My family moved to Minnesota in 1976. I spent my early childhood years living in Malibu, California. When my mom took me to the supermarket, we’d see Johnny Carson in the frozen aisle, or Steve McQueen in the check-out lane buying toilet paper. I once went to a birthday party at a home owned by the guy who played “Ronald McDonald” in the ‘70s psychedelic commercials. My front yard was literally the Pacific Ocean; the Beach Boys my favorite band.
But in those waning summer days of our nation’s bicentennial, all that was upended. There was a new job opportunity for my dad, so we bid adieu to the warmth of the sun, ostensibly relocating from California Club Med to, come December, the ice planet Hoth. One day, while at my new school, I noticed everyone in homeroom was talking about a band.
A classmate had brought his double vinyl of KISS Alive! to school and was showing the other kids the gatefold artwork, along with the tour booklet of photographs that came with the album. Kids huddled around. I wasn’t sure what to think. This was most decidedly not the Beach Boys. This band wore costumes, bulky platform boots, and full faces of black, white, and silver makeup. Yet, there was, undeniably, an enigmatic allure that piqued my curiosity.
The follow-up to Alive!, KISS Destroyer, was released on 15 March 1976. I purchased it at the record store at the local shopping mall. Standing in my bedroom with the vinyl held delicately between the palms of my nine-year-old hands, I placed it tentatively on the turntable and awaited the audio barrage. After a minute and 30 seconds of narrative sound effects—a guy getting into a high-performance sports car, listening to the radio (playing “Rock and Roll All Nite” from KISS Alive!), engine growling, he races off into the night and his looming death by automobile accident. The song then segues into an advancing armada of guitars—the onslaught of KISS’ iconic “Detroit Rock City”.
Standing in my bedroom, if I knew then about “devil’s horns”, you better believe I would have hoisted them.
Listening to the record, I stared at the cover art, a painting of the band, super-heroic, atop a mountain of rubble, a landscape in flaming ruins behind them. The cover art was painted by sword and sorcery artist Ken Kelly, a nephew and acolyte of renowned artist Frank Frazetta. The cover of Destroyer is pure Conan the Barbarian in spandex.
Listening to the album, I wasn’t hooked, yet, but I was captivated. As I looked at that cover, I was mesmerized by the Spaceman—Ace Frehley. Glancing at the center label on the album going around the turntable, I could see that the first song on side two, “Flaming Youth”, was credited to Frehley as one of the songwriters. It immediately became my favorite track, with its muscular Les Paul riffage and rally cry of teen rebellion. Like the Beatles before them, KISS was a band with four members who wrote songs and could sing. Every KISS fan had their favorite band member. From the onset, the Spaceman was mine.
The pop cultural euphemism, “jump the shark” has its origins in an episode of the ’70s television series Happy Days which aired on 20 September 1977. In the episode, the character of Arthur “The Fonz” Fonzerelli, atop water skis, jumps over a shark in an enclosed area in the Pacific Ocean. The entire thing was totally contrived. The series, a coming-of-age family sit-com set in Milwaukee in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, had succumbed to a bewilderingly absurd ratings stunt. Seemingly fusing the wild mid-’70s popularity of Spielberg’s Jaws with the motorcycle jumping dare-devilism of “Evel Knievel”, Happy Days strayed so off course from their standard, idealized, familial plot lines, that this episode launched a term that would forever be added to our collective pop lexicon.
Happy Days “jumped the shark”.
The year after the far-fetched Happy Days episode aired, KISS would jump the shark as well, but it was a slow burn to full Fonzie.
1976’s Destroyer was produced by Bob Ezrin, who had previously worked with Alice Cooper and Lou Reed and would go on to co-produce Pink Floyd’s 1979 opus, The Wall. KISS’ Destroyer is a lush, multi-layered hard rock album, heavily produced with copious sound effects: a children’s choir, an orchestra, even a circus calliope. It’s a gutsy departure for KISS, an attempt to showcase their maturity, post Alive! The album boasts several classics that would remain staples in live performances in perpetuity: “Detroit Rock City”, Shout it Out Loud”, King of the Night Time World”, “God of Thunder”, and “Do You Love Me”, But the unexpected shocker of the album—even to the band—was the booster rocket success of B-side ballad, “Beth”.
Co-written by Peter Criss, Ezrin, and Stan Penridge, a member of Criss’ pre-KISS band, Chelsea, the song is astonishingly soft for KISS, pure ‘70s album-oriented rock, more in line with Debbie Boone or Bonnie Tyler than Sabbath or Zeppelin. “Beth” features Criss on vocals, Ezrin on grand piano, and members of the New York Philharmonic providing orchestral accompaniment. A paean to the lonely spouse of a road musician, “Beth” became (and remains) KISS’s most commercially successful song, reaching number #7 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. It also scored KISS a “People’s Choice Award” for “Favorite Song”.
While “Beth” propelled KISS to yet new heights of mass popularity and showed the world the band had a more diverse repertoire than indicated on their first three studio records, behind the scenes, the song was a harbinger of dysfunction to come. It was the first track on any KISS record that didn’t include all four members, only Criss. During this time, cracks within the band began to emerge. Drugs and booze, those tired clichés of rock excess, were increasingly entering the picture for Criss and Frehley, to the point that Frehley was too busy at a card game with friends, according to Simmons, Stanley, and Ezrin, to record a guitar solo for the song “Sweet Pain”, Simmons’ ode to S&M. Ezrin enlisted guitarist Dick Wagner, who had played extensively with Lou Reed and Alice Cooper, to supply the solo for the track. This is the first instance in the KISS saga when a ghost musician stood in for a band member. It would not be the last.
Yet, despite the backstage fissures, Destroyer propelled the band ever higher in album sales and global popularity. Destroyer was certified platinum on 11 November 1976.
The accompanying tour was more grandiose, with more elaborate costumes, more fire, more confetti, a larger stage, a new, immortality-iconic stage logo(the band needs to bring this beast back for the final show), theatrical stage props, even an unreliable tesla coil device from the 1931 set of the film Frankenstein to create lightning sparks. KISS was on top of the world.
Destroyer was the album that introduced me to KISS. I soon rushed out to purchase 1975’s Dressed to Kill, and Alive!. I was a SoCal transplant out of place in the suburbs of Minneapolis, struggling to find friends. But KISS made me feel somehow empowered. Songs like “Shout It Out Loud” and “Flaming Youth” are battle-cries of self-empowerment.
With mass popularity came an unprecedented opportunity for merchandising heretofore unheard of in the music industry. And why not? They were ready-made superheroes. In May 1977, accompanied by Marvel Comics poobah Stan Lee, the band poured vials of their own blood into printer’s ink and announced the first-ever KISS comic book, printed in “real KISS blood”. Excelsior, motherfucker! (Interestingly enough, in 2019, MSCHF, a Brooklyn art collective, in collaboration with rapper Lil Nas X, modified and sold 666 pairs of Nike Air Max 97s. The “Satan Shoes” purportedly contained a drop of human blood in each sole. FYI—KISS pulled off the blood marketing stunt 42 years earlier.)
Along with the KISS comic book came an avalanche of licensed wares: KISS dolls. KISS pinball machines. KISS radios. KISS bed linens. KISS trash cans (I still own this one). Trading cards. Posters. Belt Buckles. Key chains. Curtains. Halloween costumes. View-Master reels. Puzzles. Model kits. Jewelry. Toy guitars. Colorform sets. Makeup kits. Board games. Lunch boxes. Pretty much anything you could slather the KISS logo on, or the universally recognized made-up faces of the band, was fair game. With platinum record success, an unparalleled marketing mechanism had activated based upon the band and their singular image. KISS was precariously standing—atop seven-inch platform boots no less—on that line between brand and band and they were beginning to sway.
After Destroyer, the band released two more studio albums in quick succession: Rock and Roll Over (released 11 November 1976) and Love Gun (released 30 June 1977). Both records capture the live energy of the band, that lightning stoppered in a bottle component that eluded KISS on their first three studio efforts. Both albums are simple, straight-ahead rockers that many KISS fans, to this day, point to as the band’s best studio productions. But critics seized on the juvenilia of some of the lyrics, mostly romp-in-the sack rockers that would never fly in the #MeToo era.
Then, in 1978, with the band’s popularity at an all-time high, KISS decided to follow the lead of their musical heroes from Liverpool and make a television movie. Proposed to them as the Beatles “A Hard Day’s Night meets Star Wars”, production on KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park began in May 1978, produced by Saturday Morning cartoon impresarios, Hanna Barbera.
Commence shark jump in 3…2…1…
KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park aired on 28 October 1978 as the NBC “Movie of the Week”. The plot revolved around the super-heroic band, each possessing his own powers, set to play a massive outdoor concert at an amusement park. A mad scientist, who builds the theme park animatrons, resents KISS for stealing attention away from his brilliant robotic creations. He builds four identical KISS robots, setting them loose on the unsuspecting theme park, looking to sow the seeds of chaos and destruction. Of course, KISS foil the diabolical plan, a storyline torn straight from the Saturday morning formulae of Scooby-Doo, substituting KISS for those “meddling kids”.
The movie is a multi-car pile-up of epic proportions. The special effects are unexpected comedy gold; the dialogue an unintended festival of B-cinema hilarity. Heaping on to the disaster, Peter Criss never showed to do his dialogue voiceovers. His lines throughout the film are supplied by veteran cartoon voice actor Michael Bell, noted for later voicing Bruce Banner in the ‘80s animated Incredible Hulk series, as well as “Duke” in G.I. Joe.
Once again, to the old guard, the KISS purists, the band strayed ever further from the incendiary and untethered performances of their first few years. This wasn’t rock ‘n’ roll. KISS went from menacing metal monsters, rock heroes of the heartland, to movie-of-the week cartoon caricatures, brought to you by the same team who gave us Scooby-Doo. The KISS machine was up and running so fast, so furiously, album after album, tour after tour, licensed product after licensed product, that the four guys who came together in a loft in the Flat Iron district of New York strayed from the rock ‘n’ roll mission. They were now appealing to a family audience, forgoing the bong and beer crowd who propelled Alive! to the apex of the charts. But KISS was minting money faster than the Federal Reserve, and there was no slowing down. In 1978, retail sales of KISS-related products topped $117 million.
But let’s look at KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, if you will, through a different lens, for a moment. The film became a platinum example of unintended camp, propelling this cartoonish abomination into the pantheon of cult classics, a wink-and-nudge spectacle nonpareil. To this day, a cadre of KISS fans, mostly the younger crowd who didn’t drive their Camaros to Cobo Hall in 1975, love this movie. It’s so bad, it’s great.
If that weren’t enough—hey, the machine was up and running 24/7!—KISS pulled off another feat of legerdemain that, to this day, remains untouched. In September 1978, just prior to the comedic gift that is KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, the band released, simultaneously, four solo albums, one by each member, all on the same day, all under the KISS moniker, a feat never before achieved then, or now, by any band. Even the Beatles never pulled off this musical coup de grâce. KISS was freaking everywhere.