Joel Goldenberg: Kiss: The Originals

The rather staid Mike Douglas meets the way-out Demon, Kiss's Gene Simmons, in 1974.

During the 1970s, I missed the entire Kiss phenomenon, the Kiss Army of fans, the platinum albums, the freaky Kabuki makeup, all of it.

But it wasn't like I couldn't partake.

Back when I lived in Chomedey, I had a friend who was, and maybe still is, a stalwart Kiss fan. He tried repeatedly to get me to listen to some Kiss LPs, but I adamantly refused.

Why? Singer, songwriter and bassist Gene Simmons, that's why.

No, it wasn't the quality of his songs, singing or bass playing. It was his make-up, which provided him with the nickname The Demon. Why would I want to even consider listening to music that could be inspired by such makeup. I didn't even notice Paul Stanley, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley on the album covers.

Then, I was set straight by my early-1980s music bible, the Rolling Stone Record Guide, which gushed over Kiss's first live album, Alive!, and especially 1976's Destroyer, which it said effectively conveyed the characters of each band member.

(Well, actually not, Ace didn't have a vocal on the album, his first was on 1977's Love Gun, two albums later.)

One of the reasons Alive! got a "generous" three star rating is that, according to the review, it recast the songs from Kiss's three albums in a better light. In fact, the review called Kiss's early albums muddy and "unlistenable."

That aroused my curiosity.

My entrée to Kiss was the double album Double Platinum, and it made me a believer. Then I had to hear the supposedly unlistenable first three albums, so I ventured, at great risk, to the musty and dusty Mars used record store on Ste. Catherine West, home of scratchy records and fire hazards. (I was not aware of Cheap Thrills at that time.).

There, I bought the 3-LP set Kiss: The Originals, which included the first album Kiss (1974), Hotter Than Hell (1974) and Dressed to Kill (1975). The set had been released in 1976 or so to capitalize on the success of Alive!, and even included a booklet about Kiss's visit to a town filled with rabid fans. Unfortunately, my copy did not include the book.

With bated breath, I braced to hear a wall of hiss, underneath which the music would be barely audible. Instead, I was very happy with my purchase.

Kiss, the first LP, is one of the best debut albums of all time, with essentials like Strutter, which kicks off the album perfectly; the riff classic Deuce, Firehouse, Cold Gin, 100,000 Years, Black Diamond and even a song the band doesn't like, their rocking cover of Bobby Rydell's Kissin' Time. That song was added to second pressings of the album, because Casablanca label boss Neil Bogart wanted it to coincide with a Kiss-connected kissing contest.

The album is far from unlistenable. It's a little roughly recorded, and is not nearly as pristine as, let's say, a Steely Dan album. But it merits repeated listening. My only less-than-favourite tracks are the not-very exciting instrumental Love Theme From Kiss, and the ending of Black Diamond, in which the tracks is slowed down in an all-too-long sequence.

Hotter Than Hell is a much rougher listening experience, and comes closest to validating the Rolling Stone Record Guide review. Despite a change in studio venue, from New York to Los Angeles, the sound was even more grungy. The songs which ended up on Double Platinum were mixed to sound clearer on that album. Also, while the songs were quite good, they didn't match up to the debut's classics. And while I like the song Goin' Blind, Gene Simmons' vocal sounds so overequalized at points it's like pinpricks in my ear.

And now we come to Dressed to Kill, which seems to prove one thing. The Rolling Stone Record Guide reviewer appears not to have listened to it, because it was recorded cleanly — you can hear everything.

The album also far surpasses Hotter Than Hell— it has the anthem Rock And Roll All Night, which I prefer to the Alive version (I'm probably in the minority);  She, rearranged from its folkie arrangement for the pre-Kiss group Wicked Lester, to quality classic rock in 1975; the somewhat poppy and tightly played C'mon and Love Me; and the extremely politically incorrect Room Service and Ladies in Waiting.

But the best song, in my mind, is Rock Bottom, which pointed the way to the more sophisticated Destroyer. It begins with a gorgeous Ace Frehley guitar instrumental, and then crashes right into one of the tightest, hardest, rock songs ever recorded. How was it that Bob Ezrin, producer of Destroyer, thought this band was not comprised of great musicians?

And how did the Rolling Stone Record Guide give this album a one-star review?

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