KISS, the make-up demons of rock. The freaks with the big stage show. The hype, the glory, and the merchandising machine. My favourite band. Read on for an equally over the top series of thoughts on KISStory and me!
KISS is a superficial, classless and sleazy band that dons white and black make-up and plays big dumb rock songs to boast of themselves. They do it shamelessly. Frontman Paul Stanley sings of his penis as an instrument of worship, Gene Simmons spews forth awful innuendo filled lyrics with the sole goal of pussy. KISS is built out of hype, they put on a giant show to entertain you. There music is just the tool at which they present themselves. They wear make-up to stand out, because maybe their songs just wouldn’t of cut it.
There goal was to look bigger than the other bands, blow up more, and be outrageous. Their image is easy to market and as such a merchandise machine has been spewing forth anything it can that contains the KISS name. Comic books, dolls, coffins, condoms, anything where that logo and those faces can be painted. Besides the Beatles it can be argued that KISS is the most recognizable band.
So if KISS is a superficial rock band more focused on image then music, why do I love them so much? Why do I and other KISS fans obsess over this band to ridiculous lengths, why when there are many bands who make better music and present more class? Why do we cream ourselves when rare demos leak and debate about whether this song was actually played live at this show and whatever else. This is a point I wish to explain, but to do so we must start at the beginning. I will explain from memory some of KISStory. The sources come from Chris Lendt’s Kiss and Sell, Gene, Paul, Ace and Peter’s biographies and the various tidbits I’ve learnt from KISS podcasts and forums. I don’t promise all the information presented is 100% accurate.
Gene Simmons was born as Chaim Witz in Israel. His Mother a holocaust survivor. At a young age Gene’s remaining family moved to New York where a young Chaim, renamed Gene Klein witnessed a transmission that inspired the whole world. The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, 1964. Taken by their seemingly ridiculous image and his Mother’s disapproval, Gene was blown away. But the thing that got him going most was the screaming girls. Always a shameless pervert, Gene began practicing guitar, hoping to make it in the land of his dreams. In his biography Gene writes that he was taken by the images of America projected on the silver screens in Israel. Gene was also a big comic book geek, which later helped build his KISS character.
3 years after Gene’s birth, Stanley Eisen later Paul Stanley was born in New York. Cursed with a deformed ear, Stanley has never heard out of his right side. In his biography he writes of the constant bullying and teasing her received for his defect. Stanley wished for a way to rise above his bullies, and from a young age he was taken by rock n’ roll music. He also harbored a great passion for art, but choose guitar in the end. Stanley meet Gene through a mutual friend and a permanent partnership was formed. Both outcasted losers looking to make it big.
Wicked Lester was Stanley & Simmons first band, but soon enough they ditched their other bandmates and seeked greater heights. First they found a drummer. Peter Criss, born George Crisuola was a Brooklyn based drummer who’d made his way around many bands. Influenced by jazz and big band music, Peter brought a certain swing to his sound. He posted an ad in Rolling Stone magazine looking to join a band who plays “soft & hard music”. Stanley & Simmons were taken by his sound and put out an ad of their own looking for a lead guitarist.
Prior to becoming KISS Paul and Gene had already assembled a solid set of future classics. When auditioning guitarists they would play through early versions of songs like Deuce, hoping to find someone to vibe with their sound. In the long fabled tale, a skinny kid with mismatched sneakers stumbled into the audition, plugged his guitar in, and began jamming while Stanley, Simmons & Criss where talking with future friend and ghost player of KISS, Bob Kulick. Not impressed by his appearance or rude introduction but floored by his sound, Ace Frehley completed the foursome of KISS.
No great band is complete without a manager however. When KISS began forming their image and vision they met Bill Aucoin & Sean Deanly. At this time KISS had been experimenting with make-up, inspired by glam acts like the New York Dolls. Seeing great potential Bill and Sean straighten out the band’s appearance and onstage choreography. The band created four unique make-up faces, a way of making each member pop. Their goal to be a band of four Alice Cooper and heavy metal Beatles. Bill & Sean helped with early stage stunts like Peter’s drum riser, onstage choreography, and Gene’s trademark fire breathing trick. KISS was forming and from the very beginning Bill saw what they could became. A great vehicle for marketing and hype. A brand.
Soon enough KISS got a record contract as the first band on Casablanca Records, led by the ambitious Neil Bogart. Another man who helped to market and sell KISS, even producing their third album Dressed to Kill. The band where becoming a cult club act, and started to blow away their headlining acts like Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath. But the first three KISS records failed to dent the charts. They appeared on TV and toured endlessly, but their albums failed to capture the thrill of their live show. Then came the big idea, a live album. For a band with no hits this was a wild idea, but it was to be the move that would shoot KISS high. The band’s first live record Alive! Finally captured their sound and got them mainstream attention. Backed with a big single “Rock n’ Roll All Nite”, KISS where finally breaking through.
By 1976 KISS was becoming one of the top rock acts in America. In 1976 KISS released two studio albums, Destroyer, containing gold single Beth, and Rock n’ Roll Over. They toured Europe, Japan and in the beginning of 1977 performed multiple nights at Madison Square Garden in their hometown. The dream had come true for Paul, Gene, Ace and Peter.
From the beginning the attitude of KISS had always been to do things bigger than other bands. On the Destroyer tour the band took on an over the top stage show filled with props, a lightning bolt Frankenstein rig, a Gothic castle for Gene Simmons to do his bass fart blood spitting act, spacey rocks for Ace to let his guitar smoke during his solo, two big cats to stand next to Peter’s drums and a mysterious haunting tree. Oh the tree. For the Rock n’ Roll Over tour the band took on two sets of light up stairs that went down either side of the stage. KISS had a way of making themselves bigger than they would appear. While Fleetwood Mac, Eagles and ABBA tore up the charts, selling millions of albums a release, KISS would attempt to inflate their image, building on the hype of their performance. Before each show a deep voice would scream to the crowd “YOU WANTED THE BEST, YOU GOT THE BEST. THE HOTTEST BAND IN THE WORLD…KISS”.
In early 1977 KISS went to Marvel to propose a special comic book. This would only be the beginning of a giant merchandising spree. When the comic was ready the band made a big show, flying over to the pressing plant and getting pints of their blood drawn which were placed in the vat of red ink. The gimmick being each KISS comic would contain real KISS blood! In the end that red ink was used for an issue of Sports Illustrated. The comic however was a success.
In 1977 KISS came out with Love Gun, an album that forever established their character as a band. Just like The Beatles a decade before them, KISS marketed themselves as a band of four characters. Paul Stanley, the starchild, Gene Simmons, the demon, Peter Criss, the catman, and Ace Frehley, the spaceman. Each member was individualized, and at last they all sang a song on an album. Paul sang of being the ultimate sex God rock star on songs like I Stole Your Love, Peter belted out the simpleton bad boy anthem Hooligan, Ace sang on the spacey Shock Me and Gene cookie monster grunted of a demonic transformation on Almost Human.
With a powerful album cover, the image of KISS was set. They were about to become a sort of cartoon, the album coming with a cardboard gun which displayed the album’s name. Soon after Love Gun began a big tour which took them around North America and Japan once again. They came out a second live album KISS Alive II which contained a booklet, stickers, and tattoos, making the album a sort of super package. They wore silver and black costumes and took on more advanced elements to their stage show, introducing hydraulic lifts and a drum rig that would push Peter’s set forward during his solo spot in God Of Thunder. The merchandise game was strong. Soon the market was struck with a string of products adorned with the KISS name. There were KISS shirts, KISS belt buckles, KISS trading cards, the KISS radio and oddest of all KISS dolls. Not action figures, dolls. The band was getting ambitious, but it was not until 1978 that the cracks began to show in their mighty silver armor.
In 1978 KISS finished their Alive II tour and during a break began to work on a TV movie. The prospect of a movie was not unusual for a rock n’ roll band, The Beatles had released two, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!. Even punk rock pioneers The Ramones starred in 70’s b-movie Rock n’ Roll High School. For KISS’ movie they decided to play to their super hero image. The idea, KISS fight an evil scientist in an amusement park. Paul’s character shoots lasers from his eyes, Gene breathes fire, Ace can fly and Peter has super strength. The movie did well when it first aired but would later become an ugly mark in the past for Gene and Paul. It was campy and began a long downward spiral the band found themselves in at the end of the 70’s and beginning of the 80’s. They lost their core fanbase and began to market to kids. Relations in the band strained and on the set of the film an idea was born. Solo albums.
In line with Aucoin’s vision the band came out with four records on the same day in 1978. Each one saw a beautiful painting of the member whose name was on the album, next to a small KISS logo on a black background. They had gone off on their own and each delivered a solo album right on time. The record company saw dollar signs. Thinking people would buy four albums at the same time they shipped platinum, meaning a million copies of EACH ALBUM hit the stores. The issue, their new audience, children, didn’t have the money to buy four full price albums at once. People would buy the album of their favorite member and leave the others to collect dust on the shelves. Shipping each album platinum was an overly ambitious move that contributed to the fall of their label Casablanca Records. The albums had steady sales, and Ace Frehley’s even spawned a top 40 single with New York Groove. But the bubble was beginning to burst. 1978 was the last time the original KISS was seen in fine form, the very next year everything fell apart.
In 1979 North American pop culture was all about Star Wars and a new style of music which rose from New York clubs…disco. Danceable four to the floor rhythms the style hit it’s peak with the 78′ release of Saturday Night Fever. The film and soundtrack which captured the scene just as it was dying. As disco lit it’s last fire on the charts Paul Stanley felt inspired. He figured disco was easy to write and with the help of Vini Poncia & Desmond Child he wrote KISS’ next single in mere minutes. In 1979 KISS return to the market with their biggest hit…I Was Made For Lovin’ You. Boasting a disco beat under rock n’ roll guitar, the song fused both worlds together into a slick streamlined production. The single was a big hit, hitting #1 all over the world. But for KISS the success wouldn’t last.
By 1979 relations in the band had strained. Peter Criss was developed an increasingly self destructive attitude. On the band’s next album Dynasty he only played drums on his own song Dirty Livin. Ace Frehley stepped up to the plate, contributing three songs to the nine song album, but his demons were catching up on him. Regardless of which the band was gearing up to do a giant tour. In Paul’s vision it would be the biggest show on earth. Every concert burnt a million dollars in set-up, the band wanted a huge 360 stage, lasers, and craziest of all a traveling amusement park to follow them around. The band would not cut down their vision.
While the KISS World amusement park never happened, and the expensive lasers crapped out on their first go, the band still carried their big stage show everywhere. They would not scale down. The stage had a massive lighting rig, and the band would rise from under the stage, glowing in their solo album colours. Gone where the silver and black costumes and in where bright colours. Each member wore a costume attributed to their solo album cover. Capes, furs, it was becoming a cartoony production. Gene came up with a new rig where he would fly to the top of the lighting rig to sing God Of Thunder. Ace shot rockets from the head of his guitar. Paul wanted to shoot lasers from his eyes but that would prove to be impossible…unless he wanted to be blind of course. The band was playing big venues but attendance was dropping. KISS where falling apart, unable to accept their fate.
During the Dynasty tour, Peter Criss began to sabotage the shows. He would slow down tempos to mess with the guys, throw drumsticks at Gene, and during one show he stormed off in a rage during one of the first songs, leaving the band to perform a drumless version of Move On from Paul’s solo album. In one video taped concert from Largo he sways away drunkenly laughing through his big hit Beth. In a classic appearance on the Tom Synder show Ace and Peter take over the interview and mess around with Tom, while Paul and Gene grumble in the background. Ace cracks a ton of jokes and laughs like a madman. He’d gotten wasted on wine with the band’s manager Bill Aucoin before the show. On the tape you can see Paul and Gene angry over their loss of control, it was on live television as well.
At the end of the Dynasty tour it was decided on a vote of 3…Peter Criss was out of the band. He would appear on the cover for 1980’s Unmasked and mock play in the music video for Shandi, but he did not play a single note on the album. The original line-up crumbled. The Dynasty tour bled money, although it was a spectacular production, they could not recoup costs. Something that would carry on, even a decade later. In 1980 they hired drummer Eric Carr who donned the make-up character of The Fox. His high energy playing and sweet personality would fire up the band once again, bringing the best out of Ace who’d auto piloted the Dynasty tour in a drunken haze. They did a big tour in Europe and overall had a good year in 1980. For the international market that is, they did not tour the US that year after poor album sales. KISS would ride massive peaks and valleys their whole career. Although they do good as a heritage rock act nowadays, there were many times when the machine almost fell apart. But Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons continued to drag it along, the vision of two outcasted Jewish boys, a Brooklyn greaser and a 60’s excess burnout has still continued to survive even today.
KISS made it based on hype and glory, not solely on music. This is a point that erks the detractors, “it’s all about the music!” they say, failing to understand the simple joys of KISS’ brand of cock rock glory. KISS is a cartoon, KISS are entertainers, and KISS is an escape. When I saw KISS in 2009 Paul Stanley let out a speech saying something to the effect of, you’re going to go back to school, back to work tomorrow but tonight we are here to rock. KISS is about that. KISS is being glorious and cool. It’s a fun escape.
There is a certain magic to KISS other bands simply do not have. It’s superficial sure, but it’s a childlike wonder. I can not image what kids in the 70’s felt, but even today it’s fun. To think these four guys tried to appear so mysterious, not allowing their faces to be seen. It’s a rock n’ roll fantasy. A fun time, nothing more. Nothing overly challenging. KISS is about being over the top and loving it. They’re not trying to look for anything deeper, it’s just a good time. The band sparks an obsession with those who connect with them. Four almost super heroes on stage. Nowadays each member is demystified and fully exposed for all to read into, but there is still a fantastic wonder when watching old concert videos. When I watch KISS live in Sydney 1980 which I have seen many times, I feel amazing. I feel like my dreams can come true. I see what is to me, real life magic. Odd as it sounds.
As a young KISS fan, born the same year as the reunion tour, I did not witness the first rock n’ roll explosion. I heard stories from my Dad and when I was 12 we watched KISS Meets The Phantom of The Park. I was taken by their image and also the music. I’d been into rock music before but it never really sparked much in younger me. But KISS has this fantastic visual as well as great tunes. Just a few months after watching the film, KISS had become my band. When I was 13 the obsession began. I listened to them all the time, researched everything, learnt all the small details. Even as I got into other bands, KISS was still number 1. They started everything for me.
Gene Simmons has always been a great inspiration. When I was 13 I decided I’d never smoke and drink because Gene didn’t. I liked that idea. For some when you first get into them you grow such a blind love that no one can detract you. KISS is cultist, it builds a passion in you that only grows brighter the more people tell you “KISS are fags”, “KISS sucks” or anything else. I always fought back, defending my band endlessly to anyone that would oppose me. I rubbed KISS in everyone’s face, people had to know they’re my favorite band. I couldn’t not tell people. In retrospect I see how annoying and single minded I was, but at the time I was crazy for this make-up donning goofy rock band. And today I still love ’em, just not in such an annoying manner. As much as I discover, KISS always brings it back home. I see them objectively now, they made great rock tunes and have a solid and varied catalog, but it’s just simple fun. There are plenty of bands that make “better” music, but only one band that I love to this level.
KISS fans are not objective? KISS fans are fools? No, KISS fans have vivid imaginations. That’s what Gene Simmons said in 1978, during an interview in a comic shop. Here stood the demon of rock n’ roll, the man who grew up on comics now in a comic himself. In this interview Gene is taken away by the realization of his own fame. He knows he isn’t a world class musician and he doesn’t care. In Gene’s mind he won the lottery of life. He escaped Israel and went to America to live his dream. It’s a wonderful success story, even if the man attached to it is money grubbing and runs a snappy mouth.
Maybe KISS doesn’t really speak to the heart of the outcasts. They are unrelatable on stage, you don’t see yourself in their shoes, you just see characters. When Kurt Cobain stood with his messy hair in a t-shirt and jeans singing of his raw emotions, he captivated youth for they could easily find themselves in him. KISS on the other hand stand as a cartoon, towering over everyone with a persona of power, sex and indulgence.
KISS is a wonder, KISS is a fantasy and KISS is a rock n’ roll comic. It’s the simple pleasures of rock music at it’s most overblown. Look at their name. KISS. You spell it with capital letters.