Retrospective: “You Wanted the Best, You Got the Best…” 50 Years of KISS Comes to the End of the Road By Jesse Striewski

I have several “introduction” memories I often point to when it comes to the almighty KISS; usually it’s of a ’70s-era video clip of the band playing “Rock and Roll All Nite” live that seemed to be on a continuous loop on a TV commercial at the time selling one of those “Best of ’70s Rock” comp albums, or the MTV videos of the ’80s I was so often exposed to as a kid, such as “Heaven’s on Fire,” Crazy Crazy Nights,” or “God Gave Rock and Roll to You II” (the latter of which I thought was thoroughly cool at the time for its appearance in 1991’s Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey).

But I think the true, defining moment that made me a KISS fan for life was after acquiring the first album I ever owned by them; a secondhand find of 1979’s Dynasty record. While not regarded as one of the band’s “best” efforts by any means, I was still in “awe” of it all; the cover photo featuring all four band members – Gene Simmons, Paul Stanely, Ace Frehely, and Peter Criss – the ads still intact inside featuring everything from KISS posters to pinball machines, and of course, the giant poster that folded out with the entire band on it. There was no doubt about it; what I was holding in my hand was pure gold (and I’m happy to say I still own it to this day), and I was officially a member of the KISS Army from that moment on.

KISS began life in New York City after two members of the already established act Wicked Lester (vocalist/guitarist Paul Stanley and bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons) decided to venture out on their own and start something new and different that included each member of the group wearing makeup and donning their own individual personas (with Stanley as the Starchild, Simmons as the Demon, Frehley as the Spaceman, and Criss as the Catman, respectively). After recruiting a couple of more local musicians in the form of drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehely, the table was set for this new foursome to go after total rock dominance. But their first three albums, KISS (1974), Hotter Than Hell (1974), and Dressed to Kill (1975) found the band getting off with a lukewarm start at best.

It wasn’t until the band dropped Alive! in late 1975 that KISS fever would finally hit the country (and eventually the rest of the world). Showcasing everything right about the band, Alive! captured the pure, raw energy of the their live set (which included everything from fire-breathing to smoking guitars), launching them into super stardom on the heels of a live version of the band’s party anthem “Rock and Roll All Nite” – which skyrocketed the song, and the album up the charts. A trio of hit records in the form of Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977) helped cement the band as hard rock titans. The piano-driven power ballad “Beth” (sung by Criss) appealed the band to a much broader audience and grew their popularity even further.

But alas, trouble in paradise began to rear its ugly head by 1978, with the TV movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park portraying the band more like characters from a Scooby-Doo cartoon than the superheros they were meant to be shown as, and individual solo albums released by each member of the band that year also helped strengthen the ongoing riffs. By 1979’s Dynasty, there was no doubt things were eroding with Criss, who had recently endured a car accident which lead to substance abuse problems), causing him to only perform on only one track off the album (“Dirty Livin'”) while session drummer Anton Fig took up the rest of the slack. Criss’ live performance also suffered, often playing offbeat, or just plain not playing the shows at all.

Vinyl copy of KISS’ 1979 Dynasty album (complete with original ads) from the author’s collection.

By 1980’s Unmasked album, Criss was officially out (with Fig once again covering drum duties), marking the end of the “original” KISS. Enter Eric Carr, who took over the role of new drummer as the “Fox,” and was a much more technically skilled musician than Criss’ rough-around-the-edges approach.

Unfortunately, 1981’s Music From “The Edler,” a concept album that has since gone down as the band’s biggest embarrassment, was not exactly the ideal starting point for the new member. But 1982’s Creatures of the Night found the band going back-to-basic hard rock, albeit at the expense of another member as Frehley had already begun to move on. Several sessions guitarists, including Frehley’s eventual replacement Vinnie Vincent, were used for much of the recording of the album, as Ace made his official departure from the band shortly afterwards.

But the popularity of the band in the early ’80s was still waning, and a cause for drastic change was inevitable. For 1983’s Lick It Up album, the band did the unthinkable for the first time; took off their makeup that had concealed their identities for the better part of a decade. This ushered in a new era, and new life, for the band. Despite this, inner turmoil with Vincent lead to his dismal from the group, and Mark St. John was brought on to play the lead on 1984’s Animalize, another strong output from the guys. But a medical condition with his hands that limited his playing abilities would cause this to be the only album St. John would perform on with KISS (sadly, he eventually passed away years later in 2007), and Bruce Kulick was brought in as the band’s fourth guitarist to fill that spot (despite the rotating door of guitarists, Kulick would stay with the band an entire twelve years).

1985’s Asylum, 1987’s Crazy Nights, and 1989’s Hot in the Shade all continued to build on the band’s newfound success in the mid to late ’80s. But by early 1991 tragedy struck, as drummer Eric Carr was diagnosed with cancer, ultimately taking his life by November 24, 1991. But the band soldiered on the only way they knew how, and with Eric Singer behind the drumkit, released 1992’s Revenge, one of their heaviest albums to date. Unfortunately they once again faced new challenges as the landscape in rock music changed yet again, and grunge took over. There was no doubt that KISS would once again need to reinvent themselves.

And that change came with a performance on MTV’s Unplugged, when Frehley and Criss made their first appearance alongside the entire band for the first time in well over a decade. Recorded on August 9, 1995, I remember watching in awe the night it originally aired shortly after, feeling as though I was a part of history (or, KISStory if you will). From then on, it was a flown-blown reunion of Simmons/Stanley/Frehley/Criss (complete with makeup), and one of the biggest rock tours to date when it kicked off the following year in 1996.

One final studio album featuring Simmons/Stanley/Kulick/Singer titled Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions was released rather unceremoniously in 1997 before the “comeback” record Psycho Circus featuring the “original” lineup (I say that very loosely) for the first time since 1979’s Dynasty, finally dropped in 1998. But old habits die hard, and halfway through a “Farewell Tour” that ran from 2000-01, Peter Criss was again replaced by Eric Singer. It wasn’t long after before Frehley was ousted as well, replaced by Tommy Thayer, who had worked on-and-off with the band on various projects, including co-writing songs and managing Kiss conventions going as far back as 1989.

With the lineup of Simmons/Stanely/Singer/Thayer, the band would record what will now be their final studio albums; 2009’s Sonic Boom, and 2012’s Monster. It was while they were touring in support of the latter record that I would finally see the “hottest band in the world” up close and personal for the one and only time on July 28, 2012 in Tampa, FL (with Motley Crue as their support act). It was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever been to in my lifetime, as much to do with the band itself as it did the longtime crush I ended up not only seeing the show with, but spending the entire weekend (in very KISS-like fashion) with after many years of longing after (for the sake of this article, we’ll just call her “Marie”).

Paul Stanley performing with KISS at the former 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre in Tampa, FL on 7/28/12 courtesy of the author’s collection.

Although my interest in KISS has no doubt fluctuated from time to time over the years, nothing got me fully back into the band quite like that one single live show did. Until that is, I was able to pick the brain of someone who had actually been there, when I interviewed former guitarist Bruce Kulick for Rewind It Magazine back in 2019. It was without a doubt one of the most exciting interviews that I’ve done in over fifteen solid years worth of music/entertainment journalism.

And now tonight, the band will take its final bow, putting an end to an era that stretches back as far as 1973. They’ve meant a lot to so many over the years (present company obviously included), while many others could have cared less, or have simply written them off as a “joke” for decades. But for what it’s worth, I sure as hell would not be able to picture a world without KISS ever existing in it. Thank you KISS for the memories…you will surely be missed, but never forgotten.

Retro Review: Kiss – Lick It Up (Mercury Records)

By: Jesse Striewski

Call me crazy, but I’ve always felt the material Kiss released during their non-makeup period of the ’80s and early ’90s is just as good – if not better in many cases – than the material from their ’70s hey day (it is after all closer to my own generation, having not been around yet myself until the early ’80s). While the band’s first two efforts in the earlier part of said decade – 1980’s Unmasked and 1981’s Music from “The Elder,” are to this day still at the bottom of the list for most Kiss fans – the guys slowly but surely started getting it right again.

When Kiss dropped Lick It Up on September 18, 1983, it was more than just your everyday album at the time, but rather a statement to the rock world that their talent was not based solely around their looks alone. And with new lead guitarist Vinnie Vincent in tow in replace of Ace Frehley, the band were as revitalized as ever. Vincent was one of several guitarists to perform on the group’s previous outing, 1982’s Creatures of the Night, but Lick it Up would be his first (and ultimately only) attempt as an actual full time member of the band. Late drummer Eric Carr’s (who first joined the band in time for The Elder) talent is also on full display this time around.

Fans are instantly greeted here with thrashy riffs in the form of the Paul Stanley-driven “Exciter,” a sound they had already built on with Creatures…Gene Simmons takes over with the menacing “Not For the Innocent,” easily one of the best tracks on the entire album. The infamous title track follows, and remains a staple in the band’s setlists to this very day (it was the only non-makeup-era track they performed when I finally saw them live in 2012). The dystopian music video that accompanies it also remains a classic, with the band lip-syncing the track while walking desolate streets overran by scantly-clad women in true ’80s fashion.

“Young and Wasted” is a pretty fun party track, while “Gimmie More” is not much more than filler. “All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose” was released as the second single, and features Stanley “rapping” the verses before a catchy, sing-a-long chorus. Like the title track, it too had a very similar (and fun) music video to go along with it. “A Million to One” is Stanley at his finest, declaring to an ex lover they will never find a similar love.

The rest of the album is closed out with Simmons-fueled numbers in the form of “Fits Like a Glove,” “Dance All Over Your Face,” and “And on the 8th Day,” each with varying results. While many of these tracks have long since been forgotten by time, the legacy of Lick it Up is still strong to this day, and it’s rare to find a rock station or cover band not jamming the title track somewhere at any given time. As the album hits its fortieth anniversary, don’t hesitate to give it a spin on your record player; in the immortal words of Stanley, “It ain’t a crime to be good to yourself!”

Album Review: Ace Frehley – Origins Vol. 2 (eOne)

By: Jesse Striewski

As an avid KISS fan, I’ve always been a fan of guitarist Ace Frehely’s contributions to his former band, as well as his solo catalogue. There’s just always been a certain realness to his songs and voice that fans have always found appealing, and what makes another collection of covers in the form of Origins Vol. 2 so easily digestible, even if the track list found here is once again just so-so.

Like with Vol. 1, Frehely goes back to his early rock roots, in some cases improving on the original source material. Choosing to kick off things with an admirable version of Led Zepplin’s “Good Times, Bad Times,” Frehely quickly wields his magic throughout (most) of the album’s remaining tracks, including singles like Deep Purple’s “Space Truckin'” and The Beatles’ “I’m Down.” But other renditions of more obscure dinosaur rock tunes like Cream’s “Politician” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” are sure to get lost on younger fans.

But the real highlights come in the form of the collaborations; Cheap Trick’s Robin Zander lends his voice on a lively version of Humble Pie’s “30 Days in the Hole,” while the lovely Lita Ford adds her talent to a unique take on The Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” And of course Ace even tackles one from his former band KISS, going back to the Dressed to Kill album to unearth “She.” These later tracks alone do enough to cancel out nearly any of the filler tracks on Vol. 2. Overall, not a completely bad way to spend 45 minutes or so.

Rating: 3/5 Stars

Album Review: Ace Frehley – Spaceman (Entertainment One Music)

Ace Frehely

By: Jesse Striewski

Everyone’s favorite spaceman is back for yet another solo outing (his 3rd in 4 years), and although it may not feature the most original title (just 2 albums back he released Space Invader in 2014), he seems to have tapped into the cosmos just right this time.

Some might argue tracks like “Bronx Boy” and first single “Rockin’ with the Boys” sound a tad dated, but they’re actually quite effective (though a cover of Eddie Money’s “I Wanna Go Back” does come off a bit forced).

Gene Simmons has a couple of songwriting credits here, and even lends his bass playing on one track (“Without You I’m Nothing”), and longtime Ace Frehley/Kiss contributor Anton Fig even makes an appearance or two.  But the song that hits the mark best hands down is “Mission to Mars;” layered with throwback guitar riffs that echo straight from a ’70s-era Kiss record, it’s the definite highlight found here. Leave it to the Spaceman not to let down.

Rating: 3/5 Stars