I have several “introduction” memories I often point to when it comes to the almighty KISS; usually it’s of a ’70s-era video clip of the band playing “Rock and Roll All Nite” live that seemed to be on a continuous loop on a TV commercial at the time selling one of those “Best of ’70s Rock” comp albums, or the MTV videos of the ’80s I was so often exposed to as a kid, such as “Heaven’s on Fire,” Crazy Crazy Nights,” or “God Gave Rock and Roll to You II” (the latter of which I thought was thoroughly cool at the time for its appearance in 1991’s Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey).
But I think the true, defining moment that made me a KISS fan for life was after acquiring the first album I ever owned by them; a secondhand find of 1979’s Dynasty record. While not regarded as one of the band’s “best” efforts by any means, I was still in “awe” of it all; the cover photo featuring all four band members – Gene Simmons, Paul Stanely, Ace Frehely, and Peter Criss – the ads still intact inside featuring everything from KISS posters to pinball machines, and of course, the giant poster that folded out with the entire band on it. There was no doubt about it; what I was holding in my hand was pure gold (and I’m happy to say I still own it to this day), and I was officially a member of the KISS Army from that moment on.
KISS began life in New York City after two members of the already established act Wicked Lester (vocalist/guitarist Paul Stanley and bassist/vocalist Gene Simmons) decided to venture out on their own and start something new and different that included each member of the group wearing makeup and donning their own individual personas (with Stanley as the Starchild, Simmons as the Demon, Frehley as the Spaceman, and Criss as the Catman, respectively). After recruiting a couple of more local musicians in the form of drummer Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehely, the table was set for this new foursome to go after total rock dominance. But their first three albums, KISS (1974), Hotter Than Hell (1974), and Dressed to Kill (1975) found the band getting off with a lukewarm start at best.
It wasn’t until the band dropped Alive! in late 1975 that KISS fever would finally hit the country (and eventually the rest of the world). Showcasing everything right about the band, Alive! captured the pure, raw energy of the their live set (which included everything from fire-breathing to smoking guitars), launching them into super stardom on the heels of a live version of the band’s party anthem “Rock and Roll All Nite” – which skyrocketed the song, and the album up the charts. A trio of hit records in the form of Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977) helped cement the band as hard rock titans. The piano-driven power ballad “Beth” (sung by Criss) appealed the band to a much broader audience and grew their popularity even further.
But alas, trouble in paradise began to rear its ugly head by 1978, with the TV movie Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park portraying the band more like characters from a Scooby-Doo cartoon than the superheros they were meant to be shown as, and individual solo albums released by each member of the band that year also helped strengthen the ongoing riffs. By 1979’s Dynasty, there was no doubt things were eroding with Criss, who had recently endured a car accident which lead to substance abuse problems), causing him to only perform on only one track off the album (“Dirty Livin'”) while session drummer Anton Fig took up the rest of the slack. Criss’ live performance also suffered, often playing offbeat, or just plain not playing the shows at all.
Vinyl copy of KISS’ 1979 Dynasty album (complete with original ads) from the author’s collection.
By 1980’s Unmasked album, Criss was officially out (with Fig once again covering drum duties), marking the end of the “original” KISS. Enter Eric Carr, who took over the role of new drummer as the “Fox,” and was a much more technically skilled musician than Criss’ rough-around-the-edges approach.
Unfortunately, 1981’s Music From “The Edler,” a concept album that has since gone down as the band’s biggest embarrassment, was not exactly the ideal starting point for the new member. But 1982’s Creatures of the Night found the band going back-to-basic hard rock, albeit at the expense of another member as Frehley had already begun to move on. Several sessions guitarists, including Frehley’s eventual replacement Vinnie Vincent, were used for much of the recording of the album, as Ace made his official departure from the band shortly afterwards.
But the popularity of the band in the early ’80s was still waning, and a cause for drastic change was inevitable. For 1983’s Lick It Up album, the band did the unthinkable for the first time; took off their makeup that had concealed their identities for the better part of a decade. This ushered in a new era, and new life, for the band. Despite this, inner turmoil with Vincent lead to his dismal from the group, and Mark St. John was brought on to play the lead on 1984’s Animalize, another strong output from the guys. But a medical condition with his hands that limited his playing abilities would cause this to be the only album St. John would perform on with KISS (sadly, he eventually passed away years later in 2007), and Bruce Kulick was brought in as the band’s fourth guitarist to fill that spot (despite the rotating door of guitarists, Kulick would stay with the band an entire twelve years).
1985’s Asylum, 1987’s Crazy Nights, and 1989’s Hot in the Shade all continued to build on the band’s newfound success in the mid to late ’80s. But by early 1991 tragedy struck, as drummer Eric Carr was diagnosed with cancer, ultimately taking his life by November 24, 1991. But the band soldiered on the only way they knew how, and with Eric Singer behind the drumkit, released 1992’s Revenge, one of their heaviest albums to date. Unfortunately they once again faced new challenges as the landscape in rock music changed yet again, and grunge took over. There was no doubt that KISS would once again need to reinvent themselves.
And that change came with a performance on MTV’s Unplugged, when Frehley and Criss made their first appearance alongside the entire band for the first time in well over a decade. Recorded on August 9, 1995, I remember watching in awe the night it originally aired shortly after, feeling as though I was a part of history (or, KISStory if you will). From then on, it was a flown-blown reunion of Simmons/Stanley/Frehley/Criss (complete with makeup), and one of the biggest rock tours to date when it kicked off the following year in 1996.
One final studio album featuring Simmons/Stanley/Kulick/Singer titled Carnival of Souls: The Final Sessions was released rather unceremoniously in 1997 before the “comeback” record Psycho Circus featuring the “original” lineup (I say that very loosely) for the first time since 1979’s Dynasty, finally dropped in 1998. But old habits die hard, and halfway through a “Farewell Tour” that ran from 2000-01, Peter Criss was again replaced by Eric Singer. It wasn’t long after before Frehley was ousted as well, replaced by Tommy Thayer, who had worked on-and-off with the band on various projects, including co-writing songs and managing Kiss conventions going as far back as 1989.
With the lineup of Simmons/Stanely/Singer/Thayer, the band would record what will now be their final studio albums; 2009’s Sonic Boom, and 2012’s Monster. It was while they were touring in support of the latter record that I would finally see the “hottest band in the world” up close and personal for the one and only time on July 28, 2012 in Tampa, FL (with Motley Crue as their support act). It was one of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever been to in my lifetime, as much to do with the band itself as it did the longtime crush I ended up not only seeing the show with, but spending the entire weekend (in very KISS-like fashion) with after many years of longing after (for the sake of this article, we’ll just call her “Marie”).
Paul Stanley performing with KISS at the former 1-800-ASK-GARY Amphitheatre in Tampa, FL on 7/28/12 courtesy of the author’s collection.
Although my interest in KISS has no doubt fluctuated from time to time over the years, nothing got me fully back into the band quite like that one single live show did. Until that is, I was able to pick the brain of someone who had actually been there, when I interviewed former guitarist Bruce Kulick for Rewind It Magazine back in 2019. It was without a doubt one of the most exciting interviews that I’ve done in over fifteen solid years worth of music/entertainment journalism.
And now tonight, the band will take its final bow, putting an end to an era that stretches back as far as 1973. They’ve meant a lot to so many over the years (present company obviously included), while many others could have cared less, or have simply written them off as a “joke” for decades. But for what it’s worth, I sure as hell would not be able to picture a world without KISS ever existing in it. Thank you KISS for the memories…you will surely be missed, but never forgotten.