Even for those who aren’t the biggest rock ‘n roll fans, there is a certain curiosity about the band KISS and about their fans, known as the KISS Army. This two-part documentary gives up some of their deepest secrets, and the obstacles they overcame to become “the hottest band in the world/land.”
Originally named Wicked Lester, KISS has been performing and recording for almost 50 years, and the beginning of this documentary goes back even further. We learn that Gene Simmons was born in Israel and moved to the U.S. in 1958, while Paul Stanley was born in Queens, and was a very awkward, lonely child. We also learn that Stanley has a congenital handicap, a deformed ear, and can only hear out of his “good” ear. Neither man uses their given names of Stanley Bert Eisen (Paul) and Chaim Weitz (Gene). And that’s just for starters.
The two men met in 1970, and much of the first episode is spent with the two co-founders of the band recollecting those early years. The early formation of the band is somewhat unusual, as Gene and Paul found drummer Peter Criss from an advertisement Criss put in the newspaper, and Ace Frehley answered the band’s ad in NYC’s Village Voice for a lead guitarist. Even with this fantastic lineup, the band was not without its trials and tribulations, even after securing a record deal. In the beginning, they even traded working for a studio to get recording time and engineers.
Each band member also created their own makeup and character. For instance, Simmons’ demon was supposedly influenced by “Phantom of the Opera.” Stanley’s StarChild was born out of his fascination with stars. Criss likened himself to a cat with nine lives, thus, The Catman. And Frehley went for the SpaceMan.
Their new manager, Bill Aucoin recognized their potential and hooked them up with Neil Bogart’s newly formed Casablanca Records. By 1975, the band had their anthem, Rock ‘n Roll All Nite, and as Dave Grohl says, their stage show was “ballistic”. Despite all of that, they were definitely “a people’s band, not a critics’ band”, and it took the huge success of their Alive! album to save both the band and their record label, which was down to their last penny prior to the album’s release.
And what typically follows massive success? Yes, turmoil. By 1982 both Criss and Frehley had left the band, mostly due to drugs and creative differences. Basically, Criss was fired. According to many interviews, by his own account, he deliberately sabotaged three of his final five shows with the original lineup of Kiss. This didn’t sit well at all with Stanley, Simmons and Frehley. Stanley later stated “It’s one thing to sabotage things offstage – and God knows he’d done plenty of that. But this was different. This was in front of people who paid to see us.” By Stanley’s account, Frehley and Simmons were also “stunned by this betrayal,” and voted to kick Criss out of the band immediately. With only a few shows remaining, they let him stay until the end of that leg of the tour. The last show took place on Dec. 16, 1979, in Toledo, Ohio. Criss was replaced by drummer Eric Carr for the next tour.
Frehley would soon follow, over the objections of the band, and his managers and attorney. “I remember a conversation with my attorney, in his office,” Frehley recalls in an interview, “He struggled to convince me that quitting Kiss was the stupidest thing I could do … but I knew that if I didn’t leave the group, I was going to die. Everything about my life was in disarray at that time. I felt no connection to Kiss anymore and wasn’t happy about the direction the band was taking.” Even a visit from Stanley couldn’t change his mind, and he left. Frehley was replaced by Vinnie Vincent.
Part 2 of the documentary focuses more on the band’s ever-changing musical styles and various personnel changes at drummer and lead guitarist, as well as the rollercoaster ride of popularity. It’s difficult for a band to reinvent themselves once their look, style, music, and stage show have garnered such a loyal following. Disco, dance music, androgyny, and a rock opera didn’t work for the band or their fans, and Gene and Paul both readily admit they spent some years floundering.
It was MTV in 1983 when the band first appeared without makeup, in yet another attempt to reinvent themselves. After the split with Criss, Frehley, and manager Aucoin, the next dozen years brought multiple lead guitarists, the tragic loss of drummer Eric Carr to cancer. It was an appearance on MTV’s Unplugged in 1995 that led to a huge reunion tour for the original members of the band, including KISS Convention – a traveling museum for fans.
You cannot deny their magnitude. KISS has sold more than 100 million records and countless concert tickets over their five-decade span. Self-destructive band members, and an addict as a manager, were obstacles that couldn’t ultimately stop the band. All in all, it’s been a fascinating journey for one of rock’s most unusual bands.
Peter Criss and Ace Frehley declined to participate in the making of this documentary, so most of this is told from the viewpoint of co-founders Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons. But even if it all truly ends after the current tour, their place in history is completely secure.
They were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. Restrictions stemming from the Covid outbreak sidelined them in early 2020 for their current farewell tour, but they are scheduled to hit the road again in August 2021. The current line-up is Stanley, Simmons, lead guitarist Tommy Thayer (Spaceman), and drummer Eric Singer as the CatMan. As their show intro has stated for over 50 years, “You wanted the best, you got the best, the hottest band in the world…. Kiss!”
Tami Danielson is the main in-house blogger and Director of Operations for Pop-Daze. She was raised in California and Florida and currently resides in Oregon. Tami has written for a variety of periodicals and has provided digital marketing services for a number of artists. She can be reached at [email protected]