KISS. Four letters, one kickass band. If you were alive (no pun intended) in the mid to late 70’s, you know exactly who these 4 gentlemen are. KISS were a cultural phenomenon back in the 1970’s and for a few brief years it seemed as if they were destined to ride the fame coaster for as long as the theme park was open. A series of ill-fated career moves, however, derailed the thrill ride for the New York quartet and eventually sent 2 of the key members packing their bags by the turn of the decade. Chief among those now head-scratching decisions were the TV movie “KISS Meets The Phantom of The Park,” the disco romp “I Was Made For Loving You,” and the toothless Peter Criss penned ballad “Beth.”
It is often argued, though, that the beginning of the end for our favorite men-in-makeup was a decision that seemed almost laughably foolproof at the time. Let’s set the stage. The year is 1978 and KISS is soaring to heights even bands like Led Zeppelin and The Who hadn’t achieved. A 1977 Gallup Poll ranked KISS the number 1 band in America and few could argue. The boys had just come off selling 4 consecutive platinum records and had just released Alive II, the live album follow-up to Alive, which started the platinum streak only a few years earlier. Things couldn’t have been going any better, or at least that’s how it seemed to the millions of adoring fans on the outside looking in. Unbeknownst to almost everyone removed from the inner circle of the band, cracks were starting to form both creatively and personally.
What is common knowledge today was once a closely guarded secret in 1978: KISS was imploding from the inside thanks in large part to the factions forming within. On one side, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, two cold blooded and calculated hit makers worried about fame, fortune, and females. Their allegiances were only to making popular songs and bedding as many women as they could get their leather clad hands on. On the other side, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley, a duo with the propensity to dabble in alcohol and cocaine, respectively, but whose creative chops were often stifled by Lords Stanley and Simmons. And thus, the die had been cast; Criss and Frehley felt they were being tied down, musically speaking, while Simmons and Stanley believed as if they themselves were the creative forces behind the magic of KISS.
Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons were nothing if not shrewd and intelligent businessmen and they knew if they let Ace and Peter walk at the height of KISS’ popularity, their pocketbooks would take the brunt of the blow. So, what’s the first thing anyone thinks to do in a failing relationship? Hire an escort, erm, I mean compromise!
By the beginning of ’78, the 4 members of KISS each entered the studio separately to record their own “KISS” album. The 4 records were all uniquely individual and contained (for the most part) a few hidden classics that hardcore KISS fans hold near and dear to their hearts. Each album represented the 4 musicians’ idea of what a KISS album should sound like. The records are certainly not created equal and today I’ll be diving into the meat of these LP’s to deliver my rankings from worst to first. These are rather subjective rankings but I have listened to all four albums end to end and from most of the articles I’ve come across in preparation for writing this ranker, my opinions seem to be pretty congruent to theirs give or take a few observations. So without any more exposition…
4. Peter Criss (The “Weak” One)
Remember when Rod Stewart went through that cheesy 70’s, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy” phase? Congratulations, that’s Peter Criss almost entirely. Seriously, the album reeks of equal parts 70’s schlock and old-time rock n roll tunes that sound like Bob Seger cast-offs. I guess there really isn’t anything wrong with that but still, this is the drummer for KISS we are talking about here, not some second rate lounge singer/disco chump. I read the reviews for this one before listening to it and I was still shocked at how wimpy it sounded. Just imagine the ire of a denim-clad high school stoner when he opens the shrink wrap on Christmas morning expecting a kickass American hard rock staple only to find this.
Not many, if we are being frank. “That’s The Kind of Sugar Papa Likes,” moronic title notwithstanding, is a passable rockabilly tune but beyond that there isn’t much to get excited about. I turned the album off about 3 tracks in and just looked up which songs got the most praise. I know, not exactly journalistic integrity but I’m writing this on a WordPress blog, so I wasn’t about to sit through Peter Criss for free.
The entire album, as noted in the above paragraphs, has this whole “70’s R&B/Rod Stewart moonlighting as a lounge singer” feel to it. I read somewhere that Criss was a few years older than the rest of his KISS brethren and his tastes were more 50’s doo-wop than hard rock. If that is indeed the case, this album shows it from start to finish. If you’re into that sort of thing, then this record isn’t necessarily bad, but from a KISS fan’s perspective it certainly doesn’t live up to the lofty expectations set by the previous albums the band released. Whether that is a fair or unfair remains to be seen, but going into listening to this album with expectations set to “hard rock banger,” I was greatly disappointed.
3. Gene Simmons (The “Meh” One)
I listened to this album in its entirety on the ride home from work the other day and initially I was pleasantly surprised. A good portion of the time I found myself bopping along to the tunes on Gene Simmons, which consisted of what sounded like Simmons fronting an ELO cover-band and Beatles B-team love child. But then as soon as I exited the car, I had forgotten pretty much every song I had heard. This is one of the most mediocre albums I’ve ever listened to. The entire record is filled with overdone pop-rock jaunts with way too many cooks in the kitchen. On any song you can find strings, a piano, and perhaps even a B-list Hollywood celebrity (seriously, Katie Sagal from Married With Children does backing vocals for a track on this LP). It’s a passable album and I made it all the way through without having to shut it off (a feat I can’t claim with the lowest album on this list) but it isn’t what I was expecting from The God of Thunder himself.
The album, as a whole, is a very average 70’s rock affair, and that isn’t a bad thing, per say. “Radioactive” is a great opening track, copycat chorus aside (no kidding, this song sounds a near lawsuit level of similar to “Plaster Caster” from KISS’ Love Gun and if it wasn’t for the fact that Gene was one of the writers on that song, I think a court case could be made). “Tunnel of Love” and “See You In Your Dreams” are both deliciously 70’s rock in all the right ways as well. There may not be any super memorable tracks off this LP but it gets the job done as a “listenable” effort from Mr. Simmons.
And therein lies the problem: the album is “listenable” but not very memorable. I honestly had to revisit the record while writing just to pick out my highlights and lowlights, and I had just recently heard the album a short time before. “Living in Sin” has about as laughable an intro as you can imagine, with Simmons giving a breathy soliloquy containing gems like “I know you write my sexy letters” in a low growl. The song isn’t great enough to make up for such a transgression. And I would be absolutely remiss if I didn’t address the elephant in the room… “When You Wish Upon A Star” appears on this thing. Yeah, the Disney song! It sounds just as awkward coming from Mr. Conquerer of 1,000 Women as you’d imagine and the album ends with that dud resonating throughout your eardrums. All in all, Gene Simmons is a messy effort that holds up decently but don’t go diving through bargain bins expecting a gem.
2. Paul Stanley (The “Safe” One)
Let me just start off by saying this is a really good album. I’ll stop just short of great, but Paul Stanley is a fun power-pop effort that Stanley swaggers about on from track to track. You can tell he really had fun being the man in charge as every song is about no-strings-attached sex and cheap thrills, exactly what you’d expect from the androgynous ladies man. The Star Child explores his writing prowess and although there are no standouts save for “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me” and “Tonight You Belong To Me,” the album is fun and engaging. The only reason I refer to it as “safe” is that it sounds almost too much like a KISS album, both to its benefit and detriment.
Stanley’s love for power-pop and hooky songwriting takes center stage on quite a number of tracks on this LP, but specifically “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me.” This song is energetic and anthemic from start to finish and it just sounds like it was a blast to write and record. “Tonight You Belong To Me” is another wonderful frolic through power-pop town, complete with acoustic guitars gracing the intro before blasting into a full blown rocker, a la “Black Diamond.” Fun is a word that gets thrown around often when describing Paul Stanley and it is justified, as this record offers plenty of entertaining moments throughout.
The album has an almost “routine” feel to it in certain parts, thanks to the preceding KISS records Stanley was a huge part of making. Paul Stanley’s solo effort has KISS elements to it, which isn’t always a bad thing, but more often than not the album feels like it’s been done before. I love KISS and I love Paul Stanley, but his solo album drags in certain parts and sometimes feels too “KISS-y” for its own good. Don’t let that discourage you from giving this record a listen, but don’t expect to be floored from the needle drop all the way to the grooves on the B-side.
1. Ace Frehley (The “Holy *%@#” One)
Thank GOD for the Space Ace! Where the other 3 albums felt too much or too little like KISS, this mad scientist of a songwriter found the happy valley between the two extremes. Almost every track on this record is unique and entertaining without straying too far from the KISS secret formula: loud, ballsy guitar riffs? Check! Entertaining albeit nonsensical lyrics? Check plus! Detached yet endearing delivery from a coked up, surprisingly swaggering front man? Big check there! Ace Frehley brings the heat on his solo album and it was here that he solidified himself as my favorite (and many other’s favorite) member of KISS.
Ace starts things off with a bang, as “Rip It Out” is both sneakily heavy and surprisingly anthemic. Other stalwarts like “Speeding Back To My Baby” and “Snowblind” have us questioning why Ace wasn’t given more creative control in the early days of KISS. One of the true beauties of this effort is also one of the most simple tracks on the LP, Frehley’s romping rendition of “New York Groove,” a cover tune originally written by glam outfit Hello. It captures Ace at his finest, an aloof yet dangerously potent rocker, and actually almost makes me want to visit a city I despise. Frehley rips through each of these tracks like a man with something to prove, and we the listeners are all the beneficiaries. Listen to this album however you can, because it can easily be considered one of the greatest KISS records ever produced, regardless of whether the rest of the band was behind Space Ace or not.
One word: “Ozone.” It just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the tracks on the album and is missing the requisite energy and hunger of songs like “Rip It Out,” where you can feel Ace oozing confidence and unbridled stamina (possibly with cocaine involved too). This really is the lone black mark on an otherwise magnificent hard rock banger from Ace Frehley. This is without a doubt the clear winner of the 4 solo albums and as I stated in the previous paragraph, is my favorite KISS record along with Love Gun.