Frequently Asked Questions: KISS
By Brian Ives
Frequently Asked Questions is exactly what it sounds like, where we have experts guide you through the unknown about people and topics in music and pop culture. On April 10, KISS will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, after years of eligibility, although in recent weeks, there’s been a lot of controversy over which members will be inducted, and which members will perform at the ceremony.
So, who is KISS?
Depends on who you ask. Their detractors (many of whom are music critics) will tell you that they’re a bunch of hacks with a lot of marketing savvy. Ask their fans, or the band themselves, and they’ll tell you KISS is “the hottest band in the world,” the catchphrase that opens many of their iconic live albums.
Who’s in KISS?
Well, it’s always been Gene Simmons (bass, vocals) and Paul Stanley (guitar, vocals). They are the band’s co-founders and main songwriters. Essentially, Gene runs the brand and handles the business deals and masterminds all the marketing schemes, while Paul runs the band as the de facto frontman, producing their last two albums.
Though it’s not that cut-and-dry: Paul is Gene’s partner on a number of KISS business ventures and Gene has written a lot of classic KISS songs. The other original members include drummer Peter Criss (who also sang some of the band’s biggest hits, including “Beth” and “Hard Luck Woman”) and lead guitarist Ace Frehley, who designed the group’s iconic logo. Ace and Peter have left and rejoined the band over the years; today, the lineup features Simmons, Stanley, drummer Eric Singer and lead guitarist Tommy Thayer.
So, are they “the hottest band in the world?”
Well taste is subjective. But there are things about KISS turns people off before they even hear a note. Many feel the imagery of the band and the spectacle of their shows takes precedence over the music. If you ask the band, they’d disagree: the visuals are equally as important as the music. Simmons and Stanley hated going to see their favorite bands in concert, and being bored because it was visually boring. Gene Simmons, who was born in Israel and moved to the United States with his mother at a young age, was equally influenced by the Beatles and comic books. KISS combined the catchy tunes of the Fab Four with the visuals of superheroes. But without those tunes, no one would have cared.
So, they’re a big heavy metal band, right?
Well, they’re an influence on almost every heavy metal band who followed, from Pantera to Anthrax to Slipknot, not to mention every single glam-metal band of the ’80s. But their influence isn’t limited to any one genre, nor is it limited to music. George Clinton — who was labelmates with KISS on Casablanca Records in the ’70s — got some of his ideas from KISS, including Parliment’s over-the-top stage show, which included motherships and elaborate costumes.
Garth Brooks, meanwhile, was inspired by KISS to make country music concerts into arena spectacles, tipping his hat to them with a cover of “Hard Luck Woman” that featured KISS as the backing band. Garage rock legends (and darlings of rock critics) the Replacements covered “Black Diamond” on their classic 1984 album Let It Be, while Wilco named-dropped the band on “Heavy Metal Drummer” (“I miss the innocence I’ve known/ Playing KISS covers, beautiful and stoned”) on their 2002 landmark LP Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. And, of course, Cheap Trick‘s immortal “Surrender” shouted out loud about the band: “When I woke up, Mom and Dad were rolling on the couch/Rolling numbers, rock and rolling, got my Kiss records out!”
Okay, but why all the marketing? If the music is so great, shouldn’t that be enough?
Gene Simmons will be the first to tell you — and he’ll tell you proudly — that KISS isn’t just a band, they’re a brand. They’ve always thought outside the box when it comes to selling stuff with their name on it: in the ’70s, they starred in their own Marvel comic and were immortalized as action figures. In later years, they’ve sold “KISS Kondoms” (since you asked, they came in three different styles: “Love Gun Protection”, “Studded Paul” and “Tongue Lubricated”). A “KISS Kasket” is actually a thing that exists and will run you about $3,300. If you’d prefer a more modestly priced receptacle and you are the cremation type, a KISS Urn goes for $650.
KISS has also taken themselves to both the small and big screen, but be warned: you can’t un-see either their 1978 TV movie KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park or their 1999 feature film starring Edward Furlong and Natasha Lyonne, Detroit Rock City. There’s been a KISS-branded NASCAR car, and there was at one point a “KISS Demon” character in the WWE. These days, they own an arena football team, the L.A. KISS. (Indeed, a few months back, they were in talks to sign Tim Tebow, and Gene Simmons told Radio.com why). To some, all of the above takes away from their music. Which is a criticism that marketing genius/former New York Nets co-owner Jay Z never seems to get hit with.
Got it. But let’s talk about the music.
Yeah, let’s! In the ’70s, they were cranking out classic songs at a furious pace: “Rock and Roll All Night” (which, with the line, “party every day” popularized the use of “party” as a verb), “Detroit Rock City,” “Shout It Out Loud,” “Doctor Love,” “Love Gun” and “Christine Sixteen” as well as ballads including “Beth” and “Hard Luck Woman.” They were able to stay relevant in the disco era with “I Was Made For Lovin’ You.” In the ’80s they kept up with their hair-metal offspring by washing off the makeup and letting the music do the talking with hits like “Heaven’s On Fire” and “Lick It Up.” They even rocked a few adult contemporary ballads: “Reason To Live” and “Forever” (the latter was a Top 10 pop hit).
It sounds like the “Unmasked” KISS was doing well. Why did they go back to the makeup?
Good question! In the ’90s, during the grunge or alternative era, a lot of bands began citing KISS as a big influence (Nirvana even covered “Do You Love Me?” for an indie-label KISS tribute album, which also featured the Melvins and All). The thing is, the dark, scary KISS that those bands grew up bore little resemblance to the KISS that was putting out MTV-friendly albums like Crazy Nights and Hot In The Shade. This was also during the era that pop-metal was fast becoming unfashionable. KISS started changing their image and sound with 1992’s Revenge: they ditched the colorful clothes and went back to black, the music got heavier, and for the first time since taking off the makeup, they released singles sung by Gene Simmons, with “Unholy” and “Domino.”
After that, in 1994, Simmons helped to organize Kiss My Ass, a tribute that featured a lot of huge and/or credible acts of the era, including Garth Brooks, Lenny Kravitz (with Stevie Wonder on harmonica!), the Gin Blossoms, Toad the Wet Sprocket, Dinosaur Jr. and Shandi’s Addiction (which featured members of Tool, Faith No More and Rage Against The Machine). All of the songs came from the makeup era. In 1995, the band played MTV Unplugged and were joined by Ace Frehley and Peter Criss; their appearance made the audience lose their mind and sent shockwaves through the rock world. The original lineup, in full makeup, appeared as presenters at the GRAMMYs in 1996 (with Tupac Shakur!), and soon afterwards, announced their full make-up reunion tour, which was one of the hottest tours of ’96.
So, what took them so long to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?
Artists are eligible for induction 25 years after their debut recording; since KISS put out their debut in 1974, they’ve been eligible for well over a decade. The issue: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame generally follows music history as told by Rolling Stone magazine (RS founder Jann Wenner is a co-founder of the Hall of Fame), which was not friendly to hard rock in the ’70s, and has never really been fond of KISS. In fact, the apocryphal story goes that Wenner said KISS would get into the Rock Hall “over my dead body”. Dave Marsh, an influential music critic and member of the Rock Hall’s nominating committee has gone on record, telling MTV that “KISS is not a great band, KISS was never a great band, KISS never will be a great band, and I have done my share to keep them off the ballot.”
Well, they were voted in this year. What changed?
Probably the voting body got younger (although the Rock Hall tries to keep the members of the voting body and nominating committee under wraps, so it’s hard to say for sure). But we know that every Rock and Roll Hall of Famer becomes a voting member, and it seems logical that KISS’s peers (like Black Sabbath, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Heart) and younger artists who grew up on their music (Guns N Roses, Van Halen, Metallica) would vote for them.
Now that they are being inducted, why aren’t they performing at the induction ceremony?
When a band is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rock Hall decides which members will be included. For instance: Black Sabbath’s original lineup (Ozzy Osbourne, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler and Bill Ward) were included in their induction, but subsequent members (including much beloved late vocalist Ronnie James Dio) were not. Van Halen’s first two singers, David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar were included, but Hagar’s replacement, Gary Charone, wasn’t. With KISS, the Rock Hall is only including the original lineup, and as such, probably wanted Gene and Paul to reunite with Ace and Peter. Simmons told Radio.com in an interview last year that he wouldn’t be interested in that, saying that the ex-members had exhausted their chances to stand onstage with KISS: ““No! How many chances in life to do you get? Both of those guys had three chances to be in the band. Three times they f—ed it up.” And Simmons and Stanley recently put out a statement saying that they won’t perform in any incarnation at the event.
Are they still around?
Of course! They said in a recent post on their website that “We are excited and are looking forward to seeing you all on the KISS 40th Anniversary worldwide tour.” They’ve released two albums with the current lineup in recent years: 2009’s Sonic Boom and 2012’s Monster. And Simmons told Radio.com last year that he’s recently written a new song called “Your Wish Is My Command.”
OK, I’m curious. What are the albums I should hear?
Glad you asked! Start with their 1974 debut KISS, and go forward from there. You can’t miss with any of their first six studio albums, but 1977’s Love Gun is a standout. Their 1975 live album, Alive! was their breakthrough, and with good reason: the songs from their first three studio albums were even more muscular in concert. If you’re looking for a greatest hits album, the single-CD The Very Best Of KISS isn’t a bad choice. A better way to dive in, if you’ve got deeper pockets, might be their 2001 self-titled box set, which covers most of their career over five discs. And, as we’ve said, KISS is a very visual band, so you might want to check out Kissology, Vol. 1: 1974-1977 on DVD, to watch some of their early performances and TV appearances.