erasing clouds

Love Without Guilt: KISS’ Destroyer

by paul jaissle

Finally embracing the fact that I liked KISS was, from what I can imagine, a lot like a first-time AA meeting: I had admitted to myself that I had a “problem,” and the first step toward a better life was to tell my friends and loved ones I had been hiding a dark secret from them for years. Well, maybe it wasn’t that dramatic, but I did feel a slight weight lifted from my shoulders the first time I turned up and sang along with “Detroit Rock City” while someone else was in the car. Not because I was accepting that I liked The World’s Hottest Band®, but because I realised that there was nothing wrong with liking KISS: in fact, there is quite a lot to enjoy here, and not just to be “ironic”.

For years, I simply wrote off KISS as an embarassing relic of a bygone musical era: four grown men in makeup singing stupid sex jokes in between choreographed fire-spitting and pyrotechincs. They even seemed too idiotic to laugh at. But, much like other 70s rock icons Rush and Thin Lizzy, I soon found out that there was a lot more to the group than the three songs that were played endlessly on “Classic Rock” radio. So after growing to hate every second of “Rock and Roll All Night”, it was a bit of a surprise to find myself drawn to the band’s harder edged earlier work and even falling fully under the spell of the romanticized, over-blown persona that is KISS.

I suppose that if any album is best known and synonymous with the Knights In Satan’s Service, it is 1976’s Destroyer. While far from a perfect album, and not necessarily my favorite album by the group, it is easy to see how it captured the attention of legions of long-haired teenagers in the mid-70s. And Destroyer is a perect example of both what makes KISS great AND horribly moronic at the same time.

See, after churning out three shitty sounding (but great and catchy) hard rock albums, KISS became a house-hold name by releasing their ALIVE album which exploited the monster movie and comic book fueled wet dreams of pre-teens everywhere and sold like hot cakes at a maple syrup expo. So why a hard rocking band like KISS hired a candy ass producer like Bob Ezrin to produce their “do or die” follow up to ALIVE is beyond me, but the resulting Destroyer was a humungous success in its own right. How exactly did they do it? Well, by playing up their cartoonish personas and by polishing out the slightest hint of danger and grit out of their sound until they basically sound like a bubble-gum group with louder guitars while a showtune loving producer makes them record silly ballads.

Despite all of those factors, I have found myself listening to the album non-stop lately. Which is funny since I was born 6 years after it came out and I am fascinated by it as if I was a kid half my age living in 1976. Why? Because I happen to love bone-headed caveman rock ‘n’ roll as well as sugary-sweet bubble-gum pop rock. I mean what’s not to like about the opening track “Detroit Rock City” (besides the way too long intro…yeah, I get it: it’s about a car wreck, thanks)? It’s powered by a huge guitar riff that is so simplistic and dumb I can’t help myself but shout along everytime they name-drop my hometown. This is what KISS sounds like when they are good. This is the KISS I like. This is the KISS that millions of kids actually believed were a demon, star child, space man, and cat (put in that context, Peter Criss’s ‘cat’ persona sounds almost lamer than it really was). Even Ezrin’s production works on this song: after the solo there sounds like half a dozen lead guitar lines weaving in and out without being distracting or sounding overbearing. They could have called it quits after the one song and had a great album, but the boys decided to write 8 more and stick them on after it. The results work to varying degrees, but for my money, nothing beats that first song.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other good moments on the album: the other songs are good too even if they don’t fill me with the same level of joy as “Detroit Rock City”. The following tune, “King of the Night Time World,” predicts the eventual glam-hair-cock-rock-pop-metal of the mid-80s without sounding gimmicky or tacky like the following hairspray acts. The album’s biggest “classic” for most KISS fans is “God of Thunder” because… well, I have no idea: to me it sounds like a big tuneless mess with a half-assed chorus and a bunch of pointless sound effects and overdubs. Why is this such a classic? Am I missing something? I suppose hearing it while watching Gene Simmons spitting up fake blood might be a little more entertaining, but on record it certainly doesn’t do too much for me.

Speaking of Gene (the Demon), I’m sure a lot of teenaged KISS fans were a little dissapointed hearing him fronting a sweeping ballad complete with strings and a choir on “Great Expectations”. I mean, for kids that fully believed in the band’s personas, it might have been hard to imagine them in full kabuki gear in the studio with a symphony orchestra: doesn’t that ruin the band conceptually? Whatever, I like the song (but honestly, is sleeping with Gene Simmons all that great of an expectation?). Peter Criss’s tender ballad “Beth” (one of the saddest, most touching songs ever sung by a man painted to look like a cat) works because everyone knew Peter was lame to begin with.

“Flaming Youth” is about the angst of youth without being angry or theatening at all (is that a calliope I hear?) and sounds even sillier knowing the first Ramones album comes out the same year. But, whatever, it’s still a catchy song. “Sweet Pain” delivers the rock much better, and I love that little guitar riff during the verse as much as I hate the breakdown befoe the guitar solo. Again, though, I thaink it’s a great song and a surprisingly subtle (for KISS at least) S&M refrence. And “Shout It Out Loud” is “Rock And Roll All Night” part 2, which I certainly could have done without (except I do like those huge, echoing piaon notes during the chorous…). Finally the album closes with the second-best song, “Do You Love Me?”, of course later covered by Nirvana, which features on of the greatest drum sounds this side of a Phil Spector record. So despite the sometimes cheesy production and a few sub-par tunes, Destroyer is a good album. As far as 70s hard rock albums go, it has held up surprisingly well, and compared to their later material, it is one of KISS’s stronger offerings. After a few careful listenings, I am confident enough to come out of the closet as a KISS fan. You know the closet, it’s the one with the ripped-knee jeans and faint pot scented Army Navy Surplus jackets with crookedly sewn on “KISS ARMY” patches on them (not that OTHER closet where Paul Stanley still hides comfortably).

Issue 21, March 2004

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