Like most people, my first experience with KISS was hearing “Rock and Roll All Nite” on FM radio. It was 1996 and I was on my way to school. Kurt Cobain had been dead for two years and the rock world still hadn’t recovered, with alterna-pop knock-offs ruling the airwaves. I’m sure Phil Collins had just released an album, which didn’t help the sad state of things. But that morning, the DJ came on and introduces a clip from the previous night’s MTV Unplugged. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said. “I give you KISS.”
The problem with KISS has always been that their reputation precedes them. Exploding guitars and eager tongues aside, the Bat, Alien, Cat and Rock Star shtick can be a little off-putting. But that’s the point, man, it’s all about excess, and Rock and Roll Over has it in spades. Forget the newly released box set; start with the classics. This was the first KISS album I bought — on the way home from school, by the way — and still my favorite. After years of slouching around in flannel shirts and Chucks, big, loud knucklehead rock ‘n’ roll was just what I needed.
The songs fall into two neat categories: those about how lots of women want to have sex with KISS, and, well, those about how KISS has sex with lots of women. Lyrics like “You need my love baby, oh so bad/ You’re not the only one I’ve ever had,” come off with a you-know-you-want-it swagger not even matched by the mighty Rolling Stones. Couple it with driving, blues-based riffs and Ace Frehley’s signature leads, and you’re listening to the cockiest sons of bitches in the music business. Fred Durst and Kid Rock don’t even come close, ’cause these guys do it in makeup and high heels.
I should probably justify this review by writing about how KISS is all an act, that their brilliance is in not taking themselves seriously, that they didn’t actually sleep with millions of women. Except they did. Songs like “Makin’ Love” and “Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em” are pretty dead-on autobiographical. So let’s move on.
But there is something to be said for the illusion of sexual superiority scatted throughout Rock and Roll Over. Without it, there would be no Spinal, or Tenacious D for that matter. And to be fair, there are some tender moments on the album. One, to be exact: “Hard Luck Woman,” where Peter Criss momentarily thinks he’s Rod Stewart. It’s acoustic, bittersweet and sentimental. In other words, it makes most KISS fans groan. But it works, and it’s damn catchy.
Everything on this album is pure rock ‘n’ roll magic. Starting with the urgent “I Want You,” KISS delivers their trademark arena-rock punch in 10 tracks. Just put on “Calling Dr. Love,” and you’ll see what I mean. The sound is larger than life, exuding a confidence that’s hard not to admire and impossible to recreate. It’s what rock is all about; after this, throwing televisions out hotel windows just seems amateur.