More famous for their campy theatrics, white-face makeup, and flamboyant black-on-black costumes than for their twenty-four albums, KISS captured the imaginations of millions of teenagers (cadets in the KISS Army) with its faux-macho posing and comic-book mystique.
Vending a commercially potent mix of anthemic hard rock and glossy ballads--a sound that laid the groundwork for the pop-metal hair bands of the eighties--KISS's brand of rock and roll fell flat with the critics but ignited an entire generation of budding music fans. Onstage, the band often obscured its anthems with pyrotechnics and dry-ice fog, but audiences loved every fire-breathing, blood-spitting minute of their shows.
What some don't realize is that KISS's massive appeal as a touring band also translated to album sales, as the band ranks third behind the Rolling Stones and the Beatles for consecutive gold records, with twenty-three (which ties them with Rush). KISS was the brainchild of one Gene Simmons,a former elementary school teacher and bass player, and singer-guitarist Paul Stanley, who were bandmates in a Manhattan-based group called Wicked Lester.
The two recruited drummer Peter Criss through an ad in Rolling Stone magazine, and brought in guitarist Ace Frehley through a classified ad in the Village Voice. Simmons and Stanley had a concept for their new band right from the start, which was to perform in full theatrical regalia, including white pancake makeup with elaborate facial markings, platform boots, and outrageous black and silver getups. Fully costumed, each member of the band was in effect a cartoon character: Simmons was the Bat Lizard, Criss was the Cat, Frehley was the Spaceman, and Stanley was the Star Child.
With this decision, KISS showed that while they may have been rock and rollers at heart, they were marketing geniuses first and foremost. In 1973, the band signed to Bill Aucoin's management company after only one show, and two weeks later they inked a deal with the fledgling Casablanca label.
Their first three records show a nascent rock-and-roll band still searching for a sound, and it wasn't until the 1975 double live album Alive! was released (led by the hit single "Rock and Roll All Nite") that the band captured its true flair on record. In 1976, KISS made the glossy and accessible Destroyer under the direction of former Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin. It had its share of rockers ("Shout It Out Loud," "Detroit Rock City"), but the album's breakthrough track was the heavily orchestrated ballad "Beth," which featured drummer Criss on vocals. The song went to No. 7 on the singles chart, virtually unheard-of territory for a hard-rock band, and could rightly be called the first power ballad.
With the success of "Beth," Marvel Comics paid the band the ultimate tribute by publishing a KISS comic book. The red ink used in the illustrations purportedly contained a small amount of blood from the band members themselves--another stroke of marketing genius.
The quartet was very active throughout the late seventies, releasing five more albums, including the multi-platinum Alive II in 1977 and the greatest-hits collection Double Platinum in 1978. In October of that year, KISS made another marketing masterstroke by simultaneously releasing a solo album by each member. Through the release of 1979's Dynasty, KISS was a near-permanent fixture on the road and the band was still performing in full makeup. But by 1980, the dynasty had begun to come apart.
Peter Criss left the band prior to the recording of Unmasked, and was replaced for the sessions by future David Letterman show drummer Anton Fig (he had played on Frehley's solo album). Criss was replaced permanently by Eric Carr in 1981. Surprisingly competent guitarist Frehley left the band prior to 1982's embarrassing Creatures of the Night to form his own band, Frehley's Comet, and KISS's music suffered dramatically.
The next year, with the release of Lick It Up, KISS removed its costumes and makeup for the first time, and while fans were sympathetic to dermatological damage the cosmetics had caused over the years, part of the KISS cachet was lost when they wiped their faces clean.
Vinnie Vincent, who had joined prior to Lick It Up, left two years later, replaced by Mark St. John for Animalize (1984). St. John, in a sad twist, took ill with Reiter's syndrome, and in 1985, Bruce Kulick assumed the role and held it for a decade. Despite these adversities, the late-eighties saw KISS regaining its stature and enlisting a new army of fans. "Forever," from the 1989 album Hot in the Shade, became the band's biggest single since "Beth." But there would be more tragedy in 1991, when drummer Eric Carr died of cancer at the age of forty-one, casting a shadow over the band's first album in three years, Revenge. He was replaced by Eric Singer.
Revenge, a corrosive affair which marked KISS's return to a harder-rocking style, went gold. A third live album, Alive III, followed in 1993, and its success sparked another year-long tour. By this time, KISS had started to take its legion of fans, its history, and its influence very seriously. Under the watchful eye of Gene Simmons, a tribute album titled Kiss My Ass was hatched in 1994, which featured covers of KISS songs by artists as diverse as Lenny Kravitz and Garth Brooks.
Next came another brilliant marketing move: instead of letting others put on KISS fan conventions, the band created an entire convention tour, the centerpiece to which was an intimate live performance. For fans, it was a chance to see KISS play acoustically for the first time, and the band even took requests.
The outgrowth of these shows was a 1995 MTV Unplugged session (released on CD in March of 1996), which saw the band bring back original members Criss and Frehley for special guest appearances. The current KISS lineup had a new studio album, Carnival of Souls, finished and set for release in 1996, but with the success of the Unplugged set, plans changed dramatically. The summer of 1996 saw a full-fledged KISS reunion tour become the season's hottest ticket, as Simmons, Stanley, Frehley, and Criss put the makeup back on and cranked up the fog machine.
Singer and Kulick were to go on an indefinite hiatus for the duration of the reunion, meaning there would be two KISS lineups--original and new--co-existing peacefully. But in early 1997, Singer and Kulick left the band amicably when the reunion tour was extended, meaning there is but one KISS now. The four platform-shoe wearing, cosmetic-covered men who endured years of critical derision are not only back, they're hipper than ever.