It was 40 years ago today, February 18, 2014, that Kiss released its premiere platter Kiss. Indeed, the rise to superstardom would truly begin even before the fall of 1973 when Kiss stepped into the recording studio to lay down the tracks of what would be their first album. Kiss was the brainchild of founding members Gene Simmons (bass and vocals) and Paul Stanley (rhythm guitar and vocals) who had left their last band Wicked Lester in search of a more distinctive image and more aggressive sound.
Simmons was unsure on specifics but he knew what he liked. He recalled his early inspirations in a 1975 interview with Melody Maker magazine. He said: “The band that first knocked me out was the Beatles.”
He elaborated: “Up until then, one wasn’t aware of the visual presence a group could have. Each had the same haircut, dressed the same, and if you saw one of them walking down the street, you knew that he belonged to that group. And that concept knocked me out, especially the fact that there was no frontman and each member was a quarter of the whole.”
Simmons and Stanley couldn’t realize their dreams as a duet. They needed a foursome like The Beatles. They recruited lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss. They created an image with Noh-style makeup masks which eventually become one of the most well known visual trademarks in rock history. As they began to perform they would add more theatricality to their shows including fake blood and fire-breathing.
Some critics claimed the make-up distracted from the music. Some saw them as pretentious. Stanley thought otherwise and said so:
“We’ve often been accused of being pretentious, but in actuality our concept of what we’re doing is an effort to shy away from pretentiousness. The thing we do is very surface, for there are no built in subtleties in our music or what we do on stage. We feel our whole image is based on the use of imagination.”
He added: “We are, in essence, with the audience for we feel we represent the looseness that everybody can identify with. When people look at us they say, ‘That’s what’s inside me,’ they understand that’s not what they look like, but rather what they feel like.”
Simmons defended their act to the press by referencing their audience. He stated: “We’re giving them exactly what they want.” One person of import who “got it” immediately was Casablanca Records founder Neil Bogart.
Bogart said: “I can honestly say that Kiss is the first band that I’ve devoted myself 100 percent to. Their visual show that features a drum set that levitates six feet in the air, a lead singer who blows fire out of his mouth, and their wonderful use of makeup is just a shatteringly satisfying experience.”
The Kiss LP made it clear the band was off to a slow start as it only made it to number 87 on the Billboard album chart even though it contained such future classic cuts as “Cold Gin”, “Black Diamond”, “Nothin’ To Lose” and “Strutter”. Bogart also found it difficult to get the band airplay and their live gigs initially made little if any profit.
They immediately went back into the studio a recorded their version of Bobby Rydell’s “Kissin’ Time”. This was released as a single and added to the original track list of Kiss. The single only reached number 83 but the band forged ahead to release their second album—Hotter Than Hell—in 1974.
Their third release—1975’s Dressed to Kill—fared little better than the first two but set the stage for Alive! Hitting the record stores a mere 6 months later this live in concert LP was the band’s big breakthrough. By the close of the decade, Kiss would not only become a group to reckon with but a “big business” to boot.
To this day Simmons reiterates something he told Circus magazine years ago. They are still in charge of this act turned enterprise. They control everything now and they always have.
“We design our own show, we write our own songs. It’s a blow to our creative egos to read otherwise. People ask, ‘Who came up with the idea? Who designed your makeup and costumes? Who told you what to look like?’ Because we’ve been so successful, people assume there’s something incredible behind the scenes. But Kiss still is, and always has been, Kiss. That’s where it begins and ends.”
My name is Phoenix and . . . that’s the bottom line.