Released on March 12, 1996 (Mercury Records)
Review by Sammy The Bull:
The year is 1995. Michael Jordan made his NBA comeback. DVDs were invented. Sony PlayStation was released. Kendall Jenner and Patrick Mahomes were born, and drinks at a bar were $2.50. It was also the year that KISS took the stage at Sony Studios in New York City for MTV’s Unplugged Series. I was 22 at the time and living in Toronto where KISS would frequently make stops. I was a fan of and purchased previous performances from the Unplugged era including Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and probably the most successful one of them all – Nirvana’s performance. But KISS? Unplugged? Could they pull it off? I could imagine a few songs that would translate to acoustic versions, but not their big thumping arena anthems.
Living in Canada, I didn’t subscribe to MTV, and the internet was in its infancy. To feed my curiosity of the happenings of what would become a historic performance, I had to rely on coverage from the rock magazines of the time (Metal Edge), as well as Canada’s music video channel, Much Music. I learned there were a few surprises from the show, but none bigger than the eventual reunion with original guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss. I couldn’t wait to hear the whole album after some highlights were aired on Much Music. While the performance took place on August 9, 1995, the CD was released the next year on March 12, 1996, and I was a first day buyer. I don’t own all of the KISS albums but do consider myself a member of the KISS Army. As of today, I have seen them live 10 times.
The album starts with “Comin’ Home” from their 1974 release Hotter Than Hell. All right, this is something that I can get behind! Very clean, tight and on point. Now remember, playing the drums is Eric Singer and on lead guitar is Bruce Kulick. KISS have had 10 different lineups since 1972, and this one may have been version six or seven, but who’s counting? Bruce and Eric are excellent musicians, but not from the original line-up, so most fans always rank and treat them as second class citizens. Gene Simmons then takes over singing duties for two songs — “Plaster Caster” and “Goin’ Blind.” For me, I was not a fan of these two songs and wondered why they were included in the setlist, let alone two in a row from the Demon. I had a theory as to why it happened though… cuz Gene said so and it was MTV after all.
“Do You Love Me” was next on the album, taken from the album Destroyer. This is the album that got me into KISS and probably so many of you as well. Again though, I didn’t like this song on this album. Is it me? Is it them? Did grunge take all the fun out of music for me? Gene takes another turn already with Revenge hit “Domino.” I remember a verse of this song saying “Got you by the balls” but in this version it was “Got to have it all.” I’m not sure if this was an MTV thing or not. The executives obviously didn’t have a problem with the line “When that bitch bends over, I forget my name.” The audience enjoyed this version but not me. “Got To Choose”, another song from Hotter Than Hell, was not included on the North American release but was on the Japanese version. Paul Stanley awkwardly introduces the song by saying “I’m so bad with album titles. This one comes off of Hotter Than Hell. If I’m wrong, Shoot me.” At this point, I want to shoot myself. I am not enjoying this at all. Another tune that I don’t feel belongs is “Sure Know Something.” Paul tries to show his funny side by introducing it as a song from “Dynasty…. or in Australia… Dinisty”. Again Paul’s interaction with the audience falls flat. Hair 10/10. Voice 9.5/10. Humour 3/10.
I will admit that I watched the MTV concert as I refreshed my memory of the album. There were KISS statues on the set. The floor was the album cover from Rock And Roll Over and just before Gene takes the mic again, he takes the towel that Paul just wiped his sweaty face with and wiped his own. Yuck. Paul prefaces the next song, “A World Without Heroes” by saying “Here’s a song from an album that some people can’t ever hear enough of and some other people – it’s always too much.” From this song on, I really got back into the album. Gene played this with everything he had, including real emotion. Up next was “Rock Bottom” from Dressed to Kill, which sounded great acoustically, and “See You Tonight” from Gene’s 1978 solo album. Gene was the only one to showcase one of his solo album songs. Why? Because this is Gene’s world and we just live in it. My favourite song on the album is “I Still Love You” from Creatures of The Night. Paul’s voice is perfect and he effortlessly nails the high notes. His passion and power had the audience, and me, wanting more. Paul then slows it down a bit with “Every Time I Look At You.” This song was a perfect fit for this album too.
OK. Time for the surprise. Well not really, as everyone knew and saw The Catman’s kit in the background all show. “We’re gonna do something special. We got some members of the family here tonight. And it’s not your mom and dad. We’re talking about Peter Criss and Ace Frehley.” Being the classy gentlemen that they are, Kulick and Singer walked off stage for a few songs while the nostalgic crowd went crazy. This leads into The Rolling Stones classic “2,000 Man.” Ace took the mic for this one and I remember being excited as this was the first time in 16 years that the original line-up was performing on stage together in front of an audience. Peter Criss then moved from behind his kit to join the rest of the band on stools, and belted out (arguably) the band’s most iconic song “Beth.” Deservingly, this received a standing ovation from the crowd.
Kulick and Singer then came back on stage and joined the original four for “Nothin’ To Lose.” This was the only time that the six of them ever shared the stage. It was going to be interesting to see if they tripped over each other, but they didn’t. The last song on the album is “Rock And Roll All Nite” and with this comes the best line of the night for Paul as he introduces it. “Countries always have national anthems. This is the rock and roll national anthem.” So true. The crowd sang every word, and even though it was the end of the night – they still wanted more. They didn’t get more that night but this show led to one of the most anticipated reunion tours of all time. KISS got its groove back, and it was cool to like KISS again.
OK, time for a few bonus nuggets. The band played other songs or “partials” that did not make the final cut including “Hard Luck Woman”, “Heaven’s On Fire”, “Spit”, a bastardization of “God of Thunder” – a country version with even a yee haw and twang and ridiculous Tennessee hillbilly story, as well as a cover of “Louie, Louie.” Could this have been better? Absolutely! What was missing was the obvious “Forever” from Hot In The Shade, “Love Gun”, “King of the Night Time World” and “Reason To Live.” I think those tunes would have pleased more of a larger audience base. Some of the deep cuts were for the diehards and missed the mark. To this day, I still skip a few tunes when listening to the album, but credit to the band, at least I still listen to it.
Review by John Stoney Cannon:
Man, the ’90s were a weird time for many of us who grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, especially musically and I got to admit, while on one hand, it was tough not being able to find music that moved me, it was equally as great to revisit old bands I’d forgotten about as well as discover some I’d missed out on. Of course, there were always the good old standbys of which KISS most certainly was.
The middle of the decade, I was according to some, also rediscovering my youth, divorced and living in a band joint with my then guitarist and bassist behind the drummer’s folks. Not the best spot ever but, there was a pool, an outdoor firepit, a great sound system, and lots of music and despite not being much of a drinker myself, usually plenty of empty beer bottles filled with cigarette butts courtesy of evenings sitting around a packed livingroom playing Mario Cart. It was really the only reason we even had a TV, we didn’t even have cable. So I was pretty stoked after a very late night gig when the club manager invited me to watch KISS Unplugged at the club the following week. Well, I guess as stoked as you can be at around 5:00 a.m. after a near 12 hours of gear loading, playing, and hanging out. Once I finally dragged my self out of bed later that afternoon and excitedly told the guys, it turned out I was the only one free to go hang out for some multi-huge screen, PA loud sound, hot wings tempered Kiss Unplugged. So I went back to bed.
Not you gotta understand, I’ve been a KISS fan since around 1976 but really fell head over stacked heels in love with the band after moving to Germany in 1978 just after Kiss Meets The Phantom of The Park aired in the US. If I remember correctly, we left what seemed like minutes after I watched the show with my old buddies in Kansas and as corny as it was, for a 12 year old fan, it was the coolest. After that, nothing fazed me about KISS and I have nearly loved every record since including Unmasked and Music From the Elder. Yeah, for me, catching the band unplugged was pretty big.
Sitting at a hightop with my wings as all the screens in the place exploded with color to the sounds of the audience pounding from the PA, I was loaded with chills pretty much the same way I get ’em when I watch the videos now and even listen to the CD. Sure, KISS have never claimed to be Rush proficient on their instruments but one is certain, they take the pretty good talent they have and pour it together into a tight rock and roll package and that is evident on KISS‘ Unplugged. From the first tune “Comin’ Home” to closer “Rock And Roll All Nite” complete with current and past members, KISS nail every one and to top it all off, the setlist is a great mixed-bag of classics, a couple uncommons, and songs some might never would have ever imagined played unplugged. There’s not a bad one on the list and maybe that’s just personal preference. Some fans might have preferred some of the songs from the show also be included on the CD or other songs that weren’t included period and as someone who likes to play “Calling Dr. Love” acoustic, I get that but for what is on KISS‘ Unplugged, it’s pretty awesome to my ears.
With so many cool tracks being played so perfectly, to me some still stand out, in particular the inclusion of “A World Without Heroes” off of the band’s polarizing Music From the Elder album and “See You Tonite” from Gene‘s 1978 solo release. Both are great examples of what the Demon can do when he sits down to craft a serious tune as the latter is such a great catchy song even if it might not have fit Simmons‘ character at the time. For me though, the oddity that stands out the most (and over the years has become my favorite track) off of Unplugged is “Goin’ Blind” which showcases not only that early bass style that stood out on the first few KISS records, but Gene‘s vocal ability as well. The groove is intense, the guitar solo loose, and the harmony vocals eerily wonderful. Perhaps the best thing about the Unplugged album is Gene‘s diversity. Toss in the killer acoustic takes on “Plaster Caster” and the always snarky “Domino”, and Gene represents solidly.
On the other end, the set was equally loaded with a cool mix of Paul Stanley tunes starting off with “Comin’ Home” and bouncing around the KISS catalog from Hotter Than Hell‘s ”Rock Bottom” to 1976’s Destroyer (with a great sing-a-long “Do You Love Me?”) through Dynasty with a great take on “Sure Know Something.” But what really shows why at the time Stanley was considered one of the best vocalists in not just rock but music period is his performance on “I Still Love You.” I have been blessed to catch KISS perform this great song many times over the years and as intense as it always is, never have I experienced a more mesmerizing rendition than the acoustic Unplugged version. Even now listening to this while writing this look back, the hair is standing up on my arms higher than Gene on the lighting rig spitting blood. Following it up with “Every Time I Look At You” might have not been the average KISS fans pick but the additional strings added to a tender performance just pulls the emotion out and delivers on several levels. More proof that KISS can knock it out of the park even when you least expect.
Of course, the main event of Unplugged has and always will be the inclusion of original members Peter Criss and Ace Frehley and again, from the first notes of “2,000 Man”, it still works emotionally. Those moments years ago watching in the bar, I was reminded why I loved KISS to begin with and even now, I can’t help but to sing along and be moved. Followed up by Peter singing “Beth”, it’s tough to imagine things getting any better but again, KISS bring Eric Singer and Bruce Kulick back out for a six-band finale and pull it off! It really is hard to top “Nothin’ to Lose” with Eric and Peter both pounding skins and singing (OK if Eric Carr would have still been alive…) and the vocal swapping on “Rock and Roll All Nite” just might be the last time I heard the song without nearly yawning. Even at this moment, I find myself tapping my foot and singing along to this most overplayed of KISS songs.
The tracks on KISS‘ Unplugged will never replace the original versions fans adore and cherish but it is without a doubt, a time capsule from an era where musically the band were firing on all cylinders en route to the actual full reunion everyone was dying for. Simmons and Stanley navigated the then current KISS with Kulick and Singer down a trip through KISStory that took the tightness of the band at the time and tossed in songs that well represented the long history of the band. As always, the setlist choices will always be debated among the KISS faithful but that only goes to show how dedicated and intense KISS fans are. “Only one tune off the first one?” “No ‘New York Groove?’” “Two tunes off Revenge but nothing off of Animalize or Asylum?” Yeah, all good points but with barely over a dozen tunes, there’s not even space to grab one off each record?
So good on KISS for picking a great mix of tunes that not only work well unplugged, but also deliver a few not typically found on the average the tried and true KISS setlist. Kudos to the band for “Comin’ Home” and “Sure Know Something” and “A World Without Heroes” and “See You Tonite” and yes, even “Every Time I Look At You.” And God bless everyone for putting down the boxing gloves and coming together to create a moment in time not only special to KISStory, but many, many, many KISS fans as well.
Review by Lance Lumley:
MTV‘s Unplugged series was one of the reasons the channel was innovative for its time. Yes, many acts have performed acoustically for years before the show started, but the fact that the creators of the show saw the appeal of the format for a mass audience (and had a long run) is commendable. There were some shows, and accompanying CDs, that I enjoy (Rod Stewart, Paul McCartney, and even pop’s Mariah Carey), and some that I never understood (rappers, spoken word, and comedians). However when KISS recorded their show, non-fans may have been skeptical. It wasn’t too far-fetched (other hard rock bands were doing the show), but even the diehard followers did not expect the appearance to have a major part in the history of the band and music.
By the time, KISS arrived in New York to do the show, they were already comfortable doing stripped down shows, due to doing their own KISS Conventions, which many unofficial shows have been formed all over the world for years. Fans knew that eventually Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley would find a way to capitalize on the idea and add a flare to it, which was the current line-up of Gene, Paul, Eric Singer, and Bruce Kulick playing acoustic concerts at the events. The band was relaxed and had enough practice with the format, which can be heard throughout the record (there was a VHS release as well, which I wore out several copies of before it was included in the band’s Kissology DVD series), where other bands were not as well versed in the idea when it was aired.
Starting off with “Comin’ Home,” a song from the Hotter Than Hell album, the band is tight and although some may wonder why a rarer track was picked as the starter, the lyrical content and overall mid tempo feel fits well, getting the band warmed up. Throughout the CD, I love the quality of Eric Singer‘s tom sound on his drums, and his subtle playing on parts added to the fullness of the songs, without being distracting to the listener. I was excited to hear one of my favorite Gene songs (along with a track from one of my favorite albums Love Gun) done a different way. Listening to “Plaster Caster” in an acoustic format, along with Bruce‘s great guitar solo, also made me excited to play it for my friends who were not KISS fans, to show them (and throughout the whole album) that the band was not just a band with gimmicks. Even when played in a mellower format, the songs were really good from a songwriting standpoint. Gene‘s singing during the CD, shows that he was not just the groveling Demon character, but was a good vocalist on the songs that fitted him.
Gene takes the lead for a second song with “Goin’ Blind.” Here is an example of Eric‘s subtle playing throughout the song, along with his backing vocals, making him one of my all time favorite drummers. Although I have never been a huge fan of the song’s lyrics in general, the band makes it enjoyable for me as a drummer with Eric‘s tom fills. Destroyer gets some love with “Do You Love Me,” which is a great choice for the format. Even though the songs were “stripped” down, this track still rocks out and has power. Paul‘s vocals are strong, and Eric‘s backing vocals can be heard more as well. Eric has mentioned many times that this is one of his favorite songs to play, and gets the crowd excited. This was a great pick.
One aspect of the release that doesn’t usually get mentioned is the song choices. Like I mentioned with “Goin’ Blind” and the opening track, the band tried to pick some rarer songs, which was something they did at the conventions from what heard (I never got to go to one, but had a friend that went to several). The band’s last studio release, Revenge, brought them back to a street wise, rugged, hard rock style. Still plugging the Revenge album, Gene takes over with “Domino.” The choice of a song featured on one of the heavier albums, was unique to me. Many rock stars have written their harder songs via acoustically throughout history, so to me, this choice was letting the fans into how some of the songs may have been originally constructed. I’m not sure if “Domino” was actually written that way, but it is nice to pretend that it was, and again, it shows that a good song works in many formats.
“Sure Know Something” is not only one of my favorites from the Dynasty album, but this version is up there with the original. Paul‘s vocals, along with the backing help from Eric and Gene, gives the song a 1960s vibe to it, where the harmonies are sometimes over looked on KISS songs. No, they may not be Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons vocally, but this track proves that the band was very tight singing live. Even though I had the CD in my collection, I never took out Music From The Elder and listened to it after I first got it. Therefore, Unplugged exposed me to “A World Without Heroes” (besides seeing the video for it from the VHS KISS X-Treme Close Up, which I watched almost daily in college. Another choice to appease some of the diehard fans, this collection shows that every era of KISS fans could enjoy something about the album. It is great marketing for sales (and gutsy with a major player like MTV allowing the band to play not all “hits”), and also expose the newer fans to some rarer songs in the band’s musical history from the concept album that for years the band tried to ignore and not talk about.
Even though I stated “Goin’ Blind” was not one of my favorite songs, even in the studio, my least favorite song on the CD is “Rock Bottom” from Dressed To Kill. I know many fans love this song, but it was personally never a favorite of mine. I like the instrumental part to the song (written by Ace Frehley), but the combining it with the rock song (written by Paul) never did it for me. I know many 1970s albums had musical interludes like this, but I didn’t start collecting KISS music until the late 1980s, so I didn’t grow up with getting the KISS‘ 1970s albums the day of and experiencing it new. However, Bruce Kulick is stellar on the track, but even in this format, I tend to skip over the song, mainly because I am not a fan of the song.
Just like “A World Without Heroes,” “See You Tonight” is another track that this release exposed me to the song, which was off of Gene‘s solo album. I had the CD of Gene‘s 1978 release, but didn’t play it regularly. (I think I originally got it because to this day I think the cover is one of the most iconic of rock albums. The solid backing vocals and harmonies makes this song a favorite of mine, and prefer this live setting even better than the original studio song. Paul Stanley really shines on “I Still Love You” vocally from the Creatures of The Night release. This ballad is neat choice for this live format, although “Forever” was the obvious choice. Along with Eric Singer‘s fills (an ode to the great Eric Carr) gives this mellower version strength, again the sound production is something I really enjoy here. Anyone who doesn’t think Stanley is a great vocalist, they need to hear this version to appreciate how underrated he is at this time in the band.
Another Revenge track comes in to keep the ballads going with “Every Time I Look At You.” This has orchestration added to it, and piano by Phillip Ashley. This may be my second to least favorite track on the release. We already had two other tracks from Revenge, why did we need another? I understand that they were setting up for the big ending jam fest, but one of the other songs (“Got To Choose” perhaps??) that was recorded at the sessions may have been a better pick. Even the studio version isn’t a favorite of mine, where the band seemed to try and capitalize on the success of “Forever.”
The rest of the Unplugged album is where the historical aspect occurs when Peter Criss and Ace Frehley come out to join the band for “2,000 Man” and “Beth.” During the time, there was talk that Peter showed up at one of the conventions to visit, but seeing him and Ace on stage, after all of the mud-slinging between the original members in the past, was something that brought excitement to the fans of both the original and current line-up. The irony among KISS fans was that Eric Singer suggested that Peter play on a few songs at the conventions, which eventually set up the Unplugged session (although MTV executives claim they were responsible for getting Peter and Ace), which put Eric and Bruce out of KISS (at least Bruce, as Eric returned later).
Just listening to the crowd during “2,000 Man” shows that something special was happening. Even though many fans complained that it wasn’t “Shock Me” at the time, Ace was still as good as ever. And those same critics complaining about “Beth?” How could you NOT have Peter up there singing one of the biggest KISS hits of all time? Peter, also was used to the acoustic version of the song, recording (and performing it) on 1994’s Cat #1 album from his band Criss. The last two songs, are jam fests with all members of KISS. “Nothin’ To Lose” with Eric Singer getting to sing lead, along with trading drum fills with Peter, and “Rock And Roll All Nite,” where Ace and Peter get a verse to sing. It brings the show to a climatic end, celebrating the current and past members of the band, which fans of both eras had to be happy with the choice and overall performance. I remember after the CD was released, along with the MTV aired show, the buzz was immediately about a reunion with the original line-up. Would it happen? Would Bruce and Eric join them? What about the unreleased album they finished with Bruce and Eric?
Not only is Unplugged a historical piece for KISS fans, where it set the wheels for the return of Ace and Peter to the band with the Alive/Worldwide Tour (my first KISS concert), but it musically showed that the band wasn’t just a gimmick with a flashy stage show. Although the diehard fans knew this to be the case already, and if Revenge didn’t prove it by bringing not only newer, but disgruntled fans back into the mix. I remember my friends who were not KISS fans enjoying the musicality of this concert with the CD and the VHS release which I played both constantly when released. KISS‘ Unplugged was another turning point for the band, but was also one of the releases that gave KISS credibility with a different format. It’s hard for any KISS fan not to enjoy this record because it has it all — great songs in a live setting, rare cuts that some may never seen or heard live, and two eras of the line-ups from the return of the original members and the current (and some may argue the most respected musically) line-up of the band.
I always point to this release as one for critics to show the vast talents of the band, along with the songwriting skills of the members, because if the song doesn’t sound good in a basic format, it’s probably not a good song.
01. Comin’ Home
02. Plaster Caster
03. Goin’ Blind
04. Do You Love Me?
06. Sure Know Something
07. A World Without Heroes
08. Rock Bottom
09. See You Tonite
10. I Still Love You
11. Every Time I Look At You
12. 2,000 Man
14. Nothin’ To Lose
15. Rock And Roll All Nite
16. Got To Choose
Paul Stanley – acoustic guitar, lead vocals
Gene Simmons – acoustic bass guitar, lead vocals
Bruce Kulick – acoustic guitar (1-11, 14-15)
Eric Singer – drums (1-11, 14-15), vocals (14)
Ace Frehley – acoustic guitar (12-15, vocals (12, 15)
Peter Criss – drums (12-15), vocals (13-15)
Phillip Ashley – piano (11)
Jon Grindstaff – conductor string arrangements (11)
Produced by Alex Coletti
Reviewed by Sammy The Bull, John Stoney Cannon and Lance Lumley for Sleaze Roxx, March 2021
KISS performing “Comin’ Home” live on Unplugged:
KISS performing “2,000 Man” live on Unplugged:
KISS performing “Beth” live on Unplugged:
KISS performing “Nothin’ To Lose” and “Rock And Roll All Nite” live on Unplugged: