In the early spring days of 1980, I was walking down a dreary street in Elgin, Illinois, 13-years-old, wearing an orange and white KISS jersey I purchased when the band performed a few months earlier at the old Chicago International Amphitheatre, the site where the Beatles played in 1964 and again in 1966. It was cold, the sidewalks wet and filthy from melted snow. An old, sooty, rust-barnacled Chevy Impala wheezed up alongside me and the window slowly ratcheted lower. A jean jacket-clad dude in his 30s, bespectacled and sporting an old west saloon mustache, craned out the window with his upper torso and screamed:
The car grumbled off, belching a fit of West Virginia coal from its tailpipe. I lowered my head in a Charlie Brown stupor, hands buried in pockets, personal overhead rain cloud replaced by rusted-muffler cumuli.
“KISS sucks.” It was a refrain you heard a lot back then, in that very specific moment in time. It was not easy being a KISS fan in the late ’70s and early ’80s. So hard, in fact, that many KISS Army loyalists deserted, went AWOL, or secreted their affection.
KISS was founded in late 1972 or early 1973, depending on which overly-opinionated KISS blowhard you ask. In just four years, they went from bombastic New York glitter-urchins playing roach-pit bills with the Brats, the Stooges, and the New York Dolls, to being the most popular band in the world, according to a Gallup survey. Throughout this meteoric ascension to mass popularity, and even to this day, the band garnered little respect from the snobbish music critic firmament. KISS was never deemed cool enough for the critical cognoscenti.
In his brilliant, exhaustive, 2014 nerdsertation on the band, “The Life and Times of KISS”, pop culture doyen Chuck Klosterman wrote of KISS’ 1974 eponymously titled first album, “If Kiss had somehow died in a boating mishap the week this record hit stores, the very same people who currently hate them would insist this 35-minute document is a forgotten progenitor of punk, on par with the Stooges.”
Klosterman was spot on. Polished and hook-heavy, the debut album features a barrage of fist-pumping KISS classics, including such arena rock canonicals as “Deuce”, “Firehouse”, “Strutter”, “Cold Gin”, and “Black Diamond”, which was cool enough for the Replacements to cover on 1984’s Let it Be. And if this punk rock appropriation ain’t enough for some level of credibility, what is? Oh yeah, Nirvana covered KISS on the 1990 KISS tribute, Hard to Believe. But I digress…
Critics deemed KISS too crass, too commercial, more brand than band, all flash-pot, no substance, and lacking legit musical chops. Arguable points, perhaps, to varying degrees, but, KISS—and KISS fans—never cared about acceptance.
“KISS was never a critic’s band,” said Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello in his intro of the band at their egregiously overdue 2014 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. “KISS was a people’s band…it was not always easy being a Kiss fan. Just as Kiss were being relentlessly persecuted by critics, their fans were relentlessly persecuted by the self-appointed arbiters of taste in middle schools and high schools across America.”
KISS is about the primal fire of rock ‘n’ roll. A loud, bawdy celebration of life, excess, and self-reliance, courtesy of a towering wall of Marshall stacks. But the band’s riff-heavy songcraft and fist-pumping anthems are often overshadowed by the outlandish seven-inch platform boots, the Lee and Kirby costuming, and the stage-antic excess—blood-spewing, fire-belching, zip-lining, guitar-smoking, confetti-storming bombast. At a KISS concert, every night is Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve on a cocktail of steroids and Cialis. KISS is a rock ‘n’ roll party par excellence.
Yet, because of this very spectacle—Alice Cooper, David Bowie, and the Ringling Brothers turned up to 11—that prompts many to look past the simple fact that the early music of KISS stands up entirely on its own. Give one spin to the vinyl splendor of 1975’s Alive! and you hear a band who is absolutely killing it—raw, rocking, taking no prisoners.
Just a few years shy of their 50th year, KISS was in the midst of their self-proclaimed “End of the Road” tour when Covid-19 descended upon the world. KISS halted operations after their show on 10 March 2020 in Lubbock, Texas, to wait things out, hopefully to don the greasepaint and platform boots another day.
But here’s the deal: With the unexpected hiccup of a freaking global pandemic, KISS has a chance to truly end it with heretofore unprecedented KISSian aplomb. Lit-up stage logos, rolling banks of dry ice, hydraulic lifts, not to mention a 90-minute cannonade of shock and awe pyro, is all the stuff of KISS creation. Lady Gaga has even said so much. Pop stadium spectacle owes so much to the “Hottest Band in the World”, and the insane thing? As band founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley plot the band’s curtain call, they have an opportunity to go where no band has gone before. Prior to Covid, KISS had planned their final gig for 17 July 2021 in their native New York City at a venue TBD. Now, given the extra time to plot, the band can orchestrate a finalé without rock ‘n’ roll equal.
The Beatles splintered, and history robbed them and us of a reunion. The Stones look like they won’t call it until indefatigable Keith looms over the graves of Mick, Charlie, and Ronnie. Elvis left the building and, all Michigan Burger King sightings aside, he ain’t coming back.
The point is, a very finite number of artists ever get to orchestrate their final show. Especially a band like KISS, known for spectacle and grandiosity.
The KISS story starts in 1970 when two guys from Queens, New York— Stanley Eisen and Gene Klein (born Chaim Witz in Haifa, Israel)—meet at the home of a mutual friend. They later change their names to Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons and form a quasi-psychedelic, five-piece band called “Wicked Lester”. While their hearts aren’t really into the project and its lack of focus, with a tenacity that would foreshadow bigger and louder things to follow, they sign a deal with Epic Records.
After nearly a year of recording, the label’s Director of A&R, Don Ellis, doesn’t like the album they deliver and puts the kibosh on its release. The record, to this day, has never officially been released (although it has been circulating as a bootleg in fan circles for years and KISS released three of the tracks on their underwhelming box set in 2001). Paul and Gene dissolve Wicked Lester, looking to form a new outfit, something with a more unified vision and image. Something with ferocity and teeth.
“Our idea was to put together the band we never saw onstage,” Gene Simmons has stated in interviews over the years. “We wanted to be The Beatles on steroids.”
In August 1972, Gene and Paul spot a classified ad in Rolling Stone for an experienced drummer looking for a new band. Enter Peter Criscoula from Brooklyn, Gene Krupa cum Ringo, who later shortens his surname to become Peter Criss.
That December, Simmons and Stanley take out an ad in the New York alt-weekly, Village Voice, seeking a lead guitarist with “flash and ability”. Among the cavalcade of guitarists who parade through their rehearsal loft to audition is one Paul Daniel Frehley of the Bronx, Les Paul in hand, rocket-fueled on a couple of beers, famously sporting two different colored Chuck Taylor All Stars, one orange, one red.
KISS is born.
Less than a month after solidifying its lineup, the band performed its first concert, 30 January 1973 at the Popcorn Pub, a beer-saturated hole-in-the-wall in Queens (yes, KISS PhDs, I know the club was in the midst OF changing its name to “Coventry”). According to KISS lore, there were roughly ten people in the audience that night, one of them Joey Ramone, frontman of punk progenitors, Ramones. Yep. KISS had its roots in the same scene as Ramones, the Dolls, the Brats, and Teenage Lust. This is an important distinction: KISS rose out of the leather jacket and three-chord punk of Ramones, the sequins and satin of Bowie-era glam, along with the androgyny of the Dolls, and they contorted it in a wholly new direction that was decidedly all their own.
At first, the influence of the New York Dolls was unmistakable. The first publicity shot of KISS, taken in the stairwell of their rehearsal space at 10 East 23rd Street in New York City, depicts a foursome that is far removed from the kabuki theater guise KISS would eventually adopt. The Stones’ influence, and certainly the Dolls’, was easily identifiable. They wore colorful scarves, rouge, and lipstick. Glam was de rigueur in 1973, and the earliest incarnation of KISS embraced it full on.
KISS rehearsed in the loft relentlessly—sometimes seven days a week. They gigged throughout 1973, perfecting their cadre of early songs. The androgynous look morphed during this time into the muscular black, white, and silver that would become their hallmark. They quickly realized, as Simmons noted in the exceptional 2013 book, Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS 1972-1975, that with the New York Dolls aesthetic, “Paul was very convincing, but I just looked like a football player in a tutu.”
Each member slowly began to metamorphosize, developing his own persona based on his personality and interests. Simmons became a rock ‘n’ roll Boris Karloff. Stanley assumed the role of ringmaster, transforming into the consummate star, the “Starchild”. Criss became the street-surviving alley cat with nine lives. Paul Frehley, now officially going by his teenage nickname of “Ace”, assumed the role of the galaxy-hopping “Spaceman”.
They were fast living up to their goal of becoming the band no one had ever seen.
That same year, after a showcase at New York’s LeTang dance studio, KISS signed with Neil Bogart’s fledgling start-up, Casablanca Records, and on 8 February 1974, their eponymous first album was released.
The next few years were hardscrabble. They toured relentlessly, zigzagging across North America in a station wagon with their loyal road crew, their gear, and their costumes in tow. In two years, they played hundreds of shows and released three moderate-selling records that never quite captured the raw, voltaic power of KISS on stage. Combined sales of the first three albums prior to the band’s explosion in popularity was under 300,000 units.
Night after night, they were literally blowing shit up. But as they built a loyal following as a live band, especially in the hard rock jockstrap of America’s heartland, it wasn’t translating into impressive records sales. They were still doubling up in hotel rooms and their manager, Bill Aucoin, had holes in his clothes, holes in shoes, and put the band’s sizable touring expenses on his Amex card. Making matters more precarious, their record label was on life support. Bogart and the Casablanca team had bet it all on KISS and funds were fast running out.
The live show was evolving, perfected nightly with moments of crowd-rousing choreography Simmons’ fire-breathing and blood-spitting; Frehley’s smoking guitar; Stanley, amidst a confetti snowpocalypse, smashing his guitar at the end of the show and tossing the fragments to the ever-faithful in the front arena rock pews; Criss elevating up on a hydraulic drum riser to the venue’s rafters.
With each new album, KISS unveiled new costumes. The super-heroic image, replete with the fact they never showed their alter-egos out of makeup, added an incredible element of mystery to the enterprise. They were selling out 12,000 seat arenas, but the albums were stalling on the charts. With this in mind, they recorded four shows between May and July 1975 in Detroit, Cleveland, Davenport, Iowa, and Wildwood, New Jersey. The plan was to release a double-live album. It was a counter-intuitive move—ballsy, to be sure. Live rock albums didn’t sell. But KISS did things on their own terms. Burn the bridges. Damn the torpedoes. Let’s light this party up.
KISS Alive! fell on the masses on 10 September 1975. It was the band’s jaw-dropping breakthrough. The album’s runaway success surprised everyone. It skyrocketed to #9 on the Billboard charts where it resided, up and down, for a whopping 110 weeks. “Rock and Roll All Nite” was released as a single, an arena rock anthem for the ages, propelled by a Chuck Berry barn-burner guitar solo by Ace Frehley.
In less than three months, Alive! was certified “gold” (500,000 units) by the Recording Industry Association of America. KISS’ relentless touring and the audience they had built one show at a time through pure sweat equity finally paid massive dividends. The thousands of fans who were coming out to their performances saw Alive! as an audio postcard of their concert-going experience. KISS had captured the pure lightning, thunder, and chaos of their live performances. The band arrived with a fervor not seen since the Beatles. This frenzy would henceforth be coined: “KISSteria”.