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KISS Unmasks On "Lick It Up" (1983)
KISS - LICK IT UP (Mercury/Polygram, 1983)
The Reveal ... it was 1983, and my brother and I were browsing in the record & tape department of a Caldor department store (remember those?) in suburban New Jersey. As we scanned the "new release" wall, we noticed a new KISS album, with the provocative title of Lick It Up on the rack. One look at the album's stark-white cover prompted an excited, disbelieving shout of "WHOA! Dude! Check this out! KISS took off their makeup!"
...I guess you probably had to be alive in 1983 to fully understand the cataclysmic impact of such a major event. My bro and I were a just a hair too young to fully experience the first wave of KISS mania in the late '70s, but like most grade-school kids of the time, we were aware of -- and slightly terrified by -- the fire-breathing, blood-spitting, flash-bombing quartet. We also knew that when it came to KISS, there was one cardinal rule: You never -- ever -- saw what they looked like without their makeup. In the 1970s, a shot of the foursome's un-painted faces was the Holy Grail for celebrity photographers. Legend has it that all of the major supermarket tabloids offered hefty bounties to any shutterbugs who could bring them such a shot, but the band were vigilant at maintaining their mystique. If a photographer did happen to catch any of the KISS members "out of uniform," the rockers would quickly obscure their facial features behind bandannas, napkins, restaurant menus, large hats or sunglasses.
"Lick It Up"
By the time Lick It Up turned up in our local Caldor, KISS had been off of the pop cultural radar for a number of years, so it had been a while since my brother and I had even thought about the band. We stared at the album's cover trying to figure out who was who, easily ID'ing Gene Simmons thanks to his trademark tongue. Paul Stanley's pouty-lipped facial expression gave him away, but we honestly weren't sure who the other two guys were. We assumed that one of them must've been "new" drummer Eric Carr, but if memory serves we actually mistook then-new recruit Vinnie Vincent for guitarist Ace Frehley, because we didn't know at the time that Ace had already been out of the band for more than a year.
We didn't buy the LP that day, but a short time later we were at a buddy's house when he reached into his stack of albums and pulled out Lick It Up. "Have you heard this yet?" he asked before throwing it on his turntable. Tracks like the burly "All Hell's Breakin' Loose" and "On the 8th Day" proceeded to blow my thirteen year old mind and by the time the needle lifted off at the end of Side 2, I was sold. KISS was on the rise again!
"All Hell's Breakin' Loose"
A Do Or Die Move
At the time of its release, Lick It Up was definitely a "do-or-die" album for KISS, whose fortunes had been waning for a number of years. The original lineup which took the world by storm in the 70s had been halved - Eric Carr replaced drummer Peter Criss in 1980, and Vinnie Vincent took over the guitar slot from Ace Frehley in 1982. KISS hadn't had a hit single in the U.S. since 1979's "I Was Made For Lovin' You," and their two most recent studio albums - 1981's ill fated concept disc Music From "The Elder" and 1982's criminally ignored return-to-form Creatures of the Night - had stiffed on the charts. Being astute businessmen, Simmons and Stanley knew that KISS would be finished if they didn't stop the bleeding immediately. They decided to finally put away the makeup and costumes, appear as "themselves" for the first time, and let their music speak for itself.
KISS unmasks on MTV, 1983
To help reveal their new look to the world, KISS wisely aligned themselves with a major new power that had risen in the music industry - MTV, whose massive influence could easily make (or break) an act. Given their highly "visual" appeal, KISS had dabbled with music video as far back as the mid 1970s, but MTV had only given minimal support to their clips from Elder and Creatures. However, when KISS approached MTV with the chance to have the world broadcast exclusive of their "unmasking," the network jumped at the opportunity. On September 18, 1983 - the same day that Lick It Up was released to record stores - KISS appeared live on MTV to reveal their faces for the first time, followed by an interview with MTV's "J.J." Jackson and the world premiere of the "Lick It Up" music video. The P.R. stunt worked its magic; suddenly people were talking about KISS again, and even better, they were buying the new album. Lick It Up began climbing the Billboard album charts, eventually peaking at #24 - their best showing since 1979's Dynasty.
Looking back on it 30 years (!) after its original release, Lick It Up honestly hasn't aged particularly well. The album is nowhere near as good as its predecessor, the crushingly-heavy Creatures of the Night (which still sounds great today) but it's still a mostly-decent collection of boneheaded '80s metal anthems, let down somewhat by the thin production job by Michael James Jackson, the engineer who'd also worked on Creatures but who never manages to recapture that album's sonic firepower here.
Lick It Up's title song remains the best-known track from the album and is a KISS live-set staple to this day (the current lineup even performed it on "Dancing With the Stars" a season or two ago!). Stanley gives it his all on tracks like the opening "Exciter" and the ballad "A Million To One," but for my money the standouts on Lick It Up all belong to Gene Simmons. Dig his vicious snarl and the rumbling bass grooves of "Not For the Innocent," "Dance All Over Your Face" or the slam-bang finale "And On the 8th Day" for proof. Even without his monstrous makeup, Gene was obviously still in full on Demon Mode when he recorded this album. Some credit must also go to Stanley for his totally bitchin' freestyle "rap" that starts off "All Hell's Breakin' Loose" ("Street hustler come up to me one day and I'm just walkin' down the street mindin my own business...now he looks me up and he looks me down, and he says HEY MAN, what be this and what be that?" .... sheer poetry!) It's criminal that Paul is constantly overlooked as a pioneer of rap-metal!!
"Gimme More" and the hilariously filthy "Fits Like A Glove" fulfill the album's "sleaze" quotient nicely, providing listeners with such cringe-worthy lyrical tidbits as "C'mon, lick my candy cane!" (from "Gimme") and "When I go through her, it's just like a hot knife through butter" (from "Glove")...but as I'm so fond of saying, if KISS' lyrics don't make you cringe at least once per album, they're not doing their job!!
Vinnie Vincent's contribution to KISS at this stage should not be understated. His flashy, Eddie Van Halen-influenced guitar work is all over this album and his skills not only on the six string but also in the songwriting department (Vincent received writing credits on eight out of the album's ten tracks) were a major part of updating KISS' sound. Up until this point KISS was a band closely associated with the 1970s, but Vincent updated their sound and helped bring them into the 1980s.
The "Stars" Dance to "Lick It Up!" (2012)
The Legacy of "LICK IT UP"
Thanks in part to regular MTV rotation of the cartoonish "Lick It Up" and "All Hell's Breakin' Loose" videos (which featured the band members cavorting with a parade of post-apocalyptic hotties in a crumbling urban setting, ala The Road Warrior), Lick It Up was awarded Gold Record status for sales of half a million copies by the end of 1983 - the first KISS album to reach that plateau since 1980's Unmasked. It may not have launched the band back into the multi-platinum stratosphere that they'd occupied in the mid 1970s, but at the very least Lick It Up restored KISS' good name and put the band on semi-solid footing again.
By early 1984, however, Simmons and Stanley had already decided they'd had enough of Vinnie Vincent. The guitarist had been making noise to the rock press for some time about his desire to be named a full fledged member of KISS (as opposed to a contracted player), and that he felt entitled to a bigger slice of their royalties. Vincent was dismissed at the end of the Lick It Up tour and replaced by one-and-done guitarist Mark St. John for the recording of Animalize (1984). Vincent formed his own short lived band, The Vinnie Vincent Invasion, and instigated a series of law suits against KISS over royalty payments and other financial minutiae that he claimed he was owed. The court battles stretched on for a number of years but KISS was victorious every time.
Animalize (1984) was the album that truly cemented KISS' comeback, striking double platinum thanks to the hit single "Heaven's On Fire." It was official: the faithful KISS Army had accepted the re-invented band, and the makeup-free KISS continued their renewed quest for world domination well into the next decade.
KISS Studio Discography:
KISS - Casablanca, 1974
Hotter than Hell - Casablanca, 1974
Dressed To Kill - Casablanca, 1975
Destroyer - Casablanca, 1976
Rock and Roll Over - Casablanca, 1977
Love Gun - Casablanca, 1977
Dynasty - Casablanca, 1979
Unmasked - Casablanca, 1980
Music From "The Elder" - Casablanca, 1981
Creatures of the Night - Mercury, 1982
Lick It Up - Mercury, 1983
Animalize - Mercury, 1984
Asylum - Mercury, 1985
Crazy Nights - Mercury, 1987
Hot in the Shade - Mercury, 1989
Revenge - Mercury, 1992
Carnival Of Souls: The Final Sessions - Mercury, 1997
Psycho Circus - Mercury, 1998
Sonic Boom - KISS Catalog, 2009
Monster - Universal, 2012