About 15 years ago, KISS was doing a decent job of taking the guilt out of the pleasure. They'd just released their best album in almost a decade. They reunited with the original line-up in its full grease-painted glory. They had a definite cache among the grunge bands so popular at the time. It almost got to the point where I didn't have to defend my membership in the KISS Army any more.
Well, they certainly took care of that... Two miserable studio albums, a never ending "good bye" tour in which various members of the original members didn't take part, being replaced by ringers in full make up, bad solo releases by Gene and Paul, Gene Simmons Family Jewels, the endless recycling of their earlier material in semi-annual compilations of widely varying quality, and, of course, the continued bizarre packaging of the KISS brand (y'all have your official KISS coffin yet?) all served to put the guilt back into being a KISS fan.
More than a few people have commented that KISS was always more of a concept or a brand-name than a rock band. I take issue with that. KISS started out as a rock band. One whose most distinguishing feature for many - the black and white stage dress - wasn't all that original in the time and place they were coming from. I sometime fantasize about what would have happened if Alive! had tanked back in 1975 and Casablanca had dropped the band. KISS would have been remembered as the missing link between the New York Dolls and the Dictators. They'd have been filed right in there with a bunch of other pre-punk New York bands that never put out more than a couple albums and were more famous posthumously than when they were when actually alive.
Don't believe me? Check out Mojo Magazine (I'll update with the exact issue) and check out the picture of Paul Stanley and Dave Johanssen hanging out at a party in c. 1972, both with white face paint on. There are two major differences between KISS and a number of their New York City contemporaries: They were much more successful and they stuck around much longer. But the similarities, at least at the start of their career, were more than the differences. They were just as girl-group and pop-obsessed as Blondie and the Ramones. In fact, I think the Ramones is a good point of reference. Both bands were simply starving to be super-stars. Both were criticized as musical hacks and gimic groups. The Ramones received the eventual critical praise, KISS had the multi-platinum albums.
A great look at KISS early in their career is the first volume of the KISSology DVD collection. You can see that they had their on-stage personas fully developed from a very early point of their career. The "easter egg" of the 1973 club show shows them going though all the same stage moves during "Deuce" that they would throughout their careers. The evolution that you see is in their off-stage attitude. You see them move from menacing zombie street-gang punks to weirdo kabuki super-heroes.
But the music... the music. KISS wanted to be the heavy metal Beatles. Very ambitious, but largely they pulled off the ambition.
Their eponymous first album (1974) is arguably their best studio album. It's full of songs they'd been playing together live for years. These are road tested, solid songs that still stand the test of time. "Deuce," "Strutter," "Gold Gin," "Firehouse," "Black Diamond." All songs that would feature prominantly in KISS's live shows for the remainder of their career. I think "Deuce" and "Black Diamon," in particular, are quite strong on this album, being better than the numerous live versions that would be released over the next few decades. The production is raw and garage-y. It's KISS's punkiest album. It's also one of their deepest. Beyond the well-known songs, you have "deep tracks" like "Let Me Know," "100,000 Years," and "Love Theme from KISS" that stand up against any of their later work. The guitar interplay between Paul and Ace is fantastic, and secret weapon, Peter, is in great voice, adding his gritty voice to "Nothin' to Lose" and "Black Diamond."
Hotter than Hell (1974) is also made up of songs that had been played together on the road for years. But these are "the bottom of the barrel." Largely all of the best songs on Hotter than Hell are found in better versions on other albums, Alive! in particular. However, such obscurities as Gene's bizarro old-man love ballad, "Goin' Blind" (excellently covered by the Melvins on Houdini) are worth checking out for all but the most casual fans.
I'll continue part II soon.