Eric Carr and Hotter Than Hell

For twelve years KISS didn’t play a single song from Hotter Than Hell. Not one. These twelve years coincided perfectly with Eric Carr’s tenure in the band which, obviously, raises a few questions, all of which ultimately boils down to: why? Needless to say I have a few ideas. Unlike most of my writing this piece will feature very few hard facts; apart from relying on what we know from setlists through the years, this will be all about different things that I think might have played a part in this curious decision which, once you really look at it, isn’t that odd. Let’s get started:

Hotter Than Hell is peak Peter Criss

As far as recorded KISS music goes, the album Hotter Than Hell is peak Peter Criss. There is an intricacy and creativity to the playing that, apart from Alive!, is nowhere to be heard on other KISS albums. On the first album the entire band was kind of ”reigned in” by Kerner and Wise; the arrangements were pared down, the sound and impact of their live presentation was adjusted for the studio, and the playing was, for lack of a better word, ”standardised”. Kerner and Wise took the club band KISS that had a tendency to stretch songs out in order to fill time—and, presumably, see what worked—and managed to craft an almost ridiculously classic album. The studio versions were then adjusted a little to the live setting and some of them went through some changes in how Peter played in certain sections.

By the time the band went into the studio to record Hotter Than Hell they had been on the road for almost four months straight and, say what you will about structured practice, playing live is a different beast. For a lot of musicians, the live setting is where they create, with the inspiration brought on by playing in front of a crowd. Peter Criss is probably one of those musicians, a drummer who will put in the time in the rehearsal space but who feeds off the energy of the crowd. He took all the inspiration from those four months of live work with him into the studio in August and went nuts.

Hotter Than Hell is the work of a drummer who is at the top of his game, both technically and creatively. Just listen to the work on the toms on the opening track. Not only does he make the somewhat unconventional choice to play the chorus using almost all toms and cymbals, he varies the rhytmical patterns and never really goes for the straight high–to–low tom rolls that most drummer tend to fall into. Then he comes back on the second track and reverses the structure, using toms for large parts of the verses—and, again, varying those patterns almost ad infinitum and never once sounding forced—while playing the chorus almost straight. (He also ghosts on the snare on the main riff like a man possessed.) And then, almost as if he wants to prove a point, he throws in a lightning-fast tom fill at 1:32.

Much more subtle, and probably something that Peter never even thought about, he varies the groove during ”Hotter Than Hell”. For the main riff and the verse, the snare on the ‘4’ is just a little late which gives it a very specific kind of groove. For the section preceeding the chorus he—again very subtly—moves the ‘4’ a little ahead of the beat so that the chorus gets a more driving feel than the verses.

(As a quick aside, I have a feeling that Peter liked the sound of the drums while they were recording Hotter Than Hell. This is kind of hard to imagine considering the peculiar mix of the album but I think that’s partly why he plays with so much variation and uses the toms so much; not unlike how Eric played tom fills in a specific way when recording Creatures of the Night—the sound in the studio inspired the playing.)

In comparison, Peter’s playing on Dressed to Kill is mostly about playing it safe in order to keep the number of takes down. It was a financially troublesome time for Casablanca and as a result of that the album was ultimately recorded in about 80-90 hours (!). That’s break-neck speed considering that they went into the studio wityh very little material already written. Much like on Hotter Than Hell, the playing style is evident right on the opening track. He snare rolls a lot on this album—especially going into tom fills—and the choruses here have some nice work, but up until after the guitar solo on ”Room Service”, the playing is very restrained. Just listen to the almost complete lack of fills going into secctions. And then, at the end of the guitar solo, it’s as if Peter realises ”hey, we’re nailing this take!”, and lets loose a little for the last couple of choruses. (That they were pressed for time also becomes obvious when you hear the he kind of re-cycled the chorus work on ”Room Service” for a lot of the parts in ”Love Her All I Can”.) And then, things changed…

The music changed with success

The succes of Alive! and later with ”Beth” from Destroyer meant that the band were playing larger venues more regularly. Somewhere along the line, as the venues increased in size, the band figured out what worked and what didn’t. It was kind of the musical equivalent to the five–rows–out principle they used for instruments and costumes. Musical intricacy doesn’t really lend itself to large venues, it just don’t ”travel” very well. I’ve stated time and again that KISS in the live setting had all the subtlely of a sledgehammer and even though I mainly mean that they don’t really vary their sound, it also became true of the songs as time went on. That’s why the live version of ”Calling Dr. Love” has a main riff that’s differs from the studio recording—the live version had more impact.

Before gettting into how the songwriting, and therefore drumming, changed, I have to make one important point: this doesn’t apply to Destroyer. I happen to love Destroyer, for one thing it was the first album I bought, but it is a Bob Ezrin album rather than a KISS album. When you, as a regular rock band, make a Bob Ezrin album, Bob Ezrin will take your ideas, make them into songs, and then tell you what to play. When you play it according to Bob’s wishes there will—more often than not—be magic. Peter Criss has never played anything remotely like the work he did on Destroyer. He would never have come up with the patterns on, say, ”King of the Night Time World” or ”God of Thunder”. The same goes for Gene, he would never have come up with the bass counterpoint in ”Detroit Rock City” or ”Flaming Youth”.

What both Gene and Paul learned by working with Ezrin and playing larger venues was the beauty of simplicity. On the first three albums Paul and Ace crafted inter-locking guitar parts using different registers and inversions, Gene played walking bass lines all over the place, and Peter played, well, he played almost like a madman at times. (Just listen to Hotter Than Hell again!) And then, suddenly, they had a minor hit with one of their simplest songs, ”Rock and Roll All Nite”, so when they wrote another anthem for Destroyer they simplified it even more—”Rock and Roll All Nite” did, after all, have a fairly intricate bassline. They probably noticed the reaction from the crowd over the summer of 1976 when they played ”Shout it Out Loud” and thus began a period of change.

In addition to a change in the actual musical elements of the songs, the actual process of writing the songs changed. When the band went into the studio to record Hotter Than Hell and Dressed to Kill they were not only pressed for time, they also had to work the material out as a group. Apart from the recordings at Larabee in January 1975 there were, as far as we know, no real demos recorded during this time. Instead, riffs and basic song ideas were (probably) presented to the rest of the band and then everybody worked out their own parts. After the success with Alive!—and probably even more so after the success was more or less cemented by Destroyer and ”Beth”—Paul and Gene started recording demos and presenting complete ideas to the band. Demo-itis is the single most common illness among musicians: once committed to tape a song kind of ”settles in” to that form in the mind of the person who has written and recorded it. Unless there is a strong-willed producer to convince the band, and specifically the songwriter, that a song would benefit from a different treatment—and here Ezrin’s re-imagining of ”God of Thunder” is the gold standard—chances are that the demo form will prevail. Consequently there is less hands-on input from the rest of the band members. How much did the studio version of ”Love Gun” differ from Paul’s demo of it? Not much.

As the songwriting changed, so did the drumming. The intricacy that was such a big part of Peter’s work on Hotter Than Hell simply didn’t fit the stadiums. Nobody heard the ghosting on the snare when played in a cavernous arena. The variations didn’t work as well in more riff-based songs; if anything, variations beneath a riff lessens the impact of that riff. Don’t get me wrong, Peter still did some interesting stuff—the way he plays the chorus in ”Makin’ Love” is still a slight surprise whenever I hear it—but it wasn’t adventurous like his earlier playing was. Just as success put a damper on the ”in the moment”-creativity on stage because so much of the show was scripted to coincide with effects, it also created an environment where the large gesture was preferable. For the drummer that meant (relative) simplicity.

Hotter Than Hell was never a big part of the set

This might sound weird, erroneous even, but the material on Hotter Than Hell was never a big part of the standard KISS set. Granted, Alive! has its fair share of tracks from the album—five of them actually—but as we know that didn’t really reflect how the setlists looked in 1975-76. Judging by the relatively few recordings we have from the fall of 1974 the band added ”Got to Choose” and ”Parasite” to the setlist fairly early but it took a while for the title track and ”Watchin’ You” to become semi-regular.

(It’s hard to talk about how many songs from Hotter Than Hell were included in the set because both ”Watchin’ You” and ”Let Me Go, Rock ‘n’ Roll”—in its earlier form of ”Baby, Let Me Go”—had been around since 1973, and the latter had been more or less the standard set closer since spring 1974.)

By the time of the classic show at Winterland on January 31, 1975, the five songs that eventually appeared on Alive! were all in the set but that seems to have been the exception rather than the rule. Over the coming year, as songs from Dressed to Kill made their way into the set and the Alive! Tour setlist kind of settled into a more standard form, the songs from Hotter Than Hell came and went. But those two words—standard form—was one of the reasons that songs from Hotter Than Hell never really got to be a larger part of the live show.

As I mentioned above, as the show got bigger it also got more regimented as there were certain things that were expected from a KISS show, and these elements all had their own ”rules” attached to them. For instance, there has to be an opening song (duh!), and that song should set the tone for the explosiveness of the KISS show. Now, I happen to think that Hotter Than Hell is the strongest collection of songs that KISS have ever commited to a single album but I can’t think of a single song on the album that is a show opener. None of those ten songs can fit in after the ”You wanted the best” intro. Is there a song from Hotter Than Hell that could harbour Gene’s fire-breathing? Not that I can think of.

Another reason for the lack of Hotter Than Hell songs in the live setting, and a fairly obvious one, is that the farther away from that album we get, the more songs there are to choose from. By the time we get to peak commercial KISS in 1977-78 there are six albums worth of material to choose from and a number of songs that have to be played. A KISS show in 1977 without ”Rock and Roll All Nite”? Nobody would even have suggested such a thing. Destroyer had supplied four immortal classics that almost demanded to be played—and ”God of Thunder” had the extra incentive of being the spot for Gene and Peter’s solos—and as a band you can’t really go out and not play anything from the current album. (That said, KISS certainly tried at times.) Suddenly the competition for the available slots in the set was tougher and, come the summer of 1977 and the CanAm Tour, not a single song from Hotter Than Hell remained.

For the Alive II Tour ”Let Me Go, Rock ‘n’ Roll” returned but when The Return of KISS Tour started in 1979 there was, once again, not a single song from Hotter Than Hell in the set. ”Let Me Go, Rock ‘n’ Roll” was soon added to the set when some solo album tunes were cut but it probably wasn’t added because it was from Hotter Than Hell—or even because the band thought it was a great song—no, I think the reason it came back was because everybody remembered how to play it. It was probably just the simplest solution to a specific problem. And then, in 1980, a lot of things changed.

80’s KISS wanted to be 80’s KISS

When Eric sat down on the drum stool in 1980 a lot of things changed for KISS. And then more things changed. And then… you get the picture. 1980-83 was a time of upheaval in the KISS camp, one that saw them become an entirely different band. After the ”poppier” sounds of Dynasty and Unmasked, and the failed stab at critical acclaim and brand expansion that was The Elder, there was a new attitude to the band in 1983; an attitude that could be summed up as ”this is now”. Although the tour was called the 10th Anniversary Tour it was far from a retrospective: the standard setlist for the tour featured no less than four songs from the latest release—a move they had last attempted for the Winter Tour in 1976-77—and the original plan, as seen at the show in Sioux City, Iowa, was to play an astonishing six (!) songs from Creatures of the Night. This version of KISS wanted to play their new material.

That’s why the Lick It Up Tour saw them retain the four songs from Creatures of the Night and add between four and five songs from its successor. When eight out of fifteen songs are from the last two albums the rest of the spots are reserved for the all-time classics and, as we’ve already seen, none of the songs from Hotter Than Hell really qualified in the minds of Paul and Gene. During the Animalize Tour the setlist was down to the bare minimum of classic 70’s material. For the better part of the European leg of the tour the show opened with three classics and then they played nine straight songs (!) from the last three albums; in the US they cut ”Strutter” and started with just two 70’s classics and then came a barrage of post-1981 material.

Care to guess what happened for the Asylum Tour? Yeah, pretty much more of the same. Although ”Calling Dr. Love” made a surprise return in the set late in the tour, the better part of the tour featured just four songs from the band’s original line-up. Instead there were individual solos for all four members and a cover of The Who’s ”Won’t Get Fooled Again”. The unmasked 80’s version of KISS may be accused of trying to fit into the reigning (hard rock) musical climate—and that’s probably a big reason for the lack of original line-up songs during this time—but they obviously felt comfortable with it and had faith in their new material. One has to assume that they met more than a few fans 1984-1986 that talked to them about, and probably requested, those classic 70’s songs; it seems unlikely that there was no demand for, say, ”Deuce” or ”I Stole Your Love” among fans. But 80’s KISS really wanted to be 80’s KISS and, needless to say, songs from an album that was pretty much deleted from the setlist as early as 1979 had little chance of making a comeback.

The ”this is now” mind-set continued up until January 14, 1988, when the bottom dropped out for Gene and Paul. The money was gone, the latest album wasn’t selling as expected, and the shows weren’t attracting enough people. (If one were to reduce the Crazy Nights Tour in the US to its essence I think the phrase ”half-full” would be the most pertinent.) Just to briefly touch upon the reversal of fortune for the 70’s material, the promotor for the Japan shows evidently suggested (or demanded) that they play more of their earlier material. Suddenly there were no less than nine classic songs in the set, even the much-maligned ”I Was Made For Lovin’ You”. In the fall there was another compilation and it went on to sell like nothing had since the heyday of the 70’s. But, as the band put more classic songs in the set and the running time of the shows increased in 1990, they obviously looked to the songs that had made Smashes, Thrashes & Hits such a huge success and guess what? There were no songs from Hotter Than Hell on there.

Eric was a driving drummer

It actually started in the summer of 1977. Something happened between the tour-ending shows in Japan in April and the next tour in July. As I’ve detailed before when discussing Alive II, the tempos jumped for a lot of the songs and energy/speed became an integral part of the bludgeoning of the senses that was a KISS show in the late 70’s. Peter was a little erratic in 1979 but generally speaking he couldn’t keep that blistering tempo during the Return of KISS Tour. (That said, while the tempo of ”Love Gun” dropped slightly between 1977 and 1979, the tempo of the last holdout from Hotter Than Hell actually increased.) So what does this have to do with Eric? He, much more than Peter, was a driving drummer. He pushed the tempo almost as soon as he got in the band.

Looking at (or, more accurately, listening to) the Unmasked Tour, this effect isn’t very evident. Looking at ”Love Gun”, the tempo in Sydney 1980 was brisk 156 bpm but that was still slower than Peter played it in Houston 1977. No, Eric really started driving the tempo when Ace left the band. In Quebec in 1984 Eric and the band had pushed the tempo all the way up to 170 bpm. Given what we know about the internal conflicts of the band at the time it isn’t far-fetched to think that they just sprinted through the songs to get the ordeal over with so they could get rid of Vinnie but, as usual, there’s a twist. See, the tempo got even higher after Vinnie left the band. For the MTV taping in Detroit 1984 ”Love Gun” comes in at 173 bpm. That’s blistering speed and it stayed that way through the Asylum Tour. Simply put, Eric loved pushing the tempo. (To put this in context, the studio version of ”Love Gun” clocks in at 144 bpm.)

Looking at ”Cold Gin” we see roughly the same pattern. In Sydney 1980 and Montreal 1983 the band hit a fairly brisk 134 bpm which was actually slightly slower than what the original lineup did in 1977. However, in Quebec 1984 the tempo had been pushed to 143 bpm (!) and it stayed there in Detroit 1984. Studio version? Around 115 bpm. See the pattern? With Peter in the band songs got pushed about 10-15 bpm faster than their studio versions; with Eric behind the kit the band just flat-out sprinted through the songs, pushing the tempo almost 30 bpm above that of the studio versions.

Most of the songs from Hotter Than Hell couldn’t tolerate that kind of tempo hike. Looking at two of the songs they played with the original lineup—”Got to Choose” and the title track—they got sped up quite a bit. In fact, they got sped up right to the breaking point where the groove of the songs disappeared and the band literally couldn’t play them any more. ”Got to Choose” ended up at 121 bpm on Alive!, exactly 10 bpm faster than the studio album version, and to my ears it suffers at that tempo. (The Winterland version which clocks in at 116 bpm sounds much better.) It didn’t suffer quite as bad as ”Hotter Than Hell” did though. The title track really got taken over the speed limit by the time it was eventually removed from the setlist. The Alive! tempo of 117 bpm works like a charm—it’s energetic but not rushed—but by early 1976 the tempo had been pushed to 124 bpm and the groove suffered becasue of it. The song stayed in the set for the Spirit of ’76 Tour but by then it was up to 128 bpm and if one listens to the recordings from Anaheim or Houston, I mean really LISTEN, the song is an absolute shambles at that tempo.

Now, that was about as far as Peter ever pushed anything tempo-wise. The studio version of ”Hotter Than Hell” runs along at a leisurely 106 bpm; when pushed up more than 20 bpm it literally fell apart and I don’t care who’s on the drum stool, it doesn’t really work at that tempo. Eric Carr, for all his strengths and the incredible energy he brought to the band, was not a restrained drummer, and for the most parts the songs on Hotter Than Hell have a relatively limited tempo range where they work. (Just try to play ”All The Way” 20 bpm faster than the studio version; the riff simply doesn’t ”work” any more.) And that’s a major reason that the songs didn’t return until Eric Singer took his turn behind the kit. With Singer in the band, and a different attitude towards the classics, the songs reverted more towards their studio tempos and that meant that the Hotter Than Hell songs could find their place in the set again.

So, why?

As we’ve seen there were many possible (and probable) reasons why Eric Carr never played a single song from Hotter Than Hell during his 12-year tenure in the band: the songs were fairly far-removed from his style as a drummer; they had never been a major part of the set; the songs didn’t fit the mindset of the band nor the energy they brought to the shows; and—almost certainly most important—Eric probably didn’t care. Even if Eric had had a major say in the construction of the setlist, and history suggests that he didn’t, the songs on Hotter Than Hell didn’t mean anything to him and chances are he didn’t even reflect on the fact that they weren’t playing those songs. He got to play songs that he helped write and record, songs that defined what the band was about in the 80’s. As much as we may lament the fact that we never got to hear an amazing drummer tackle some amazing songs, I think Eric was happy playing ”his” songs for the majority of his career in KISS. To me that’s worth more than what we as fans might have missed out on.

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