If KISS had broken up three albums in—before the release of Destroyer—they’d be remembered as a top-notch glam rock act existing on the fringes of the New York City punk rock movement: an all but forgotten group that put out memorable hard rock in wild costumes. For better or worse, the band ended up finding massive success, and before the COVID-19 pandemic kicked up, were out on a farewell tour that has lasted longer than most garage bands.
It’s true that you either die a demon or live long enough to become Gene Simmons, but for a period in the mid-70s, there was no rock band cooler, and more perfectly suited for the mentality of a teenage boy than KISS. KISS cribbed from The Alice Cooper Band, British glam metal, horror movies, and comic books to become something that the world had never truly seen before: they were guitar-wielding comic book heroes come to life…and literally made their way into comics inked in their own blood. They could crank out rock ‘n’ roll hits with big pop hooks, but what really made them memorable in an era rife with guitar-driven acts, was how smartly they marketed themselves. There will never be another KISS because anything that comes close—from Marilyn Manson to Ghost—will always draw comparisons to them.
The band inspired legions of heavy metal and hard rock acts, but some of the best KISS tunes found the band at their poppiest. They were after all—like most boomers—disciples of The Beatles and this week at Grumpire, we’ve got a playlist that showcases KISS at their poppiest…and even most danceable.
By the late ‘70s, the popular music landscape was changing. Disco and hard rock were still topping the charts, but bold new voices were emerging from hip-hop, new wave—which had become a catchall term for punk, power pop—scenes. Somehow—for better or worse—KISS never released a hip-hop or rap track in their long career. Unmasked was a calculated move for the band, wanting to release a record with a more pop-oriented sound inspired by the skinny tie rock bands in the vein of The Cars that were releasing shorter, punchier tunes than their arena rock counterparts.
“Tomorrow” was co-written by Paul Stanley and producer/songwriter Vini Poncia and the only other full time member of KISS featured on the tune is Ace Frehley on lead guitar and vocals. On drums is Anton Fig of David Letterman’s World’s Most Dangerous Band who had appeared on Ace Frehley’s 1978 solo release and took over for Peter Criss during the recording of Dynasty. “Tomorrow” is pure pop perfection with big guitars and handclaps, but unfortunately, despite its massive singalong chorus, “Tomorrow” has the distinction of never having been performed live by the band.
“TURN ON THE NIGHT”
CRAZY NIGHTS, 1987
1987’s Crazy Nights found KISS continuing with their glammy pop-metal sound that the band had shifted towards with Lick It Up and Animalize but found them looking to break out of the hard rock pigeonhole, striving for the kind of mainstream success that contemporaries Bon Jovi and Def Leppard had achieved. The band had never shied away from utilizing outside songwriters to polish their tunes, and for “Turn On The Night,” singer and co-writer Paul Stanley recruited Dianne Warren.
Dianne Warren wasn’t yet the powerhouse hitmaker that she’s known as today. She had had some mild success throughout the early ‘80s, but Paul believed in Warren. “I’d known Dianne before she ever became Dianne Warren in capital letters,” Stanley wrote in KISS: Behind The Mask—Official Authorized Biography. “Turn On The Night” was the album’s third single and didn’t even chart in the U.S. Warren pines that she “thought it would have been a bigger hit than it turned out to be,” and with a chorus like that—Warren came up with the title—it really should have been. It’s custom made to blast from your radio on Friday at five.
“SURE KNOW SOMETHING”
For Dynasty, KISS brought on producer and songwriter Vini Poncia who had put the polish on Peter Criss’ solo release the previous year. Dynasty was the first studio the band had released since 1977’s Love Gun, even though Criss didn’t play on Dynasty (he was replaced by Anton Fig) as a result of injuring himself in a car crash. The album found the band delving into more disco and pop-rock oriented sounds that were taking over the airwaves in the late ‘70s.
“Sure Know Something” was the second single released from Dynasty and peaked at #47 on the U.S. charts. Rolling Stone’s David Fricke called “Something” the album’s only memorable hook (that moment on the second pre-chorus when those back up vocals come in is an all-timer), and All Music noted that “it should have been a smash.” “Something” showcases some of Stanley’s best lyrics as he explores the notion of losing one’s virginity, something that was a distant memory for the rock star in 1979, I’m sure.
“WOULDN’T YOU LIKE TO KNOW ME”
PAUL STANLEY, 1978
Already, this is a Paul Stanley heavy list, but Dianne Warren once explained that Paul “has a real pop sensibility,” and for his 1978 solo release, Paul Stanley recruited Kansas producer Jeff Glixman. The album also features guitar work by Bob Kulick who had auditioned for KISS back in 1972, losing out to Ace Frehley. Kulick would go on to become a full-time member in the ‘80s.
Stanley’s album was the only one of the four solo releases to feature all original songs, showcasing Stanley’s pop sensibility on schmaltzier numbers as well as that hard driving pop rock sound on “Wouldn’t You Like To Know Me.” Nobody can shout “oh yeah” quite like Stanley.
“YOU MATTER TO ME”
PETER CRISS, 1978
Peter Criss’ 1978 solo release is far from the best of the four KISS solo records, but it is undoubtedly the bravest. While the other three members played it relatively safe, delivering on the hooky, guitar-driven rock that the band had built their reputation on, Criss produced something almost unrecognizable as a member of KISS.
With producer Vini Poncia at the helm,” You Matter To Me” predicts the disco-influenced production of Dynasty: heavy on the synths with a bouncy, danceable beat. Criss’ album was panned by critics and fans alike having the distinction of being the lowest charting album of the four 1978 solo records but is worth listening to if you’re soft rock enthusiast.
“THEN SHE KISSED ME”
LOVE GUN, 1977
The members of KISS came of age during the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, and despite their reputation as hard rockers, the influence of The Beatles, the British Invasion, and Motown pop up throughout their catalog. “Then He Kissed Me” was written by Phil Spector, Ellie Greenwich, and Jeff Barry, and initially recorded and released in 1963 by New York City vocal group The Crystals. In 1965 the Beach Boys reworked the tune as “Then I Kissed Her.”
Regarded as one of the best pop tunes of all time, “Then He Kissed Me” has been covered countless times and featured in memorable film sequences in Adventures In Babysitting and Goodfellas. It’s a silly gag, but KISS doing “Then He KISS-ed Me” inspired.
With three well-received—by rock critics and fans—records under their belts, KISS sought to expand their sound with 1976’s Destroyer. Their 1975 concert album Alive had broken them through to worldwide success and the band signed a new two-album contract with their label, Casablanca Records. Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin was brought in to wrangle KISS, and at times was known to treat the recording process like boot camp, whipping the band into shape, even getting them to learn music theory. The album features at least three things never heard on a KISS record prior: strings, choirs, a Beethoven sample….and a ballad.
Upon its release, the album peaked at #11 on the Billboard charts and quickly fell to #192. Critics called it bloated, melodramatic, and the Village Voice noted that it was the band’s least interesting record. “Beth” was released as the B-side to the single “Detroit Rock City.” The tune was co-written by Peter Criss and guitarist Stan Penridge while they were in a band by the name of Chelsea. In a tale as old as time, “Beth” was a last minute addition to the record, one that Simmons and Stanley fought as it was not typical of the KISS sound. In fact, it’s notable as it’s the only KISS recording to not feature any instrumental performances by the band: Criss croons over Ezrin on piano, an acoustic guitar and the New York Philharmonic orchestra. It was Roaslie Trombley, a DJ at “The Big 8” CKLW in Windsor, Ontario who played the B-side on air at the suggestion of her daughter. “Beth” became a surprise hit and kicked up sales of the Destroyer album. The band even lip-synched it on the Paul Lynde Halloween Special in October of 1976.
“TALK TO ME”
With Unmasked, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons set out to make a perfect pop rock record, building off the disco inspired Dynasty from the previous year. Guitarist Ace Frehley wanted the band to continue in a more hard rock oriented direction but with Peter Criss having left the band, Frehley was frequently outvoted on decisions (drummer Eric Carr was not a voting member).
“Talk To Me” was Frehley’s contribution to the pop sound: a simple but swinging ‘60s inspired number performed through a hard rock ‘70s filter.
“TOMORROW AND TONIGHT”
LOVE GUN, 1977
1977’s “Tomorrow And Tonight” found KISS trying to recapture the black magic that was “Rock And Roll All Night.” The anthemic chorus features Paul Stanley looking to rock tomorrow and tonight, which is totally different from rock and rolling all night and partying every day. Totally different. Is the subject matter derivative? Absolutely, but the best KISS tunes—and for the most part the best rock ‘n’ roll tunes—are about partying and getting laid, and “Tomorrow And Tonight,” with it’s boogie rock beat, utilization of three rock ‘n’ roll cliches in a row (“Uh huh, oh yeah, alright!), massive back up vocals and a chorus perfect for shouting along to, has enough swagger to be memorable. A soundcheck recording appears on Alive II, but the tune wasn’t officially performed live until 2014.
Contrary to popular belief, disco did not live and die with the ‘70s, and remained popular throughout the first half of the ‘80s. “Shandi”—co-written by Paul Stanley and Vinci Poncia—mines similar disco territory that the band explored on 1979’s Dynasty.
“Shandi” was inspired by The Hollies’ take on Bruce Springsteen’s “4th Of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)” and the music video is notable as it marks Peter Criss’ final appearance with the band before their reunion for KISS Unplugged in 1996. The opening recalls the “WKRP In Cincinnati” in tone and production, a yachty-sound that KISS was attempting to chase.
“HARD LUCK WOMAN”
ROCK AND ROLL OVER, 1976
Paul Stanley originally penned the country-twinged “Hard Luck Woman” for Rod Stewart who was enjoying a successful solo career following his time in the Faces. It was Gene Simmons, always the business man, who convinced Stanley to keep it for KISS. With drummer Criss taking vocal duties, “Woman” was an attempt to recapture the success of “Beth” which became a hit for the band.
With the simple, driving drum best and Criss’ soulful gravely vocals, it’s easy to hear “Hard Luck Woman” as a “Gasoline Alley” outtake. Garth Brooks performed the song with the band for the KISS My Ass: Classic KISS Regrooved tribute album in 1994.
“TOSSIN’ AND TURNIN”
PETER CRISS, 1978
Penned by the songwriting team of Ritchie Adams and Malou Rene, “Tossin’ And Turnin’” became a number one hit for Bobby Lewis in the summer of 1961.
The song was covered by countless artists throughout the ‘60s and a natural choice for Criss. Criss was older than the rest of the members of KISS who had grown up with The Beatles and The Who and his tastes aligned more with the doo-wop of the ‘50s than the British Invasion of the ‘60s. Uninspired, yet delightful.
“NEW YORK GROOVE”
ACE FREHLEY, 1978
“New York Groove,” was penned by English songwriter Russ Ballard and originally recorded and released by British pop act Hello in 1975. Ballard has been cranking out hits since the early ‘60s, and performed with Argent until 1974. Since its release on Frehley’s 1978 solo record, the song has been eponymous with the on again/off again KISS member. It was the highest charting single from all of the solo releases, and became a staple of Frehley-era KISS concerts.
GENE SIMMONS, 1978
Twisting the knobs on Gene Simmons solo record was Sean Delaney, the unofficial fifth member of KISS. Delaney took on several behind the scenes roles with the band: choreographer, roadie, driver, and eventually, songwriter. With his reputation as “the demon,” fans were expecting something heavier from the KISS bassist when he unleashed his solo record in ‘78. Instead, the album found Simmons showcasing his love of Beatles-inspired pop. The album featured guest appearances from Rick Neilsen of Cheap Trick, Bob Seger, Cher, Donna Summer, and even Katey Sagal on backup vocals.
“Radioactive” features Aerosmith’s Joe Perry on guitar, and doesn’t stray from the typical KISS sound. The opening–excised from the single version—fakes out the listener, sounding like something out of a horror movie, preparing you for something more sinister before erupting into a swinging rocker. It’s always a treat to hear Gene Simmons sing rather than growl.
“CRAZY, CRAZY, NIGHTS”
CRAZY NIGHTS, 1987
1987 found KISS looking to break out of the hard rock world and gain mainstream success like Bon Jovi and Def Leppard had done in the ‘80s. Two factors contributed to the pop sheen of the Crazy Nights album: the band working with producer Ron Nevison (who had brought ‘80s success to AOR favorites Heart, Loverboy, and rock ‘n’ roll bad boy Ozzy Osbourne), and the limited input of Gene Simmons. This found the pop-minded Paul Stanley working with songwriters Desmond Child, the aforementioned Dianne Warren, and Adam Mitchell in addition to allowing in longtime KISS associate Bruce Kulick, who was now a full-time member of the band.
The song started with the title. “I was out with Adam [Mitchell]…and I said ‘Man, ‘Crazy, Crazy, Crazy, Nights is a great title,” Stanley wrote in KISS: Behind The Mask—Official Authorized Biography. Stanley went home and knocked out the chorus, and he and Mitchell reconvened in the morning to write the tune. “I get tired of people talking about anthems because if there is an attempt at writing an anthem then it’s not really heartfelt,” writes Stanley. “It’s calculated.” Calculated or not, “Crazy, Crazy, Nights” is indeed a big rock ‘n’ roll anthem with a gigantic chorus that is near impossible not to sing along with.