Most widely known for their outlandish make-up and costumes, Kiss has done it all, achieved it all, and still wants more almost 45 years later. Kiss is widely recognized as one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time. Officially formed in New York City in 1972 by bass player Gene Simmons and guitarist/singer Paul Stanley. Kiss added drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley soon after. Kiss set about creating an image almost as fast as they set about actually creating music. Frehley penned the iconic logo with the two runic looking “S’s.” With logo in hand the band began working on their image as they began playing small clubs around New York City. By March of 1973 the characters were defined and the famous make-up was locked into place. Simmons became the Demon, Stanley the Starchild. Frehley was the Spaceman and Criss the Catman. The designs for the face paint hardly changed from that point forward and it would be well over a decade before the band was ever seen without it.
The band was signed to Casablanca records and set about recording in October of 1973. Their self-titled debut dropped in February of 1974, selling a mere 75,000 copies. The album’s poor performance caused Casablanca to pull the band off tour and back into the studio for their follow-up, Hotter Than Hell, which hit the shelves in October. Hotter Than Hell spawned one single, “Let Me Go, Rock and Roll” which failed to chart and the album stalled out at number 100. Again the band was pulled from the road to record their third album, Dressed To Kill. Released in March of 1975, Dressed To Kill, fared only slightly better than Hotter Than Hell despite containing what would later become their signature song, “Rock and Roll All Nite”.
For all intents and purposes the band was failing and Casablanca Records was losing so much money the label was in danger of going bankrupt. Yet for all the trouble the band was having commercially their reputation as a stage act was growing by leaps and bounds. The stage theatrics had grown way beyond the distinct make-up and enormous platform shoes. The band was developing performance routines that included special effects and pageantry unlike anything seen before. Simmons was regularly spitting blood or breathing fire. Frehley’s guitar would burst into flames and shoot sparks into the air during his most intense solos. Criss’ drum riser would elevate and shoot pyrotechnics out from underneath and Stanley’s guitar smashing, flame-throwing antics stood out front. Kiss was gaining a large live following but it wasn’t translating into album sales. Something had to change or both the band and their fledgling label were in deep financial trouble. Little did they know that success was right around the corner and it was found in the most unlikely of places; a live album.
For their next recording the band decided to try and capture the intensity and excitement of their stage show on vinyl. This was easier said than done but in the end Kiss released Alive, which went gold and featured a live version of “Rock and Roll All Nite”. This live version of the previously released single became a Top 40 hit, giving the band the commercial success they needed and possibly saving their record label at the same time.
Six months after the release of Alive their fourth studio album, Destroyer, hit stores. It was a minor success, quickly certifying gold before sliding down the charts until the b-side ballad, “Beth”, caught the world’s attention. Peaking at number 7, “Beth” propelled the band to the next level of album and ticket sales. With the combination of radio play and their reputation for live performances Kiss launched into the stratosphere. An international tour was announced and the band found themselves playing in arenas and stadiums around the world.
Between November of 1976 and October of 1977 two studio albums, Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun, plus another live record, Alive II, were released. All three albums certified platinum almost immediately and Kiss became widely recognized as the most popular band in America. Internationally their following was growing as well. The band sold out five nights at the Budokan in Tokyo breaking the record of four nights held previously by the Beatles.
Given the theatrical nature of the group the merchandise sales became a huge moneymaker with worldwide gross sales reaching an estimated $100 million dollars in just three years. Kiss appeared in comic books, on television, and their fan club, The Kiss Army, numbered in the hundreds of thousands.
In 1978 the band surprised everyone with the unprecedented move of releasing four solo records, one for each member, on the same day. All four recordings broke the Top 50, all four went platinum, and Ace Frehley’s record even featured a Top 20 single with his cover of Russ Ballard’s, New York Groove.
From 1979-1982 the band released four albums the most successful being 1979’s Dynasty, which reached number 9. Despite lackluster sales the band continued to tour and even starred in a film entitled, Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, which received scathing reviews but was one of the highest-viewed TV events of the year. It was during this period that tensions began to rise between Simmons, Stanley, and Criss. Peter Criss eventually left the band in 1982 just before the release of Lick It Up, the band’s 11th studio recording. Frehley retired from Kiss less than a year later.
With a new drummer and lead guitarist behind them Simmons and Stanley made another important change to the act. They began performing without make-up for the first time in their band’s history. They recorded and released eight more studio albums over the next decade as the make-up-less Kiss. With varying degrees of commercial success they toured occasionally, making less and less appearances as time went by. The drum and guitar positions featured a rotating cast of journeymen players whose success or failure seemed to be linked to how well they got along with Simmons and Stanley, the driving forces behind the band.
In 1996 the original line-up appeared together in full make-up for the 38th Annual Grammy Awards, the first time they’d played together in full costume in almost 14 years. A full reunion tour was announced and all 40,000 tickets were sold within 47 minutes of going on sale. The reunited line-up then recorded and released their 18th studio album, Psycho Circus, which jumped to number 3 on the Billboard 100. The band declared they would retire for good in 2002 and a farewell tour was announced but new dates were being added on a regular basis. By 2003 Criss had again left the band and Frehley followed shortly thereafter. Kiss continued to tour though this time Frehley and Criss’ signature make-up style was worn by their replacements, a move that angered many die-hard fans.
Touring officially ended in 2004 with the band playing only a handful of dates from 2005-2008. To everyone’s surprise the band released yet another studio album in 2009 called Sonic Boom which received critical acclaim and charted at number two alongside single, “Modern Day Delilah.” A world tour followed and three years later Kiss released Monster, their 20th studio album, which jumped to number 3.
Kiss, with original members Stanley and Simmons, continues to tour and perform around the globe. They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014 and found themselves on the cover of Rolling Stone that same year. It was their first Rolling Stone cover in their 41-year history. Kiss has earned more gold records, 30, than any artist in the history of the recording academy. Their estimated world-wide sales are well over 100 million units making them one of the top selling artists of all time. Hit Parade gave them the number one spot in their list of Top 100 Live Bands and they are ranked 56th on VH-1’s “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” With this kind of history and statistics like these to back it up there seems little doubt that Kiss was, and still remains, one of the greatest rock and roll bands of all time.
Written by Michael Quinn