One of the great things about being a rock musician or a fan of rock-n-roll music is that the live shows are unparalleled in comparison to other genres. The energy, volume and aggression can leave those in attendance and on stage equally drained emotionally and physically, yet yearning for more. Many rock bands, especially metal bands, have striven to provide larger than life live shows that will their audiences breathless, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on elaborate costumes, stage set-ups, even pyrotechnical fire. One band that many consider to be the fore fathers of the truly over the top stage performance is KISS.
KISS can trace their beginnings to a New York based rock group from the late 1960’s to early 1970’s called Wicked Lester. Needless to say, Wicked Lester was not a very successful group. But the band did have members Gene Simmons (vocals/bass) and Paul Stanley (vocals/rhythm guitar). Simmons and Stanley quit Wicked Lester in 1972 and set out to form a new group. They two bandmates came across an ad in the East Coast’s version of the then San Francisco based regional publication Rolling Stone. The ad was placed by veteran New York City drummer Peter Criss, who had previously played for the bands Lips and Chelsea. The three musicians formed a newer, harder version of Wicked Lester. They also began to experiment with makeup and outfits, being inspired by the theatricality of acts such as Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls. After trying to land a record deal, the group added lead guitarist Ace Frehley in early January 1973. A few weeks after the addition of Frehley, the band dropped the Wicked Lester moniker and changed their name to KISS.
As is well documented, KISS is a name that has a history of controversy. The lighting stylization of the ‘SS’ is similar to the insignia of the Nazi SS. As the Nazi SS insignia was illegal to display in Germany, KISS used a variation of its logo in Germany which replaced the lighting bolt ‘SS’ with backward Zs. There have also been numerous rumors of hidden meanings behind the band’s name; including claims that KISS is an acronym for “Knights In Satan’s Service”, “Kids In Satan’s Service” or “Kinder SS”. These claims have been denied by the band, namely Simmons himself. The band continued to experiment with makeup and costumes, eventually settling in on their now iconic comic book style personas: The Demon (Simmons), Starchild (Stanley), Spaceman/Space Ace (Frehley) and Catman (Criss).
The band began writing and performing, their first performance having a staggering attendance of three audience members. On December 31, 1973, Kiss had their official industry premiere at the Academy of Music. During this performance Gene Simmons famously set his hair on fire, the first time of many while performing his inaugural fire-breathing stunt. The band released their self-titled debut album on February 18, 1974. It was the first of many successful albums for KISS, including a total of 28 gold albums, the most to date of any American rock band. During the promotion for Kiss, the band played on The Mike Douglas Show. In the subsequent interview, Simmons declared himself “evil incarnate”, which drew titters from an uncomfortable and confused studio audience.
In October 1974, the band released Hotter Than Hell and in March of 1975 they released Dressed to Kill, which had the classic KISS anthem “Rock and Roll All Nite”. KISS albums were never Platinum selling jugegrnaughts like some of their contemporaries, probably owing to the bands highly, at the time, controversial image. One must wonder how commercially successful the band would have been if they debuted ten or twenty years later. Although Kiss albums had not proved to be big sellers, the band was quickly gaining a reputation as a top-flight live act. Kiss concerts featured things such as Simmons spitting “blood” (primarily raw eggs and food coloring) or “breathing fire” (spitting flammable liquid at a torch); Frehley soloing as his guitar burst into flames (light and smoke bombs placed inside the guitar); Criss’s elevating drum riser that emitted sparks; Stanley’s Pete Townshend-style guitar smashing; and pyrotechnics throughout the show.
The band wanted to share the excitement that was felt at their live shows. So in September 1975 they released Alive!, a live double-album featuring tracks from their previous three releases. Alive! contained a live version of “Rock and Roll All Nite”, the first version of the song with a guitar solo. That live version was the band’s first top 40 single and was a driving force in garnering Alive! Gold certification. The band would go on to release Destroyer (1976), the band’s most musically ambitious album. Destroyer featured intricate production, including an orchestra, choir and tape effects, and was a stark departure from the band’s first three studio releases. After the album gained Gold status, it began to plummet down the charts. Then KISS the ballad single entitled “Beth”, the B-Side to the single “Detroit Rock City”, began to gain more airplay and album sales spiked to reach Platinum status. Two more highly successful studio albums were released in less than a year, Rock and Roll Over (November 11, 1976) and Love Gun (June 30, 1977). A second live album, Alive II, was released on October 14, 1977. All three albums were certified platinum upon or soon after their release.
Around this time KISS began to benefit financially from merchandising. Some of the products released included a pair of comic books issued by Marvel (the first one of which contained ink mixed with actual blood donated by the group), a pinball machine, Kiss dolls, “Kiss Your Face Makeup” kits, Halloween masks, board games, bubble gum trading cards, and many other pieces of memorabilia. Membership in the Kiss Army, the band’s fan club, was in the six figures. Between 1977 and 1979, worldwide merchandise sales (in-store and on tour) reached an estimated $100 million. To this day, KISS merchandise remains a good seller, with many consumers purchasing products with the band’s name and likeness either for nostalgic reasons, or to be a hip young adult who appreciated a movement from yesteryear.
The band went one to release many more albums, including four solo albums (one from each member) in 1978. They lost two of their founding members, Frehley and Criss, for various reasons. They were asked by Eddie Van Halen himself to replace Frehley. Luckily for Van Halen fans they convinced Eddie to stick with Van Halen. They even ditched their trademark makeup, calling it an unmasking. They eventually re-donned the make-up, especially while on stage, on went through a fall and re-rise in the world of rock music. And their music will has lasted numerous line-up changes, image tweaks and reunions. Allmusic described their sound as “a commercially potent mix of anthemic, fist-pounding hard rock, driven by sleek hooks and ballads powered by loud guitars, cloying melodies, and sweeping strings. It was a sound that laid the groundwork for both arena rock and the pop-metal that dominated rock in the late ‘80s.” An adept description of the music of one of the most successful, entertaining, influential and controversial bands in the famed history of rock-n-roll music.