Defending ‘Unmasked,’ the Kiss Album Even Paul Stanley Calls ‘Crappy’
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They say even a broken clock is right twice a day. And that’s the best explanation as to how Kiss somehow temporarily landed on their feet and delivered the highly underrated power-pop gem Unmasked right in the middle of a nasty career free-fall.
We should also quickly note that very few people in the world, including the members of Kiss, seem to regard this much-mocked and poor-selling record in such a positive light. “I think Unmasked is a pretty crappy album,” guitarist Paul Stanley explains in the book Kiss: Behind the Mask. “It’s wimpy.”
Indeed, Unmasked has a highly polished pop sheen that’s miles from the primitive, riff-driven sound of earlier Kiss albums such as Hotter Than Hell and Love Gun. This dramatic sonic overhaul came about as a result of a number of big changes – both within the band and across the music world – that took place in the two brief years since Kiss reached the zenith of their popularity in the late ’70s.
Those heady days are where our story starts. Apparently, all the platinum records and sold-out arenas in the world couldn’t make these four guys like each other. With lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss threatening to quit, in 1978 the group instead decided to have each member release their own solo albums as a way to give everybody some space (and, of course, to sell more records.)
When the foursome reunited to record 1979’s Dynasty, they did so with the goal of expanding its audience even further by incorporating elements from pop and the then massively popular disco genre into their sound. “We thought that it wasn’t enough to be just a rock ‘n’ roll band, which is a big mistake actually,” Gene Simmons confessed in Behind the Mask. The crazy thing is, at first their plan worked – at least as measured on the pop singles chart, where the bubbling disco-influenced “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” became a massive smash.
But the loyal hard-rock audience Kiss had spent half of a decade building felt betrayed, and neither they nor the band’s much-coveted pop crowd turned up in large enough numbers to make the group’s expensive new tour a success. “The bottom got pulled right out from under us,” recalled Stanley, “Instead of getting bigger, we were getting smaller.” The band’s relationships weren’t getting any better either, as Criss’ addiction troubles led him to be largely replaced by studio drummer Anton Fig during the recording of Dynasty.
Criss was entirely absent for the recording of Unmasked, which found the band going deeper into the world of pop instead of reverting to their roots. “Those were the kinds of songs that Paul was writing,” explained Dynasty and Unmasked producer Vini Poncia. “It wasn’t my idea to come in and change anything. They wanted to find out if they could work in that pop area and be effective.”
Now if you ask us (or, as my co-workers have insisted I specify, if you ask me), they actually succeeded quite nicely. What’s wrong with some genre-hopping, Neil Young and David Bowie fans? Maybe the whole thing would have been better received if Kiss had released Unmasked under a different band name. Regardless of how well they matched up to the established Kiss sound, Stanley songs such as “Tomorrow,” “What Makes the World Go ‘Round” and “Is That You?” (which takes a cold shot at Criss in the opening “Cat’s drooling on the bar stool” line) all feature big hooks and catchy-as-hell choruses.
Wisely, Simmons doesn’t dive quite as deeply into this new pop-friendly territory as Stanley, and Frehley manages to outshine everybody by adding just enough distorted guitar to the mix to garner a sound somewhat (I said somewhat) comparable to the Rolling Stones circa-Some Girls on standout tracks such as “Two Sides of the Coin,” “Talk to Me” and the wonderfully loopy “Torpedo Girl.”
Stanley also contributed the album’s dippy but infectious ballad “Shandi,” which became a massive smash in Australia. So much so, in fact, that the band were able to generate a minor “Beatlemania” craze complete with fans swarming airports, gossipy headlines and sold-out arena shows during their 1980 tour of that country. Which is lucky, because the album’s failure stateside left promoters unwilling to risk a U.S. tour. Unmasked became the first Kiss album in years to fail to go platinum, and Criss officially left the group soon after its release.
Even with the success of the Australian tour, the commercial failure of Unmasked made it plain to Kiss that they would have to make a massive change in style for their next album. And change they would … but not necessarily for the better.
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