#489: KISS, "Destroyer" (1976)

America’s mythos, based upon the idea of the self-sufficient, self-determining, self-made man, forms the core of our national identity (“anyone can be President!”), but it’s a charming exaggeration. Far more often, America has made its leaps and bounds thanks to a group effort. Thomas Jefferson writes the Declaration of Independence, but it takes fifty-five more men to sign it and make it official. Andrew Jackson has his Kitchen Cabinet; Lincoln his team of rivals; FDR his Brain Trust. Hundreds of people helped smuggle escaped slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad, even if the only one people can generally name is Harriet Tubman.

I’m not arguing that the site of the Daisy, a 1970s nightclub in Amityville, New York, should be added to the roster of National Park Service sites, but there’s an argument to be made that as far as American grit and determination meeting the group dynamic goes, this Long Island club is a Bizarro World Independence Hall. Because it’s at the Daisy in the spring of 1973, as New York thawed out of another winter, that four boys from New York City first covered their faces with makeup in four different roles: the Demon, the Spaceman, the Starchild, and the Catman. They had played a few gigs with their name already, but it’s on that March night that they truly became KISS.

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I am not a member of the KISS Army, not even a member of the KISS National Guard, and yet I have been conscious of KISS my whole life, because KISS is an entity designed to make you conscious of it. Eight years before MTV went on the air (and ten years after Brian Epstein put the Beatles in matching suits), they understood that visuals could work with sound to create an entire package, impossible to ignore. Even if I did not listen to KISS, I always knew about KISS, and this is the genius of the band: that they were able to transcend whatever limitations they had in terms of talent or looks or station in life to become completely inescapable in American culture from the mid-1970s to now.

  Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

Illustration by Lena Moses-Schmitt

This is what makes Destroyer (released March 15, 1976, ten days before I was born) an amazingly contradictory, beautifully American album; like Whitman, it is large, it contains multitudes. From its cover, a painting of the four leaping in full costumes and makeup over a pile of rubble, as though the four heads on Mount Rushmore had smashed out of their stone prison, the albums announces itself as an explosion or revolution—and then it immediately reverses that with its opening track. “Detroit Rock City” starts not with the grinding riff of the actual song, but with sound effects of someone eating breakfast (in a diner? At home?) while listening to a news report on a fatal car accident; this is followed by sound effects of them getting into a car, in which “Rock and Roll All Night,” off the last album (Alive, which saved both the band and their record label), is playing. The song cuts off, then comes back, the car sound effects Doppler across our ears, we hear the driver mumble-singing along with the stereo, the song cuts off again, the engine hums down the road, and then and only then does the riff for “Detroit Rock City” begin—a minute and a half into the album.

Ninety seconds is a long stretch of time, forever on an album. And nothing from this opening skit returns in Destroyer; instead, the album simply moves ahead, doing whatever it likes. Songs like “King of the Night Time World” invite the listener, “living at home” and “going to school,” to join KISS in their midnight universe. Children’s voices giggle over the Demon’s voice and sludgy guitars in “God of Thunder.” “Great Expectations” opens with a riff quoting from Beethoven’s Sonata #8. The album chugs along reliably between songs written to be concert anthems and songs written to invite the listener to escape their world.

And then there’s “Beth,” the tender orchestral ballad (the New York Philharmonic plays on the track), sung by the drummer, the Catman, which became the highest charting track (#7) in KISS’s history. It comes after “Shout It Out Loud,” a song clearly written with the next live album in mind, and the effect is like finding an art museum inside a gas station. The song is two minutes and forty-six seconds of schmaltz, a lover’s complaint that he cannot return to his girl “because me and the boys / will be playing all night” (if the cameo of “Rock and Roll All Night” at the start has any echo, I suppose it’s here). The song fades out, and then the pounding drums and the Starman’s voice begin “Do You Love Me?,” a song so ridiculously over-the-top-rock-star that Nirvana covered it ironically years later. There’s a brief instrumental track, nothing more than a doodle, and then the album is over. It takes about thirty-four minutes, including the opening minute and a half of skit. It’s not exactly an epic album, but then again, the Gettysburg Address is only 272 words long. Does Destroyer contradict itself? Very well, then; it contradicts itself.

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I have listened to Destroyer dozens of times in the writing of this essay, and it has never improved. Its placement on the RS 500 as an album slightly better than ZZ Top’s Tres Hombres and slightly worse than Husker Du’s New Day Rising feels apt, like the fact that KISS made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on their 15th year of eligibility (the same class as Nirvana, who covered KISS and who made it into the Hall in their first year). It is an album that exists more as artifact or evidence of something bigger than itself.

When I listen to Destroyer, I think not about KISS, but rather SMACK, the one-night-only KISS cover band I saw in college, the night before KISS themselves played Topeka, Kansas. In a bar in Manhattan, Kansas, not too far removed in spirit from the Daisy in Amityville, four local boys took the stage in homemade costumes and girlfriend-applied makeup, and proceeded to rock its tiny stage. They did the hits, the ones even I could recognize. The Demon spat blood. The Spaceman’s guitar emitted sparks. A drunk middle-aged woman in the front pulled down her tanktop to show the band her breasts. The Catman came out from behind his drumkit to sit on a stool and croon “Beth” to the crowd, and perhaps I am inventing this detail, but I swear that he gave a rose to a girl in the audience at the end.

They played as best they could given the space they had, in a grotty little college bar called Rusty’s in the Little Apple. The Demon couldn’t breathe fire--a mainstay of KISS’s shows--because of both fire codes and common sense, but we all shouted out loud and promised to rock all night and party every day.

They were four boys in mid-1990s Manhattan (Kansas) imitating four boys in mid-1970s Manhattan (New York), and they were, on that night in April, performing that most American of acts: the invention of the self from nothing. With makeup and costumes, guitars and drums and amplifiers, and a crowd ready to cheer every mood, they were our own Founding Fathers of a moment that was simultaneously imitation and original, carving themselves their own city on a hill out of the wilderness of music and makeup. And I stood there in the crowd, like a spectator watching Lincoln at Gettysburg or listening to FDR on the wireless, amazed at it all, a room full of kings and queens of the night time world in a nation where we always said anyone could become anything, and where, for that night, I believed it, and now, when I hear the long opening of Destroyer, I hear that still.

—Colin Rafferty