I know it’s been a couple of weeks since finishing what I’ve started here but the holidays can be wild! Especially when you make plans in advance. Aside from the Christmas break, I went to Manhattan to see Phish for two nights on December 30 and 31. It was out of sight. This past week, I recovered and worked a ton on various things, including this: the final KISS countdown.
When I first wrote the draft for this countdown I listed them in order. Then I filled in the blanks. The last ten were the toughest to not only put into order (aside from #1), but also to figure out what to say about the songs I consider the best of the best “Kiss Kuts.” It wasn’t easy in the end. However, I figured it out, so, without blabbering further, here are my top five KISS songs ever recorded/performed.
The main reason “Do You Love Me” is in my top five performances has to do with the KISS My Ass home video’s live footage from Cobo Hall, 1977. Of course, I love the studio cut. My only reservations about the original is the end of the song. It’s too “clean.” In the closing moments of this Cobo Hall recording, KISS doesn’t bother with the orchestral conclusion and simply blast off into a rock and roll explosion amid frenzied camera cuts. Peter Criss brings the thunder to kick it off. The rest of the song is a party if you’re in the crowd.
Paul Stanley’s “Do You Love Me” from Destroyer would be more like Gene Simmons’s “Charisma” from Dynasty if Paul was more secure in simply knowing his cash was getting him ass, so to speak, and didn’t feel the need to ask the song’s fatal question. He may not want her to say “yes.” If my knowledge of Paul Stanley-penned cuts stands correct, if the girl falls too hard for the Starchild, he’s effin’ out of there. It’s only when Paul is in love that he gets his heart ripped apart.
Best quote: “You like the credit cards and private planes/Money can really take you far/You like the hotels and fancy clothes/And the sound of electric guitars, but… /Do you love me?”
KISS was on top of the mountain reigning supreme. This Paul Stanley, in 1977, is at the height of his presence in the rock and roll world. Paul and Gene always know the cameras’ location during this live performance. I’m not sure who produced this live clip, but I think it’s perfect. The whole package encompasses KISS’ stage presence and hunger. Well on their way to another Platinum record, the band really throw it on you. If a person asks me to describe KISS, this performance plays in my brain’s View-Master.
That Kiss My Ass video tape, I tell you. It really influenced me back in the day. I know I recently praised Ace Frehley’s “Shock Me” being the perfect portrait to showcase the Spaceman, but I didn’t say it was his greatest performance. Not by a long shot.
Sure, someone with better knowledge of guitar-proficiency could tell me that Ace’s solos are sloppy on both of these live recordings. That’s just how Ace gets down, though. You be the judge. Here’s why I think this performance is one of Ace’s high watermarks:
First, Ace is wrecking licks off two songs featured on Gene Simmons’s and Paul Stanley’s solo releases from 1978. When the band decided to record solo albums with their own session musicians, the band was on the verge of a split following the Love Gun haze. Ace and Peter Criss were done. The label, along with Paul and Gene, thought that maybe going off to record solo albums would be best for the band’s morale (and egos).
As it turns out, the solo albums proved both successful, yet disastrous. KISS became even more of a competition between band members. If they had anyone in their came that would’ve stood up and said “no,” these solo album would’ve never been recorded. However, due to contractual obligations, I’m sure KISS needed to put out another studio album in 1978 to avoid a breach. Alive II featured five new cuts at the end of the record, but I’m sure that wasn’t enough due to the face they were dropping two album in and around a year’s time (and also the clear absence of Ace and Peter on the recordings).
So, the boys went into the studio and kicked out four solo efforts that contained highlights and lowlights. Ace and Paul both turned out awesome records. Ace Frehley was the only KISS solo album I owned growing up. Peter Criss is the best representation of a “true” vision. He came from a completely different background than the rest of KISS. The Catman’s album isn’t one I’ve listened to many times but it’s gotten some play (especially during Pod of Thunder). I’ve experienced Gene’s solo album maybe once in its entirety—it’s not good.
In 1979, when the band went on tour for Dynasty, they each brought a track from their solo records along for the ride. Matt Penfield revealed in The Second Coming 1996-97 Reunion Tour doc (in ref. to the Dynasty tour), “Some nights the shows were good. Sometimes they weren’t and the bad nights were horrible.” KISS’ second night in Largo, Maryland on July 8, 1979 was a good night. I was floored to discover that the entire show was the bonus DVD included in the KISSology Vol. 2 DVD set upon purchase.
There’s no specific quote I can give you. It’s not about the songs—Ace Frehley’s Gibson Les Paul is the reason why I love the song “Radioactive,” the opening cut off Gene Simmons. The same goes for Paul Stanley’s “Move On.” I think the main reason is because I would’ve liked to hear KISS’ arrangements had the band originally recorded either song in-studio. For this live performance of Gene’s cut, Ace’s feeling it. Not in what he plays but in the energy he’s emitting. And, holy geez, the Spaceman’s licks from “Move On” are ridiculous.
Ace was riding high off his solo effort. It shows. I had to add this: He crushes this show with “New York Groove.” Ace has remained consistent that, initially, he didn’t want to record NYG. At the behest of his producer, Eddie Kramer, Ace complied and the rest is history. This one the only song that really connected with any of my friends in high school. The band Hello’s original recording is featured on Grand Theft Auto IV’s “97.8: Liberty Rock Radio.” Ace’s cover is discussed by Star-Lord and Drax in a deleted scene from Avengers: Infinity War.
I rewound my VHS tape and re-watched “Radioactive/Move On” countless times. It’s seared into my memory and could’ve appeared even higher but these next three cuts are simply the best of the best, in my opinion.
This song is a hip-thrusting clinic. Forget the double-negative, but If I knew how to play this song on guitar, I wouldn’t not thrust away. The live version from the Reunion Tour is equally awesome. I also shouldn’t fail to mention the infamous Lost Alive II cut from the Budokan tears it up as well. “Take Me” is excellence. It’s nonstop rocker that pounds every part of my being. You can go with the original recording, but I actually prefer the live, overdubbed version from the You Wanted the Best, You Got the Best! live compilation album from around the time KISS’ reunion tour kicked off. I listened to the album often on my “summer lawn mowing mixtape” that was, in fact, a cassette tape.
Lyrically, there’s no KISS song that tells a story better than “Take Me.” I’m not saying this cut is the “best story” of them all. It’s the delivery of the story. Prototypical of his usual message, Paul Stanley wants this lady to make a man out of him. “Make me feel like a man,” Paul says. I’ve always heard this song from the prospective of Stanley as a young teen as opposed to his age at the song’s conception. He’s trying to get some babe out in a low-lit parking lot behind a grocery store after work. She lied to her mother on the phone about working late minutes before clocking out. Paul, a lowly stock boy, clocked out an hour before, waits outside in the Pinto. You can imagine the party that ensued one the girl walked out of the front doors. (Sex.)
Best quote: “Put you hand in my pocket/Grab onto my rocket/Feel so go to see you receive/Baby got to know/Do you wanna go/How you gonna make me feel”
The music matches the message. KISS recorded this song at their pinnacle as a band. Rock and Roll Over arguably has the best production quality of the “KISS Torah”—KISS’ original six studio albums (dubbed by Pod of Thunder). “Take Me” is undoubtedly the best cut off R&RO. I’ve been long-winded about some songs, but I don’t have much to say about the reasoning behind “Take Me” ranking so high. Listen to that shit. It is what it is. Like the guys from Pod of Thunder often say, “What’s not to like?”
Once again, a KISS home video introduced me to this epic off of 1974’s Hotter Than Hell. At the point I first heard this song, I hadn’t gotten around to getting a hold of the album. “Watchin’ You” was the instant sell. This is the “hungriest” KISS cut of them all. The lyrics are short and simple. Someone (probably a lady) comes “limping” into a club which attracts a lot of attention. I’m not sure if it’s the person or the limp. KISS lets this person know they are being watched, but really, in the end, they’re all watching KISS. Duh.
Gene Simmons has stated that the lyrical content of some of he and KISS’ early records have no meaning. Although some creators scoff at that sort of mentality, it’s everyone’s mentality if they’re young and wanting to write music more than anything. One fun aspect of KISS is that a lot of their lyrics vulnerably lay open for interpretation. This song is no exception.
Again, I need to bring up Ace Frehley’s skills—especially from this show. His guitar adds so much color and fire to this cut. Early live renditions of “Cold Gin” are often overlooked because it’s one of those songs that’s stood the test of 40-plus years and hundreds of performances. While Ace crushes this night’s version of “Cold Gin,” Winterland belongs to Ace at his very best as he rises above them all during KISS’ performance of “Watchin’ You.”
Best Quote: “And I’m standin’ here/Not quite aware/And I’m tryin’, baby/Tryin’ not to stare”
I always thought the lyrics were, “And I’m standin’ here/Not quite awake/And I’m tryin’, baby/Tryin’ not to stay” until I just looked it up because I wanted to be sure I wasn’t wrong. I was. Oh well. After all these years, this band still allows me to hear things I’ve missed.
January 31, 1975 is one of the greatest nights in the history of KISS. The band played The Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco and it was this night, I believe, which made the band a household name in most hard rock households. With a couple albums under their belts, KISS built—for where they were in 1975—their most powerful and hungriest set list. It’s kind of like the X-Men when Chris Claremont finished his louted Dark Phoenix Saga in 1980. Cyclops, Storm, Wolverine, Colossus, Kitty Pryde, Nightcrawler, Banshee, Havok, Polaris, and the Professor are the greatest team assembled for any arrangement of X-Men. The same goes for this night’s set list.
(Oh man, I just realized I could compare the history of KISS albums to the sagas of the X-Men and their revolving door of teamsters. I didn’t think I could spin this off into something ridiculous. I did create a universe for Michael Jackson if he were a super hero, so, I’m not sure why I thought this countdown wouldn’t go any further.)
This is it. For the record, KISS’ debut album isn’t my favorite album in the catalog. It contains nothing but masterpieces, but they’re greatly improved on Alive! However, the self-titled album is the core of KISS. It spawned everything else. I mentioned way back in the countdown that the “signature” riff from Ace Frehley would return. The studio origin of the riff leeches itself onto the end of “Let Me Know,” the final song off side one of the record. The specific notes, the groove—this musical decision by Ace is the first and main reason why I love KISS.
But then there’s “Let Me Know.” What a jam. Paul and Gene with a little give and take on the vocals. The lyrics are, dare I say, “sweet” for a KISS song. I’ve always interpreted the lyrics from the perspective of two regular, moderately wealthy guys trying to woo a lady. Gene’s telling the woman he’ll take her anywhere she wants to go. Paul’s all about the sex. Forget the dates. He’s ready to rock right now and explains that if you play it cool like he does, you too can be made in the shade, so to speak.
Best Quote: “Oh, did you ever want lovin’/So you’re callin’/Up your baby and she’s stallin’/with the neighbors/And the night keeps/gettin’ longer/And the urge keeps getting stronger/So your tryin/And your dyin’/And you’re wonderin’/Does she love you/A knock comes at your door/’Let me in honey’”
There’s one person the Paul and Gene are forgetting, though. Plot twist! Ace kicks in the signature jam after the guys are done wooing. He gets the girl because he’s dangerous and mysterious and plays guitar in a rock band. Paul and Gene are just a couple of jags. Peter’s the guy walking up to Paul and Gene—watching their dream-girl walk away in the arms of another man. Pete says, “I could’a told ya that’d happen,” then takes out his switchblade and juggles it while he jives down a dark alley.
Another reason I love this track above all else is the fact that it isn’t one KISS plays into the ground. Outside of 1975 and a few shows in the 90’s, “Let Me Know” is one cut that is extremely underutilized, but I’m okay with that. The live version from You Wanted the Best, You Got the Best! is excellent but not at all the heat-seeking missile from KISS because there’s no signature bumper. Plus, the song—outside of Ace’s solo—sounds like a complete re-recording of the song with a “live” effects added in. This song would be a fun edition to a three or four-song encore during their upcoming (final) tour.
Like I said while discussing “She,” as a kid, I never heard of a band who created an instrumental jam that attached itself to different songs. The concept blew my mind. It it’s not a song, but it is. At this point in my teens, I was fully aware of Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning. I was a nut about Metallica. Songs like “Orion” and “Call of Ktulu” showed me that you don’t need to say a word in order to rock. Those were actual songs. Ace’s signature riff is an outro solo. It could be a song but, no.
KISS is a mind-scrambler. Everyone has a band like KISS (or at least they should). Maybe not in the entire package but a band that you’ll go to war with, metaphorically speaking. A band worth standing up for. That’s what KISS is to me. I consider all their line-ups to be four of the first best friends I had growing up. The original four are phenomenal, the best ever. The stuff with Eric Carr is legendary. Vinnie Vincent kicked ass on two albums. Some would say that Bruce Kulick coming to the rescue in 1985 was one of the best things to ever happen in KISS. The guy on Animalize, who Bruce replaced, Mark St. John? Not good, but still a pal.
Compiling this countdown was a long time coming. Hopefully, some of you who came across this quadrant of the interwebs found a new band to jam. If anything, KISS is nothing short of entertaining. There’s so much I still should learn about KISS (if I want to). Santa brought me KISS Behind the Mask for Christmas. I’m about halfway through and learning. It’s essential reading material for any fan. Santa also threw in a Creatures of the Night t-shirt. Oh, Santa.
I feel like I rediscovered why KISS is my favorite band in 2018. If you pretty much know every song and almost every word to over 250 songs of the same act, I’d say that’s your favorite band. Big thanks are due to Pod of Thunder. This podcast got me through a rough “time vortex” in the late summer of 2018. They and “The Hottest Band in the World” brought me back to reality and shooting for the stars. Although the show is out of KISS songs to psychologically dissect, there’s so much more out there in the realm of hard rock and beyond that needs analysis from Andy, Nick, and Chris. Looks like they’re about to deliver it, “baby girl.” For any of you who read through this entire countdown, I appreciate you. This was a lot of fun and resulted in some excellent “KISS Youtube rabbit holes.”
And finally, to that flea market jerk who wouldn’t sell me the X-treme Close-up VHS for a reasonable price: As you clearly discovered, I got a reasonably priced copy of that VHS tape. Yeah, so, in your face. (Sorry to come in a little hot there, but I always wanted to print that.)