Kiss’s 1976 LP Rock And Roll Over is one of the most celebrated albums by die-hard Kiss fans, held in high relief as the sweet spot at which everything seems to be in synch: great production values, strong songs, iconic Kissography, and the entire band performing and recording together with minimal intrusion from outside songwriters or session musicians. Plus the celebrated producer Eddie Kramer — who had transformed the raw audio of their landmark live album Alive! into a worldwide phenomenon — was back in the producer’s chair. The production excesses of their previous studio album Destroyer were nowhere to be found; you wouldn’t find lush orchestrations, children’s choirs, binaural audio, or multiple layers of instrumentation anywhere. Rock And Roll Over was nothing less than stripped down, bone-crunching rock and roll music. Nothing more, or less. Oh except for a bit of a country number. More on that in a second.
Well there’s some context for you. I mean, Kiss in 1976 were on the upswing of their popularity bell curve. After the multi-platinum breakthrough of Alive! and the Top-10 smash of Destroyer and its landmark single “Beth”, Kiss was ablaze with popularity. The excesses of merchandising and commercialism hadn’t really kicked into gear yet, so the band was more focused on songwriting, recording, and touring. Rock And Roll Over was their “back to basics” album, trying to combine the rawness of their earlier LPs with the more sophisticated (i.e. “less crappy”) production values that was afforded to them.
As I mentioned earlier, this album is much-loved by die-hards, but if I had to sum up Rock And Roll Over in two words, they’d probably be ‘Slumming It’. I find myself fairly indifferent to this album. There are some really good tunes, maybe a great one, but half of the album is pure filler. The band feels like they’re coasting here, with a collection of mostly generic 3-chord rock tunes about banging chicks and there’s nothing wrong with that, per se, as long as it isn’t the same vibe dressed up in multiple variants throughout most of the album. A cursory glance at the song titles are warning enough: “Makin’ Love”, “Love ‘Em And Leave ‘Em”, “I Want You”, “Calling Dr. Love”, and so forth.
But as I said, the album is only really half filler; the other half is pretty good. Things start out promisingly enough with “I Want You”, a Paul Stanley number that tantalizes with a soft acoustic opener that suddenly blazes into heavy guitars and alpha-male chest beating and what not. Silly, but the kind of silly stuff that Kiss does well. Sadly, the promise of that song is demolished by the dull, generic, lifeless bloat of “Take Me”, a juvenile piece of laziness even by Kiss standards (And I say that as a fan, of course. Much of the band’s best work is rooted in the greatest of juvenilia!). It’s lyrically idiotic and musically stagnant. You just can’t forgive any song that starts with “Put your hand in my pocket / Grab onto my rocket!” and manages to get even worse from there.
Things rebound a bit with one of Gene Simmons’s most iconic songs, the live favorite “Calling Dr. Love”, and I’ll cop to loving this song. The groove under the back-and-forth chorus is infectious, with pop hooks woven throughout its hard rock exoskeleton. I still prefer the live version off of Alive II for having more muscle to it, but at least we’re back in positive territory here. And much like Paul did in his opening two numbers, Gene follows up a really good tune with a dud; for a song entirely about nailing women in the restroom, “Ladies Room” is limp and dysfunctional. The lyrics are utter rubbish and musically the song really doesn’t go anywhere interesting. Verse/Chorus Verse/Chorus (solo) Chorus (fade out). Yeesh.
Peter Criss steps up to the plate with “Baby Driver”, providing lead vocals to a tune he co-wrote with Stan Penridge. This is an uptempo rocker that is easily the most enjoyable song on the album thus far. With a driving beat and some choice Ace licks scattered throughout, the song is a welcome respite from the “Here’s a good song about getting laid / Here’s a terrible song about getting laid” formula set up by Paul and Gene. And speaking of terrible songs by Gene, here comes “Love ‘Em And Leave ‘Em”, about which the best can be said is pretty much the Ace Frehley solo. Gene’s ode to pumping-it-and-dumping-it is routinely embarrassing.
Paul rebounds with the musically agreeable “Mr. Speed”, a fun little rocker with some strong vocals and a rollicking drive. It’s not a top-tier tune, but for what it does, it does really well and remains one of the album’s more memorable tracks. Gene returns with “See You In Your Dreams”, an entirely mediocre number that manages to distinguish itself with a catchy chorus and the default status of not being as terrible as most of his other album tracks. Gene must not have thought much of the track; he remade it two years later on his 1978 solo LP. Ace’s solo is, again, the highlight of the song. Since Ace didn’t contribute vocals or songwriting to the album, I suppose he was freed up to bring some heat to his guitar solos. For that alone, I suppose we should be thankful.
The best song off the album is “Hard Luck Woman”, an acoustic, country-influenced number that was written by Paul and sung by Peter, and if that doesn’t sound like some kind of gospel-tinged allegory I don’t know what does. Anyway, this is a great number that pretty much does everything right. The story has it that Paul originally wrote it for Rod Stewart, and then wanted to sing it himself but was overruled by the band in favor of Peter. I think it was the right move; while Paul has sung it live on several occasions (and very well, I might add), Peter’s rougher, scratchier vocals fit the song much better. It’s great to hear the band stepping outside of their comfort zone for this track; this level of experimentation might have served the album well. Not only a great song in its own right, “Hard Luck Woman” is a welcome respite from the plodding, repetitive three-chord rock vibe that dominates much of the album. Or ends it, as displayed with the inexorable “Makin’ Love”, a rote, perfunctory, dud of an finale that is part and parcel of all the album’s weaknesses with none of its strengths. Generic, uninspired, utterly lazy rock music.
If it sounds like I’m coming down hard on Rock And Roll Over, it’s only because I really am. In my mind, this is, with the exception of the Gene and Peter 1978 solo albums, the weakest release of their 70s output. You’ve got two bonafide Kiss classics (or near-classics) with “Calling Dr. Love” and “Hard Luck Woman” and a handful of decent tunes with “I Want You”, “Mr. Speed”, and “Baby Driver”. Then you have the mediocrity of… oh let’s just say the rest of the album. Honestly, I’ve been listening to this album for years and even giving it a thorough re-listen for this review, I’ve found it’s readily apparent that “Take Me”, “Ladies Room”, “Love ‘Em And Leave ‘Em”, “Makin’ Love”, and “See You In Your Dreams” are five of the exact same song. They should have simply made a 10-minute medley of all five as a single album cut. And then left it off the record entirely and released the remaining tracks as an EP or something. Oh well. The Emperor is buck naked, Kiss fans. Rock And Roll Over definitely has its high points, but it is the least essential album of their “classic” period.