ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, AUG. 29, 1996
By Steve Newton
If you were a rock-loving teenager in the ’70s, you probably have some kind of Kiss story to tell. Maybe you made your own outfits and played in a Kiss air-guitar band (“I wanna be Ace!”), or painted a black star around one eye at Halloween and pretended you were Paul Stanley. Perhaps you experienced your first heavy-petting session while the TV movie Kiss Meets the Phantom flickered in the corner of your parents’ rec room; could be you signed up for the Kiss Army and wore a patch depicting the band’s logo on the back of your Lee jean jacket. The fact was that millions of impressionable kids around the world got caught up in the Kiss frenzy, and the band made a few fortunes selling everything from dolls to comic books.
I remember the first time I ever saw Kiss—I think it was on Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert or something. I wasn’t too impressed at first, because I thought they were just ripping off the twisted theatrics of my personal god at the time, Alice Cooper, and I couldn’t hear the music that well on my folks’ old tube, anyway. But a short time later, when I picked up a copy of the band’s debut LP at the local Kelly’s Stereo Mart, I changed my mind, and for three good reasons: “Strutter”, “Deuce”, and “Black Diamond”. Those were just totally rockin’ tunes, the best the band ever recorded, even in the face of later chart-busting anthems like “Rock and Roll All Nite” and “Shout It Out Loud”. Of course, there are those wacky Kiss fans who look back and declare that 1976’s Destroyer was the pinnacle of the band’s recorded work, but I’ve got one compelling argument against that notion: “Beth”. I mean, if that soppy, badly sung ballad had been released by anyone but the mighty Kiss, do you really think it would have made it onto the radio, least of all to the top of the charts?
But back to the momentous Kiss album. I had it, all my Chilliwack high-school friends had it, and when its follow-up, Hotter Than Hell, came out, we all got that too. In fact it was a race to see who could get it first, and when one of my air guitar–playing buddies snatched it up ahead of me, I felt snubbed. That’s the kind of effect Kiss had on me. But I swallowed my pride, made the quarterly trek to A&B Sound’s longtime Seymour location, and picked up my own vinyl copy for the amazing price of $3.99 (common for new releases back then).
Then the most significant event of my personal “kisstory” occurred: I went and saw Kiss at the Commodore Ballroom on the Hotter Than Hell tour. For an underage kid from the sticks, seeing those larger-than-life rock heroes from 20 feet away was transcendent, instilling memories that would last forever. “Demon” Gene Simmons almost set the club’s curtains aflame with his fire-breathing stunt, and fans at the front of the stage were removing their Kiss T-shirts and straining to dab them in the fake blood that spewed from Simmons’s lips and collected in nasty puddles at his feet. “Spacecase” Ace Frehley wobbled around as if in a daze, but was always right on with his piercing leads and euphoric gestures. “Starman” Paul Stanley leaped about like a manic Pete Townshend as he ground out the band’s rhythm guitar and took turns, with Simmons, howling their party-hearty lyrics. The “Cat” behind the drum kit, Peter Criss, slammed everything into place, and the combined effect was astounding.
We left the Commodore with ears madly ringing and the energizing power of rock permanently imprinted on our young minds.
Unfortunately, that would be the first and last time I was totally entranced by the Kiss experience. Sure, I went and saw them on the ’77 Love Gun tour, but if it hadn’t been for all the elaborate staging and pyrotechnics, they would have been blown away by opener Cheap Trick, which, unlike Kiss, was still hungry, only two albums into its career. Music-wise, Kiss had gone downhill ever since Destroyer, and it would get a lot worse once mediocre, postmakeup albums such as Hot in the Shade and Crazy Nights—and embarrassing tunes like “Let’s Put the X in Sex” and “Bang Bang You”—became the norm in the mid-’80s. At a March ’88 appearance, Kiss drew fewer than 5,000 fans to the Pacific Coliseum, and many of those were there to hear then-hot openers Anthrax.
At this lowly point in its career, Kiss was comprised of die-hard founders Simmons and Stanley, session guitarist Bruce Kulick (who succeeded Mark St. John, stricken with Reiter’s syndrome shortly after supplanting twice-fired Frehley replacement Vinnie Vincent), and Brooklyn-born drummer Eric Carr, who took over the kit from Peter Criss in May of 1980. (The faltering Criss had already been replaced in the studio by Anton Fig.) Since Kiss still wore makeup at the time of Carr’s induction, the band had to find a being for him to portray.
“Everybody was trying to come up with a character for me,” Carr told me in a 1984 interview. “Nobody really knew what to do, so everybody was chipping in. We were gonna make me a hawk, which—luckily for me—didn’t work out.”
Carr ended up as a fox, but from then on, there were always second thoughts about keeping the masquerade intact.
“When I first joined the band, Gene, Paul, and Ace would always talk about taking the makeup off,” recalled Carr, who remained Kiss’s drummer until 1991, when he succumbed to cancer. “It used to come up in discussions, but nobody thought too seriously about doing it. Then we got working on [the 1982 album] Lick It Up, and started talking about it really seriously. So we made it coincide with the new album and did the photo for the cover without makeup. And looking back, it was absolutely the right thing to do. We wanted to go out and show everybody that Kiss is a rock-and-roll band that can kick ass, and that it’s not just bombs and makeup.”
In a ’92 Straight interview in advance of a local date on the Revenge tour, Simmons himself put the makeup issue to rest—for that moment, at least. “Every day of the year there are bankers holding up cheques in front of our faces, saying, ‘Put the makeup back on and you can keep this big cheque.’ And even though it’s appealing, we don’t really want to do that because it’ll become like a Las Vegas show. It deals with nostalgia, and I’m much more interested in the future and the present than I am in the past.
“You know,” he added, “it’s like somebody walking up to you and saying, ‘Wow, when you were a baby you used to wear diapers. Why don’t you put it back on again?’ And I’m not a baby any more. That’s exactly the point.”
In case you haven’t heard, Kiss’s four original members have reunited, put the makeup back on, and revived the pyrotechnics-heavy approach that made them concert kings 20 years ago. Their massive tour visits a sold-out GM Place on Monday (September 2), so get ready for the 1996 Kiss Remasked tour to hit Las Vegas, B.C., kids. I’ll be there with the rest of you, searching amidst the fog and lasers for a glimpse of the guy with the reptilian tongue and the cotton loincloth.