Like many pre-teen American boys in the late 70s, I was a big KISS fan. It’s a familiar tale - staring at the gatefolds of ALIVE! and ALIVE II, impatiently waiting for KISS Meets the Phantom to air on TV in 1978 (and an HBO concert special in `79), and playing tennis racket guitars and couch cushion drums as my friends and I became the characters themselves. The pinnacle of that experience for me were the solo records (especially Ace Frehley’s) and the Dynasty album my mom bought for me for being a good boy at a traumatic orthodontist appointment. After that, my interest faded quickly as I moved onto The Who, Cheap Trick, The Knack, and eventually Iron Maiden and Ozzy Osbourne. My attention was briefly rekindled when they took the makeup off for the Lick It Up album. I was deep into metal at that point, and the record held its own with others in the genre that year. I also still held on to enough nostalgia from my younger years to want to finally see what these guys looked like without the greasepaint. (Yikes!)
I tried to stay tuned in. I even saw them a couple times in the 80s, but Animalize and subsequent records just failed to hold my interest. Blame it on my rapid descent into punk rock, the consistently sub-par records, or just the descending, personal-arc of a once-favorite band that had run its course in a kid’s life….but it was pretty much over.
Then one night in 1995 I casually flipped onto the MTV Unplugged episode that saw the return of Peter and Ace at the end to jam on some classics. Those old songs stuck out to me as so much better, especially side-by-side with the new stuff, but I also enjoyed seeing Bruce Kulick solo on his acoustic like it was a Kramer, and “Domino” stood out as a kickass song. It was around that time that I realized Gene Simmons is a really, really great rock singer. KISS was back in rotation, but still just the classic stuff. For the last 23 years that’s how it’s been.
I accepted the invitation to participate in this draft with only a slight hesitation. I’m always up for a challenge, especially when it forces me to explore something I might not otherwise bother with (like when a bandmate suggests we cover an Echo and the Bunnymen song). But I wasn’t about to phone it in. I knew almost nothing about their post-Lick it Up catalog except the singles, so I got the records and listened to them several times. There wasn’t enough time to truly digest that much music, so I created a spreadsheet and ranked each song from 1 - 10 as I listened, then re-evaluated another couple times. My plan was to tie my picks to my highest rated available songs.
I can’t honestly say that I think the best of the non-makeup stuff holds a candle to classic tracks like “Calling Dr. Love”, “Detroit Rock City”, “100,000 Years” and “She”, but it’s not without its redeeming qualities. I did my best to approach it objectively and as a separate entity, which it mostly is, and to avoid holding the past against it.
01. Domino (Revenge)
I picked this first and started my album with it because it was the one song that helped to suck me into that Unplugged show. The dynamics and transitions between the parts are really well executed. The pre-choruses and transitions into the chorus build some good momentum. It’s sexy and sultry and everything that is wrong and right about KISS. Gene’s swagger is full of confidence. This isn’t gonna be on the soundtrack for the #MeToo movement, but Mr. $immons offers no apologies.
Cringer line: “Every time I walk through that damn door it’s the same damn thing. That bitch bends over and I forget my name - ow!”
Bonus cringer: “Got a reputation, haven't got a hope, It's a sticky situation, if she ain't old enough to vote”
02. All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose (Lick it Up)
This one was a bit polarizing in pre-draft discussions, but I chose it early because it was a standout to teenage me in 1983 and I still get a kick out of it. Is that Paul Stanley rapping? Sorta, certainly close enough to chuckle about it. But like “Domino,” this song - especially the verses - have real swagger. The confidence and boldness make up for the cheesiness. Somehow, it’s believable. It’s also got shades of “I Love It Loud” (a great Gene track from the later makeup years) with the single-string, repeating guitar riff under the singalong chorus, and Vinnie VIncent’s guitar solo sounds hauntingly like something Ace would have played. I also love how the bass kicks in for the second half of the verses. In addition to being a great vocalist, Gene is also an underrated bassist.
Cringer line: “...and he says, ‘Hey man, what be this and what be that, and why you gotta look like that?’ I just looked at him and kinda laughed and said, ‘Hey man, I am cool; I am the breeze.’ "
03. Young and Wasted (Lick it Up)
This is a really cool song for a couple reasons - it’s fast, it has a great vocal, and the lyrics aren’t ridiculous. Think of it like an 80s version of "Parasite." They sound hungry and full of piss and vinegar. Gene isn’t phoning anything in. The urgency here is something that so much of the unmasked era is sorely missing. It kicks ass and holds up very well.
Cringer line: none.
04. Rise To It (Hot in the Shade)
In spite of the super cool, swampy acoustic intro to this song, we’re starting to get into some trouble here. I ranked this one a (relative) 8, which it probably isn’t. I think what really attracted me to it was the main riff that pretty much rips off one of my favorite Scorpions songs, “Loving You Sunday Morning.” The bridge almost redeems the song with the cool variation on the ascending notes in the second half and the back-and-forth vocals transitioning back into the final chorus, but not quite. Forgettable lyrics, predictable 80s arrangement.
Cringer Line: Everytime he sings “ri-e-i-e-ise”
05. Cadillac Dreams (Hot in the Shade)
Another polarizing song in the pre-draft, trash talking circles. I saw it as a sort-of rockabilly tune with a good, upbeat tempo and more-traditional rock and roll arrangement. If nothing else, it sets itself apart because it’s not predictable the way “Rise To It” is, though the lyrics are almost as forgettable. Imagine if they’d used real horns instead of the synths at the end? Knowing what we know today about Gene’s unquenchable thirst for wealth makes the chorus of “Money, money, that’s what I need” a bit nauseating, but when you consider it from the perspective of a poor, seventeen year old kid from Queens, which is established in the first line, it’s a little easier to stomach. It’s a good filler track on my record, but it wouldn’t be the single.
Cringer line: None
06. And on the 8th Day (Lick It Up)
The intro to this song sounds like it could have been on Quadrophenia. Great bass riffs under massive power chords and drum fills. It’s really powerful. In comes the signature one-string guitar riff and cliche-80s metal drum hits on every beat. Gene belts out a great vocal over terrible lyrics about how the evolution of rock and roll basically parallels The Greatest Story Ever Told. Turns out that's not exactly how it went down, but I believed it when I was 14. It still works as a kicking song, but like a lot of the KISS catalog, you have to chuckle when you listen to the words.
Cringer Line: “Rock of ages carry the news to the heart of a brave new world, Feel the noise in the name of ROCK, let the heavens roar!”
07. I Just Wanna (Revenge)
A well executed, but predictable 80s-sounding hair-metal song with a terrible church-choir bridge that only serves to elevate the cringiness, though there may be some points in there for effort. Vinnie Vincent gets a co-writer credit on this, and future drummer Eric Singer does some backups. Paul’s vocal is convincing and the beat is strong, but the elements of the song are just too generic to elevate it above anything released by the remaining hard rock bands grasping to stay alive in 1992.
Cringer Line: “I'm gonna set the night on fire, shootin' like a Roman Candle, Ooh yeah, I'm burnin' with desire and I'm much too hot to handle”
08. Prisoner of Love (Hot in the Shade)
At this stage in the draft, choices were really thinning out. This isn’t Gene’s best vocal, and the mix doesn’t do him any favors, with the voice less prominent than it is on other records. Once again, we’re in that familiar 80s hair metal cliche world, this time, the shuffle beat under the power chords trick used by everyone from RATT to Poison to Whitesnake ad nauseam. The high point in the song is the instrumental break after the guitar solo that wouldn’t have been out of place on a Judas Priest record. Sorry, but it’s not enough to save the song. There’s little edge here, too much time spent on harmonies and guitar fills and not enough on creating something that actually resonates.
Cringer Line: None, really.
09. Silver Spoon (Hot in the Shade)
This tune is maybe a notch above the previous two, if only because musically it’s more straight-ahead rock and not falling into those predictable musical cliches. Lots of open, ringing chords, a more standard arrangement, and attention-keeping transitions between the verses and choruses. The Stonsey backup singing women at the end lend a bit of class to the song that they should have used throughout - it would have really set the song apart from the rest of the album. They either lacked the imagination to try it or the guts to challenge their listeners that way. The lyrics are cliche-ridden and delivered with a vocal that’s not Paul’s best, at times reaching to hit the higher notes. Certainly not the low point of the unmasked era, but just a notch above filler.
Cringer Line: “I wasn't born with a silver spoon (whoah-oah-oah), nowhere to hide in a crowded room (whoah-oah-oah)”
10. Love’s a Slap in the Face (Hot in the Shade)
Like Prisoner of Love, this isn’t Gene’s best vocal, and again, no help from the mix. I hate the Na-Na-Na-Na Bon Jovi choruses, but I do like the melody change in the last line of the verse that takes it into the chorus. It reminds me of the chorus of “Lie to Me” by Joan Jett & The Blackhearts - an under-appreciated deep-cut from her Notorious record. At this point I’m just grasping for positives to take from these songs. Other than that turnaround, there’s not much here to keep my attention.
Cringer Line: “Singin' na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na”
11. Boomerang (Hot in the Shade)
This track kicks in at a great tempo and with some great Bruce Kulick licks. The energy is there for sure, making up for the lack of any memorable hooks or lyrics, with the double-kicker going throughout and a vocal cadence that keeps up pretty well, until the unnecessary breakdown before the guitar solo. The solo itself is cool with no bass for the first part. They lyrics recall that old gambling-sex metaphor that’s been done more than a few times. Not bad for such a late pick, and one of the better tracks on Hot in the Shade.
Cringer Line: “First you're cold and then you're hot, you're in the mood and then you're not, Yeah, I know I'll get a bang, 'cause you're like a boomerang”
12. Lonely is the Hunter (Hot in the Shade)
The poor, last picked track in the draft, just like me on my fourth grade kickball team. The title is stupid (though I love Lonely is the Night by Billy Squier), the lyrics are terrible, the riff and arrangement are forgettable, and the playing is uninspired. The guitar break before the solo is similar to the one after the solo in “Prisoner of Love” (above), but it’s not enough to lift this stinker from the bottom. This is why I gave up on them after Lick It Up.
Cringer Line: “My eggs in one basket, but she threw me a bone - She was dealt a full deck, but she likes to live alone - Ain't just talkin' to myself, need a reason to stop (oh yeah) - With a flower in her teeth, she drained the last drop - I said girls love money like bees the honey”
Jeremy Porter lives near Detroit and fronts the rock and roll band Jeremy Porter And The Tucos.
Follow them on Facebook to read his road blog about their adventures on the dive-bar circuit.
Twitter: @jeremyportermi | Instagram: @onetogive