The autumn of 1978 were halcyon days for KISS fans like me. It was also a remarkable time to be an Ace Frehley fan. The Frehley solo record was as good, or better, than anything KISS had out as a unit. It also spawned the Top 40 hit, “New York Groove”.
“Ace’s 1978 LP rests comfortably as top-tier KISS,” said Derek Brown, multi-instrumentalist for the Flaming Lips. “Always the member to bring the most edge to the table (i.e., “Cold Gin”, “Parasite”, “Strange Ways”), Ace’s record was predictably void of any syrupy schmaltz or ham-fisted anthems. Instead, Ace unapologetically served up a collection of songs that reflected his then-reality of getting high; getting blackout drunk; and being “snowblind” by the 1970’s favorite white powder.”
In 1978, I was in the sixth grade at a middle school that was my own personal Shawshank. The place was a dour, time-traveling throwback to Eisenhower-era institutionalization. The two-story building was drab and monochromatic, with almost no natural light. The waftings of cafeteria sludge-disguised-as-lunch was ubiquitous. The kids and the teachers wore permanent Orwellian scowls.
But, man, I had KISS. A bright color in an impenetrably gray world. While I didn’t have many friends, there was my classmate Danny, a similarly tow-headed kid with amblyopic blue eyes and a poof of beechwood blonde hair perpetually topped by a foam trucker hat. Danny loved KISS as much as I did. One day he invited me over to his small tract home. His mother was a single parent and was at work. He took me down to his basement. The concrete walls were slathered in KISS posters. That day we listened to Aerosmith, Queen, RUSH, and tons of KISS.
Danny had a cigar box that he opened up. He reached inside and withdrew a single white guitar pick he handed me. On one side of the pick was the KISS logo. The other side was imprinted with the name: “Ace Frehley”. I was in awe. It was the Spaceman’s guitar pick. KISS played the St. Paul Civic Center on 2 December 1977 and, after the show, Danny combed the floor near the stage and discovered it amidst a layer of confetti, part of the band’s finalé.
Danny and I were inseparable, bonded by KISS. While we were on the cusp of puberty, we still defiantly played with toys—G.I. Joe and Hot Wheels cars. We wrote “books” when we were together and listened to KISS on heavy rotation. We were the brunt of many a school bully. We were creative and felt alienated by our middle school, uninspired, fallen through the cracks by a culture of total mediocrity. Through KISS we found our James Dean defiance, a Johnny Rotten punk ethos ironically instilled in us by a band that sold logoed bed linens.
One day while at school, in an act of predictable, burgeoning testosterone-fueled rebellion, we both decided to urinate on the bathroom floor (hey, we hated the place). We were promptly busted by the fifth-grade teacher who walked in. He was one of countless Gulag henchmen at the school and was most decidedly unamused. As punishment, Danny and I were told, in no uncertain terms, we could no longer commiserate—ever.
I ask you—what would any good KISS Army soldier do under such a draconian directive?
That’s right. Total insubordination.
We thumbed our noses, hoisted our middle fingers, and pissed on the floors of mediocrity. Within weeks, both of us procuring hall passes, Danny and I met up in the shiny terrazzo-floored halls and proceeded to walk around the school, while the rest of the students were in class pushing pencils. We paraded around the corridors singing “Rock and Roll All Nite” at the top of our lungs.
It didn’t take long before the school principal, a mean son-of-a-bitch sporting the requisite comb-over, stereotypically clad in a puke green jacket, came around a corner and proceeded to haul us to the admin offices. He locked us in separate closets, no lights, for a long time, to ponder our rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. When he finally let us out, he demanded we lower our pants, and proceeded to paddle us with a well-used wooden plank. He instructed us to never tell our parents.
Of course, I told my mom. She was furious. Not at me and Danny, mind you (although she was displeased). She was incensed with the misguided, misinformed school “authority”. She called the principal, warned him never to touch her son again or face serious consequences, and hung up. My mom kicked ass. She never really understood my KISS obsession (she always favored the Beach Boys), but she loved me and supported anything I was passionate about. She was there for my first KISS concert.
I still dream of returning to Minnesota, tracking this man down, while “God of Thunder” serves as the soundtrack. Even better, in my dream, Gene Simmons, in full costume, bat wings, armor, and seven-inch dragon boots, joins me for the principal’s reckoning.
Through it all, Danny and I were brothers, “fake blood” brothers, if you will. Nothing was going to extinguish our kinship.
But in the summer of 1979, my dad was, yet again, transferred to Chicago for a new job. I moved away from Danny that summer, just as KISS released Dynasty. It was a record that took the band, again, into uncharted territory and further polarized the fanbase.
In 1979, a mirrored disco wrecking ball pummeled the pillars of rock. Adjusting to the trend, KISS went from black and silver, three-chord New York glitter-punks, to super-heroic Liberaces, replete with flashy capes, satin sashes, and an accompanying disco-rock single, “I Was Made for Loving You”. The song reached #11 on the US singles chart and was certified gold, selling over one million copies. But the blue jean jacket-clad, bong-hitting beer crowd from the KISS-belt— Detroit, Indianapolis, Cleveland, Chicago, and elsewhere—were bewildered still by the move. For those power-chord purists who were still on board, more of them abandoned the KISS battleship like Annapolis vets flailing from the bow.
To be clear, I was not one of them. I loved KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. The movie was an extension of KISS comic books and KISS trading cards. For me, the move towards rock-infused disco on Dynasty was just another step in the evolution of KISS. The colorful costumes and Vegas patina of the era a creative experiment.
It was the 1979 incarnation—coined by many fans as “Super KISS” because of the outlandish costumes and massive stage show—I first witnessed live, on 22 September 1979. My dad, mom, brother and I drove to the south side of Chicago to see KISS perform at the International Amphitheater. I was so completely amped for this event—my first KISS concert—that I awoke that morning with a pinched nerve in my neck. Fuck! I couldn’t turn my head without wincing in pain. Even as we filed into the venue, darkness descending over Chicago, I could not turn my head. It was the worst possible scenario.
Judas Priest opened, all biker leather bravado and spikes. Then the time arrived. The lights in the Amphitheater dimmed. The 11,000-plus crowd erupted. There was the tremendous sound of elevator lifts kicking into gear and, suddenly, frozen in place like statues, the members of KISS slowly rose from beneath the stage amidst a bank of swirling dry ice. It was an image, a moment, a snapshot memory I will never forget. The best entrance of any rock band ever. A clarion call of feedback roared from Ace Frehley’s Les Paul and KISS kicked into “King of the Night Time World” and suddenly, I could turn my head. I was no longer in pain. I was healed! It was a miracle! Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Oral Roberts be damned. I was healed by the all-mighty power of KISS!
Despite the fervor of my personal fandom, in the spring of 1980, the KISS backlash was in full swing, at least in North America. That’s around the time the dude in the Chevy Impala yelled “KISS Sucks!” at me. Fuck that guy.
The Dynasty tour was the most expensive endeavor in the band’s history. Attendance was checkered. To be fair, the economy was in recession, interest rates were double digits, the oil crisis was unfolding. KISS was still drawing very respectable crowds–between 10,000 and 15,000–but the shows were occasionally not earning enough for promoters to recoup costs. KISS had peaked.
Like many musical artists who skyrocket to mass popularity and suffer from overexposure—the Bee Gees, Brittney Spears, Kanye West to name a few—there comes the inevitable cultural backlash. Americans love to pedestal their pop icons, only to turn their backs on them and move on to the next shiny new thing.
One faction of the KISS Army, possibly the younger generation of fans like me who were as down with KISS comics as KISS albums, stayed on, no questions asked, as the band evolved towards rock-fueled disco, (Dynasty, released 23 May 1979); then infectious power pop (Unmasked, released 20 May 1980, a massively underappreciated gem); then a RUSHian concept album that likely divided even the great priests of Syrinx. I’m going to really show my KISS Army stripes here—Music from the Elder, released 10 November 1981, is one of the greatest KISS albums in the entire catalog. It just confused the shit out of fans with falsetto vocals, symphonic interludes, flutes, spoken word dialogue, along with rousing Marshall stack riffage. The songwriting is superb, the performances upper-echelon, featuring a few of Ace Frehley’s best guitar solos, ever.
It was during this window of disco, pop, and a concept album that original drummer Peter Criss (who I had seen on his final tour) was pushed out—too much attitude, too unreliable, snorting unquantifiable quantities of cocaine and, as a result of living up to their most famous anthem’s mantra, his ability to play had declined rapidly. Gene, Paul, and Ace fired Peter Criss.
Brooklyn-unknown (and humble oven repairman) Eric Carr, an absolute powerhouse drummer, auditioned and was now in, assuming the persona of “The Fox”. The KISS machine would not be deterred despite the band’s waning popularity in the States or the departure of an original founding member.
My loyalty to KISS faced its greatest test on New Year’s Eve, 1982. My KISS-supportive father drove me to see the band at the Rockford MetroCentre in Rockford, Illinois. That fall, KISS had released Creatures of the Night, a triumphant return to heavy metal thunder. The one disappointment? It was the first KISS album without an Ace Frehley composition since 1976’s Rock and Roll Over. The absence of the Spaceman’s requisite tracks on a KISS record was made slightly better by the drums on this metallic opus. Eric Carr’s booming performance on Creatures of the Night absolutely propels the album, like John Philip Sousa’s percussive cannon fire. This is the world’s finest heavy metal drum album.
Before we took our seats that night at the MetroCentre, I went to the bathroom and, there amidst my fellow KISS Army enlistees, I was stunned by an overheard conversation.
“Where the hell is Ace?” said one gruff dude.
“Who the hell is that guy on my T-shirt?”
I looked at these overweight, unshaven, long-haired dudes standing by the sinks as one of them held up a just-purchased at the merch table KISS jersey. Sure enough. Ace Frehley was not pictured. He was replaced by some unknown mystery man wearing an all-new make-up design, a golden Egyptian “Ankh” on his face. My heart sank through the depths of the cosmos at that moment.
Ace Frehley was no longer in KISS. I would learn later that with Criss out of the band, Frehley felt like his voice was often overruled and out-voted by Simmons and Stanley. He protested making Music from the Elder as a wrong direction at the wrong time endeavor. He was also delving deeper into drug and alcohol dependency, partying with stars such as John Belushi and getting arrested for leading police on a high-speed pursuit while driving his DeLorean on the wrong side of the Bronx Parkway.
Despite the painful absence of Space Ace, the concert that night was like Sherman’s march to the sea or the invasion of Normandy amplified. To this day, I have tinnitus from that 90-minute audio assault. KISS was back with a ferocity not seen since the mid-’70s. No more disco. No power pop. Nary a single note from the band’s criminally misunderstood concept album. It was back to black and silver and 120-decibel mayhem.
But with two original members now casualties of their excess, the arena that night, indicating their continued slide out of popular favor, was less than half-full. The reported audience was 3,500 in a stadium with a 9,213 capacity.
The following year, 1983, with original members Criss and Frehley departed and now replaced by Eric Carr (“The Fox”) and Vinnie Vincent (“The Ankh Warrior”), KISS took a bold step that critics deemed a marketing stunt to jump-start the KISS machine. On 18 September, live on MTV, the band took off the makeup and revealed their faces for the first time. The move prompted considerable press coverage, and the title track to their new album, “Lick It Up” benefitted, garnering the band’s new video and single, the album’s title track, consistent airplay on MTV.
KISS moved forward into the ‘80s with mixed results, a smattering of quasi-hair metal offerings (“Lick it Up”, “Heaven’s on Fire”, “Crazy Crazy Nights”, “Forever”). Vinnie Vincent is a gifted songwriter, having co-written new KISS classics “I Love it Loud”, “Lick it Up” and other notables. He is also a gifted guitarist, a shredder schooled in the University of Malmsteen, who favors speed over the blues-based melodies that Frehley lasered upon the band’s sound.
Vincent only lasted a few years and was out, replaced, briefly, by Mark St. John (Malmsteen on helium) and then Bruce Kulick, a journeyman who could play all styles with panache. None of these replacements, however, could ever fill the space boots of Frehley, nor did they have the stage presence. If this revolving door of guitarists appears Spinal Tapesque, well…
The ‘80s and ‘90s were a dividing moment for many KISS fans. To this day, some diehards favor the years sans makeup and the push toward a sound more in line with Bon Jovi. Many new fans, who never experienced the band’s legendary run in costume and war paint, were introduced to KISS in this period. The band’s power ballad “Forever” was the second highest-charting single of their career, reaching number #8 on the Billboard Hot 100. The song was the number one most requested video on MTV (the KISS Army still had firepower).
But gone was the singular identity that made KISS “the band no one had ever seen before.” They assimilated dexterously into the hair metal epoch, but gave up the Demon, the Starchild, the Spaceman, and the Catman, along the way. Frehley resurrected his career with his own band, “Frehley’s Comet”, a hard-rocking solo project with an outstanding cadre of studio musicians in his band. But classic KISS was over.