When you think of rock music as theater, one band that should immediately spring to mind is Kiss, the New York-based hard-rock group that put pyro, makeup and fire-breathing into the mainstream. But for founding member and guitarist/singer Paul Stanley, it’s still just basic rock and roll to him.
“I’ve always thought of us as — funny enough — a no-frills rock and roll band, like the bands I grew up seeing at the Fillmore East,” Stanley said in a recent interview with Forbes magazine. “That, taken to a different level, adding accoutrements to that, but at the core of it, we’ve always been just a no-frills rock and roll band. All we did was surround that with more, with pyrotechnics. The theatricality, I think, came from within us, as opposed to having dancing toothbrushes or anything like that. It was really about us.”
Kiss will make a rare appearance in the region with a show on April 21 at Grand Sierra Resort. Stanley told Billboard magazine in a recent interview that the band still draws a wide range of ages, from young kids to their grandparents.
“Kiss is an anomaly in that if you go to a show you might see your neighbor a few rows up or if you come with your dad or your grandfather, you’re all sharing this secret society you all covet and love,” Stanley said. “There’s a sense in families of almost passing it down, wanting your children to experience the wonder and joy and power this band gives people.”
Rock and roll all decade (and beyond)
All of this band loyalty started from humble beginnings. Stanley and bassist Gene Simmons started Kiss in 1972, as glam rock was in full swing as a music trend. As an extra kick to the band’s melodic hard rock, the group decided to wear kabuki-style makeup. The bold look worked in tandem with a theatrical show filled with stage explosions aplenty, and Kiss soon found themselves with a hardcore following after relentless touring and three albums.
“We happened to be at the right place, New York City during the glitter era when a lot of guys were dressing up like their girlfriends, and it was free, you know?” said Simmons in Forbes magazine. “They only come out at night, during the day everybody looks like Clark Kent but at night it’s Jekyll and Hyde.”
It was its fourth album, “Alive,” that was the band’s big commercial breakthrough. A live record released in 1975, it went top 10 and eventually double platinum. It also spawned a top 20 pop hit with “Rock and Roll All Nite,” still a classic rock staple.
From this point through the end of the ’70s, Kiss were a big draw in stadiums as well as record stores. Its next five albums — “Destroyer,” “Rock and Roll Over,” “Love Gun” “Alive II” and “Dynasty” — all went into the top 10 and sold at least a million each. There were also four top 20 hits during this time frame: “Calling Dr. Love,” “Hard Luck Woman,” “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” and “Beth,” the latter of which reached No. 7 on the charts.
Simmons told Forbes that the quality of the songs is what helped the band strike it big in the ’70s.
“We were both avid Anglophiles, so the songs had that kind of feeling, more English than American,” he said. “But, there was no grand design, no marketer. We didn’t even know what marketing was. And 42 years later, here we are, America’s No. 1 gold record award-winning group of all time in all categories. Which is astonishing, considering the fact we don’t use backing tracks, we don’t really write singles. There’s no rhyme or reason to why Kiss is where it is now.”
Adapting to survive
It was rougher for Kiss in the early ’80s: the group’s albums didn’t sell as well and lead guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss both left the group. The band’s commercial turnaround came when the band dropped the character makeup and switched its music to fit in with a new wave of glam metal. The band never stopped being a big box-office draw and albums such as “Lick It Up,” “Animalize” “Alive III,” and “Crazy Nights” all sold a million copies or more.
It was in 1998 that the original Kiss lineup reunited for a new album and tour. From that point on, the makeup has stayed put and the group has revolved between hit-heavy touring jaunts and the occasional album of new material. Frehley and Criss eventually left again, and the current lineup includes lead guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer.
Stanley told Billboard that he’s not interested in another reunion with the original lineup, but it’s not out of animosity.
“I sang on Ace’s most recent album and did a video with him,” he said. “I have the connection and the reconnection, and to celebrate the good things we’ve done together is terrific. The band as it is — I’ve played with Eric for I think 25 years and Tommy’s been in the band probably 15 years at this point. I have no thoughts of revisiting the past. With that said, I am happy to enhance or do whatever I can for anyone who has helped put me where I am, but that doesn’t include getting hitched again to somebody I unhitched from.”
Stanley also told Billboard that he didn’t expect the band to be still playing 40-plus years strong, especially since there was no such precedent when Kiss started.
“I hoped for five years because that was the norm,” he said. “Bands didn’t last decades. The era before us was an era, for the most part, of teen idols and they lasted until the audience got tired and then they were served a new teen idol.”
“It was a very different situation when those people were singing the songs of songwriters as opposed to writing songs that reflected their own experiences. Once artists began to write their own tunes, then anything is possible. As long as you reflect your audience, you can continue.”