KISS: ‘KISS’

KISS
KISS
Released on February 18, 1974 (Casablanca Records)

Review by Lance Lumley:
I was exposed to KISS when I used to hang out with one of my cousins, who always played the Alive II album when I would visit. It wasn’t until the 1980s when I really started to follow the band. I remember watching many times KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park on VHS, when I taped it off a local television station. I then started collecting magazines like Metal Edge whenever the band was featured, being a huge fan of then drummer Eric Carr. It was during this time I would go to a local store here in Columbia, Ohio, named Fisher’s Big Wheel (which was similar to a K-Mart), and browse the bargain bin cassette tape section to get some of the KISS releases I did not have as a child when records were popular. Ones of the first ones I purchased after Destroyer was the first KISS release. How ironic is it that we are looking at the first KISS record the year of the titled End Of The Road World Tour?

I recently stated in reviews on this site that Skid Row and Warrant‘s debuts are some of the few albums that every song was great, without having to skip a track. This is another one in my opinion. The album cover was one that my parents (and many other people) made them wonder “What is this?” Four guys wearing makeup, especially Gene Simmons‘ look with his eyes glaring at the buyer, almost hypnotizing them to do his bidding. From the opening drum beat of “Strutter” and the guitar work that had a feel of the Rolling Stones, to the second track “Nothin’ To Lose,” the listener gets a double dose of rock and roll that shows the band was more than an album cover. “Nothin’ To Lose” is one of my favorite KISS songs from the original line-up, with the bluesy feel of the guitar work, with a side of pop to it. “Strutter” is best heard here, instead of the second version from the Double Platinum release years later.

The third track “Firehouse” has been a live staple for the band for years, and although I like the song live, listening to the song is not one of my favorites compared to the others on the record. However, being only three minutes long, it isn’t enough to make me want to turn it off. “Cold Gin” is another staple for the band live throughout the years, and has been covered by many rock acts. The guitar riff and groove of the song is a KISS song that I do not get tired of listening to, either on the record or on Classic Rock radio. The next tracks are two of my favorite KISS songs in the whole catalogue of the band. “Let Me Know” was a favorite song of mine to play drums along with when I was first studying the band in my practice time. I would practice several songs on my drum set, playing along with the cassettes on my boom box. This was one of them. I loved the lyrics to the song, along with the instrumental jam at the end of the song.

“Kissin’ Time” is a song that many KISS fans either bash or love. There does not seem to be any middle ground to it. I like the song, which is a re-written version of teen idol Bobby Rydell‘s hit from 1959. Maybe it’s because I am fond of the early rock n’ roll era of the 1960s, but the placing of the song fits well right after the previous song. The song was added to the record after its release, but being a late fan of the band, I was not one that remembered the song not being on the release. Putting the song on the album may had hard rock fans saying “huh?” but I think looking back now, why not have a song with “Kiss” in the title when the band’s name is KISS? I always thought this song would’ve been played more live, with me picturing an arena crowd singing along with the catchy hook or clapping along. There is a video on YouTube from the KISS Kruise III of the song that shows what a good live song it is.

Most fans that are not familiar with the band usually name “Rock And Roll All Nite,” “Beth,” or “Deuce” as songs that they know. “Deuce” is played live by the band, and is actually great musically, but I get tired of hearing it. This may been blasphemy to some fans of the band, but I would rather hear other Gene Simmons lead vocal songs when I want to hear KISS (like “Let Me Know”). “Love Theme From Kiss” is a great instrumental, where the bass playing of Simmons is heard more upfront than other songs of the original line-up. The 1970s had plenty of songs with “Theme” in the title, so a rock band doing it is nothing strange. This is a song that I tell critics of the band to listen when they claim KISS is nothing but a gimmick band. Some probably would not guess this was played by Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley.

After the instrumental, Gene‘s bass leads of the song “100,000 Years.” This has the 1970s feel rock to it, which fits more with the album cover theme, than say a song like “Let Me Know.” Also fitting with the theme of the cover is the final track “Black Diamond.” The drumming by Peter Criss in the song has power and is fun to listen to. The ending of the song, with its slower pace, just hitting a chord at a time, has a Black Sabbath-like feel to it, giving the album a dark mood, where some parents could point to as the band ‘s stereotype as being a Satanic band. This is a perfect song to end the release.

The great thing about KISS fans is that each fan has their favorite album and line-up. I think some of the best releases of the original lineup is Hotter Than Hell and Love Gun, but one can’t go wrong with the debut release. Every track on the record is filled with great music. Although I view a few of the songs as overplayed, it’s only because the band has been around for so long and the songs are played live so much, which shows that great songs last throughout the decades. This is one of those albums that lasts.

Review by John Stoney Cannon:
From my first KISS in 1976 at the tender age of 10, I have been a loyal member of the KISS Army. Through all the ups, downs, line-up and look changes and even drama and name calling… yep… always a soldier. Never mind that my first KISS was hearing “Beth” on the radio and falling so head over stacked boots in love with the tune that I took on a failing mission of recording the song off the radio over and over just to try to catch the deejay saying who and what it was. Forget that after creating a cassette full of nothing but radio recordings of “Beth”, all it took was a fellow Boy Scout to explain that I had to have heard of KISS by singing “Beth I hear you callin’.” The point is, all KISS fans get that first KISS but only lifetime card carrying KISS Army members get that “see stars” first KISS that never goes away.  

Shortly after that, I would get my first taste of a KISS education over spins of Destroyer at my scout pal’s house and then presented with my very own copy of the newly released Rock And Roll Over dubbed onto some generic blank cassette. Yeah, the tape was cheap and the sound a mix of hisses and crackles but damn, under the warm breeze of a Kansas summer, it sounded great coming out of the tiny portable AM/FM cassette recorder tied to the handlebars of my bike. Few things can top flying up and down the rolling hills of 1970s Kansas as tunes like “Take Me”, “Calling Dr. Love”, and more are punctuating the air. Just the memory brings chills. This would build the start of my own KISS-story, which for me centered around the time period from the second trio of studio albums (Destroyer, Rock And Roll Over and Love Gun) and those tunes overtook me like a full body tattoo as I slowly soaked in pieces of earlier albums Dressed To Kill and Hotter Than Hell. But as fully enamoured as I was with KISS, what completely changed everything for me was stumbling across that 1974 debut album I somehow had until that point missed out on and in turn experiencing the massiveness of KISS‘ Alive! containing blistering live versions of songs from that first release.

Anyone having seen some of my other reviews might have already read how after moving to Germany for the second time, I was on sight when our military dependent rec center unveiled a new component turntable stereo system and a whole mess of records.  Being the only kid there at that moment I was privileged to find, while flipping through everything from disco to pop records, live albums by Peter Frampton and Ted Nugent, and finally, the strangely simple looking self-titled album by KISS. By strangely simple I mean, in contrast to the colorful, fantasy, bigger than life looking covers of Destroyer, Rock And Roll Over, and everything else I had seen from KISS. That first album was a stark, nearly plain representation of the group I had come to know and look at as these kind of alien not human beings.

Looking similar to Meet the Beatles, an early album by one of the group’s heroes, the first KISS album visually is a concentration of the band’s white face paint on an otherwise black backdrop with meager smatterings of red and silver makeup. Perhaps the most jarring part of looking back after having KISS‘ now trademark look engrained in my young brain was the overdone look of drummer Peter Criss‘ face paint. While featuring slight early differences, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley all pretty much looked like their now legendary KISS characters but Peter? That was a whole other weird vision. The only thing that could have made looking backwards weirder would have been if Paul had donned the short-lived bandit makeup on the cover.  Still, KISS remained the simplest of KISS album covers until Dynasty, another cover featuring pretty much only the band’s faces.  Even the back cover line notes of that first album didn’t seem to have the oomph seen on future albums and even with teen eyes, was hard to read but of course, as a young sponge eager to soak it all in, I squinted and after some effort manage to decipher everything. Luckily, the music wouldn’t be near as hard to digest.

Featuring re-recorded versions of four of the five early tracks the band demoed in 1973 with producer Eddie Kramer, KISS would be responsible for adding a hefty five tunes to KISS‘ must play live list. Matter of fact, all four of the tunes redone in the studio from the Kramer sessions — “Deuce”, “Cold Gin”, “Strutter” and “Black Diamond” — have all found a place at the top of the KISS classics song list along with live staple “Firehouse.” For an album that initially barely left a lipstick mark on popular music, it’s quite a feat that half the tracks became the stuff of KISS legend and a regular part of the KISS live show for over 45 years. Now if that doesn’t boggle the mind, think about the fact that aside from a reworked version of ’50s tune “Kissin’ Time”, which was added to a later edition of the record, nearly every track on KISS‘ debut release has in some way found a place on the KISS concert rollercoaster over the years. No other album in the KISS discography is as represented as that first KISS album. Just how badass was that first album that half the world didn’t even really know about until Alive! blew up in late 1975? Badass enough that seven of the sixteen tracks on Alive! come from that first album. To think, had it not been for the massive success of that live album, I might not be gushing over that first one all these years later but… had it not been for the killer songs on KISS‘ debut, there might not have even been a KISS Alive! Crazy!

Over the years, there has been a good bit of debate over how the tracks from the original Kramer sessions compare to their re-recorded counterparts found on the first official KISS album. Some say the original demos have more edge and raw energy and while there is plenty reason to believe so, there’s no denying the awesomeness found in the youthful naivety present on KISS‘ 1974 debut — a record full of songs by a young band still trying to find their groove yet at the same time exhibiting a sound comparative to no other band to that point. Vocally, KISS covered every angle of the vocal spectrum from rock to pop to soul and mixed street education steeped in a soundtrack of mainly sixties and early seventies British rock and roll with a more localized American glam style to present something that looked like it traveled back in time from the distant future. Basically, KISS mixed the influential sounds of UK bands like The Beatles, the Stones and Slade with an over the top show prompted by American bands like Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls to create one big smack of a rock and roll concept. On stage, they brought the outrageous look but starting with their debut, KISS brought the first of many anthems that would inspire the next generation of rock stars and in many ways, a generation of anti-rock stars.

For some the first KISS felt was the band’s debut single “Nothin’ to Lose” but for others, that first taste came courtesy of the drums that kick off that first track on that first side of that first record — “Strutter.” So maybe most of the free world in the seventies more than likely heard later tracks like “Rock And Roll All Nite” or “Beth” well before “Strutter” or any other track on that first one (or second or third for that matter), but that doesn’t change the fact that to this day, “Strutter” is still one of the most kick ass album opening moments in music history trumped only by KISS‘ very own “Detroit Rock City” a couple years later.  Released as the third single from KISS, this Simmons / Stanley co-creation officially kicked off the slow rags to riches climb of KISS from over-the-top club band to international phenomenon. Yeah, “Strutter” is the take off to that first glorious ride on the KISS rollercoaster winding through the first five turns that to this day are impossible to let go of. Five tunes that despite being the product of a young band navigating through new, undiscovered territory resulted in a handful of eventual rock classics once KISS broke into the music stratosphere.

While most new bands would give up a groupie or three for an out of the gate song like “Strutter”, bands of any stature would more than likely give up some groupies, a few guitars, and maybe even a kidney to have the first half of their debut album filled with all tracks that over time helped define their sound and career. “Nothin’ To Lose” with its infectious call and return soulful chorus, is a rocking dual vocal brimming with nods to early white soul and features the first look at the raspy, soul pipes of Criss. Along with side one closer “Let Me Know”, it is loaded with all the elements that made early rock and roll so fun, catchy, and danceable. Elements that artists like Bob Seger would churn into rock and white soul gold.

Taking up the middle of side one is now legendary rocker “Firehouse”, a track that would lend itself heavily to the KISS stage legend with spots that would include fire helmets, sirens, and actual fire. It’s one thing to watch such a spectacle in an arena but insane to imagine KISS pulling this off in a club where the space is so small that half the eyebrows in the front row get singed. Matter of fact, I nearly experienced that years ago as the bassist for tribute band Strutter rolled a fireball up and across a low wood stage ceiling and down the opposite wall nearly igniting some curtains. So I can imagine how those early KISS club audiences must have felt. Still, for all the flash and balls of fire, the impact wouldn’t have been as massive had it not been for “Firehouse” being a great rock song on own. As iconic now as “Cold Gin” is, I have heard from some fans who discovered the live version first say that the slower more plodding original studio version initially left them uninspired. True, it does drag in comparison but for me, there are few things more captivating than that opening slow, deliberate guitar riff. As simple as it sounds, it speaks volumes and despite that supposed simplicity, I have honestly heard few guitarists that actually pull it off properly especially the jangly guitars during the bridge breaks.  

While the “original” portion of side two kicks off with early show opener “Deuce”, most fans are familiar with the later pressings that included additional promotional track “Kissin’ Time”, a Bobby Rydell cover reworked for KISS‘ image to boost lagging album sales. While the band and many fans have had little good to say about the song, it remains a fun listen to this day for me. Certainly far better than the following “Love Theme From Kiss” instrumental or pretty much anything from Carnival Of Souls. On most copies, it kicks off side two and while not as perfect a track as “Deuce” to kick off a side, it more than holds its own. Speaking of “Deuce”, this Simmons barnburner of a track makes up one third of the three most bad ass tracks on the tail end of the album and even if you’re not sure about the whole “get up and get yer gramma outta here” thing, you can’t help but love it. Hell, who back then thought that a deuce was even anything other than drug reference? “He’s worth a deuce” sounds more like private bathroom time for a dude but whatever the case, the tune flat out rocks.

Now if KISS started off awesome, it finishes up just as cool with last two tunes “100,000 Years”, perhaps the tune I felt the band pulled off best later on Alive!, and the rocking “Black Diamond”, a classic song made great by Criss‘ gravely, forceful vocals. Never mind that just like “Deuce”, both tracks kind of stray away from any cut and dry “keep it simple stupid sense”, they just rock. It’s kind of a shame that no one ever took KISS seriously enough to conduct deep conversations about their lyrics like say fans of Styx, Rush or Yes because for all the love we KISS fans have for these songs, it would be sort of fun to ponder what the band was thinking when conjuring up lines like “ooh ooh black diamond” or “all this time you put up a fear.” Heck, even Simmons has even been said to claim not to even know what a “Deuce” is instead saying that the rhythm, rhyme, and hook of the songs are far more important than any actual sensible meaning. I guess that makes sense, as a clueless kid, I would sing along not even caring what the songs were about. But then again, maybe it wasn’t supposed to make sense. Maybe part of the rock and roll fantasy involved using your own imagination and making up your own ideas about what the songs were about. Or maybe that’s overthinking, maybe it really is just supposed to be dumb old simple rock and roll.

Anyway, here we are 45 years later, still celebrating the earliest steps in KISS-story and doing so still with excitement, love and pride. The band is on its supposed last tour with many fans yelling “old hat”, some screaming for Ace and Peter, a few turning away but no matter their feelings for KISS 2019, still cranking and singing along to the old songs of this band that for decades has been nearly as important in their lives as their families. Multiple generations share in a love for the music, the make-up, the idea of KISS, and that has been something the band’s growing fanbase since 1973 has never tired of. And just like that day in that Army rec center in Germany when I first heard the first KISS album, many fans have fond memories of that first KISS and whether you discovered them right at the start, in their ’70s heyday, sometime during the non make-up years, or whenever, chances are the songs from that first album finally caught up to you like they did me. And chances are also, that they never did, and never will, let you go.

Track List:
01. Strutter
02. Nothin’ To Lose
03. Firehouse
04. Cold Gin
05. Let Me Know
06. Kissin’ Time
07. Deuce
08. Love Theme From KISS
09. 100,000 Years
10. Black Diamond

Band Members:
Gene Simmons – bass, vocals
Paul Stanley – rhythm guitar, vocals
Peter Criss – drums, percussion, vocals
Ace Frehley – lead guitar, backing vocals

Additional Musicians:
Bruce Foster – acoustic piano, additional guitar
Warren Dewey – fire engine (3)

Production:
Produced by Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise
Mastering engineer: George Marino
Engineered by Warren Dewey

Band Websites:
Official Website
Facebook

Reviewed by Lance Lumley and John Stoney Cannon for Sleaze Roxx, February 2019

KISS performing “Firehouse” and “Let Me Know” at The Coventry in 1973:

KISS – Firehouse & Let Me Know – The Coventry 1973 (Upgrade)

KISS in one of the first gigs where they were in full makeup! *Footage has been enhanced*