KISS - Biography
By David Downs
Theatrical hard rock icons Kiss mashed up an amalgam of influences like Alice Cooper, New York Dolls, Slade, and Led Zeppelin into one of mainstream music’s biggest marketing juggernauts. With their trademark skin-tight costumes, Kabuki makeup, and pyrotechnics, they defined a style of stage show that would heavily influence the 1980s glam rock era. Of course, it helped that the band had the hard rocking hooks and crooning ballads to pack arenas. Originally the brainchild of unapologetic music mercenary and Israeli immigrant Gene Simmons (bass, vocals) and New Yorker Paul Stanley (rhythm guitar, vocals), the band saw the addition of drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley into a now-legendary line-up by 1974. That line-up fractured after a decade and would come to include members Vinnie Vincent, Mark St. John, Bruce Kulick, Eric Carr, Tommy Thayer, and Eric Singer over the years. They released scores of charting albums including 1975’s Alive! (1975 Casablanca), which was a Billboard 200, spawning Top 40 hit “Rock and Roll All Nite.” 1977’s Love Gun (1977 Casablanca) charted at number four on the Billboard 200 with the hit “Christine Sixteen.” After more than 30 major releases, Psycho Circus (1998 Mercury) landed an all-time band record at number three on the Billboard 200 in 1998. The band has sold over 85 million albums worldwide and still tours to this day.
Kiss figurehead Gene Simmons was born Chaim Witz in Israel on August 25, 1949 and moved to New York City in his youth with his mother. Once in America, Witz took on the name Eugene Klein and buried himself in comic books, The Beatles, and a singular Chubby Checker obsession. He played bass as a teenager and later taught until he joined forces with another rock and roll dreamer named Stanley Eisen. Later to be known as Paul Stanley, Eisen was born on January 20, 1952 in Manhattan, and played guitar since the age of 15. Stanley and Simmons’ band Wicked Lester borrowed from the popular acts of the time, but the group went nowhere. The two fantasized of a more theatrical, lucrative project. They placed ads in Rolling Stone and the Village Voice and netted the Bronx-born guitarist Paul Frehley (later known as Ace Frehley), as well as George Peter Criscuola (later known as Peter Criss) who responded to the advertisement for an experienced drummer who was “willing to do anything.”
The group experimented with costuming and settled on designs for The Demon (Simmons), The Starchild (Stanley), The Spaceman (Frehley), and The Catman (Criss). Stanley came up with the name Kiss during a drive around New York City and Frehley created the now-iconic logo. In November of 1972, the trio played for Epic Records A&R director Don Ellis. They failed to get a deal and Criss’ brother vomited on Ellis. The group played a Manhattan concert in 1973 and caught the attention of manager Bill Aucoin who later signed them to a new record label called Casablanca. The band made their first recording on October 10, 1973 and opened for Blue Öyster Cult that New Year’s Eve. Simmons accidentally set his hairspray-coated hair ablaze, the first of many such incidences. In February of 1974, they were on ABC’s Dick Clark’s In Concert. In a more hilarious, and telling, incident including Simmons & Stanley on The Mike Douglas Show, Simmons declared himself "evil incarnate," to which fellow guest, comedianne Totie Fields, stated "Oh- I bet you're just a nice Jewish boy. You can't hide the hook!" referring to Simmons' Jewish nose.)
Later in 1974, Kiss released their self titled debut, Kiss (1974 Casablanca), which climbed to #87 on the US charts. The immediate follow-ups, Hotter Than Hell (1974 Casablanca) and Dressed To Kill (1975 Casablanca), fell short of their mega-ambitions, but their fan base was large and dedicated to Kiss’s theatrical concerts offered Simmons spitting “blood” and breathing fire; Frehley’s guitar burst into flames, Criss’s drums sparked. The pyrotechnics and panache threatened to bankrupt the label until the live double album Alive! (1975 Casablanca) turned their fortunes around in 1975. Alive! cracked the top ten and the history books with its single “Rock and Roll All Nite,” to a mainstream number twelve chart spot. 1976’s Destroyer (1976 Casablanca) went platinum, thanks the power ballad “Beth.”
By 1977 Kiss was the most popular band in America and a formidable merchandising machine. Comic books, pinball machines, makeup, masks, board games, dolls, and a widely panned but popular live-action TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, drove revenue into the tens of millions of dollars. Alive II (1977 Casablanca) was released in 1977 and went to number seven on the Billboard 200. In 1978, all four members released solo albums on the same day – a first in entertainment history. 1979’s Dynasty (1979 Casablanca), which spawned the disco rock mega hit "I Was Made For Loving You," signaling the end of the original hard rock era Kiss had been geared towards; Peter Criss left in 1980, beginning a long-running feud between him and Simmons. 1980’s Unmasked (1980 Casablanca) was the last record to feature Criss as a member, though all the drum tracks were played by session man Anton Fig. The LP went gold, but sales were slipping. The band debuted their new drummer, Eric Carr, his character known as The Fox, on the follow up LP, Music From "The Elder" (1981), a concept record that became the band's most unpopular release to date. Ace Frehley left the band in 1982, after the Creatures Of The Night LP, and was replaced by Vinnie Vincent, who took on the character The Ankh Warrior.
During the lull in their success, Kiss made theater out of taking off their makeup, broadcast on MTV. 1983’s Lick It Up (1983 Mercury) went platinum, returning the band to a more popular place. Vinnie Vincent left the band shortly after Lick It Up's success, replaced by Mark St. John for Animalize (1984), which spawned the single "Heaven's On Fire." St. John was forced to leave the band when he was diagnosed with Reiter's Syndrome. For 1985's Asylum, guitarist Bruce Kulick joined the band, and the LP was yet another Platinum success, the video for the single "Tears Are Falling" receiving heavy rotation on MTV. During this period Paul Stanley admitted frustration at Simmons lack of participation in the making of this, and it's subsequent record Crazy Nights (1987). Simmons was more interested in making movies and dating Hollywood starlets and producing up and coming artists than playing in a rock n roll band. The band's next LP, Hot In The Shade (1989), contained a Top Ten hit in the ballad “Forever,” nearly reaching the success of “Beth.” Another sinlge, "Hide Your Heart," also did well, hitting #22 in the mainstream rock charts. In 1990, drummer Carr fell ill and died the following year from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 41. Eric Singer stepped in and the band recorded Revenge (1992 Mercury), another gold record, in 1992. Kiss persevered and released Alive III (1993 Mercury) in 1993, but it did not do as well as their previous live records.
In 1996, Kiss’s original members reunited for an international tour full of all the pomp of years past. The 192-stop tour was the best attended in the group’s history and the reunited team issued the hit album Psycho Circus (1998 Mercury). The album did well, even if all four members rarely played on it together. In the spring of 2000, Kiss embarked on a Farewell Tour and Peter Criss quit again in 2001 after salary disputes. After the tour, Simmons kept a high profile, writing an autobiography that angered Ace Frehley. Simmons has also launched his own magazine called Gene Simmons’ Tongue (which was discontinued after 5 issues), created a line of clothing, and is the subject of the successful reality TV show Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels, and released a solo record in 2004, titled Asshole. Paul Stanley released his second solo record, Live To Win, in 2006, followed by a tour. In 2009 the band released a new LP Sonic Boom, their first including original material in 11 years. This was most recently followed up by yet another new LP, Monster, in 2012.