Still Hotter Than Hell

by Otis Stokes

With so many of our top rock bands coming from Great Britain, it’s always nice to pay homage to bands who are of American descent. Such is the case with “KISS,” one of our most well known and successful rock/heavy metal bands. Famous for its members’ black and white face paint and flamboyant stage outfits, the group rose to prominence in the mid to late 1970s with their elaborate live performances featuring fire breathing, blood spitting, smoking guitars, shooting rockets, levitating drum kits and pyrotechnics.
Counting the 1978 solo albums, KISS has been awarded 28 gold albums to date, the most of any American rock band. The band has sold more than 40 million albums in the United States, of which 24 million have been certified by the RIAA and their worldwide sales exceeds 100 million records, making them one of the world’s best-selling bands of all time.
The original lineup consisted of Paul Stanley (vocals and rhythm guitar), Gene Simmons (vocals and bass guitar), Ace Frehley (lead guitar and vocals) and Peter Criss (drums and vocals). In the early 70s, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley formed a band called “Wicked Lester,” which recorded one album that was shelved by their record label Epic Records. They played a few local gigs, but Simmons and Stanley decided that they needed a new musical direction and disbanded Wicked Lester in 1972 to form a new group. Later that same year, Simmons and Stanley came across an ad in the east coast version of Rolling Stone placed by Peter Criss, a veteran drummer from the New York City scene, who was previously in bands called “Lips” and “Chelsea.” Criss auditioned for, and joined Simmons and Stanley’s new band.
The trio focused on a much harder style of rock than Wicked Lester played. They also began experimenting with their image by wearing makeup and various outfits. In early January 1973, the group added lead guitarist Ace Frehley. Frehley impressed the group with his first audition, and a few weeks after Frehley joined, the band became “KISS.” Stanley came up with the name as he, Simmons, and Criss were driving around New York City. Criss mentioned that he was in a band called Lips, so Stanley said something to the effect of “What about Kiss?” Frehley created the now-iconic logo, making the “SS” look like lightning bolts, when he went to write the new band name over Wicked Lester on a poster outside the club where they were going to play.
With their proclivity for all things dark, the band’s name has repeatedly been the subject of many rumors pertaining to its alleged hidden meanings. Among these rumors are claims that the name is an acronym for “Knights In Satan’s Service,” “Kinder SS,” or “Kids In Satan’s Service.” These claims have been denied by Simmons himself.
The first KISS performance was on January 30, 1973, for an audience of three at the Popcorn Club in Queens. For their first three gigs, they wore little to no makeup, the iconic makeup designs associated with KISS made their debut during the March 9th and 10th shows, ironically at “The Daisy” in Amityville, NY, the city of “The Amityville Horror” fame. Former TV director Bill Aucoin, who had seen the group at a handful of showcase concerts in the summer of 1973, offered to become the band’s manager. KISS agreed, with the condition that Aucoin get them signed to a recording contract within two weeks. On November 1, 1973, KISS became the first act signed to former Buddah Records executive Neil Bogart’s new label Casablanca Records. The band entered Bell Sound Studios in New York City on October 10, 1973 to begin recording their first album. On December 31st, the band had their official industry premiere at the Academy of Music, opening for Blue Öyster Cult. It was at this concert that Simmons accidentally set his hair ablaze for the first of many times while performing his first fire-breathing stunt.
The band’s self-titled debut album, “KISS,” was released on February 18th. Casablanca and KISS promoted the album heavily throughout the spring and summer of 1974. On February 19th, the band performed “Nothin’ To Lose,” “Firehouse” and “Black Diamond” for what would become their first national television appearance, on ABC’s “Dick Clark’s in Concert.” On April 29th, the band performed “Firehouse” on “The Mike Douglas Show.” This broadcast included Simmons’ first televised interview, a conversation with Douglas in which Simmons declared himself “evil incarnate,” eliciting giggles from an uncomfortable and largely confused studio audience.
Despite the publicity and constant touring, KISS initially only sold just 75,000 copies. Meanwhile, the group and Casablanca Records were losing money quickly. While touring, the band stopped in Los Angeles in August 1974 to begin recording their second album, “Hotter Than Hell,” which was released two months later. The only single, “Let Me Go, Rock ‘n’ Roll,” failed to chart and the album stalled at No. 100. With “Hotter Than Hell” soon to drop off the charts, KISS was pulled from their tour to quickly record a new album. Casablanca head Neil Bogart stepped in to produce the next album, trading in the murky, distorted sound of “Hotter Than Hell” for a cleaner and slightly more pop oriented sound.
“Dressed to Kill,” fared slightly better commercially than “Hotter Than Hell.” It also contained what later became the band’s trademark song, “Rock And Roll All Nite.” Although KISS albums had not proved to be big sellers, the band was rapidly gaining a reputation as an electrifying live act with all of the pyrotechnics and stage theatrics. By late 1975, Casablanca was almost bankrupt and KISS was in danger of losing their recording contract. Both parties desperately needed a commercial breakthrough if they were to survive.
That breakthrough came in an unlikely form – a double live album. KISS wanted to express the excitement felt at their concerts with their first live album. “Alive!” was released and achieved gold status spawning KISS’ first top 40 single, a live version of “Rock And Roll All Nite.” It was the first version of “Rock And Roll All Nite” with a guitar solo, and this recording has come to represent the definitive version of their signature song. The success of “Alive!” not only brought KISS the breakthrough they had been seeking, but quite possibly saved Casablanca from bankruptcy.
Following this success, KISS partnered with producer Bob Ezrin, who had previously worked with Alice Cooper. The result was “Destroyer,” KISS’ most musically ambitious studio album to date. While the album sold well initially and became the group’s second gold album, its descent down the charts was fast. Only when the ballad “Beth” (the B-Side to the single “Detroit Rock City”), began to gain more airplay on FM radio did the album’s sales rebound. “Beth” was a #7 hit for the band, and its success revived the album, sending it to platinum status, and boosted ticket sales for KISS. Two more highly successful studio albums were released in less than a year: “Rock And Roll Over” and “Love Gun.” A second live album, “Alive II,” was released in October 1977. All three albums were certified platinum upon or soon after their release.
During this period Kiss earned $17.7 million from record royalties and music publishing. The enormous success of the band made KISS memorabilia in high demand. With products including comic books, a pinball machine, KISS dolls, “Kiss Your Face Makeup” kits, Halloween masks, board games, bubble gum trading cards and membership in the the band’s fan club, “Kiss Army,” between 1977 and 1979, worldwide merchandise sales, in-store and on tour, reached an estimated $100 million.
Wanting to capitalize on the group’s popularity, the band along with creative manager Bill Aucoin, sought to devise a scheme to advance to the next level. To that end, an ambitious, two-pronged strategy was put in place for 1978. The first part involved the simultaneous release of four solo albums from the members of KISS. Their record contract actually called for four solo records, with each of them counting as half an album toward the group's five-record commitment. Each album was an individual effort, with none of the members appearing on another’s album, and were all released and marketed as KISS albums (with similar cover art and poster inserts). It was the first time that all current members of a rock band had released solo albums on the same day.
The albums were released and the marketing blitz behind them was unprecedented. Casablanca announced it was shipping five million total copies of the albums, guaranteeing instant platinum status, and they spent $2.5 million on marketing. All four solo albums made it into the Top 50 of the Billboard album chart and all four albums separately sold about as many copies as the platinum “Love Gun.”
The second part of the plan called for the band to appear in a film that would cement their image as larger than life superheroes. Filming commenced in the spring of 1978. The final product, entitled “Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park,” debuted on NBC. Despite scathing reviews, it was one of the highest-viewed TV films of the year.
The platinum touch continued through the “Dynasty” LP and with it came dissension in the ranks. By the end of the Dynasty tour in December 1979, tensions between Criss and the rest of the band were at an all-time high. Criss’ last show would be on the final date of the tour. Criss was replaced by a little-known drummer-guitarist-singer from Brooklyn named Paul Caravello, who was given the stage name Eric Carr. Carr opted for the “Fox” stage makeup.
The 80s brought more internal strife and soon Ace Frehley would leave the group because of his increased frustration with KISS’ new musical direction. Simmons stated in his autobiography “Kiss and Make-Up” that Eddie Van Halen wanted to fill Frehley’s spot, but was convinced otherwise by Eddie’s brother Alex and Simmons. Doug Aldrich of Whitesnake and Richie Sambora of Bon Jovi also auditioned for the gig. Frehley was eventually replaced by Vinnie Vincent who didn’t last long because of a personality clash with Simmons and Stanley.
Sensing it was time for a change, KISS made the decision to abandon its trademark makeup and costumes. The band officially appeared in public without makeup for the first time on a September 18, 1983 appearance on MTV, which coincided with the release of the band’s new album, “Lick It Up.” Although the album was certified gold, the new makeup-less image was not well received and concert attendance declined. For the rest of the 80s, KISS had a series of platinum records, “Asylum,” “Crazy Nights” and the 1988 greatest hits compilation “Smashes, Thrashes & Hits,” but despite the successes, KISS struggled with their identity and fan base during these non-make-up years.
Tragedy struck in March 1991, when it was discovered that Eric Carr had a tumor on his heart. It was successfully removed in surgery, but more tumors were soon discovered in his lungs. Carr received chemotherapy and was pronounced cancer-free in July. However, in September he suffered the first of two cerebral hemorrhages. He died on November 24, 1991 at the age of 41. Though devastated, KISS persevered, bringing in veteran drummer Eric Singer who had played with Paul Stanley previously and also played with performers such as Black Sabbath, Gary Moore, Lita Ford, Badlands and Alice Cooper.
The KISS nostalgia began to pick up momentum during the nineties and the band embarked on a unique and well-received “Worldwide KISS Convention Tour.” The conventions were all-day events, featuring displays of vintage KISS stage outfits, instruments, and memorabilia, performances by KISS cover bands, and dealers selling KISS merchandise from every stage of the band’s career. The group would appear live at the conventions, conducting question and answer sessions, signing autographs and performing a two-hour acoustic set composed mostly of spontaneous fan requests.
On the first U.S. date in June 1995, Peter Criss appeared onstage with the group to sing “Hard Luck Woman” and “Nothin’ To Lose.” It was the first time Criss had performed publicly with the band in nearly 16 years. On “MTV: Unplugged,” Simmons and Stanley invited both Peter Criss and Ace Frehley to participate in the event. With the appearance, rumors started to build regarding a reunion of the original KISS lineup. While KISS continued to exist publicly as Simmons, Stanley, Kulick, and Singer, arrangements for a reunion of the original lineup were in the works. These efforts created a public event as dramatic as any the band had staged since their 1983 unmasking on MTV.
On February 28, 1996, Tupac Shakur introduced the original Kiss lineup, back in full makeup and Love Gun-era stage outfits, to a rousing ovation at the 38th Annual Grammy Awards. The newly reunited KISS embarked on a tour that ran for 192 shows over 11 months and earned $43.6 million, making KISS the top-drawing concert act of the year. Throughout the remainder of the 90s and into the 2000s, KISS has maintained its ability to generate millions of dollars with album re-issues, touring and marketing, despite the revolving-door of members.
Simmons and Stanley have been the anchors of the band since the beginning and continue to find new ways to capitalize on the KISS brand. The rock stars/entrepreneurs co-own a restaurant franchise named “Rock & Brews” in several locations, and in 2013, it was announced that KISS had purchased a share of an Arena Football League expansion franchise called the “Los Angeles KISS” which began play at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California this year.
And to culminate this amazing run of success, on April 10, 2014, KISS was inducted into the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” nearly 15 years after becoming eligible. And despite the absence of a performance during the ceremony (Simmons and Stanley wanted to play with their current lineup which includes Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer, but the Hall said that wasn’t an option), the four original members, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley, graciously took their place in the Rock Hall with all of the other legendary acts, albeit with some level of frustration as Stanley pointed out during his acceptance speech when he said: “Here we are tonight, inducted basically for the things we were left out for… the people buy albums. The people who nominate do not.” Also, Simmons apparently infuriated by the Halls’ decision not to induct all past and present members of KISS said to Rolling Stone, “I don’t need the Hall of Fame. And if there’s not reciprocity, I’m not interested. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, practically every member was inducted, and virtually all 175 members of the Grateful Dead. Rules need to apply to everybody.” This quote was taken from an interview in the April 2014 issue of the Rolling Stone featuring KISS on the cover, which happens to be their first cover story for the magazine in their 41 year history. Leading me to believe that, although the band just wants to “Rock and Roll All Nite” into the foreseeable future, they’d like to do so with a little more respect. And I, for one, think they’ve earned it.

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