When KISS Unmasked: 1983's "Lick It Up"
KISS—"Lick It Up" (Mercury/Polygram, 1983)
The Reveal... it was 1983, and my brother and I were browsing in the record and tape department of a Caldor department store (remember those?) in suburban New Jersey. While scanning the new releases, we found a new KISS album with the provocative title of Lick It Up. One look at the album's stark-white cover prompted an excited, disbelieving shout of, "Whoa! Dude! Check this out! KISS took off their makeup!"
You probably had to be alive in 1983 to fully understand the cataclysmic impact of this event. My bro and I were just a hair too young to fully experience the first wave of KISS-mania in the late '70s, but like most grade-school kids of the time, we were aware of—and slightly terrified by—the fire-breathing, blood-spitting, flash-bombing quartet. We also knew that no one had ever seen what they looked like without their trademark makeup. During the 1970s, a bare-faced shot of the foursome was the Holy Grail for celebrity photographers. Legend had it that all of the major supermarket tabloids offered hefty rewards for such a photo, but the band were vigilant at maintaining their mystique. If a photographer did happen to catch any of the band members "out of uniform," the rockers would quickly obscure their facial features behind bandannas, napkins, restaurant menus, large hats, or sunglasses.
"Lick It Up"
By the time Lick It Up turned up in our local Caldor, KISS had been off of the pop cultural radar for a few years, so we stared at the album's cover for several minutes trying to figure out who was who. We easily ID'd Gene Simmons thanks to his trademark tongue, and Paul Stanley's pouty-lipped facial expression gave him away, but we honestly weren't sure who the other two guys were. We assumed one of them must have been "new" drummer Eric Carr, but if memory serves we mistook then-new guitar recruit Vinnie Vincent for Ace Frehley, because we didn't know at the time that Ace had already been out of the band for more than a year.
We didn't buy the LP that day, but a short time later I was at a buddy's house when he reached into his album stack and pulled out Lick It Up. "Have you heard this one yet?" he asked before throwing it on his turntable. Tracks like the burly "All Hell's Breakin' Loose" and "On the 8th Day" proceeded to blow my thirteen year old mind and by the end of the record, I was sold. KISS was on the rise again!
"All Hell's Breakin' Loose"
A Do Or Die Move
At the time of its release, Lick It Up was definitely a "do-or-die" album for KISS, whose fortunes had been waning for a number of years. The original lineup which took the world by storm in the 70s had been halved - Eric Carr replaced drummer Peter Criss in 1980, and Vinnie Vincent took over the guitar slot from Ace Frehley in 1982. They hadn't had a hit single in the U.S. since 1979's "I Was Made For Lovin' You," and their two most recent studio albums - 1981's ill fated concept disc Music From "The Elder" and 1982's criminally ignored return-to-form Creatures of the Night - had stiffed on the charts. Simmons and Stanley knew that the band could be finished unless they did something drastic to stop the bleeding, and so they put away the makeup and costumes and let the music speak for itself.
To reveal their new look to the world, Simmons & Stanley wisely aligned themselves with a major new power in the music industry - MTV, whose massive influence could easily make (or break) an act. When the band approached MTV with the chance for a world broadcast exclusive of their "unmasking," the network jumped at the opportunity. On September 18, 1983 - the same day that Lick It Up was released to record stores - KISS appeared live on MTV to reveal their faces for the first time, followed by the world premiere of the "Lick It Up" music video. The P.R. stunt worked its intended magic; people were talking about KISS again, and even better, they were buying the new album. Lick It Up began climbing the Billboard album charts, eventually peaking at #24 - their best showing since 1979's Dynasty.
KISS Unmasks on MTV, 1983
Looking back on it 35 years (!) after its release, Lick It Up honestly hasn't aged very well. The album is nowhere near as good as its predecessor, Creatures of the Night (which still sounds great today) but it's still a decent collection of boneheaded '80s metal anthems, let down somewhat by the thin production job by Michael James Jackson, the engineer who'd also worked on Creatures but who never manages to recapture that album's sonic firepower here.
Lick It Up's title song remains the best-known track from the album and is a live-set staple to this day (the current lineup even performed it on "Dancing With the Stars" a few years ago!). Stanley gives it his all on tracks like the opening "Exciter" and the ballad "A Million To One," but for my money the standouts on Lick It Up all belong to Gene Simmons. His vicious snarl and rumbling bass grooves on tracks like "Not For the Innocent," "Dance All Over Your Face" or "And On the 8th Day" prove that even without his monstrous makeup, Gene was still in full on Demon Mode. Some credit must also go to Stanley for his totally bitchin' freestyle "rap" that starts off "All Hell's Breakin' Loose" ("Street hustler come up to me one day and I'm just walkin' down the street mindin my own business...now he looks me up and he looks me down, and he says HEY MAN, what be this and what be that?" .... sheer poetry!) It's criminal that Paul is constantly overlooked as a pioneer of rap-metal! (haha)
"Gimme More" and the hilariously filthy "Fits Like A Glove" fulfill the album's "sleaze" quotient nicely, providing listeners with such cringe-worthy lyrical tidbits as "C'mon, lick my candy cane!" (from "Gimme") and "When I go through her, it's just like a hot knife through butter" (from "Glove")...but as I'm so fond of saying, if KISS' lyrics don't make you cringe at least once per album, they're not doing their job!!
Vinnie Vincent's contribution to KISS at this stage should not be understated. His flashy, Eddie Van Halen-influenced guitar work is all over this album and his songwriting skills were a major part of updating the band's sound. Up until this point KISS was still closely associated with the 1970s, but Vincent helped bring them into the 1980s.
The Legacy of "LICK IT UP"
Thanks to heavy MTV rotation of the cartoonish "Lick It Up" and "All Hell's Breakin' Loose" videos (which featured the band members cavorting with a parade of post-apocalyptic hotties in a crumbling urban setting), Lick It Up sold half a million copies by the end of 1983 -- their first album to reach Gold Record status since Unmasked. It didn't quite launch the band back into the multi-platinum stratosphere that they'd enjoyed in the '70s, but Lick It Up restored their good name and put the band on semi-solid footing again.
However, Simmons and Stanley decided they'd had enough of Vinnie Vincent by early 1984. The guitarist had been making noise to the press about his desire to be a full fledged member of KISS (as opposed to a contracted player), and that he felt entitled to a bigger slice of royalties. Vincent was dismissed at the end of the Lick It Up tour and replaced by one-and-done guitarist Mark St. John for the recording of Animalize (1984). Vincent formed his own short lived band, the Vinnie Vincent Invasion, and would go on to file a series of unsuccessful law suits against KISS over the next several decades over royalty payments and other financial minutiae.
Animalize (1984) was the album that truly cemented KISS' comeback, striking double platinum thanks to the hit single "Heaven's On Fire." It was official: the faithful KISS Army had accepted the re-invented band, and the makeup-free quartet continued their renewed quest for world domination well into the next decade.
© 2013 Keith Abt