Maybe it’s the makeup. Maybe it’s the merchandising. Maybe, at the end of the day, it’s just the music itself.
Whatever the source, it is safe to say that few bands have inspired as much fervent devotion—and also rabid derision—as the self-proclaimed “Hottest Band in the World,” Kiss.
But love them or hate them (and really, is there any area in between?), Kiss—and in particular its stalwart co-founders, visionaries and greatest proponents and protectors, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons—continue to not only exist but also scale greater heights.
Here we are in 2014, and the band, now roughly 10 lineups in with current guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer, are experiencing yet another renaissance.
Their most recent (and 20th) studio album, Monster, was an unusually strong effort, more energetic and enjoyable than should reasonably be expected from any band at this stage of its career. Meanwhile, on the live front, Kiss continue to push the limits of just how much of an over-the-top spectacle a rock and roll show can truly be (for evidence, check out videos of recent performances that feature their newly designed Spider stage).
But 2014 is also offering up another nice pair of victories for the band. This year marks Kiss’ 40th anniversary (their self-titled debut was released in February 1974), and in April, Stanley and Simmons, along with former, and now estranged, original members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, will be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
To celebrate these dual milestones, Guitar World met separately with Stanley and Simmons at their Los Angeles homes to discuss just a few of the many triumphs and tribulations that led the band here.
Additionally, they were asked to examine the inner workings of their unique partnership as well as to offer a few candid thoughts on the many guitarists that have passed through Kiss’ ranks, from Frehley to Thayer and everyone in between. (As for the ones that almost made it? That list includes Eddie Van Halen…depending on who you ask.)
Which is not to say that Stanley and Simmons, now 62 and 64, respectively, have much time these days for reflection. A week before meeting with Guitar World, both, along with Thayer and Singer, were in Milan for Fashion Week, walking the runway in full makeup with designer John Varvatos.
A few days after our talks they were back in their gear, playing “Rock and Roll All Nite” in front of more than 50,000 people at Dodger Stadium for the NHL’s first-ever outdoor hockey game in California. The next week brought a trip to Maui to open the newest location of the Simmons/Stanley restaurant chain, Rock & Brews. And in April, Stanley will release his excellent, and refreshingly candid, autobiography, Face the Music: A Life Exposed (HarperCollins).
Finally, come the summer, Kiss will likely be back out on the road, once again playing to sheds packed full of several generations of screaming fans—the very same ones that Stanley and Simmons have always publicly credited with keeping the band going through their many ups and downs. And, just maybe, Stanley reasons, those fans had more than a little to do with Kiss finally becoming Hall of Famers. “At some point,” he says, perhaps also summing up the band’s raison d’être, “you just can’t ignore the roar of the crowd.”
GUITAR WORLD: Congratulations on your long-awaited Hall of Fame induction. Along with Rush, who were inducted last year, there is possibly no other band that has been both as successful in music and as ignored by the Hall as Kiss.
But to ignore somebody with the kind of fervor that we’ve been ignored, that’s clearly a conscious decision. For better or worse, that’s not being ignored at all. When it happens year after year, that’s a choice. But on the other side of it, to me rock and roll has always been about doing what you want to do and ignoring not only your critics but also your peers.
For 40 years, we’ve rarely wavered from that. So I would have to say that the same criteria that has kept us out of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is the same criteria that now has gotten us inducted into it.
The debate over whether or not Kiss deserved to be in the Hall of Fame was in a way a microcosm of a larger and much longer-running argument about Kiss’ artistic merits in general. The classic “Kiss Army vs. the Critics” battle, if you will.
But ultimately, who gives a shit about the critics? To pontificate or pass judgment on what’s good or bad, I leave that to the audience. And let me say this: the makeup and the stage show have never been there to cover anything up; it’s there to embellish and enhance what we do. I’ve seen us onstage without any makeup, I’ve seen us play in a club setting. We’ve got the goods. If some people are turned off by the way we look, that’s their prerogative.
One thing that has always struck me is that, for how flamboyant and over-the-top the Kiss image was right from the start, it was also incredibly focused and direct.
Even though the characters were diverse, the fact is that the image was always cohesive. One guy isn’t wearing red leather and the next guy is in a silk suit. There’s a color scheme. There’s a unity. Growing up, what I loved about all the British bands was that group unity.
For the most part, the guys in one band would have never looked right in another band—you couldn’t take one of the Stones and put him in the Beatles. I also think that what made it ring true for a lot of people is that it was deeper than paint. We’ve always worn what we feel as a second skin, whereas other bands might have thought, Get a silly outfit and a big logo and you can be Kiss.
Even before Kiss, you and Gene were playing around with the concept of having alter egos. Back when you both were in Wicked Lester, you considered dressing up as a cowboy, and Gene was going to be a caveman. Not quite as compelling, character-wise, as the Starchild and the Demon.
Well, I don’t think anybody hits a homerun the first time they’re at bat. If they do it’s luck, and then they don’t hit another. Gene and I knew where we wanted to go, but we weren’t quite sure how to get there. We were groping in the dark. At the beginning of Kiss, for one show I think I had a red face and Gene was in a sailor suit. So there was an evolution, only in hyper speed. It didn’t take years—it took months, weeks.
What do you feel are Gene’s strengths as a musician?
For all his bullshit and his joy in rubbing people the wrong way, the fact of the matter is the guy is a great bass player.
He has the right roots as far as I’m concerned—Paul McCartney, Felix Pappalardi, Jack Bruce, Ron Wood when he was with the Jeff Beck Group. And he’s one of those guys who can play anything and sing at the same time, which is a whole lot more difficult than it looks.
With Gene, bass playing is not the first thing people tend to think about.
Gene’s assets and what he brings as a musician sometime get overshadowed by his desire to shake things up. But some pretty serious heavyweights have said to me, “Gee, I didn’t realize how great a bass player he is.” And from the beginning I could tell he was a good songwriter, or that he had the ability to be a really good songwriter.
I think his early stuff before Kiss was kind of questionable. Some of the songs he brought in initially were very odd. But his musicality and his sense of melody were great. And when we started writing together, it was just that magic that happens when one plus one equals five.
In your new autobiography, Face the Music, you chronicle a childhood filled with a fair amount of struggle, including being born with microtia, a deformity of the ear, and much conflict with your parents and sister, all of which could have led you to recoil from the world. And yet you became a classic example of the extroverted rock and roll singer.
True, but nobody has ever thought of me as the classic extroverted guy on the street. I was never that offstage. In social environments, what some people saw as snobbery was actually complete intimidation by a situation. When I would be at a party and I wouldn’t interact with people, it wasn’t because I thought I was better than them.
It was probably just the opposite. But we find different ways to deal with our handicaps and our shortcomings and our limitations. Mine was to charge forward because, innately, I knew I could do it.
You also write about having a desire to find your own family, and thinking that you did with Kiss. But that didn’t necessarily turn out to be the case.
But maybe it turned out to be more of a realistic family and less of an idealized one. Brothers don’t always get along. Brothers have egos. Brothers want to win. So what I was looking for was maybe a distortion of what, most of the time, family really is.
When I met Gene, it was invigorating, because it gave me support, because trying to make it on your own is very lonely and scary. Now the other two [Frehley and Criss], what can I say? There was a chemistry. But chemicals ultimately combust. It was volatile and it was exciting, but eventually it just blew up.
How did you and Ace work together as guitarists in the early days?
What we had at the beginning was magical. Not because we were virtuosos. Magic in rock and roll isn’t dependent on virtuosity. Ace and I played great together. But in my mind it’s a crime what Ace did. He threw away incredible potential and talent. The Ace I played with when the band first started out was a comet. And not [Frehley’s late-Eighties band] Frehley’s Comet!
But he was burning bright and really had the ability—and this would rub him the wrong way—to be a real contender. But he stopped practicing. He got involved with a whole lot of things that really diluted and diminished his craft. I saw that comet grow dim.
By the turn of the Eighties, Ace and Peter were on their way out, and Gene was off trying to make a name for himself in Hollywood. Did you feel like you were on your own in Kiss?
Totally. Absolutely. I didn’t feel it. I was. There wouldn’t have been a band without me. Because when your partner is off doing all kinds of questionable side projects and not only taking time but also involvement away from the band, sure. For me it ultimately came down to, I love what I do; I don’t want this to end. So I decided to bail water, for my own survival.
How did that make you feel?
It certainly was more lonely and more stressful to know that the only person who was going to get us through the icebergs was me. But I didn’t mind that. I only minded the fact that I was still splitting the income and royalties as though I had a partner. That bothered me. The fact that I was running things? Honestly, that’s probably what got us through that decade.
As far as navigating the icebergs, as Kiss’ popularity declined, it was your idea, in 1983, to take off the makeup in order to reinvigorate interest in the band.
I didn’t see any other choice at that point. And I take my hat off to Gene that, although he was uncertain about it and maybe less comfortable with it, he came to realize that it was the right move. Or at least he saw that I was very committed to the idea. I felt that we had diluted everything the band was to the point where it was becoming a farce. What happened was, we kicked Peter out of the band—“we” meaning Ace, Gene and myself.
But rather than saying, “We’ve built these iconic figures together and we’re going to continue on with what we built,” we bought into the idea of, “We have to have a new character.” That watered it down. Some people may argue with me, but I feel that Batman is Batman whether he’s played by George Clooney, Christian Bale, Val Kilmer and on and on.
So are you saying that when Eric Carr replaced Peter and Vinnie Vincent replaced Ace, you feel they should have come into the band as the Catman and the Spaceman, respectively?
Was there ever talk of doing that?
No. Never. So to suddenly have the Fox, who takes the place of the Cat, and the Ankh, who takes the place of the Spaceman…it just didn’t hold. And then couple that with the music we were making, which was marginal at best. Although we were giving 100 percent, when you’re more involved with who you’re hanging out with and the social strata that you’re in, and you’re enjoying your big house and all your money, you wind up gumming things. Your teeth don’t bite anymore.
When do you feel that things got back on track for the band?
Creatures of the Night. I wanted us to take the makeup off for that record. But we missed the opportunity, and it was met with a tepid response. But by Lick It Up Gene was willing to do it. And coincidentally that album sold, I don’t know, seven times what the one before it did.
There have always been rumors that around the time of Creatures of the Night, Eddie Van Halen had asked to join Kiss.
I never heard that. Eddie did come down to the studio during Creatures, and he spoke to me on the phone during that period. There was real dissention in his band at that time, that much was clear. But as far as him wanting to join Kiss? No, not that I know about. Doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but I never heard it. But you have two interviews here.
Your two recent albums with the current lineup—Sonic Boom and Monster—have been exceptionally strong efforts. Are there plans to go back into the studio?
I don’t know. After we established ourselves as a live band with Tommy [Thayer] and Eric [Singer], the desire to do a studio album was there so that we wouldn’t be resting on our history but building on what we’re doing today. So they were important albums to do, and I think to not have done them would have been a big mistake.
And actually, I love those albums way more than some of our early ones. It’s been well documented that, as far as I’m concerned, some of those early records were not competitive sonically with what else was out at the time, and they certainly didn’t sound like us live. So I’m really happy with our recent albums. They are everything that I always hoped Kiss would sound like on record. Whether we’ll do another? Time will tell.
This year is also the 40th anniversary of the release of Kiss’ self-titled debut. Is anything planned?
Well, every year is an anniversary. So what should we do this year that’s special? We should go out and be great. We’ll probably tour this summer, and we should go out with the Monster stage show that hasn’t really been around the States. We should show people that what we’re doing now is, for my money, the best show we’ve ever done. So that’s what we’re doing. We’re surviving. We’re thriving. That’s our victory.
Photo: Ross Halfin