The eighties saw KISS enter something of an identity crisis. Having spent the previous decade championing hard rock anthems with their own brand of Alice Cooper-esque theatrics, the ever-changing music scene coupled with ambitions and egos of each member failing to align resulted in a slew of records that while still boasting material worthy of their classic era would overall feel unfocused and lacking inspiration. Disco had been the first trend that the band had been forced to overcome but undoubtedly their greatest adversary would be glam metal. First rearing its head with the arrival of Van Halen‘s eponymous debut in 1978, as the eighties progressed the likes of Mötley Crüe, Poison and Bon Jovi would bring this new style of rock to the attention of the masses and soon KISS found themselves out of touch with audiences and in danger of becoming irrelevant.
Following the critical mauling of their science fiction movie KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, the first true defeat that the band would suffer came in 1981 with the ambitious concept album Music from The Elder. Dismissed by critics and despised by fans, it would prove to be a pivotal moment that would result in not only the departure of their guitarist but would also leave the future of one of the world’s most popular rock groups in jeopardy. While they had remained an unstoppable entity during the seventies this would soon change as over the next few years a succession of guitarists would come and go before the line-up of Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Eric Carr and Bruce Kulick entered a New York studio in the summer of 1985 to record their thirteenth album Asylum.
By 1985 the Los Angeles glam metal scene that had followed in the wake of Van Halen had begun to dominate the American rock market and despite the likes of W.A.S.P. taking the theatrics of KISS to new extremes, the band that had already survived ten years of success and failure now felt fractured and running on empty. Gene Simmons, the group’s bassist and co-singer who had formed KISS in the early seventies with Stanley, had begun to pursue his new dream of becoming a Hollywood star and so Stanley had been left to guide the recording of not only Asylum but its predecessor Animalize through to completion without the assistance of his most trusted associate. And with no one to help evolve the band in order to appeal to modern tastes Stanley was all too aware that they were in danger of self-destructing.
But despite the rut that KISS had found themselves in, both artistically and commercially, Stanley was still fully committed to their success and remained determined to soldier on regardless of whether or not Simons remained faithful to the band. ‘People always ask me how I can keep playing rock ‘n’ roll after so many years,’ he told Hit Parader in 1985. ‘They wonder why I want to stay on the road for nine months at a time. The answer is easy: I love it. We’re treated like royalty everywhere we go. We stay in the best hotels, eat in the best restaurants and meet the most beautiful women. Why would I want to give that up?’
Despite many accusing KISS of having left their glory days long behind them, in truth they had enjoyed something of a commercial renaissance in recent years with three consecutive albums achieving platinum status, although ever since they almost broke the Top Ten in 1979 with their hit song I Was Made for Lovin’ You they had struggled to climb to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. The greatest success they had enjoyed in recent years was Heaven’s on Fire in the autumn of 1984, although ever since abandoning their trademark make-up earlier in the decade in favour of leather and lace they had become regular fixtures of metal magazines and music channels around the world, with Stanley in particular attracting the attention of young fans who would lust over the singer in the same way they had over Jon Bon Jovi and Poison‘s Bret Michaels.
I think KISS does what it does best
It may have been integral to the longevity of the group to cater to modern rock trends but Stanley was still aware that to venture too far away from their established KISS sound would alienate their loyal fanbase, something that they had discovered after the experimental failure of Music from The Elder. Thus, the key to success would seem to be with taking the hard rock style they had established on their debut album and garnishing it with the pop rock sensibilities of glam metal. ‘I think KISS does what it does best and at this point any divergence from that is something we’ve gotten out of our system,’ he told Faces. ‘I have no desire to sing Beth Part II with the London Symphonic Orchestra. At this point KISS means being who we are, developing as musicians, developing our chops, as opposed to elevating our music on some kind of intellectual or ethereal level.’
Simmons, meanwhile, had begun to fully immerse himself in the world of motion pictures, having taking his love of performing that he had demonstrated during their outlandish heyday of the seventies to the next level. While he had ostensibly portrayed a larger-than-life caricature of himself in 1978’s KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, the experience had fuelled his desire to act and this new career would finally begin six years later when he was cast as the antagonist of Michael Crichton’s action flick Runaway. ‘I enjoyed working on the movie but my film career was really starting to irritate Paul and management,’ he would later admit in his memoir KISS and Make-Up. ‘They wondered if I wanted to stay in the band or go for an acting career. The answer was that wanted it all. But that wasn’t exactly fair to Paul, who was committed to KISS full-time.’
Feeling somewhat isolated with KISS and frustrated at the lack of interest that Simmons expressed towards the band, Stanley would carefully consider their next move but even as he debated over what kind of album would serve as the ideal successor to Asylum he received a phone call from their manager with a proposition to produce a new group in Los Angeles. Much like KISS a decade earlier, they had developed something of a notorious reputation through strong live performance and an image that seemed both dangerous and glamorous. They had already attracted the attention of a major label and had released a live EP that in reality had been manufactured in a studio. When asked the name of the group he was told Guns N’ Roses.
‘I went to see their gig at Raji’s, a little dive in Hollywood. I thought the songs they played for me were good but they didn’t prepare me for seeing the band live. Guns N’ Roses were stupendous,’ recalled Stanley in his autobiography Face the Music. ‘I went to see them again at another club called Gazzarri’s, it later became the Key Club. They weren’t happy with the guy mixing their sound and Slash asked me out of the blue to help out…Immediately after my interactions with the band I started to hear lots of stories Slash was saying behind my back; he called me gay, made fun of my clothes, all sorts of things designed to give himself some sort of rock credibility at my expense. This was years before his top hat, sunglasses and dangling cigarette became a cartoon costume that he would continue to milk with the best of us for decades.’
With Stanley free from the obligation of what would eventually become Appetite for Destruction he turned his attention back to KISS and developing material for their own album, yet he had already grown frustrated that while KISS had released at least one record a year since their debut over a decade earlier, as 1986 began no songs were being submitted or a demo recorded for their next album. As documented in a 2014 Rolling Stone article, Stanley considered 1984’s Animalize more of a solo album than a group effort as he had acted as not only producer but principal songwriter and lead vocalist, leading to resentment towards Simmons who was receiving half of the money for KISS despite contributing very little towards the band. And it would be during the early stages of developing their next album that this issue would finally come to a head.
Since his appearance opposite TV star Tom Selleck in Runaway, Simmons had regularly been cast in villainous roles due to both his imposing figure and reputation as a rock ‘n’ roll animal, resulting in such feature films as Wanted: Dead or Alive and Trick or Treat, as well as cameos in Miami Vice and Deadly Nightmares. When Simmons did attend studio sessions Stanley often felt that the songs he presented were sub par and that his attention was not only distracted by Hollywood but his numerous other ventures, including managing star Liza Minnelli and producing a variety of rising acts that included Black ‘n Blue. So even when he was present in reality his thoughts were elsewhere.
‘Outside the studio one afternoon I asked Gene to get in my car. I took a deep breath. Whatever the consequences of what I was about to say I knew it had to be done,’ explained Stanley on his make-or-break effort to save KISS. ‘Quitting the band was never an option for me. I also did not relish the idea of taking over the band on my own. But if Gene’s reduced involvement was going to continue I wanted to be paid and recognised for my ever-increasing responsibilities. I wasn’t sure what to expect but apparently the talk resonated with Gene because a few days later he approached me and handed me a Jaguar brochure. He said he wanted me to pick one out for himself. He wanted to buy me a Jag to show his appreciation for all I’d done to keep the band going.’
With the air having finally been cleared work would commence on album number fourteen. In the two years since the release of Asylum there had been several important developments in the world of rock ‘n’ roll, such as the long-awaited returns of both Aerosmith and Alice Cooper and the mainstream arrival of Bon Jovi, the latter of which would herald an era of pop rock that would be fashioned for mass radio consumption. The same summer that had seen the unleashing of Asylum had also seen the commercial rebirth of Heart who, along with KISS, had enjoyed critical acclaim during the seventies before struggling through a series of disappointing album sales and line-up changes. With their self-titled album marking their comeback in a spectacular way, it soon became clear that working with the same producer could finally give KISS the shot of adrenaline they were in such desperate of.
He had been forced to decline the offer
Ron Nevison had already entered the world of KISS a decade earlier when Stanley had approached the acclaimed producer to help create his first solo album, but due to scheduling conflicts with UFO he had been forced to decline the offer. Throughout the seventies he had gained considerable respect among the industry through his work with Thin Lizzy and Jefferson Starship but in 1985 he would be charged with the responsibility of producing Heart‘s attempt at staging a comeback, an effort that would result in numerous hit singles that would propel the band to the American number one spot. Stanley had only achieved minor success producing the last two KISS albums and despite regularly telling the media that their latest offering was their strongest to date this was far from the truth.
‘I think they contacted my manager Michael Lippman,’ Nevison told KISS Asylum on how he first came to be involved with the band’s latest record. ‘I was just working on Heart‘s Bad Animals album and I had this girlfriend and she was a model. And around Labor Day she had a film shoot in Aspen. So I went with her because it’s a beautiful place. While she was working I was nosing around and I rented a house for Christmas and New Year’s. And we broke up around Halloween and I was stuck with this house. And I asked Paul and Paul said, ‘Yeah, I’ll share it with you. I’m not doing anything special for the holidays.’ So we went there for a couple of weeks and shared a house and had a really good time getting to know each other and hanging out.’
With a selection of material presented by Stanley and Simmons, other participants who would lend their songwriting talents to the project would include both guitarist Bruce Kulick and drummer Eric Carr and writers-for-hire Desmond Child and Diane Warren. Once again Stanley would dominate the sessions, having already developed a sense of direction for the album and a good relationship with Nevison. While KISS had attempted to retain the hard rock sound of their earlier records, even when attempting to emulate the glam rock scene, it was clear from the outset that the new album was to follow the pop rock tradition that had brought Bon Jovi so much success the previous year.
For Nevison he was all too aware of how much KISS needed to resurrect their career and how the responsibility for breaking them back into the mainstream fell to him. ‘In those days you almost had to drag rock stars onto the pop charts,’ he explained in KISS: Behind the Mask. ‘Being commercial was viewed as selling out. I was bringing outside tunes to bands like Heart and the Babys and having big success with that. Paul was savvy enough to be getting the kind of co-writers that would help him achieve. I thought that we had a couple of singles on the record. In hindsight, listening back I think I used a little bit too much synthesiser on the album. But I thought they had a fanbase that was really fanatical and dedicated. I didn’t want to piss them off but I wanted to break new ground.’
Despite this being the first KISS album to utilise synthesisers in such a significant way, this would be less the decision of Nevison and more at the insistence of Stanley, who had been experimenting with modern technology in an attempt to keep the band feeling relevant. ‘I’m writing some vey different songs this time,’ he would claim prior to the album’s release. ‘I wrote some of the songs for this album on keyboards and you certainly do get a different type of song that way. I play very kamikaze keyboards because I really don’t know how to play. When I lift my hands off the keyboards I have to put guitar picks on the keys so I remember where my finger goes. But the results you get are very interesting that way. I’m still very much a guitar player so I approach keyboards with a guitarist’s mentality. I really attack the instrument.’
The sessions for the album would commence at One on One Recording in the Los Angeles neighbourhood of Canoga Park before relocating to Rumbo Recorders where the majority of the material would be cut by Nevison with the assistance of engineer Julian Still, who had recently worked with the producer of not only Bad Animals but also Survivor‘s latest record When Seconds Count. Sessions would commence in March 1987, almost a year after the conclusion of their tour in support of Asylum and eighteen months since the release of their last single. By this point Stanley was eager to offer their fans some new material before risking losing their audience to a new generation of younger rock stars.
Nevison may have been Stanley’s producer of choice but he would not be the only member of the band who would be impressed with his influence over KISS. ‘I think any lead guitarist in a band is going to want to be loud,’ Kulich told Guitar in 1988. ‘But what happened was that the producer Ron Nevison was really impressed with my playing. When we did the mixes he turned around and said, ‘The only reason why it’s loud is because I really thought it was good. Otherwise it would be like, well, there’s the guitar solo.’ So I liked that. I think it should be as loud as the vocal. He didn’t always understand me because he hadn’t worked with a lot of people who did hammer-ons and stuff like that. He said that when he worked with Jake (E. Lee) on Ozzy’s last album Jake would come in really prepared. His whole solo was, like, known already. But I did a lot of homework too.’
Arguably the song recorded during these sessions that best demonstrated Kulick’s talents as a lead guitarist would be No, No, No, which would prove to be a culmination of input from Kulick, Simmons and Carr, the drummer’s sole songwriting contribution on the album. With Stanley having little interest in the track, the other three would record the fast-paced cut with Nevison, allowing Simmons to take the lead vocals on the most aggressive song to emerge from the album. Kulick would not only perform the hectic solo but also the rhythm guitar that Stanley would usually provide, thus being one of the few songs in the KISS repertoire outside of the 1978 solo albums that would have no involvement from the iconic frontman.
KISS finally recorded a version of their own for Hot in the Shade
There would be several tracks that were recorded at Rumbo during the spring of 1987 that for one reason or another would fail to make not only the album but were also omitted from inclusion as b-sides to the inevitable singles. Hide Your Heart was an upbeat rock song penned by Stanley alongside professional writers Desmond Child and Holly Knight that would eventually be offered to acclaimed solo artist Bonnie Tyler for her 1988 album of the same name, before KISS finally recorded a version of their own for Hot in the Shade the following year. One that would fail to receive an official release would be Sword and Stone, a song that would instead be performed by German rock group Bonfire on the soundtrack to the Wes Craven horror Shocker, its demo later surfacing on fan-distributed bootlegs.
As they became fully-immersed in the sessions the working title for the album would be pitched by Carr after viewing a patch that their wardrobe assistant was wearing that stated who dares wins. It would be Simmons that would immediately sense the relevance of this statement, feeling that it encapsulated the philosophy of the band. ‘It was an emblem we saw on a commando jacket,’ he told Circus. ‘And the premise is something that we’ve always believed in. Life is full of roadblocks. All my life people have told me, ‘What do you want to do this for? There’s no chance you’ll ever make it.’ Well, they’re wrong! If you dare, you win. A person who wins a marathon is not the guy who runs the fastest; it’s the guy who doesn’t give up. You’ve got to believe in yourself. It doesn’t have to be militaristic at all. It simply reaffirms what we’ve always believed in: believe in yourself and anything is possible.’
Both Stanley and Simmons may have always been the frontmen and focal point of KISS ever since its inception in 1973 but despite remaining relatively low-key during his time with the band Carr had begun to flex her creative muscles outside of that world. Prior to work commencing on the album he had launched his own company based in New York City entitled Streetgang Productions with the intention of nurturing young musical talent as well as experimenting with narrative art. ‘I’m working on an all-female thrash band called Hari Kari; I’m working with them and developing them’ he revealed. ‘And I’m also working on an animated cartoon rock band that I’ve written music for, that Bruce and I worked on and played all the stuff. Gene has been helping with us, trying to get this thing off the ground. I’m shopping it to animators, toy companies and things like that.’
By 1987 it had almost become obligatory for a rock album to boast a power ballad that would ultimately push the record into platinum sales and for Who Dares Wins that song would be Reason to Live. Composed by Stanley and Child, whose history with the band went back to I Was Made for Lovin’ You eight years earlier, the song would feature all of the clichés that would come to epitomise this genre trope, from the prominent backing vocals of the chorus to the emotional guitar solo, all accompanied by the harmonies of Stanley’s synthesiser. With the singer desperate to include a ballad on the album, the music would be composed by Child while Stanley developed the lyrics, their hard work finally paying off when the single gained minor acclaim upon its release in November 1987.
While Reason to Live may have been Stanley’s shameless attempt at climbing up the charts it would be another song recorded during these sessions that would prove to be the album’s lead single and provided KISS with their first British Top Ten hit. Crazy Crazy Nights would come as a result of brainstorming between Stanley and his friend Adam Mitchell. ‘I was out one night with Adam, who I write with sometimes and I said, ‘Man, Crazy Crazy Nights, that’s a great title,” he claimed in 2004. ‘I went home and came up with the chorus and called him up. He came over in the morning and we wrote it. I get tired of people talking about anthems because if there is an attempt at writing an anthem then it’s not really heartfelt. Then it’s calculated.’
And yet while Crazy Crazy Nights would finally give KISS a hit single, albeit not in the United States, both Stanley and Mitchell would express disappointment with the final product. ‘Crazy Crazy Nights was a big hit worldwide but Paul and I were a bit disappointed to some degree with the record because the demo we did we felt was so much better,’ explained Mitchell. ‘We demoed that stuff in a studio on Sunset. But the difference between the demo and the record was in the chorus when the crowd comes in and sings along with Paul, ‘Crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy nights.’ The crowd on the demo we did was so much louder and it really sounded much more like an arena.’
One significant impact that song this song would have was on the album’s title. Even throughout the promotion leading up to its release the band would still refer to it as Who Dares Wins but when the record finally saw the light of day on 21 September 1987 via Mercury Records its title had been charged to Crazy Nights. Finally providing them with the commercial success and airplay that they had attempted to capture through both Animalize and Asylum, KISS were once again rock ‘n’ roll superstars and would embark on a world tour in support of its release commencing on 13 November, with their setlist featuring four songs from the album while still retaining such fan favourites as Love Gun and Rock and Roll All Nite.
As had become a trademark of Stanley’s, during the promotion of Crazy Nights he would insist that it was one of the best records that KISS had ever produced. ‘The only way I can describe this album is by saying it’s a KISS record. That really says it all,’ he told critic Rick Evans. ‘Some bands like to put on one or two good songs, then just record a lot of filler tracks. We’ve always believed that the only way to make a record is to put on as many great tracks as possible. This time we actually recorded fifteen songs before deciding which would finally make it onto the album. That’s a very unusual way for us to work but since we had so many great songs it was the only way we could handle things.’
What it could have been was better than what it turned out to be
But as time passed by and its underwhelming successor Hot in the Shade soon followed in its wake KISS began to realise that they had lost touch with their hard rock roots and would attempt to course correct with 1992’s Revenge. Crazy Nights, however, was very much a product of its time, a pop rock album that would appeal to fans of Aerosmith‘s Permanent Vacation and Mötley Crüe‘s Girls, Girls, Girls. ‘I think it’s a better album than it wound up sounding,’ Stanley would later admit. ‘I think it’s a bit plastic-sounding. The material and what it could have been was better than what it turned out to be. It’s not an album I’m in any way ashamed of though.’
One criticism that has often been levelled at the album is the quality of its production, with the drums often sounding flat and even its heavier moments failing to translate well to the listener. Many rock albums of the era would suffer from the same flaws and Nevison has admitted that this was a mistake on his part. ‘I wasn’t happy with the final mix. But I wasn’t unhappy with it. I’m not happy with any mix that I’ve done. I think I could have made it a bit more powerful sounding,’ he admitted in 2012. ‘I have to say that I think as time goes on it will be more accepted and more liked because it has great songs. I think song-wise it really stands out as one of the best KISS albums.’
While Crazy Nights would provide KISS with their eighth platinum-selling studio album and would prove to be one of the most popular rock albums of the year, before long its production had felt dated and following the reinvention of KISS a few years later with the appropriately-titled Revenge, material from the record would soon be omitted from their live sets as the band desperately attempted to pretend that the album had never existed. ‘Crazy Nights was one of my least favourite records of any of the ones that we’ve done,’ Simmons confessed to authors David Leaf and Ken Sharp. ‘I thought we became a happy band although it sold a ton of records worldwide. If it was Paul, probably four stars; if it was me, two. ‘Let’s have a good time, I love you,’ makes me want to retch. I think the playing is okay and some of the songwriting is okay but it’s too much pop.’