When you look at those four guys in fantasy makeup, it is hard to believe that any of those guys ever came from humble beginnings.
Chaim Witz was born August 25, 1949 in Tirat HaCarmel, Haifa, Israel. At the age of eight, Chaim immigrated with his mother to the United States, settling in the borough of Queens in New York City. His mother, Flora Klein, was a holocaust survivor and had been abandoned by her husband back in Israel. In order to make his name more pronounceable, he had his named changed to Eugene Klein. Young Eugene spoke no English, and to learn it he began watching lots of fantasy movies and TV shows, and he really became enamored with comic books and superhero stories.
After seeing the Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, Eugene became obsessed with rock n’ roll music and the adulation that they got from girls. His mother bought him his first guitar when he was 18 and he joined several garage bands during his teens and early 20s. Klein worked many jobs during this time including selling used comic books, substitute teaching, and he even worked as an assistant fashion editor at Vogue.
Somewhere around this time Klein wanted to have a stage name for when he became famous. He took the name of a rockabilly artist whose name he had heard and liked: Gene Simmons.
In 1970, Simmons decided to form a band with himself on bass, a childhood friend named Stephen Coronel on guitar, and a keyboardist named Brooke Ostrander. They named their band Rainbow. Coronel felt they needed a rhythm guitarist and he invited a guy to join the band who they had met when he auditioned for them months earlier. His name was Stanley Eisen.
Eisen was born in Manhattan on January 20, 1952
Stanley had just recently graduated from The High School of Music and Art in New York City. He too had been enamored with the Beatles as well as bands like The Who and The Rolling Stones. He was drawn to music despite being deaf in his right ear.
After playing their first show, it was brought to the band’s attention that there was already another band named Rainbow. Simmons came up with another name for the band, Wicked Lester.
The band recorded a few demos at Electric Lady studios and were signed by Epic Records in the winter of 1971. The band began working on recording their debut album. Once it was completed, the Epic record execs hated the finished product and refused to release the album. Wicked Lester decided to request their release from their recording contract.
Simmons and Eisen (who had now started to go by the more white-bread name of Paul Stanley) did not think that this version of Wicked Lester was going to be the band that made it big for them. They wanted to go in a heavier direction as opposed to the more folky/poppy music that they were doing. They fired the other musicians and started looking for a couple of new people to start fresh with.
The duo went looking through trade publications hoping to find a drummer that was looking to join a band. One ad caught their eye in the back of Rolling Stone. It said “EXPD. ROCK & roll drummer looking for orig. grp. doing soft & hard music. Peter, Brooklyn.” Simmons and Stanley contacted the drummer to audition for them. His name was Peter Criscuola.
Criscuola was born December 20, 1945 in Brooklyn.
Going by the stage name Peter Criss, he had already had a bit of success with the New York based band Chelsea, who had released a self-titled album in 1970 on MCA.
Chelsea had started to break apart after the recording of the album, and became a trio the next year, changing their name to Lips. The trio didn’t last much longer and that led Criss to look for work.
Simmons and Stanley went to see Criss perform at a club for his audition. Not only did they think he was a good drummer, but Simmons thought he had a “Wilson Pickett-like” voice. Criss was invited to join Simmons’ and Stanley’s band.
They had decided they wanted to be a glam-rock band in the same vein as the New York Dolls and wanted to use makeup as part of their stage show. Their first experiment was more a kabuki-styled facepaint.
The band played as a trio, still using the Wicked Lester name, in front of execs from Epic Records in November of 1972. The audition did not go well, especially after Peter’s brother puked on one of the executives.
The trio felt they needed to add another guitarist since Paul was handling lead vocals on most songs. They put an ad in The Village Voice in January of 1973. One of the first people to respond was Paul “Ace” Frehley.
Frehley was born in the Bronx on April 27, 1951.
He was given the nickname “Ace” in high school for his ability to get girls for his friends. He had started playing guitar around the same time. He played with several local bands and had not had any success. A friend had pointed out the Village Voice ad to him and they both went to audition. Gene, Paul, and Peter were blown away by his playing, and within three weeks Wicked Lester was now a four piece.
Because this band was a new beginning, Gene and Paul wanted a new name for the band. While the foursome thought out loud, Criss mentioned that his last band’s name was Lips. Paul, using that as a reference, came up with a similar name: Kiss. Everyone liked the name, and they all agreed that this should be their new band’s name.
They had already been booked to play a show as Wicked Lester and there were posters around town promoting the concert. Frehley used a marker to write the band’s new name over the Wicked Lester name on the posters, using lightning bolts as the ‘s’s. They decided that would be the band’s logo, styling the band’s name in all capitals.
For their first few shows as KISS, they wore little to no makeup and no outlandish costumes. But just a few weeks later Paul and Gene decided to start wearing platform shoes, clad themselves in leather, and each would paint their face as a different fantasy character.
Gene was “The Demon.”
Paul was “The Starchild.”
Although for a brief period he was “The Bandit.”
Ace was “The Spaceman.”
Peter was “The Catman.”
After performing at several record label showcase concerts in New York, the band became the first people signed to the fledgling Casablanca Records label. They started work on their first album in October of 1973.
KISS released their self-titled debut album in February of 1974.
The album was recorded and mixed in only 13 days. Most of the album’s songs had been written for Wicked Lester and some even before any of them knew each other.
KISS is actually a pretty good debut for the band. Lots of long time concert staples came off this album like “Strutter” and “Deuce.” It’s not perfect as it has some low points most notably Gene’s ode to anal sex “Nothin’ to Lose” and the instrumental “Love Theme From KISS.”
The album did not sell well at all at the time, only moving about 75,000 copies.
The band kept up an intense touring schedule throughout 1974 to promote the album.
They went to Los Angeles to record their follow-up in August of 1974, which was released just 2 months later as Hotter Than Hell.
The album is pretty poor. The production lives up to its reputation as being muddy and dull. It’s not horrible, but the negatives outweigh the positives.
The album did not get the promotion that their debut had and mixing that in with poor reviews, it sold quite a few less copies than KISS had.
The band continued touring, trying to promote the album, but due to the cold reception that Hotter Than Hell was getting. Casablanca owner Neil Bogart asked the band to end the tour and get back in the studio to record a new album. Bogart was desperate as not only was the band flailing as a commercial success, but the record label was losing money hand over fist.
The band released their third album, Dressed to Kill, in March of 1975.
The album contained what would soon become their signature song, “Rock And Roll All Nite.” Although, it would not become a big hit until after their next album.
Dressed To Kill did better commercially than Hotter Than Hell, but it still did not make a huge impression on the album charts. Nor does it make much of an impression on me. It has the classic “KISS sound,” but with the exception of a couple of songs it is pretty generic.
While the band was not selling many records, they were gaining a reputation as one of the best live acts in rock music. The band added theatrics that no one outside of, perhaps, Alice Cooper were doing at the time. Gene would vomit blood and breathe fire, Ace’s guitar would burst into flames, Peter’s drum riser would shoot sparks, and Paul would smash his guitar. These stunts spread their reputation throughout the U.S. as a band that was must see in concert.
The band wanted to focus on what they did best, which was stir up excitement during their live concerts. They obviously were not exciting anyone with their studio albums, so they decided to release a live album which would try to capture that excitement on vinyl.
The band released a double LP Alive! in September of 1975.
I will not go into too much detail about this album since I will review it at entry #158.
However, the album was a success, reaching the top 10 on the Billboard chart and going Gold. It also brought them their first top 40 hit with the concert version of “Rock And Roll All Nite.” Not only was the album a success for the band, but it also saved the label from bankruptcy.
The band was now selling out auditoriums and their fan club the “KISS Army” was growing into the hundreds of thousands. They hoped to capitalize on their new success by returning to the studio.
In August 1975, they set out to see if they could finally capture that magic they had in concert on a studio album. To help them, they brought in Alice Cooper’s producer, Bob Ezrin to produce the album for them. Thinking that they had been too slapdash on their previous albums, they spent several months recording demos and rehearsing before recording commenced in February of 1976,
The Album Cover:
As a lifetime comic book fan, Gene wanted a comic book fantasy picture for the cover. The band’s manager, Bill Aucoin, went downstairs to a newsstand and picked up some sci-fi and horror magazines. The band looked at the covers and picked the one they liked the best and contacted the artist. The cover they liked best was by fantasy artist Ken Kelly. Kelly had been an artist on such comics as Conan the Barbarian.
Kelly went to a KISS concert to get the “feel” of KISS, and was blown away. He painted the cover with the knowledge the band wanted to name the album Destroyer. He took that concept and painted the band leaping over rubble while buildings crumbled and burned in the distance. However, the cover he submitted was not the one to be the finished product.
The record label thought the burning city in the background with smoke billowing under the band was too violent an image for their product and, also, in the time since he had completed his painting, the band had changed their costumes for the new tour to promote this new album.
Kelly changed the cover to a more subdued bit of destruction, there were now just a few burning buildings a bit farther in the background, and he re-did the band’s costumes on the cover to reflect their new looks.
The back cover shows the aftermath of the destruction, with more burning buildings and black smoke covering the sky.
The innersleeve has an advertisement for their fan club on one side.
And the band’s name with lyrics to “Detroit Rock City” on the other.
I am reviewing the vinyl LP release of Destroyer released on Casablanca Records in 1976.
(Note: All song titles are linked to Youtube clips of the songs. As always, I most recommend buying the vinyl version for best listening experience.)
The album opens with “Detroit Rock City.” The awesome opening track streak continues! Paul wrote the song about the true story of a KISS fan that was killed in an auto accident on his way to see them play in Detroit. The track opens with sound effects of someone getting in a car with “Rock and Roll All Nite” off of Alive! playing on the radio, and Gene playing the role of a newscaster, which makes me laugh at how serious he is sounding. I just know that he thought that no one would put two and two together and realize this Demon is so intelligent sounding. One of their best guitar riffs opens the track and on the whole, it’s really awesome and a legendary track.
“Detroit Rock City” flows into “King Of The Night Time World” another Stanley song. A perfect anthem for KISS’ many rebellious, male teenage fans of 1976. It rocks harder than the preceding track. Criss has some great drumming on this track. The change in producers is already apparent just by hearing the first two tracks. Both of these songs just sound so clear and musical, even with KISS’ usual 3 chord style. Two great tracks to start things off.
Gene has his first song on the album with the concert staple (as all of these songs will become) “God Of Thunder.” A very epic sounding opening. I just get the feeling that a lot of Spinal Tap’s music had to be partially based on this track.
Yes, it is a bit overwrought, but what else would you want from a guy who vomits blood and wags his foot long tongue, while breathing fire, painted like a demon on stage. Ezrin’s influence definitely shows up here as it is quite an Alice Cooper-esque song. Good, good stuff.
“Great Expectations” closes out side one. The first time I heard this I was surprised that KISS did stuff this conceptual. The chorus is based on Beethoven’s “Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor.” It is another Gene song, but a huge departure from “God of Thunder.” Although, it is about his favorite thing in the world, sex with groupies, but it is hidden in a classy sound. Many have called this KISS’ most Beatle-esque track. I don’t know what to call it other than terrific. A fantastic ending to the first side of Destroyer.
Side two of the LP opens with “Flaming Youth.” Co-written by Ace and Paul with Paul on lead vocals, in fact Ace doesn’t sing at all on this album. They really do a good job of writing songs for their fan base, they just might be the best band at doing that.
Another rocking track and a great opener for a side. There is a little addition of an organ, which is new to KISS. Five great songs in a row to start the album.
“Sweet Pain” is another Gene track, so that means it is another sex song, this time about S&M. It has some great guitar work, but not by Ace. Bob Ezrin did not like Ace’s playing on the original recording and replaced it without Ace’s knowledge by bringing in Dick Wagner, who had played on Alice Cooper’s albums. Ace did not know he had been replaced until he heard the album completed the first time. Despite what Ace might think about it, it is another great track.
“Shout It Out Loud” is probably KISS’ second most famous track behind “Rock And Roll All Nite.” Paul and Gene share lead vocals. I remember first hearing this song as part of a TV commercial with KISS when they were on their reunion tour in the late 90’s.
It just has a rock concert feel to it, even on the album. Fantastic stuff.
“Beth” is the one Peter Criss song on the album, but, man, what song it is. Most all of the instrumentation is from an orchestra. I would like to have known what someone in 1976 would have thought about this track the first time they’d heard it and found out it was KISS. I’d imagine it would be something akin to mind being blown. It’s a really sweet song that is about long distance relationships and it does not involve talking about spreading someone’s legs or using silly double entendres, like, ya know, most KISS songs about women. One of the best rock ballads of all time.
“Do You Love Me? closes out the album. Another one of KISS’ best known songs. Truly great song, which even has a touch of psychedelic rock mixed into the fourth verse. I like how KISS’ songs are very KISS specific. I mean who else can write a song that includes the line “you like my seven inch leather heels” and sing that with a straight face? The production is so crisp with bells mixed in with the rocking at the end. Great ending to a great album
Well that was sort of the ending. The album has a hidden track usually referred to a “Rock And Roll Party” by fans. It is the instrumentation of “Great Expectations” played in reverse with a clip of Paul yelling “Rock and roll party!” sampled off of Alive! Ezrin wanted to end the album on sound effects like the way they opened the album and the band thought it would be funny to use backwards sound since people were always trying to find backwards hidden messages in songs.
What can I say? It is a classic album filled with nothing but classic tracks. This album proved that KISS could capture that spirit they had on concert on vinyl. It is a true masterwork of rock.
I should also note that KISS released Destroyer: Resurrected in 2012.
It had the original artwork as the cover, and the songs were mixed differently, sometimes with new instrumentation such as reinstating Ace Frehley’s guitar work on “Sweet Pain.” It also included unheard vocals on “Beth” and “Detroit Rock City.” Usually, I say re-mixed versions of albums aren’t better or worse, just different, but this one just doesn’t work for me.
I like the album too much the way it was originally released to enjoy the remixed version. I realize KISS loves making more money, but leave well enough alone, guys. Have we not learned anything from George Lucas’ tinkering with Star Wars?
Despite gaining such a huge following after the release of Alive!, this album was not quite the immediate huge seller that the band expected. It did do much better than their previous three studio albums, going gold almost immediately, but it stalled as the three singles off the album did not make much of an impression on top 40 radio. Only “Shout It Out Loud” made the top 40 and it topped out at #31 on the Billboard chart.
It was not until a radio DJ in Atlanta flipped the “Detroit Rock City” single and started playing its B-side “Beth” that things really heated up for KISS. The album had already started to move back down the charts, but once DJs across the country started flipping the single to play “Beth” it took off again. The song became KISS’ first top 10 hit, reaching #7, and Destroyer became their first platinum record, and eventually it reached double platinum status.
KISS was now becoming one of the most popular bands in the world. Their next two albums Rock And Roll Over and Love Gun both immediately went platinum. A Gallop poll at the end of 1977 said that KISS was the most the most popular band in the United States.
They also became the top merchandising American band in the history of music. Most notably they put out the KISS comic book (which advertised having real KISS members’ blood in the red ink) and one of the crappiest movies in the history of crap movies titled KISS Meets the Phantom.
In 1978, they took the merchandising even further by thinking that fans that like buying one KISS record would love to buy four KISS records. So each member of the group recorded their own solo album and Casablanca released them simultaneously.
Well, KISS fans complied, and each solo album went platinum, reaching the top 50 on the Billboard albums chart all at the same time. However, three of the four were not highly regarded by critics with Ace Frehley being the only exception. Ace was also the only one to have a top 20 single from the solo albums with “New York Groove.”
Criss left the band officially in 1980 and was replaced by Eric Carr. Their next album 1981’s, Music From “The Elder” was a concept album that told the story of a boy and knights and stuff.
That kind of stuff that was more suited for Rick Wakeman or Peter Gabriel.
Fans hated it, critics hated it even more. Ace Frehley hated it too and quit the band.
Ace was replaced by Vinnie Vincent on lead guitar for the recording of their next album Creatures Of The Night, but he was still credited on the album and his picture remained on the cover.
1983 brought the biggest change for KISS in many years as the band decided to be introduced with their facepaint removed on an MTV special, showing their fans how ugly they had all been all along. They had gone to extremes to protect their identity for years and the unmasking was worldwide news.
The publicity stunt worked, as having their faces “naked” for the first time, on the hot, new cable channel, MTV, made the new album Lick It Up their biggest success in over three years, going instantly gold and eventually platinum.
The title track became one of the most played music videos on MTV for a couple of years and the song remains a concert staple of theirs.
The band remained successful throughout the 1980’s with several platinum albums and every album going at least gold. However, most KISS fans wanted the original KISS lineup and the facepaint and costumes to return.
Finally, in 1996, the original four members Gene, Paul, Peter, and Ace came on stage together in the original costumes and facepaint at the Grammy Awards.
A few weeks later, the group announced they would be doing a reunion tour. The original lineup stayed together until 2001 when Criss left the band again, and then Ace left after performing with the band at the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The band continues to perform with Gene and Paul, drummer Eric Singer and guitarist Tommy Thayer. KISS released their most recent album Monster in October of 2012 to decent reviews and good sales.
My take on Rolling Stone’s Take:
RS: “By their fifth album, KISS were the most popular band in America, with sold-out stadium tours and eventually their own pinball machine, makeup line and a TV movie. Built around the proto-power ballad “Beth,” this is a ridiculously over-the-top party-rock album that just gets better with age.”
Hey, stop with the backhanded compliments. You guys are the ones saying these are the greatest albums of all time, act like you really mean it. Mentioning the pinball and the TV movie really tells us so much about the album, Rolling Stone. Thanks for nothing, guys.
There was a time that I had a list of the top 10 most overrated artists in the history of music. I don’t remember who all was on the list now, but I do remember that KISS was the highest band on the list. I do not think that anymore. This album is fantastic from top to bottom. Every song is great and shows that KISS was not just flash and style in concert, they could really put together a great work of art with Destroyer. C’mon Rock n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, put these guys in there.
5 Stars out of 5, Perfect rating
My ranking of the Rolling Stone 500 that I’ve reviewed thus far:
1. The Stone Roses- The Stone Roses
2. Wilco- Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
3. KISS- Destroyer
4. Herbie Hancock- Head Hunters
5. ZZ Top- Tres Hombres
6. Bonnie Raitt- Give It Up
7. Outkast- Aquemini
8. Albert King- Born Under A Bad Sign
9. Boz Scaggs- Boz Scaggs
10. Public Enemy- Yo! Bum Rush The Show
11. Ian Dury- New Boots and Panties!!
12. B.B. King- Live in Cook County Jail
13. Eurythmics- Touch