When people say they hate KISS, I often wonder if they also detest fart jokes. Because to me, that’s what KISS is: a fart joke in band form. Think about it. Like farts, KISS are crass, and as a band, they totally stink. But now and again, they are surprisingly musical. They’re also exponentially more entertaining when fire is involved.
I probably like KISS at least as much as I like fart jokes, and when I’m old, decrepit and plugged into a bunch of life-prolonging machinery, I will probably be laughing at both, because no matter what your mom or your highbrow significant other thinks, the opening riff to “Love Gun” packs the same hilarious punch as ripping beefs on a Taco Bell booth seat. God gave rock ’n' roll to us, apparently for the same reason he made it a hassle for our stomachs to break down certain foods.
If you like “Love Gun,” you probably like all the rest of KISS’ hits — it’s not that they all sound the same, because obviously “Dr. Love” is a very different sound than “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” — but it’s pretty easy, on the strength of those singles, to be a casual fan. Frankly, I’d advise against going any deeper. I found that out the hard way when I started this assignment, because I resolved to listen to several KISS albums from start to finish, beginning with 1983’s Lick It Up. Lead-off track “Exciter” makes KISS sound like a fairly thrilling Judas Priest knock-off (and Rick Derringer plays on it!), but apart from it and the title track, most of the rest of the record is bland at best and hot garbage at its worst.
I came to the conclusion long ago, however, that the ability to endure hot garbage is part of being a KISS fan: They have more gold records than any other American band, and two of those are 1975’s live (with fake audience noise) album Alive and 1977’s Alive II, which put the band’s performance deficiencies front and center, when you aren’t being distracted by Paul Stanley’s moronic between-song exhorts. If some old dude tells you that Meg White is the worst drummer he’s ever heard, be sure to point out how he’s wrong because he’s probably also heard Peter Criss.
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I’m 37, so of course I have no idea what it was like to experience KISS at their mid-’70s peak (which includes their run of albums from Destroyer to Love Gun); from what I’ve read, that’s when the band’s fans grew disillusioned with KISS’ greater goal of raking in money from merchandising. Can you imagine some bonehead in 1980, sitting at a bar, complaining about how “KISS isn’t even about the music anymore,” bitching about them selling out? That sounds ludicrous to me; don’t get me wrong, “Shout It Out Loud” is a great song and all, but it’s not like they were ever trying to make Dark Side of the Moon.
Oh, except when they did. Here’s another thing that’s ridiculous and also fascinating about KISS: When people hated on the band for shifting their attention to selling Gene masks and Paul dolls or whatever, the band responded with a fucking prog album called Music from “The Elder.” This is the equivalent of the most popular dickheads on a championship-winning high school football team’s defensive line showing up in an honors English class to participate in the poetry unit, all because some girl told them they were boring and stupid. Okay, okay, it’s not exactly that, because Gene Simmons reportedly possesses a genius-level intellect, but you get my point. Not surprisingly, the album tanked, but also unsurprisingly, one terrible album wasn’t enough to sink the band, and in fact, Music from “The Elder” was merely the cheese sandwiched between a pair of other underwhelming records. Three bombs in a row, yet the fake blood still flows some 33 years later.
But even in hilarious failures like Music from “The Elder” (which has some good moments, like the outro solo in “World Without Heroes,” though it’s hard to hear above your own laughter at what is otherwise a comically earnest, bloated affair), KISS are remarkable. How many classic rock bands got to have a hard rock phase, a disco pop phase, a prog phase, a phase where they shed a crucial component of their band (Lick It Up was the record where they ditched the makeup, as well as the one made after Peter Criss and Ace Frehley had left) and then the usual victory lap “last tour ever” tours that fill out a veteran band’s later years?
Until Gene and Paul kick the bucket, they’ll probably never stop playing shows. Like a bodily function that follows you from the cradle to the grave, KISS is pretty much just part of life. You can turn your nose up if you want, but it’s just as easy to laugh with the rest of us.