American Songwriter January/February Cover Story: KISS Forever and Ever

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Shortly after releasing their self-titled debut in 1974, Kiss bassist and singer Gene Simmons read a periodical clipping where someone declared that it was unlikely the band would be around much longer. Now, 5o years later, that prediction could not have been more erroneous as Kiss is one of the biggest bands in the world. 

“That guy, he’s the mulch on the ground behind my mansion,” jokes Simmons of the unnamed writer. “Well, one of my mansions.”

Formed in 1973 by Simmons from Queens and singer and guitarist Paul Stanley from Manhattan, KISS represented four corners of the five boroughs of New York City, including founding guitarist Ace Frehley from the Bronx and founding drummer Peter Criss from Brooklyn. And they wanted to take over the world.

“As your wet-behind-the-ears knuckleheads off the streets of New York, we never dared dream that Kiss would be as successful as it’s become,” Simmons tells American Songwriter. “We would never dare dream that we would last half a century.”

Born out of the four members’ desire to create something they had never seen on stage before, there was a clear mystique around forming a band that was part spectacle—Stanley as the “Starchild,” Simmons as the “Demon,” Frehley as the “Spaceman,” and Criss as “Catman”—and part hard rock show, unlike anything their influences could ever deliver. “We are the loins of the fans who dreamed of putting together the band we never saw on stage because we were so disappointed by the bands we grew up with and went to see live,” shares Simmons. “There was always something missing. The songs were good but somehow the live experience just didn’t deliver.”

Taking their personae from comic book-like characters—their faces painted in clown white and black, the band’s warpaint, and heavy metallic garb, footed in sky-high platform heels and staged around cued-up pyrotechnics and over-the-top theatrics—Kiss delivered something else and dubbed themselves the “hottest band in the world.”

“Part of it is good luck, having the right thing at the right place at the right time,” says Simmons. “And part of it is just plain, old-fashioned hard work—show up on time, do what you’re supposed to do, and love your fans. They are your boss. And the rest of it is fate. Somebody’s controlling something. I remember [boxer] Rocky Graziano’s story. He pointed up to the sky after he became world champion and said, ‘Somebody up there likes me.’”

For Stanley, who along with Simmons are the two original members of the band—now joined by longtime guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer—part of the “magic” of Kiss’ longevity is the longstanding camaraderie and connection to the audience. “There’s that interplay with the audience, and as corny as it may sound, the love that is given to us, and the joy that we both share,” shares Stanley. “There’s this reciprocity that isn’t lost on me.”

Now in their 50th year, the band also celebrated the 40th anniversary of their 10th album, Creatures of the Night, the final album before Kiss went “unmasked”(without makeup) and unveiled themselves on the cover of their 1983 album Lick It Up before covering their faces again for their 1998 release Psycho Circus.

Behind the “mask,” wiping off the makeup was something Simmons was reluctant to do at first, says Stanley. “It was more difficult for Gene to take off the makeup because he was lost without it,” he says. “He had created such a strong persona that it took another album and the lack of embracing of Creatures by the public to make him realize that people were listening with their eyes and were tired of what they were seeing, and we needed to do something drastic.”

Birthing one of the band’s biggest hits, “I Love It Loud,” Creatures alsocame off a less-than-hyped ninth album, Music from ‘The Elder,which was more orchestral than rock and at a time when the band, reveals Stanley, had become more complacent.

“We gummed the music,” says Stanley. “We had no teeth. We were more concerned with our contemporaries, and our friends’ opinions than our fans’ opinions. We were looking for approval from people who we would never get it from or we would get it at a cost to the people who really mattered, the people who made us in the first place.”

He adds, “Gene and I realized that we were on the brink of not extinction, but implosion. We had lost our understanding or respect for our success. The music wasn’t good, and we were off to different things that diluted it even further, so we had a moment where we really realized how much the band meant to us. Creatures of the Night was pretty much a declaration of restating who we were and writing songs without any impact from people around us, or anything except who we are at our roots.”

There was also a dynamic shift around the release of Creatures as it was the band’s final album with Casablanca Records. The album was also dedicated to the label founder and the band’s earliest supporter, Neil Bogart, who died of cancer at the age of 39 in 1982. And within the band, the shift came with the departure of Frehley, the introduction of new guitarist Vinnie Vincent, and the second album with then-new drummer, the late Eric Carr, who had already joined the band on their previous Unmasked Tour in 1980 and first appeared on The Elder album.

“You don’t have the hunger for food anymore or shelter, but you need to have the hunger for creating at the level that you want to,” says Stanley. “I think we lost it. I think we may have believed that putting out Creatures would set everything right, but in essence, when you cheat on your spouse and then say you’re sorry, they don’t embrace you and everything goes back to normal. Creatures was the start of proving ourselves again to our fans. And it wasn’t going to take one album.”

Stanley adds, “To this day, I think it’s just a terrific and untainted album, because we did it without anyone giving us input, and we had Eric Carr, who was a fabulous drummer, and now we could do the kind of music that we hadn’t been able to. And yet, once we finished it and put it out, it was met with a lukewarm response by most people, and that was because people had enough of us, and understandably. We kind of lost our focus and lost our way. We got off at the wrong exit and kept going.”

Music was also shifting around the early 1980s with more hair metal bands. “The guys were starting to be better looking than their girlfriends, so it was a very unsure time,” says Simmons. “The fact that Creatures came out pretty decently, we can look back proudly at it as a real triumph. Despite the hurdles, we were still able to deliver the goods.”

Now 73, Simmons says “the end” of Kiss, meaning their final live performance, is bittersweet, but there’s really no closure to the band with the opening of the Kiss World Museum in Las Vegas, a Kiss cartoon and film in the works, the Kiss Kruise, licensing, and everything that will expand the legacy long after Stanley and Simmons have stopped playing on stage.

 “It’s happy and sad because things come to an end,” says Simmons. “Your life and my life, even the planet we’re on at some point is just going to stop and maybe that’s OK.” 

Photo by Brian Babineau

Simmons says that the timing is right for Kiss to end. “I still have hair on my head—lots more on my back,” jokes Simmons. “They call me Chewbacca. Kiss will continue. The culture will still continue. We’re just getting off the stage while the getting is good, and while we’re still convincing doing it. We’re the hardest-working band on the stage. It would be great if we were U2 or the [Rolling] Stones, two of my favorite bands, because to prepare for a show you put on your favorite sneakers and your T-shirt and you’re set. You don’t have to break out the platform heels.”

Stanley, who turns 71 on January 20, admits that heavy touring schedules and wearing their suits of armor have taken their toll. “Being on tour is pretty much three hours of elation, and 21 hours of being away from home, which honestly is not fun,” reveals Stanley. There are nights when I’m going to bed and going, ‘What the hell am I doing here? Why am I here when I have a family home?’ So there certainly is a push and pull, but there’s nothing like being on stage, the gratitude that I feel.”

Stanley jokes, “And the workout that I get on stage, I couldn’t do that in a gym. If you could pack 10,000 or 100,000 people into a gym to cheer you on, you’d do things that you couldn’t do without them there, so flying over an audience on a wire, that’s pretty cool. If I try that during the afternoon when nobody is there, I’m terrified. Adrenaline makes you stupid.”

Growing up in Manhattan, Stanley remembers going to the opera with his parents. “I was a kid who from a very early age was passionate about music,” says Stanley. “The first music I heard was Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ Concerto, and I lived in a house where there was always music playing—Mahler, Mozart, Schumann. Then there were Broadway tunes and popular music and opera.”

Being surrounded by his parents’ running playlist of opera and classical music, was the first guide toward his future. “My parents were instrumental in introducing me to both music and art,” shares Stanley, who is humbled by Kiss’ legendary status, half a century on.

“I remember seeing Otis Redding,” adds Stanley. “I remember seeing Led Zeppelin playing in 1969. I saw Jimi Hendrix, and to ascend to a level that I saw them as, I’m not full of myself enough to believe that I am actually in that strata. But it’s all perception, and when other people see me at that level, it’s incredibly gratifying and humbling.”

Still, the end of Kiss performing live is inevitable, says Stanley. “There are two things that are inevitable: death and taxes,” he says. “And it’s inevitable the demise of us playing as a live band. Do I want to see that day? No. But it’s necessary. Before we have no choice, I’d like to end it.”

Kiss’ final show will be an emotional one for Stanley. “When I think about the end of it, it doesn’t make me happy,” he says. “I’ll be ecstatic looking at what we’ve accomplished and what we’ve done, but it’s the end of an era. It’s also the end of a huge part of my life.”

For Stanley and Simmons, Kiss has filled nearly three-quarters of their lives. “I take my kids to school, and I do all kinds of things, but the band has been most of my life,” says Stanley. “The connection to the audience and that adrenaline rush and the emotional rush of doing a show, I don’t want that to end, but a lot of things have to end. I’d like to think that in the best situation you can control it, and that’s simply what we’re doing. If we were in T-shirts and jeans, we could do this into our 80s and 90s but not in eight-inch platform heels and 40 pounds of gear.”

At this point, Kiss is beyond a band, says Stanley. “I always say that bands make music and phenomenons impact society,” he says. “Here we are 50 years later, 100 million albums. We’re on an endless farewell tour now that we’re calling it the end of the road, but what happens is they keep paving the road. Every time I think it’s the last time we’re going to be in a country or a city, once the show is over the promoter or the fans are adamant that we come back.”

The farewell tour began in 2019 and will continue into 2023 with 100 added dates. As much as everything must come to an end, Simmons and Stanley are keeping it going…a little longer. “There are people out there who are being made very happy and four of them are on stage,” says Stanley. “So to be considered iconic, or legends or any of these words is…I’m glad that I don’t buy into it fully because I would become impossible.”

Into their third generation of fans across the globe, Kiss’ reach 50 years later is still palpable, for the fans and the band. “You can’t find this on a store shelf,” says Simmons. “There’s no can of happiness that you can buy. I mean, we have more fun than the pope.” 

Simmons adds, “We have fans that span the globe and span the ages. To see a 5-year-old kid in Kiss makeup sitting on the shoulder of his dad who is wearing Kiss makeup who’s next to his dad…when that little one shoots his fists up in the air or does my hand gesture, I’m supposed to be ‘Mr. Badass’ on stage but I will tell you that it puts a big lump in my throat.”

Long after the farewell tour is over, and the band takes their final bows, there’s no doubt Kiss will live on—forever.

“We created a monster,” says Stanley. “Now the public won’t let it die, and I think that’s amazing. We’ve survived and thrived, and at this point, Kiss is eternal.”

Kiss cover image by Ross Halfin.

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