Back in the Seventies, in their pursuit to conquer rock & roll, the members of Kiss breathed fire, spat blood, adopted painted on personas, flew onto the stage and stomped around larger than life in towering moon boots. It’s fitting then that Kiss: The Box Set, the ninety-four-track, five-disc compilation arrives in similar over-the-top fashion — the deluxe edition comes complete with a standard-size guitar case, a Kiss Alive! gold record, and hand-written notes from the band.
A mixture of album tracks and thirty previously unreleased demos, outtakes and live recordings, the collection spans from Kiss’s beginnings as Wicked Lester in 1968, through 2001. Guitarist Paul Stanley and bassist Gene Simmons, the dual engines of the Kiss songwriting machine, discuss the good, the band, the masked and unmasked of their band’s thirty-plus years.
When you were putting together the box set, was there anything on here that you’d forgotten about, anything that surprised you?
In a body of work that’s as expansive as this, you’re bound to find songs and moments that have fallen through the cracks. The track “Doncha Hesitate” is interesting in that it’s the only unreleased demo featuring the original line-up. In going through some of the demos that were candidates for inclusion on the box set, we found ourselves sometimes trying to figure out who was on the demo, and on ‘Doncha Hesitate,’ Gene and I immediately realized that that was the rarity of rarities, in that it was the entire band playing on a demo, which is something we’d never done as a rule. Everybody always had their own schedules and their own agendas. Invariably we would record separately or with one or two members. The demo for “Love Gun” is really interesting because it’s one of those cases where I went in the studio with a friend playing drums, and, other than the drums, I wound up playing all the instruments, and then Kiss went in subsequently and reproduced the demo note for note. It’s interesting to listen to it, because it is in fact identical to the band’s version.
What’s it like listening back to the old demos or the early Wicked Lester stuff?
Well, the Wicked Lester stuff is like looking at the baby pictures you try not to take out too often. That being said, it’s important in the tapestry of the band. Wicked Lester was a band that was recording when I was seventeen/eighteen-years-old. We were a band without an identity and much more about being grateful to be recording at Electric Lady Studios and seeing Led Zeppelin or Jeff Beck or whoever else might be in the studio at the same time as we were. We were just thankful to be in the company of gods while we thrashed about with a producer who basically was directing us and telling us what would be on each song and what the arrangements were. It’s still interesting in the sense that it’s the band that Gene and I were in that evolved into Kiss and yet bears no resemblance to Kiss, because our thought afterwards was that we very much wanted to be a band that was immediately recognizable musically. Wicked Lester was so diverse that it was a band both visually and musically that lacked an identity.
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Was there a song you wrote for Kiss, where, at that moment, you were like, “Yes, this is what Kiss should sound like?”
“Rock ‘N’ Roll All Nite.” Coming up with that chorus based on the idea of us needing an anthem or rallying cry for our fans. I felt that “rock and roll all nite and party every day” really captured that, and when Gene had put his verse to it I thought that very much was what Kiss was about. Really, all the early songs were defining of the band. They were stream of consciousness and they were written by a bunch of guys who didn’t know any of the rules, so we wound up breaking all of them without even knowing it. All I was singing about was what I knew, and that was the streets of New York. “Love Gun,” to me, was the defining moment. “Detroit Rock City” was the defining moment. They captured and epitomized what the band is about. Writing “God of Thunder” was unique in that a song that became a signature song for Gene was by me and for me, and then I watched as the producer Bob Ezrin decided that it was going to be Gene’s song. We all agreed going in that the producer had final say. I was hoping his final say would always agree with mine.
In the liner notes you and Gene are pretty candid about your dissatisfaction with Ace and Peter.
Our frustrations were based on making the band better and wanting to get more. I just made it clear to Gene and myself that we were in fact the people who would have to propel Kiss forward and keep it moving forward. Once we achieved success, then the task became almost more daunting. You either can be a footnote or you can write a chapter. We were determined that we were not only going to survive but we were going to thrive. In more than one way, the buck stops here.
In the early years of the band you toured constantly and were putting out a couple records a year but still received little attention. Did you ever think about packing it in?
Never. We just felt that we’d keep doing this until it worked. We didn’t know failure. We were determined that nothing was going to stop us. We were putting out two albums a year, and, although the band was thriving and succeeding in a very big way as a live entity, the sales of our recorded product didn’t mirror the success we were having as a live act. That’s what led to the live album [1975’s multi-platinum Alive]. It became clear what people wanted was an accurate representation of the Kiss experience. We found that our fans kept telling us that our live show was not being captured on record. That finally led us to doing Alive.
Did the whole band work on the box set together?
No, but that stands to reason, because all the archival material — be it recorded or memorabilia — is all warehoused on the West Coast, which is where Gene and I live.
Was there anything left off the box set you would have wanted included?
No. It’s good to be kings. What was on there was what we wanted to have on there, and there’s certainly no lack of material, but we wanted to keep it cohesive. Expansive but cohesive.
What is the process of anthologizing yourself like?
It is the weirdest thing in the world. When you’re moving ahead in life and you take snapshots of where you’ve been, and then someone turns around and says, “Take the last thirty years and pick six hours of highlights,” the hardest thing is how to figure out what to put in, not what to leave out. The great guitar solos have always been not what you put in — it’s what you leave out. It’s pretty tough to figure out what to put in because we have over thirty albums. We’re right behind the Beatles in the number of gold records of any groups in history. It goes the Stones, the Beatles, Kiss, so we’ve got nothing to complain about. We’ve been asked by the record company for years to do box sets, and we kept saying no because we have other things on our minds. Also when the box set did come, the notion hit us, “Exactly what is this thing going to be? Are we going to follow in footsteps and just do a box set and just put on all the songs you like and lots more — or are you going to try to get an overview of the band and also do as many outtakes, demos and unheard songs as we can?” That’s what we did, so there’s six hours of music. There’s literally more on there than you can physically get through — ninety songs, something ridiculous like that.
I think you’re probably the only band to have collaborated with Bryan Adams, Lou Reed, Michael Bolton and Van Halen. What led you to write with so many different people?
Bob Dylan too. The best fun in life is to break everybody else’s preconceived notions about who and what you are. So I’m every bit as comfortable being in bed with a whore as I am with a [virgin]. That’s the defining element to us. So Paul wrote with Michael Bolton because he wanted to, not because it made sense to the fans or not. And Bryan Adams is a terrific songwriter. Why not write a song with him? And Bob Dylan, one of my heroes, I picked up the phone and said, “Hi, can I write a song with Bob Dylan?” He said, “Sure.” So he went over to my house and we strummed and came up with something, which has yet to be released incidentally and will be one day. There’s a lot more stuff that people haven’t heard. I’ve got unheard demos I did for “Christine Sixteen” that I did with Eddie and Alex Van Halen, and a song called “Mongoloid Man” with Joe Perry on guitar. At the end of the day, often people judge you by the company you keep and like to peg you. Like a rap star is only supposed to hang with a rap star. One of the brightest moments for me was when Run-DMC hung out with Aerosmith. I thought, “Yeah, that’s what it’s about. Breaking the rules.” It doesn’t mean they have to hang out together all the time, but when there’s a kind of meeting of the minds from different parts of the world, what comes up is a hybrid. And when you think about it historically, rock & roll is exactly that: white people coming together with black people and inventing this other kind of thing, which black people didn’t sing and white people didn’t sing. So rock & roll is itself when two different kinds of people get together. Ultimately, of course, it’s about sex. A lot of critics have never really gotten that. They didn’t get it then, and they don’t get it today. Some of the harshest criticisms of rock bands, including Kiss, have been, “Ah, all that stuff is all about sex, sex, sex.” Well, moron, by definition “rock & roll” means that. “Let me rock & roll you all night long” doesn’t mean “let’s quote Nietzsche and Kierkegaard to each other and discuss existential philosophy.” These guys read too many books and never get laid. I think you need to get laid more and read a few less books — a little balance in life.
Talk about your relationship with Bob Ezrin. What did working with him bring out of the band?
Bob Ezrin brought discipline that we never had. We were wild horses that basically ran off. We ran in a pack and people would say, “Look how glorious they are” and so on, because they liked the raw energy. But nobody in the band ever took the time to do things the right way. We never even learned to tune our instruments the right way, harmonically. We just tuned them by ear, because we were all self-taught. Bob Ezrin comes from a schooled, classical background and he brought another element that became part of who we are, which is you break the rules. Put boys choirs on, put symphony orchestras on, do ballads. Don’t be trapped with flatting the third in a blues mode, which is what rock & roll is based on. There’s nothing wrong with white, European classical music either. Some of the square notes, that sort of scale is white, and there’s nothing wrong with using those scales in music at all. Hey, I thought the whole idea of rock & roll is that there are no rules.
What’s your relationship with Paul like? Are there songs of his you can’t stand to this day?
Well, I’m still not crazy about “I Was Made for Loving You.” But that has nothing to do with it. I recognized that early on. He came in one day and said, “Look, I’ve got this disco song, and it goes like this.” And he started singing like the Four Seasons, one of my favorite bands, by the way. I thought, “That doesn’t sound like Kiss, but that’s precisely why we should record it.” The notion being that either it’s a good song, whether it sounds like us, or not. I fully recognize that it’s a quality song, maybe a hit song. I was all for recording it, although I didn’t like it. I’m still not crazy about the song to this day, but I fully recognize the fans go nuts. They go apeshit when they hear it live. My point of view is that a chef in a restaurant is the most ethical job, because if you order a steak in a restaurant, a chef’s job is to give you the best steak you’ve ever had, even though he might be a vegetarian. The notion that he may or may not like what he actually works on is beside the point. If you work for me, you do what I say. Our responsibility ultimately is to give people what they want. The classical purist would say the classical musicians weren’t like that. They’re on crack. The classical musicians were told what to play, how long the music should be — they were “commissioned.” It’s no different.