It's hard to imagine discussing iconic rock bands without mentioning perhaps the most successful and unique rock band of all time. From the time KISS emerged on the scene in the 1970's, it was clear that this band was different. Consisting of four members, Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, the band would go on to become one of the biggest rock bands in history with record sales exceeding 85 million albums throughout the world.
The original Kiss band members were brought together by Gene Simmons, who was born Chaim Witz, and Paul Stanley, born Stanley Eisen. The two were part of a mildly successful rock band based in New York City called Wicked Lester. With a passion to succeed, Simmons and Stanley set out to change the sound of Wicked Lester to reflect strictly rock music, with some form of theatrics and stage antics. It was during their time in Wicked Lester that Simmons and Stanley recruited a drummer, Peter Criss and then an oddly dressed Paul Frehley to be their lead guitarist. Soon enough Wicked Lester started to rehearse and develop their sound and style and a new band with a new name emerged and Kiss was officially born.
As a child, Gene Simmons was interested in horror movies and comic books which inspired him to change the style of the band to include elaborate facial make-up, platform boots and black and silver armor complete with spikes and fake blood. Each member of the band took on a different look with Gene Simmons dressed as the Bat Lizard, Frehley a Spaceman, Stanley a Star Child and Criss a Cat where on stage they would be referred to as Demon, Spaceman, Starchild and Catman.
KISS performed for the first time under their new name on January of 1973 when they played a club then called the Popcorn Club in Queens, New York. Soon after they recorded a 5 song demo album with producer Eddie Kramer and former television director Bill Aucoin, who had seen them perform on other occasions and offered to be the bands manager. The members of KISS agreed to let Aucoin manage the band on one condition: that he could get them a record contract in just two weeks. Although this seemed to be a nearly impossible task, Aucoin came through for the band when they were signed with Emerald Records, which soon became Casablanca Records.
This new style proved to be a hit with the public and their marketing genius paid off. Fans were eager and willing to shell out money to see them perform, complete with theatrics, outrageous outfits and make-up and a hard rock sound. Not only had the band succeeded musically, but they had also been successful at marketing and giving themselves a brand that people could fall in love with.
The band started their first tour in February of 1974 in an unlikely place - Edmonton, Alberta in Canada's west - and then just 2 weeks later the band released their first self-titled album. A television appearance in March of the same year on Dick Clark's In Concert further helped to establish KISS as one of the hottest acts of the time. Even with all the publicity, their first album, KISS sold just 75,000 copies, which was at first quite disappointing for the band and the record label.
In 1975 Kiss released their 4th album titled "Alive," which would prove to be a highly successful recording, rising to Gold status and gaining them a spot in the Top 40. Prior to this release, Casablanca Records was struggling financially and this was the album that would turn their fortunes around. In 1976 another album was released, "Destroyer," which included an orchestra, choir and special effects. Once again Gold status was achieved before sales slowed down. Shortly after they released the single "Beth" and sales of "Destroyer" rebounded once again. "Beth" would go on to be one of the bands biggest hits. Although performed by Kiss, the song was written by drummer Peter Criss and a former band mate Stan Penridge. Kiss had finally reached the level of a rock icon and were now the most famous rock band in the United States as suggested by a Gallup poll taken in 1977. With a number of successful albums behind them, Kiss was now in a position to compile a Greatest Hits album, "Double Platinum," which was released in April of 1978.
While musically Kiss was extremely successful, nothing can top their expert marketing and merchandising empire that had been under the watch of Gene Simmons. A whole host of KISS merchandise had been developed including comic books, t-shirts, dolls, face paint, masks, Pez dispensers and a wide variety of collectible items. With a large fan-base, including a fan club that numbered well over 100,000, merchandise sales from 1977 to 1979 alone would top $100 million.
While Kiss had hit the epitome of success in the late 1970's, their manager, Bill Aucoin was ready with fresh ideas that could further propel the band into rock music history. The idea was conceived for each of the four members of Kiss to release a solo album; all marketed under the Kiss name, but with no help from the other band members. On September 18, 1978 all four Kiss solo albums were released with plenty of fanfare. All four albums made it into the Billboard Top 50, but fans were not impressed. Although sales were strong initially, disappointed record stores were scrambling to return huge quantities of the solo albums which were not selling as fast as they had hoped. With the large quantities produced, many of these albums ended up in discount stores, practically giving them away.
Another idea that Bill Aucoin had for the band was to have them star in a movie produced by Hanna-Barbara in 1978. The movie, "Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park" was a television movie that was well received by fans and went on to become one of the highest rated movies of the year. For Kiss band members though, the making of this movie produced mixed feelings and generally they were quite unhappy with their role in the movie.
In 1979 the band released the album "Dynasty" which would include the biggest single in the bands history, "I Was Made For Lovin' You." Unfortunately this success was soon met with decreasing popularity and problems arose from within the band itself. It was becoming increasingly clear that neither Peter Criss or Ace Frehley were happy with their role in the band or with the leadership of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley. In 1979 drummer Peter Criss was struggling with a substance abuse problem and his drum skills were quite poor during this time. During a concert in North Carolina, Peter destroyed his drum kit in a rage and although fans thought it was part of the show, this marked the last time that Criss would play with the band and he officially left six months later. Soon thereafter the band found a replacement for Criss - Eric Carr - and the band toured both Australia and New Zealand with record breaking attendance numbers.
In order to find success with an album once again, Kiss approached Bob Ezrin who had helped them with "Destroyer." Far from a success though, the album, titled "Music from 'The Elder'" was a bit of an enigma. It was supposed to be the soundtrack for a movie that was never released and it received poor reception from the public. It failed to reach Gold status and never made it past #75 on the charts. Frustrated with this latest endeavor, Ace Frehley saw this as his opportunity to leave the band which was a significant blow after having already lost Peter Criss shortly before. It was finally decided by the band that manager Bill Aucoin's plans had failed and that he needed to move on.
In 1982 Kiss released a new album, "Creatures of the Night" which failed to impress the public and bring them back to their former popularity. A replacement for Ace Frehley was named. Vinnie Vincent would take the place of Frehley as the lead guitarist just as the band was entering it's 10th year and he was given the persona of an Ankh Warrior. Unfortunately Vincent didn't get along well with Simmons or Stanley and he was fired from the band and replaced by Mark St. John.
1983 marked a significant change in direction for the band when it was decided that they would perform without their trademark make-up and costumes. The first album recorded with the new look was "Lick It Up" and it proved to be successful, gaining them Gold status once again. Following this success another album was released, "Animalize" which was a tremendous success. It seemed that their new image had helped to re-establish the band as a major player in the rock scene and "Animalize" would go on to become their most successful album ever released in the United States. In December of 1984 the band was looking for yet another lead guitar player when St. John was fired. Bruce Kulick soon after took the place of lead guitarist and the band would go on to release a number of albums with the two original members and the two newest members. Although the band struggled with an identity crisis without the makeup, the 1990's looked hopeful, at least until tragedy struck. After it was discovered that Eric Carr had cancer, and later died on November 24, 1991. Although a difficult time, the band went on to record more albums using other guitarists. With such a rich history it was decided that the band should release a book that would detail their history. "Kisstory" was released in 1995, during a time when Kiss merchandise was seeing resurgence.
The 38th Annual Grammy Awards were a big day for both Kiss and their many fans when the entire original band appeared together, dressed in their original make-up and costume. Fans were ecstatic and shortly thereafter a tour was announced. Starting at Tiger Stadium in Detroit in 1996, almost 40,000 eager Kiss fans gathered to see the band perform in a tour that would include almost 200 shows and almost $150 million in revenue.
Yet another tour in 1998 called Psycho Circus Tour opened in Los Angeles and proved to be a success and then finally Kiss received their spot on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2000 their final tour was announced. The U.S. Farewell Tour would start in March of 2000 and would run for over 1 year. Again upset, Criss would once again leave the band and was replaced by Eric Singer who donned Criss' costume. With such a large collection of hits spanning over 30 years Kiss released a collection called “The Box Set” which included 94 songs on 5 CD's. Although they band had a farewell tour, the world had not seen the end of them yet. Kiss went on to tour with Aerosmith in 2003 and then in 2004, Kiss toured with Poison.
Recently in 2008 Kiss launched yet another tour, the KISS Alive/35 World Tour, playing across Europe, New Zealand and Australia. While the world thought that they would never again see a new Kiss album released, it was confirmed by Simmons and Stanley that a new album is in the works with an expected release date in the Summer of 2009 with Simmons and Stanley as well as Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer making up the band.
So much can be said of this iconic band that changed the face of hard rock music. With over 40 albums to their credit including many gold and platinum records, Kiss will forever be remembered by their trademark make-up and costumes as well as their unique sound. Although the band has struggled with personality and contract conflicts throughout its history, Kiss is still one of the biggest rock bands to ever exist.