If you were not a Kiss fan in the days before they removed their make-up, you may not fully understand the phenomenon that was Kissmania. Growing up in the mid to late 70’s lead to having respect for a group who made lots of music and was heard on the radio a lot. Of course with Kiss, there were extras, specifically, their make-up, costumes, and on-stage personas. The way they were promoted, at least at my level, was constant magazine coverage. I was a regular reader of 16 magazine, which was a magazine for teens but this was the only magazine with Kiss in it that I could read, perhaps Circus or Hit Parader was too much (or maybe it was a magazine my mom was familiar when she was a teen, so if 16 was good enough for her, it may be good enough for her son). Along with Kiss was a fair share of known groups like the Bay City Rollers, unknown groups like WOWII, and much promotion for Scott Baio, Rex Smith, and John Schneider of The Dukes Of Hazard. Looking back, perhaps 16 was not a magazine meant for me, I wasn’t ripping posters of Henry Winkler or Mark Hamill and pinning them next to my bed but again, it was about Kiss. The output of Kiss merchandise was amazing, and I had the baseball cards and a belt buckle. For a brief moment I thought I may have had their lunch can, but that was limited to Fat Albert and another involving some Marvel comics characters.
I believe my first Kiss album was the 1978 2-record set for Double Platinum and to obtain it, I had to beg. I would normally get records as gifts, usually 7″ 45’s but for having good grades, I would get a free album and that meant “single LP”. When I would hang out in the record section in department stores or go to record stores, I’d find myself looking over records by Miles Davis, Keith Jarrett, Chicago At Carnegie Hall, or The Concert For Bangla Desh and wanting the 3- and 4-record sets. Single LP’s were cool, but to be able to have a box with more records? I wanted that, but that also meant spending $10+ for those, and my family generally had a budget of spending $7.99 or less, which was roughly the “suggested retail price” for albums in the late 70’s. $5.99 meant they were on sale. I remember walking into Woolworth’s in downtown Honolulu with my Austrian grandmother, whom I called my Omama. She knew I loved music and asked me to pick out an album. I saw Double Platinum, I selected it for her and she said “oh, that’s too much”. I acted like I was looking for others but I didn’t want anything else but Double Platinum. I probably made a mock weepy face, I remember her looking at the cashier in frustration, then grabbing the album out of my hands and saying “c’mon”. It was mine. When I brought it home, my mom was pissed. I now had a double album to call my own, just like my uncle did with Miles Davis’ Live Evil. I played the record like crazy.
A few weeks after starting my 3rd grade year, my family went to Ala Moana Shopping Center, as per the norm for their shopping. The record store was my safe haven, so they knew if they dropped me off there, I would be safe. You probably wouldn’t leave a seven year old kid alone in any store these days, but it was a different time. I loved DJ’s Sound City because as a kid whose lifelong goal was to become a radio disc jockey, I felt that this was my mom away from home, my city for a wanna-be DJ like myself. Since we normally would go to Ala Moana on a weekend because of me going to school on the weekends, I would say that I entered that DJ’s Sound City on a Saturday morning. It was the usual scene: record store with cassettes and 8-tracks to the right, new releases, buttons, and accessories on the left, plus the turntable that played the music which was heard in the store. The jazz section, which I often looked through because of my dad’s love of jazz, usually rotated in the store. Walking towards the back, one could also see the storage where there were posters and boxes, both opened and unopened. I had looked forward to growing up so I could work there. On the left and right walls were usually where all of the new releases were on display, so you’d walk to it, glance at the front and back covers, and consider making a purchase. My walk towards the back would eventually feel as if my world was moving in slow motion, for I saw the greatest site I had ever seen in my entire, close-to-eight year old life. I remember turning my head to the left, not believing the vision in front of me, and I was completely blown away. I know for a fact that I stopped and stared for what felt like an hour or two, even though it may have been only two minutes. I found myself in front of a display involving not one, not two, but four records, each one featuring a member of Kiss. Holy crap, FOUR KISS SOLO ALBUMS?!?!? I didn’t know if I should approach, as if moving closer to paper and cellophane was going to zap the life out of me. It was mysical, it was freaky, it was weird, but it was so damn awesome. FOUR KISS SOLO ALBUMS? Ace Frehley was my hero because he was the Spaceman, and I also thought silver make-up looked cool. The covers were black, and I looked to see if they were photos or paintings. They were indeed paintings. Gene Simmons was the demon, and while I wasn’t exactly scared, holding something that involved the devil was a bit spooky only because my parents taught me that being evil or doing bad things would lure me to hell. But I grabbed his album and loved the fact that he had blood dripping out of his mouth. I then looked at Paul Stanley’s record and he was Mr. Suave, looking perfect for a 16 magazine poster. While I loved the drums, I didn’t grab Peter Criss’ album at all, but it looked cool. My mom walked into the store and in complete excitement, I told her that Kiss had four solo albums. She could care less, but she probably noted how happy I was. Then I made the request for something I had dreamed about, or at least dreamed for two hours (a/k/a two minutes): I wanted all four Kiss solo albums, right there. She said no, grabbed my hand, and walked me out. I’m sure I jumped, stumbled, and pulled my way demanding the records, but I knew it wasn’t going to happen so I accepted it. However, I knew someday I would have all four.
I did, but not all at once.
I would get the albums within a two or three month period, in this order: Ace, Gene, Paul, and Peter. Oddly enough, that was in the order I picked them up at DJ’s Sound City. Mock divine luck, or just coincidence? Most likely the latter. I found myself enjoying the albums in that order as well, although I found myself fascinated with Gene’s album for how different it was and even today, I still go back and forth on who had the better album of the four: Ace or Gene?
Ace Frehley’s album was the best of the four. Outside of the coolness factor, I liked his guitar work and voice, and his album rocked from start to finish. Kiss were a rock band, a hard rock band, and to me that’s what an album from a member of Kiss should sound like. “Rip It Out” started the album and it was great to hear him play without the band. Liberating? I wasn’t using that word at the age of 7 or 8, but it was awesome and I wanted to hear more, and I did. “Speedin’ Back To My Baby” was co-written with his wife Jeanette, whose name was similar to my sister’s, so I’m sure I thought “wow, Ace has a Jeanette, just like me.” Then the album gets into “Snow Blind”, which most likely lead me to wonder how snow could make someone blind before I learned years later that it may have been a reference to cocaine. “Ozone”, with its slightly meditative drones and vocal harmonies, moved me even though I didn’t know how. “New York Groove” was the poppiest song of the bunch, and it definitely grooved a long to where you didn’t mind singing this along in front of everyone, a friendly song. I loved “Wiped Out” because its title reminded me of the popular surf song by The Surfaris, “Wipe Out”, and maybe, just maybe, Frehley was, I don’t know, surfing? Most likely not. My favorite song on the album would be the one that closes it, “Fractured Mirror”. It begins with the sound of a church bell before the guitar is faded in, and I liked how there were different guitar melodies and riffs in this, done through multi-track recording. Most of the song is played with a limited amount of chords, with Frehley playing in between them, with a brief passage that served as the song’s bridge, before it fades out as it began, but with the guitar now double tracked so that it would echo with itself. It’s an instrumental piece, but I liked how it closed the album and when I play the album in full, everything builds up to that grand moment.
If Frehley’s album felt liberating in some fashion, Gene Simmons’ album was a different type of liberation. I remember the first time I dropped the needle on the record and heard the laughter that welcomes the listener in. Again, as kids we believed in their characters, so this was the sound of a demon laughing, it was Lord Satana smiling and giggling, followed by an orchestra and what sounded like a choir (in truth, multi-layered vocals from Janis Ian), pulling in everyone who dared listen. Then the guitars and bass came in, and he started to sing:
You’re my food, you’re my water
you’ve got to be the devil’s daughter
can’t get near, can’t get far
you’ve got the power, but know who you are
He then revealed that the woman in question was “Radioactive”, complimented by nice background vocals. The devil’s daughter, I thought, so he’s talking to *his* daughter? All I knew back then was that Gene portrayed the demon, I knew he was a character but wasn’t fully aware just yet on what it meant to be devilish. Then the next song comes on, and what I liked about “Burning Up With Fever” was the count-in, the off-notes of the guitar leading Simmons to say with a smirk “lovely”, before he talks about a feeling that he just can’t hide. As I was someone who read liner notes and album credits, it was a trip to learn it was Donna Summer who did the background vocals. Also, as someone whose record collection seemed to be filled with many releases on Casablanca Records, it seemed to make sense that Summer and Simmons would join, but wasn’t aware of any other unions that may or may not have had. Each song on Side 1 had explored different themes, moods, and emotions, and it felt weird realizing Simmons was…nice? I would say today that it showed a more emotional, perhaps human side to the man behind the mask, which he’d touch on with “Man of 1,000 Faces”, but tracks like “Tunnel Of Love”, “See You Tonite”, and “True Confessions”, the latter featuring singer Helen Reddy, just didn’t seem like it was the music from the devil. Yet this devil seemed cool, approachable, but with caution. Flipping the record over to Side 2, I loved “Living In Sin” from the opening drums to the heavy breathing Simmons was making. Again, a dark soul from hell was saying “I know you write me sexy letter”, but the next line, I had initially interpreted as “and you send your pictures for my war”. For years, I wondered why anyone would send photographs for war, until I learned he actually said “and you send your pictures for my wall”. Looking at the back cover again, I learned it was Cher who was the recipient of the phone call in the song, which again made sense, since Cher had just been signed to Casablanca. Again, I was not aware of any other unions that the two may or may not have yet. I also really liked “”See You in Your Dreams” because it reminded me of the type of pop/soul that one could hear on the radio or on TV, and while I was not aware of who she was, it was Katey Sagal who handled the background vocals on it and a number of other tracks on the record. I wouldn’t know until much later that Sagal was in a group who were also signed to Casablanca, and as the story goes, unions, not happening, etc. The weirdest song was the one that wrapped things up, his rendition of Jimini Cricket’s “When You Wish Upon A Star”. Is this guy, the demon of the band, going Disney? It was tacky, corny, cheesy, and I’ll throw in kitschy as well, complete with an orchestra and lush background vocals, and the fact that it seemed so much unlike him made the whole thing work, eventually reaching the high note at the album where it sounds like he actually unleashed a tear from his evil eye. A tear equal to the drip of the blood that poured from his mouth. Awesome.
Even though Paul Stanley was my third favorite member of Kiss, he was the vocalist of some of my favorite Kiss songs: “Detroit Rock City”, “Do You Love Me”, “Strutter”, “Love Gun”, “100,000 Years” and the intro to “Black Diamond”, so there was always respect for him. His album began with a ballad, or at least that’s how “Tonight You Belong to Me” before it rocked out afterwards. Stanley’s record would show a love for pop craftiness and ballad, which some might have been taken aback by but again, he was the Starchild, the man who pucked lovingly for the ladies, so maybe this was his romantic side. “It’s Alright” was a solid rocker from him, while “Hold Me, Touch Me (Think of Me When We’re Apart)” sounded much like a lot of the songs on the radio at the time, what is now known as yacht rock, but it fit his character. I’m certain that this was and remains a personal favorite for some Kiss fans, but no one expected it to be pure pop, even though Kiss were having an overwhelming amount of pop success. Maybe people expected for Peter Criss to dish out the pop, since he had hits with “Beth” and “Hard Luck Woman”, which maybe lead some to feel that it would be he to dish out the true pop album.
Criss’ solo album was one that received the worst reviews and partly because of them, sold the less. In fact, as this was the last of the four I received from my parents, by the time I obtained my copy, it already had a cut-out mark on it, which to me meant it wasn’t good enough so they had to sell it cheap. I would later learn that with some releases on Casablanca, they would often ship an overwhelming amount of records for release day, only to learn not everyone could afford to buy all four in one crack, which would leave a lot of unwanted copies at stores, thus were given a cut-out hole or notch in the hopes of clearing them out.
In truth, Criss’ album was not bad at all and was probably the most human of the four, in that it sounded more like an album that would’ve been made by George Peter Criscuola of Brooklyn, not the mysterious CatMan. It sounded like songs one could easily hear on the radio or at the jukebox from the corner bar, especially his cover of “Tossin’ And Turnin'”, which was the first song I really liked because it was familiar to me. Other tracks like “Rock Me, Baby”, “I Can’t Stop The Rain”, and “Hooked On Rock’N’Roll” showed the rock’n’roll spirit that swept him and the other members of Kiss in their youth, but Criss wasn’t afraid to reveal it. It had an old feel, and with a group such as Kiss, you wanted to feel as if you were listening to music of the now or the future, not what happened before. Maybe surprisingly, Criss’ album was the only one of the four that spawned two singles, even though the other three had a wealth of songs that were potential hits. Hit singles, they weren’t, but people still loved Criss because he remained and will always be Kiss’ Catman.
A month after Kiss released these solo albums, they would release their made-for-TV movie, Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park. For those of us who loved the idea of having four new releases by the members of the band, perhaps it was this movie that made some feel that this was the beginning of that high rise to the top. Some wondered if anyone in the band could act, or maybe it was that Simmons seemed believable and that the others should not act. For many, it was the first time fans got a chance to see Paul, Gene, Ace & Peter move, but it seemed a bit too out-of-place. Kiss may have been for the youth even though their lyrics were often very adult themed, so to see them being involved in things that were child-like, along the lines of the Banana Splits, was something not many wanted to see. It would be another seven months before the band was heard from again, when they released Dynasty. At this point, Kiss had a completely new look and now had a song that was considered their entry way into disco, “I Was Made For Loving You”, and that broke a lot of people’s hearts. It didn’t break mine, it sounded different but the song had always been cool to me, even though I was more of a “2000 Man” and “X-Ray Eyes” fan. While this was billed as the return for the band, it also started the next level of their downfall. While Criss was considered a failure with his pop solo album, the band were eventually turning into the pop band they didn’t originally set out to be. Dynasty would be the last album Criss played on and when the 80’s began, no one was sure if Kiss would continue on or fade away. We now know that they not only continued, but would reveal themselves without make-up, perhaps losing the magic we all felt the group had, but still rocking out strong.
Nothing will take away the power of glancing at those four solo albums in September 1978, as if their glares transmitted some kind of power to listen and “buy me. No wait, buy us all.” We wanted Kiss stuff like we wanted Hot Wheels and Tyco cars, and we got them in abundance. As Kiss, we didn’t know or care about some of the stories they were singing about, and yet the group seem to make a shift at the moment we wanted them to continue rocking our worlds. Maybe they knew, maybe their fans were getting older, I’m sure there is a college course that has looked into the phenomenon far deeper than I could. While I was aware of who Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young were, I only knew about Young’s solo work, so to me, Kiss were the kings of the solo album and I thought that all groups should have their members release their own work. When I’d get into The Beatles, I had been aware of who John, Paul, George, and Ringo were but didn’t piece things together that they do released solo albums, primarily after their split. In hip-hop, groups like Digital Underground and the Wu-Tang Clan would spawn solo and group contracts, and the more music there was, the merrier I was. But in 1978, my music loving self was realizing that music could be so much more than the few 45’s and albums my parents bought me, and the songs I heard on the radio in Honolulu. The Kiss solo albums made me understand that the possibilities were endless, and I wanted to explore those possibilities, hoping all of my favorite groups would do more music with their own separate releases. It didn’t happen with most of them, but it felt like a revival when Digital Underground and the Wu-Tang brought back that mentality to the industry in the early to mid 1990’s. These days, anyone and everyone can release their own projects for purchase and for free, and maybe that magic no longer exists, but I’d still like to think that if a group surfaces with that kind of fan devotion, it could happen again.