KISS will always be a live band. It wasn’t until 1975’s double concert LP Alive! (which followed three studio albums released over two years) that people began to really pay attention to the band. While those early studio records had some great songs, they were sometimes plagued by tinny production, lethargic performances, or both. It was on stage—exploding in one tidal wave of blood, fire and volume—where KISS had the power to level city blocks.
1976’s Destroyer was a response to those first three records. With the help of producer Bob Ezrin—who by that point had worked magic on Lou Reed’s Berlin and Alice Cooper’s Love It To Death—KISS conquered the studio with choirs, orchestras, conceptual elements and even a goddamn calliope. In hindsight, Destroyer is seen as KISS’s masterpiece. At the time, opinions—especially those of fans—were mixed. What followed was 1976’s Rock and Roll Over and 1977’s Love Gun—both returns to the raw, barebones rock and roll that Midwestern pubescent males craved, and also the final two records to feature all four original members.
Of course, the KISS Army is a fickle bunch when it comes to these things—choosing the best studio record from KISS’s klassik era is simply a matter of taste (or, from an outsider’s perspective, tastelessness). KISS’s 1974 self-titled debut is loaded front-to-back with timeless rockers. Hotter Than Hell is dark, heavy and strange. Dressed To Kill contains their glammiest New York power pop. Destroyer is, naturally, impeccable, but probably a little too luxurious if you truly wanna rock and roll all nite. And Rock and Roll Over makes good on its title.
Which brings us to Love Gun, released in June of 1977 as KISS was reaching the height of their popularity. That thrust into households was more about their early mastery of merchandising (comic books and lunchboxes and record players bearing their image were just beginning), not as a result of their music becoming more commercial. Love Gun was still frothing with sex, drugs, and rock and roll fun—from the Ken Kelly cover art depicting the members of KISS standing in front of Roman pillars surrounded by busty, makeup-caked women, to the album’s title, which is not actually about a firearm.
Love Gun includes a number of KISS’s live staples. “I Stole Your Love” opens the album (and has opened countless shows) for a reason, jumping through the speakers with a fiery riff inspired by Deep Purple’s “Burn.” It killed in 1977, and it kills 37 years later. The title track has always been an interesting one—with a dramatic chorus that never quite comes to terms with the fact Paul Stanley is just singing about his dick. Gene Simmons takes a turn singing about his dick on “Plaster Caster,” a catchy homage to the real-life Cynthia “Plaster Caster,” who molded plaster penises of musicians like Jimi Hendrix and the MC5’s Wayne Kramer (although never Simmons himself). Not nearly as clever or catchy, Simmons’ lewder than lewd “Christine Sixteen” is miraculously still performed live in 2014.
The God of Thunder’s deep cuts “Got Love For Sale” and “Almost Human” are much better, with the latter featuring an evil, medieval riff and a murky, feedback-laced solo from Ace Frehley, one of his best. And the Space Ace absolutely owns his first turn on vocals on “Shock Me,” inspired by the night he was electrocuted on stage in Florida in 1976.
Fortunately Peter Criss’ bubblegum rocker “Hooligan” doesn’t attempt to follow up his Top 10 hit ballad “Beth” or the Rod Stewart-inspired “Hard Luck Woman.” Although Stanley’s “Tomorrow and Tonight” is clearly another stab at recapturing the magic of previous anthems “Rock and Roll All Nite” and “Shout It Out Loud.” Probably the most interesting song on Love Gun wasn’t even written by KISS. The record closes with “Then She Kissed Me,” a gender-reversed version of The Crystals’ 1963 hit, which undoubtedly left stoners across America wondering who’d laced their weed. It’s a good version, with a great, understated solo from Frehley.
However, it’s a little surprising that “Then She Kissed Me” made the cut and not, say, “Much Too Soon,” one of two unreleased demos included on Love Gun Deluxe Edition (the other—“I Know Who You Are”—eventually made it on to Simmons’ 1978 solo record under the title “Living In Sin”). It’s also interesting that those are the only two unreleased songs to make it on to the bonus disc. What ravenous KISS fans are left with are rough versions of the title track (including one in which Stanley explains the song’s chord-progression), loose demos of “Tomorrow and Tonight” and “Plaster Caster,” a seven-minute 1977 interview with Gene Simmons, and a few live versions of the same songs (with some very suspect drum mixes).
While the Love Gun Deluxe Edition is much better than 2012’s disappointing Destroyer Resurrected (basically a Bob Ezrin vanity project in which the producer simply remixed the album and dug up one alternate guitar solo), it will likely be seen by KISS fans as yet another missed opportunity. The remastered version of the original album is a noticeable improvement, but there is still some unreleased material lurking out there. Just ask KISS fans. Demos for songs like Peter Criss’ “Love Bite,” which can be found on YouTube, or “Sincerely” and “See You Baby” (which cannot) could’ve been included. Maybe a full live show from 1977 on DVD? Or what about the fabled demos Simmons supposedly cut with the Van Halen brothers? You won’t find those here, either.
Of course, Simmons and Stanley know—well, perhaps everyone knows at this point—that they don’t have to do much to get their minions to spend some money (in this case, 30 bucks). And many of them will. But there are plenty of fans (including myself) that are just fine putting on the original vinyl record. And let’s be honest—you’re probably not going to find a more deluxe version of Love Gun than that.