If one goes by the music itself, it would be hard to explain the sway the double live album held over the American imagination in the ‘70s. Every self-respecting rock act released one, and Peter Frampton inexplicably became a superstar because of his. (Frampton Comes Alive! might just have the worst suckiness-to-albums-sold ratio of all time.) These gatefold monstrosities usually announced themselves with an exclamation point (as if the idea of recording a concert was the most astounding thing ever conceived) and featured plenty of dubbed-in screaming to let you share in the excitement. But the point of these records wasn’t really the music; instead, their appeal rested in some combination of their deluxe packaging (often including album-sized booklet inserts), which in an era of scant media coverage gave fans plenty of photos to scrutinize, and their overall simulation of the arena-rock-show experience, a newly born phenomenon that terrified parents and thus constituted a tantalizing mystery to the teenage mind. Most kids couldn’t go to rock concerts, so they had to derive vicariously through double-live albums a sense of the crazed saturnalia that these shows were assumed to be. You listened to albums like Double Live Gonzo! or Live and Dangerous to conjure that sense of what it must be like to be standing drunk on Schafer beer at a hockey rink being pummeled by an inconceivable amount of decibels while waiting for some beautiful chick with long hair and a denim jacket to pass the joint down the aisle to you.
No album better elicits this heady feeling for me than 1975’s Kiss Alive! Sure, the cover photo is clearly shot on some deserted sound stage somewhere, but just look at the glassy-eyed 13-year-olds pictured on the back cover with their homemade banner. Tell me they’re not stoned out of their minds. The only thing I still listen to that I listened to when I was five (somehow the DeFranco Family and Meco fell out of heavy rotation) and recorded in part at my family’s favored vacation spot, Wildwood, New Jersey (famous for its vomit-inducing amusement rides, a sole-scorching mile of beach that separates you from the ocean, and its guido-infested boardwalk), Alive! captures the band in peak form, before ridiculous pyrotechnics, blood-spitting antics, and spiked heels high enough to make them slightly less agile than statues laid them low and made them a campy joke.
The blistering versions of songs like “Deuce” and “C’mon and Love Me” captured live (and extensively redubbed in the studio afterward) render their limpid studio versions totally moot. Paul Stanley delivers his inane lyrics with complete conviction and full-throated passion in triumphantly hyperbolic cadences, as with the tortured cry of “Get the firehouse / Cause she sets my soul on fire” or this touching declaration from “Strutter”: “She wears her satins like a lady / But she gets her way just like a child.” Gene Simmons’s drooling, leering vocal turn on “Watching You” brings out much more menace than should be possible, and “Black Diamond” gives Peter Criss a far better showcase then his maudlin work on “Beth”. The balance of killer riffs, clumsy soloing, and macho posturing throughout all four sides makes for a non-stop series of glitter rock classics that laid down templates for all the confectionery hair metal that was to come a decade later. “You wanted the best and you got the best, the hottest band in the world,” indeed.
But the music, despite its enduring and endearing qualities, is really beside the point. The point is how this album has forever defined our expectations for arena rock concerts and crystallized the kinds of overtly silly grandstanding necessary to become larger-than-life rock gods. You know there’s going to be a drum solo. You know there’s going to be a mid-set dirge with showboat guitar playing. You know there’s going to be an excruciating audience participation session. You know they’re going to save the big hit for the encore. Other bands had employed these elements before, but it took Kiss to codify them into the industry standard. Yes, the guitar solo in “She” meanders a bit, and Criss’s drum solos are about as exciting as listening to a helicopter take off, but they are more important as formal placeholders than as actual examples of musicianship. In fact, they imply that stubborn ego is far more important than talent to the transcendent hard-rock band.
But there is nothing perfunctory, nothing second-rate or merely suggestive about what is the most singular feature of the album. Of course, I refer to Stanley’s legendary and inimitable stage patter immortalized here primarily in the lead-in to “Cold Gin” and in the fatuous manifesto of incoherence delivered after the drum solo on “100,000 Years”. That they decided to overdub flubbed bass notes and harmonies but left in this rambling nonsensical gibberish, in which you can actually hear Stanley losing track of what the hell he is saying as he’s saying it, to me, is the best proof of the band’s genius, above and beyond even their preternatural gift for marketing. His indecipherable yammering during this crowd participation bit explains more about rock and roll than any comprehensible words could, proving that to “believe in rock and roll” is to be willing to go along with whatever the people on stage are urging, no matter how idiotic. This is as good a way as any to harmlessly get over yourself and enjoy yourself. If rock and roll meant anything specific to Kiss, you might have to hesitate, but Stanley makes it clear he has no idea what it might mean, other than shouting as loud as you can.
“Cold Gin”, too, deserves special analysis. Drinking straight gin is no one’s idea of fun, and it’s hard to imagine how the song could refer to it being “Cold gin time again” when it’s so unlikely that there ever would have been a first time. But this doesn’t stop Stanley from promoting it as the ultimate thirst quencher after proclaiming that “some people back stage” told him that the crowd “liked a taste of al-kee-hol” and that some of them “liked to drink vodka and orange juice.” The idea of Paul Stanley rapping backstage about getting fucked up with some of the bowl-cutted, zit-faced teeners like the ones you see on the back cover, and the people in the audience believing it, is just too rich an image to ever lose its humor. But more importantly, it solidified youthful notions of what one of the primary purposes of going to arena concerts was, namely to get wasted in the parking lot drinking whatever hellacious concoction of stolen booze we could get our hands on. In this retarded rant, you can hear social drinking being defined for an entire generation of kids. And that’s why Kiss Alive! retains its charm: it never fails to recall a time when partying seemed like innocent fun rather than pathological escapism. And that, ultimately, is the myth that rock and roll lives to preserve.