Hey, remember when it was cool to be a Kiss fan? The hard rock legends have been one of the genre’s many punchlines for the last 10-20 years due to their ridiculous image, unholy marketing abilities and the never ending carousel of ego that is Gene Simmons. But ignoring the band’s pompousness (and that’s a hard thing to do, admittedly) one might remember why they were one of the most beloved rock bands of the 70s. They were the simplest ideas of rock and roll blown up to awe-inspiring proportions, the visual scale of Led Zeppelin with dumber content. They had simple riffs, songs that rarely went past the four minute mark and had lyrics about getting girls, speeding through the streets and partying EV-ARY DAY (sorry, couldn’t resist). But Kiss were also very smart guys, knowing to go big or go home every time they had the chance, whether that meant selling themselves in stores or on stage. In fact, Kiss was one of the lucky few bands whose rocket to fame was provided by a lost format of popular music: the live album.
In the early 1970s, Kiss was struggling to make bank. Their first three studio albums (Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill) flopped on the charts and they weren’t getting much radio play. What they did excel at is live performance with their mystical make-up, pyrotechnics and unflinching energy. In an interview for BBC Two’s Seven Ages of Rock series, lead singer/guitarist Paul Stanley said he wanted to match the experience of seeing Led Zeppelin live, where the music and the feeling is so real that it becomes transcendent. Since not everyone can afford a concert ticket (even in the 70s), Stanley, Simmons, lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss (along with their label, Casablanca Records) decided to bring some recording equipment on the band’s 1975 tour to try to capture the magic. They recorded live material from four shows and strung it all together with acclaimed producer Eddie Kramer (Jimi Hendrix, Carly Simon, Peter Frampton). 40 years ago today, the rest of the world got a taste of “the hottest band in the land.”
Alive! is Kiss’ breakthrough and perhaps their finest moment, along with being one of the best live albums of all time. It’s like an introduction to live rock and roll music, complete with crowd interaction, interluding drum and guitar solos and crystal clear sound quality. Even at 40 years old, the mixing and mastering of this album is still impeccable. You can hear the sharp solos of “The Spaceman” Frehley on “Cold Gin” and “Strutter,” along with the solid rhythm between “The Demon” Simmons and “The Catman” Criss. There’s also the great chemistry between Simmons and “The Starchild” Stanley, as they play off each other very well and represent a good yin and yang about Kiss. Stanley’s the high-pitched wooing loverman while Simmons is the growling wildman running down everything in his path. Simmons’ vocals may have inspired the low growling vocals of future headbangers and thrashers alike, along with the pummeling beat of metal in songs like “Parasite.”
As mentioned earlier, Kiss was all about energy in their heyday. Alive! may be over 78 minutes long, but it still has a mostly consistent kick to it. The first three tracks are fist-pumping party songs with “Deuce,” “Strutter,” and “Got to Choose.” The band picks up the speed that the studio versions may have lacked and even with the wild solos of Frehley, they always come back in sync with one another. “100,000” years is a 12 minute reminder that all had better take Criss seriously as a drummer, as he pounds away in a jungle beat. He also is a solid live singer as heard on “Black Diamond.” And of course, there’s the band’s calling card: “Rock and Roll All Night.” Yes it’s been as overplayed as “Stairway to Heaven,” yes it’s one of the dumbest and corniest songs in the history of rock, and yes it sums up everything about Kiss’ mission statement in a second under four minutes. But with all that said, it’s also one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time (OF ALLLLLL TIME). There isn’t a soul on this planet, Kiss fan or not, who hasn’t shouted that song’s chorus to the heavens at least once in his or her life. It’s one of those essential pieces of music, let alone rock music. The Library of Congress should get the master tape of this one live recording and preserve it amongst all the other great pieces of musical history. It is the definition of a party song, with its boundless energy and demanding audience participation. If someone had never heard of rock and roll music before and someone could only play just one song to sum up what rock and roll is, “Rock and Roll All Night” is that song. It’s loud, in your face, freewheeling and full of unabridged joy. It’s like God looked down on the world of music and said, “Wow, this rock and roll thing sounds cool! Let me take a crack at it!”
There has been some controversy in recent years accusing Kiss of overdubbing tracks on the album. Some think it’s a travesty, like they’ve been lied to after spending thousands of dollars on Kiss dolls and other merchandise that anyone over the age of 20 would feel guilty for having. Whatever the case, Alive! is actually one of rock music’s great moments, when a workhorse band that paid their dues made it big the old fashioned way. Sure, Kiss is a bloated, wheezing shell of what they once were, but they still set an example for millions of bands to come. Alive! is a crown jewel of stadium rock, a big gamble that paid off in spades. 40 years on and it still sounds like a sneak peak of the best thing you’ve never heard of yet. Sure the album had three sequels, but like all sequels in music, it can’t beat the original.
“You wanted the best and you got it!”