“This is my music, it makes me proud
These are my people and this is my crowd
These are crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy nights”
Growing up in the early seventies US imports, both physical and cultural, were everywhere. Everything that I had access to seemed to be bigger and better in the US.
We had three television stations that transmitted for less than half the day – in the US they had hundreds of stations playing all the time.
We had a freezer for keeping leftovers and garden vegetables – Stevie Ryan’s mum went to the US and found full meals in the freezer, even frozen toast.
We went to a Warner’s holiday camp on the Isle of Wight where my nan won the glamorous granny competition – my mate Jon, whose mum was Californian, came back from somewhere called Disney that had funfair rides.
We went out occasionally for a treat to the local Berni where my dad might have a ‘surf and turf’ and my mum would always have rump steak ‘well done but not burnt’ – in the US they had different food from places like China and Italy and you could ‘take it away’.
But Glam Rock came along I knew that this was something that the UK could beat the US at and, looking at chart hits, I was right. There were always rumours however of a group that breathed fire, spat blood, had the God of Thunder playing for them, were never seen without their makeup and wore clothes that made Gary Glitter and the Glitter Band look as if their wardrobes came from the Salvation Army. Of course I never believed any of this until Jon came back from one of his US holidays, took me to one side and said “Look it’s true, they’re big, they’re loud and they’re called Kiss”.
The roots of Kiss go back to the late sixties when two vocalists/guitarists (one bass, one rhythm) with big egos met and didn’t get on. In fact it wasn’t until Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley had spent a couple of years occasionally bumping into each other while playing with other groups that they decided to work together. It was 1971 and the group was Wicked Lester. Playing rock and roll they were a live hit on the New York scene and signed a record deal with Epic. This however was as far as they went, the album they recorded was never officially released and in 1972 the band split.
After this set back Gene and Paul decided that they needed to develop a group that was more visual, more theatrical. This started to come together when they answered an ad in “Rolling Stone” and met drummer Peter Criss. While the chemistry didn’t work immediately they decided to rehearse until they worked as a unit. Eventually, with the music coming together, they auditioned for a lead guitarist in late 1972. Legend has it that they heard at least 50 guitarists before Ace Frehley arrived, his playing and appearance suited the band perfectly – he was hired.
With everyone in place the only thing remaining was the image and it’s here that Kiss differ from virtually all other bands. Rather than playing live and developing an image over time, Kiss decided to develop an image before playing life. It was with full face paint therefore that the newly created Kiss appeared live for the first time in 1973 at the Popcorn Club in Queens, New York – there were only 3 people in the audience but it was the first step on the way to mega-stardom. Determined to take the music world by storm Kiss then rented out a hotel in New York at which they played management showcases, while this must have seemed audacious at the time it certainly worked as within two weeks they were signed by Casablanca.
With a record deal in place the group developed their stage technique through constant gigs and started to introduce the theatrics for which they were famous. By the end of 1973 their stage show was in full flow, they were opening for Blue Oyster Cult and Iggy Pop & the Stooges and Gene was setting light to his hair while breathing fire.
Their self titled album was released in February 1974, making number 87 on the US charts, and led to their first appearance on television playing on Dick Clark’s In Concert program. They toured constantly around the US and promoted themselves at every opportunity, opening for groups such as Aerosmith their stage act becomes tighter and wilder. By April 1975 they had released three albums and built a significant fan base across the US. Their approach was Glam Rock in excess but unlike other groups in the genre it was based on playing live and albums rather than chart singles. This is shown by the album that truly broke them into the big time – their fourth album was culled from their numerous concerts. Entitled “Alive” it hit the Top Ten on its release in the autumn of 1975. Their following album “Destroyer” did even better the following March, going platinum and containing a top ten single. The group had finally become what their image on stage had always portrayed them as – Rock Gods.
Kiss now moved into hyperdrive, live concerts coupled with constant promotion and merchandising resulted in Kissmania hit the US. Their first comic book was released by Marvel (complete with red ink mixed with their blood), Kiss make-up and masks became the rage, you could play the Kiss board game or the Kiss pinball machine, you could become a member of the Kiss Army and you could even watch them as they starred in the TV movie “Kiss Meet The Phantom of the Park”. All of this and and they were still never to be seen without their makeup. Outside of the US things were less fraught with Kissmania being rarely found with the exception of Japan, Kiss toured here for the first time and the crowds went wild – it’s like Beatlemania but for guys in makeup and platform shoes!
While the prominence of Kiss on the US music scene has continued ever since, this level of exposure has never been matched. The final years of the seventies saw them each release a solo album before they returned with yet another platinum album, “Dynasty”, in 1979. The classic lineup ended in 1980 with Peter Criss leaving followed in 1982 by Ace Frehley. They eventually lost the permanent makeup but they still continued to tour and have chart hits. Their time as the ultimate rock group was however over in terms of critical success.