Home Read Classic Album Review: KISS | The Box Set

Classic Album Review: KISS | The Box Set

Rock ’n’ roll's ultimate hucksters finally crack open the vault for this retrospective.

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This came out in 2001 – or at least that’s when I got it. Here’s what I said about it back then (with some minor editing):

 


Buying KISS stuff is like playing a carnival game: You pay your money, you take your chances — and usually, you come away feeling slightly burned.

And no wonder. KISS have spent most of the last 20 years devaluing their currency with overhyped comebacks, endless farewell tours, forgettable CDs and a motto of Merch Over Music — last time I spoke to bassist Gene Simmons, he seemed more excited about KISS toilet paper than their last album. And it isn’t just toilet paper. KISS busts, KISS Kaskets, you name it, they’re hawking it. Meanwhile, fans patiently wait for the the day they release the real goodies from their huge archive of live tapes, video footage and unreleased tracks.

Well, that day has finally arrived. Sort of. KISS: The Box Set, a five-CD, 94-track collection spanning their three-decade career, has arrived. And while it doesn’t deliver all the goodies, it does pack nearly enough of the good, good stuff to justify its $150 price tag.

Primarily, The Box Set is a damn solid retrospective, collecting 64 cuts from their umpteen records. Naturally, there’s the mandatory stuff from their early days: Rock and Roll All Nite, Parasite, Hotter Than Hell, Black Diamond, Cold Gin, Detroit Rock City, yadda yadda yadda. But you also get cuts from their solo albums, the failed Elder project and other lesser sources, along with every decent song from the last 15 years. Which means that while The Box Set isn’t complete enough to allow you to dump all your old KISS albums, you can get rid of everything they put out after the ’70s. So far so good.

What really has the KISS Army ranks drooling, though — and rightly so — are The Box Set’s other 30 tracks, a selection of rare and unreleased studio demos, home recordings and live cuts from ’66 to ’99. Most crucial are three tunes by hippie-rock band Wicked Lester, a pre-KISS outfit led by Simmons and Starchild singer-guitarist Paul Stanley. These hilariously overblown 1971 versions of She and Love Her All I Can, complete with flutes and groovy arrangements, have been bootlegged for years, but these are the best versions I’ve heard. In addition, The Box Set has early KISS demos for Strutter, Deuce, Let Me Know, 100,000 Years, Firehouse and Let Me Go, Rock N’ Roll; a bar recording of a song called Acrobat, later retitled Love Theme From KISS; a ’69 ditty from Gene’s hippie-folk band Bullfrog Bheer; and a ’66 recording of a 14-year-old Stanley’s garage-rock band.

And that’s just the first CD. The second disc continues in the same vein, with demos of mid-’70s fare like God of Thunder (fast and funky), Love Gun and Mr. Speed; the unreleased rocker Doncha Hesitate; a live I Want You, and so forth. Sadly, it’s a case of diminishing returns after that — the last three CDs have just 10 rarities, including a demo of Domino (arguably the band’s last great song); an extra cut from Unplugged; the killer It’s My Life (later recorded by Wendy O. Williams), and Rock and Roll All Nite from the long-delayed Alive IV. Not all of it is essential, but most of it is pretty cool — especially Gene’s one-man-band demos, which make you realize sticking out his tongue wasn’t his only talent.

Equally cool: The 120-page full-colour book crammed with pictures and comment from Stanley and Simmons (and occasional input from bad-boy lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss). Most of the anecdotes are interesting, and it’s nice to see Gene and Paul own up to their obvious musical influences (Hard Luck Woman was Paul’s bid to write a Rod Stewart song; I Stole Your Love was inspired by Deep Purple’s Burn; Hotter Than Hell was based on All Right Now by Free).

Of course, as anyone knows, another of KISS’s obvious influences was P.T. Barnum. And as satisfying as The Box Set is, it still smacks slightly of hucksterism. Not because of the Official Merchandise Catalog in every box — I would expect nothing less from Gene — but because KISS still seem to be keeping their musical aces up their sleeves. For every rarity here, Simmons tantalizingly drops hints about several more. At one point, he talks up demos he made with Van Halen which he hopes to release “at some future date.” Gee, wonder if there will be a Box Set II in a few years? And how long before they start taking pre-orders for it? Step right up, folks, don’t be shy. Remember, everyone’s a winner.