You Pulled The Trigger Of My Love Gun, Pt 4 - Conclusion
A GEN-X recollection of KISS in the lost years previous to triumphant re-emergence ...
To recap: This series was inspired by a revisitation of an article I wrote for a collectibles magazine in 1995 — the “fallow,” no-makeup period during which most people had only vague memories of KISS.
That idea may seem hard to fathom today; after all, KISS is right in the middle of their “End of the Road” Tour (to which they’ve reportedly added 100 additional shows). They get the occasional poke regarding possible vocal backing tracks, but, other than that, the band is raking in the dough on Year Fifty — a half century — of their existence.
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And, take another look at the photo collage above. That was over a dozen years ago, and they were a mainstream, all-ages attraction. Entire families were in attendance.
In the late-80s and pretty much all of the 90s, you could never imagine this happening, much less in the far-flung future of - gasp - 2022. KISS had abandoned the make-up (and dropped original bandmates Peter Criss and Ace Frehley), attempting to be a mainstream heavy metal band. Meanwhile. Gene Simmons was dating Cher and doing movies. KISS was becoming his side-hack.
Picking Up the Thread
We ended Part Three as the 70’s were winding to a close, with KISS — Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss (Criss was soon kicked to the curb) — suddenly cursed at the dawn of a new decade by the very merchandising and cartoon personas that had previously fed their fame. They were no longer “cool.”
They released DYNASTY in 1979.
“Bill [Aucoin] thought we should appeal to a broader base audience,” recalled Paul Stanley in KISS Behind the Mask. “The first question is ‘why?’ — and that never really got answered. The simple cure-all for being too aggressive musically is to kill the guitars and add a synthesizer.”
I don’t know exactly when Stanley issued the above proclamation, but from this vantage point, Bill Aucoin — KISS’s manager at the time — was pretty much spot-on. KISS needed to appeal to a wider demographic now that “we” had moved on.
On the other hand, the approach was rather… clumsy. This was the album that gave us “disco-KISS.”
“I Was Made for Lovin’ You”—though a pretty solid radio hit—represented the thump-thump death-knell of the band.
The album was, make no mistake, successful (peaked at #9 on the Billboard chart), but the fan base were starting to look elsewhere. As recalled by C.K. Lendt, who served as business manager for KISS is this period and wrote a book about the experience called KISS and Sell, their concerts still drew big crowds — in the 10,000 to 15,000 range, which is pretty good for bands in general — but not enough for concert promoters to recoup the beefy guarantees they had to agree to in order to get the KISS circus on their stage.
There was also a noticeable “kiddie contingent” showing up at KISS shows. The action figures, puzzles, bubble gum cards, etc. had made the band virtual cartoon characters. In fact, Rolling Stone magazine — which had ignored KISS during their ascent to mainstream fame — printed Charles M. Young’s review of a Madison Square Garden show wherein he skipped the music altogether:
So let’s all help keep KISS off lithium and not say their music is lame. We know it. They know it. Millions of twelve-year-old boys don’t know it, but they aren’t going to figure out music until their pubic hair grows in anyway.
Let us instead praise the KISS Stage show, which has too many neat special effects that your pubic hair retracts and you become twelve-years-old again and the music doesn’t matter. Get this, man: Gene Simmons does this weird bass solo and vomits blood all over himself, just like he always does, but then they hoist him about fifty feet over the audience, where he sings “God of Thunder” with a good imitation of the Christmas bombing of Hanoi exploding all around him. And Ace Frehley shoots skyrockets out of his guitar, man, and Paul Stanley clocks the heels of his eight-inch platforms in, the air, man, and Peter Criss does a drum solo on a hydraulic lift that is lifts him almost as high as Simmons is over the stage lights, man.
KISS became kid-stuff.
Growing Out of KISS
I observed and experienced this quick-fade on a personal level because KISS’s trajectory to obscurity was almost perfectly synchronized with my transition to high school. The passage from grades 1-8 at St. Michael’s — with the same 14-or-so classmates for that entire duration — to the “big time” at Newman High School brought with it certain coming-of-age adjustments. High on the list was shedding “kid bands” like KISS and embracing more down-to-earth, grown-up stuff like REO Speedwagon (I was ensnared by the YOU GET WHAT YOU PLAY FOR live album, and their breakthrough HI INFIDELITY arrived right on schedule, sophomore year); the self-titled VAN HALEN debut (blew my head off); and vintage material like Jimi Hendrix (I remain transfixed).
There was no room for cartoon merch-pushing bands in that environment. UNMASKED followed in 1980, and it was, very literally, a cartoon. With a new drummer aboard (Eric Carr), KISS toured Australia, where they were still “big.”
Getting Deep: Enter THE ELDER
The band was evidently growing tired of being thought of as “kid-stuff,’ so they figured the next album had to have some substance in order to recapture the old magic.
So, why not get DESTROYER’s Bob Ezrin back on board?
Remember, DESTROYER was a pretty damn great album, and it worked largely because Ezrin pulled the strings. Having heard some of the slightly askew KISS demos created before Ezrin took over — Paul Stanley originally sang “God of Thunder,” for instance — it’s pretty obvious he knew how to convey the band’s “narrative” a bit better than they themselves did at the time.
A great idea!
However, let’s not forget that Ezrin also produced Pink Floyd’s THE WALL, a concept album.
Ezrin came aboard and was able to make some epic demands. His standard producers’s contract was goosed to include a pretty large percentage of merchandising, film, or TV spinoffs resulting from any album produced.
But, more importantly, he insisted on total privacy and isolation with the band — no outside interference. As former KISS business manager C.K. Lendt recalls, Ezrin and the band — primarily Simmons and Stanley — managed to create a “hermetically sealed existence” for themselves during the making of the album.
So, Ezrin pushed forward the idea of an album as epic story, and KISS played along — they were absolutely certain a film would eventually be produced.
And, hey, Lou Reed (!) was brought in to help with some lyrics.
Lou was so into our “Elder” project, that when we called and explained it over the phone to him, he said, “I’ll get back to you in an hour.” And he called back an hour later with good basic lyrics to “Mr Blackwell.” “World Without Heroes,” and a lot of other stuff that hasn’t been used yet.
(MUSIC FROM) THE ELDER came out in November of 1981 as a gatefold album package, with no pictures of the band to be seen (though that is Paul Stanley’s hand on the cover). The KISS logo is there in all its glory, however.
And it’s a bad album. Adding insult to injury, shortly before the album was released the track sequence was changed, making an already messy “concept” storyline pretty much incomprehensible
I have a vivid recollection of sitting in the parking lot of my high school in a friend’s car, popping in a cassette so we could listen to THE ELDER at ridiculously high volume with the windows up. We wanted to like it and feel as though our childhood faves had “caught up” to us — we told each other it was “innovative” and “creative” as the songs unspooled.
Deep inside we knew, however, that we would very likely never hear these songs again outside that sealed car.
Yes, there was a commercial:
KISS still carried weight and got booked on late night TV— but it was FRIDAYS, the short-lived, minor league SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE:
CREATURES OF THE NIGHT was the next album released; I, and a huge percentage of my demographic, never bothered with it — there is a very solid border between (MUSIC FROM) THE ELDER and everything subsequent. Perhaps the loss of Frehley coupled with the end of adolescence were the demarcation lines.
In 1983 — the year I graduated high school, ironically — KISS would reveal themselves without makeup at last on an “exclusive MTV special,” now re-invented as a mainstream hair-metal band. Their first no-makeup live show was on October 11, 1983. The string of albums that came afterward — LICK IT UP, ANIMALIZE, ASYLUM, CRAZY NIGHTS, and the greatest hits collection SMASHES, THRASHES & HITS — went platinum, but never registered on my radar.
HOT IN THE SHADE was their last 80’s album, and it featured a ballad entitled "Forever" co-written by… Michael Bolton.
I’m not kidding.
This song — with vocal passages in the chorus that sound as though Stanley is making up words for a demo — got up to No. 8 in the US, their highest-charting single since “Beth.”
They reunited yet again with Bob Ezrin for REVENGE in 1992. ALIVE III (why not?) landed in 1993.
In an interview with Guitar School magazine in 1992 — the nadir of their (temporary) has-been dystopia — Gene Simmons made no excuses. “KISS was never supposed to be a girl’s band, but [in the ‘80s] our music became too fluffy—and I take full responsibility for it.”
And, the two mainstays of the band, Paul Stanley and Simmons, were clearly not getting along during this period:
Which brings us to the “90s resurrection.”
Out of Darkness
After a bunch of roster changes (and the tragic death of drummer Eric Carr), someone in the organization started realizing that the KISS brand carried significant weight.
So, they began to embrace the Brand.
In 1995, right when I was beginning an article about state of KISS fandom, the group produced and published the book Kisstory. For $158.95, you got a personally-signed, 440-page, nine-pound (4.1 kg), detailed chronicle of the group's history to that point. (Warning: The link below leads you to a one hour and forty-four minute video review of the book).
At the same time, KISS did something particularly shrewd and forward-looking: they embraced and participated in a Worldwide KISS Convention Tour.
These were all-day events where the faithful could see displays of vintage stage outfits, instruments, and memorabilia. There were also performances by KISS cover bands, and dealers sold merch from every stage of the band's career.
Gene Simmons took notice. According to his book KISS and Make-Up, getting the band to produce these events after seeing their grass-roots success was his idea. He came up with the strategy of avoiding liability and expenses by holding the events in hotel ballrooms.
They appeared live at the conventions, conducted Q&A sessions, signed autographs, and, as an issue of practicality — the band could not bring a huge light show and massive amps to hotel ballrooms — they played two-hour acoustic sets composed mostly of spontaneous fan requests. On the first U.S. date (June 17, 1995), Peter Criss appeared onstage with KISS to sing "Hard Luck Woman" and "Nothin' to Lose.” It was the first time Criss had performed publicly with the band in nearly 16 years.
Simmons wrote in KISS and Make-Up:
The experience of doing them really opened up our eyes to the living, breathing thing that we had created above and beyond our records and songs. There it was: the KISS Army, the KISS nation, alive and well.
Indeed, the KISS Conventions represented the band’s understanding and embrace of their transition from band to brand. They were still flying under the radar of mainstream popular culture, but the core fan base of post-ELDER listeners — and a growing subsection of makeup-era “nostalgists” — were returning to the fold.
This was the point at which I was re-engaging KISS for the 1995 article. I was able to find a local collector and dealer here in Wisconsin named Dave Curtis (who has since passed away, unfortunately), and he brought me up-to-date as we toured his collection.
I felt enormously lucky to find him — there just weren’t many KISS fans out there in 1995.
Curtis, who was a physically larger-than-life character in his own right and hard to miss at a convention with his custom-made leather KISS jacket, often shot and sold his own KISS video material. He’d assembled an enormous amount of KISS artifacts of every variety — he told me he’d had nine KISS pinball machines at various points, and showed me two close-to-mint versions (the German edition is slightly different in that it replaces the KISS logo’s double-s lightning with standard script to avoid a too-close comparison to the insignia worn by Hitler’s special police).
Curtis once worked at a local March of Dimes Haunted House, so his basement KISS collection had the eerie distinction of sharing space with rubber severed limbs and prop tombstones—a perfect backdrop.
He showed me an instrument in his collection used by Ace Frehley during the “makeup era.”
“A man named John Hecht needed money for something or other so he sold it to a buddy of mine. Then my buddy was going through a divorce and had to get rid of it because his wife said she was going to go after his KISS collection.”
“So I checked it out and found that it was legit, had paperwork. It’s a ‘77-78-era guitar, given to Hecht in ‘78, and it was about ‘87 when I got it,” Curtis told me. “Ace has seen it, and he knows where it went. In 1990 I brought it to him when he came to town on his Trouble Walkin’ tour to have him sign it. He said ‘It’s a nice guitar—it’s amazing the stuff you fans get.’ He seemed to be in an alright mood about it, yet when I asked for a photo of him with it and me, that was a different story.”
I’ve since learned that Hecht is actually Ace Frehley’s cousin.
Back to the Big Time
As related in Part 1, I was talking to New England KISS Collector’s Network cofounder Karen Lesniewski in my somewhat desperate search for mid-90s KISS enthusiasts for my article. She was co-author of the then-anomalous Kiss Collectibles: Identification and Price Guide.
That was when she told me to expect a call from Gene Simmons, because he liked to “keep track” of these sorts of things.
Ah - but remember those acoustic shows the band were playing at KISS conventions?
Alex Colette, the producer of MTV’s UNPLUGGED series, saw the charm in KISS playing acoustic guitars while sitting on stools, and eventually they were scheduled for a taping — that very weekend in 1995. After the very well-received performance, opportunity-savvy Gene Simmons had no time to call some writer in Wisconsin.
KISS was back. Somehow, in the context of MTV UNPLUGGED, both the band and the older, original generation of fans decided they could go home again.
The cork came off the bottle on February 28, 1996 when Tupac Shakur introduced the original KISS lineup, in full makeup and LOVE GUN-era stage outfits, to a huge ovation at the 38th Annual Grammy Awards.
Then, as related by their then-new manager Doc McGhee: “The next week, we announced that I had rented the Intrepid aircraft carrier in New York to do a press conference. We had Conan O’Brien host it, and the band did four songs on the deck for the fans. After that, we announced Tiger Stadium, and we sold that out in twenty minutes, and the rest is history.”
Or, KISStory, as the case may be. The “original branding” was back, and, eventually, there was a Farewell Tour launched on March 11, 2000 — though the “farewell” was relegated to band members Frehley and Criss.
Almost a quarter century later, KISS is out on the road once again with guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer in the “Spaceman” and “Catman” makeup. And we haven’t even touched upon “Kiss Kruises”…
Keeping the brand — er, band — alive.
It’s great fun to watch, however. It really seems like the band is having fun. Contrast the clip below with the tension in the “Gene and Paul” interview above from the mid-90s.
So, that’s it. Unless Gene Simmons finally calls me. What’s 27 years between friends?
In retrospect, Ace Frehley’s rendition of the Rolling Stone’s “2000 Man” is pretty brilliant and pretty damn prescient.
That’s not to say Bolton didn’t have his Metal period: