KISS Let’s Put The X In Sex: What did 1988 think?

Cassingle cover for 'Let's Put The X In Sex' by KISS.

Paul Stanley from KISS hates the band’s single ‘Let’s Put The X In Sex’, one of two new tracks on its 1988 greatest hits compilation Smashes, Thrashes & Hits. As he told KISS’ official biographer Ken Sharp:

The two new songs were written three days before we went in the studio. I think the new songs written for that blow. I think they really suck . . . ‘X In Sex’ wound up being a second-rate version of ‘Addicted To Love’ by Robert Palmer. Working at that point on Desmond [Child] and Diane [Warren], who were both brilliant writers, we crossed a dangerous line into kitsch.

Is he correct? You can be the judge. Obviously “Love’s like a muscle and you make me wanna flex” is a lyrical shocker, but coming from a band that had already sung the line “I wanna put my log in your fireplace” without cringing, it’s not a major surprise.

Saying “it sucks” is certainly a spicy take given that Paul co-wrote and produced the song. But that’s consistent with KISS’ long-term attitude, which is to dismiss pretty much everything it created in the 1980s and beyond, arguing instead that the raw basic rock of its early 1970s albums is all that matters. As Paul put it to Sharp: “Let’s make sure the basis of what were are doing is rock ‘n’ roll and guitars, because that’s why we started this and let’s not ever forget it.”

Sure, Stanley, think what you like. But what did folks actually think at the time the song was released? As we learned not long ago with Blondie, reactions when a song first appears often differ from the assumed consensus now.

Even KISS bass player and professional tongue sleaze Gene Simmons concedes that point. As he told Ken Sharp:

I don’t like the two new songs. But it’s interesting that when you do stuff your perspective isn’t always clear. When we were doing it we said, ‘Gee, this rocks!’

The choice of co-writer Desmond Child seems like a fairly blatant attempt to get a hit single, rock cred be damned. Child had worked with KISS since 1979, and co-wrote the band’s biggest global hit ‘I Was Made For Loving You’ that year.

By 1988 he was on a Bon Jovi-driven roll, having co-written ‘You Give Love A Bad Name’, ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’, ‘Bad Medicine’ and ‘Born To Be My Baby’. He’d also worked on hits for Cher, Aerosmith and Alice Cooper. His chart track record was way better than KISS’ at this time.

Child himself remained hugely enthusiastic about working with KISS, telling Ken Sharp:

The songs that Paul and I wrote together had simplicity, melody and a kind of boldness. They’re direct but they’re clever.

Unfortunately, that magic touch didn’t make the song a hit. Advertising for the compilation did heavily emphasise the new track (side note: new release CDs for $11.99 in 1988 makes me very jealous).

Newspaper ad for Smashes, Thrashes and Hits

‘Let’s Put The X In Sex’ reached a sorry #97 in the US and a not-much-better #49 in Australia. A limited promotional 12-inch with dancier remixes didn’t help matters, and listening to one of them, the oddly-named ‘Sex A-Pella Mix’, it’s not hard to see why.

What did critics think of ‘Let’s Put The X In Sex’?

Contemporary reviews of ‘Let’s Put The X In Sex’ might best be summed up as: Yeah, this is dumb and sleazy, but KISS is always dumb and sleazy. So what?

Typical of the approach is Jeff Zeigler from the Allentown Morning Call, who wrote on 31 December 1988 that ‘Let’s Put The X In Sex’ was a “typical Kiss song – simplistic lyrics and catchy riffs”.

Here’s how John Swenson from United Press International reviewed the track in a syndicated review from November 1988:

The band’s refurbished ’80s sound improved from the input of drummer Eric Carr (original drummer Peter Criss left at the end of the ’70s), Stanley’s evolving recording and arrangement experience and the whole band’s increasing versatility at developing rock songs about sex.

“Lets Put the X in Sex” and (You Make Me) Rock Hard,” the two new songs on “Smashes,” are more examples of the band’s unique ability to find endless variations on this time-honored theme.

The Boston Globe‘s Brett Milano summed it up swiftly in an 18 December 1988 round-up of new greatest hits collections aimed at the Christmas market:

If one considers that Kiss has been rewriting the same song for the last 15 years, all the best variations are here – from 1975’s Rock ‘n’ Roll All Night” to the new “Let’s Put the X in Sex.” Not only is this a good dumb-fun record, it’s also the only Kiss album that non-diehards will ever need to own.

“More of the same” was also very much the attitude of Ian Russell, pop columnist for the Kilmarnock Standard, who wrote on 9 December 1988 that “the hits album naturally takes no risks and will give them a great start to ’89.” Mario Tarradell from the Miami News was similarly enthusiastic in his 15 December 1988 review:

The rest of the album is filled with Kiss’ Top 40 material and two new singles “Let’s Put The Sex” and “(You Make Me) Rock Hard.” Aside from the new rendition of “Beth,” this album should be a must for all Kiss followers.

I particularly enjoyed this tart take from Kurt Jacobs and Chris White in the North Wales Weekly News on the very same date (15 December 1988):

Being a fan of the band must be difficult, as every time Gene Simmons or Paul Stanley open their mouths they say something extremely puerile and embarrassing. Nevertheless, when they shut up and get down and play, they have a great ear for lively, stomping party metal music. Lick It Up, Crazy Nights, I Love it Loud and their brand new song Let’s Put the X in Sex proving the point.

Overall the view from contemporary reviews remains the same: no-one thought ‘Let’s Make The X In Sex’ was a classic, but no-one thought it was worse or different than anything that had gone before. Tough luck Paul, I guess.

Why were KISS sued over ‘Let’s Put The X In Sex’?

I’ve read quite a lot about KISS, but until I started researching this piece, I’d never run into what might qualify as one of the most KISS things to ever happen: the band being sued because the video for the song ‘Let’s Make The X In Sex’ made a high-rise tower look too phallic. Yep, you read that right.

The New York Post reported in January 1989 that property developer William Kaufman of Sage Realty had filed suit in the Manhattan Supreme Court seeking an injunction stopping MTV from showing the ‘Let’s Put The X In Sex”. (How often MTV might want to show a video for a flop single that had come out the previous October wasn’t mentioned.)

The reason? According to Kaufman’s attorney Bob Ward, there had been a clear cock-up. He told the Post:

It’s pretty obvious it’s supposed to be a 42-story phallic symbol. They are panning up and down, shooting Gene Simmons’ crotch. It’s not the kind of thing we want our client associated with. It is a fancy building that seeks high rents from tenants.

Presumably sticking to the theory that all publicity is good publicity, KISS laughed it off.

“I’ll never look at the New York skyline the same way again,” Paul Stanley told Los Angeles Times music columnist Patrick Goldstein for an article published on 15 January 1989. “But I think it’s hysterical.” He continued:

It’s especially funny that they’re the ones who are calling their own building a phallic symbol, not us. The way I look at it, if they’re building 42-story phallic symbols, they should at least put a sleeve on them.

Apparently the ever-competitive Stanley was also keen to remove any confusion over who was doing the thrusting. “”Just so none of our fans get the wrong idea, it’s my crotch.”

Paul Stanley points at his crotch in the 'Let's Put The X In Sex' video.

The lawsuit doesn’t seem to have progressed any further, and the video remains available. So let’s leave the last word to Simmons, in a widely-syndicated newspaper interview from August 1988 that appeared just ahead of the single’s release:

Rock ‘n’ roll should be sexy and fun – with a strong backbeat.

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