Feature image courtesy of KISSopolis
By Andrew Daly
“I hope the four guys who make up the group, whose names don’t matter, are putting money away for the future. The near future, because KISS won’t be around long.”
That was the opening line from the now infamous review, which ran in The Seattle Daily Times on May 27th, 1974. What might have been initially perceived as a harbinger of things to come, became a proverbial jumping-off point for KISS, as well as fuel for a story of redemption through rock music, and heavy metal stardom. If there is any single band in the history of rock that has gone about polarizing fans, and critics alike, it’s the favorite sons of NYC, Ace Frehley, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss, and Gene Simmons.
The story of KISS is nearly fifty years strong, but it begins in the 70s. It’s a tale of four kids from NYC – a Starchild, a Spaceman, a Demon, and Catman – who only wanted to make it, and laid it all out on the line to chase a common dream.
In clubs and bars ranging from New Jersey to Long Island, KISS honed its craft leading up to the recording of its debut record, the fulfillment of a dream once never thought a possible reality, and in doing so, the journey of one of rock music’s most mythological bands had begun.
Love them, hate them, or envy them, the importance of KISS cannot be understated. As such, peeling back the onion, and taking an educated walk through the band’s history is always warranted, but for a band with twenty studio albums, that can be a dicey thing. Where to start?
For part one of my series reflecting on and ranking the albums of KISS, I’m starting from the very beginning with the band’s 1970s origins, meaning I’ve ranked KISS’ seven official studio albums released between 1973 and 1979. I’ve excluded the four solo records, as those are “KISS albums” in name only and have little to do with the actual band as a whole.
When it comes to KISS, there have been many attempts to rank their studio output, and this will be mine. As I’ve alluded to, the relevance and influence of the band cannot be overstated, so enjoy the journey through KISS Studio Albums Ranked Part One: The 70s.
7) Hotter Than Hell (1974)
An unintentional semi-psych freakout? Or the poster child for too many cooks in the kitchen production gone wrong?
Going into the sessions for Hotter than Hell, KISS was in a tough spot, but full-fledged panic had not yet set in. With that being said, it was made clear through Casablanca Records that KISS’ record sales needed to swing upward, and soon. KISS’ 1973 self-titled debut record came and went with little more than a murmur, and in its wake, music publications across the country were panning the group’s kabuki-style makeup, leather heels, and over-the-top stage show. More so, KISS was not a cheap band to keep on the road, and Casablanca’s bank account was reflecting that.
One of the biggest issues surrounding KISS’ debut was the perceived lack of punch the music achieved in the studio. And so, as KISS traveled to The Village Studios in L.A., the directive for its members, as well as producers/engineers Kenny Kerner, and Richie Wise was to harness KISS’ live sound. As the sessions in L.A. progressed, it became apparent that once again, the recordings were not as bombastic as hoped, and once Hotter Than Hell was laid to tape, and played back, disappointment began to set in.
In a 2013 interview with Songfacts, producer Richie Wise reflected on the subpar production of Hotter Than Hell in lamenting:
“For whatever reason, moving to California, my head wasn’t in the right place. It was more of a chore than it was out of love, that album. And my heart and soul didn’t get there. I don’t remember having any breathing time. It was just too much exhale. It wasn’t enough to inhale and exhale. Not enough give and take. I was going through a bunch of changes at that time. I moved from New York to California. I’d never moved like that in my life, made a big move. It was just a big time for me, and Hotter Than Hell took a back seat. And I apologize for that.”
In an effort to salvage things, Kerner and Wise scrambled to try and alter Hotter Than Hell’s production with relatively disastrous results, leaving the album sounding foggy, and murky. While Hotter Than Hell contains multitudes of KISS Klassics such as “Parasite,” “Comin’ Home,” “Watchin’ You,” “Got To Choose,” and more, the record’s production values can make it a tough listen for new fans. To me, Hotter Than Hell is an album for the diehards, but not one that the average fan will turn to. Instead, those fans will be better served to recount the more vibrant versions of these tracks featured on Alive!
6) Dressed to Kill (1975)
A brisk power-pop affair? Or rushed job bred through urgency and fear of failure?
Remember that cusp of trouble thing I mentioned earlier? Well, by the time the sessions for Dressed to Kill rolled around, both KISS and Casablanca Records had reached code red status. Both KISS and Hotter Than Hell were unmitigated failures, which had garnered nothing more than a small cult following in the band’s hometown of NYC, and small pockets within the Midwest. Outside of those areas, KISS was going nowhere, and fast. To further complicate matters, the band’s manager, and biggest cheerleader, Bill Aucoin, had completely maxed out all of his credit cards while funding the band’s efforts after Casablanca had run out of money to do so. To say things were dire was an understatement.
The first order of business for Casablanca’s label founder and president, Neil Bogart, was to ask Richie Wise and Kenny Kerner to step aside, with Bogert personally overseeing the sessions for Dressed to Kill, which were to take place at the famed Electric Lady Studios. Once again, Bogart’s directive was to harness KISS’ bombastic live energy. Listening back to the record, I can’t say that Bogart achieved his goal, but the production on the record certainly does better Hotter Than Hell.
To this end, in the 2005 biography, Behind The Mask, guitarist Ace Frehley reflected back on Dressed to Kill:
“I recently listened to that album again. I hadn’t listened to it in a long time, and I listened to the CD. There was a lot of energy on that record. I was real happy with a lot of the solos I did. It shows growth from the first record. [Laughs]. I’d probably give it four stars.”
In the same biography, frontman Paul Stanley went on to comment:
“I’d give Dressed to Kill three and a half stars. We were so worried with Dressed to Kill that it was so short. We really felt that here are the songs, and that’s enough.”
Tracks such as “Room Service,” “C’mon and Love Me,” “Love Her All I Can,” and “Rock and Roll All Night” found KISS a band energized, and probably playing for its life. In the wake of Dressed to Kill’s release, sales were better but still slow, and KISS was immediately told to get on the road and take its new music to the masses. This is an important moment in KISStory, as it was on this tour that KISS would record the shows that would eventually be documented on Alive!, the album that would save KISS.
So, while Dressed to Kill did not achieve its immediate goals, its spirit was carried out by the band onto the road, and it’s that spirit which would propel KISS forward. Looking back, Dressed to Kill is loaded with fun tracks, and it takes on an almost power-pop vibe, but the urgency definitely bled into the recordings, and overall, Dressed to Kill does come off a bit rushed.
5) Dynasty (1979)
An exercise in disco-tinged rock mastery? Or an insistance of malignant narcissism?
By the time 1979 rolled around, KISS was truly the “Hottest Band in the Land.” Their world-dominating success in the wake of Alive! had carried them through the remainder of the decade, with each successive studio release garnering more attention, and larger sales than the last. Still, all was not well in the land of KISS. Reportedly, guitarist Ace Frehley and Peter Criss’ erratic, hard-partying ways had worn the more buttoned-up Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley thin.
With relations at an all-time low, KISS made a puzzling decision to record separate solo records, but still, label them as “KISS records.” The idea was to save the band and keep Frehley and Criss from leaving, but in retrospect, all this did was further widen the rift permeating throughout KISS’ core.
In his 2014 autobiography Face The Music: A Life Exposed, the Starchild recounted a typical moment which reflected the state of the band around that time:
“During another argument, Gene snapped at Peter: ‘Peter, you’re an illiterate idiot who can’t read or even talk correctly and never finished school.’ ‘Yeah,’ said Peter, ‘and I’m in the same band as you.’ To this day, that remains the smartest thing I ever heard Peter say.”
In the wake of the solo album fiasco, a failed cult film, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, and its first greatest hits package, Double Platinum, KISS, and its management decided to come together once again, and record its first album of new material in two years. Relations between the members of KISS had simmered, but still, things were contentious, with drummer Peter Criss all but saying he wouldn’t show up at all unless his solo album’s producer, Vini Poncia, produced Dynasty. In the wake of the drummer’s demand, the trio of Stanley, Simmons, and Frehley relented, and the foursome then entered The Record Plant with Poncia in tow. Ironically, in relatively short order, things once again went sour for Criss, with his handpicked producer almost immediately deeming Criss unfit to meet his demanding standards.
In his 2012 autobiography, Makeup To Breakup: My Life In and Out of KISS, Criss recounted the situation:
“The guys were angry at me wanting Vini there. Paul immediately went to work on Vini. They started hanging out, Vini moved into Paul’s apartment, and Paul poisoned Vini against me. Before I knew it, I wasn’t playing drums on the album anymore.”
However, in a 2014 interview, Ace Frehley had a different take on the sessions and Poncia’s influence:
“Everybody wanted to get as many songs as they could, everybody wants to shine for the fans. But pretty much the producer has the final say, usually. It’s the ones with the best songs and the best performances that get on the record.”
With the stage set for disaster, KISS forged forward and at Ace Frehley’s recommendation, the band enlisted drummer Anton Fig to take Criss’ place in the studio, leaving Criss to only feature on his own track, “Dirty Livin.'” Looking back, even with the tensions, infighting, and general malignant mindset the band found itself in, Dynasty remains an enduring classic, albeit with a different sort of flavor. Dynasty immediately galvanized fans upon its release with its lead singles “I Was Made For Loving You,” and “Sure Know Something” boasting slicked-down, disco-laden production. The result was another platinum album, and one of KISS’ biggest hits, with another huge tour to follow, but the damage was done. Not only had KISS alienated its drummer further by relegating him, but Dynasty’s poppier stylings had also ruffled the feathers of forever rocker, Ace Frehley.
In KISS: Behind The Mask, bassist Gene Simmons gave his assessment of Dynasty:
“I think we lost the sense of what we were about. It was a guitar band and all of a sudden synthesizers started to appear. We thought that it wasn’t enough to be just a rock ‘n’ roll band, which is a big mistake actually.”
I’ve heard some publications quip that Dynasty is “where the wheels came off for KISS,” and I suppose there is a case to made for that. Still, the fact remains that while it may have (at the time) alienated some of the band’s hard rock fanbase, it also garnered an entirely new fanbase, one which opened the band up to the masses in an explosive fashion. Sure, you could deride KISS for “going disco,” but that’s not a venture they were alone in undertaking, and to this day, “I Was Made For Loving You” is a concert staple, and fan favorite. For me, Dynasty is a classic album, and one of KISS’ best. It has a sad backstory, and the accompanying tour saw to it that Peter Criss’ time in the band would be coming to an end, but this is an album that has aged well, and with tracks such as “Save Your Love,” “Hard Times,” and “2,000 Man,” Dynasty also serves as Ace Frehley’s official coming-out party.
4) Destroyer (1976)
A career-defining triumph? Or an overrated coattail rider?
Over the years, the legend surrounding Destroyer has grown to near-mythical proportions, but for me, as a diehard, lifelong fan of the band, I still am not entirely understanding as to why. Sure, Destroyer contains a ton of KISS Klassics such as “Detroit Rock City,” “God of Thunder,” “Shout It Out Loud,” and more. And while producer Bob Ezrin’s production and influence are revered, once again, I don’t entirely see it.
Don’t get me wrong, Destroyer is a great album, and it’s loaded with wonderful, career-defining songs, but it’s important to remember that Destroyer came out in the wake of Alive!, an album which put KISS on the map, no exceptions. Simply put, if Alive! never happens, that is to say, if Alive! doesn’t succeed, Destroyer probably wouldn’t have happened, and even if it did, no one would have cared. We can opine all day about how Destroyer came to break open KISS, but in reality, what Destroyer really did was ride the coattails of Alive!, swept up, and allowed to careen toward the shore via wave that was already cresting.
Now, that’s not to say Destroyer isn’t great, but context is everything, and in my opinion, the Alive! factor is one which is often, if not always overlooked when recounting Destroyer’s legacy, and its narrative. Going into the sessions though, despite the success of Alive!, KISS still had not found success as a studio act.
In a 2016 piece for Rolling Stone Magazine, Paul Stanley recounted the headspace KISS and its management were in at the time:
“We had done three albums, all that sold far less than what we expected. Then our manager, Bill Aucoin, gave us the idea of creating a sonic souvenir, almost like something you would bring home from the circus, a memento that captured what you had experienced. That became Alive! Finally, we’d had a hit. Bill said, ‘You could easily go back to where you were if we don’t come up with something that really ups the ante.’ He suggested we work with Bob Ezrin.”
Looking back, fans and the band alike love Destroyer, and I do too, but for me, there are issues. I personally don’t like that Ezrin reworked the songs to his liking, and skewed KISS toward an Alice Cooper level of cinema set to music. Yes, KISS is a “cinematic band,” but not in the way Bob Ezrin tried to portray them. Ezrin’s control-freak nature and ever-escalating drug issues led the producer to discount his musicians, and for me, this degrades the integrity of the record. When I listen back, I can’t help but wonder, “Am I hearing KISS play its songs, or is this KISS simply playing what Bob Ezrin told them to play?”
To that end, in the same 2016 Rolling Stone Magazine piece, Frehley reflected:
“I’ve got to give Bob Ezrin credit where credit’s due. He was the one that came up with the solos that me and Paul played. He sang them to us note-for-note, and we figured it out on guitar. And I think they’re genius, but we didn’t exactly come up with them.”
At the end of the day, like most fans, I do love Destroyer, but it’s not KISS’ best record. More so, Bob Ezrin’s influence was allowed to run rampant, and that softens Destroyer’s impact and appeal to me. I don’t care for his overly cinematic approach, and I could do without the sound effects. Yes, Destroyer was a hit, but no, I don’t believe it would have hit at all if not for Alive!, and no, Bob Ezrin did not capture the live KISS sound. Lastly, despite the success of Destroyer, I do believe there is a reason why KISS did not bring Ezrin back for the 70s records which followed.
3) Rock and Roll Over (1976)
Total live bombast finally captured? Or KISS’ most childish record?
After the cinematic detour KISS took with Bob Ezrin, which admittedly rendered wonderful if not mixed results, continued commercial success, and for the first time, overly pompous critical fanfare, KISS came off the road from the Destroyer Tour and decided to hit the studio once again. To this point, despite Destroyer’s success, no one KISS studio outing had successfully captured the band’s explosive live bombast. It was with this in mind, as well as the success of Alive!, that the KISS camp decided to call on Alive! engineer Eddie Kramer to finally reign in the KISS live sound in the studio setting.
In Behind The Mask, bassist Gene Simmons recounted KISS’ mindset going into the sessions for Rock and Roll Over:
“We wouldn’t have done another album like Destroyer. We had gone through our Bob Ezrin phase. Ace and Peter, in particular, kept saying we shouldn’t be doing that kind of music, we should be more of a rock ‘n’ roll band.”
Recorded in only two months, KISS stripped itself back to basics, alleviating itself of the stress emboldened by Bob Ezin, and allowing Kramer to work his magic. Kramer’s approach was simple: KISS was a band with live bombast, but to date had been watered down in the studio, so Kramer set out to record Rock and Roll Over live, albeit with no audience, in an empty Star Theater, in Nanuet, New York. Taking things one step further, Kramer had Peter Criss set up his drums in the bathroom, to garner a sound that would be like no other featured on a KISS record to date.
Further peeling back the onion on the sessions, in his 2012 autobiography, No Regrets, guitarist Ace Frehley had this to say:
“Thanks to the return of Eddie Kramer, my favorite producer, and engineer, Rock and Roll Over was a more enjoyable experience than Destroyer had been. Eddie’s back-to-basics style really helped to placate some of the fans who were angered by the studio gimmicks featured on Destroyer.”
For those concerned that moving away from Ezrin was a mistake, the proof was in the pudding, and Rock and Roll Over peaked at number eleven on the Billboard Charts, with another Criss sung, but Stanley penned track, “Hard Luck Woman” proving to be a hit. Ironically, “Hard Luck Woman” almost was never a KISS track at all, as Stanley had apparently penned the track for Rod Stewart. In the eleventh hour, Criss got a hold of the track and demanded that he sing it, ultimately catapulting the track to top-twenty success.
While Rock and Roll Over proved KISS were far from one-hit wonders, and further success followed, not all of the band’s members were so sure of the direction, with Stanley commenting in Behind The Mask:
“We wanted to retain some of the stuff that Bob had taught us, but more raw. When Destroyer was met with kind of a quizzical response from people our first thought was, ‘Let’s go back in on the next album to what’s more familiar,’ which is chicken – and a matter of self-preservation. I like Rock and Roll Over very much. It’s a great album. I just think it’s so unfortunate that the recordings are so marginal. I was constantly disappointed with what those albums ended up sounding like. I wanted them to sound as good as a Zeppelin album. There’s no reason we shouldn’t have sounded ballpark to some of the heaviest bands out there.”
For me, Rock and Roll Over is absolutely one of KISS’ best records. It’s easily in their top five. While the early signs of dissension which would lead to the eventual fracture were present, the track listing is crushing with “Calling Dr. Love,” “I Want You,” “Makin’ Love,” and “Ladies Room” representing some of KISS’ greatest moments. For Eddie Kramer, he can not only boast engineering KISS’ finest hour in Alive!, but he can also lay claim to finally harnessing one of rock music’s most legendary live bands in the studio setting. His production, recording techniques, and ability to sit back, and allow the musicians to do what they do best cannot be understated or discounted. KISS has a lot of wonderful records, and to this day, Rock and Roll Over holds firm as some seriously heavy-weight rock ‘n’ roll.
2) KISS (1974)
A glam-rock masterstroke? Or a complete, and utter failure to launch?
The placement of KISS’ self-titled debut might surprise some, but I feel it’s fully justified for inclusion as a top-tier KISS record. The long-running narrative surrounding KISS is that the production is awful, the pacing is a bit slow, and it failed to achieve its goal: show the world what KISS could do by bottling up their explosive live sound, and unleashing it to tape in the studio.
So, if you ask me if they achieved that goal, I’d have to agree that they did not. Still, looking at KISS from another angle, and seeing the record as one of the most important records in glam rock history, suddenly the narrative changes. What if we simply looked at KISS for what it is, a debut record by a young band who was trying to find its sound.
“I thought the first album sounded pretty crummy. I was never a fan of the first three albums, sonically. You know, we were bombastic – this band live was thunder. On the albums, it sounded a bit rinky-dink to me. I didn’t know how to make it sound better. I knew it wasn’t the way we sounded. To that end, you have to remember that it wasn’t until Alive! that the band broke. People would come to see us live and love what they saw, then you’d put the album on and go, ‘That doesn’t sound like the band I saw.’”
While I respect Stanley’s position, I will also respectfully disagree. Now, I’m not going to go as far as to say that KISS full harness the KISS live experience – it didn’t. But, of the first three records, and perhaps even the first four KISS studio records, I do feel that KISS did the best job of capturing that energy, while still ultimately failing to fully do so. More so, tracks such as “Deuce,” “Cold Gin,” “100,000 Years,” “Black Diamond,” “Strutter,” “Firehouse,” and “Nothin’ To Loose,” are hands down some of KISS’ best tracks – no exceptions. Simply put, there is a reason that most of, if not all of these tracks have consistently littered KISS’ setlists in all eras, for nearly fifty years – they’re that good.
In the same 2021 interview with Sirus XM Radio, Stanley continued on with his thoughts while recording KISS’ debut:
“Honestly, I was kind of like, ‘This is awesome – how could I not be excited?’ But the cover – which is iconic at this point – I never saw it until it was printed. We were not in a position as a new band to call the shots. We had to kind of earn that right. I remember looking at the cover and going, ‘Not what I had in mind.’ And the sound of the album, ‘Not what I had in mind.’ You gotta start somewhere – and to have songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” “Black Diamond,” “Firehouse,” it was great. Did it sound the way I wanted it to sound? No. But it was a KISS album.
Supposed production issues aside, KISS is a stone-cold classic. It’s not only deeply important to the legacy of KISS as a band, but it’s also critically important to the perpetuity of the hard rock, and glam rock genres. Its influence on all bands that came after is undeniable. For generations to come, young guitarists will forever be imitating Ace Frehley’s licks, and would-be singers will be endlessly posturing in their bedroom mirrors, imitating Paul Stanley.
1) Love Gun (1977)
KISS’ finest hour? Or the beginning of the end?
For those thinking I might deviate into some sort of bizarre territory with my number one pick for KISS’ 70s records, you’d be wrong. Sure, some fans will cry out because Destroyer isn’t topping this list, but for me, Love Gun serves as the be-all, end-all of KISS’ 70s studio output. Seriously, when it comes to production, songwriting, overall quality of songs, and the bands’ performances, KISS was never better in its flagship decade. Furthermore, there’s an argument to be made that when it comes to Love Gun, we’re dealing with KISS’ greatest album, in general, and some seriously rarified air.
In the albums title track, we see what is perhaps KISS’ most iconic, if not defining song (sorry “Rock and Roll All Night”), and the album is also significant as it features Ace Frehley’s first turn as a lead vocalist with “Shock Me,” a track that also contains one of the most memorable, and iconic guitar solos in all of rock history.
In the singers’ autobiography, Face The Music: A Life Exposed, Paul Stanley had this to say regarding Love Gun’s title track:
“I was dating Georganne LaPiere and had been hanging out in LA. At the end of the time in L.A., I flew to New York, and the song “Love Gun” came to me in its entirety on the flight—melody, lyrics, all the instrument parts—absolutely complete. It was amazing – and rare for me. It’s funny though, I stole the idea of a “love gun” from Albert King’s version of “The Hunter,” which Zeppelin also nicked from for “How Many More Times” on their first album. By the time the plane landed, I was ready to record a demo.”
After the across the board success of Rock and Roll Over, KISS once again turned to Eddie Kramer for production duties on Love Gun, and while at The Record Plant, more or less, the sessions went smoothly, with little to no issues until the recording for the albums title track began, where KISS’s drummer Peter Criss, despite nailing the demo, had trouble laying down the kick drums for the track.
Stanley would comment in his autobiography on Criss’ issues during the recording of “Love Gun” in saying:
“The funny thing about “Love Gun” was that even though the album version was recorded as a facsimile of the demo, when we went to cut the album version, Peter couldn’t play the kick drum pattern on the song. Once Peter cut the track, we had to bring in another drummer to play the extra kick drum beats Peter couldn’t.”
Those small troubles aside, Love Gun went off without a hitch, and in the summer of 1977, KISS unleashed what may well be its best record, at the absolute height of its 1970s heyday. The accompanying tour, which manifested Alive II, was world-spanning and overtly dominating on any and all levels. On the strength of its strongest record, alongside “Love Gun,” KISS careened through tracks such as “Hooligan,” “Shock Me,” “I Stole Your Love,” “Christine Sixteen,” and more in the live setting.
In the KISS biography, Behind The Mask, Stanley gave his overarching thoughts on Love Gun:
“I had fun making Love Gun because I was feeling my oats. I had a very clear vision of what I wanted to do and in some ways what KISS was going to do. I’d give that four-and-a-half, five stars. I’m proud of the record.”
For me, and probably for most fans, Love Gun is a touch bittersweet for many reasons. Looking back, the record is easily one of KISS’ best, in league with the likes of Creatures of the Night, Revenge, and Lick It Up, and as far as the 70s go – nothing betters it (sorry Destroyer supporters). The album reads as bittersweet because even though it serves as the first official KISS outing to feature all four members on vocals, it also serves as the last KISS record to feature all four original members (presumably) on the entirely of the record. Dynasty, Unmasked, and Psycho Circus all claimed to, but history dictates that not to be the case.
Ultimately, Love Gun served as the end of an era for KISS, an album which nearly saw the KISS empire rot from the inside out, and subsequently, come crashing down. When it comes down to it though, any and all issues aside, Love Gun, is an epic KISS album, hell it’s an epic rock album, in general. Its track listing is explosive from start to finish, even the cover “Then She Kissed Me,” the uber underrated “Tomorrow and Tonight,” and seething Simmons oddball, “Almost Human.” Trying to undermine, degrade, or downplay Love Gun is useless, the album smokes, and when it comes to the 1970s, KISS never bettered it. For me, it’s simple – Love Gun is peak KISS. Nothing short. Nothing less.
Stay tuned for part two of this journey, where I tackle KISS’ 1980s output next.