Pop culture can be as forbidding as it is inviting, particularly in areas that invite geeky obsession: The more devotion a genre or series or subculture inspires, the easier it is for the uninitiated to feel like they’re on the outside looking in. But geeks aren’t born; they’re made. And sometimes it only takes the right starting point to bring newbies into various intimidatingly vast obsessions. Gateways To Geekery is our regular attempt to help those who want to be enthralled, but aren’t sure where to start. Want advice? Suggest future Gateways To Geekery topics by emailing email@example.com.
Geek obsession: Kiss
Why it’s daunting: Even though Kiss was nominated last month for induction in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, the band has a stench of sleaze and ill repute that it’ll never shake. And thank God for that. Like the bastard spawn of Marie Antoinette and Mephistopheles, Kiss crawled out of New York in the early ’70s with a look and sound that drew from the effete sensuality of glam, the hairy-chested machismo of the nascent metal scene, and a flagrant lack of polish that pre-dated punk. In fact, Kiss’ music is kind of shitty. That alone was (and remains) enough of a turnoff for most rock fans, but Kiss has survived by carving huge pop hooks into crude implements of aural torture, churning out anthems indelible enough to keep fists and glands pumping for millennia. Assuming, that is, you like your rock ’n’ roll raw, racy, and ready to singe your eyebrows off.
Possible gateway: Alive! And Alive II
Why: The group’s first greatest-hits collection, 1978’s Double Platinum, boasts a great lineup of songs, but it also fucks with some of the original recordings. Far better are 1975’s Alive! and 1978’s Alive II, the albums that served as most fans’ introduction to Kiss back in the day. By steering clear of the band’s studio shortcomings and focusing on the energy and insanity of its stage act, Alive! And Alive II deliver Kiss the way it was meant to be heard: overamplified, oversexed, and amid a Ragnarök of pyrotechnics and fake blood. Granted, the recordings were doctored in the studio before release, but that doesn’t dull the impact of pile-driving crowd-pleasers like “Strutter,” “Black Diamond,” “Rock And Roll All Nite,” “Detroit Rock City,” and “Shout It Out Loud.” In 2006, both live albums—along with 1993’s Alive III and a bunch of other crap—were combined to form the Kiss Alive! 1975-2000 box set. Stick with the originals.
Next steps: After ingesting the live stuff, it’s time to acquire a taste for the chunky, clunky beauty of Kiss’ early studio albums. Start at the beginning: Kiss and Hotter Than Hell from 1974, Dressed To Kill from 1975, and Destroyer and Rock And Roll Over from 1976. These albums trace the group’s journey from rat-infested dives to its subsequent stadium-filling, fire-breathing dominance. The songs aren’t pretty, nor are they even particularly tough—at least not when stacked against contemporaries like Black Sabbath or Judas Priest. But Kiss’ primal screeching and horny idiocy are infectious—maybe even liberating. After that, dip your toes into 1977’s Love Gun, 1979’s Dynasty, and the four original members’ 1979 solo albums. (The Melvins infamously parodied the latter in 1992.) But be cautious. While sporting a handful of great tracks, these six albums mark the end of Kiss as a true force of nature; the irreparable cracks of gross self-indulgence (read: disco, showtunes, a girl-group cover, and even a spoken-word appearance by Gene Simmons’ then-girlfriend Cher) are starting to show.
Where not to start: Diehard Kiss fans—that is, soldiers of the Kiss Army—will spare no expense in collecting the band’s seemingly inexhaustible flow of merchandise, from action figures to comic books to Lycra cycling shorts. One piece of paraphernalia that curious newcomers are often tempted to pick up is a bootleg DVD of Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park. Don’t do this—that is, unless you plan on being incredibly stoned and/or tied to your couch while watching it. The atrociously produced, made-for-TV movie—which was originally aired by NBC right before Halloween in 1978—has plenty of deliciously bizarre moments, including all of Peter Criss’ lines, which were overdubbed by veteran voice actor Michael Bell. But for the most part, it’s boring, and ultimately a drag to watch. You’re almost better off watching the band’s duet runner-up Adam Lambert on last season’s American Idol. As for the band’s recordings, conventional wisdom—if such a thing could be said to apply to Kiss—dictates that the band’s post-makeup period is the worst place for a new fan to start. And that’s pretty much true. While there’s a bit of crotch-thrusting fun to be had with some of Kiss ’80s discs, like Animalize and Crazy Nights, you might as well pretend Kiss ceased to exist in 1979. Studio-wise, at least.