"Rock and Roll All Nite." "Detroit Rock City." "New York Groove." "I Was Made for Lovin' You." "Lick It Up." Yep, Kiss has offered up quite a few arena-shaking anthems that most rock fans are long familiar with. But having issued 20 studio albums since 1974, many deep album cuts have been accumulated along the way – several of which stand up quite well to the classics…yet only Kiss fanatics know about them.
As the author of two Kiss books (2019's Take It Off: Kiss Truly Unmasked and 2011's The Eric Carr Story), I feel I am properly qualified to serve as your guide through an article that selects five of the best overlooked album tracks of the Kiss catalog – and I will even shout it out loud what makes these selections hotter than hell.
"Strange Ways" – Hotter Than Hell (1974)
Although it contains the muddiest-sounding production of all the Kiss albums, the group's sophomore effort, Hotter Than Hell, is one of their more underrated albums. The title track and "Let Me Go, Rock n' Roll" are the best known of the bunch (largely due to their inclusion on Alive!), but it's a surprisingly consistent listen from beginning to end, including quite a few standout lesser-known tracks – "Parasite," "Goin' Blind," "Watchin' You," etc.
But one of the very best is tucked away at the very end – the Ace Frehley-penned (yet Peter Criss-sung), "Strange Ways." Featuring a sluggish tempo and guitar riff (which approaches what we would consider "doom metal" territory nowadays), what really makes the song such an underrated gem is Frehley's guitar solo – which is unquestionably one of his best-ever.
Lastly, a little known fact – originally, there was a drum solo inserted into the track, supposedly at the behest of Criss. In the 2014 book, Nothin' to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975), Simmons recalled the "drum solo controversy." "During Hotter Than Hell, Peter confronted Paul and I and said, 'If I don't have a song to sing on this record I'm leaving the band,' so Paul gave him the song 'Mainline' to sing. We initially liked that arrogant bravado and appreciated a guy that stood up for himself, but threatening to leave the band was out of line. And he did it again while we were recording Ace's song, 'Strange Ways,' Peter did a seven-minute drum solo on that song and it was horrible. It was the worst thing we ever heard. He threatened to leave the band again if we cut the solo but we did it anyway." Wisely for Criss, he opted to remain in Kiss (who would rocket to superstardom just a year after the release of Hotter Than Hell).
And although "Strange Ways" remains one of Kiss' heaviest songs, it was probably never performed live by the band (there has been some talk in fan circles that it might have been performed a few times early on, but no audio exists to support this claim). However, in recent years, Frehley has made it a setlist standard at his solo performances.
"Mr. Speed" – Rock and Roll Over (1976)
Although Kiss is thought of by many as either a hard rock or heavy metal band, early on, most of their tunes also contained an unmistakable element of good old fashioned rock n' roll ("Deuce," "Strutter," "Rock and Roll All Nite," etc.) – thanks in part to their admiration of bands such as the Rolling Stones and Humble Pie.
And on this tune from arguably Kiss' best-ever studio album, Paul Stanley cooks up a killer riff that is oozing with Stones-y swagger, and with lyrics that glorify his stud-like rock star status (sample lyric: "'Cause you ain't enough lady, To keep the master satisfied").
In the booklet that accompanied the 2001 box set, Kiss, Stanley explained the song's lyrical inspiration. "'Mr. Speed' is about being able to pick up women really quickly. [Laughs] It was about being so fast, having all the lines, having the know-how to pick somebody up without wasting a lot of time and seeing those pickups reach their logical conclusion."
Additionally, the tune serves as proof that Gene Simmons – particularly on Kiss' first few studio offerings – was an underrated bassist, as his basslines throughout the tune are surprisingly busy (perhaps all the touring Kiss was doing with Rush/Geddy Lee the previous year had rubbed off).
To this day, "Mr. Speed" continues to be a favorite of the Kiss Army – as evidenced by a fun all-star cover that surfaced on YouTube in 2020, featuring Anthrax's Charlie Benante and Rob Zombie's John 5 (all hiding behind respective Kiss masks), which can be viewed here.
"Larger Than Life" – Alive II (1977)
Peter Criss was usually thought of as a swinging rock n' roll drummer, a la Charlie Watts – especially on Kiss' early material. But on side four of Alive II (which included five newly-recorded studio tracks), his mammoth and booming drum sound is uncannily reminiscent of John Bonham. And this is especially evident on the Gene Simmons composition, "Larger Than Life."
One of the main reasons for the song's gonzo sonics is due to the fact that instead of recording in a traditional studio, they set up shop at the Capitol Theatre, in Passaic, New Jersey (with producer Eddie Kramer in tow) – to get more of a "live sound." And by golly, it worked!
However, when interviewed for the book Take It Off: Kiss Truly Unmasked, Anthrax drummer Charlie Benante recalled a conversation he once had with Gene Simmons, in which the bat lizard bassist supposedly spilled the beans that "Some of it was Peter playing, and some of it was not Peter playing" on side four. Benante also added, "He told me it was Anton Fig, and also Carmine Appice. But he couldn’t remember which one was which." I guess it will remain one of life's great mysteries.
Another ingredient that makes the track such an underrated standout is the exceptional lead guitar work throughout. However, it was not Ace Frehley who supplied the soloing, but rather, another "uncredited helper" – who years later, was revealed to be session player Bob Kulick (who would play with everyone from Meat Loaf to Diana Ross throughout his career, and in 1984, helped land his kid brother, Bruce, the lead guitar position in Kiss).
As Bob recalled in the book, The Eric Carr Story, "As a trusted friend and confidant of Gene and Paul's, I wrote songs with Gene, I played on Paul's solo record, played on the songs on side four of Alive II that basically gave Ace Frehley his reputation as a great guitar player – 'All American Man,' 'Larger Than Life.' Those were me, not Ace Frehley. As with the Beatles, nobody volunteered the fact that Bernard Purdie played drums on some stuff, or that it was Eric Clapton on a couple of songs. There weren't advertisements in the newspaper – 'Somebody else is guesting on this.' It wasn't like the Beatles and Billy Preston. It couldn't be Kiss and Bob Kulick."
Lyrically, the tune focuses on one of Gene Simmons' favorite subjects – himself – and similarly to the aforementioned "Mr. Speed," is quite immodest, especially when he boasts, "I'm far more than a man, I'm gonna make you understand, I'm larger than a life size man" and "You can't believe your eyes, What you heard weren't lies, My love is too much to hold."
Despite sounding like a made-for-the-stage number, surprisingly, "Larger Than Life" was never properly played on stage until 2019 – and only then as part of a more intimate "Kiss Kruise" performance.
And one last thing about the song's goliath drum sound – it would obviously serve as a blueprint that Kiss returned to again for the heaviest album of their career, 1982's Creatures of the Night. But this time around, it was with Eric Carr on drums (as Criss had exited the band in 1980), and instead of recording the drums in a theater, they set up mics inside an elevator shaft of a recording studio!
"Magic Touch" – Dynasty (1979)
It's easy to point to Dynasty as the beginning of the end for the first go-round of Kiss' original line-up – thanks to its surprisingly pop-y production courtesy of Vini Poncia, the inclusion of the disco song "I Was Made for Lovin' You," and the fact that Peter Criss only plays drums on a single tune, "Dirty Livin'" (despite Criss being credited on all the tracks, it was actually Anton Fig who mostly kept the beat). But there are certainly a few hidden gems to be discovered (even with its rather neutered production) – "2,000 Man," "Charisma," and especially, "Magic Touch."
Penned entirely by Paul Stanley, the song exposes what many long-time Kiss fans believe – that in the '70s, the Starchild was one of the more underrated vocalists in rock (especially heard in a breakdown section in the middle of the tune that comes out of seemingly nowhere, in which he sings in falsetto).
And although Gene and Paul always praised the Beatles as a prime influence, it was never really crystal clear in Kiss' sound (not counting a few tracks on side two of Simmons' '78 solo album, in which he enlisted the aid of a few Beatlemania members to replicate the vocal harmonies of Lennon and McCartney). That is…until this tune, which features backing vocals that are quite Beatle-esque on the verses.
Surprisingly, the song's composer was not pleased with his vocals on the track, as he once admitted in the 2003 book, Kiss: Behind the Mask - The Official Authorized Biography. "'Magic Touch' was a great song that unfortunately got mucked up when it was recorded, as did a lot of songs on Dynasty and Unmasked. 'Magic Touch' was a song that was really powerful and really heavy and got kind of wimped out. Just the wrong vocal interpretation, wrong way of singing it. But I like the song a lot."
Like "Larger Than Life," it would take many years (heck, decades), before "Magic Touch" would receive a proper performance in front of an audience, when Stanley broke it out as part of the tour in support of his 2006 solo effort, Live to Win (and later included on the One Live Kiss DVD).
"Not for the Innocent" – Lick It Up (1983)
As Kiss' "non-make-up era" wore on, Gene Simmons' look and songwriting would slip further and further away from his demon persona. But on Kiss' first post-make-up album, 1983's Lick It Up, Simmons still sounded focused and inspired (OK, OK, besides the Spinal Tap-esque "Dance All Over Your Face") – particularly on the underrated "Not for the Innocent."
Perhaps what makes this hard rocker such a winner is that if you were to close your peepers and picture Gene growling it in his Creatures of the Night era stage garb, it would have been a perfect fit. Case in point, such lyrics as "I've been damned, I've been cursed, I've been guilty and abused, I spit the hangman in his face and hung him with his noose" and "Gonna tan your hide, Rip the flesh off your bones,
Look me in the eye, And you're gonna turn to stone."
And although his "Kisstory" with the band was a short-lived (and rocky) one, you have to give guitarist Vinnie Vincent props for not only co-penning this tune with Simmons, but also the majority of the Lick It Up album – as he co-wrote an impressive eight of the album's ten tracks.
"'Not for the Innocent' started off with a guitar lick that Vinnie brought me," Simmons explained in the book Kiss: Behind the Mask - The Official Authorized Biography. "I like the song a lot. There was this group called Hydra and their lead singer had no teeth. One of their records was called No Rest for the Wicked. I thought that was a bit cartoonish but there's something about the idea of starting something off negative. I thought, 'Let's write something like 'Do Not Feed the Animals.' It's a very stern warning with a negative at the beginning and 'Not for the Innocent' came out of that."
Greg Prato is a longtime AllMusic contributor and author of several books including The Eric Carr Story