KISS. It’s a band you either love or hate. It’s always been that way — no middle ground. However, I think I’ve found a way to bridge the gap between these two camps: read Nothin’ To Lose: The Making of KISS 1972-1974. There’s plenty of ammo for whichever side you’re on — and for the other side as well.
Me? I always loved KISS as a kid. I loved their big, dumb anthems, their sharp guitar hooks and, yes, the “show.” It was a refreshing, sometimes necessary antidote for those of us who did not like Yes, Emerson, Lake and Palmer or the Doobie Brothers. It could also be a ticket towards getting your ass kicked in junior high school.
As I got older, I came to loathe the blatant commercialism and “product” that Simmons and Stanley came to view KISS as. It seemed less and less a band that wanted to “rock and roll all nite” and more of a corporation that wanted to earn a “profit every day!”
I’ll be honest; I almost quit the book on the very first page of the introduction, which features quotations by BOTH the I-Ching and Ralph Waldo Emerson. Really? In the next paragraph I’m told KISS is “part of the fabric of American pop culture, standing alongside…Elvis Presley, James Dean and Marilyn Monroe.” Yeeesh.
By all accounts (but particularly their own), Simmons and Stanley were the driving force, just a couple of average musicians who believed so strongly in themselves and their vision that they willed their band into one of the most successful entities in the history of show business. That’s right show business…not rock ‘n’ roll, and that’s an important distinction. Their success is described as “against all odds” and “miraculous.” It is grating when the hyperbole contradicts itself: KISS is “far from your overnight success story,” but shortly thereafter “in record speed (KISS) pull off the impossible.” Well…which one is it?
Getting through the self-congratulatory backslapping is a chore. Simmons, particularly, keeps shooting himself in the foot: their decision to break up the old band to form KISS “reminds me of that scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey where a monolith appears and apes for no reason walk up and touch it and have this great quantum leap forward in the evolutionary path.” Uhh…Gene…remember “Beth?”
So it is. Paul and Gene lack nothing if not chutzpah and part of me waited for one to invent sliced bread, while the other discovered electricity (although Stanley, did apparently, “invent” posters and flyers to advertise gigs…who knew!).
But they did have the foresight that a visual component, something far beyond what Alice Cooper and the New York Dolls had imagined, could find a rock ‘n’ roll audience. They worked relentlessly and surrounded themselves with key players — a resourceful manager and a devoted crew for starters— who shared that vision and worked equally hard to help them achieve success. The book is nothing if not a testament to the power of team-building and positive thinking.
So how is the book? It’s really good, packed with details about these formative years that will keep fans hooked and will likely be the definitive account of the band. All four of the original members, as well as the major players — manager Bill Aucoin, Casablanca founder Neil Bogart, label and publicity people, roadies, fans, DJs — contribute and there’s a lot of information to take in. Luckily, the chapters and overall narrative are very well organized making it very easy to follow.
Virtually every band that opened for KISS speaks of them highly; unlike many headliners, KISS allowed soundchecks, access to backstage food and drink, and offered up advice and praise. RUSH, apparently, were huge road buddies. I was also psyched to get insight on the album cover for Dressed To Kill. Although a lot of ink is devoted to the "ALIVE" packaging, Dressed To Kill was always my favorite cover: makeup and suits, with that title, was a stroke of genius.
Each album and tour is dissected and there’s a breakdown of how the “concept” of KISS developed along the way; that is fascinating stuff. One thing’s for sure, it took A LOT of money, mostly financed on Aucoin’s AMEX and Bogart’s hustling abilities. KISS was a very expensive show to put on and their records, until “ALIVE,” sold only modestly. Those live shows, by the way, affected the entire live rock ‘n’ roll presentation; to this day, their impact cannot be overstated.
The book ends in 1976 — the year “ALIVE” blew up and KISS was officially everything they wanted and predicted they’d be. Still to come would be the $4,000 KISS Koffins, the plush dolls and KISS cruises, but this book details how the plans were first laid for world domination and how the band and its inner circle executed them flawlessly, despite a constant cash shortage and facing equal parts apathy and disdain from most critics and magazines.
Many years ago, I read a review about the debut album from the band Boston that applies doubly so to KISS: "The product is so perfectly crafted that it is a well-oiled machine...a juggernaut. You can’t really love it or hate it; all you can do is step back and salute it as it rolls down Main Street."
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