[13 August 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
“Nobody knew we were on the Titanic until the water was up to our nostrils.”
By 1978, Kiss had become so huge, music quickly took a backseat to market oversaturation (including a whopping nine albums between 1976 and 1979), tacky marketing (everything from dolls to comic books), cartoonish TV movies, flamboyant image overhauls, a stage show that just kept getting too big for its own good, and ultimately, rifts between band members. With the exception of 1979’s terrific, Studio 54-inspired single “I Was Made For Lovin’ You”, Kiss was in one hell of a tailspin, and as the flamboyant foursome limped into the ‘80s, they were simply lost.
When album after album backfired, whether artistically, commercially, or in the case of 1981’s infamous Music From “The Elder”, both, the only gimmick left for a band that had come to rely far too much on gimmicks was to remove the famous make-up, and start from scratch. Somehow, though, despite the addition of a new drummer and a revolving door of lead guitarists in the span of three years, not to mention struggling to keep pace with the pop metal explosion of that decade, Kiss made it through the ‘80s in remarkably good shape, and by the time the 90s rolled along, they were a surprisingly tight live act.
On the heels of 2006’s hugely successful and undeniably enjoyable Kissology Vol. 1, Kissology Vol. 2 continues the band’s thorough emptying of its huge video vaults, offering a fascinating, often funny, and sometimes cringe-inducing journey through the sporadic highs and many lows Kiss experienced from 1978 to 1991. And while many completists will be up in arms about some dubious exclusions, this three-disc set nevertheless gives fans plenty of bang for their bucks.
Vol. 2 continues right where Vol. 1 left off, as a curmudgeonly yet perceptive Edwin Newman profiles the Kiss phenomenon at its zenith in the 1978 news piece dubbed “Land of Hype and Glory” (unfortunately, we only get about half of the 15 minute piece), but the rest of the first disc centers around the Kiss hype machine spiraling out of control. The band’s foray into motion pictures wasn’t exactly on par with A Hard Day’s Night, as the Hanna-Barbera-produced Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park was a corny B-movie, the band made to look like superheroes, but ended up looking more like acting hacks. Still, it’s a legendary piece of ‘70s kitsch (one that simply begs to be lampooned by Mystery Science Theater), and we’re treated to the European theatrical version of the film (entitled Kiss in Attack of the Phantoms), which has been nicely restored, presented in snazzy enhanced widescreen and 5.1 surround sound.
A 1979 Tomorrow Show interview with the great Tom Snyder follows, the band looking exhausted, and rather silly, their costumes now too garish even by Kiss’s standards. Guitarist Ace Frehley, who was increasingly becoming a loose cannon, is clearly wasted out of his mind, yet to the great chagrin of singer / guitarist Paul Stanley and a supremely pissed-off bassist Gene Simmons, Ace completely steals the segment, making crack after hilarious crack (“What’s your costume supposed to be?” asks Snyder. “A plumber!” retorts a cackling Frehley). Like the Newman piece, though, we only get half of the interview, as Frehley became increasingly unglued and embarrassing to the band during the second half. But then again, we don’t need to see him making the Nazi salute on DVD now, do we?
While disc two chronicles Kiss at its absolute nadir, it’s loaded with tremendous footage from 1980- to 82, such as the video to the syrupy, yet woefully underrated single “Shandi”, a CNN interview with fired drummer Peter Criss (who hilariously claims he left on his own terms), a promo segment introducing new drummer Eric Carr, lip-synched German TV performances of Gene’s embarrassing “She’s So European” and Ace’s excellent “Talk to Me”. The centerpiece of the disc, though, is a full ‘80 live set from Sydney, Australia. As Stanley says, the country greeted Kiss “with open arms and open legs”, and the band is clearly loving playing to a huge audience that still adores them, especially in the case of Frehley.
Despite his unpredictability, Frehley had come into his own as a singer-songwriter in the late-‘70s, especially in the wake of his superb 1978 solo album, and he provides many of the set’s highlights, from “Talk to Me”, “2000 Man”, “New York Groove”, and doubling up with Gene on “Cold Gin”. Renewed energy quickly gives way to mind-boggling failure, though, as the band’s notorious 1981 performance on the TV show Fridays features performances from the doomed experiment Music From “The Elder”, and despite the enthusiasm from the fans in the audience, every song bombs horrifically.
Although 1982’s Creatures of the Night album and the subsequent tour failed to sell well, the album had Kiss quickly rebounding from the disaster of the previous year, thanks to the addition of flashy guitarist Vinnie Vincent. Like the Sydney show, the band fared far better in the southern hemisphere, and we’re treated to eight songs from their massive Rio de Janeiro concert in June of 1983, where they performed to well over 150,000 people. Taped for MTV three months later, the famous “unmasking” of Kiss introduces the band’s second incarnation, and the two clips from the subsequent Lick it Up tour has the band, especially Simmons, looking awkward, not quite knowing what to do with themselves, resorting to running around to compensate for the lack of a visual image.
It’s here where Vol. 2 commits its most grievous error. During Kiss’s 1984 Animalize tour, they taped a complete show for MTV, the uncensored version of which became a best-seller on VHS. Long out of print, it’s a very well-shot concert loaded with goofy moments (Gene’s wig, Paul’s uproarious calisthenic routines and profane banter) and terrific songs from the 1982-84 era, a memorable slice of Kiss history (sorry, Kisstory), and its exclusion from this DVD set is inexcusable. Since there’s very little professionally shot footage from 1985’s Asylum tour, we’re stuck with a gaping four year gap between the Lick it Up segment and the rather flaccid 1987 Crazy Nights tour footage on disc three.
By ‘87, Bruce Kulick had finally brought some stability to the lead guitar slot (following a very brief 1984 stint by Mark St. John), and by ‘90, while not exactly lighting the charts on fire (save for the fluke hit power ballad “Forever”), Kiss had become the strongest live act they’d been in years, and the full October, ‘90 show from Detroit is Vol. 2‘s highlight, as the band performs a rousing set spanning their entire career, great ‘80s nuggets like “Fits Like a Glove” and “Tears are Falling” fitting nicely alongside underappreciated classics like “I Stole Your Love” and “I Want You”.
The commentary provided by Stanley, Simons, and Kulick is especially revelatory. Simmons is candid about being “a miserable son of a bitch” during the Snyder interview, and both he and Stanley are very funny describing how misguided The Elder was in retrospect: Simmons says incredulously that to this day fans request that the band play an all-Elder live set, to which Stanley quickly quips, “And then we write back to the hospital and tell the people we hope they get better.” The band’s comments about the late Eric Carr are affectionate, as they talk about how genuinely nice a human being he was, and Stanley touches on how Carr was so devoted to the band, that even when he was dying of cancer, he tried to convince his bandmates that he was still well enough to tour, and was so devastated and angry when he was told to go home and get some rest.
The band didn’t hear from Carr and his family until after he had died a few months later. Vol. 2 concludes with the MTV news clip announcing Carr’s death as well as Carr’s last performance with the band in the video for “God Gave Rock ‘n’ Roll to You II”, and while this annoyingly incomplete, yet still satisfying DVD ends on a somber note, it caps off a 13-year journey that saw a band lose its identity, struggle to reinvent itself, and end up with a new lease on life.