KISS (1973–PRESENT). Classic lineup: Paul Stanley (lead vocals/guitar), Gene Simmons (bass/vocals), Ace Frehley (guitar), Peter Criss (drums).
One of the most commercially successful rock bands of all time, Kiss were pioneers in developing and exploiting the theatrical potential of heavy metal while simultaneously making it a safe form of mainstream entertainment, creating cartoon- like characters out of the band members and crafting simple and hook-filled party anthems that they delivered in the midst of concerts that were as much visual spectacles as musical performances, featuring costumes, makeup, fog machines, elaborate light shows, smoking guitars, blood spitting, and fire breathing. Their hook-filled tunes and command of the stage created the template for the arena rock of the seventies and eighties and inspired a whole generation of bands that would follow them.
Emerging from New York City in the early seventies, Kiss took their cue from the early glam image and theatricality of Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls, and combined it with a straightforward hard rock style. The band first came together when Gene Simmons (bass, vocals) and Paul Stanley (lead vocals, rhythm guitar) responded to drummer Peter Criss’s classified ad in Rolling Stone, and then placed one for a guitarist in the Village Voice, to which lead guitarist Ace Frehley responded. After working up a unique act involving face make-up and costumes, and a band logo featuring lightning bolts for the “s” in their name (Frehley’s idea), the band held their first concert in New York. The concert generated serious interest in the band’s entertaining proposition, and manager Bill Aucoin, who caught the show, offered to manage the band immediately afterward. Within two weeks, he had the band a record deal with impresario Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records.
The band’s eponymous debut wasn’t a blockbuster, but it did make it as high as 87 on the charts. The band hit the road hard, beginning to develop their fan base through heavy touring. It was a formula that was standard at the time, and Kiss followed it to the letter, releasing two more albums, Hotter Than Hell (1974) and Dressed to Kill (1975), in the next three years. By 1975, the band’s constant touring had helped them to build a large and enthusiastic fan base. This set the stage for their major breakthrough in the fall of 1975 with the release of the live album Alive! Hitting number 12 on the album charts, the album made the band’s name a household word, and the album was the must-have album of the year. With the single “Rock ‘n’ Roll All Nite,” the band had it first radio hit, and Kiss were a mass phenomenon for the first time.
Their next album, Destroyer, was an ambitious undertaking and was heavily produced by producer Bob Ezrin. Where their previous albums had been very straightforward affairs, Destroyer was a much slicker-sounding album. At the same time, the band’s songwriting was as solid as ever. The album featured the ballad “Beth” (sung by drummer Criss), which became their first top ten single, while the tune “Detroit Rock City,” one of their best rockers, also gained significant airplay. As a result, the album became the band’s first million seller. Kiss mania was in full swing, and in a foreshadowing of the band’s commercial bent, Kiss took full advantage of the marketing potential their position and image offered. There were Kiss dolls, comic books featuring the band, even a made-for-TV movie starring the band called “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.” By the end of the year the band’s fan club—The Kiss Army—had over 10,000 members.
In the 1978 the band hit on the idea of simultaneous solo albums that still featured the band’s logo. All four made the top 50, with Simmons at 22 the most popular. Dynasty, released in 1979, was another platinum seller, featuring the hit single “I Was Made for Loving You,” which although alienating some fans because of its disco beat, was a radio smash. The album, however, would be the band’s last with its original lineup, as Criss would leave in 1980.
Session drummer Anton Fig (later of Letterman Late Show band fame) would sit in on 1980’s Kiss Unmasked, with Eric Carr joining the band in time for a world tour later that same year. The band saw a decline in their fortunes with Unmasked selling less than a million copies. Music from “The Elder” in 1981 didn’t even go gold. Frehley would leave later that year, forming a solo group, Frehley’s Comet.
Creatures of the Night, featuring new guitarist Vinnie Vincent, sold somewhat better, making it to 45 on the charts. In 1983 the band took off their make-up and transitioned into a more mainstream rock image. The gambit seemed to work with the 1983 album Lick It Up going platinum and the title track becoming a radio hit. With Vincent leaving to form the Vinnie Vincent Invasion (remember them?), the band hired guitarist Mark St. John in time for Animalize in 1984, which was similarly successful. When St. John had to leave the band after developing Rieter’s syndrome, guitarist Brue Kulick took his place.
There followed a string of successful albums, and then in 1990 drummer Eric Carr became ill with cancer, succumbing to the disease the following year at the age of 41. Replacing Carr with drummer Eric Singer, the band released 1992’s Revenge, which became a top ten hit. It was followed by the band’s third live album, Alive III in 1993.
In 1996, sensing the time was ripe for a bit of nostalgia, Simmons and Stanley welcomed back Frehley and Criss for a reunion tour featuring the band in its full make-up. The tour was a huge success and moneymaker for the band and went all over the world treating fans to their first look at the vintage Kiss look in over fourteen years. In 1998 the reunited lineup released Pyscho Circus, which turned out to be a critical and commercial disappointment for the band. Nonetheless, the subsequent tour was another success. The following year the band announced a farewell tour, but before the tour hit its Japanese and Australian legs, Criss left the group over a salary dispute. In a move that proved controversial to some fans, Simmons and Stanley merely hired former drummer Eric Singer and had him don Criss’s trademark make-up and costume and resumed the tour. (Criss, however, had no recourse since Simmons and Stanley have ownership of the designs.) Since the band’s so-called farewell tour they have continued to tour and perform, albeit more sporadically, replacing Frehley with former Black ‘n’ Blue guitarist Tommy Thayer donning Frehley’s makeup and costume.
Discography: Kiss (Casablanca, 1974); Hotter Than Hell (Casablanca, 1974); Dressed to Kill (Casablanca, 1975); Alive! (Casablanca, 1975); Destroyer (Casablanca, 1976); Rock and Roll Over (Casablanca, 1976); Love Gun (Casablanca, 1977); Alive II (Casablanca, 1977); Ace Frehley (Casablanca, 1978); Gene Simmons (Casablanca, 1978); Paul Stanley (Casablanca, 1978); Peter Criss (Casablanca, 1978); Dynasty (Casablanca, 1979); Unmasked (Casablanca, 1980); Music from “The Elder” (Universal/Polygram, 1981); Creatures of the Night (Casablanca, 1982); Lick It Up (Mercury, 1983); Animalize (Mercury, 1984); Asylum (Mercury, 1985); Crazy Nights (Mercury, 1987); Hot in the Shade (Mercury, 1989); Revenge (Mercury, 1992); Alive III (Mercury, 1993); MTV Unplugged [live (Mercury, 1996); Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions (Mercury, 1997); Psycho Circus (Mercury, 1998); Kiss Symphony: Alive IV (Polygram, 2003); Kiss Symphony: The Single Disc (Sanctuary, 2003); Greatest Kiss (Mercury, 2007); First Kiss, Last Licks [Box] (Polygram, 2008).