Detroit Box City
by Julio Diaz
The Definitive KISS Collection
Mercury/Def Jam Music Group/A Universal Music Company
Before I go any further, a thought just occurred to me while typing out the label name. Back in the day when I paid serious, serious attention to KISS — starting in 1975, I was twelve — what stood out most, strangely, was KISS’s label, Casablanca. I remember this most because from then on I associated anything having the Casablanca label with KISS. Up until then, my association with record labels was limited to ABC/Dunhill, A&M, Polydor, Decca, London, and Capitol/Apple. My mom’s record collection consisted primarily of classical music, most of it either on the Decca or London label. These two labels I associated exclusively with classical music and hence my impressionable little mind was “blown” upon discovering that The Rolling Stones (a huge influence on KISS) were on London and a variety of other rock acts were on Decca. ABC/Dunhill was the realm of Steppenwolf; A&M and Polydor put out the odd double set or soundtrack and The Beatles were on Capitol, then Apple. All of a sudden, here’s a band that “everyone” is paying attention to and they’re on this mysterious “Casablanca” label. Tremendously odd, as Casablanca had an awful lot of disco records out…
When I was in tenth grade, a band called Van Halen appeared, and they thanked Gene Simmons in their liner notes (I was the kid who read the liner notes, even then). By the time I was twenty and “grown up” about music and “knew” about labels, especially Sire Records, a band called “Mötely Crüe” was out and they sure looked like they were aping… KISS! Instantly, I thought of KISS — even though I hadn’t listened to them in years.
This review was written for people who are familiar with KISS and their 25-plus years of noteriety, as if it’s possible to be unfamiliar with them. Nonetheless, for those who were born yesterday, KISS is a rock and roll band that plays a lot of rocking heavy metal. They wore studded leather and stage make-up and blew up fireworks on stage. Their bass player, Gene Simmons, spits blood, eats fire, and has a nine-inch tongue. In the 1980s, they decided to not wear make up and re-invent themselves as a rocking heavy metal band that played a lot of rock and roll. In the 1990s they put the make-up back on and played a lot of metal and rock and roll. And they said good-bye to their fans by touring around the world a few times. The band is arguably the most influential American rock and roll band of the 1970s, one of the most successful rock and roll businesses ever, and their international, legion fanbase spans multiple generations. They are rock and roll superheroes, par excellance. They are genuine famous rock and roll stars (see below).
Sorry for the long intro, but it’s relevant to this gigantic five-CD KISS album. The label story is relevant because this set isn’t on Casablanca, it’s on Mercury — no, it’s on Def Jam; wait, it’s really on Universal. Eventually it might be on Sony. Don’t laugh! The ugly history comprising the “group marriages” and frequent “group divorces” of the record industry played a big part in molding the destiny of KISS. So did a lot of other stuff, like sex, drugs and rock and roll.
Which, of course, has been well-documented in no less than five books, hundreds of print articles, comic books, a few movies and TV shows, MTV and other specials, in addition to simply being played out live in front of my generation. KISS has been with us as a major player and one of the top ten rock and roll acts in history for the last thirty years (though the album lists the start date even earlier at 1966).
What KISS hasn’t done until now, however, is put together their definitive musical history. Certainly, as I mentioned above, their public career as rock stars was on display from the beginning. And I’ll not ignore that a lot of the “behind the scenes” action was recorded on tape or film or electrons for all to see, as well. But this is all “finished product” and finished product is just that, this boxed set isn’t about finished product, it’s about documenting the creative, artistic processes that went into those polished, practiced performances and albums.
My feelings about demos or “previously unreleased” songs are mixed. On the one hand, it’s an interesting curiosity, on the other a demo that’s missing something might ruin a song for me. Even worse, it’s a novelty and thus something good for one listening — and then it’s forgotten, a musical dust collector. In that sense, there’s a lot of risk in releasing an album of demos. A risk that perhaps an unforgiving public would think the band hasn’t much else to offer than mixing room floor scrapings.
In KISS’ case, of course, the band has released more than thirty albums, touring around the world a lot and sold a lot of records, there’s no risk at all. I bet they’re the most loved rock and roll band of all time, too. Let’s face it, they triumphed instead of survived (there’s only one other band that’s done that over their lifetime: The Rolling Stones); and for a “niche” rock band with perhaps a “limited” appeal, they’re next in line after The Beatles in gold records. The obvious conclusion, then, is that this boxed set of five fascinating discs is, more than anything, the band’s retrospective, a musical look at the inner workings of KISS, which is something the fans didn’t have until now.
The true KISS fans, of course, have been correctly answering the trivia question “what was KISS called before they were KISS?” with “WICKED LESTER.” Based on what’s included amongst the KISS KLASSICS (ha!) are several previously unreleased Wicked Lester tracks that kind of betray the completely different band KISS could have been. Mainly because Gene Simmons and guitarist Paul Stanley wouldn’t have had lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss to kick around… But seriously, the Wicked Lester tracks sound really, really dated. As in Moby Grape meets Jethro Tull. That takes nothing away from the band one bit, mind you, the songs are rocking, but have “hippie” written all over them. Nevertheless, they’re an absolute must-listen as they are a part of KISStory.
With that out of the way, let’s rock and roll, eh?
I’ve found myself listening to discs one and three the most. Disc one starts off with demo versions of “Strutter” and “Deuce,” two of the bossest rock and roll songs ever written. Then it’s into the Wicked Lester stuff, which, though it’s hippie music, it’s pretty amazing, especially guitarwise. Rounding out disc one is material from the first three KISS albums, including a demo version of “Firehouse,” “Parasite” — true metal without a doubt, “Ladies In Waiting” — dubbed “one of the stupidest songs ever written” by many, yet equally loved by guys who dig songs about groupies, and “Rock and Roll All Nite,” the all-time greatest rock and roll anthem, right boys and girls?
Disc three has my favorite KISS song of all and I bet no one can guess it.
You’re all wrong!
My favorite KISS song of all time is “The Oath” from their album (Music from) The Elder! Ha! (Bet you thought it was “I Was Made For Loving You” — the BEST disco song ever, mind you.)
“The Oath” is a driving, over-the-top epic symphonic metal tune, twenty years ahead of its time. It is the equivalent of a heavy metal kung-fu Godzilla movie where the Seven Samurai make a guest appearance.
And that’s why it’s my favorite.
I won’t say more about the music other than I left out the other eighty-or-so remaining songs, that would be ALL the band’s hits (“Love Gun,” “Detroit Rock City,” Ace Frehley’s “Rocket Ride,” etc.) and some not-so-hits (“Beth” — ugh).
The real treasure is the 120-page book that comes with the discs. The running commentary from all the band members, including a truly touching tribute to the late Eric Carr (the drummer who took over for Peter Criss sometime in early 1981) is uplifting and kind of astonishingly sober. There’s stories about each song on each disc and lots of strange pictures, especially the ones of Gene Simmons before even Wicked Lester. Must be seen to be believed.
What I got out of the book primarily was the band revealing whom they ripped off the most. (That would be The Rolling Stones, and The Who, and The Nazz and everyone else! But, good artists create, great artists steal… – scroll down to the bottom for a unique take on Gene Simmons) There’s also interesting side notes of the band performing with Wayne County and being part of the New York City trash rock scene, right before the punk rock era. Not just that, but the passion for writing, recording, and most of all performing great rock and roll music shines through this glorious tome, as rightly it should.
The Definitive KISS Collection should be a part of the true rock and roll (and true metal) aficionado’s Shelf of Greatness — and always near the CD player as well.
KISS Online: www.kissonline.com