For a record that is so harmless in 2019, the self-titled KISS debut created a lot of fires back in 1974. So if you math this out correctly, you’ll find that KISS is now forty-five years old! They’re a band that tends to get a lot of hate from the metal community, which I never understood. Sure, they may have a gimmick, and Gene Simmons might have some choice words that don’t sit well with everyone but think about how influential this band is. So many metal goers act like KISS is such trash, when tons of their favorite bands such as Anthrax, Overkill, Death Angel, Skid Row, Pantera, Death, Slipknot, Motley Crue, Marilyn Manson – I think I’ve made my point – drew influence from them, and it all started with this incredible debut.
Believe it or not, this disc was what caused Warner Bros. to drop Casablanca due to the makeup that the band wore. They were told to remove it, KISS refused, Casablanca backed them, and the rest is history. That said, others also thought that they looked like clowns. Their appearances on early TV shows and the jokes that comedians would make about them would cause some to think they were a laughing stock, and of course, there were those who thought they worshiped Satan. Rumors that someone suggested putting balloons in the background of the album cover were also in circulation, but they wouldn’t allow it (thank God). So instead we were left with an album sleeve reminiscent of With The Beatles, the second record by the British rock ‘n roll gods. Fitting, as KISS took a lot of influence from The Beatles musically.
Many of the songs on this record were written before Peter Criss and Ace Frehley even entered the band. As many know, KISS went by Wicked Lester up until 1973. The logo was designed by Frehley in the back of a taxi cab in New York City once the band had settled on it as their name. There was about three weeks of recording, nine songs total, and with that, what would become one of the biggest brands in rock ‘n roll would hit the scene. But here’s the catch; it actually flopped regarding reception despite having multiple staple live tracks and many bouncy tunes that long-time fans can’t get enough of.
The fact of the matter is, there were actually no big hit singles upon release. “Nothin’ To Lose” was released as a single, but it really didn’t grab the attention that was anticipated, thus not really being a “hit.” KISS wouldn’t achieve gold status until three years later in 1977 after KISS broke through into the mainstream. Due to this, the label figured they’d pull a 1960’s rock ‘n roll trick and throw a cover song on there. Back to the studio! For those that don’t know, the original release of this album didn’t include the Bobby Rydell cover titled “Kissin’ Time.” It was added months later after the lack of interest. After this move, it still had little impact, but what this did create is something that didn’t matter back then, but matters now. There are a handful of copies of the record that exclude “Kissin’ Time” in circulation that are rare collector’s items, and they hold a lot of value. Most copies of the LP, as well as the CDs, contain that extra track. I can’t complain, it’s a pretty bangin’ cover.
But, everything you just read is not what made this the masterful and influential beast that it is. That is not what helped drive bands like Overkill and Pantera to do what they did; it was merely a stepping stone to the real deal. What I’m referring to here is the songs themselves. The amateur nature of the recording, the heavy riffs laced with groovy waves, the harmonizing and gang vocals, the insane amount of melody, the sexually charged level of fun, the bouncy rhythms and bass-lines, and most importantly the fact that the songs have so many layers to them that you get lost in the moment. The raw production makes me feel like I’m actually in 1974 every time I listen to it, and that was twenty-one years before I was even born. Something about the nature of this disc has the same feeling as a black and white TV show.
Record opener “Strutter” would become one of the album’s singles later on that year, and it remains a staple to the band at their live shows today. It’s a Paul Stanley fronted ditty that opens with an iconic drum beat, only to deliver a friendly sounding riff with catchy lyrics and a simple chorus that the band delivers together. There’s more fun than anything here. However the next track “Nothin’ To Lose” takes a different approach. It starts out with a meaner sound (remember, this is 1974) only to fall into some of the strongest melody on the disc, led by the one and only Gene Simmons. This is easily the most sexually charged song, and yes, it’s a song about anal sex. It includes an electric piano, yelled backing vocals by Peter Criss in the chorus, and is one of the bounciest tracks on the entire disc.
But as fun as the first two songs are, the next two strip everything down. “Firehouse” has a metal aesthetic to the rhythms. Ace Frehley fires away with strong lead breaks between Paul Stanley’s charismatic verses, and Gene’s additional vocal work in the chorus smooths everything out. Although the solo on this may be a simple one, it accomplishes everything that it needs to. “Cold Gin” was originally meant for Ace to sing since he wrote it, but he disliked how his singing sounded at the time. The bass lines here take a more thumping attack, backing the heavier guitar passages. The song is based around what cold gin can do to boost a man’s sex drive, and the music couldn’t match it any better. One of the grooviest licks on the album is near the end of this, utilizing ascending chord progressions and tapped notes before finishing with the chorus. Fun fact: Pantera and Skid Row would cover this tune while on tour together in 1992!
“Let Me Know” is unique because Simmons and Stanley split the vocal duties here evenly. The opening riff is a heavier but welcoming one, topped by Simmons carrying a beefy melody. Once Stanley steps in, he changes the entire vocal dynamic in a good way. Much like in “Cold Gin,” this has an outro that absolutely rips with a different level of energy than the rest of the song. Only difference is, they don’t bring back the chorus simply because there isn’t really a chorus here. This may be my favorite track on the disc. If you have the version with “Kissin’ Time” (which most probably do), then you’ll find that it’s just a harder version of the 1959 classic. The tempo is slowed down greatly and obviously lacks that 1950’s rock ‘n roll feel. Sorry, no saxophone solo, but you get a noodly guitar solo backed by some of Peter Criss’s tapping cymbals which eventually transition into him taking the forefront. If you haven’t heard the Bobby Rydell version, I recommend hearing these back to back.
I really hate to be that guy, but “Deuce” may be my least favorite song on this not because it’s overplayed, but because it simply has the least amount of the elements mentioned a few paragraphs ago. However, being the worst of the best is still good, so fear not. The rhythms are clearly the most focused part of this song, with some of Peter’s most forceful kicks behind the kit. In fact, this is the heaviest song on the album in general. “Love Theme From KISS” is an instrumental track that was actually shortened from a live staple originally titled “Acrobat.” You can get the full song on the KISS Box Set from 2001. It’s a mellow ditty carried by bent notes and staccato styles, offering a smooth delivery. Guitar harmonizing over bass licks is the name of the game.
Ah yes, the bassiest song on the album: “100,000 Years.” This heavy hitter rides on palm mutes and a passive-aggressive attitude. It also contains one of Peter Criss’s finest drum solos, which is embellished quite heavily on the first Alive! record. The way that the band combines heaviness and groove is showcased the best on this tune. Finally, “Black Diamond” features acoustic guitars to ease the listener in, topped with Paul’s reassuring voice. After that, the tone shifts to a far heavier output, with raspy vocals brought on by Peter to help establish the raw and gritty nature of this track. Hard, descending guitar chugs bring the disc to completion.
About a year later, KISS would break through with their smash stadium anthem “Rock And Roll All Nite” which was the next stepping stone. Performing this live as part of their Alive! double LP brought their success to new heights, and the live record also included many tracks from the debut record. The aggressive nature of that would then lead more people into the discovery of the first record, and the love for it only grew from there. Over time, metal got more aggressive, less safe, and while KISS never really followed those trends, this album is a friendly reminder of where that started. So many heavy metal acts can be traced back to this; along with many other bands of the time period of course. 1974 was an exponential year for heavy metal’s growth, and KISS was a huge part of it.
KISS came out on February 18th, 1974 through Casablanca. There are endless versions of KISS for sale; LPs, 8-tracks, tape cassettes, CDs, you name it. There are re-pressings and remasters in CD and vinyl formats; dozens of each kind out there. And of course, there’s the rare and valuable original version that excludes “Kissin’ Time.” As usual, all of these are available on Discogs; happy hunting!