All images courtesy of Getty Images/KISSonline.com
I have been a fan of the band KISS ever since my friend Andrew popped his dad’s copy of Love Gun into his cassette deck. In middle school, my fandom turned into a full-blown obsession. I even did a report on Gene Simmons for Hebrew school (much to the dismay of my teacher).
KISS and music in general were my escape from the outside world. I was the living embodiment of the song “In the Garage” by Weezer. I would hang out in my garage listening to CDs on my boombox (mostly KISS) with or without my best friend Andrew. We would try to play the drums along to KISS songs and make our own “concerts” to play along to. When we were not playing drums, we would read our Mad Magazines and comics or make “top lists.” The lists usually involved music, and more specifically usually involved KISS. For example, we would make a list of our top-5 favorite KISS albums or top-10 KISS songs sung by Paul Stanley. Then we would compare said lists.
This week, I decided I would make my own version of these “top lists” for my article here at Vinyl Writer. The list will have my 10 most underrated KISS songs.
“Strange Ways” from Hotter Than Hell (1974)
In 1974, KISS released Hotter than Hell. It was darker, grimier, and rawer than their first offering. The tracklist is loaded with KISS classics such as “Parasite,” “Let Me Go Rock ‘N’ Roll,” “Hotter Than Hell,” “Got to Choose,” and “Watchin’ You” to name a few. All of the previously mentioned tracks were featured on their breakthrough album, Alive!. Those same songs also became a prominent part of their live sets. A song that KISS never featured and deserves more love is “Strange Ways.” In my opinion, “Strange Ways” embodies the sound of Hotter Than Hell from its heavy Black Sabbath-like riff to Peter Criss’s masterfully psychedelic vocals. To top it all off, Ace Frehley delivers a scorching solo full of distortion and reverb. It later became a staple of Ace’s live shows and should become a staple in your KISS listening rotation.
“Mr. Speed” from Rock And Roll Over (1976)
When KISS were kings of Rock in the mid-70s, they released two albums in one year, the latter of which was Rock And Roll Over. The album has tons of well-known classics such as “Dr. Love,” “Makin’ Love,” “I Want You,” and “Hard Luck Woman.” One commonly overlooked tune that needs more recognition is “Mr. Speed.” Now “Mr. Speed” is a fun, infectiously catchy song. What always stood out to me about it was Paul Stanley’s vocals. Paul had started to become known for his theatrical, and over-the-top vocal performances. On “Mr. Speed,” he delivered a more matter-of-fact, low-down Rock performance that reminded me of a lot of the tracks on Dressed to Kill. The harmonies on the words “me,” and “cry” at the end of the two verses just seal the deal.
“Save Your Love” from Dynasty (1979)
By 1979, KISS seemed to be coming apart at the seams, and yet they forged on to make the killer album Dynasty. Dynasty is best known for its Disco-Rock singles “Sure Know Something” and “I Was Made For Loving You.” However, Ace, hot off the success of his amazing solo album, Ace Frehley, delivered 3 dynamite tracks. Considering the state of the band, Ace played all the guitars on his tracks himself separately. The only other musician on these tracks was his friend, and drummer, Anton Fig (he was also the drummer on Ace’s solo album, and all the tracks on Dynasty except for “Dirty Living”). Ace’s cover of “2000 Man” became a minor hit, with both “2000 Man” and “Hard Times” going on to become staples of Ace’s live shows over the years as well. Yet, everyone seems to have neglected the last track on the album, and isn’t the best always saved for last? The track is “Save Your Love,” a classic breakup song. Ace delivers the simple but effective vocals with as much attitude as he could muster. The rest of the band provides flawless background vocals accentuated by Fig pounding relentlessly on his snare. Let us not forget the perfectly timed, flamboyant, “Save your loooooovoove’s” by Paul at the end of the song. As with any other song written by the Spaceman, it has a fun riff and scorching hot guitar solo. Next time you’re in the mood for some Dynasty, skip to the end. You won’t regret it.
“Mr. Blackell” from Music From “The Elder” (1981)
In 1981, KISS was struggling commercially, and they were on the cusp of some big changes. It was at this point that they recorded the album Music From “The Elder.” Peter Criss had finally been officially replaced by Eric Carr. Ace Frehley had all but left the band, recording his parts separately in his private studio. KISS felt like they needed to get themselves back in the spotlight, so they had to do something bold musically. They decided to make a concept album that told a story of a young man being trained by a secret society (the order of the rose) for greatness. The album used choirs and orchestras, sounding nothing like anything KISS had put out in the past. The album was supposed to pair with a movie based on the concept of the album. The movie was never made. Furthermore, to make the album more accessible, the order of the tracks was changed to promote the singles, and much of the dialogue of the story was cut. What resulted was a confusing and incoherent story. Fans were puzzled with this artsy Prog-Rock album and it ended up being one of two KISS studio albums (including Carnival of Souls) not to be promoted with a tour. With all that being said, a lot of discounted gems can be found on Music From “The Elder.” One such gem is “Mr. Blackwell.” With this song, Gene tells us of the apparent villain in the story, Mr. Blackwell. “Mr. Blackwell” is a classic Simmons song and probably the heaviest song on the entire album. What always struck me as interesting was that there is no lead/rhythm guitar during the verses, instead, the bass carries the tune. The evil-sounding bassline carrying the verses really helps to deliver the degree of Mr. Blackwell’s evilness. Do yourself a favor immerse yourself in the delightful sinfulness of “Mr. Blackwell.”
“Down On Your Knees” from Killers (1982)
Coming out during the same transitional period as Music From “The Elder,” the non-US compilation, Killers, was also released. Four new original songs were recorded for this album. The four original songs again featured the new drummer Eric Carr as well as session musician Bob Kulick (who also played on several songs on side D of Alive II). The four new songs were singles, none of them charted, and none of them were ever featured in their live shows. The songs were quickly gone from people’s minds. All four songs are underrated but if I had to pick one it would be “Down on Your Knees.” For me, “Down on Your Knees” was a return to the Klassic-KISS sound, and subject matter. It could have easily been on Rock And Roll Over. The major difference in sound is Bob Kulick shredding the killer riff instead of Ace. They asked him to play his own style for the Killers tracks which was not the case during his Alive II session work, where they asked him to imitate Frehley. I felt that Bob shined the most on this tune, and it is a big reason why I love it. Just in case that doesn’t intrigue you enough, Bryan Adams (yes, that Bryan Adams) co-wrote the song with Paul Stanley.
“Rock ‘N’ Roll Hell” from Creatures Of The Night (1982)
Following up on Music From “The Elder” and Killers, KISS recorded Creatures of the Night. KISS had been experimenting with different sounds on Dynasty, Unmasked, and Music From the Elder but Creatures of the Night was a return to a Hard Rock, dare I say Heavy Metal sound. It may be the hardest album they ever recorded during the makeup era. Although Ace Frehley was depicted on the cover, he had parted ways with the band by this point. Vinnie Vincent had taken over at guitar and made a splash in a big way. His heavy and flashy style gave KISS a new sound they did not have with Frehley. The songs Gene helped to write and sing on this album were always my favorite. Tracks such as “War Machine,” and “I Love It Loud” have got major recognition, now being live show staples. However, I always felt the rest of Simmons’ songs on the album were overlooked. Of those overlooked songs, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Hell,” is my favorite. Hell, it might be my favorite song on the album, and one of my favorite KISS songs period. The thing that probably stands out most about it as a KISS song is the subject matter. I am not delusional, I know most KISS songs are about sex, drugs, and how epic the Rock lifestyle is but “Rock ‘N’ Roll Hell” is different. It is about working hard to become a Rock Star only to discover it’s not as great as it seems (at least that what I always thought). In case you were wondering, Bryan Adams also co-wrote this song with Gene (I swear it is a coincidence).
“Turn On The Night” from Crazy Nights (1987)
In 1987, KISS released Crazy Nights, probably the most Pop oriented album of the non-makeup era. Many casual fans would probably be hard-pressed to name a song besides the title track. It was the only successful single on the album and was the only song from the album that was ever consistently played in live shows. In fact, the only album less represented in live shows is the previously mentioned Music From “The Elder.” One reason for a big change in sound on this album is that Simmons had extraordinarily little to do with its making. He was exploring other interests, and by all reports was rather disinterested with KISS. Most of the songs were written by Paul with help from then-current guitarist, Bruce Kulick, as well as various outside writers. Honestly, “Turn on the Night” is simply a song that I always find myself coming back to. What is interesting is Diane Warwick co-wrote this song, early in her career, before she was well known. The song is vintage 80s Hair Metal at its best, and I always loved the guitar sound Bruce achieved during this song.
“Thou Shall Not” from Revenge (1992)
The last two albums KISS released during the non-make-up era were probably the heaviest albums they ever came out with period. The only one that might come close is the previously mentioned, Creatures of the Night. With Revenge, KISS again worked with Bob Ezrin (KISS had last worked with him on Music From “The Elder“), and this was the first album with new drummer, Eric Singer. After Ace left the band, it always seemed as if there was an agreement between Paul and Gene. The agreement was Paul would deliver the radio-friendly hits while Gene would cook up some hard-rocking songs for the fans, which gave them some Metal cred. I always enjoyed the balance in the back and forth of those albums. For every “Heaven’s on Fire,” or “Forever” there was a “Burn Bitch Burn,” or “Boomerang.” That is why on an album like Revenge, Gene’s skills really shine through. A handful of songs were featured on Alive III and were used modestly in their live shows since. One song that never gets enough love is “Thou Shalt Not.” For me, “Thou Shalt Not” is easily as hard, and as well written as “Unholy.” However, for some reason, it does not seem to get the same recognition.
“Rain” from Carnival Of Souls (1997)
A few years after the release of Revenge, KISS decided to record an MTV Unplugged concert where they were joined on stage by original members, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss. This led to KISS putting back on the makeup and doing a Reunion Tour with the original members. Before the reunion was definitive, KISS recorded another album with the Revenge era lineup called Carnival of Souls. When the reunion happened, they decided not to release the album. Luckily for us, the KISS Army had gotten word of the album, and bootlegs began to surface. Apparently, KISS fans liked what they were hearing which lead to an official release. Carnival of Souls is as heavy as KISS has gotten before or since, and is one of their most consistent efforts. From what I gather, Bruce Kulick was heavily involved, racking up a ton of songwriting credits, and even singing a song on the album. As this album was essentially an afterthought for the band, filled with great tracks, I could have picked any song off the album, to be honest. However, I chose my personal favorite, “Rain.” Why? Because it has one of my favorite riffs in a KISS song period, and I love the introspective lyrics.
“We Are One” from Psycho Circus (1998)
Psycho Circus was the only studio album released by the original lineup after their reunion (although apparently Ace and Peter were used sparingly as musicians). The album was with the original members (but not during the “classic era”), and the band (especially Paul Stanley) fosters an apparent lack of fondness for the album. KISS and fans alike neglect many tracks on the album because of the previously mentioned points. One of these sadly ignored tracks is “We Are One.” As mentioned earlier, Gene is usually depended upon to bring the heavier, in-your-face songs to the album. In contrast, “We Are One” is a gentle power ballad filled with vocal harmonies. While Gene has shown his softer side before (“A World Without Heroes,” and “Great Expectations”), “We Are One” was the first to stand out to me.
Thanks for taking this journey with me as I moved my way through my top-ten underrated KISS songs. KISS has always been a polarizing band that people either loved or hated. Even if you are not the biggest fan, there is one message I want you to take away from this article: Go back to those seldom listen to tracks, by the artist you love, and give them a listen. You might discover a new favorite song and start making your personal “top lists.”
Dig this article? Check out the full archives of Mix-Tapes & Memories, by Joe O’Brien, here: https://vwmusicrocks.com/mix-tapes-memories-archives/