It can be easy to overlook the contributions to the music world made by KISS, the rock ‘n roll heroes who once adorned a young Rivers Cuomo‘s bedroom wall. For one thing, Gene Simmons‘ entire life is basically a commercial for Gene Simmons at this point, and even in their heyday, they were never all that popular among critics. But while KISS were never the most musically complex band, they wrote some undeniable anthems that hold up better than most would expect. And the first place to go to find KISS at their absolute best is with 1976’s Destroyer, which celebrates its 40th anniversary this week.
After the massive success of Alive, which presented the songs from KISS’ largely ignored first three albums in an invigorating live setting, the band was going to the studio with actual expectations for the first time in their careers. They had to deliver something that would capture the imaginations of the 13-year-olds who played Alive after school every day. They were more than up to the challenge. Right from the beginning, as the car starts on “Detroit Rock City,” we know we’re in for a thrilling trip. When the song actually starts, we get one of the most instantly memorable album-openers of all-time, as the “GET UP/GET DOWN” chants still resonate in our heads.
Even the titles alone tell you what the band was aiming for. “God of Thunder” and “Flaming Youth” were hard rock anthems designed to build up the band’s mythology, and each worked perfectly. “Shout It Out Loud” feels like a spiritual sequel to “Rock ‘N Roll All Nite” with a super-catchy chorus that makes it perfect for the live setting. And of course, there’s “Beth,” which for better or worse invented the power ballad as we know it. It’s a bit of a curveball from KISS, but it’s certainly endured over the years. Overall, there are few tracks here that didn’t make some kind of imprint on listeners.
But while Destroyer featured KISS at their apex, their sound — and really, their mission statement — worked on plenty of other releases, too. Consider 1977’s Love Gun, and specifically, its extremely-not-subtle title track. The metaphor is so obvious here, perhaps most memorably lampooned (albeit lovingly) in the 2008 comedy Role Models, where Seann William Scott explains to the child he’s supposed to be mentoring, “You see, his dick is the gun!” It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a big, dumb, fun rock ‘n roll song. The kind KISS made throughout their entire career.
The key to understanding KISS’ appeal is that it’s entirely primal and not particularly intellectual. Other music might be more heady, or feature more thoughtful lyrics (okay….most music has more thoughtful lyrics), but that’s really only a problem if you make it one. There are plenty of bands that have meant more to me over the years, but I’ll never forget the feeling I had as an 8-year-old, watching KISS perform before the Super Bowl, and hearing “I wanna rock and roll all night/ and party ev-er-y day!” for the first time. It’s the perfect rock ‘n roll chant, and you only need to hear it one time to remember it for the rest of your life.
The reason why KISS is so popular and have meant so much to so many people is that they so perfectly capture the notion of what rock ‘n roll is supposed to be. It’s not the deepest music, but it clicks with listeners immediately. Admittedly, that became less true as time went on, and the band found themselves working with the likes of Michael Bolton (!) on schmaltzy ballads that make “Beth” look like “Strutter,” but from 1974 to about 1978, KISS embodied rock ‘n roll like no one else.
It would be hard to find a modern-day comparison to KISS, mostly because few bands that play their style of rock with a bit of humor are capable of finding mainstream success in the 2010s. A somewhat workable comp might be Fall Out Boy, particularly on their last two releases, as they shed their emo past and began embracing arena-rock full-stop, with anthems like “My Songs Know What You Did in the Dark” and “Centuries” capturing a spirit similar to what KISS conjured up four decades earlier. But really, KISS have carved a place of their own in the annals of rock history. They tapped into what rock ‘n roll was at the most base level, and as a result, they made music that has endured for four decades, and will likely still hold up for years to come.