How huge were Kiss in the late 1970s? In 1977, this reviewer received not one, not two, but five copies of Kiss Alive II for my tenth birthday. When the notorious TV movie turkey Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park premiered on Halloween weekend in 1978, every “Kiss Army” kid in the country sequestered himself at home with a “Do Not Disturb” sign on his front door. The day Casablanca released the band’s four solo efforts – Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Peter Criss, and Ace Frehley – yours truly bought each one, nailing all four gift posters on my wall that very night. (Yes, kids, vinyl LP sleeves once included full-size collectible posters inside.)
Sadly, much of Kiss’ catalog has proved easy to outgrow. Alive II captures them at their explosive peak, sampling prime output through 1977’s Love Gun and satisfying any residual cravings for this old-time fan. In hindsight, their four solo releases marked the beginning of the end of the band’s soaring popularity. After “Kiss Meets the Phantom” came 1979’s disco-inflected “I Was Made For Loving You”, a #11 chart hit but still a career misstep – toppling them from meteoric fame to ridiculous over-saturation, culminating with Frehley and Criss exiting the band in a haze of acrimony and behavioral issues. Only recently have Kiss reclaimed the mantle of influential Elder Statesmen, including a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction in 2014.
And whither those four solo records? Upon their 1978 release, a spot-on contemporary review labeled them “The Good, the Bad, the Mediocre, and the Ugly”. These labels stuck: By consensus, Frehley’s album represented the good, while the other three languished in cutout bargain bins and have been mostly forgotten.
For many music buffs, Ace Frehley has only grown in stature ever since.
In addition to Kiss reunion tours in 1996 and 2000, I was fortunate enough to catch Frehley in concert in 2017. It’s easy to forget how extensive the man’s body of work is – from Kiss in the 1970s, to 1980s solo vehicle Frehley’s Comet, to 2009’s well-crafted and surprisingly entertaining Anomaly. Frehley also suffered the same anti-Kiss backlash as his bandmates, with reputable pundits dumping on them as faux musicians and shock-rock 1970s has-beens.
But then a funny thing happened. Gen-X rock demigods like Slash and Kurt Cobain started name-checking Kiss, particularly Frehley, as significant influences. Hair metal may stink to high heaven, but it sold zillions of records and probably wouldn’t exist without Kiss. Granted, their songs were largely about teen sex and puerile adolescent fantasy, so nobody will ever mistake them for Steely Dan. But above all, prime-era Kiss was fun – a goal the music industry periodically loses sight of, especially during those lugubrious post-Vietnam/pre-disco days.
It’s no coincidence that Kiss’ famous peak matched their most fertile creative period. 1975’s Alive was a big seller, but their following three records – 1976’s Destroyer and Rock and Roll Over, plus 1977’s Love Gun – were almost certainly their best, quality-wise. The words Kiss and “mature” should never appear in the same sentence, but one could argue this period came closest. Their four solo albums appeared in mid-1978, at the group’s artistic pinnacle (such as it was).
This future music critic vividly recalls dashing home to play all four records, one after the other. Stanley’s was super-boring; Simmons’ Meat Loaf-inspired effort was uneven but still enjoyable and better appreciated as an adult; while Criss’ lame venture into R&B verged on unlistenable. (Bad, Mediocre, and Ugly indeed.) But Ace Frehley was something else: bashing our lo-fi 1970s speakers with one fantastic rock track after another, demanding repeated listens even at a youthful stage when hits were all that mattered. Ironically, of the four releases, only Bronx-born Ace delivered a Top 40 smash: his love-letter cover of Russ Ballard’s “New York Groove”, which reached No. 13 and is fondly remembered by the city’s denizens to this day.
Like most rock albums, the songs mainly deal with love, sex, and heartbreak. But this being 1970s Ace Frehley, substance abuse unavoidably shows up too. Stories differ, but Simmons places the blame for Frehley’s ouster squarely on his suicidal alcohol and drug habits. He’s been sober since 2006, so one wonders how drug-era anthems like “Ozone”, “Wiped-Out”, and “Snow Blind” (beating Styx‘s version by three years) would sit with him today. One is reminded of Ozzy Osbourne‘s seminal “Flying High Again” from 1981, harking back to a hazy, ‘anything goes’ era many recovered musicians would prefer to forget.
That’s too bad because “Wiped-Out”, and “Ozone”, in particular, feature some of the wooziest, doped-out guitars of the 1970s. “Wiped-Out’s” lyrics detail a drunken night on the town that I would kill to have witnessed first-hand (“Wine was out, we should switch to rum!”). Meanwhile, what extraterrestrial psychedelic substance can “Ozone” possibly refer to? Knowing Ace’s proclivities, I’m scared to find out – they don’t call him Space-Ace for nothing. Remember, kiddies, this was an era when everybody under age 12 really believed David Bowie came from another planet.
The romantic songs on Ace Frehley derive from sincere love/hate experiences as well. Innocent ten-year-olds might not appreciate the venom spewing from opener “Rip It Out”, but we sure do now: “Rip it out, take my heart… I hope you suffer!” Yet Frehley can also play ‘kiss and make-up’ where necessary. “Speedin’ Back to My Baby” speaks to every guy who ever raced down a highway to see a woman, whether successful or not.
Jangly power-pop gem “What’s on Your Mind” salutes the Byrds by way of Big Star, bringing lovelorn Frehley about as close to his knees as a rock superstar ever gets. If there’s a weak spot on Ace Frehley, it would have to be the comparatively unimaginative “I’m In Need of Love”; though, stick with it for two minutes, and you’ll hear the wickedest solo on the entire album. Frehley’s vocals may not be scintillating, but they get the inebriated rock-and-roll job done. Through it all, his inventive fretwork maintains the free-wheeling pop sensibility that influenced many future guitar heroes.
Then, after this muscular tour-de-force comes one of the most shocking rug-pulls in rock history. Frehley may be the one and only Space-Ace, but the gorgeous closing instrumental “Fractured Mirror” must have sprung wholly formed from another dimension. Meticulously constructed, hauntingly symmetrical, this affecting pastoral suite sounds like nothing Kiss fans had ever heard before. So beautiful is “Fractured Mirror” that one’s breath still catches listening to it even today, half a lifetime later. Sex, drugs, and wild concerts be damned: the mind behind this deathless slice of perfection was considerably more sophisticated than contemporary listeners were led to believe.
Which provides us with an amusing sidebar. For research purposes, I endured Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park for the first time since its premiere 45 years ago. Leave the TV remote alone – it’s as awful as you remember. But in addition to established Kiss classics, “Phantom’s” soundtrack includes multiple songs from all four solo records when they were brand new. Hard to believe, but the only Frehley tracks were “Fractured Mirror” and “New York Groove”, the latter of which he didn’t even write! Despite this snub, Ace Frehley has proved the biggest seller of the four albums since Soundscan tracking premiered in 1991.
Throughout Kiss’ many iterations, Stanley and Simmons dominated both the group and their studio sessions. “Shock Me” from 1977’s Love Gun showed Frehley was capable not only of writing a great rock song but singing it too. Like Van Halen I, there’s also something to be said for releasing an unapologetic guitar showcase amid Saturday Night Fever‘s interminable reign atop the charts – long before the Knack’s “My Sharona” broke disco’s stranglehold during the summer of 1979. We loved Ace Frehley as kids; nearly 50 years after its release, his sparkling solo debut still electrifies this jaded adult with every listen.
In April 2000, courtesy of music exec Jay Frank, yours truly was privileged to sit in the second row at Kiss’ final reunion tour. There he was, larger than life – my childhood hero Ace Frehley, floating ten feet away! This being Kiss, getting backstage proved much easier for the topless young ladies to our right. But that unforgettable concert remains the greatest live show this haughty reviewer has ever seen, and experiencing the legendary Space-Ace up close and personal was a major reason why.