48 Years Ago: KISS Release the Game-Changing Concert Album ‘Alive!’
One of the greatest concert recordings ever released, KISS Alive!, which came out Sept. 10, 1975, captured the pyrotechnic excitement and over-the-top energy of the “hottest band in the world” and brought KISS to a new level of popularity as superheroes for a new generation. Unlike many aggressive bands, KISS didn’t specifically appeal to the disenfranchised or misanthropic, they struck a chord with the mainstream with songs like “Detroit Rock City,” “Strutter” and “Rock and Roll All Nite,” and Alive! was the vehicle that brought them to the show.
Before Alive!, KISS had some great songs. In fact, all of the blood and fire of Alive! came from songs on the band’s first three albums, KISS, Hotter Than Hell and Dressed to Kill. But when listened to out of the context of the three-dimensional live KISS experience, those albums failed to capture the larger-than-life spirit the band conveyed in concert.
“Whether planned or not, theatrics are always a part of rock 'n' roll at its best,” Paul Stanley told me. “In Zeppelin, did Robert Plant have to wear the girl’s blouses? Well, probably not, but it upped the ante. Did Elvis have to shimmy across the stage? I don’t think so. Did James Brown have to fall to his knees and have a cape thrown over his shoulders and then walk offstage and then throw off the cape? Of course not. Did Solomon Burke need a throne? No. Did Hendrix have to set his guitar on fire? Did he have to wear those clothes? No. It wasn’t to cover anything up, it was to enhance it. And that’s where the critics, for reasons known only to them and their therapists, didn’t want to get with KISS. The theatrics weren’t there to cover anything, they were to enhance the band.”
Stanley says KISS have always been a live band and that when they first started out many people would become fans from seeing them live before even hearing their albums. Then, when they bought any of the first three studio albums, they didn’t get the same thrill they experienced when they saw the group’s show.
“That’s why everything we put out prior to KISS Alive! pretty much died,” Stanley said. “It didn’t get the acceptance or attention that we had hoped for. But then again, it didn’t sound like we sounded live and it didn’t carry the commitment and that do or die attitude or that celebratory attitude that the live version did.”
Interestingly, KISS Alive! wasn’t an exact replica of the band’s stage performance, and it wasn’t meant to be. The band and its manager Bill Aucoin realized that the best way to capture an audience that enjoyed KISS in concert was to recreate the experience of being in the crowd, hearing kids screaming at the top of their lungs, sometimes mid-song, and feeling the deafening explosions that resounded throughout the venue. Doing that meant carefully editing the recording. Essentially, KISS Alive! was recorded at shows in Detroit, Cleveland, Wildwood, New Jersey, Davenport, Iowa, as well as in the studio.
“After recording these shows for the album, we went in and fixed it, polished it and doctored it to make it into an accurate representation of what everybody experienced at the show,” Stanley said. “Back then, live recordings, for the most part, didn’t sound like live recordings at all. You’d never know most of them were live until the end of the song came and you heard some applause. You didn’t get that sense of being immersed in chaos, in bombast. And the way to accomplish that was not only to record the show, but to create that experience. You couldn’t record an explosion onstage and get the magnitude or size of it because the microphone caved. It can’t take that kind of impact. So what did we do? We added canons. We added bombs. We pumped up the audience by having separate loops of different audiences at different fevered pitches so we could control the sense that you were in the middle of it as opposed to watching it as you watch television.”
Former drummer Peter Criss said the only live performance on the album was his drumming, and producer Eddie Kramer said he overdubbed certain parts to correct the band’s mistakes, including a bass line in “C’mon and Love Me.” Stanley insists most of the changes were cosmetic and that they were made to enhance the listening experience.
“We didn’t do it fool anybody,” he said. “I have no problem and never did have any problem saying, ‘Yeah, we made that what it is,’ and to this day it’s probably the best and most accurate representation of a live concert. Who wants to listen to mistakes every time you listen to a live album? When you go to a concert, you listen with your ears but you also listen with your eyes. And your eyes sometimes enhance or distract from what your ears actually are hearing. So what did we want to do? We wanted people to have something where they said, ‘Yes, this is what I experienced at the show,’ and that’s what they got.”
The original studio version of “Rock and Roll All Nite” was released as a single from Dressed to Kill on April 2, 1975, and failed to impact. Just over six months later the version of “Rock and Roll All Nite” from Alive! came out and shot up to No. 12 on the Billboard singles chart.
“That song was written specifically to fill a need,” Stanley says. “Neil Bogart had spoken to us about a rock anthem. Rock anthems didn’t exist at the time. But Neil told us we needed a song that would be a rallying cry. We needed a song that people could identify with us. He pointed to ‘Dance to the Music’ and ‘I Wanna Take You Higher’ by Sly and the Family Stone. So I went back to the hotel, picked up my guitar and quickly sang, ‘I wanna rock and roll all night and party every day.’ And between the chords and the way the chorus turns around and starts up again, I thought I had that rallying cry. That was the germ and the nucleus of that song.”
The chorus of “Rock and Roll All Nite” addresses partying “every day,” which is odd considering Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley are both teetotalers who don’t drink and have never taken illicit drugs. Or maybe it’s not so odd.
“’Party’ didn’t mean drinking and taking drugs,” Stanley insisted. “The word has taken on a different definition, an expanded definition as time went on. But partying back then just meant getting crazy, having a great time. If somebody’s idea of partying was putting a needle in their arm or somebody else’s idea of partying was jumping off a building, that wasn’t my intent and that wasn’t my definition. Partying to me was getting together with people and banging as many women as I could. If somebody else thought of it as something else, I get it, but I didn’t write it as that. And either I was very naïve or somebody else need an alibi for what they’ve done.”
Three months after it was released, KISS Alive! went gold. As groundbreaking as it was, the album has yet to go platinum (according to RIAA data) even though it has been universally praised by everyone from Anthrax’s Scott Ian to Soundgarden's Kim Thayil. By comparison, KISS Alive II, which came out in 1977, went double platinum.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends, co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.
See Where KISS, Alive! Landed on the Top 25 Hard Rock + Metal Live Albums
Ace Frehley Gives 'A Lesson in KISStory'