We all know what to expect at a KISS concert. There will be smoke and confetti, flash pots and fireworks. Paul Stanley, his trademark black star painted over his right eye, will be standing center stage, as Ace Frehley struts across the stage in his silver platform boots. Peter Criss will come out from behind the drums to sing "Beth," and Gene Simmons will soar above the stage, spitting blood like some oversized Kabuki demon.
As always, general KISSteria will ensue.
Ever since it was announced that all four original members would once again be donning face paint and hitting the road, the KISS army has been on the march again. And you'd be surprised how many rockers have joined up.
Since starting its tour in June, KISS has been packing arenas from coast to coast, bringing in an average of $690,924 a night. Through it all, the band has managed to maintain the highest profile in popular music. Their painted faces have turned up everywhere, from Entertainment Weekly to Spin to the firework-fueled finale of the "MTV Video Music Awards." The band even made the cover of Forbes recently.
It isn't just the fans who are excited, either. Over the past six or seven years, it has become surprisingly popular for big-name rock stars to admit to being hard-core KISSaholics. Trent Reznor said he kept a tiny Gene Simmons figure in the studio for inspiration while recording the Nine Inch Nails album "The Downward Spiral." Lars Ulrich of Metallica, Dean Dinning of Toad the Wet Sprocket, and the late Kurt Cobain were all KISS Army recruits.
To cop a phrase from one of its early albums, KISS is "Hotter Than Hell."
It wasn't always this way. Enlisting in the KISS Army may be hot now, but there was a time when the phrase, "Yeah, and you probably like KISS, too," was one of the coldest insults a rock fan could hurl.
Even in the glory days, when "Rock and Roll All Nite" was in the charts and on the radio, admitting to being a KISS fan was almost an invitation to disrespect. Reviled by critics and dismissed by hipsters, KISS was widely seen as a group no one over the age of 12 could possibly take seriously.
David McGee remembers those days. Back in 1975, he was working for the trade journal Record World, when representatives from KISS's record label tried to drum up some interest in the band.
"Obviously, they were trying to get the trades behind them," he says. "But I was the only one in the office that would go to see 'em."
A terrific show
KISS was playing the Beacon, a converted movie theater in Manhattan, and McGee was blown away by what he saw. "I really thought the show was terrific," he says. "They were terrific performers, very energetic, and into whatever their characters were at the time.
"But they related incredibly well with their audience, too. Which was interesting, because a couple of years after that, the KISS Army thing was going on, and it was really young kids in a lot of cases. But at the Beacon that night, it was the leather crowd-- an underground, S&M; kind of crowd. There were slaves and masters there, people with chains and dog collars being led around. It was that kind of heavy crowd, but they were there for the fun of it. That was the audience for KISS."
As much as McGee enjoyed the spectacle, it was the music that left the strongest impression. "Their songs were good, and they played their instruments well," he says. "Paul was a terrific singer in that style, and their energy never flagged. They fed off the audience, the audience fed off them, and it was an amazing little experience."
Trying to sell other rock critics on KISS wasn't easy, though.
McGee pitched a story on the band to Rolling Stone, but only because the band was about to go into the studio with producer Bob Ezrin -- someone Stone's editors respected far more than KISS.
Not taken seriously
"No one up there really took KISS seriously, or thought that they were going to last very long," he says. "If it hadn't been Bob Ezrin producing the album, I probably would have been laughed out of the office. I'm not sure they had been even noted in Rolling Stone before I wrote the feature."
Nor did McGee's story do much to change the critical consensus. "I didn't have any colleagues who thought I was using my time in a valuable way by hanging out with KISS, by going to their shows, or listening to their records," he says. "I hardly knew anyone who even listened to 'Destroyer,' among the music press. It seemed like much later before the music press started giving them any credence."
Things didn't go much better for the band on the fan side, either. Although KISS picked up millions of listeners on the strength of "Destroyer," "Rock and Roll Over" and "Love Gun," sales began to wane after the double-album best-of "Double Platinum" was released in 1978.
Some of the problem was overexposure, but far more damaging was the perception that thanks to its cartoonish image, KISS had become a "baby band," attracting far too many elementary school-aged fans to be liked by respectable high schoolers.
Life of a fan
As a result, those who maintained their membership in the KISS Army after 1979 often found themselves living under combat conditions. Scott Huffines can attest to that. Back when he was hitting puberty, the 33-year-old owner of Atomic Books was a devoted KISS fan. "All KISS sang about were girls," he says, looking back. "So I think it was just the whole raging, adolescent hormones kind of thing. It seemed like the thing to listen to if you were full of testosterone."
But by the time he reached high school, KISS's "Love Gun" was firing blanks as far as most of his classmates were concerned. "They tormented me," he says, "and then it just got worse as KISS's albums got worse. By the time 'Unmasked' came out, I had to pretend that I wasn't a KISS fan." Occasionally, though, word did get out, and Huffines was harassed by Zep fans who would "throw stuff at you" or worse.
"I never got beat up for it, but I do know friends who actually got beaten up for liking KISS."
Ironically, Huffines recognizes many of his old antagonists among the current generation of KISS maniacs. "They're the ones who are more fanatical about it now, whereas all the real KISS fans " He sighs. "I hate the stuff without makeup, and even now, the whole thing is pretty contrived," he says. "I'll still be there, waving the evil metal hand during the concert. But I can kind of take it with a grain of salt, and realize that it's a bunch of 50-year-old men running around in costumes."
So is KISS mania just another symptom of pop nostalgia, the inevitable result of former 12-year-old fans growing older but no less eager to hear their heroes? No doubt that accounts for a lot of the enthusiasm at these reunion shows.
But a lot of the kids at these shows weren't even alive when KISS last wore makeup. What's the allure for them?
McGee thinks the answer is as simple as the words "I wanna rock and roll all night, and party every day." As he explains, KISS offers its audience something they don't get elsewhere in modern rock. "When they listen to other kinds of music, they're hearing rage and pain and a lot of negative feelings about the world," he says. "Then KISS comes out, and their message is still 'I wanna rock and roll all night.'
"They're saying, 'Look, you can step back from what's going on in the world, and you can step back from your personal problems for a moment, and enjoy this. Breathe easy, have fun, and let us take you along for this ride.' In terms of the climate of contemporary music, they're kind of an antidote to all the rage and pain that you hear in alternative music."
As Paul Stanley would put it, "Calling Dr. Love "
When: Oct. 6-7, 8 p.m.
Where: USAir Arena
Tickets: $35 and $50
Call: (410) 481-7328
Hear the music
To hear excerpts from KISS's new release, "You Wanted the Best, You Got the Best!!," call Sundial at (410) 783-1800 and enter the four-digit code 6123. For other local Sundial numbers, see the Sundial directory on Page 2A.
Pub Date: 10/06/96