Kiss will always be known, above all else, as the band without a face. Until 1983, when the group removed its distinctive comic-book makeup, the four members’ faces supposedly had never been photographed (although pictures of them applying their makeup for an early photo session ran in Creem magazine in the early Eighties).
Theatrics and basic hard rock have been a main calling card for Kiss, who were one of the biggest-selling acts of the Seventies and who inspired the Kiss Army, as fans refer to themselves. The quartet formed in the heyday of glitter and rock theater, and it set out to define, at first, evil cartoon-character personas, highlighted by Gene Simmons’ bass-playing, fire-breathing, tongue-wagging ghoul.
The group was founded by Simmons and star-eyed rhythm guitar-playing frontman Paul Stanley, who met in a band in 1970. They found “Catman” drummer Peter Criss through his ad in Rolling Stone. After rehearsing as a trio, the group took out an ad in the Village Voice for a guitarist with “flash and balls” and discovered Ace Frehley, who adopted a “Spaceman” persona. At the time, they were all working dead-end jobs, with the exception of Simmons, who taught school at P.S. 75 in Manhattan. Their visual image and game plan were in place from the start. After a few New York shows, Kiss met independent television director Bill Aucoin, who helped the group get a deal with Casablanca Records.
The critics hissed at the anonymous heavy-metal thud rock on the band’s first three albums and howled at its mock-threatening image. Nonetheless, Kiss hit it off with its fans (the Kiss Army) from the very start. After some hard financial times (an entire 1975 tour was reportedly financed on Aucoin’s American Express card), the band took off with Alive! (Number 9, 1975), which contained the Top Twenty hit “Rock and Roll All Nite.”
In 1976 the band’s sound and image shifted toward not necessarily softer but certainly more commercial fare, beginning with Criss’ ballad “Beth” (#7, 1976), a million-seller that he wrote for his wife, Lydia. Accordingly, Kiss’ audience grew from mostly male adolescent heavy-metal fans to include more teenyboppers. As the group racked up more and more platinum records – six between 1976 and 1979 – it became increasingly less threatening. Young fans were frequently photographed wearing the makeup of their favorite Kiss member.
On June 28, 1977, Marvel Comics published a Kiss comic book. The red ink used supposedly contained a small amount of blood from the band members themselves. It sold over 400,000 copies. In the fall of 1978 NBC broadcast a feature-length animated cartoon entitled Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, and Marvel issued a second Kiss comic. But the group’s popularity was beginning to wane. Four simultaneously released solo LPs sold poorly — Frehley’s was most popular — although the group had several hit singles, including the disco-metal oddity “I Was Made for Loving You” (Number 16, 1979).
In 1980 Criss left for a solo career. He was replaced by Eric Carr, who drummed into the Nineties but died of cancer at age 41. The group then briefly changed its image, abandoning the comic-book characters for a New Romantic–influenced look. Music From “The Elder,” an overambitious concept album, featured songs cowritten by Lou Reed and was the group’s first album not to go gold. Kiss quickly reverted to its ghoul makeup and primitive hard-rock music, and Creatures of the Night eventually sold 500,000 copies and was certified gold.
What to do? Change image again. Lick It Up (Number 24, 1983) depicted the group (now with Vinnie Vincent in place of Frehley) without its makeup and sparked a commercial resurgence. By the early Nineties, Kiss had sold more than 70 million albums. And as proof that in rock & roll anyone can become a legend if he sticks around long enough, 1994 saw the release of Kiss My Ass, on which artists as diverse as Garth Brooks, Lenny Kravitz, and Anthrax recorded their favorite Kiss songs as a tribute to the band critics loved to hate.
The success of the album anticipated the 1996 reunion of the original Kiss for the taping of MTV’s Unplugged (Number 15, 1996), which in turn led to a full-on reunion tour — the year’s highest-grossing concert attraction — complete with makeup, stage blood, and pyrotechnics. With Carnival of Souls (Number 27, 1997) already recorded, the recombinant Kiss released Psycho-Circus in 1998. Though much of the album was reportedly performed by session musicians, the album reached Number Three.
In 2000 and 2001, the band’s original lineup toured, theoretically for the last time. But in 2003, a new lineup — with Tommy Thayer as “Space Ace” lead guitarist and Eric Singer as “Catman” drummer augmenting Stanley and Simmons — went on the road, earning the seventh highest total gross for music tours that year. Kiss toured again in 2004, but performed only occasional shows for the next few years, not hitting stadiums in earnest again until 2008. Then in 2009, the band put out Sonic Boom, its first new studio album in 11 years. Intended to mark a return to their classic Seventies glam-stomp sound, it hit Number Two in the U.S., Kiss’s highest album-chart position ever, and helped kick off another tour of North America and Europe.
Whatever Kiss’s future status might be, the band’s legacy is ensured by the savvy merchandising of its instantly recognizable, cartoonish image, which has inspired pinball games, plastic action figures and more comic book spinoffs. Career retrospectives such as 2002’s The Very Best Of Kiss (Number 52), and live albums such as 2003’s Kiss Symphony: Alive IV (Number 18) will almost certainly continue to appear. Meanwhile, Simmons has enjoyed a long-term second career expanding his own, obnoxious personal brand — taking on radio host Terri Gross on National Public Radio in 2002, starring in the Gene Simmons Family Jewels reality show on the A&E network since 2006, and playing the occasional movie villain. All of which goes along with what could be this band’s real credo: Rock & Roll all nite, and market yourself every day.