#159: Kiss, "Alive!" (1975)

159 Alive.jpg

About 45 minutes into the greatest live rock album ever recorded, KISS frontman Paul Stanley says he has a question for the 12,000 screaming kids at Cobo Hall in Detroit.

“I wanna know how many people here tonight….believe in rock ‘n’ roll?”

It’s not a question, baby. It’s a fucking call to arms. Stanley’s voice rises on that last syllable as he rallies the troops. Drummer Peter Criss’s bass drum and toms thump sturdily underneath, while he ramps up the snare to the rising cheers of the crowd. Soon, the Starchild is living up to his stage moniker. You can hear everybody clapping their hands to the beat and chanting “Rock and roll” with him. This is how you work a room.

“Now if you all believe in rock 'n’ roll….why don’t you stand up for what you believe in?"

It was at this point, listening to 1975’s KISS Alive! on my Sony Walkman in the way way back of my parents’ Buick station wagon, that it hit me.

Up until that point, they’d been sitting down.

It didn’t seem possible. From the moment the flanged-out crowd noise faded into side one of this historic, cacophonic double live album, I had assumed they were ON THEIR FEET. How could they not be? Close your eyes and listen. Here’s how Alive begins:

There’s the announcer: “You wanted the best and you got it! The hottest band in the land: KISS!” The hooky opening guitar intro of “Deuce.” Gene Simmons’s sudden bass guitar whoosh. A huge explosion (literally)! Criss starts pounding on the downbeat. Stanley and lead guitarist Ace Frehley grind out that wondrous riff just a step off from each other, giving the simplest rhythm ever what KISS gave everything else—a flair for the dramatic. The first line of the song:

“Get up! And get your Grandma out of here...”

And we’re off.

KISS Alive! is more than simply a live album recorded by a hungry touring band at the peak of their powers. It was a sonic experience that opened a window into a world where masked, otherworldly creatures growled and swaggered their way through a stage surrounded by candelabras, smoke, and walls of Marshall amps. The original gatefold LP came with a full-color, eight-page booklet that showed Simmons (whose stage name was the Demon) breathing fire. Who were these leather-wearing, grease-painted freaks who wielded guitars like weapons? If somebody told me one of them could fly—Space Ace perhaps—I wouldn’t have been surprised.

The real story—about a hardworking NYC quartet with a go-for-broke mentality and three disappointing studio releases (and an almost broke record label in desperate need of a hit)—is no less dramatic. There was no internet in 1975. KISS was underground. Grass roots. Word of mouth. If they hadn’t seen the band live yet, the only exposure most kids had to them was seeing their strange, make-upped visages on an album flat at the record store. Since KISS had almost no radio airplay, the band had built their entire reputation onstage—and none of their records could capture the intensity of the live show. They were hemorrhaging money. (That stage setup, the truck, and all the crew required to make it happen was expensive.) Alive! was a gamble—an expensive, risky double album that had to sell, or that was it.

The timing was perfect, and not just because the growing mass of die-hard fans would soon coalesce into the KISS Army. The band was primed. With the murky production of KISS and Hotter Than Hell behind them, they were coming off Dressed to Kill, which featured their tightest playing yet, and a bona fide anthem that would soon define them: “Rock and Roll All Nite.”

Put simply, 1975 was the leanest, meanest year KISS ever had. They would never again be the driven, single-minded, thunderous rock machine they were in 1975. Success, bloat, and ego would change them forever. (And it’s this reputation that has earned them the resentment of every “serious” rock musician and fan since.)

But I’m not backing down when I say that KISS Alive! is the greatest live rock album ever recorded. Over-intellectualize it all you want, but rock and roll is a feeling. It’s genuine. It’s contagious. It’s exhilarating. Captured in the grooves of this record are the imaginations of a generation that was raised on the Beatles and fantasy novels, hardened by the Vietnam War and Watergate. They wanted escape. KISS offered that, and a feeling of community.

Yes, KISS shows are known for their spectacle, but KISS Alive! is pure aural theater. While you’re listening, pore over the photos in the LP if you want—or just close your eyes and be transported. The raw spirit, that hopefulness that’s inherent in the best rock ‘n’ roll, it’s there in spades.

And the sex! Like rock’s forefathers, KISS’ riffs are bluesy, but they’re heavier—and blunt. Far removed from the sly innuendo of Little Richard and Chuck Berry, the junior-high-level lyrics hit like a pipe wrench to the head. (Or the crotch, more appropriately.) No need to be coy anymore—just come out and say it: “Strutter.” “Hotter Than Hell.” “Firehouse.” “C’Mon and Love Me.” These are songs about fucking. Or wanting to fuck. There’s an audience full of sex-crazed teenagers being whipped up into a frenzy at the promise of NOW. KISS unlocked abandon that night in Detroit.

…and Cleveland. And New Jersey. And Iowa. It’s well documented that Alive!—like many “live” albums—was compiled to sound like one perfect night of rock, but was actually cut together from four different shows and features lots of overdubs. The important thing is that Alive! is a more-than-convincing document of a place and time—and it rocks like a ton of bricks. Producer Eddie Kramer was the first to make the band sound the way fans remembered them being onstage—aggressive, snarling, confident. If Gene needed to fix a bass track that was marred by his distraction at flicking blood from his tongue or banging his fists, so be it.

Some reports say it went farther than that, and I’m sure it did. There’s no way Ace is going to rip off a shredding guitar solo with dinosaur bends and perfectly timed staccato bursts of two-note magic while he’s navigating down to his knees in seven-inch platform boots. And there’s no chance that Paul and Gene are hitting every note correctly while they’re banging their headstocks together in Ace’s direction, choreographed to the chords of “Black Diamond.”

These are visuals, of course, that I never had to accompany the first 1,000 times I listened to Alive! During the VHS explosion of the late ‘80s, live bootlegged video of classic KISS became ubiquitous. The revelatory thing is that when I finally saw what I had always been imagining, it lived up to the fantasy. Alive! is that good. It sounds like a band in total control of their domain. It may not have invented arena rock strictly, but KISS Alive! perfected it for sure. And it influenced every single rock musician who lived through the ‘70s and ‘80s, becoming the template for stadium-sized rock shows from that moment on.

When most writers make a claim like that, they’re talking about the giant KISS logo and the explosions—the theatrics that everyone has aped since. I’m not. I’m talking about the power and dynamics of loud, catchy songs played with urgency. The near-constant attention and care paid to the audience. The breathless pace of the show.

For one magical night, KISS created a bubble of teenaged bliss, where everyone was united—by letting go. No one was pretending to be cool at a KISS show. But just by being there, you were inducted in the club. You were part of something special. “You drive us wild, we’ll drive you crazy” wasn’t just a line from a song, it was a mantra. If you were lucky enough to see these long-haired, grease-painted freaks in that early moment when they were playing like their lives depended on it, before they became an NBC Movie of the Week punchline, then you understand that unique feeling they gave you—that the world had cracked wide open, that anything was possible.

For the rest of us, thank the God of Thunder that we have KISS Alive!

—Eric Melin