“Hey, watch this!”
Spring 1976, and the four of us were parked in Phil’s Firebird when he took a mouthful of lighter fluid from his trusty BIC, flicked the sparkwheel and blew. The ensuing flame singed the car’s visor – and his eyebrows – resulting in much stoned laughing and coughing and slapping at sparks. It was the same trick we’d seen Gene Simmons do the previous December at the Nassau Coliseum, when Simmons’ band Kiss had been presented with its first gold record (for “Alive!”). America had entered its bicentennial year, and a million teens in a million parked cars and basements had enlisted in the Kiss Army to throw off the shackles of convention and commonsense to revel in the newfound freedom of rock ‘n’ roll.
It was Kiss’ showmanship more than its music that made the face paint and costume wearing quartet a cultural force.
On Tuesday, the iconic rock band Kiss plays Florida to kick off the summer American leg of its “End of the Road” farewell tour, supposedly packing up all its pomp and pageantry with it. “Supposedly” because the band already did a farewell tour in 2000-01, and two of the original members (drummer Peter Criss and lead guitarist Ace Frehley) abandoned ship years ago. But it seems likely that the band that changed the look — if not the sound — of hard rock is on its last eight-inch-high platform-booted legs.
Indeed, it was Kiss’ showmanship more than its music that made the face paint and costume wearing quartet a cultural force. That showmanship not only melded hard rock with the flamboyant presentation of glam, albeit in an exaggerated style, but also paved the way for punk — in part because it pushed arena rock to an unsustainable, ridiculous extreme that created space for the more authentic and rawer punk experience. And that makes it worth paying our respects to the band on its final tour.
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That Kiss was a phenomenon is undeniable. Founded in January 1973 out of the ashes of bassist Simmons’ and guitarist Paul Stanley’s earlier band, Wicked Lester, the quartet began playing around the New York area with some success. But that March, with the adoption of the iconic comic book characters — Simmons as the “Demon,” Stanley as “Star Child,” Frehley as “Spaceman,” and Criss as “Catman” — the band assumed the larger-than-life persona that would appeal to an even larger (and younger) audience.
That December, Simmons first tried his fire-breathing trick — reportedly setting his heavily Aqua-Netted hair on fire — and their reputation as showmen was cemented. In 1977, the band would even star in its own Marvel comic, the members contributing their own blood to the ink.
Between these theatrics and such anthems as “Rock and Roll All Nite” and “Shout It Out Loud,” the band would go on to sell more than 100 million albums worldwide. Purveying hard-driving bar-band blues-rock to the kids, via songs like “Black Diamond,” “Love Gun,” and “Cold Gin,” Kiss earned 30 RIAA-certified gold records, 14 platinum albums and three that have gone multiplatinum.
This music was always, at best, derivative. (The band even had a token ballad, “Beth,” as was standard for hard rockers back then.) What fans might not have known was that the stagecraft was, too. By the early ’70s, glam rockers such as the New York Dolls and Slade were already playing with costumes and sexuality in the cause of free expression, extending the explorations of earlier art-rockers like the Velvet Underground. But while bands like the Dolls used drag and campy onstage personalities to express the ultimate freedom of rock ‘n’ roll — freedom to craft your own sexuality, as well as your own identity — they had more of a cult following than mass appeal.
Even heavy metal was already becoming more theatrical by Kiss’ day; Alice Cooper, which had begun as a psychedelic band, released its first album in 1969. Twisted Sister, which began playing out on Long Island at roughly the same time as Kiss, was also working up a stage act that included costume changes, pyrotechnics and makeup to support the bombast.
Still, no one else took it quite as far as Kiss. Nobody else wore kabuki makeup. Nobody else had made-up superhero characters. Ozzy wasn’t biting the heads off bats (OK, one bat) until 1982, and by then, Kiss’ Simmons had already spit gallons of (presumably fake) blood onto the stage. By virtue of its sheer outrageousness combined with the basic musical thrust of hard rock, Kiss brought the newer ideas of glam rock – of an identity that one could choose – to its widest, and perhaps youngest, audience yet.
In doing so, they paved the way for American punk by reconnecting rock ‘n’ roll with its rebellious teenage roots. After a decade of rock being built up as artistic and, arguably by the mid-70s, incredibly self-important, Kiss was fun. Surely the Ramones’ 1976 debut, with its tongue-in-cheek horror story songs, grew from the same irreverence, while subsequent albums, with covers drawn by cartoonist John Holstrom, built on a similar sense of bratty mischief.
Kiss took that rebellious fun as as far as it could go. By the end of the ’70s, the platforms were as high as they could be, the stunts as outrageous. The band already, intentionally, a caricature. When Criss and Frehley left in the early ’80s, the founding duo tried to prolong the magic with new members. The band even took off its makeup in 1983 for the MTV launch of “Lick It Up,” a play at being serious that didn’t last. Despite a reunion of the full original lineup in 1996, Kiss’ moment had passed.
As Kiss takes its valedictory lap, nostalgia for our youth as much as for the band itself will likely fill the seats.
Simmons, in particular, has by now turned off many of his former fans. Relying heavily on sexual shtick, he clearly annoyed Terry Gross, of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” during a 2002 interview promoting his memoir, “Kiss and Make-Up.” (Among other comments, he tells her that if she is going to welcome him “with open arms, you’re also going to have to welcome me with open legs.”)
He was banned from Fox News “for life” in 2017, again promoting a book (“On Power”) after making jokes about pedophiles, and in 2018, he was sued for sexual battery by an employee of his restaurant chain. Former bandmate Frehley has called Simmons out for his behavior, labeling him an “a--hole and a sex addict,” making the chance of his dropping in for an appearance on the current tour exceedingly unlikely.
Perhaps it no longer matters. The band, which was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, made its mark 40 years ago, pushing boundaries in ways that felt revelatory to those of us just coming of age and opening our minds to all the music that would come after. As Kiss takes its valedictory lap, nostalgia for our youth as much as for the band itself will likely fill the seats. And when the band breaks into “Rock and Roll All Nite” – a good bar band song, by any measure – you know the years will burn off in our memories, at least, and we’ll all sing along. Older, like the band is, but marked forever by those flames. (Phil most of all – he became a firefighter.)