Merry Christmas! Hope everyone enjoys their day. I was gifted a copy of KISS: Behind the Mask. Thanks, Santa. Here’s the first half of my top ten favorite KISS classics.

10. “King of the Night Time World” – Alive! II

We’ve officially cracked the top-10. This is another song that works in the studio but doesn’t really tear through your sonic sensibilities until you catch the live version. I first saw KISS live in 1996 during their initial Reunion Tour. They opened with “Deuce” and then tore the roof off the Roanoke Civic Center (now known as the Berglund Center) once Ace Frehley stood facing a wall of Marshall amps while the reverb of his cherry sunburst, Gibson Les Paul pierced the night.

One thing I’ve recently discovered upon doing a little research for my countdown is “King” wasn’t originally written by KISS. The Hollywood Stars wrote then recorded the track in 1973. Just recently the Stars’ “lost” 1974 album entitled Shine Like A Radio became available. Needless to say, KISS rearranged and recorded the superior version for 1976’s Destroyer but it is interesting to see what KISS retained from the original and what they left out.

The Pod of Thunder podcast dove into the meaning of the song and you can hear their take right here. I feel that the subject matter alone may be a bit edgy for my little blog, so, if you really want to know the definition of a “headlight queen,” give that link a whirl. I’ve always interpreted the lyrics as a way of explaining Paul Stanley’s relationship with a woman whose family may not approve of her relations with a rock star and vice versa. The night time is the right time for the Starchild, so to speak.

Best quote: “It’s so sad, you’re not content/Far from the music and the neon glow/Ain’t you glad we got the time/Far from our folks, they’ll never ever know” 

This song reminds me of driving home from a high school girlfriend’s house after a successful night of time-well-spent. Young love shines through on this cut. “King of the Night Time World” is an undeniable hit. While the studio cut is solid, the live version from Alive! II smokes the Destroyer recording. This, like the rest of the selections from my countdown, are must-listens. (Also, their lip-sync performance of this track on The Paul Lynde Halloween Special is pretty dope too.) 

9. “Tomorrow” – Unmasked

KISS is the very first band I considered my favorite. The second is Weezer. I knew Weezer was good shit once I heard “In the Garage” off the 1994 self-titled “blue album.” In the song lead vocalist, Rivers Cuomo mentions he has posters of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss on his wall. I first discovered Weezer right around the time my KISS curiosity sprung a leak. My reasoning was simple: “Weezer listens to KISS, which means they probably rock so hard because of the KISS influence.” Whether that’s true or not, I’ll never know, but the reason I brought this factoid up is because “Tomorrow” by KISS is the only KISS song I ever wanted to hear Weezer re-record. Why? Simply put: “Tomorrow” sounds like a Weezer arrangement almost 15 years before Weezer came on the scene. I also can’t deny how this song was build based on the success of The Cars—whose frontman, Ric Ocasek, produced Weezer’s first and third albums. So, there’s a thread for you.

Image result for kiss 1980Early on in my countdown I mentioned you readers may expect more from Unmasked. Well, here it is in all its glory. Power-pop rock and roll at its finest. This was the song that sold me on Unmasked. When I first heard this deep cut I envisioned the pre-MTV era of music and how amazing it was that KISS managed to record a song that’s a snapshot from that time period. KISS’ ability to adapt never ceases to amaze. They were constant survivors flawlessly adjusting to the ever-changing rock and roll landscape.

Best quote: “I didn’t know just what to say/[*clap*clap, *clap*clap*clap]/This doesn’t happen to me every day and that’s not my style”

I’m amazed KISS never performed this song live. It was released as a single in the United States but failed to chart. The only country who really gave it any play (outside of Australia and New Zealand) was Germany. Getting a hold of that 7” vinyl isn’t cheap for a duel sided single. Any KISS vinyl in good condition—particularly the imports—are all rather pricey. The first printing of their full-length albums alone, complete with all the inserts, start anywhere from $80-$100. (Totally worth it though.)

Finally, one guy who deserves a lot of credit for the success of both Dynasty and Unmasked is producer Vini Poncia. He and Paul Stanley wrote some masterful stuff in that span of time. Poncia made his claim to fame writing with Ringo Starr, so, of course Stanley wanted to work with a guy so close to the Beatles mythos. After working with Peter Criss on his solo album from 1978, Criss allegedly suggested Poncia’s inclusion on Dynasty. Ironically enough, Criss was on his way out of KISS as he only recorded one song for that album. I think Vini Poncia gave KISS new life whether a majority of their fan base liked it or not. While there were rifts between all members of KISS behind the scenes, Poncia’s ear, Paul Stanley’s licks, and Ace’s contributions make Unmasked the most underrated KISS studio release. 

8. “Rock Bottom” – Dressed to Kill

The first time I heard this song I was crushing some Joe Montana Football, Cherry Coke, and Jennifer Aniston. Back then, I usually threw on CDs while playing video games. When “Rock Bottom” first kicked in, I nearly dropped my Genesis controller.

I listened to a lot of rock and roll music from local rock radio and Headbangers Ball when I was 14. The Thrash Metal madness of Metallica and Anthrax played regularly during summer mowing jobs. Newcomers like Weezer, Green Day and the Smashing Pumpkins were also spinning in my little bedroom stereo. Oh yeah, and The Magical Mystery Tour took me away many times. Once Dressed to Kill entered the fray, I finally discovered my definition of real, pure rock and roll.

At first, I thought “Rock Bottom” was an instrumental interlude before a new song kicked in. After reviewing the track list, I realized that “Rock Bottom” was essentially a two-in-one—a soft set-up into a raging, rebellious rocker. Paul Stanley basically says, “Look, sweet baby, I can’t financially support you. However, I can support you and your bedroom wiles, although you never treat me right because you’re always miserable. Now you’re on the streets. Sorry, but I have to go.” 

Ace Frehley knocks his solo out of the park. It’s succinct and in-your-face. Gene Simmons slides up and down his fret board driving the rhythm in what is probably my favorite Simmons bass performance. (My favorite KISS bass line comes via Paul Stanley for “It’s Easy As It Seems” from—you guessed it—Unmasked.) Peter Criss pops off a simple, yet powerful beat. This is original KISS at their best.

Best quote: “I can’t wait a day/I don’t care what you say/Oh no, you got to pay/Girl, you hit rock bottom and there to stay” 

KISS’ live performances of “Rock Bottom” from Alive! and Unplugged are superb but this is a rare case where I prefer the studio cut from the live recordings. Unfortunately, I’ve never seen KISS play this song live. Not to say they won’t play it on their End of the Road Tour in 2019. Here’s to hoping. 

7. “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em” – Rock and Roll Over/X-Treme Close-Up

I saw X-Treme Close-up before I owned a majority of my KISS CD and vinyl collection. The first opportunity I had to own the VHS came around 1995 at the now-closed Happy’s Flea Market in Roanoke, VA. There was a used music shop run by this old guy who rocks thick suspenders and tinted glasses. The store’s walls were covered in pin-ups and promo ads for old pop acts, including KISS. The Dynasty LP insert hung on a chicken wire, separation wall over the exit/entrance plywood casing. He had a big poster containing the cover art for all four KISS solo records.

Image result for kiss my ass vhsThe shop owner’s LPs were overpriced when it came to old rock and metal albums, amongst other things. Case and point: “Mr. Crabby” had the original X-treme Close-Up VHS on a shelf above his register. My radar, at this point of teenage angst, consisted of any tracks that appeared on Dressed to Kill, Alive! II, or Double Platinum.

“How much for the KISS video?” I asked.

“One-hundred dollars,” Mr. Crabby said as his eyes remained on whatever LPs he filed through.

“You’re a dick,” I replied.

No, I didn’t but I wanted to. Who did that guy think he was? Gene Simmons? Seriously, I would’ve dropped 30 hard-earned, “1995 dollars” if he asked for it. Not long after, my local mall’s Saturday Matinee had not only the X-treme Close-Up VHS but also KISS Konfidential. What’s double-awesome was this one clerk wore an Emperor shirt under his “uniform.” This was a metalhead who regularly sold an “uncensored” KISS video or possibly other uncensored material to someone clearly underage. Thank you, sir.

This Polygram Home Video release put me over the top. I never heard “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘ Em” before. That was the song that stood out on the sealed video tape’s liner notes. X-treme Close-Up contains the music video from KISS’ appearance on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Doesn’t get much better than Gene jumping around, Peter’s fills, Paul’s pouts, and Ace’s wicked solo containing magical pull-offs galore. The music video was my first up-close look at the original line-up in what I consider the penultimate year of their success: 1976. This also solidified the Destroyer/Rock and Roll Over costumes as my favorites. I wish they would’ve used those for the Reunion Tour in 1996 as opposed to the Psycho Circus 3-D tour and the (first) “Farewell Tour” from 1998-2000.

Best quote: (All of verse #2) “Mmm, so I give you my number/You say you will see me tonight/You just have to remember/Check with me if it’s alright/You wanna sit in my driver’s seat/If you do it’s alright with me/I’ve got to hand it to you, baby/You know what a girl’s gotta do/There’s nothing else I’d rather do… with you”

Enough about the visual. The music. I’ve learned a little theory and methodology about guitar playing despite never attempting to join my father and brother, who’ve been playing guitar for years now. This deep cut features both Staccato and Legato—that’s all I got. Seriously, though. I always told myself the day I bought my own guitar, “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em” would be at the top of my list of songs to learn.

Gene’s choice to follow the rhythm guitar as opposed to climbing up and down the fretboard works to perfection. This song syncs up while watching Kickboxer as Jean-Claude Van Damme takes down the other fighters inside a bar. (Don’t ask me how I know that.) Again, Ace Frehley’s at it again on this cut. It’s an all-around banger. Can’t miss stuff. “Love ‘em…” is a sentimental pick of mine, if you couldn’t tell. 

6. “Shock Me” – Alive II/KISS My Ass Polygram VHS/DVD – Houston Summit 1977

The only thing Alive! didn’t present masterfully was a lengthy Ace Frehley solo segment. We get the tail-end of Ace’s signature solo on “She,” but not to the brilliant extent producer Eddie Kramer presents on Alive II. “Shock Me” became “Ace’s song” on the Love Gun tours. It was Ace’s first song as lead vocalist and, from that point on, there was no better song to feature the smoking guitar and rocket shots for his Gibson Les Paul’s headstock.

Image result for ace frehley shock me 1977I owned Alive II before I owned Love Gun—where you’ll find the studio recording of “Shock Me.” Still flawless, don’t get me wrong. I just think the feeling of the live version is more powerful. It blew my mind. I didn’t start listening to Zepplin, Jimi, Trey, or Vai until after I caught and overcame the expensive illness known to some as “KISSteria.” Ace Frehley was unbeatable in my teenage mind. “Shock Me” from Alive II was his power sword—his validation. When I first saw him perform this spectacle live in 1996, I thought, “No one on Earth can #### with that.”

Not bagging on Ace, but I’ve since learned that some guitarist styles may lend itself to certain bands—like George Lynch is classic Dokken, but wouldn’t sound right with Blue Oyster Cult. (Or, maybe so. I’d paid to see that.) However, some styles attack on similar levels of creativity and execution. Jimmy Page was, and still is, ruthless. Jimi Hendrix is Jimi Hendrix. Trey Anastasio is the most underrated modern guitarist who’s not trying to be the best, but really, he is. Steve Vai made Alcatrazz and Whitesnake even more well-known because he simply joined the bands. His work in the 80’s is unparalleled. All of these performers I hold in the highest of high regards and who I chisel into rock and roll’s “Mount Rushmore” of guitar influences. Guys like Ace, Kirk Hammett, Lynch, and probably Trey (again) would be my personal Rushmore.

Best quote: “And baby, if you do what you’ve been told/My insulation’s gone/Girl, you make me overload/Don’t pull the plug on me (no, no)/Keep it in and get me high/Shock me”

But back to KISS. “Shock Me” wasn’t the first song Ace Frehley wrote then recorded with the boys, but I think this song put him on the map. It made some new fans look back and realize he was mainly responsible for “Cold Gin,” “Parasite,” and “Getaway” as well. I sure as shit did. “Shock Me” is a certified classic amongst the KISS Army and should never see the light of any skip or fast-forward button. This song, like every song in my top-10, touches every feeling I want to have while listening to rock and roll. It checks all the boxes.

I’d be remised if I didn’t mention the first time I got to visually witness “Shock Me” from the Love Gun tour. It wasn’t on Xtreme Close-Up. The 1977 live performance of “Shock Me” from The Summit in Houston, TX comes off the Kiss My Ass Polygram video tape/DVD which features a lot of never-before-seen live footage from KISS’ heyday. The 1992-95 KISS line-up presents the clips while rummaging through the KISS archive while they compile rare photos for KISSTORY—a $300 picture book released in 1994. KISS always got paid.

Next week, I’ll be ringing in the New Year from New York City. Phish. Madison Square Garden. No big deal. Can’t wait to experience the good culture. Doesn’t mean I won’t share my five most favorite KISS jams ever. See you then.

mattycriss

 

Matt de Simone is a writer, comic book collector, former pro-wrestler, and huge fan of KISS. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, and check out a few episodes of his soon-to-be-returning podcast.

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