Review Summary: As Lynyrd Skynyrd would put it, "Nuthin' Fancy". There’s no harm in giving it a go, but not doing it won’t change your life, either.Before the first KISS: Second Date
It’s well known to pretty much everyone that KISS (and its prehistoric incarnation, Wicked Lester) were the first “real” band for most of its members. Gene Simmons had had Bullfrog Bheer in college, and Ace Frehley had played in a few local bands, but both for them and Paul Stanley, KISS was the first time they had been in a “real”, true-blue band. Not so for Peter Criss. When he joined the foursome, the drummer was already an accomplished and experienced musician, having left semi-professional recordings with at least two bands: power-trio Lips and its embryo, five-piece Chelsea.
Chelsea was a short-lived southern-rock band whose only album, released in 1970 by Decca and bootlegged extensively in latter decades, is one of the rarest finds any KISS band could make. Short of the Bullfrog Bheer tapes, this is one of the Holy Grails of KISS collectors, and even on the Internet, it’s really hard to find it – I came across a single .rar file in a single site, and as for information, I couldn’t really get much
From what I could gather, however, Chelsea rotated around lead singer Peter Shepley and guitarist Mike Brand, responsible for most of the material in the group’s eponymous debut. Accompanying the two leaders were Peter Criss (then Cris) on drums, Stan Penridge on guitar and talented bass player Michael Benvenga (ironically, the latter incarnation as Lips would be based around these three supporting players, excluding Chelsea’s leaders from the picture entirely).
This was the group that set about making a record that mixed and matched the best of the ending decade with the best of the dawning one. In fact, Chelsea’s sound can best be described as a mixture of blues, psychedelic pop-rock and a whole lot of southern boogie. The influence of groups like Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers Band, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Animals is clearly identifiable throughout the album, being mixed with touches of blues and pop for a mildly appealing sound.
The songs go from the country hoedown of Good Company
to the straight-out blues of Grace
, through rockers like Rollin’ Along
, trippy mid-tempos a la Hard Rock Music
and syrupy pop ballads like Let’s Call It A Day
. However, it is undeniable that Chelsea are at their best when they’re performing straightforward rockers like Rollin’ Along, Long River
or Good Company
; their attempts at writing more varied and complex songs mostly fell flat, going from the snore-inducing Polly Von
to the unnecessary length of Hard Rock Music
, and sometimes detracting from the song itself, like in the latter case. Other times, the more layered songwriting works, like on the interesting backing vocals of All American Boy
, but it’s always the boogie-rockers that assert themselves as the real standouts, making out feet tap and our throat hum contentedly.
In fact, the main standouts on the album all fall into the fast rocker category. The two best songs are arguably the bookends, with Rollin’ Along
making for a nice introduction to Chelsea’s sound and Good Company
being an absolutely delightful country-pop ditty, which seems too short at only 01:44 (why is it that the best songs on albums are also often the shortest!?). Rounding up the trio of standouts is Long River
, a typical southern-rock song of the period which charms us with a nice chorus and catchy beat.
The rest of the material is less effective. All-American Boy
is somewhat interesting, as are Ophelia
, a song that recalls Donovan Leitch in more than just name, and Silver Lining
, where the shades of Creedence are stronger than ever. But there can be no excuse for the boringness of Polly Von
, the syrupy sentiment of Let’s Call It A Day
, or the way the hippy-trippy coda ruins the promising Hard Rock Music
. Overall, a mildly interesting but very average affair, typical of the twenty-somethings that Chelsea were at the time.
The average nature of this record extends to the musical portion. All of the musicians are competent, but only Benvenga’s interesting bass runs really shine (imagine a talented Gene Simmons and you’d be close). The guitarists are competent, both in rhythm and solo duties, and Criss, even buried in the mix as he is, shows that his mediocrity was already there before his time at KISS. As for Shepley, he successfully emulates the singers from the period, from Van Zant to Ringo Starr and from Eric Burdon to John Fogerty. Overall, as Lynyrd Skynyrd would put it, Nuthin’ Fancy
, but certainly adequate enough.
In the end, however, this is a record which is bound to interest few people outside of KISS completists. The mix is extremely primitive (clearly, my copy was transferred directly from vinyl without mastering, since you can hear the distinctive crackling in between songs), the songs are no more than “okay”, and the main attraction is probably the presence of John Cale (yes, that
John Cale) playing the viola on two tracks. Overall, there’s no harm in giving it a go, but not doing it won’t change your life, either.