Friday, February 18, 2011

Friday 80s Flashback for February 18, 2011

[An Awkward KISS] -- With yet another Valentine's Day safely in the collective rear view mirror, we can reflect on other Valentine's Days gone by -- specifically, Valentines of the 80s. I spent the first half of the 80s in junior and senior high school, so most of those "celebrations" can be filed under the category of awkward. That's just the nature of the pre-teen and teenaged experience. Now, the members of KISS, who had been the object of many teenagers' hero worship through the 70s, probably were not awkward (or even necessarily honorable) in their dealings with members of the opposite sex , but the start of the 80s did find them at an awkward point in their career. They entered the decade strong: To their credit, they had a string of eight Platinum-selling albums, the last five of which included the interesting gimmick of their four "solo" albums -- all released on the same day in 1978 -- and the disco-influenced Dynasty of 1979. But they also greeted the new decade with internal tensions, Peter Kriss and Ace Frehley being particularly dissatisfied, and musical identity issues. Kriss and Frehley were therefore less-involved with the recordings of this period and they eventually left the band in 1980 and 1982 respectively. KISS eventually experienced something of a rebound in the late 80s, probably due to the convergence of glam/hair metal rising in popularity and an increase in KISS nostalgia. But 1980 - 1983 were pretty much a low point for the band. So, what could I possibly choose as showcase songs for today's Flashback set?

Read and hear more after the jump.


Star-divide
Flashback #1
"I didn't know just what to say | when you turned and looked my way | It doesn't happen to me every day | Can we talk a while?"  The summer of 1980 saw KISS release their first single off their first album in the new decade. And longtime fans greeted the occasion with more than a little confusion. Unmasked featured comic-panel cover art detailing a reporter hounding the band to take off their makeup for the public. Counter to the album title, however, KISS did not unmask themselves. (Fans had to wait for 1983's Lick It Up for that event). Musically, Unmasked had more in common with 1970s singer-songwriter and straight-ahead AOR artists than KISS' hard rock roots. In fact, if you hear this album's songs without knowing the artist behind them, you would probably never even think about KISS. Many fans relegated this album to the discount bin saying it was only for die-hard completists. But there are some serious pop gems here. I could have gone with "Shandi," Unmasked's fist single (and the inspiration for many a baby girl's name in the early 80s), but I wanted to kick off with something that had a little more ... well, a little more kick. "Tomorrow" was either the 2nd or 3rd single from this album and it never really charted. But you can't tell me it isn't an overlooked gem.  





Flashback #2
"And a world without heroes | Is like a bird without wings | Or a bell that never rings | Just a sad and useless thing." 1981 found KISS in unusual territory. Unmasked was their first album to reach only Gold since Dressed to Kiss in 1975. They felt the need to prove something, something that would silence all the critics that slammed the band for being silly, dinosaur rockers. They decided to eschew contemporary trends, but instead of making a valiant return to their hard rocking roots, they released a concept album. Music from "the Elder" (1981) was a soundtrack to a movie that was never filmed. Medieval horns, strings, harps, and synthesizers accompanied a muddled storyline about a young boy being recruited to an ancient order dedicated to combating evil. All song lyrics follow the boy's journey as he trains and slowly overcomes his doubts. Given public reaction to the Star Wars saga (which was just the most recent franchise to capitalize on the Hero's Journey), this would seem like a sure hit, right? Well, due to a shuffling of song order (with a different order for almost each market) and a lack of a film or even a comic book to accompany the album, fans couldn't follow the story. Both fans and critics reacted to the album in harsh terms. End result: The Elder was the first KISS album to not even register on the US sales charts. However, having said all that, The Elder's lone single, "A World Without Heroes," is a poignant and moving ballad that sonically illustrates the human need for heroes. As a fan of mythology, I find this song to be a compelling work of inspiration. And I say it's high time we dust it off.





Flashback #3
"You tell me that you're leaving | and I'm trying to understand | I had myself believing | I should take it like a man." KISS' 10th studio album, Creatures of the Night (1982), marked a bit of a return for the band as far as their identity was concerned. It was certainly heavier than their previous three efforts. The only single, "I Love It Loud," was a lumbering behemoth masquerading as an anthem for fist pumping youth. And although it helped propel the album to Gold status, "I Love It Loud" is not part of the Flashback set today. No, that honor is reserved for a little known power-ballad that should have been released as a single. Unfortunately, it was too long to be considered for radio. Clocking in at just over six minutes in length, "I Still Love You" is probably the best, most heart-wrenching ballad this band ever recorded. It's certainly the best ballad you've never heard of. This song fires on all cylinders: Earnest lyrics sung by Paul Stanley; ringing, almost majestic acoustic guitars (provided by Frehley replacement, Vinnie Vincent), a heart-tugging bass line; and -- most unusual for a ballad of this nature -- powerful drums (by Kriss replacement, Eric Carr). Give it a listen and tell me you're not convinced the man in this song isn't just completely tore up about losing the love of his life.





If you've made it this far, I hope you're not disappointed that there was no Ghost of Valentines Past story. Invoking Valentine's Day was just a tool to get to KISS. If you followed me in making the mental jump connecting an awkward kiss to an awkward KISS, I congratulate you. I do hope you enjoyed this examination of early-80s KISS. Once again, I remind you that the rule of three applies when doing Flashbacks. As I've made my three offerings, that's all till next week. But if you 80s-philes need more flashbacks, please visit the archives. As always, your comments are welcome on today's, or any other, flashback post.

I'll see you in seven!

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