Written By: Kostya Kennedy
Conversations about KISS tend to revolve around the band’s extraordinary appearance and extravagant showmanship. Their “sexified Kabuki makeup. [Their] black and silver warrior bondage gear and seven-inch platform heels,” as Tom Morello put it in his 2014 speech inducting KISS into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. At a live performance, Morello pointed out, you might experience, “the place blowing up with explosions, screeching with sirens . . . bare knuckled and bad ass.” KISS elevates off the stage on glowing platforms. Gene spits flames. Paul flies over the crowd. Comic book superheroes come to life. Rock and roll has rarely known such giddy gall.
Nearly from the start, those industry-lifting shows were so outsized, so audacious, that you didn’t even have to be there to feel them. The live albums—KISS Alive!, released in 1975, and KISS Alive II, released two years later—could set your house afire. Wait, was that the sound of a rocket ship going off? A race car?
I first heard Alive II several years after it came out. I’d just come home from school, and I was in my bedroom. I had a small plate of Chips Ahoy! cookies and a glass of milk on the bookcase.
Alive II is a double album. I slid the first record out of its sleeve, put it on the turntable, and set down the needle. Then I stepped back and took a cookie off the plate. I was 11 years old. I had heard about and seen images of KISS—they were on lunch boxes—but I had no idea what to expect.
First the crowd noise. Then: “You wanted the best, and you got the best! The hottest band in the world, KIIISSS!” That went straight into the Gatling-gun opening riff of “Detroit Rock City,” then the drumroll, the big one-two entry chords, and Ace Frehley’s massive guitar slide. My eyes went as wide as the record itself. I put my hand over my mouth and I closed the door to my room. Was it even safe to be listening to something like this? I suddenly had a secret: That this existed! That this was KISS! A brave new world with such creatures in it. I didn’t know if anyone else should find out.
Alive II (like Alive!, as I would later discover) felt completely unbound and joyous. Urgent. There’s the moment when Paul Stanley, unable to contain himself in announcing the song, belts into the crowd: “All right! ‘Love Gun!’ ” Or during “God of Thunder,” when the drum solo closes with three momentous gongs, sounding the tocsin as it were, and Paul yells, “Peter Criss on the drums!” and the verse picks up immediately with Gene, the God of Thunder himself, singing in his guttural snarl: “I’m the lord of the wastelands, a modern-day man of steel.” Comic book hero indeed. In producing their live albums, KISS went into the studio to overdub and rework the tracks for maximum effect—and that is precisely the effect they had.
For professional musicians the moment of being felled by KISS can be unambiguous. When I asked the guitarist Glenn Sherman why he loves KISS, he answered: “ ‘Deuce’: Listen to the F-chord played in the first chorus under the line ‘You know your man is working hard.’ The most perfect power chord I’ve ever heard.” Sherman is referring specifically to the version of ‘Deuce’ on Alive!, the first song on the album that changed everything for KISS, when the notion of their global success went from improbable to inevitable.
The Hall of Fame induction was criminally overdue. That’s almost certainly because in the glare of KISS’s style, the substance of the music itself—those driving, unadorned, scrappy, gorgeous songs upon which the entire priapic colossus of the band is built—gets overlooked. “Here’s a statement only a fool would contradict: There’s never been a band inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame whose output has been critically contemplated less than the music of KISS,” Chuck Klosterman wrote in Grantland. “I’d guess 50 percent of the voters who put KISS on their Rock Hall ballot have not listened to any five KISS records more than five times; part of what makes the band so culturally durable is the assumption that you can know everything about their aesthetic without consuming any of it.”
KISS has produced 30 gold records, more than any American rock band ever. Destroyer, Rock and Roll Over, and Love Gun all went multiplatinum. KISS’s songs were what led record executives to bet on the band in the first place. (Early on, their distributor, Warner Bros., liked the music but wanted KISS to ditch the makeup.) Morello in his induction speech reeled off a list of about a dozen Grammy-Award winners who drew from KISS: Metallica, Lady Gaga, Pearl Jam, Foo Fighters . . . on and on.
The 1994 album Kiss My Ass, a compilation of KISS songs covered by musicians who’ve openly declared a debt, includes recordings by Lenny Kravitz and Stevie Wonder, the American Symphony Orchestra, Yoshiki, Anthrax, and the Gin Blossoms. That Garth Brooks sings “Hard Luck Woman”—a KISS ballad with a cowboy swing—seemed the obvious fit for the country megastar, but it was not the song that Brooks initially had in mind. “It’s gotta be ‘Detroit Rock City,’ ” he said when asked what he wanted to play. (Alas, the Mighty Mighty Bosstones had claimed “Detroit” first.) Nirvana wasn’t on Kiss My Ass, but in 1989 they recorded a cover of KISS’s “Do You Love Me?”
Even now teenagers across the country—oblivious to KISS concepts of the Demon, the Starchild, the Spaceman, or the Cat—might bop around in their air pods singing “I Was Made For Lovin’ You,” the disco-era song reborn in TikTok compilations more than four decades after it broke as the lead single off KISS’s Dynasty album.
KISS wouldn’t have been the global force it became without the voluminous shtick. But the band wouldn’t have been anything at all, of course, without the music. If KISS’s principals were inspired by the Beatles, you can just as easily trace the band’s beginnings further back to the primordial soup of rock and roll, those fertile muddy waters that eventually enabled KISS to evolve into a species all its own. The hardest thing to do in rock and roll, in anything, is to be original. Fifty years after their debut album there has never been another band like KISS.
Here are some photos from LIFE’s new special edition on KISS: