The riff is the fundamental unit of rock and roll. A good enough riff can take a mediocre song like Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water” and turn it into a perennial classic. A fantastic, visceral riff, when paired with lyrics that match its intensity, can set a new standard for music, as “Satisfaction” did when it shattered so many eardrums almost forty years ago. Usually, one solid, driving guitar line that takes a small number of notes and repeats them in an interesting pattern is all that is needed to create a great rocker. But that task is so difficult that the ability to pen even one great riff has kept countless Richie Blackmores receiving not only royalty checks, but also constant airplay for decades. The key to the secret lore of great guitar work is this: all you need is one little five-second guitar line, and, if it’s good enough, you can repeat it over and over for five minutes and make music magic.
Knowing this rule full well, along comes a guy named Gene Klein (formerly named Chaim Witz), who decides to change everything: his name, the rules, even his rather bland appearance. And so he christens himself a more rocking Gene Simmons, paints his face to look like a pale Batman with a mask gone awry, and writes songs for his band Kiss that punch two, three, or four riffs into every single song. From the brutal thump of 1974’s “Deuce” (which ironically contains three magnificent guitar lines) to the devastating attack of 1976’s “Detroit Rock City”—four different blazing riffs, each of which could bring a song to #1 on its own merits—Gene Simmons nee Klein and bandmates Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss have packed more rock and roll into every arena anthem than any other band alive. Granted, they’ve been doing it with ridiculous make-up, too-tight leather outfits, useless fire-blowing machines, and needless rocker-lifestyle ballads like “Beth”. Nonetheless, for the latter half of the ‘70s, no band was hotter than Kiss, and Kiss, as they themselves told have us, were hotter than hell.
The Best of Kiss: The Millennium Collection does an excellent job of living up to its titular promise, packing the best that Kiss has to offer into a mere forty-one minute CD. Opening with the wallop of Criss’ drums from the early single “Strutter”, the twelve-song collection pounds and hammers its way to the whip-lash ending of “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” without dropping a beat. Sure, we get time to breathe on the appallingly vapid yet popular “Beth”, but we are soon rescued by the highly underrated “Hard Luck Woman”, which has always seemed to me to be the missing track from Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story. But mostly, this album delivers riff after riff of incredible Kiss rockers. The Millennium Collection represents each and every classic Kiss album, including tracks from Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, Dressed to Kill, Alive!, Destroyer, Rock N Roll Over, Love Gun, and Dynasty. And, aside from teaching us how finely the band walked the line of self-parody (in album titles alone), the real lesson of The Millennium Collection is that underneath the make-up, and behind all the ridiculous posturing, Kiss, because of their uncanny ability to create guitar lines that resonate loudly after twenty years, remain one of the best Rock and Roll bands we have ever been lucky enough to hear.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work as independent cultural critics and historians. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times. Thanks everyone.