I’ve been a KISS fan since I was around eight years old, and ever since I first picked my dad’s dusty, yellowed cassette copy of Love Gun, I’ve been hooked. Over time, I’ve discovered and loved many bands, and at times I thought that KISS had finally been unseated as my favorite band. For a time, it was Oasis and then The Gaslight Anthem. While I love both of those bands dearly (especially Oasis), at the end of the day, they come a distant second to KISS. I keep coming back to KISS and I know I always will. In truth, I love everything they have done. I love every era and every album. All of them for one reason or another hold a special significance to me. That said, a few which are more near and dear to me than others…more on that in just a moment. With all of that being said, there are two sides to this proverbial coin, and that is the very real and major role that the music of KISS has played in my friendship with my best friend, Joe O’Brien.
As many of you know, KISS is on their End of The Road Tour, which will reportedly be their last, and this time I believe it. In the summer of 2000, Joe and I believed it then, too. At the time, KISS was on their Farewell Tour, which really only ended up being a sort of farewell to the original lineup, but we didn’t know that then. So, when Joe and I climbed into his mom’s ’96 Dodge Caravan to go see KISS at Jones Beach here on Long Island, we thought this was going to be our first and only chance ever to see our favorite band. At the time, Joe and I were at the height of an outright hysterical KISS obsession, and getting to see these larger-than-life heroes in person was the literal culmination of our young life’s work, even if it was from the literal nosebleed seats.
Without going into any more grizzled details, KISS has been a huge part of my life, Joe’s life, and subsequently, our friendship. So, today Joe and I are going to hash out five albums that have been important to us as proud members of the KISS Army. After some back and forth, these are the five essential albums we came up with. Joe picked two, I picked two and we shared one pick. I’ll let Joe go into that more after this is all over. We’ll talk about the what, the why, the how and the when, as well as everything in between. You wanted the best, you got the best, the hottest band in the world – KISS.
Hotter Than Hell (1974)
This wasn’t the first KISS album I heard, not even by a long shot. To be honest, I first heard most of the tracks that appear on this record via Alive! and so, the first time I listened to Hotter Than Hell and its supremely weird and murky production value, I was basically like, “What hell am I listening to?” The songs were so different from their live counterparts that I really struggled with this album at first. That said, I do recall loving “Mainline,” “Coming Home,” and “Strange Ways,” the last one which features some of Ace Frehley’s most searing guitar work ever. As I got older, I learned to truly love and appreciate Hotter Than Hell, and as I’ve learned more about genres, I’ve come to realize that this wasn’t just a KISS classic, but it was actually an unintentional Psych freakout/Pro-Metal masterpiece. I mean seriously, “Parasite” is one of the fiercest Metal riffs you will ever hear. It stands up to the best of Sabbath, but that’s just my opinion.
One memory I randomly have of this album occurred in my dad’s work van. The van only had two seats, so if there was a third passenger, they would have to sit on a bucket placed within the dead space between the two seats, AKA- this van was not meant to carry three passengers. Anyway, I remember being in the van with Joe and my dad while he was taking us to Baileys Comic so we could score some Mad Magazines. I was sitting on the bucket (no seatbelt to speak of). I remember “Mainline” playing via the cassette on the radio. It’s one of those random memories that really means nothing but still is forever attached to something.
I believe this was the first or second formal KISS studio album that I bought. Back in the late 90s and early 2000s, it was CDs. I bought it, like most of my other KISS CDs, at Looney Tunes. Looney Tunes was our local record shop and a haven for all things KISS. They had various versions of basically every KISS album. They had KISS on CD, cassette, and vinyl. They had posters, T-shirts, figurines, pins, stickers, etc., all of KISS. They even had this locked display case with bootleg tapings of KISS concerts. Andrew and I did many a chore for my parents to get those bootleg concerts.
What drew me to Hotter Than Hell as a kid was the cover. All the different colors, the raw but larger-than-life black and white pics of the band, as well as the Japanese imagery. It is probably still my favorite KISS cover to this day. There are a ton of songs that I loved on this album as a kid. “Let Me Go, Rock n’ Roll,” “Hotter Than Hell,” “Parasite,” “Comin’ Home” and “All the Way” were favorites. If I had the album on vinyl, I probably would have worn the grooves off those songs. Songs like “Watchin’ You,” “Strange Ways” and “Goin’ Blind” confused me as a 12-year-old. In my teenage years, these songs became some of my favorites on the album. As an adult, my multi-layered history with the album has led it to become one of my favorites. Consequently, that led to it being one of the first albums I picked up when I renewed my interest in vinyl.
Love Gun (1977)
So, there is an argument to be made that this may be the most cohesive and best KISS album there is. Just look at it…you’ve got “Love Gun,” “I Stole Your Love,” “Plaster Caster,” and of course, “Shock Me,” which once again features supreme Ace Frehley badassery. From my own personal perspective, this album holds extra special significance, as it is truly the one that started it all. If I hadn’t been a bored and nosey old child, rummaging through my parent’s crap, I never would have found my dad’s deteriorating Love Gun cassette, and perhaps Joe and I don’t become the KISS superfans we are today. Sure, we probably would have discovered them eventually, just as we have other bands, but the late 90s obsession era definitely doesn’t come to pass without the discovery of that now-infamous cassette. The whole reason I even bothered with it in the first place was that I had heard “Rock ‘N’ Roll All Night” on the radio and was hoping that maybe it was on this tape. Not actually knowing the song title, I mistook “Tomorrow and Tonight” for the song I was looking for. I was wrong, but at that point, it didn’t matter. From the second I heard the opening notes, I basically said to myself, “Yup. This is it for me.” The rest is history….I mean KISStory.
As kids, Andrew and I were inseparable. When one person got into a hobby, the other would, too. Music has been a lifelong hobby that always connected us. At the time, we both had the classic 90s bedroom stereo. It came complete with a CD player with a 3-disc tray, double cassette deck, radio, and detachable bookshelf speakers. We would use these bedroom stereo sets to make cassettes of the latest stuff we got on CD. It was a great way to share music with each other and increase the surface area of music at our fingertips. Andrew had taken his dad’s Love Gun tape based on curiosity. We both loved what we heard. I remember he made me a tape of my own with songs from Love Gun. It also held his favorite songs from the Ace Frehley solo album as well as Van Halen’s first album. I believe I made one for Andrew with songs from AC/DC’s Back in Black and KISS’s Destroyer around the same time. I still connect the songs “Rip It Out,” “Tomorrow and Tonight” and “Running with the Devil” in my mind because of that mix-tape. When I finally got the album on CD, it was weird because I had memorized the order on that mix-tape. Obviously, the most exciting thing about this album, coming back to it a year later at age 12, was that Ace finally sang a song. However, since I was a kid, I had loved every song on this album from the first note of “I Stole Your Love” until the last note (of a very underrated cover) “Then She Kissed Me.”
Creatures of the Night (1982)
So, I know I just said that there is an argument to be made that Love Gun is perhaps the most cohesive and best KISS album. Keywords “argument to be made,” because, in my opinion, Creatures of the Night is the best KISS studio album. The album is straight-up Metal, which meant absolutely nothing to me as a kid. That said, it’s every bit as Metal as other albums that came out in 1982 such as Iron Maiden’s Number of the Beast, Judas Priest’s Screaming for Vengeance, or Motörhead’s Iron Fist. This album is really heavy and the production absolutely slays. Eric Carr’s drum sound is the stuff of legend.
I don’t know why, but I’ve always really loved the lineup of Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Eric Carr, and Vinnie Vincent. A part of me will always wish it worked out. I know that Vinnie apparently overplayed live and that he was basically the headcase to end all headcases, but you can’t argue with the records he played on for KISS. They’re some of the band’s most consistent and heaviest work. I recall Joe and I loving this record from the moment we heard it. I also recall having to convince Joe to listen to the record, because he was deeply unsure of listening to music that wasn’t by the original lineup. My favorite songs on the record were always, “Keep Me Comin,” “Creatures of the Night” and “Rock ‘N’ Roll Hell.” I remember my dad taking Joe and I to Tower Records, and that’s where I picked my cassette copy of Creatures of the Night. I think Joe had it on CD….I remember walking around the park across the street from my house with Joe and we each had our Sony Walkman’s going. We would trade tapes back and forth to listen to as we walked around collecting cans to turn in for cash at the local Waldbaums. What did we use the money for? KISS trading cards, of course.
At first, I was unsure if I wanted to listen to Creatures of the Night. I had discovered that although Ace was on the cover, he was not on the album. I had never heard any music KISS had made without Ace. He was my favorite at the time, and I was not sure if I would like it. The only simple way to find out if I would like it was to buy the album. When I was a kid, streaming music was not a thing and MP3s were very new and confusing. The only way to listen to music without buying a physical copy was to know someone who had that album. Then they could make you a copy on cassette or if they were fancy, on CD. I remember Andrew and I debating if we should spend our hard-earned allowance and chore money on the album. I chose to buy a used copy of the album as it was much cheaper and allowed me to buy another CD. I was disappointed that it did not have the KISStory write-up inside it like my remastered CDs and had a different album cover. Later, I would enjoy that I had a unique copy of the CD with Bruce Kulick on the cover. Anyway, I did not regret buying this album at all, and was obsessed with songs like, “Creatures of the Night,” “Keep Me Comin’,” “I Love It Loud,” and “Rock and Roll Hell.” It seemed over the next few years I would always find a new song on this one to obsess about. It’s hard to pick but this could most definitely be my favorite KISS album.
One distinct memory I have regarding Creatures of the Night was playing the drums in my garage. Andrew and I used to blast CDs on my boom-box in the garage and try to play along on my drum set. Creatures of the Night was in constant rotation in our “garage concerts.” My drum set was an Eclipse floor model my aunt and uncle had got me as a present. I slowly replaced all the parts with better ones with help from Andrew (better skins and bass drum pedal, Sabian cymbals, additional tom-tom drum, cowbell, wind chimes, Peter Criss drums sticks, with promo poster prominently displayed, etc.) It was for lack of a better word- badass. I barely knew how to play, but it did not make it any less fun.
Lick It Up (1983)
I chose this one because it has a memory attached to it. Several, actually. I mentioned earlier that the two albums Vinnie Vincent were a part of were some of the best work KISS ever put out. Well, this is the other album Vinnie was a part of during his tenure as the official lead guitarist of KISS. I was slightly resistant to non-makeup KISS initially due to bad intel given to me by my biased dad. Anyway, after I got over myself, I realized that this album slays. Obviously, I loved “Lick It Up” right away, but other standout tracks for me were basically all the Paul Stanley cuts such as “Gimmie More,” “Exciter,” and “All Hells Breaking Loose.” I didn’t grow into the Gene Simmons tracks until later in life, but now I love and worship the entire record. Anyway, I remember doing jobs for Joe’s mom all day during the summer to earn the cash to buy this CD from our local shop Looney Tunes. I remember bringing it home and my mom making a really stupid comment that went something like, “Lick It Up? What’s he licking up, Andrew? Milk?” She knew very well what was being licked up and so did I. She then made some kind of comment about me turning into a “dirtbag rocker” and I proceeded to close my door and internally told her to shove it. The other memory I have of this album is me daring Joe to yell the lyrics to “Gimmie More” out loud where Joe’s mom could hear them. Joe took the dare and he proceeded to yell out loud from the den, “Come on lick my candy cane!” If you weren’t sure what Paul Stanley was insinuating with Lick It Up’s title, then I am sure all uncertainty has now gone out the window.
The first non-makeup KISS album and the first I ever heard. I remember watching a video countdown on VH1 with Andrew and the video for “Lick It Up” came on. Side note, we watched tons of VH1 video countdowns and specials back then. Both of us used to tape anything we thought was cool using our VCRs. Back to Lick It Up. We were transfixed by the song and video. One of us had to get the album soon with our allowance. I remember Andrew getting it on CD on one of our typical weekend sleepover marathons. We slammed the door shut and turned the stereo up all the way. Andrew’s mom was less than enthused when she heard the lyrics to “Lick It Up” emanating from his bedroom and filling the whole house. I remember her coming up the stairs and giving us a speech about being “dirtbag rockers” or something weird. Andrew had to convince her that the song was about, “Licking up the good things in life and being a good person” otherwise we would have never seen that CD again. Another memory I have is us memorizing the talking parts in “All Hell’s Breakin’ Loose” and randomly reciting them- “I am cool. I am the breeze.” As a kid, this period of KISS, always had me leaning more towards the theatrical Hair Metal songs. As far as this album went, that meant songs such as “Exciter,” “Lick It Up” and “All Hell’s Breakin’ Lose.” The amazing thing about continually coming back to albums you have been listening to for years is that you always find new songs that hit you at the right time. To be honest, it probably was not until I was an adult that I started to love songs like “Young and Wasted” and “Fits Like a Glove.”
Psycho Circus (1998)
So, aside from being a great album and one that has aged incredibly well, Psycho Circus will always be really special. It’s the first new KISS album that came out during the height of our aforementioned KISS obsession. It’s also the first actual “new release” that I ever personally purchased with my own money. I saved my allowance and bought it from Looney Tunes (our local shop). I remember being mystified by the 3D lenticular cover, and I also remember that this CD was one of those “Enhanced CDs” which were ever so popular during the late 90s and early 2000s. To this day, I have no idea what “Enhanced CDs” do or are even supposed to do. I tried to load it into my computer at home (many times), and nothing happened. If someone could tell me what “Enhanced CDs” are supposed to do, that would be great. Anyway, standout tracks for me were always “Psycho Circus,” “Into The Void,” and “You Wanted the Best.” I recall Joe being obsessed with “Raise Your Glasses,” and I remember blasting it in his room and his dad yelling at us from down the hall to turn it down. Our response? To gallop down the hallway singing the chorus, “Everybody ’round the nation…” I don’t recall that going over too well. Thankfully, Joe’s dad is a patient man.
I know KISS fans have mixed feelings about this album, but it will always hold a special place in my heart as the only album of original material that came out during my obsessive fandom years of junior high. I LOVED this album as a kid and still do. Lots of underrated tracks on this album. “Into the Void” was a big obsession as the only Frehley sung track. “Raise Your Glasses” was one we used to belt out the lyrics to. “You Wanted the Best” was a track I loved as a kid because all four original members sung on the song. “We Are One” was a track I came to love during my high school days (It is also featured on my other article here about KISS where I discuss their top-ten underrated tracks). A specific memory I have regarding Psycho Circus is both hilarious and slightly embarrassing. My mom had left Andrew and I alone, a rare occurrence back in junior high. We decided to bring my boom-box into the living room and blast Psycho Circus. We started playing air guitar with some brooms and getting really into it. We had recently seen a certain Red Hot Chili Peppers performance and decided it would be cool to imitate while playing air guitar. My mom and sisters came home earlier than we expected. They were surprised to find us wearing only socks (not on our feet) and playing air guitar with Psycho Circus blaring. At the time it was insanely embarrassing, but now I find it hysterical.
Music and consequently KISS has always been a constant in my life. Doubly so in my lifelong friendship with Andrew. KISS has almost been like a soundtrack to the moments in my childhood. Music is special that way; it enables you to somehow remember treasured memories you would otherwise forget. It might seem silly to some, but because of this, KISS’s music has become intensely personal to me. I look forward to many more years of good memories and times while listening to KISS.
Interested in digging into the music of KISS? Check out the link below:
Dig this article? Check out the full archives of Mix-Tapes & Memories, by Joe O’Brien, here: https://vinylwritermusic.com/mix-tapes-memories-archives/
Dig this article? Check out the full archives of Stories from the Stacks, by Andrew Daly, here: www.vinylwritermusic.com/stories-from-the-stacks-archives/