In the early months of 1973, long before the fire-breathing, the 7-inch platforms, the exploding drumsticks, the drooling blood and the pouting red lips, four rather ordinary guys from New York — Gene Simmons, a former teacher and temp typist at Vogue, Paul Stanley, a cabdriver and rabid Led Zeppelin fan, Peter Criss, an itinerate drummer who had studied under the great Gene Krupa and worked days as a butcher, and Ace Frehley, a gang member-cum-mail carrier — shivered in a cold water loft in New York’s Chinatown, kept warm by their idea of becoming the next… well, in those days, New York Dolls.
But that’s not to say their dreams were small. At that point, they weren’t even close to being the “Kings of the Night Time World,” as they would crow on Destroyer, their fourth (!) studio in two years. Nope, in the early days, they were something else all together.
“We’re the king of the outcasts,” Gene Simmon’s told the New York Times magazine in December 2002. And he was right.
KISS didn’t make any bones about their mission. They wanted to play music, have a good time, and make a lot of money. Not that different from most of the fans who listened to them.
They were outcasts, certainly, albeit ambitious ones, making their own flyers, promoting their shows, using inventive means to find a manager (finally settling on a TV producer who was behind the popular ‘70s show Supermaket Sweep) and creating an identity that was somewhere located between the campy bombast and smeary eyeliner of Alice Cooper and the prosaic thump of Grand Funk Railroad.
With their face paint — war paint really, they created their own armor (an important element in this band of outsiders’ climb to success) and crafted alter egos that allowed them to act with ambition, bravery and mostly a brutish and brutal confidence which led to them becoming the biggest band in the world for three years running, certified by the Guinness Book of Records.
Undaunted by their lack of musical acumen, Paul, Gene, Ace and Peter left that Chinatown loft fueled by determination, an unrelenting will, a Herculean work ethic and innate musical gifts. They didn’t make any bones about their mission. They wanted to play music, have a good time, and make a lot of money. Not that different from most of the fans who listened to them.
They were stand-ins for all of us that were the outsiders, the shy, the disaffected, the teenage exiles. They did the things we didn’t dare even think about.
Armed with their messy embryonic makeup and their rather scant talents, time would prove that the lack of musical expertise wasn’t as important than the sense that KISS was an idea whose time had come. Over the span of those formative two years, it’s clear that some confluence of planets or musical epochs had conspired to allow that idea to grow far beyond just a musical statement, and to become a cultural force and worldwide phenomena, taking over the world in a fire-spitting storm.
So what was the idea that was so important? Paul Stanley used to say, “We are our fans.” Which was much truer than anyone knew. They were stand-ins for all of us that were the outsiders, the shy, the disaffected, the teenage exiles. They did the things we didn’t dare even think about.
By their second album, Hotter Than Hell, we knew what those things actually were, if South African fashion photographer Norman Seeff’s rear sleeve shots were any indication. And they were, for the Kiss mythmaking — even if it was self-generated — was gathering steam. They never were photographed out of make-up, yet were seen with fashion models and actresses on their arms. “Of all the bands I ever worked with, KISS got the most woman, and the most beautiful ones at that,” road manager J.R. Smalling said.
In their towering platforms, black leather, tights and Stein’s Clown White make-up, they were the true revenge of the nerds, showing what was possible if you just put your mind to it. Each member had adopted a different persona: The Starchild! The Demon! The Spaceman! The Cat! While you might have thought them nightmarish, if the truth were told, they were more like superheroes in training.
Over the course of those four early albums you can see them in the act of becoming rock behemoths. Going from their self-titled debut album cover, where they were four faces floating in space as a tribute to The Fabs first album Meet the Beatles, to the next album, Hotter Than Hell, you see them on the cover future-casting their eventual and massive success in Japan, in the comic book style of Japanese magma. By the third studio album, Dressed to Kill, you see KISS dressed in business suits, four Clark Kents about ready to all pile into a phone booth to became Super Band. Which they did by the time they released Alive!in September of 1975.
The double disc album proved to be their breakthrough record. Named as an homage to Slade Alive! a band that was one of the true inspirations, it was produced by Eddie Kramer, of Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin fame. More than any of their earlier albums, Alive! captured KISS in their unruly, yet choreographed, sweaty Monster’s Ball glory doing live versions of songs from their three studio albums. Recorded in KISS strongholds in Detroit, Michigan; Cleveland, Ohio; Wildwood, New Jersey; and Davenport, Iowa, the crowd’s roar is in essence the fifth member of the band. It set the stage for all that would come later, and gave them the confidence and budget to record what would become their first gold, and then multiplatinum album.
The thinking was that studio albums didn’t catch the excitement and thrill and sheer over-the-top showmanship of their live show. But Alive! undoubtedly did. It peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard album charts, and charted for 110 weeks, by far the longest in the band’s history.
“Alive! was the first album I ever bought,” Soundgarden’s Kim Thayil told Brad Tolinski of Guitar World in 1992. “And I wasn’t alone: you can hear their influence all over metal and punk.”
That album kicked open the door for Destroyer, released only eight months later. The success of Alive! allowed their nascent label, Casablanca Records, to climb out of their gargantuan debt and to spend money on getting a bona fide producer to help mastermind their next album. They contacted Bob Ezrin who helped groom Alice Cooper’s rough magic for the mainstream. Casablanca figured he could do the same sleight-of-hand for KISS. It turned out they were right. Not only did he hold “band practice” for the bandmembers — none of them had formal musical training — he even went so far as wearing a whistle around his neck and barking orders: “Campers, we’re going to work.”
Ezrin brought in sound effects, reverse drumming, a children’s choir and the New York Philharmonic. Perhaps most of all, he allowed them to show a vulnerable side, when he urged them to record “Beth,” the band’s first Top 10 single.
“I didn’t know ‘Beth” was the gold in the album, but I knew it was golden,” Erzin said. “I just fell in love with the song, I thought it was a magnificent ballad and it had a kind of [Alice Cooper’s] ‘Only Women Bleed’-ish innocence about it. I thought Peter did a really good job singing it. Peter’s not the greatest singer in the world, but this was right up his street.”
“I think the thing was, I had a goal and I really accomplished it on Destroyer. When we first got together, what told them was their entire audience was 15-year-old pimply boys, and there’s only so far you can go with that. I told them the reason the songs weren’t appealing to women was because they’re just so stupidly and insensitively macho, and that they weren’t really like that as people. I thought Paul was a very sexy front man. I thought Gene had some kind of an innate sex appeal, otherwise he wouldn’t be such a cocks man. And I thought there was an inherent sex appeal to the band that just wasn’t getting across.”
“I told Paul there’s a gentle, soft, vulnerable side to you and I want it to be so that every girl wants to take you home and fix you. That’s where ‘Do You Love Me’ came from. When I heard ‘Beck’ — that was what ‘Beth’ was originally called — it was sort of macho and disdainful of the girl, the relationship, but it was a very upbeat song. I asked if it was OK if I took it home and played with it, and I just had this vision of it being an expression of vulnerability and hurt and defensiveness. And it worked. People listened to it and they fell in love with it.”
And they’re still in love with it. Kerrang! magazine listed the album at No. 36 among the “100 Greatest Heavy Metal Albums of All Time,” and Rolling Stone magazine’s rated it 489 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. It also made the list of 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die.
But mainly by Destroyer, KISS is in full-blown Superman mode, as evinced by the album cover. Created by noted fantasy artist Ken Kelly, it showed them as four comic book heroes swooping in and lighting atop of a pile of rubble, with a city burning in the background. The subtext? That KISS is here to save you, to make you feel that you’re not alone. That you can be all that you want to be. It’s no accident the album was an advertisement for the KISS Army, the true secret weapon for their enduring success, drafting millions of foot soldiers into their ranks, and making them feel seen, listened to, and a part of something bigger than they were.