When conversations arise about the greatest hard rock debut albums, the usual selections immediately come to mind for many — offerings by Led Zeppelin, Van Halen, and Guns N’ Roses, to name a few. But one debut that seems to get overlooked quite often is the 1974 self-titled album from KISS.
At the time, glam rock was beginning to be phased out — David Bowie would soon stop shaving his eyebrows and drop the makeup for his streamlined “Thin White Duke” persona; Alice Cooper was about to go solo and embrace ballads; and the New York Dolls were on the cusp of imploding. Hence, ’74 would not have been the most ideal time to release a debut disc from a makeup-wearing band.
Although singer/guitarist Paul Stanley and singer/bassist Gene Simmons had been playing music together for a spell in the New York City area, it was not until 1973 that they finally crossed paths with two other like-minded musicians — first drummer Peter Criss, and then lead guitarist Ace Frehley — comprising the classic KISS lineup.
After building a local following, attracting manager Bill Aucoin, and signing with the fledgling Casablanca Records, the group — which performed with their faces disguised by makeup and dressed in costumes/platform boots — was not as “femme” as the other aforementioned glam acts, and also, rocked a heck of a lot harder (ok, ok…besides Alice Cooper from 1970-1973).
So, when the quartet arrived at Bell Sound Studios in New York City during October-November 1973 to lay down what would become their debut album, they interestingly chose not to enlist the famous producer who oversaw an early demo (Eddie Kramer), but rather, hooked up with the less-renowned production duo of Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise.
Speaking to Songfacts in 2013, Wise looked back on the sessions. “I remember being out in the studio with them trying to work out some better arrangements for the songs, making them more available to the listener, put in the verses, choruses, bridges, repeats, whatever, in the right places.”
“I worked very closely with Ace playing guitar,” he continued, “because as a guitar player I was able to piece together some nice guitar solos for him and work with him on some of that stuff. The vocals went really smooth. I don’t have any negative feelings at all. The first album was a breeze to do. I think we recorded it in six days and mixed it in six or seven days. It took about 13 days from start to finish to do it. It was done quickly and I’m very happy about that one.”
Instead of kicking things off with a tune that served as their live-opener for the next two years (“Deuce”), another rockin’ tune, “Strutter,” got the nod. Also included was KISS’ first-ever single, “Nothin’ to Lose” (which sees Simmons sing the verses with Stanley joining in at parts, before Criss handles lead scat vocals on the chorus).
“Firehouse” would soon become a concert highlight (due to Simmons breathing fire at the song’s conclusion), while the Frehley-penned “Cold Gin” quickly became another KISS classic (although it would take Frehley a few more albums before he would gather enough courage to begin singing songs he wrote — Simmons handles vocals here). And closing side one was the song that Stanley played for Simmons the first time they ever met, “Let Me Know” (then known as “Sunday Driver”).
Side two kicks off with the throwaway cover of “Kissin’ Time” (made famous by teen idol Bobby Rydell in 1959), which was included at the behest of Casablanca Records head, Neil Bogart. But up next, we get one of the album’s best tunes, “Deuce.” While the song’s lyrics don’t necessarily make a whole hell of a lot of sense, the track has certainly whipped countless concert goers into a frenzy over the years.
“Love Theme from KISS” is one of the few times KISS ever went instrumental (and is the sole tune on the album credited to all four members concerning authorship), while “100,000 Years” would soon become a concert highlight (onstage, it would include a drum solo by Criss and a stage rap by Stanley, enthusing the merits of rock n’ roll). Wrapping things up would be an epic, “Black Diamond,” which would also become a crucial component to KISS concerts — serving as the last song performed each night (during which Criss’ drum riser would…rise).
In addition to the quality of the material, what has made KISS’ debut age so well throughout the years is the way it was recorded and produced — keeping things close to how the quartet sounded live. “Without the volume,” was what Wise recalled being the LP’s sonic key to Songfacts. “The album was done very organically, which I liked. We didn’t go for a bombastingly crazy, overly distorted sound. Things were kept real. There was a minimum of effects used, so therefore the instruments stayed pretty close by, in your face. That album has a nice big sound to it without being loud, and without being super distorted.”
Released on February 18th, 1974 (some sources cite February 8th), the album did not exactly set the charts alight — peaking at a meager #87 on the Billboard chart. But it did spend an impressive 22 weeks on the tally, and eventually, obtained gold certification. However, it is impossible to calculate just how many subsequent renowned rock musicians were inspired and influenced by this particular recording. And a year-and-a-half later, most of these ditties were included as even higher-energy renditions on their commercial breakthrough, Alive!
[Live Review: KISS Say Goodbye to Portland, Oregon, with Blood, Pyro, and More]
So, the next time you find yourself involved in a “greatest hard rock debut album debate”, consider that song-for-song, KISS’ debut is right up there among the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame group’s top albums, with the band still performing four tracks off the disc 45 years later on their “End of the Road” farewell tour.
If nothing else, the debut disc tops Gene Simmons’ list of KISS albums. “The first record is my favorite because it has so many memories,” he stated on Good Morning America in late 2018 while promoting the band’s farewell tour. “You know when a dream starts to come true? You dream big and you have that first record, and you hold it in your hands. I bought our first record, and I went, ‘Wow, I’m in KISS.”