Kiss: I Pledge Allegiance to the State (of Rock and Roll)

Five months from now, Paul Stanley's memoir is due to be published, thus completing the cycle of original line-up memoirs from Kiss. I thought it'd be fun to read the other ones between now and then and blog 'em up. Before we get to any of those, though, let's get my biases out of the way via a brief overview of the Kiss phenomenon.

is as American as Bugs Bunny or Indiana Jones.

I'm not saying they're as cool as Bugs Bunny or Indiana Jones or are more American than, say, the Grateful Dead or Duke Ellington or whomever. Perhaps we should start with what I mean by American. What is it about America that Kiss embodies? Its irreverence? Its cult of hyperbole? Its rude and crude animal vigor? Its almost pathological optimism? Its sexism? Its inability to have a serious conversation without lapsing into dick jokes or emotional infantilism? All of the above?

If I could definitively answer that question, I wouldn't be blogging about it; I'd be putting it into practice. But that's my impression; when future historians and archaeologists reverse-engineer the American epoch from what they dig up about us, Kiss will be an irresistible primary source. It's a sobering thought, but perhaps only what we deserve.

More than pretty much any other band out there, they embody all the poison and the pudding of the American spectacle. (That will be my only "intellectual" link, right there. You can totally skip it, but just to define what I mean by spectacle, specifically.) But on another level, it's all just about rocking out. Which is essentially a spiritual practice. The other side of Americana - the sacred story of religious freedom. Sts. Mayflower and Horatio Alger, combined in the Starchild, the Demon, the Spaceman, and the Cat.

Which isn't to say they embody every aspect of Americana, of course. But that's the point: when future civilizations dig this stuff up and piece together the story of Kiss, we won't be around to distinguish their spectacle from a more comprehensive version of how we lived and what we believed in.
On the other hand, maybe we're kidding ourselves and Kiss is exactly what we believe in.
There are those that see the whole Kiss phenom as only marketing, their songs simply the application of some lowest-common-denominator formula. One part hard rock, one part "baby baby," one part Marvel Comics/ horrorshow, a dash of carnival blood and fire, platform shoes, and serve with "Rocket Ride." On the marketing side, well, of course. It's not a legitimate observation, is it? It's like criticizing a nation for being a country. They're not anti-corporate. But did they claim to be? Weren't they always saying, work hard, rock out, live by your own rules, and you can be rich like us? And have binders full of women?

I love Kiss, and I even love Gene - God help me - but man, this guy. I'll save it for when I cover his book.
As for their tunes, there are hundreds of blogs and fan-sites dedicated exclusively to discussion of their catalog, and everyone has a different favorite. This proves nothing, of course, certainly not that Kiss's impact as a band is equal to their legacy as a brand. But it's kind of funny. Literally every Kiss fan I know has a different favorite song than every other Kiss fan I know and, usually, elaborate criteria for their selection. But back to the question-at-hand: how do Kiss's songs stack up against other great rock bands of the past 40 years? Answer: better than most. It's not just P.R. that has enabled their survival for decades while so many of their contemporaries fell to the wayside.

When I got my first Kiss tape, they looked like this:

Not like this.
Which is another way of saying that in 1987 they looked like any other hard rock band of the era. A little hairier (maybe) but virtually indistinguishable from dozens of other hard rock acts. The same could never be said of Kiss in the 1970s.

Getting Crazy Nights that Christmas marked the end of a Kiss-ban in the McMillan household that had been in effect from 1979. What had happened was - and for some very adorable reason, my Mom gets defensive about this now; it's really okay, Mom! - my cousins were babysitting me and "I Was Made For Loving You" was on the radio a lot that summer. We were all dancing around to it, and they told me stories about their concerts and rumors of their on-the-road adventures. My eyes got wider and wider. 

When my mother got wind of my excitement - and presumably some of their drug-and-groupie anecdotes - that was it: Kiss was banned. Understandable enough. I'm not sure if it was just that I was older in 1987 or that the hard rock scene that emerged as a result of in the wake of Kiss's mega-success was suitably debauched enough to dilute the shock factor of her baby boy listening to drug-snorting, blood-gurgling, fire-breathing orgy enthusiasts making "grunt" songs. (Like this.)

Alas, it's not a great album. Even 1987-me knew that. A friend made me a mix with Frehley's Comet on it, though, and I instantly became an Ace fan.  

For the rest of high school, I brought up Ace, stubbornly, whenever Kiss was brought up.
I was obsessed with Marvel comics, so naturally I loved the make-up/ characters. And even though I chose The Demon for Halloween 1988, above, you can see evidence of my Ace fandom behind me, stage-left.

Hard to make out, perhaps, but that's the Space Ace, there. The little picture above the one marked is Ace, too. Double trouble!
Although I'd expanded my musical palette considerably by the time this came out (Trouble Walkin', 1989) I cranked this one an awful lot during my last few years of high school. (Get Shot Full of Rock! GET SHOT FULL OF ROCK!) That was it, by the way, for Ace solo records for another 20 damn years. (And Anomaly, released 2009, is his best since the '78 solo album. Something neither myself nor any Kiss fan, I imagine, expected.)
It wasn't until my friend and former Boat-Chipster Kevin made me four lavishly detailed mix tapes in 1998 that I once and for all grokked Kiss. 

Only one of which - Ace's, fittingly enough - survives now. They were all recorded from the original vinyl, and Kevin's tape player sped up the tracks ever-so-slightly. As a result, when I hear the "regular" version of "2000 Man," it always seems a half-step too slow to me.
Chuck Klosterman and J.M. Blaine wrote probably the most spot-on appreciation of Kiss (and by extension, cock rock itself) on the net; here's an excerpt:

"Over and over, particularly in the 80s, they (Gene and Paul) forward the idea that KISS fans are being persecuted and that people are trying to stop us from liking KISS. And that’s a brilliant aesthetic vision for the band. It’s something that never technically happens – and yet as one moves into the world of pop music and becomes more intelligent – I have to say that it’s true. People are often trying to convince me that KISS is terrible. Or that when I say I love KISS that I’m actually pretending. Or that if you like KISS somehow you are only trying to rediscover your childhood. I just believe that of all the bands to think about, KISS is by far the most fun."

The defense rests.
NEXT: Album by Album (pt. 1)


  1. I was too young to love Kiss when they were big. But I do enjoy watching every know and then Gene's reality show.. and his son. Who is pretty nice looking kid. My aunt was way into Kiss ... I remember her room covered in posters (she's 10 years older then myself). I thought those guys in the painted faces were cool!!

  2. I've got to hand it to Gene and Shannon - they did indeed create two fine-looking offspring. They seem miraculously level-headed, especially compared to other celebrity offspring/ reality-tv stars.

    Rock on, Angela!

  3. I was HUGE into Kiss in my early high-school years; in a very real way, they were the first band I became a big fan of. For whatever reason, I fell out of the habit of listening to them a few years later. It wasn't because I stopped liking them . . . no, I merely stopped listening to them. This was probably as a result of finding new bands to obsess over, like Led Zeppelin and U2 and Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds and The Beatles. So forth and so on.

    I've never lost my affection for Kiss, though, even though now a lot of their songs are sort of lost to me, memory-wise. I keep telling myself that I'm going to get back into them one of these days, though, and eventually I imagine I'll pull the trigger on that desire. (Not the trigger on my Love Gun, though; not for that reason, at least. Ewwww.....)

    I definitely feel the Ace Frehley love. "New York Groove" was perpetually one of my favorite Kiss songs, and I remember liking some of his later solo stuff, too.

    Bottom line is that I agree with Chuck Klosterman; they really are just fun. Debauched fun, yes; but remarkably kid-friendly, in some bizarre way that causes me to retrospectively marvel that my parents let me buy their music. I can only assume that they knew nothing about the band, and I suppose I have to retroactively be very thankful for that.

    1. What was their current record when you first got into them? And did you gravitate towards the old stuff or like the 80s Kiss or both? Just curious.

      The Space Ace has written some great tunes, no doubt. No joke, his last one, Anomaly, is a lot of fun. There's a song called "Space Bear" that I'm dying to spill the beans on. (Well, as I see them.)

    2. I honestly cannot remember how I got into Kiss. This leads me to think that it was probably a result of one of my friends getting me into them.

      The first one I can remember buying is "Smashes, Thrashes & Hits," though, so it might have been the resurgence in interest that accompanied that album. I wish I knew!

      I can say for sure though that it was '70s Kiss that I gravitated toward moreso than the new stuff. I got all the newer albums -- on cassette, of course -- eventually, and liked some of the songs on them, but I didn't love them the same way I loved something like "Destroyer" or even "Dynasty." I suspect this is because the music just isn't as good, for the most part. But there were songs from the '80s that I liked a lot, such as "I Love It Loud" and "No, No, No." They just didn't have that same oomph the earlier albums had.

      Such is my memory, at least.

      I actually saw them live at some point in the late '80s, sans makeup. It was a blast.

      I had no idea Frehley had had a recent resurgence. That's very cool. I wish the four of the original guys could just mend their differences and get back together for one last fling. It always seems a shame to me that bands can't manage to do that.

    3. I played the crap out of my Smashes, Thrashes and Hits cassette. I'm writing the next few blogs in this series simultaneously, just adding to them here and there, and was just-this-last-second writing about that - nice!

      Likewise re: the original guys and what drove them apart. Tho not tonight, but that's a theme I'm very interested in, as well. When/if (probably when) they get inducted into the Rock and Roll of Fame, there'll be an opportunity for it. I don't need another reunion tour or anything, just would be cool to see them play some tunes and seem genuinely happy to be on stage together.

      Have you read any of the memoirs? I came very close to calling this series (and it's really only going to be 5 or 6 posts, hardly a "series." Then again, some World Series are fewer than that. SO PEOPLE! HOW DO YOU ALL FEEL? DO YOU BELIEVE IN ROCK AND ROLL?!? Ahem. Sorry, man.)

      I interrupted my own damn joke (I was originally going to call this "Unreliable Narrator" when it was just about the Solo Books) and for that I can pretty accurately blame Kiss. There will always be a Paul Stanley-esque interruption of some mental process going on in my brain until the day I die.

      Which tour did you see them on? I'm going to guess the Hot in the Shade tour (or whatever the tour supporting that album was called.) Then again, if details are hazy, no worries.

    4. A bit of research informs me that it was indeed the "Hot in the Shade" tour; the 8/7/90 show, in Pelham AL. Wikipedia informs me that opening acts on that tour included Slaughter, Little Caesar, Faster Pussycat, and Winger -- I don't remember there being an opening act, which probably means that the dude who took me to the show probably got us there late. If so, and I was robbed of the chance to see Slaughter live, then I am surprisingly upset about it.

      I have not read any of the memoirs, but I would happily read all of them. And probably will at some point; whenever that Kiss-obsession kicks in again, it's a near certainty.

    5. I was hooked when my cousin gave me an 8-track of Alive II around the time it came out. I was 8 years old or so. I got to see them on their last tour (1979 Providence) with the original lineup, a memory I still cherish. I saw them again this past summer with my six year old son Nate who is at least as obsessed by the band now as I was in 1979. Bryan, Nate has the poster of the picture you posted above - Kiss against the NY City skyline - proudly hanging in the newly-created music room.

    6. And Bryant, my son's second favorite band is Nick and the Bad Seeds, followed by the Beatles. Guess I'm doing something right!

    7. I'd say!

      The idea of Kiss being something passed from father to son puts a smile on my face.

  4. Nate's fandom is what kicked this whole Kiss-trospective off. I am just following your son's lead!

  5. I became a fan in 1976 -- shortly after Alive! came out. I ceased being a fan when Peter Criss left the group. I've since rediscovered my love of the music produced by the original KISS lineup.

    I've read and reviewed Ace and Peter's books on my blog and read Gene's when it first came out several years ago. Peter's book is by far the best, although he sometimes comes off as a petulant whiner who blames many of his problems on others.

    1. I remember reading that review of the Peter Criss book and thinking that it sounded pretty great.

  6. Nice. I liked Peter's book, as well. Looking forward to reading Paul's.