Throughout the mid- to late 1970s, disco powerhouse Casablanca engaged in a lucrative experiment to see how much KISS they could shove down the KISS Army’s throat before they rebelled. KISS toured constantly and cranked out albums at a feverish clip. 1976 saw the release of two platinum-selling studio albums, Destroyer and Rock And Roll Over. The following year a triumphant KISS followed the studio album Love Gun with the live album Alive II and launched its own Marvel comic book, as part of a merchandising and marketing empire that is going strong today, and includes everything from KISS coffins to a Los Angeles-area arena football team.
In 1978, KISS cranked out a greatest hits album in Double Platinum, made an ill-fated foray into the world of television film in the famously disastrous KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park. Then, in a fit of insane hubris remarkable even for the disco era, Casablanca decided to release four KISS solo albums on the same momentous day.
With cocaine-fueled bravado, Casablanca assumed that these solo endeavors would all be huge smashes. The wildly overconfident label shipped more than 4 million albums to stores, meaning that technically speaking, they were all platinum records before a single album was sold. It turned out, however, that the public hadn’t been salivating wildly for a chance to see what the weirdo in the kitty cat makeup who played the drums adequately would sound like without the rest of KISS bringing him down.
The four solo albums were a huge flop. Bassist Gene Simmons’ solo album charted the highest, peaking at an exceedingly modest 22, and despite the hurricane of hype that surrounded this failed experiment, the albums struggled to sell half of their initial shipment. They became cut-out kings, sad little orphans shipped back to Casablanca in great volumes, untouched, unplayed, and unloved.
The four KISS solo albums were a resounding critical and commercial failure that nevertheless scored a single lasting success. The only hit song in the four albums came not from co-leaders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley but from the group’s famously insane, exquisitely irresponsible lead guitarist, Ace Frehley, who reached No. 13 on the charts with “New York Groove.”
“New York Groove” isn’t just a good song. It’s a fucking great song on par with anything KISS recorded as a group. It’s a goddamned New York anthem, and when you record a song that perfectly captures a city, that song takes on a life of its own. It becomes timeless, eternal, something that is referenced, recycled, and exploited endlessly in movies, television shows, and commercials.
With its pounding drums, Bo Diddley-gone-glam guitar line, and swaggeringly theatrical, effeminate talk-sung vocals, “New York Groove” wasn’t just the only hit song to emerge from this spectacularly failed experiment: It’s one for the ages. It reigns as a New York anthem every bit as irresistible and enduring as “New York, New York” or “Empire State Of Mind.”
“New York Groove” is so good, and so confident, that it almost feels like the work of a different artist than the guy grinding his way through enough songs to fulfill his commercial obligations. In a way, that’s true. “New York Groove” is a cover of a song by the glam group Hello written by Russ Ballard, so it’s understandable why it would be infinitely better written than anything else on the album.
Frehley was KISS’ irresponsible space cadet in part due to his love of drugs, most notably cocaine. These dalliances with the white lady inform some of the album’s most personal, asinine lyrics, like when Frehley groans on “Ozone,” “I’m the kind of guy who likes feeling high / Feelin’ high and dry / And I really like to fly!” Nobody expects profundity from KISS. Hell, the lyrics don’t even have to be good to work; they just need to be good enough, and Ace Frehley falls far short of that standard.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that other than “New York Groove,” the album’s most memorable track is “Fractured Mirror,” a moody, spaced-out instrumental that ends the album on a note at once epic and intimate. The song is a testament to Frehley’s chops as a guitarist, and it has a scope and ambition that exceeds the Neanderthal bar-rock bluntness of the rest of the album.
KISS was four strange, strong personalities initially (after which it became Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley and two dudes who better shut the fuck up and play what they’re told unless they want to get the boot), but it quickly fell into two camps. Stanley and Simmons were the owners: pragmatic, practical minded Jewish businessmen with a very un-rock-star-like propensity for sobriety. Frehley and drummer Peter Criss were the drugged up, sex-crazed, and disgruntled soon-to-be-ex-employees.
Criss wrote one of the craziest and most entertaining show-business tell-alls ever (a masterpiece of delirious sleaze I wrote up for Silly Little Show-Biz Book Club), but Peter Criss, his solo debut, focuses on the “Beth”-warbling, old-time rock ’n’ roll-loving side of his persona at the expense of the coked-up, deranged sex fiend who rampages through his memoir in a never-ending quest for cheap kicks.
The massive success of “Beth” was something of an anomaly in KISS’ history but Peter Criss suggests that the poignantly clumsy ballad perfectly embodied Criss’ sensibility. For an album from the drummer of one of hard rock’s most legendary bands, Peter Criss is defiantly wimpy. We’re treated to the softer side of Criss throughout, with glossy ballads like “Don’t You Let Me Down,” “Easy Thing,” “Kiss The Girl Goodbye,” and “I Can’t Stop The Rain,” alternating with good-natured rockers like “Rock Me Baby,” “Hooked On Rock ’N’ Roll” (you can tell that these songs are supposed to “rock” because they conveniently have the word “rock” in their titles) and a cover of the oldies staple “Tossin’ And Turning.”
Peter Criss is most notable for being a KISS solo album that sounds almost nothing like a conventional KISS album, although there are echoes of “Beth” throughout. The thoughtfully titled “You Matter To Me” even flirts with New Wave with its infectious synthesizer line. While Peter Criss frequently rises to the level of affable mediocrity, Criss’ take on his beloved retro 1950s-60s-style rock and roll feels more than a little like the background music in a touring company production of Grease.
If Peter Criss is notable for how far it strays from the scuzzy bar-rock and working-class party anthems that made KISS a one-band industry, Paul Stanley has a reputation as the KISS solo album that sounds the most like an actual KISS album, which, depending on your point of view, is either a very good or a very bad thing.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Paul Stanley is the only one of these ill-fated solo platters that would have a reason to exist outside of Casablanca’s silly sales gimmick. Stanley was the original KISS member best suited to a solo career. With his androgynous good looks and lisping vocal swagger, he was made for the hair-metal movement KISS would opportunistically embrace in the following decade.
What was hair metal if not an endless parade of intensely heterosexual men singing about heterosexual sex while tarted up like Sunset Strip streetwalkers? On Paul Stanley, the Starchild delivers an ode to straight sex with screamingly effeminate flair. Unique among the fellas, a confident bordering-on-cocky Stanley seems ready and prepared for the solo spotlight.
The album is full of muscular guitars, catchy hooks, and assured vocals. If you were to assemble a “Greatest Hits” album (or, given the dearth of standout tracks here, an EP) out of the four solo albums, most of the songs on it would belong to Stanley. “Move On” belongs to that curious subsection of songs where parents advise their children to enjoy lots of indiscriminate, no-strings-attached sex with dozens of partners before settling down.
It’s doubtful that kind of advice is ever given out in real life, but if it is, then rockers like Stanley have certainly followed it enthusiastically. On the rollicking, propulsive “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me,” Stanley lets a short-term lover know that she might have had his body and genitalia for anywhere from 16 to 18 hours, but after that he’s nothing but a treasured memory. As I wrote earlier, the lyrics for KISS, both solo and as a group, didn’t need to be good, only good enough. The words—the precious, precious words—found on Paul Stanley are definitely good enough.
“I’ve been your lover but I’m not your fool / You wanna teach me but I’m not in school!” Stanley howls on “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me,” a good illustration of the album’s enjoyably stupid lyrics. “It’s Alright,” another standout track, has a nearly identical message. If these albums have an overarching message, which they don’t, it’d be that, yes, the members of KISS will have sex with you if you’re an attractive woman, but don’t go catching feelings or nothing, because they’ve got a show in another town the next night, and countless more groupies to shag before settling down with the right former Playboy playmate. Paul Stanley is the quartet’s most pleasant surprise. It’s not great, but it delivers the goods, and then some.
This leaves only Gene Simons, the debut from Stanley’s KISS co-leader and one of the least pleasant human beings in existence. Gene Simmons gets off to such a rousing start with “Radioactive” that for a brief moment I wondered if maybe I had underestimated Simmons all along. “Radioactive” won’t be mistaken for a lost Beatles or Velvet Underground song, but it does what KISS does at its best: churn out sweaty, sleazy, salacious sing-alongs designed to be crooned at deafening volumes in massive arenas.
Was it possible that I had underestimated this repugnant pop star? Given my intense personal dislike of Simmons, a seething contempt born of both his intentionally loathsome personal persona and the trauma of having interviewed him early in my career, I was a little relieved that the infectiousness of the kick-off track proves to be deceptive.
The rest of Gene Simmons is just as obsessed with sex as “Radioactive,” but infinitely less catchy. The album reaches a nadir of simple-minded, self-parodic sleaze with “Living In Sin,” which begins with the memorably terrible verse, “I know you write me sexy letters / And you send your pictures for my wall / You found the hotel where I’m stayin’ / And you built up the nerves and then you call” before launching into a chorus about “Living in sin at the Holiday Inn,” which is stupid even by KISS standards.
After straying from KISS’ hard-rock wheelhouse throughout the album, Simmons closes with his biggest stylistic break, a surprisingly sincere cover of “When You Wish Upon A Star” that pairs the singer’s guttural growl with sweepingly cinematic strings. As a song, Simmons’ not-quite-definitive take on “When You Wish Upon A Star” is a weird stunt that engenders a train-wreck fascination due to the surreal incongruity of the song’s heavenly melody and lyrics and the singer’s Monster Mash rasp. But as an almost Kanye West-like statement of purpose, the song is fascinating and revealing. Behind the cynicism, greed, calculation, insatiable sexual hunger, and unapologetic nastiness, Simmons clearly never stopped being the little immigrant kid who lost himself in comic books and monster movies and dreamed of a day when he’d stop lovingly consuming trash culture and become a creator.
By ending his album with “When You Wish Upon A Star,” Simmons was asserting that he was much more than a tongue-waggling bassist and singer for an overachieving group of face-paint enthusiasts. He was telling the world that he was a businessman, he was a mogul, he was the Walt Disney of hard rock. Like Disney, he created a world an army of fans fell in love with, then made a vast fortune selling appealing fantasies the world over.
In his own gross way, Gene Simmons is the American dream. He’s an immigrant, born Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel, who made himself over in the image of the tacky pop culture he has never stopped mainlining and became world-famous in the process. He didn’t just sing, “When You Wish Upon A Star.” He lived it, and continues to live it.
“When You Wish Upon A Star” is the perfect way to end Simmons’ ill-considered debut solo jaunt—and this essay—since it conveys the depth and extent of the project’s ambition and staggering miscalculation. After spending 10 songs trying to seduce and scare listeners, the Demon ends his solo debut by trying to lovingly croon them to sleep.
“When You Wish Upon A Star” is conceptually fitting as well in that it began life as an Oscar-winning standout from Pinocchio, the timeless tale of a jackass of a misbehaving wooden puppet who, through dreams and the timely and narratively convenient intervention of the Blue Fairy, becomes a real boy.
By dramatically releasing four solo albums simultaneously, Casablanca was trying to transform four modestly talented rockers into four separate but interlinking commercial powerhouses. It turned out that no amount of Casablanca’s cocaine-laced fairy dust could transform a quartet of sometimes wooden musicians into real solo superstars, even Stanley, who might have succeeded in his bid for individual success if his rock-solid album wasn’t tethered to three losers.
Ace Frehley: Fiasco
Peter Criss: Failure
Paul Stanley: Secret Success
Gene Simmons: Fiasco