On 30 January 1973 barely a dozen patrons crammed together in a rundown venue in Queens, New York known as the Popcorn Club to witness the first performance of a local group called KISS. By all accounts the event was far from memorable and it is unlikely that anyone in attendance ever expected to hear of the band again. Half a decade had passed since that uneventful night and KISS had transformed themselves into rock superstars, having already released six acclaimed studio albums, two live records and a host of merchandise. With a loyal following known as the KISS Army eagerly anticipating their next offering, in truth the four-piece had grown disillusioned and were close to burning out.
In the twelve months since the release of their sixth album Love Gun in the summer of 1977, KISS had followed it with the highly-anticipated Alive II along with their first ever compilation Double Platinum. Now in the wake of the phenomenal success of Star Wars, the band’s label Casablanca had joined forces with Hanna-Barbera, the studio best known for producing such animated shows as Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones, to develop a feature film. From their inception KISS had always been a multi-media enterprise, but with each member suffering from exhaustion following a gruelling tour schedule that had lasted almost nine months the experience of starring in their own motion picture would almost cause the group to self-destruct.
Seeing that each member would benefit with time away from their bandmates their manager Bill Aucoin would suggest an idea that had never been done before. ‘After a certain number of group records you need a departure,’ he explained. ‘We knew that the group was still strong and wanted to stay together. We also felt we were ready to go to the next level and at that point, it meant letting them expand on their own.’ With the group gathered together alongside representatives of the label, Aucoin made the suggestion that instead of returning to the studio to record a follow-up to Love Gun, each member record a solo album that would be released simultaneously under the moniker of KISS.
Since their first show the focal point of the band had always been co-singers Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons and so it would be inevitable that their own records would bear a striking resemblance to KISS. Yet without the expectations that would come with releasing an official KISS album, both were given the creative freedom to indulge in whatever musical passion they wished, thus allowing them to flirt with genres and techniques not commonly associated with a rock group. What fans were more curious about, however, was what kind of album would be produced by the remaining two members. After all, up until this point guitarist Ace Frehley had only sung on two tracks with the band, while drummer Peter Criss’ piano ballad Beth had become an unexpected hit two years earlier.
Aucoin’s proposal would receive a mixed response from the group. ‘Creatively and commercially, it seems to make a lot of sense and it had the additional benefit of giving us a break from each other,’ admitted Frehley in his memoir No Regrets. ‘We had spent so much time with each other over the previous five years that it was inevitable for tension to arise.’ Stanley, who had always been the star of KISS, did not share the optimism of his guitarist. ‘I didn’t have a choice,’ he told the A.V. Club. ‘The idea was to present group unity, which is kind of interesting, because the solo albums came out of the band being on the verge of splitting up. In the long run, it was putting a band-aid on a serious wound.’
Each group is made up of several distinct and unique personalities and this could best be demonstrated with the eclectic results that the four solo albums from KISS would produce when they were eventually released on 18 September 1978. Each musician had drawn heavily from their musical influences, while even their choice of producers and methods of recording would reflect their personalities. And while Stanley’s offering would remain loyal to the expectations of KISS fans, Criss would arguably produce the most unexpected collection of songs, taking inspiration from the music of his youth that would include R&B and 1960’s pop.
‘I’ve never done this kind of stuff before on a KISS record, it would have been too much of a departure,’ confessed Simmons to Rock Magazine prior to the release date. ‘It’s another thing to have God of Thunder on an album with Mr. Make Believe…I guess the big secret about all of us in the band is that we have all been writing different kinds of songs all along and because of all the self-imposed restrictions, you know, about how we are supposed to sound like, we’ve never done them. It’s no one’s fault, it’s just the way we wanted to sound like.’
The first of the four to commence work was Stanley, who relocated to Electric Lady Studios, the same New York facility where KISS had recorded Dressed to Kill three years earlier, in February 1978. These initial sessions were intended to help the singer develop several new songs, of which the foundation of the album could be built around. Opting to work without the guidance of a producer, Stanley reached out to a reliable KISS associate called Bob Kulick. Despite having failed his audition with the group several years earlier, Kulick had participated in the recording of Alive II, providing uncredited guitar work on three of the additional studio tracks included on the final side of the record.
‘I got a call from Paul and I got a call from Gene as well. Both asked me to play guitar on their solo albums,’ he explained to Bravewords. ‘Paul was trying to do a more organic band-like approach, whereas Gene was trying to get a whole bunch of guests and piece it all together. You know, I would have liked to have played on both records. But the reality was if I played on Gene’s record, as Gene pointed out to me, then there’s two records with the same lead player on it, which I could understand his point. And also the fact that Paul was like, ‘Well, wait a minute. I’m using him so you can’t use him.’ So I basically just said, ‘No problem. I totally understand.’ But Paul’s album was a different project than the KISS Alive II thing in that Paul certainly gave me more latitude and longitude in terms of what I was able to play by virtue of me not trying to have to be somebody else.’
While Stanley would record the initial sessions himself he approached an established producer to help guide the album through to completion. Ron Nevison had first made a name for himself with Thin Lizzy on their 1974 release Nightlife but it would be through his partnership with UFO that he would find his greatest success. Yet due to his commitment with the band’s latest project Obsession, Nevison would be unavailable to participate and so Stanley decided to produce without any outside influence. Among the songs recorded at Electric Lady would be the album’s highlight Tonight You Belong to Me and Move On, the latter co-written by British musician Mikel Japp.
It’s just a hobby of mine to go in the studio and see what happens
Although four songs would be completed during his time at Electric Lady, Stanley had only booked the studio with the intention of recording a demo. ‘It’s just a hobby of mine to go in the studio and see what happens,’ he told Hit Parader. ‘So I cut four things, figuring that when I did the album I would wind up re-cutting them, but I wound up using them.’ But the sessions would be forced to come to a halt when Kulick’s prior commitments to Meat Loaf would force him to embark on a world tour in support of the recently-released Bat Out of Hell. By the time Kulick had returned to America, Stanley was in Los Angeles working on their motion picture, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park.
The experience of shooting on location at the Magic Mountain theme park in Valencia was both gruelling and humiliating for the band, having soon realised that their feature film debut would be nothing short of disastrous. After having concluded the shoot on 19 May with a live performance that would serve as the film’s climax, each member immediately turned their attention to what was to become their solo album. The prospect of four albums being released on the same day was a financial risk and one that made the label executives somewhat apprehensive. ‘I said, ‘We’re putting four albums out at once and I want each of them to turn Platinum. We’re going to ship four million albums in one day,” claimed Aucoin on the demands he made to Casablanca. ‘Everybody just wiped their brow and told me that nobody would buy them. But it worked because the energy and excitement was there, plus KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park came out at the same time.’
The next member of KISS to enter the studio would be Simmons who, much like Stanley, had already begun developing material prior to the film shoot. In fact, the majority of the album had been recorded at The Manor in Oxfordshire in April, following the final shows of the Alive II tour. With an array of guests that included Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Cheap Trick‘s Rick Nielsen and a host of session musicians, Simmons had intended for his album to be titled Man of 1,000 Faces in honour of horror legend Lon Chaney, but this would eventually be overruled by the label’s marketing department.
Simmons’ demonic persona may have led many fans to expect his solo album to be in the vein of heavy metal, but the songs recorded during the sessions would draw from the likes of the Beatles and even then-current progressive rock groups like Boston. Displaying a more melodic vocal sound to the one commonly associated with KISS, Simmons was excited at the opportunity to broaden his musician horizons. ‘They’re the kind of songs nobody has ever known that I’m capable of writing, number one,’ he declared. ‘Or that I could sing at least two octaves above the voice that I use on the record, number two; and that in fact I had a different voice at all, number three.’
Although the album was intended to showcase Simmons as a lead vocalist, he would invite several notable singers to participate in the sessions. These would include Australian artist Helen Reddy and disco icon Donna Summer, although perhaps the most significant contribution would come from his new partner Cher. With the two having met at a party hosted by his label, Simmons was eager to bring the pop star into the studio. ‘At the time I was starting to think of ideas for my solo album, which I envisioned as a big production, with tons of guest stars and a circus atmosphere,’ he explained in his biography KISS and Make-Up. ‘I thought it would be great if I could get Cher to sing on the record.’ Cher’s appearance would be during the track Living in Sin, in which she would cameo via a phone call portraying an obsessed fan who stalks the rock star while staying at a motel.
The one with the most to prove with the solo albums was Ace Frehley who, by 1978, had only performed vocals on two KISS tracks, 1977’s Shock Me and Rocket Ride, instead preferring to allow Simmons to take the lead. His lack of confidence in his own voice meant that fans had heard very little of his talents and so when it was announced that he would be releasing an album many may have felt concerned that he lacked the ability to carry the record by himself. None more so than Frehley, although the temptation to finally step out from under the shadow of KISS and demonstrate both his songwriting and vocal abilities was too much to resist. ‘I felt good about my solo project from the beginning, mainly because I knew I’d be teaming up with Eddie Kramer,’ he said on his reunion with the man responsible for producing the last two studio albums for KISS, along with Alive II. ‘I had a lot of confidence in Eddie. I respected him and he respected me. We’d been a good team on the KISS albums and there was no reason to think we wouldn’t work well together on a solo venture.’
While Simmons had employed a revolving door of guest artists to help bring his project to fruition, Frehley would instead work in a similar fashion to Stanley, recruiting a small group of musicians in order to keep the sessions tonally consistent. And whereas Stanley had Kulick, Frehley’s principal collaborator alongside Kramer would be Anton Fig. Born in Cape Town, South Africa before emigrating to the Bronx, New York, Fig had played drums from an early age and it would be through the recommendation of Frehley’s childhood friend Larry Russell, as well as Kramer, that Fig would be invited to collaborate on the project.
Recording sessions would take place in Connecticut at the once elegant Colgate Mansion which, by the late 1970s, had been abandoned and left to perish. Frehley was immediately overwhelmed by the building’s interior design. ‘The library for example, in which we recorded a lot of the acoustic work, had beautifully carved woodwork and turn-of-the-century textured wallpaper, still intact,’ he recalled. ‘It was enormous and grand; I found it to be an inspirational and creative workplace. We used several other rooms to create different acoustic effects. On Fractured Mind, for instance, we placed microphones at the top of the stairway on the second floor to get a huge, reverberating drum sound.’
After having recorded two demos with Fig, sessions commenced at the mansion in June and would last a little over a moment, with the relaxed schedule allowing for experimentation, something that the guitarist felt he had been denied with KISS. And while from their second album onward KISS had already defined their sound, working with both Fig and Kramer allowed Frehley to find his true artistic voice, assisted on several tracks by bassist Will Lee and backing vocalists Susan Collins and David Lasley.
Despite the apprehension many had regarding Frehley’s abilities as a solo artist, everyone would be taken by surprise when he became the only member of KISS to produce a hit single from the solo venture. Composed by Argent‘s Russ Ballard and originally recorded by British glam rock group Hello, New York Groove would prove to be the perfect song to showcase his commercial appeal, yet on first listen Frehley was less-than-impressed. It would be through Kramer’s assistant that the track would find its way into the recording sessions, but it would ultimately take three attempts and two studios to achieve the desired result.
A decision was made to recut the song from the ground up
‘Eddie and Ace arrived at Plaza Sound with a version of New York Groove recorded at the mansion. But there was something about the overall feel of it that wasn’t sitting quite right with them,’ recalled engineer Rob Freeman. ‘A decision was made to recut the song from the ground up, starting with a new basic track consisting of drums and rhythm guitar. So one day we cleared the studio, set up Anton’s drum kit and recorded a second version…But after careful analysis of Russ Ballard’s original songwriting demo (a cassette tape they kept playing over and over for comparison to what we were doing), it was decided to re-record New York Groove yet again with further subtle changes to the tempo and/or drum feel.’
While Criss had spent the majority of his career with KISS behind a drum kit, 1976’s Beth had demonstrated that his musician tastes may lie beyond hard rock. And, as with Frehley, when the solo project was first proposed he soon realised that this would give him the opportunity to explore genres of music not commonly associated with the group. ‘They were a mixed bag for sure. My album reflected my musical tastes; Motown-inspired R&B with horns and black back-up singers,’ he stated in Makeup or Breakup: My Life In and Out of KISS. ‘Paul’s was more the English Zeppelin sound that he liked. Ace’s was his typical Hendrix thing and Gene’s was the most bizarre, almost a pop album. He later wrote that his intent was to piss off KISS fans and push it in their faces that their musical tastes were one-dimensional and his wasn’t. That’s how crazy we were then.’
Sessions for Criss’ album would be divided between Electric Lady and Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles and with the drummer intending for a large and epic sound he searched tirelessly for the right producer, eventually settling on Vini Poncia. Having initially started performing as a guitarist for Ringo Starr, Poncia’s first break came when he co-wrote the hit You Make Me Feel Like Dancing for Leo Sayer. Criss had no intention of creating an album that would appease fans of KISS and instead decided to indulge in his love of older music, something that would become apparent from the opening track.
‘What the album did foremost was give Peter a chance to get in touch with his roots,’ Poncia would later claim with regard to the direction that Criss would take. ‘He was able to do some white R&B and bluesy kind of things that he grew up with. He was able to show the world a different side of him.’ Several of the songs that Criss would decide to record would be re-workings of material he had composed with friend Stan Penridge in their former group Lips, including the opening track I’m Gonna Love You.
Following in the footsteps of Simmons, Criss would also invite an array of artists to appear on the album, the most notable of which was Steve Lukather. Guitarist and co-founder of the acclaimed rock group Toto, Lukather would also enjoy considerable success as a session musician, later lending his talents to Michael Jackson’s best-selling record Thriller. The prominent horn section present throughout the album was arranged by Tom Saviano, a multi-instrumental jazz musician who throughout his prolific career would work with such artists as Earth, Wind & Fire and Sheena Easton.
With the experience of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park behind them, Stanley opted to remain in Los Angeles to continue work on his album. With Nevison still unavailable to act as producer Stanley turned to Jeff Glixman, whose collaborations with Kansas had produced several acclaimed albums. Having finally returned from his tour with Meat Loaf, Kulick travelled to California with his bassist Steve Buslowe to assist with the new sessions, but almost immediately it became obvious that tensions were rising between Stanley and his producer.
According to Kulick, it was Stanley who felt that he would be unable to handle the production and so sought professional assistance. ‘It was Paul’s insecurity, ‘You know, maybe I need help?’ And I said, ‘Help? What kind of help? It’s just music. We know when it’s right.’ So Jeff Glixman really had no effect on us whatsoever,’ he explained. ‘I’m not saying anything bad about the guy. He was fine and he wasn’t condescending in any way shape or form to me. He knew Paul loved my playing.’ Glixman would oversee the recording of only four songs before parting ways and leaving Stanley to complete the sessions. Despite having been the first of KISS to enter the studio, he would prove to be the last one to leave, with recording finally coming to an end in July, just weeks before the intended release date.
Although he had shown reluctance at the idea of recording a solo album and the process had been plagued with complications and delays, when asked about the experience Stanley offered a more positive response. ‘Everybody’s grown tremendously with their albums,’ he admitted. ‘And the really nice thing about it is that when the albums are all done and each of us hears the other, it’s a really great way of saying, ‘Hey, this is what I’m about. This is the way I’ve always heard things.’ It’s like really getting to know somebody even better than you do.’
Barely four months after the release of Double Platinum and two months before the premiere of KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, each member of the band released their solo album, backed by an extensive marketing campaign. Simmons would climb the highest, peaking at no. 22 and spending a total of twenty-two weeks on the charts before finally fading into obscurity. While Criss would only reach no. 43, three slots lower than Stanley, it would be the latter’s album that would slip from the charts first after only eighteen weeks.
‘That album was a risk, but it was necessary,’ admitted Simmons to MusicRadar in 2012. ‘At that point, Ace and Peter, god love them, had succumbed to alcohol and drugs in a deep way. We had done a movie, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park and during the movie they would disappear and we’d have to have actors sit in for them in make-up, just pathetic behaviour. We had a meeting and Ace said he wanted to leave and have a solo career. We told him to have a solo career but stay in the band, have your cake and eat it too. ‘No, I’m going to have my own solo career and show you that I can sell ten million records.”
For Frehley, the project was less a necessity to save the band and more the logical next step to allow him to grow as an artist. ‘For the first time in a long time I felt motivated,’ he revealed in his book. ‘When somebody says to me, ‘You can’t do that,’ it makes me want to do it all the more. Even as a teenager, when my parents said I was the black sheep. I found it inspirational in a weird sort of way. Yeah, I had a drinking problem. I had a drug problem. I lacked some confidence but I knew I had the chops; after all, I was the lead guitarist in one of the biggest rock groups in the world. I knew I had the ability to make a great solo record.’
In comparison to the critical and commercial success of the band’s prior output, some considered the solo albums a failure, one that perhaps best represented a group whose egos were out of control, but for KISS it was a way to cope with the frustrations and limitations of being a rock star. For a short time, each of the four members of KISS were able to return to their roots and start again without fear of judgement and if the critics failed to understand then they were not the ones who the albums were created for. ‘Among the so-called rock critics there’s a lot of jealousy,’ declared Simmons. ‘They’re upset because they realise there’s nothing they can do about our popularity. Also, they suffer from peer group pressure. You can’t be a critic and say, ‘I love Olivia Newton-John and Led Zeppelin‘ in the same breath. It’s sad that they don’t realise that people don’t care about what they say. Ultimately, though, you don’t want everybody to like you but we know that not everybody will like KISS. But just once I’d like to see somebody write, ‘I hate KISS. They’re the worst trash that ever existed. I went to their concert and twenty-thousand people went nuts.’