December 31, 2023

From the Vaults: KISS Them Goodbye?


     When was the first time you became aware of KISS?  Did you hear them on the radio?  Perhaps their (kind of) ghoulish make-up staring off the cover of their first album (released February 18, 1974) caught your attention.  Maybe you were one of those in the MTV generation who heard and saw them on that network (when MTV still showed music videos).  No matter when, where, or how KISS came to your attention, I am pretty sure nobody was thinking about them ending a fifty year run as a highly lucrative touring band at the end of 2023.  The End of the Road World Tour officially pulled the curtain down on the band at Madison Square Garden on December 2, 2023 with a show that was live streamed on Pay-per-view. 

     Having observed the past history of bands and artists ‘retiring’, people are naturally thinking, “Really?  That is it?  I bet they do a Motley Crue!”  For the record, Motley Crue actually signed a legal document saying that they were done, kaput, finished . . . and yet they came back with another tour (minus original guitarist Mick Mars) that will carry on in the new year.  One can not blame the KISS Army for being a) hopeful, b) skeptical, or c) both hopeful and skeptical that the band is done.  Okay, the final song of the final MSG show featured the band rocking out in front of a big screen displaying avatars of themselves rocking out, but I am not counting this as an ‘untretirement’.  Remember the buzz 3-D movies created?  Everyone was sure that all movies would be done in 3-D but after the initial burst of enthusiasm about them (not to mention the cost of producing them), things cooled down on that front.  The jury is still out on avatar bands replacing real people as a concert draw and we won’t know the score for a while.

     My first brush with KISS came courtesy of my good friend Mitch.  He and a work buddy picked me up after they finished work at the Marquette Red Owl store in Jon’s car.  Jon loved his Barracuda and his music.  As the music blasted out of the speakers in the back where I was sitting, I started looking through his 8-track tapes.  The ‘8-track’ part should give you a clue – it was sometime in the spring of 1974 and the two that caught my attention were Queen II (released in March 1974) and the self-titled KISS mentioned earlier.  Handing KISS to the front seat, I asked Jon, “What in the heck is this?”  He replied, “They are a new band from New York.  Everybody hated their first albums but bought them anyway because their live show is so over the top.  I think they are going to be huge!.”  When he plugged the cassette into the player, I remember thinking, “Okay, I have heard worse,” but I still couldn’t quite wrap my head around the album cover.  When I asked Jon if they really wore the make up when they performed, Jon said, “Yeah, that is part of what everybody loves about them.  They are different!”

     The eponymous first album didn’t have that necessary hit single to help it chart.  The 1974 follow up (Hotter than Hell) was even more disappointing as it peaked at 100 on the charts before dropping out of sight.  The third LP, 1975’s Dressed to Kill finally broke them into the Top 40, but their future was unclear.  Casablanca Records, KISS’s label, was near bankruptcy and had they closed their doors, the band’s future would have been murky at best.  Casablanca’s CEO Neil Bogard decided to cast his fortunes on the future by releasing the first live album by KISS in a last ditch effort to rescue his floundering label.

     Fortunately for both the band and the label, their next release produced the No. 12 smash hit, Rock and Roll All Night and suddenly, nobody could get enough of KISS.  Amazingly, this first entry near the top of the charts was taken off of their Alive! Album (released Sept 10, 1975).  The title Alive! was a homage to Slade Alive! by the English band Slade, one of KISS’s big influences.  Alive! featured songs from their first three studio albums and spanned a double disk LP.  Tracks for this LP were recorded at concerts held May 16 (Cobo Arena, Detroit), June 21 (Cleveland Music Hall), July 20 (RKO Orpheum Theater, Davenport, Iowa), and July 23, 1975 (at the Wildwoods Convention Center, Wildwoods, New Jersey).  Cassablanca’s money troubles prevented them from supporting the Dressed to Kill tour.  Bogart arranged a quick tour for the live recordings (which also saved money because live albums were cheaper to record) but KISS manager Bill Aucoin put up $300,000 out of his own pockets to pay for it.

     Cheap or not, the Alive! record did not capture KISS at its best (as Bogart and Aucoin had hoped it would).  Their energetic stage show was a great spectacle live, but in the pre-MTV years, it did not translate well to an LP.  Several miscues by Simmonds and Stanley (playing wrong cords, knocking over mic stands, not singing directly into the mic, etc) had to be buffed up in the studio by producer Eddie Kramer.  The band denied any dubbing took place, at least until Gene admitted as much in his 2001 autobiography Kiss and Make-up:  A Memoir.  Simmons wrote, “There have always been rumors that the Alive! record was substantially reworked in the studio.  It’s not true.  We did touch up the vocal parts and fix some of the guitar solos, but we didn’t have the time or the money to completely rework the recordings.  What we wanted, and what we got, was proof of the band’s rawness and power.”

     In a 2003 interview for Ultimate Albums, Paul Stanley concurred with Simmond’s earlier remarks:  “[Overdubbing] we felt was necessary to capture the energy of the performance, not necessarily having it note for note of what actually happened.”  Simmon’s added, “Most people assumed it was all live.  It wasn’t.”  According to drummer Peter Criss, “We touched up what we had to do and I think it only made it better.”  Years later, Kramer summed up the album by simply stating, “Who cares if it was overdubbed?  The energy still comes through.”

     Interestingly enough, so much work was done remastering the recordings at Electric LadyLand Studios, Criss’s drum tracks were about the only thing that weren’t touched up.  Even the crowd noises heard were patched together by Kramer from the best screams and cheers at the various shows.  The way the album sold and how quickly the band ascended to the top of the heap (in terms of income from their album sales and shows), no one would have thought less of them had they simply admitted this when the issue was first raised.  After all, kids were buying their records based on what they saw at KISS shows even though the initial recordings they sold at early shows were not great.  No true KISS fan would have blinked an eye at such a revelation.

      Five days after Alive! was released, Aucoin informed Casablanca that KISS were going to leave the label.  Bogart showed what the band meant to them by promptly signing a check for two million dollars to retain the band.  The album was subsequently re-released as part of the Alive! 1975-2000 box set (2006), on CD, again on vinyl in 2014, and once again as part of the 45th anniversary of the album (this time on colored vinyl) in 2020.  As was typical of their ‘we are the taste-makers of the music industry’ standard, Rolling Stone critic Alan Niester described the band’s music as, “awful, criminally repetitive, thuddingly monotonous…and mildly entertaining for about ten minutes.”  Robert Christgau confessed to ‘bemused curiosity’ about the album in Village Voice but stated many considered the album to be, “sludge – a de facto best-of album,” while noting, “the multimillion kids who are buying it don’t care.”

     It is funny how time (and massive record and ticket sales) can alter a band’s legacy.  Of late, even the critics have softened their view.  The New Rolling Stones Album Guide still chides Alive! for, “fake-sounding crowd noise, and inspirational chitchat,” but adds the album is, “the next best thing to being there, clearly.”  Pitchfork’s Jason Josephes calls KISS out for using, “every arena rock cliche in the book,” but citing the album as, “total sonic proof of KISS climbing their apex.”  Canadian journalist Martin Popoff credited Alive! with, “turning KISS into an insane rock’n’roll phenomenon.”  Popoff says the album elevated the band’s songs from, “Economical, low-key hard rock ditties for kiddies into ‘larger-than-life’ status – each now a bombastic track enveloped in fire-breathing mayhem, exploding smoke bombs, and screaming,m hysterical crowds (although he feels the crowd noise is too high in the mix).”

      At this point we can hit the fast forward button to the present.  To cover the animosities that broke up the original lineup seems to be pointless.  Yes, there were a couple of new members who replaced Ace and Peter.  Then there was the ‘unmasked’ period where KISS reinvented itself as a band without the make-up gimmick.  Their record sales were down at that stage, but they still managed to attract a new generation of fans via MTV.  The whole ‘let’s put the make-up back on and do a reunion tour’ thing was inevitable, and they guys proved they could still bring it and make massive money (again) with the classic lineup.  Sadly, and perhaps predictably, the old problems derailed the reunion of the ‘old band’ but didn’t kill the band.

      Drummer Erik Singer adopted the ‘Cat’ role (replete with a wig and Peter Criss’s face job) and Tommy Thayer did likewise with Ace’s ‘Spaceman’.  Sometime ago, Gene had pondered if it would be possible for four other talented musicians to don the stage garb of the classic band members and carry on without any original members.  Knowing Simmon’s penchant for marketing all things KISS, I thought at the time, “You know, I can almost see him trying to make that work.”  When the End of the Road tour kicked off in 2019, the end was in sight, yet everyone had different opinions on whether or not ‘the end’ would really be ‘THE END’.

     Naturally, there had to be one more ‘drama’ inserted into the celebration of KISS at 50.  Would Ace and Peter be part of it?  One side said they were invited, but only on certain terms.  The other side claimed they were not invited under any terms.  In the end, it was pretty clear that the script was being written by Simmons and Stanley and they were going to finish off KISS in true KISS fashion without their original drummer and guitarist.  This is KISS, remember, and nothing they did in their fifty years was done without a certain amount of drama.  The final tour kicked off in 2019, was interrupted by the COVID pandemic, was extended and rerouted as needed, but the end at Madison Square Garden on December 2, 2023 was carved in stone.  No more drama, right?

     During the first part of the tour, some fans accused the band, particularly Stanley, of using backing tracks and lip syncing during their live performances.  Of course the best defense to a charge like this would be . . . to not confirm or deny the accusations.  We all know what this brings – more suspicion.  It came to a head in Belgium when there was a slip up with the drum and fireworks cues at the end of the set opener, Detroit Rock City.  Stanley obviously was not singing yet his vocal was there prompting manager Doc McGhee to confirm that Stanley DOES sing during shows.  At times, McGhee said, backing tracks of Paul’s vocals were run and he would sing along with himself to ‘bolster the sound’.  Naturally, this only fueled further speculation that perhaps there was more than just his vocals being played through the PA system.

     I was asked by a fan who had seen KISS on a recent date in Wisconsin if the drummer was actually playing the piano and singing when the band performed Beth.  I did some internet snooping and found some clips of Singer / Cat-man singing in concert and it certainly did not sound like Peter Criss’s vocals.  There are other clips of Singer performing the song acoustically on the KISS package cruise outings so no doubt he can sing.  I never saw a close enough shot of him playing the piano so maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t actually play, but KISS would not be the only band out there that uses backing tracks to buff up their stage performance.

     Go back to the heyday of MTV and look up some videos by The Outfield.  Their line-up always featured a full band with a keyboard player.  When we caught them performing a MTU in the early 2000s, they played as a trio.  Our former WOAS computer whiz Mark Szaroletta confirmed they used ‘tons of backing tracks’ the band members cued using foot switches on stage.  Were they cheating their audience or simply using the tools available to give the best performance possible?  If KISS uses extra tracks to do the former, shame on them.  If KISS uses the tools available to do the latter, then give them props for NOT wanting to cheat their fans to a sub-par show.  While you are at it, check out some of the chatter about the controversy following Motley Crue around on their latest tour.  I think you will find the practice of using backing tracks is more widespread than most would suspect.

     I have seen snippets of the final KISS shows and find them to be just what they have always been – over the top, bombastic, and spectacular.  They have trod the road for fifty years and made a conscious decision to hang up the grease paint before they can not longer carry a show.  With that said, I will say I am less enthusiastic about their plan to carry on as performing avatars.  When Simmons discussed the band continuing without any of the original members, he certainly didn’t have this in mind.  Maybe they got the idea from ABBA’s attempt to use computer generated images of their younger selves performing rather than show their age.  Personally, I would rather see both groups simply let it go and retire gracefully ala Neil Diamond.  

     In what can only be called a ‘cringe worthy moment’ (for me anyway), Paul Stanley introduced the avatar segment of their last show with some claptrap about how the fans have now made the band ‘immortal’.   Hmmm.  Pardon me, but I would just as soon remember what they WERE like than watch the ‘new improved superhero characters portrayed by the avatars.  Thanks KISS – you had better than a good run, but it is time to let it go!


Top Piece Video – KISS perform Strutter on the David Letterman Show