This story is featured in CityBeat's Oct. 4 print edition.
In the early ‘70s, an era of hippie holdovers, soft rock and tough-looking bands, four guys from New York City in seven-inch black and silver heels stepped through a fog-filled stage under the glow of spotlights with larger-than-life charisma. Their sound exploded with pure rock and roll power, with bombs going off behind them like a literal and figurative Big Bang.
Their era-defining look and sound took over rock and roll and pop culture and forever changed music history and millions of lives along the way.
In 1973, KISS was formed when New York musicians Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons left their band Wicked Lester sensing the need for a change, and set off alone following their instincts and ambitions. The new band was cemented shortly after with the addition of drummer Peter Criss and lead guitar player Ace Frehley.
Change was in the air, but KISS took it to another level and in a different direction. KISS existed simultaneously in and outside of the burgeoning New York City scene when bands like the proto-punk androgynous New York Dolls were at the center of the city’s burgeoning punk scene.
“I think from the very beginning, we realized we were special, in that we weren’t like everyone else,” Stanley told CityBeat. “When Gene and I did finally see the Dolls, for example, live, they had tremendous charisma and a tremendous look but we both realized that we were kidding ourselves if we thought we could compete with these guys whose waists were as big as my wrist. They flaunted an androgyny that we couldn’t. We looked more like linebackers in women’s clothes.”
Between early performances, they holed up in their loft rehearsal space on 10 East 23rd Street in New York City to explore and build on what would become KISS. “While other people were hanging out at Max’s Kansas City or the Mercer Arts Center, we were rehearsing,” Stanley said. “I think those bands wanted to be the biggest band in New York. We wanted to be the biggest band in the world.”
It was in this period that the band built what Stanley describes as a “firm foundation” that they would only add to. First, bringing a mirror up to experiment with makeup, creating their now-iconic image, and later, the stage show that would help change the concert industry. Something Stanley explains “had nothing to do with lasers” and effects but was about “projecting something” and amplifying the power of what was already there. “Everything that we added was not to replace something, but to enhance it. So that’s why to this day we can go and play, and we have without anything and it's just as potent because, ultimately, a crap band with a big show is still a crappy band.”
After signing to Casablanca Records in November 1973, the band had a slow commercial start but growing success live. They found their first breakthrough with their fourth record, 1975’s Alive, a live album with the hit single “Rock and Roll All Nite,” a song off the Dressed to Kill album.
The band found further success with the monumental Destroyer in 1976, displaying massive, cinematic production from producer Bob Ezrin and the band. They operated at new heights with singles like “Detroit Rock City,” “Shout It Out Loud” and the 1977 People’s Choice Award winner, “Beth.”
At this point, in the mid-to-late ‘70s, the band saw success that can be likened to Beatlemania the decade before, even breaking the Beatles’ sales record while performing at Japan's Budokan arena in 1977. Their records went Gold, then Platinum, then Double Platinum. They were voted the most popular band in America in a 1977 Gallup poll and featured on magazine covers, in Marvel comics, a made-for-TV movie in 1978 and a slew of merchandising including trading cards, dolls and a pinball machine among countless other now sought-after treasures of KISStory.
After a period of major success and some decadence, the band fractured with Criss leaving in 1980 replaced by Eric Carr and Frehley in 1982 replaced by Vinnie Vincent, who both received their own makeup designs.
The band made a move forward in 1983, taking the makeup off for the first time in an MTV appearance that coincided with the release of their new record, Lick It Up, the cover of which featured the band standing prominently without makeup over a white background.
“Due to the fact that the band was about more than just makeup, we needed, at that point, to take it off because it had not only lost its impact but we had also diluted it by coming up with new characters as opposed to building on what we had started,” Stanley said.
Ditching the makeup and costumes, KISS joined the next class of rock and rollers, many of whom they influenced, and a new era was born.
Vincent was replaced by Mark St. John briefly before Bruce Kulick joined to solidify the lineup for the rest of the 1980s. The band showed their staying power throughout the ‘80s, receiving major airplay on MTV and releasing hit albums and singles.
After the unexpected death of Carr in 1991 due to cancer, Eric Singer joined the group. With another change in the air, they recorded the grittier, harder-edged Revenge — a record that brought the band into yet another era and a return to form. After a brief reunion for a segment of the band’s 1995 MTV Unplugged special, they decided to reunite the original lineup and bring back their stage makeup and costumes.
“Certainly, nothing can compete as far as the magnitude of the KISS image in makeup and full regalia, but it still was an important time for us and we had Platinum albums and then reached a point where we felt it was time to revisit and recharge the classic KISS batteries,” Stanley said.
The band shocked the world when they announced their reunion at the 1996 Grammy Awards introduced by Tupac Shakur. The “Alive/Worldwide Tour” was the biggest tour of that year and they played to sold-out audiences all over the world. Released in 1998, Psycho Circus would be the band’s highest-charting album to that point and was followed by another successful tour and the theatrical release of the 1999 teen comedy built around the band, Detroit Rock City. However, issues eventually formed within the band once again.
The “Farewell Tour” began in 2000. “We decided to call it quits, which was interesting because it was contradictory to everything we stood for, in that the band is bigger than any member and yet there we were miserable enough to say ‘let's put the horse down, let's shoot the horse’ and it wasn’t until a little while later that fans were saying, ‘when are you going to go on tour?’” Stanley said.
The band continued on once again without Frehley and Criss, bringing back Singer on drums and longtime associate Tommy Thayer on lead guitar. This time, in Criss and Frehley’s image as the Catman and Spaceman.
KISS toured regularly over the next decade, releasing the popular Sonic Boom in 2009 — 35 years after their first release. It was another return to form, recorded on analog tape and produced by Stanley. The release was followed by fanfare in KISS style and a world tour.
They released another album, Monster, in 2012, and made their first appearance on the cover of Rolling Stone in 2014 when the original members were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame that same year.
In October 2018, the band announced its next tour would be its last.
On the “End of the Road World Tour,” Stanley tells CityBeat: “The band has never been better, the show has never been better and that's a perfect reason now to pull the plug … With that in mind, it’s the biggest show we’ve ever done and the most complete and comprehensive in terms of covering different periods and we couldn’t be more proud and audiences have proved it.”
The “End of the Road Tour” kicked off in early 2019 but was delayed for a time as things came to a stop during the pandemic. There is now just one leg of the tour left that starts here in Cincinnati before the band ends things where they all began — in New York City — with a two-night set at Madison Square Garden in December.
“What a great way to end back in New York,” Stanley said. “There was a time I drove a cab (his job pre-fame) to Madison Square Garden to see Elvis Presley. I always believed, even at that point, it wouldn’t be too long before people came to see us, and they did. Here we are back there again and it’ll be an amazing way to thank everyone who’s there and for all of us to have a glorious last hurrah.”
KISS performs at the Heritage Bank Center on Oct. 19 at 7:30 p.m. Info: heritagebankcenter.com.
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