KISS Alive! (Casablanca)

Based on the supposition that one way to discover the true merit of an artist or group is to track their career back to its source – well, how do you think Ozzy would prefer to be remembered, as the bat-chewing reality television show veteran or the howling beast of Sabbath’s original incarnation? – here I am at reputedly one of the early peaks of Kisstory. I suspect that, as Mike Myers and Peter Buck have observed about Peter Frampton and Aerosmith respectively, there’s something about early Kiss that encapsulates the adolescent experience in mid-1970s America: the recent, posthumously-released collection of early Elliott Smith material, “New Moon”, features in its packaging a photograph of the grinning pre-teen songwriter clutching a copy of “Alive II”, and such ubiquity explains covers of the band’s songs by the likes of The Lemonheads and The Replacements, who might’ve otherwise been presumed to exist way outside the Kiss catchment area.

Initially, at least, Kiss’ thumping, no-brainer bubblegum rock is actually quite exhilarating: there’s a refreshing unpretentiousness to the likes of “Deuce” and “Strutter”. But Gene Simmons’ cliché-ridden performance (well, this was 1975 after all, and maybe his antics were considered fresh and exciting way back then) diminishes considerably in credibility after I realised that he sounds unnervingly like a greasepainted Muppet – The Amazing Mumford, at a guess; I kept half-expecting him to holler “A la peanut butter sandwiches!”

Gene “I have Polaroids of the 2000 women I’ve slept with” Simmons might not be the first person you’d expect to receive a lecture on the joys of monogamy from but, on “Got To Choose”, there it is; shame he torches all those accrued correctness tokens with the knuckle-dragging likes of “Parasite” and “She”. “Watchin’ You” sounds like Led Zeppelin’s “Trampled Under Foot”, uh, trampled under foot, but the album really bottoms out on “10,000 Years”; lasting roughly as long as its titular timeframe, it’s mainly taken up by a drum solo and Paul Stanley’s ludicrous crowd-baiting routine: “I wanna know how many people here tonight believe in rock ‘n’ roll!”. It doesn’t sound like he’s too concerned about the statistical validity of the response. “Black Diamond” is probably one of the better bits, if only because of its familiarity from The Replacements’ cover, which admittedly isn’t quite as battered by pyrotechnics.

What’s most surprising about “Alive!” is how weedy it sounds – think The Spiders From Mars on a pantomime engagement. Doubts have apparently been retrospectively cast on the accuracy of the album’s title, with producer and engineer Eddie Kramer, a Hendrix and Zep veteran, remember, claiming on various occasions that only the drums or lead guitar remained from the original concert recordings. Paul Stanley has also commented that the album sounds as if it was recorded in a washroom.

As a take-home for the band’s loyal fans, in a pre-video era “Alive!” arguably earned its stripes by providing, through fair means or foul, a close approximation to their idealised Kiss concert. Two steps removed from the truth, an escapist fantasy version of an escapist fantasy, perhaps its relevance has diminished over the years in ways that a completely accurate document of the 1975 Kiss concert experience might not have suffered.

KISS Dressed To Kill (Mercury)

Mysteriously, I find the mid-70s studio-bound Kiss experience far more appealing that “Alive!”, discussed a few issues ago. Maybe it’s the absence of that album’s uningratiating bathroom acoustics and cheesy banter; perhaps it has something to do with the acoustic guitars frequently deployed to crispen the mix. Admittedly, most of “Dressed To Kill” sounds like The Spiders From Mars playing The Archies, and the songs rarely aspire to anything higher than teenage white boy wish fulfilment (opener “Room Service” being a prime example), frequently mired in an unreconstructed attitude to gender politics (yes, that means you, “Ladies In Waiting” and “She”), but on this showing Kiss’ bubblegum rock is mysteriously palatable.

The classical guitar introduction to “Rock Bottom” – a real “Lick My Love Pump” moment if ever there was one – takes up half the song here. On the other side of the sexism coin, the doe-eyed commitment of “Anything For My Baby” (a lobotomised, stadium rockin’ Byrds) and “Love Her All I Can” (the harmonies! The cowbell!) deserve recognition. The gang vocals and mentality of “Rock And Roll All Nite” are so inclusive (in a way that, for example, Led Zeppelin never were) I can almost see why people would want to buy into it by the million. I could complain about how that same puppeteer’s shrewdness is almost certainly responsible for the fact that the album’s been pared down to a wafer-thin 30 minutes – why make an album that’s longer than it has to be when you could be shunting that material towards the next product, six months down the assembly line? – but to do so might suggest that I wished it were longer. Could I really be enjoying it? Hmmm.