House Eats 2: Yang Chow

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Illustration by Casey Burns KISS

The Winners’ History of Rock and Roll, Part 2: Kiss

How four men in face paint made rock real for a nation

We got wars going down in the middle-western states.” —The Hold Steady, “Knuckles”

“I am a fan of Middle America. Remember, it was mass culture that created rock ‘n’ roll. Our tastes happen to coincide with theirs.” —Gene Simmons, 1977, in Rolling Stone

The video begins — the 17-minute-and-18-second version that’s posted on YouTube, anyway — with a medium close-up of a carnival barker carnival-barking at a group of gawkers outside of a freak show. The tape is blurry but the metaphor is clear to the point of obviousness. And yet Edwin Newman, the unflappable veteran reporter carved out of hickory and tweed who has been dispatched by NBC News to get to the bottom of this evening’s investigation, isn’t afraid to underline it several times. He alludes to P.T. Barnum and the suckers who are born every 60 seconds. He warns against a “vast machinery of hype” threatening to sucker the suckers of today — which in the video is 1977 — into mindless oblivion. Even by the murderously lax standards of the network-news hatchet job, Edwin Newman has dispensed with all subtleties. He is out to bust balls.

Hype is this newsman’s primary concern. Hype is the subject of his special report, helpfully titled Land of Hype & Glory. Suddenly, the setting shifts to a rock concert, and we meet Newman’s Exhibit A. “These four men have been performing for four years. In that time they’ve been responsible for selling records worth $30 million,” he intones grimly. “By some accounts, they are the favorite rock group of American teenagers. Their name, for no reason immediately apparent, is Kiss.”

Kiss is playing “Black Diamond,” the final song on the band’s self-titled 1974 debut. “Black Diamond” is sung primarily by drummer Peter Criss, the Catman, but the Catman is the one member who is not in view. Instead, we see Gene Simmons stomp from stage right to stage left like Frankenstein doing the funky-chicken. We whizz by Ace Frehley playing a guitar solo with his Gibson held at a mathematically precise 45-degree angle. We venture to the outskirts of Paul Stanley’s black forest of mossy chest hair.

The visual stimuli serve as the backdrop for Newman’s brisk overview of Kiss’s history — sorry, Kisstory — and performance aesthetic. “From the beginning Kiss emphasized style over substance,” he says. “They went heavy on trappings. Makeup came first. It set them apart from everyone else and gave them an aura of mystery … Costumes were next, complete with black leather, aluminum studs, and eight-inch platform heels.” Newman talks about Kiss’s elaborate staging, which includes a battery of 40 amps and 150 speakers — “more than any other rock band has,” he notes — pumping out 130 decibels. (“In technical terms 130 decibels may be described as loud,” Newman clarifies.) He estimates that 1.7 million people buy tickets to see Kiss every year. That makes Kiss an incredibly vast hype machine for Newman to explain to the viewers at home. But Newman’s studious manner suggests that he is the right 58-year-old person for the job.

“In the eyes of their fans, they are more than musicians, more than celebrities — they are superstars,” Newman says incredulously. He is now incredulously questioning the band, which sits on a stage after a photo shoot. Newman turns to Gene Simmons and references Kiss’s recent profile in Rolling Stone, the first major piece the magazine has done on the band. The most memorable part of the article is when writer Charles M. Young likens Kiss to “buffalo farts” (favorably!), but this is not what interests Newman. Instead, he refers to a quote that Simmons will give in different variations in countless other interviews for decades to come: “We’re not a great rock band. The musicianship is average, maybe even below, but in a year we’re going to be the biggest band in the world.”

I didn’t mean our music is average, Simmons insists, just “intentionally easily accessible. We don’t try to make the music too complex and too self-indulgent so that our fans can understand it.”

“We’re not making art. We’re playing rock and roll, and rock and roll is a not-thinking kind of music,” Paul Stanley interjects. “There’s an art to projecting a fantasy to 2 or 3 million people. There’s an art to selling out 20,000-seat halls every night.” Kiss is beating Newman at his own game, and he knows it. Newman has come here to discredit Kiss on the grounds of commercial malpractice and mass-media manipulation verging on exploitation. But all Kiss wants is props for doing these things profitably, as any multinational corporation would.

Strangely, an excerpt from Land of Hype & Dreams is included in the first disc of the second volume of Kissology, a DVD compendium of concerts, interviews, and television appearances culled from Kiss’s intermittently successful 1978-1991 period.1 One of the many contradictions of Kiss’s career is that while it is a band known for courting the press with an unabashed zeal that most bands would find unseemly, even embarrassing, Kiss received precious little in-depth media coverage from prestigious mainstream outlets in its prime. Land of Hype & Dreams is hardly flattering, but a clip is a clip.

Ditto for the withering Rolling Stone story; on top of that bovine flatulence analogy is an extended back-and-forth in which Simmons and Young debate whether Kiss is more culturally relevant than deodorant. (Simmons takes the negative position.) “I was mortified and disappointed when the article came out,” recalls Kiss publicist Danny Goldberg2 in Kiss: Behind the Mask — The Official Authorized Biography. Goldberg (at Simmons’s insistence) had pressed Young to write about Kiss, as recognition from the country’s top rock rag was important to his clients. When Rolling Stone — perhaps inevitably — slagged Kiss, Goldberg remembered Simmons’s philosophical response: “Better that they publish an article on us than if they didn’t publish an article at all.”

On the spectrum of rock transparency, Led Zeppelin belongs at one end and Kiss at the other. Where Zep cultivated an air of mystery bordering on obtuse — they never appeared on album covers, they never appeared on television, and they never allowed backstage details to be made public except via the occasional Frank Zappa song3 — Kiss foregrounded a hunger for wealth, women, and wanton pleasure into its public façade. Kiss openly signifies the greed at the heart of ’70s rock music with a boldly vulgar honesty. No rock band before Kiss, and few after it, were as willing to submit to (if not self-create) a media narrative predicated solely on the pursuit of money: the struggle for money, the relentless desperation to locate a suitable scam for getting money, the joy of finally attaining money, the frustration of seeing your money diminish, the satisfaction of reinvigorating your supply of money, lather, rinse, repeat.

If you’re interested in merely basking in the glow of a successful rock band that radiated untouchable perfection, then the Winners’ History of Rock and Roll begins and ends with Led Zeppelin. If you want to know how the sausage is made, we must discuss Kiss. The literature on Kiss is refreshing in its lack of sanctimony; the band’s associates dish freely about payments — in the form of drugs, concert tickets, microwave ovens, straight cash, anything of value — made to crooked FM radio program directors in exchange for airplay, as well as the ‘roided-up sales figures that were intended to make Kiss records appear more popular than they really were, which kept the records displayed prominently in stores and helped to sell more records.4

Nobody is more candid than the band members themselves, particularly Simmons, who for 40 years has regularly gone out of his way to disparage Kiss’s music. “Immediately, I saw that we were a rock ‘n’ roll brand, not just a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Simmons told The A.V. Club in 2002. “See, the rest of the guys with guitars around their neck want credibility. I don’t want credibility.”

There is a cynical (and probably correct) way to interpret statements like this, which is that Gene Simmons is a megalomaniac, and he sees himself as some kind of business genius, and he believes that by claiming that Kiss’s music is purposely shoddy or slapdash it bolsters his genius. But I prefer to also look at it from a less self-aggrandizing perspective. Kiss has been around since 1973, and it has been uncool to like this band for at least 38.5 of those years. Even now, Kiss can’t get into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and only “Rock and Roll All Nite” appears with any regularity on classic-rock radio. Kiss is simply not a band that rock aficionados concern themselves with knowing anything about, not even ironically. In the pantheon of ’70s arena rock, Kiss remains a non-starter to all but old-school headbangers. You could combine T. Rex and Thin Lizzy into a glittery, blue-jeaned Minotaur and it still would not be half as famous as Kiss was at its peak. But “The Slider” and “Cowboy Song” are worth 1 million coolness points each, and “Ladies Room” is worth like negative 50.

Kiss is an unfashionable band bonded to an unfashionable audience — an audience, by the way, that happens to be one of the two or three most loyal fan bases in all of rock music. It’s not that Simmons doesn’t care about credibility; it’s that the kind of credibility that Kiss courted, and that subsequently made them rich, can’t be measured in glowing media coverage or recognition from elites. It comes from making due in the wilderness outside of those arenas and proclaiming your rejection proudly.

Edwin Newman, Gene Simmons, Peter Criss, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, Bill Aucoin
I am listening to Rock and Roll Over, which I have officially designated as my favorite Kiss album. I am not a Kiss fan by the normal standards of Kiss fandom; I’ve only gotten into Kiss in the past few months, and for mainly professional purposes.5 I first tried to become a Kiss fan in the early ’00s, when I was working for my hometown newspaper a half-hour south of Green Bay, and spent my free time drinking beer by the gallon in my metalhead coworker’s basement. Back then my favorite Kiss album was Kiss, though that was by default. I was not yet educated in the contours of Kiss’s discography, and didn’t know that the production on Kiss’s first three studio albums in technical terms may be described as shitty.6

The release of Kiss’s fourth record, 1975’s Alive!, moved Kiss beyond its thankless status as a popular touring act and into the rarified realm of genuine pop-culture phenomenon. It is still considered Kiss’s defining statement, and is the best-known Kiss album among casual rock fans. The fact that most of Alive! was, in fact, not recorded live as advertised, but overdubbed in the studio under the guidance of Jimi Hendrix’s producer Eddie Kramer, has not hurt the album’s reputation.7 Alive! still sounds better than any previous Kiss record, making it a de facto greatest-hits collection. And it’s not like Kiss’s appeal is based on raw and unfiltered displays of warts-and-all authenticity.

Kramer was brought back to work on 1976’s Rock and Roll Over, which was the follow-up to Kiss’s most “artistic” and poppiest album to date, Destroyer, and the strings-drenched and treacle-spewing ballad “Beth,” the band’s biggest hit. Rock and Roll Over was conceived as the In Utero to Destroyer‘s Nevermind, returning Kiss to a more aggressive sound after it had toned down considerably for the mainstream. Kramer rented out a theater in upstate New York to give the Rock and Roll Over sessions a concert feel, and the album’s dry, no-nonsense production is an ideal showcase for Kiss’s limited but undeniable dunderheaded charms.

The key to appreciating Kiss is approaching it as one might a vaudevillian actor or Borscht Belt comic. You’ll get nowhere by parsing the wit of the material or the nuance of the presentation. You must accept that the performance will be broad and the one-liners wince-inducing, and focus instead on the insane amount of effort on display. Kiss’s specialty is delivering shameless showmanship with guileless energy, which it does in the service of songs that fumble across your reflexive pleasure centers with the grace and purpose of a 16-year-old boy unhooking his first bra strap.

Put another way: Kiss is in the business of creating pots, not vases. It’s possible to enjoy a song like “Take Me” by snickering at the lyrics. (“Put your hand in my pocket / grab on to my rocket.”) Or you can blast it at an ungodly volume while getting blasted in your friend’s basement because this happens to be the best entertainment option in a small town after work on a Friday night. You can use the pot as you wish, but it is a utilitarian rather than an artistic vessel. It was built to do a specific job — tickle the party-heartiest regions of your subconscious — with a minimum amount of fuss or pretension.

In Behind the Mask, Simmons claims that Kramer was brought back for 1977’s Love Gun because Criss and Frehley felt more comfortable sticking to Kiss’s hard-rock wheelhouse, while he and Stanley preferred to continue with the experiments of Destroyer under the direction of that album’s mastermind, Bob Ezrin. It’s also possible that Kiss was working too fast at this point to change producers; Love Gun arrived in stores just nine months after Rock and Roll Over, and was Kiss’s sixth studio album in just four years. Regardless, Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun arguably mark the musical high point of Kiss’s recording career. Neither album is loaded with hit singles,8 and they actually seem the better for it. I would argue that together they amount to Kiss’s Exile on Main St., but I don’t feel like getting punched. They do represent the full extent of what Kiss is good at, which is marrying blood-splatter guitars to bubblegum hooks and horndog lyrics that speak to young men who have not yet made the leap from imagining sex with another person to doing the actual deed.

If you truly want to understand why Kiss became so popular in the ’70s, it might save time to skip the records entirely and just watch old concert footage. You can find complete shows from places like Largo, Maryland, in 1977 on YouTube. And you will be surprised by how genuinely exciting they are to watch. The first volume of Kissology includes a concert, filmed in grainy black-and-white, from Winterland in San Francisco at the beginning of 1975, around the time that manager Bill Aucoin was still funding Kiss tours with his American Express card. The Winterland show is missing many of the special effects that would become staples of Kiss shows once the band’s coffers exploded — Peter Criss’s drum kit does not rise 50 feet in the air, Paul Stanley does not fly over the audience, Ace Frehley’s guitar does not shoot sparks. What it does have is synchronized stage moves. In terms of synchronized stage moves, Kiss are The Temptations of metal. There’s this one thing Paul and Gene do that I love, where they bang heads over the other person’s opposite shoulder and shake their frilly mops like glam-rock Muppets. There’s this other awesome thing they do at the end of “Deuce,” which is like a “ready, aim, fire!” maneuver with their guitars. Ace joins in, too, and he’s the coolest dancer of all; he moves like Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse.9

Touring was obviously crucial to Kiss’s success, though this didn’t always translate in terms of cash flow. When Kiss became a major moneymaking machine in the late ’70s, profits from live concerts were a significant part of the pie, but so was Kiss merchandise. In 1978 alone, the band generated more than $111 million in retail sales of Kiss products, according to Behind the Mask. By this point, Kiss had fully evolved into the “brand, not a band” idea that Simmons pontificated on in interviews. “Kiss is able to go where no band has gone before. And so Kiss in a lot of ways reflected American pop culture,” Simmons says in Behind the Mask. “It’s no secret that Fred Flintstone started out as a cartoon and eventually wound up being a multiple vitamin.”

Kiss used concerts to sell all kinds of stuff to fans, starting with albums. Kiss pioneered the album-tour promotional cycle; before Kiss, bands didn’t coordinate tours with the release of new studio product, or understand how hit albums could generate better box office for their live shows. Kiss fans were also known for spending more money on T-shirts, buttons, belt buckles, and anything else Kiss could emboss its likeness on. Kiss had turned the rock show into a 90-minute commercial for an immersive, take-home experience.

Equally important to how much Kiss toured in the ’70s was where Kiss toured. “Kiss’s grassroots following was built on playing secondary and tertiary markets which other acts avoided,” writes former business manager C.K. Lendt in his book Kiss and Sell: The Making of a Supergroup — including places “so isolated that the truck drivers carrying the stage show had trouble finding them on standard road maps.” Kiss wasn’t just aiming for the middle of the rock audience, it was willing to travel and make a semi-regular home there. It was, according to Lendt, “a vast universe of places like Muskegon, Bismarck, Huntsville, Butte, Salina, Waco, Rapid City, Dubuque, Bozeman, Fayetteville, Dothan, Port Huron, Lake Charles, Evansville, Johnston, Erie, Peoria, Lafayette, Waterloo, Grand Forks, Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Fargo, Johnson City, Beaumont, and Hampton Roads.” What many rock bands saw as a wasteland Kiss saw as uncontested territory; Kiss went to towns where there was high demand for entertainment and no supply, ensuring it could clean up easily. Kiss invaded Middle America and fought a war for hearts and minds that it won thanks to sheer determination and expert cartography.

Playing the hick circuit engendered special audience loyalty to Kiss that would sustain the band through leaner days in the ’80s and beyond. If you live in a place that never gets mentioned on television — or, worse, is reduced to a punchline by coast-dwelling wiseacres — it matters when a famous band pays a visit. It’s an acknowledgement that you live somewhere, not nowhere; it means you’re not invisible. And when you experience a moment of visibility, you might want to cover your body and your bedroom walls with reminders of that moment.

There’s a form of rock music that exists only inside downtrodden clubs and abandoned warehouses in the funkiest parts of large cities. It is made by visionary artists who rewrite the rules and shred old boundaries. This is where the most exciting stuff always happens. Or so I have been told — I’ve never personally witnessed this music firsthand, and chances are you haven’t either. Most people only hear about this music years after the fact; we learn about it from books and documentaries, and are told that these scenes officially died once the outside world (i.e., people like us) found out about them.

The other form of rock music isn’t sought out; it comes to you, which is helpful if you aren’t yet aware of what’s out there, waiting to be discovered. This music is a gateway; it arrives to fill a cultural vacuum in hundreds of towns, if only for one night, and is quickly absorbed into the landscape until it can’t be separated from the high school or neighborhood grocery store. Kiss was that band for the millions of people who didn’t have access to the cool-kid parties.10

From the beginning Kiss emphasized style over substance. They went heavy on trappings. Their sales numbers were fake, and the blood that Gene Simmons spat out on the front row was fake, and the music was fake. But Kiss was real to Middle America because Middle America got to see Kiss firsthand. And Middle America was real to Kiss, because this ridiculous band witnessed firsthand all those kids who couldn’t be seen from vantage points in New York or Los Angeles. Kiss played for audiences that many rock bands today still ignore. If rock and roll, like all forms of pop music, is a vehicle for artists and listeners to carve out the worlds they’ve always dreamed of inhabiting, it can also tell you that where you already are is good because it belongs to you. Kiss’s art — projecting a fantasy and making it feel like home to arenas full of people — managed to do both things at the same time.

Rolling Stone‘s 1977 Kiss profile ends with an oddly moving scene at Gene Simmons’s mother’s house. Simmons is walking the writer Charles M. Young to the door, and he says, “Don’t print anything that’s gonna blow it for me. It’s very fragile and I like it too much.” Young assures him “that most of his fans can’t read anyway.”

“I won’t have you ridicule them; I won’t let you do it,” Simmons scolds. Kiss did not need Rolling Stone to acknowledge its existence. Kiss and Kiss fans made each other real.

Coming up in Part 3: The most enduring band to come out of hair metal — the predominant form of rock music for teenagers in the ’80s — is Bon Jovi. Not only does Bon Jovi still sell tickets all over the world, it is invited to perform alongside Bruce Springsteen at benefit concerts, a sign of respect that hardly seemed possible for a band like Bon Jovi in 1986. How did this happen? I’ll examine their uniquely successful career, and explain how Jon Bon Jovi made the transition from lite-metal pretty boy to rock elder statesman.

Filed Under: Art, General topics, History

Steven Hyden is a staff writer for Grantland. His first book, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me, will be released in May.

Archive @ Steven_Hyden