Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Forty Years with KISS and the Solo Albums

It was forty years ago today…

The year 1978 was dominated by a few things: Star Wars. Comics. KISS. And more Star Wars. Yeah, Star Wars was like a pop cultural supernova that, in my distant memory, seemed all consuming. But KISS was right up there. I have no memory of what or how I first got interested in the band. I suspect it was the comic book--with real KISS blood! For a comic book geek like me, super hero rock stars were right up my alley.

But what was my musical alley? In case you didn’t know, I’m an only child, so I didn’t have any older sibling passing me LPs and telling me to listen. Up until 1978, my music consisted of the Star Wars soundtrack, my parents’ Roger Miller album...and little else. Maybe the Village People. Maybe the Bay City Rollers. So when I dropped the needle on Double Platinum, KISS’s first greatest hits collection, the drums of “Strutter ‘78” greeted my ears and likely shaped much of my musical tastes from that moment on.

The haziness of memory won’t let me remember what order I purchased subsequent albums. But the ones I had were the debut, Alive, Destroyer, and Alive II. Now, the big obstacle for my KISS fandom was the knights in satan’s service stuff. My parents were good, however. They reached what I suspect was some sort of compromise: I could keep listening to KISS, but my purchasing of new albums was limited.

So, by September of 1978, when the four solo albums were released, I suspect I had to pick only one. While my album consumption was limited, I consumed all information about the band I could find. That meant constant trips to U-Totem and 7-Eleven looking for magazines like Circus, Hit Parader, and such. I bought lots of trading cards, both comics, and even a few posters. I had one of those monster posters, measuring at 3 feet by 4 feet on my wall. The fall of 1978 was destined to bring four new albums (!) as well as a TV movie. It was, even looking back now, arguably the high point of KISS fandom...until 1996 when we did it all again.

Which album to get? Well, one was immediately off the table, likely by parental decree. Gene Simmons, the Demon himself, would not be found in my house. The little drip of blood on the cover pretty much secured that fact. Okay, what next? KISS was my first rock band so I had no preconceptions about drummers, but I don’t think I seriously considered Peter’s record. Paul or Ace? Well, being the science fiction fan I was, I think the choice was pretty obvious: I bought Space Ace’s album. Plus, I was a follower: “New York Groove” was on the radio and I wanted that song.

I was a music novice so all the songs were good to me. I had no clue about what Ace was singing about, but that didn’t matter. His album sounded like SF so I was good. Poster on the wall. Album spun over and over.

I have a distinct memory of a friend who lived down the street. He arrived home one day and, as he passed me in his dad’s car, simply put the Gene Simmons record up to the window for me to see. Lucky guy. I think he may have had all four. What never occurred to me at the time was to record the other three albums on cassette. If I had, my history with the solo albums would have been different.

The last new KISS album I was allowed to buy was Unmasked. I did--and still do--love that album. But, for whatever reason, KISS faded from my attention until 1983. Of course, I was fascinated by Lick It Up and the real unmasking, but didn’t purchase the album. It wasn’t until 1988 and the release of Smashes, Thrashes, and Hits reminded me of my first rock and roll love. The girls in my high school group of friends loved the sexiness of Paul, but I remembered fondly the make-up years. It wasn’t until Revenge was released that I picked up my first new KISS CD in over eleven years.

And I never looked back.

Cut to 1997 and the CD remasters. Those are the ones I own. Naturally, the albums that beckoned me most was Music from the Elder (never heard it) and the other three solo albums. By that time, I was nearing thirty, had decades of music listening under my belt, and knew music. What would those albums sound like?

Well, at the time, I immediately gravitated to Paul Stanley. His album was the most KISS-like. It became and has remained my favorite of the four. Gene Simmons was ...interesting, but nothing like I expected, even in 1997. Then there was Peter Criss. By 1997, my other favorite band--Chicago--had planted roots in my life, so I was actually cool with Peter’s record. It wasn’t KISS, but that was okay.

Over these last twenty years, I kept listening to the four solo albums. Paul’s remains my favorite. You can’t argue with the pure rock and roll swagger of this album. “Wouldn’t You LIke to Know Me” is all but perfection. “Tonight You Belong to Me” is the kind of song you’d end a concert with, while “It’s Alright” and “Goodbye” are so good. This might be the first record in which the vocal brilliance of Paul Stanley really shines. Peter’s is now my second favorite. I think Paul’s musical stylings line up perfectly with KISS, so his record sounding KISS-like was a natural. But so was Peter’s. His R&B vibe, complete with brass, was who he was. I have grown to appreciate this album more and more. “You Matter To Me” is a dang fine song. The album is admittedly filled with “Beth”-like songs, but “Easy Thing,” “I Can’t Stop the Rain,” and “Don’t You Let Me Down” are much better songs. And the vibe of “Hooked on Rock ‘n’ Roll” is just plain good old fashioned rock and roll. The same, however, cannot be said about Gene’s. Yes, “Radioactive” is a good song and I really enjoy “Mr. Make Believe” and “See You Tonite” but most of the other songs are just this side of good. He, like Peter, took chances. I applaud him for that, but the material is not to my liking.

Forty years is a long time to be a fan of anything, but I’m really happy to have discovered KISS when I did. Why? Because the solo albums were smack in the middle of it all. What a remarkable, bold feat. Were all the songs good? Nope, but much of the 40 (?) songs were pretty good to gold standards based on the vocalist.

What are some of my favorite songs? I’ve listed some. All of Paul’s, most of Peter’s and Ace’s, and a few from Gene. A few years ago, the PodKISSt folks did a “What if KISS made an album in 1978?” episode and used the solo album songs plus the five studio cuts from Alive II. It remains my favorite single episode. I was fascinated that the top 9 songs were all the same. It’s a great episode by the godfather of all KISS podcasts.

Forty years. Man, has it been that long? Yes and no. Yes because we can look at Paul, Ace, Peter, and Gene and see the years their faces. Heck, all we need to do is look in the mirror and we’ll know it’s been forty years. I was a nine year old boy when I bought Ace’s album. Now, I’m forty nine, and still loving this band.

A memorable moment in my KISS fandom was last year in which I took my son to see his first KISS concert. It all comes full circle.

It’s difficult to escape one’s first love. It gets embedded in our souls like few things rarely can. Star Wars. KISS. Those were the things I loved as a boy in 1978. They are still the things I love in 2018. And the KISS solo albums are a part of that legacy.

Happy anniversary, Paul, Peter, Ace, and Gene. Thanks for making those albums so long ago.

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