By Brian Ives
In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we look back at KISS‘ 1974 debut album which turns 40 this week.
About two years ago, Bruce Springsteen started his epic keynote speech at South By Southwest by discussing some of the most divisive artists in rock music. He mentioned Phish, he mentioned himself, and he mentioned KISS. He said there are two ways you can look at the self-proclaimed “hottest band in the world.” He said, “You can say, ‘Early theater rock proponents, expressing the true raging hormones of youth,’ or ‘They suck!'” And that’s pretty much how it is with KISS: you can love them, or hate them, but they’re very hard to ignore. However, that wasn’t always the case.
Although the band’s principles, Gene Simmons (bass/vocals) and Paul Stanley (guitar/vocals) are from New York City, there’s a reason that one of their biggest hits is written not about any of the five boroughs, but about Motor City, U.S.A. “We didn’t make it in New York,” Simmons told Radio.com in a recent interview. “We made it in Detroit. New York is a little too high-falutin, too full of itself.”
“It bears noting,” he says, “That New York City, perhaps the most important city on the face of the planet, never gave the world a worldwide musical phenomenon that could play stadiums and arenas around the world, other than KISS. Not one,” perhaps forgetting about Jay Z and Alicia Keys, to name two. “There’s the (New York) Dolls, the Ramones and other club bands. Blue Oyster Cult was from Long Island, and even they never played stadiums. New York City gave the world nothing. Detroit – not a major city – gave the world Grand Funk Railroad, which played Shea Stadium. Not a New York band ever played there,” although, Long Island’s Billy Joel had, in fact, headlined the former home of the New York Mets.
“Ted Nugent, Bob Seger, there were a ton of bands out of Detroit,” he said, although to again play devil’s advocate, Nugent hasn’t been an arena headliner in a few decades. “England gave the world thousands of bands: the Beatles and the Stones. Even Jimi Hendrix, an American, came out of England. New York City gave the world nothing. New York City gave the world KISS: one band and we didn’t make it in NY, we made it in Detroit. New York is like going to a restaurant and seeing 100 things to order, you can’t wrap your mind around what you want. You go to a restaurant with a half a page (menu), ‘I’ll take that one!’ It’s more focused! Even with black music: Detroit gave us Motown! Stax/Volt came out of Memphis! Didn’t come out of New York, there’s not a musical scene that came out of New York, not disco, not rock, nothing! Liverpool – Liverpool! – gave us the Beatles.” Of course, there are some that might argue his point about disco not coming out of New York, but we digress.
This leads to another of Simmons’ usual targets: music critics. “KISS is a heartland band, we completely ignored critics, they meant nothing to us. I buried them in my backyard, they’re fertilizer for my greenery! They’re the guys who never got laid in school who have pus-filled pimples who still live in their mother’s basement. They’re not even journalists! It’s a completely unnecessary lifeform. If critics cease to be, nothing changes.”
And with that business out of the way, we were able to discuss the band’s classic debut album. “Nothing To Lose, our new book, goes into how in the early days, we didn’t know anything, we were just four kids off the street,” referring to himself, Stanley, drummer/singer Peter Criss and lead guitarist Ace Frehley. “We started making $75 a week salary, which to me was a king’s ransom, because I could quit my job. Even though I was making three times that much at my former job, I didn’t have to wake up early in the morning, and on $75 a week you could be in a band.” Despite the fact that the man now sits atop an empire which includes a veritable cornucopia of KISS-themed items, and even a football team, he still describes that time with genuine wonder.
KISS was the first band signed to Casablanca Records, a label that would end up being more well-known for disco. The label provided them with the producers for their first album, Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise. “When we met Kerner and Wise, they were assigned to us by a brand new label called Casablanca, we were the first act on Casablanca, and nobody was particularly awed by the talent or the direction. We just tried to be who we are. I think the first two records were ok, sonically they’re not great, but the one thing we were able to maintain was our soul. This is who we are. Not as ‘fidelic’ as it could have been, because live, the band sounded much better. In the studio we sounded smaller and less ambient and less ‘live.’ So, in a way, it sort of helped , the ‘fidelics’ weren’t high level, so when people saw us live, we were better than we were on record. Often, the bands that spent a lot of time in the studio sounded better in the studio than they did live.”
Simmons is a lot happier with the “fidelics” of later albums, but he says some of the more well-known producers that they worked with later on would not have been the right choice for their debut. “[Eddie] Kramer would have given those records a much more ‘English’ sound, and English records were just better. And even Bob Ezrin would have been the wrong producer in the beginning, because they would have gotten too arranged. We had to get those early, innocent, straight out rock and roll songs out of our system. And they were not written to be better arranged. It wasn’t until ‘Detroit Rock City’ and some of the other songs that it had the size and the width and the breath to be arranged with solos and harmonies and things like that.”
Four decades later, it may be difficult for some to separate the music from everything else — the marketing, the reality shows, Simmons’ larger than life personality — to be able to enjoy the music. And as Simmons is quick to remind anyone who will listen, KISS isn’t just a band, it’s a brand. That b[r]and is finally getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year, after fifteen years of eligibility. They are one of the most influential rock bands to emerge from the ’70s, so what took so long for them to get voted in? It seems that, as Springsteen said, for every huge fan, there’s a detractor who says “They suck!” As for Gene and Paul: they don’t care what you think. And really, they never did.