KISS: The 1978 Solo Albums Fiasco
In 1977, KISS Ruled the World
KISS was on top of the world in 1977. After breaking through to the mainstream in a big way with 1975's ALIVE! concert double-LP, the grease-painted, fire breathing hard rock foursome suddenly seemed unstoppable. They released a string of platinum records over the next several years including 1976's Destroyer (which featured the surprise hit single "Beth"), Rock and Roll Over (late '76) and Love Gun (June of '77). The 1977 Gallup public opinion poll named KISS the most popular band in America and their first Super Special comic book ("printed in REAL KISS BLOOD!") set new sales records for Marvel Comics. KISS' winning streak continued with ALIVE II - a new live set featuring five new studio tracks, which was released in October of '77 and became another million-seller. It seemed that KISS could do no wrong, and the sky was the limit as they rocketed forward into 1978.
There was just one small problem... the band was beginning to rot from the inside. As KISS got bigger, inter-personal relationships between the four members were getting progressively worse. Where once the quartet's motto had been "All for one, one for all," their massive success had seemingly given each member a new philosophy: "What's in it for me?"
Cracks begin to appear...
Pinpointing the source of the internal friction naturally depended on which band member you talked to. It's not exactly a secret that drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley were the two major party animals in the band, and their increasing dependence on narcotics and alcohol was a constant source of irritation to the band's tee-totaling founders, Gene Simmons (bass) and Paul Stanley (guitar/vocals). Criss and Frehley, meanwhile, have often described Simmons and Stanley as tight-fisted dictators and control freaks who constantly forced them to toe the "company line" both musically and during interviews.
However the rift began, things apparently came to a head sometime during 1977, when both Frehley and Criss threatened to leave the band and start solo careers. Simmons and Stanley may not have liked Frehley or Criss very much at that point, but they were smart enough to realize that losing two key band members at the same time would be disastrous. Thus, KISS came up with an ambitious new plan for 1978: in order for the KISS members to get a much-needed break from one another, all four of them would cut their own solo albums, which would then be released on the same day (backed by a typically massive marketing campaign, of course) with a common cover design scheme to unify them. All of this hype would provide the perfect lead in to the band's movie debut, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, which was being prepared for NBC-TV as a Halloween special.
Cranking up the Hype Machine
To keep KISS' place warm on music-store racks, Casablanca Records rush-released the Double Platinum 2-LP greatest-hits set, which contained one new track - a dance remix of the debut album's "Strutter," re-titled "Strutter '78." It raced up the charts and kept the faithful KISS Army occupied while the band members each slaved away in separate recording studios, working on their solo debuts.
On September 18, 1978, the veil of secrecy was lifted. Casablanca Records shipped 1.25 million copies of each member's solo album to music stores across America, so that they all instantly qualified for "Platinum" status. So how do the four solo albums stack up, nearly forty (!) years after they were released?
The Great: Ace Frehley
Peak on U.S. Billboard chart: #26
Two words: ACE RULES. I wonder if anyone predicted in 1978 that KISS' good natured but shy six stringer would wind up producing the only truly classic album out of the solo four pack? I bet listeners were saying "Damn! I knew Ace was good, but I didn't know he was THIS good!" From the moment the needle drops on the barn burning opener "Rip It Out," Ace is off and running and he doesn't let up until the final fade out of the closing instrumental "Fractured Mirror." Gene & Paul should've let him out from under their thumbs earlier! While the songs on their solo albums are little more than distant memories to all but the most diehard KISS fans, people are still air-guitaring to Ace's album to this day. If you can only own one KISS solo album, make sure it's this one.
Ace Frehley - "Rip It Out"
The Good: Paul Stanley
Peak on U.S. Billboard Chart: #40
Just like Ace, Paul Stanley knew that his strength was in straight forward, guitar-driven rock n' roll, so even as a solo artist he didn't stray very far from the formula that made KISS so successful. "Tonight You Belong To Me" and "Move On" start the album off with a nice one-two punch, but the album crashes into a wall when he starts tripping through the 70s pop daisies on tracks like the godawful, disco-infused "Hold Me, Touch Me" (the album's single) or the overbaked ballad "Together as One." It's not quite as good as Ace's album due to the inclusion of the aforementioned clunkers but Paul Stanley isn't as bad as you've been led to believe, either.
Paul Stanley - "Tonight You Belong To Me"
The "Meh": Gene Simmons
Peak on U.S. Billboard chart: #22
I have a feeling that Mean Gene's reputation as "The Demon" may have set fans' expectations a bit too high for his solo album. The KISS Army was waiting for a down-n-dirty, rumbling metal monster, but Gene's album is a decidedly mixed bag of KISS style hard rock ("Radioactive"), Beatle-esque acoustic noodling ("Mr. Make Believe" and "See You Tonight") and a few utterly "what-the-f**k?" moments like the cringe-worthy album-closing cover of the Disney chestnut "When You Wish Upon A Star," all of which are overproduced as hell and dripping with unnecessary strings, choirs and other studio trickery.. Gene Simmons makes it clear that The Demon had already "gone Hollywood" by '78, as evidenced by the many pointless guest appearances by celebrities like Gene's then-girlfriend Cher, '70s pop star Helen Reddy (!) and Casablanca Records stablemate Donna Summer. Fun fact: a then-unknown Kate Sagal, later of "Married With Children" and "Sons of Anarchy" fame, appears on Gene's album as a backup vocalist!
Gene Simmons - "Radioactive"
The Runt of the Litter: Peter Criss
Peak on U.S. Billboard Chart: #43
Peter will readily admit that musically, he was the "odd man out" in KISS. He was born a few years earlier than his band mates, so while they were growing up on a steady hard rockin' diet of Led Zeppelin, the Who, and the Beatles, Peter came of age in the late 50s/early '60s listening to lots of swing/jazz music and the soul, doo-wop and girl groups of rock n' roll's formative years. Therefore, it makes sense that his solo album is a smooth, retro flavored pop-rock record with a dance-able edge. Even though Peter's album is by far the weakest of the four solos, it actually feels like the most honest. I have to give Peter credit for thinking he would be able to sell schmaltzy Dad-Rock like "You Matter To Me" or "That's the Kind of Sugar Papa Likes" to KISS' hard-rock audience (most of whom, of course, promptly stamped it "RETURN TO SENDER"). The reverent cover of the oldie "Tossin' and Turnin'" and the earnest ballad "Easy Thing" are the major highlights here, showcasing Criss' smoky singing voice at its best, but overall the album is dragged down by its near-total lack of strong material. If you took the best songs off of Peter's and Gene's solo albums and put them together, you might have enough tracks for a decent EP.
Peter Criss - "You Matter to Me"
The response to the four solo albums was lukewarm at best. Casablanca Records had banked on every loyal member of the KISS Army snapping up all four albums, which would've totaled an easy five million in U.S. sales - but it didn't quite work out that way. As sales reports and reviews started rolling in, it became clear that most KISS fans were playing favorites and buying only the album(s) from the band member(s) they "liked" best. The most successful album turned out to be Frehley's, which produced the only true "hit" single of the four with its bouncy cover of "New York Groove" by the British band Hello ( #13 on the Billboard Hot 100). The singles from Paul ("Hold Me, Touch Me"), Gene ("Radioactive") and Peter ("Don't You Let Me Down" and "You Matter To Me") didn't even crack the top 40 - which probably worsened the rivalries that were already brewing between the foursome.
When the smoke cleared, combined U.S. sales for the four solo albums totaled about a million and a half copies -- in other words, roughly the same amount that a single, "regular" KISS studio album would have sold. Record-store bargain bins were soon overflowing with copies and retailer returns overwhelmed Casablanca with a flood of unsold vinyl.
Casablanca had rolled the dice hoping to turn each KISS member into an individual superstar, but they'd come up snake eyes -- and the backlash was just beginning. When KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park premiered on NBC about six weeks after the release of the solo albums, it scored huge ratings but the cheap, cheesy made-for-TV film was denounced by the band's diehard fans as "kid stuff." The bloom was off the rose, and there was nowhere to go but downhill from here.
Stung by the reception to the solo efforts and embarrassed by their cartoonish B-Movie, KISS regrouped in 1979 and began to prep for their next studio album, Dynasty, but things were never quite the same for the original lineup. Peter was out of the band by 1980 and Ace would follow him out the door by 1982. Simmons and Stanley have kept the KISS machine rolling to this day with a rotating cast of replacement players and an ultimately-doomed reunion with Criss and Frehley during the 90s.
In retrospect, 1978's solo album debacle was KISS' "jump the shark" moment - where they learned that even their fanatical fan base had its limits.