS a two-parter. In the true Halloween spirit, we’re giving you a trick with your treat. Or, to put it another way: you wanted the best, you got it, and now we’re giving you the worst…whether you like it or not. Just be glad that you only have to listen to 35 songs and not, oh I don’t know, 15 goddamn albums.
As we established last time, KISS went into a downward spiral around (at least) 1978, from which they never truly recovered. This works out nicely for our two-part guide to their discography: just as the vast majority of their highlights were from 1974-1977, so did the vast majority of their worst tracks come from 1978 and later. But it’s important for us to go back a bit first, just to establish that things weren’t perfect even before the band’s precipitous decline. There are notably weak tracks on all of the early KISS records (with the possible exception of Hotter Than Hell), but the first really offensive one is “Ladies in Waiting” from 1975’s Dressed to Kill: a dour, monotonous Gene Simmons rocker that makes casual sex on tour–purportedly one of the rock world’s perennial pleasures–sound like joyless work. Remember last time, when I suggested that going disco was a preferable alternative to writing yet another “riff-heavy dirge about fucking groupies?” “Ladies in Waiting” was exactly the song I had in mind.
Though, really, it has some competition. “Plaster Caster” from 1977’s Love Gun isn’t as dull a song as “Ladies in Waiting”: Simmons’ melody actually varies slightly this time around, for example. But what bothers me is its exploitativeness. Everyone knows that the song is about Cynthia Plaster Caster, the Chicago-born “super groupie” who became infamous in the counterculture for making alginate casts of rock stars’ penises. But not everyone knows that Simmons–or, indeed, any of the clowns from KISS–was never one of her clients. There’s a tiny bit of pathos in the idea that Gene apparently wanted to be part of Cynthia’s “collection” so badly that he wrote a song insinuating that he already was; mostly, though, it’s just creepy and opportunistic. Plenty of KISS songs are sexist, of course, but “Plaster Caster” is especially egregious: it’s basically sexual harassment with a bassline.
But let’s get down to brass tacks. We’re not here to single out filler tracks from otherwise decent rock albums. We’re here for the worst of the worst; and with their quartet of 1978 solo albums, that’s exactly what KISS started to deliver. I mentioned last time that Paul Stanley framed the group’s lisping, bare-chested frontman as a “bedroom-eyed heartthrob type,” but spared the reader any musical evidence of this bizarre artistic decision. This time, I won’t be so kind. “Hold Me, Touch Me (Think of Me When We’re Apart)”–the only single released from Stanley’s album, presumably as an act of aggression against the American listening public–is exactly the kind of middle-of-the-road late-‘70s pop-ballad schlock you never wanted to hear on a KISS album; it could easily be mistaken for a Carpenters song, with the key caveat that the Carpenters could actually sing. Who on Earth thought this would appeal to the mostly adolescent boys in the KISS Army? On second thought, scratch that: who thought this would appeal to anyone?
Another thing I mentioned in my discussion of the solo albums last time was that Gene Simmons, while far from a masterpiece, “was at least honest with itself about its origins as a bugfuck vanity project.” Again, I was merciful and let you take my word for it; but I guarantee that anyone who’d already heard the album knew exactly what I was talking about: its absurd, tongue-in-cheek, yet weirdly faithful cover of the Disney standard “When You Wish Upon a Star.” So, there you have it: if you’re a KISS fan who’s been hankering to hear the Demon warble along to the Pinocchio soundtrack, then Gene Simmons has you–and only you–covered.
Moving on to the final two, Ace Frehley has no truly execrable tracks, making it the best of the four by default. That leaves us with Peter Criss. As I said last time, there are no highlights on this album: it’s pure, 100-proof pap, which makes it hard to narrow it down to a single low point. The record is more unbearably mediocre than anything else; it’s offensively inoffensive, traveling in one ear and out the other before the turntable has finished spinning. So instead, let’s forget about the worst song and just go with the funniest: “That’s the Kind of Sugar Papa Likes,” a bouncy Criss original that offers an unsettling glimpse into the kinds of phrases the “Catman” might utter in the bedroom.
As you can see, there’s plenty to unpack about these awful, awful records–enough to fill a post of its own, probably (don’t worry, I won’t write it…this year). But the most important thing to note is the utter absence of irony that went into their production and release. To this day, Simmons and Stanley in particular seem impressively, willfully oblivious to the crazy-town absurdity of releasing four simultaneous albums’ worth of bog-standard late-‘70s middle-of-the-road pop and rock, and somehow expecting their audience to choke it down. Once again: who asked for this? Surely not the same kids who lined up in droves to buy Destroyer and Love Gun. In fact, the closest thing I can think of to a good reason for these albums to exist is as a kind of oblique middle finger to the band’s critics: as if to say, “You thought we were bad as group? Just wait until you hear us separately!” If the 1978 KISS solo albums taught us anything, it’s that however mediocre the classic KISS lineup were as a unit, they were infinitely more so as the sum of their individual parts.
Though, really, by 1980’s Unmasked, they were starting to give themselves a run for their money. Unmasked was perhaps most notable for marking the moment when Paul Stanley’s soft-rock ambitions began to fully, distractingly intrude on the band’s sound; but as terrible as lead single “Shandi” was–and don’t get us wrong, it was terrible–it’s also kind of hilarious, and we have a soft spot for it and its unbelievably campy video. The same can’t be said for Gene Simmons’ “She’s So European”: another entry in the band’s well-worn lyrical trope of being angry at women for existing, with an arrangement that sounds like the work of a New Wave quartet suffering from simultaneous closed head injuries. I’ve referred to KISS’ rampant misogyny a few times in this guide already, and unfortunately it’s only going to get worse from here; “She’s So European” piles derision on its female subject for crimes such as…drinking “pink champagne?” Making love on a “brass bed?” Having a “well-planned look in her eye?” Honestly, I’m not sure why she deserves such contempt–especially coming from a bunch of guys who spent the bulk of their adult lives pretending to be flesh-and-blood cartoon characters. As a critique of feminine artifice, “She’s So European” is the ultimate case of the pot calling the kettle black.
Unmasked also gave us “Torpedo Girl”: one of three songs on the album by Ace Frehley, who seems to have misinterpreted his achievement of releasing the least bad KISS solo album as a sign that he was a singer and songwriter worth listening to in his own right. Sorry, Ace: “Shock Me,” this ain’t. But in all fairness, I’m not sure Frehley should be allowed to shoulder all the blame; after all, the one connecting thread between the Unmasked clunkers mentioned here is producer/co-writer Vini Poncia, whose previous role behind the helm of Peter Criss doesn’t exactly inspire confidence in his artistic vision. At the very least, a pro like Poncia–who wrote songs for everyone from the Ronettes to Ringo Starr–shouldn’t have allowed a song as half-baked as “Torpedo Girl” to see the light of day; it literally sounds like Ace is making his goofy underwater fantasy up as he goes along, with lyrics like, “I saw this thing that looked a lot like a submarine / With a pretty girl on the bridge, could this be a dream? / I don’t know, could be.” With that level of enthusiasm, it’s little wonder that Frehley would call it quits with KISS a mere two years later.
But first, he had to suffer with the rest of us through the band’s most gloriously boneheaded decision to date: 1981’s totally straightfaced rock opera odyssey, Music from “The Elder.” I’ll be honest: I kind of love this album. It is arguably the shining example of a musical artist’s ambitions outstrapping their abilities, as KISS–a band, lest we forget, best known for wearing Spandex unitards and bellowing power-chord anthems about rocking and rolling all night to audiences of schoolchildren–hook up with their old partner in crime Bob Ezrin to record a narrative song cycle to rival Pink Floyd’s Ezrin-produced The Wall. Except, of course, it doesn’t rival The Wall at all. Indeed, it’s tempting to view Music from “The Elder” as the ultimate evidence for KISS as a real-life Spinal Tap; its bloated, self-important prog-rock pastiches matching Tap’s ludicrous “Stonehenge” setpiece in both unearned pretension and silliness. But even that, quite frankly, would be giving it too much credit: if anything, a song like Stanley’s community theatre-caliber “Just a Boy” more closely resembles The Nightman Cometh, the parodic musical from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.
As we noted last time, even when The Elder is trying to sound like the KISS we know and
love tolerate, it’s still bogged down by its own narrative baggage. It’s also hard to ignore that only half of the band seems to be on board with the rock-opera conceit (go ahead, guess which half). Thus, Frehley’s “Dark Light” starts out with a promising, swaggering riff, only to sag beneath the weight of the guitarist’s hilariously palpable lack of enthusiasm. Meanwhile, lead single “A World Without Heroes” suffers from the exact opposite problem: Simmons is so earnest and invested in its schmaltzy sentiment that it’s utterly impossible to take seriously.
And now, here’s something I wish I’d never learned: look closely at the album’s notes and you’ll see that “A World Without Heroes” is credited to Bob Ezrin, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley…and Lou Reed. Yes, folks, you read that right: Reed, founding member of the Velvet Underground and punk poet laureate, who had of course worked previously with Ezrin on his own, much less ridiculous 1973 concept album Berlin, reportedly contributed the song’s staggeringly stupid opening couplet, “A world without heroes / Is like a world without sun.” This, folks, is easily the most depressing thing I’ve ever heard about Lou Reed…and yes, I’m counting the recent statement from his biographer about the troubled artist’s history of violence against women. I can’t say for sure, but I’m 90% certain that when Reed died in 2013, it was because he remembered that he played a role in writing “A World Without Heroes” and just abruptly lost his will to live.
Coming as it did after The Elder, 1982’s Creatures of the Night is often interpreted as a return to form for KISS. And I guess it is–there’s certainly nothing as ghastly as “A World Without Heroes” on it–but it also sends up some red flags of worse things to come. “Danger,” for me, is the precise moment in the KISS catalogue when Paul Stanley’s vocals crossed the line from “occasionally annoying” to “actively assaultive”–a point from which he would never return. I defy anyone to listen to Stanley’s cat-in-heat baying on the chorus and resist the urge to start clawing for the nearest sharp object to thrust directly into their ear canal. The same goes for “Gimme More” from the following year’s Lick It Up: basically just four minutes of faceless riffage from new guitarist Vinnie Vincent, accompanied by Stanley bellowing at ear-piercing frequencies like a tone-deaf Robert Plant.
As irritating as Stanley’s singing became in the early ‘80s, however, it was still a damn sight better than his rapping. Once again, you read that right: Paul Stanley, the same man whose relentless campaigning against hip-hop artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame recently led the institution’s CEO to accuse him of being “borderline racist,” spits some hot fire at the beginning of the single “All Hell’s Breaking Loose.” And yes, in case you were wondering, it is every bit as awe-inspiringly terrible–and, in fact, “borderline racist”–as you would imagine: “Street hustler comes up to me one day, and I’m walkin’ down the street minding my own business / And he looks me up and he looks me down and says, ‘Hey man, what be this?’ and ‘What be that?’ / ‘Why you gotta look like that?’ / And I just looked at him and I kinda laughed and said, ‘Hey man, I am cool; I am the breeze.’” The song then continues for about three and a half more minutes, but I have no memory of what happens next; by this point in its running time, the extremity of my cringing had put me in a catatonic state.
That’s okay, though, because if Lick It Up is still remembered for anything these days, it isn’t for its music: this was the album when KISS–or at least, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons of KISS, some other guy, and somebody’s drunk aunt–“finally” removed their makeup and showed their real faces. But I have a theory that the band’s “unmasking” actually had an adverse effect on their musical output. By 1983, the makeup was basically the only thing that set KISS apart from any other dinosaurs of 1970s rock; without it, they were just another pop-metal act, like a less interesting Ratt. And as they began to look less like larger-than-life superheroes and more like what they were–grown men in their thirties raiding their nieces’ closets–they started to double down on some of their least appealing traits to overcompensate. One of the grossest immediate results was “Dance All Over Your Face”: a Simmons-sung ode to domestic violence that’s pretty much Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” without the redeeming quality of a killer guitar solo. Look, again, we all know KISS has a longstanding problem with women; but there’s a difference between even something as reprehensible as “Plaster Caster” and a song that repeatedly calls a woman a “bitch” and threatens to “dance all over [her] face.”
KISS only got worse–both musically and ideologically–with their 1984 followup, Animalize. As the title indicates, “Burn Bitch Burn” is an even bigger pile of misogynistic horseshit than “Dance All Over Your Face”–although, to its credit, it does at least contain the gloriously awful Gene Simmons innuendo, “I wanna put my log in your fireplace.” Mostly, however, Animalize is just a vehicle for Paul Stanley’s ever-more-grating vocals; if his incessant screeching and wailing on “Get All You Can Take” hasn’t already been employed as a form of musical torture, then the wardens at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib were really missing a trick.
But why was Animalize such a Stanley-dominated album, you ask? Well, for one thing, in the mid-1980s Simmons was purportedly growing less interested in the band and more interested in getting an acting career off the ground, having apparently come to the conclusion that the world needed to see more of the mug he’d spent the last decade wisely covering up. As rockers-turned-actors go, he was a far cry from, say, David Bowie: the peaks of his filmography during this period were a role as the antagonist of Runaway, a 1984 Blade Runner ripoff starring Tom Selleck, and a bit part alongside fellow heavy metal veteran Ozzy Osbourne in the 1986 horror flick Trick or Treat. You might think I’m setting Gene up for a major dig here, but to be honest, I think he had the right idea: having both watched Runaway and listened to Animalize, I think it’s undeniable that the former was a more positive contribution to popular culture. I’d certainly rather watch Simmons glower at Selleck’s moustache for another 99 minutes than listen to “Thrills in the Night,” Stanley’s melodramatic power ballad from Animalize, ever again.
By the time of 1985’s Asylum, KISS had effectively transcended the banal aesthetic designations of “good” and “bad,” leaving only a kind of numb indifference. Is “Love’s a Deadly Weapon” a “bad” song? Is “Secretly Cruel?” I honestly can’t say. I can only comment on their impeccably airbrushed, radio-friendly production and precision-engineered hooks, the same way I might praise the construction of a truncheon while it’s bludgeoning me about the head. One thing I will say, though, is that “King of the Mountain” gives me a serious case of déjà vu: between “Gimme More,” “Get All You Can Take,” and now this, the combination of generic pop-metal noodling and Paul Stanley’s habitual oversinging had officially become the de rigueur formula for KISS in the ‘80s.
It’s a sound so utterly indistinct, you wouldn’t even know that it’s being created by a different guitarist every time; by now, however, Ace Frehley’s old spot in the band had become a veritable revolving door. KISS dumped Vinnie Vincent immediately after the conclusion of the Lick It Up tour; his replacement, Animalize guitarist Mark St. John, didn’t even play three full shows with the band. Finally, Bruce Kulick–formerly of the Michael Bolton vehicle Blackjack–stepped in to fill the spot for the remainder of the decade and most of the ‘90s, earning him the dubious honor of putting up with Gene and Paul for more consecutive years than any other KISS member in history.
And a good thing, too, because Asylum demanded more than just providing a bland backdrop for Stanley’s vocalizations; it also required a guitarist who was able to pair flavorless shredding with Simmons’ vaguely melodic growls and barks. That’s exactly what Kulick does on “Any Way You Slice It”–or at least, I think it is; to be honest, I zoned out somewhere after the first verse. I wish I could say the same for Paul’s insufferable wannabe fucking anthem “Uh! All Night”; unfortunately, however, like a surgery patient on local anesthesia, I had to remain conscious while Stanley did violence to both my ears and my brain cells. If there are any harassment attorneys out there reading this, please let me know whether you think I have enough to build either a criminal or civil case here, because listening to “Uh! All Night” actually made me feel violated.
After Asylum, KISS took an unprecedented two years before the release of their next album, Crazy Nights. But by the conclusion of lead single and quasi-title track “Crazy Crazy Nights” (the extra “Crazy” presumably serving to emphasize just how craaazy these nights are), they’d already worn out their welcome yet again. “Crazy Crazy Nights” is just intolerable: it’s as if Paul Stanley deliberately challenged himself to write a party anthem even more mindless than “Shout It Out Loud,” but also unlistenable. It’s the kind of “forced-fun” song that begins with a desperate whoop from the singer, as if his enthusiasm will inspire our own and not just induce world-weary eyerolls from a listening audience who had already been putting up with KISS for 13 years and counting. The music video is even worse, with endless shots of the KISS members prancing and mugging in the midst of a staged concert, punctuated with the kind of “wacky” spinning-camera effects otherwise found primarily in home videos of children’s birthday parties. Basically, if there is a Hell, I’m convinced that it looks and sounds exactly like the “Crazy Crazy Nights” video.
Astonishingly, this isn’t even as bad as Crazy Nights gets. On “Bang Bang You,” Stanley achieved the questionable distinction of writing and performing his second song in less than a decade devoted entirely to comparing his penis to a gun–except this one is co-credited to Desmond Child, so you know it reaches the kind of subterranean suck levels of which “Love Gun” could only have dreamed. Wikipedia tells me it “was only performed live during the Crazy Nights World Tour,” which is the least surprising thing I’ve read in a while. The real question is, did they also play “Love Gun?” How many dick-gun metaphors can a single concert audience take? Finally, the album reaches its nadir with “My Way”: a synth-heavy victory-rock number in which Stanley defies the all-too-clear limits of his vocal range while repeatedly proclaiming that he’s “never gonna stop.” Almost three decades later, it saddens me to write that he appears to be making good on his threat.
There was another two-year break between albums after Crazy Nights, but unfortunately, that didn’t stop KISS from putting out more new music in the interim. 1988’s Smashes, Thrashes & Hitscollected some of the band’s least unlistenable ’80s material, along with remixes of music people might actually want to hear and a few “bonus” previously unreleased tracks; the latter, an obvious pair of holdovers from Crazy Nights, are of exactly the caliber you’d imagine. Fortunately, I’ve only selected one for this playlist: “Let’s Put the X in Sex,” a single-entendre-laden Stanley/Child joint that makes one pine for the days of more sophisticated fare like “Makin’ Love.” Unfortunately, however, the only reason I’m not including the other new song–“(You Make Me) Rock Hard,” if you must know–is because I feel the need to highlight the compilation’s lowest moment, and one of the lowest moments in “KISStory” at large: the petty and completely unnecessary re-recording of the band’s 1976 crossover hit “Beth,” with Eric Carr on lead vocals.
But let’s pause for a moment, so I can do justice to the monumental bitch move this was. We didn’t write about “Beth” last time, because quite frankly, we don’t especially care for it; it was, however, an undeniably important track in the band’s early progression, and an enduring spotlight for its singer and co-songwriter, Peter Criss. Criss, it’s important to note, was the only member of KISS present in the studio at the time of its recording; the song’s piano line was played by producer Bob Ezrin himself, with uncredited guitar accompaniment by Ezrin’s frequent session hand Dick Wagner and orchestration by the New York Philharmonic. Even when performed live, it was sung by Criss alone on stage, accompanied by a prerecorded tape of the song’s instrumental track. In other words, “Beth” is barely a KISS song; hell, the band’s manager at the time, Bill Aucoin, would later claim that Simmons and Stanley initially opposed its inclusion on Destroyer. For all intents and purposes, “Beth” belongs to Criss.
With that context in mind, it’s difficult to regard the 1988 re-recording of “Beth” as anything but a deliberate slight to Criss, made all the more astonishing by the fact that it was released over eight years after the original drummer was fired from the group. The new version was recorded in the same room of New York’s Record Plant as the original, using the exact same backing track; even Carr was reportedly uncomfortable with recording the overdub. And really, who wouldn’t have been? The track is a creepy work of revisionist history, for which I can think of no real parallel in the history of rock and roll. More than anything, it serves as evidence that the preceding decade had changed KISS irrevocably and for the worse; from here on out, the “Hottest Band in the Land” was more like a corporation, run by two Stalins in fright wigs.
Following this distasteful endeavor was 1989’s Hot in the Shade, which found KISS, Inc. reaching yet another new low. Like Asylum, Hot in the Shade’s principal offense is that it’s boring; but this time around, thanks to the growing prevalence of the CD format, it’s also way too long, clocking in at a bloated 15 tracks and 58 minutes. By now, you shouldn’t even have to ask whether it earns its length. The album’s lead single, brazen Bon Jovi rip “Hide Your Heart,” has a chorus so lazy it sounds like Stanley recorded a guide vocal and just never bothered to replace it: “Ah-ah-ah-ah / Hey, hey, hey / Do do do dooo do do do do do.” “Read My Body,” on the other hand, has lyrics so cringeworthy they’ll make you wish they were wordless vocalizations: Stanley’s extended sex-as-reading metaphor makes R. Kelly’s wordsmithing look like Cole Porter’s. Finally, we close out our selections from Hot in the Shade with yet another caterwauling Stanley/Child power ballad, “You Love Me to Hate You,” which by this point could just as easily be about the relationship between the band and their fanbase.
So yes, Hot in the Shade is a truly dire album. But I’m not even joking when I say it’s got nothing on its followup, 1992’s Revenge. Here’s a fun fact: while I was putting this playlist together, I paused Spotify to listen to Erykah Badu’s remix of “Hotline Bling” by Drake (you should check it out, it’s good). Then I unpaused Spotify, in the middle of a song from Revenge. The effect on my mood was immediate; it was like somebody hit a switch and flipped off all the lights in my pleasure center. I sighed loudly, and muttered some curses under my breath. Revenge by KISS literally ruined my morning.
But what, you might ask, makes Revenge so bad? Well, that’s a good question; on the surface, it’s no better or worse than anything else the band had released since, say, 1983. Dig a little deeper, though, and the album is truly a perfect storm of the worst excesses of post-makeup KISS. Take, for example, the off-putting titty-bar paean “Take It Off,” which feels less like a rock song and more like a tedious five-minute exercise in proving how much Paul Stanley loves boobs. The song raises an interesting distinction between the two primary KISS members’ songwriting styles: when Gene Simmons sings about sex, it’s obviously repulsive, but it’s at least believable; the same, however, can’t be said for Stanley. Paul Stanley’s sex songs sound like they were written by someone who has only the vaguest idea of what sexual intercourse is, but is also desperate to convince the listener that he’s had a ton of it. “Take It Off” in particular is like that scene in The 40-Year-Old Virgin when Steve Carrell’s character cluelessly compares breasts to “bags of sand”–except instead of Steve Carrell, it’s Dr. Rockso the Rock’n’Roll Clown, and instead of speaking, he’s screaming directly into your ear.
Things get worse still on “Spit,” a kind of unholy union between Simmons’ skin-crawling insinuations and Stanley’s hollow locker-room boasts. More than anything, the song is offensive for its paper-thin attempts at body-positivity: when Gene croaks about how “thin is in, but it’s plain to see / It don’t mean spit to me,” and Paul joins in with some enthusiastically-squawked praise of “big hips” and “sweet lips,” it’s impossible to forget that the largest woman either of these men have been publicly involved with is Shannon Tweed. Finally, Stanley gives us yet another of his seemingly endless parade of mind-numbing innuendo-rockers with “I Just Wanna”: a dumb, cloying charade in which the singer toys with the “fuh” in “forget you” as if we’re all 12 years old and don’t remember that the Who did it better 27 years earlier.
Revenge was widely marketed at the time as another “return to form” for KISS, which at this point seem to be scheduled every decade like clockwork; in this case, however, it’s an especially staggering overstatement. Yes, the album reunited the band with Ezrin, but its journeyman arena rock didn’t benefit at all from the producer’s touch; and in any case, Ezrin was only one for two on KISS albums even before Revenge. Some have also claimed that the album’s musical style represented a step away from the glam-metal sound of ‘80s KISS; but, with the exception of a few key tracks (like the mildly embarrassing Metallica pastiche “Unholy“), I just don’t see it. Can you honestly tell me that “I Just Wanna” wouldn’t have fit like a glove on Lick It Up? Hell, it even has a Vinnie Vincent co-writing credit! If anything, Revenge marked the point when KISS stopped shamelessly pandering to one audience and started shamelessly pandering to another; everything about the album, from that “dark and gritty” cover to Gene’s Chris Cornell goatee, is the definition of trying too hard and still failing.
So it should come as no surprise that the band’s next move would be to switch gears again, and choose yet another audience to pander to: their rapidly aging, increasingly alienated original fans. After briefly reuniting with Ace Frehley and Peter Criss on a well-received episode of MTV Unplugged, Gene and Paul decided to get the old band back together: first for a reunion tour, in which the band donned their makeup for the first time in 13 years, and then for yet another “comeback” album, 1998’s Psycho Circus. It should also come as no surprise, however, that this comeback album fell far short of “coming back.” Psycho Circus is a whole different breed of embarrassing than Revenge: the sound of a band torn between recapturing their long-lost and almost completely illusory edge–just peep that awful, Insane Clown Posse-esque cover aesthetic–and mistily nostalgizing about their past. There are entirely too many lame, on-the-nose lyrical references to the band’s legacy: from Stanley’s line about “the makeup running down my face” in the title track–whose non-inclusion here should give you an idea about the relative quality of the other songs–to the entirety of “I Pledge Allegiance to the State of Rock and Roll,” a work of blatant self-mythologizing that is every bit as awful as the title makes it sound.
Even worse, however, is “You Wanted the Best,” a musical adaptation of the band’s longstanding concert introduction that literally no one asked for. Here, the whole band shares the spotlight as they pander to their fans and tell off their critics, trading eyeroll-worthy and weirdly passive-aggressive lines like “Don’t tell me not to play, ’cause it’s not your place” over a rote arrangement that wants to be “Rock and Roll All Nite” so bad, it verges on self-plagiarism. Speaking of which, let’s not forget “I Finally Found My Way”: a cynical and soulless attempt by Stanley to cash in on “Beth” by writing a soundalike with Bob Ezrin and giving it to Criss to sing–a mere decade, lest we forget, after he and Simmons tried to write the Catman out of “KISStory” by overdubbing his vocals on the signature song.
Psycho Circus was a commercial and, shockingly, critical success, but an artistic failure, even by the group’s own admission; Stanley later claimed that it “was such a nightmare to make that it kind of turned me off to the whole idea of making another album.” The original KISS lineup’s reunion was also predictably rocky, culminating in a “farewell tour” in 2000 and 2001 that effectively served as a means to kick Frehley and Criss out of the band again; by 2003, Simmons and Stanley were back on the road with longtime associate Tommy Thayer as the new “Spaceman,” and by the end of the year, Revenge-era drummer Eric Singer had stepped in as a permanent “Catman” replacement. Since then, KISS has seemingly come to terms with itself as a nostalgia act: they’re still playing the same songs and wearing the same makeup, even if Stanley and Simmons are the only original members. In recent years, there’s even been talk about the band continuing after the departure of its two leaders; perhaps the ultimate extension of its long, strange transformation from rock group to corporate entity.
There have been other records, of course. 2010’s Walmart-exclusive Sonic Boom was a surprisingly solid, if wholly forgettable mix of re-recorded classics and new songs in the spirit of the mid-‘70s. 2012’s Monster, their most recent album of new material to date, was mostly too dull to be truly bad; it does, however, have one song represented here in “Freak,” one last cheesy Paul Stanley self-affirmation rocker for old time’s sake.
In writing this guide, one question has occurred to me more than once: why? To be honest, I still don’t have a good answer. I’m well aware that most music listeners don’t particularly care about KISS anymore, and that those who do are almost certainly going to be put off by our dripping contempt for the band’s post-‘70s work. And yet, their influence on popular music–heavy metal, obviously, but also punk, alternative rock, and yes, even some rogue R&B and hip-hop–can’t just be swept under the rug, no matter how unseemly Stanley and Simmons in particular have become. What’s more, KISS is just hilarious: goofy and strange and also a little sad, as anyone who read last year’s weirdly engrossing 40th-anniversary Rolling Stone profile of the original quartet can attest. Like them or not, KISS has earned their place as a pop-cultural institution; they are an awesome, in every sense of the word, presence in the history of both rock and schlock. So why not give them a shot in both capacities, and hear the best and the worst of what they had to offer the world? That’s been the purpose of this pair of posts. We don’t expect to have inspired any more enlistments in the KISS Army (nor did we intend to); but maybe we’ve given at least some small inkling of what all the fuss was about.
If not, there’s always this: