Saturday, October 11, 2014

KISS, The #90 Artist of the Seventies*

KISS had their origin in the New York City group Wicked Lester, led by co-founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.  Wicked Lester recorded one album, which never saw the light of day.  Simmons and Stanley subsequently left Wicked Lester to form a new group.

In 1972,  the two saw an ad from drummer Peter Criss, who was looking to join a band.  Criss successfully auditioned, and the trio set out to play Hard Rock.  They also began wearing makeup and various outfits.  Later in the year, the trio tried to obtain a recording contract with Epic Records, but were turned down.  

A few months later, the group added lead guitarist Ace Frehley, and KISS was born.  Stanley played rhythm guitar, Simmons was on vocals and bass, and all four members sang. 

The group found a formula for success:  black and white face painting, outrageous stage outfits, and elaborate live shows, complete with fire breathing, smoking guitars, shooting rockets, levitating drum kits and pyrotechnics.  Additionally, the members began to adopt their own personas:  Stanley was known as Starchild ("the starry-eyed lover"), Spaceman Ace Frehley (for his love of science fiction), Simmons the Demon (for his cynicism and dark humor), and Catman Criss (reflecting in his belief that he had nine lives because of a rough childhood).

KISS made their debut of the iconic makeup designs on March 9-10 of 1973 at The Daisy in Amityville, New York.  The group hired Bill Aucoin as their manager, with the condition that he get them signed to a recording contract within two weeks.  This Aucoin accomplished, and KISS became the first artist to sign with Neil Bogart's new label, Casablanca Records. 

KISS opened for Blue Oyster Cult on New Year's Eve at the Academy of Music, an occasion marked by Simmons accidentally setting his hair on fire for the first of what would be several times while performing his firebreathing stunt for the first time.

KISS released their self-titled album and began their first tour.  But the album had sold just 75,000 copies after all their efforts, so the group recorded a second album, Hotter Than Hell.  But that album stalled at #100.

With both the group and the record label losing money, Bogart cut short their tour, and personally produced the next album, Dressed To Kill, in 1975.  It was a much better effort, and gave KISS their signature song, "Rock And Roll All Nite". 

The group was also quickly gaining a reputation for being a solid live act, with their crazy makeup and outfits, pyrotechnics, and special effects.  But Casablanca was about to go bankrupt, and KISS would lose their recording contract if they didn't deliver something successful. 

The group turned to their strength, their live performances, to create it.  Alive! was their first live album, and one of the highlights was the live version of "Rock And Roll All Nite", competed with a guitar solo not present in the original.

Another highlight of the album is the track "Black Diamond".

A strong case can be made that the Alive! album saved Casablanca Records, the label that would in a few years make Donna Summer famous.  KISS then teamed up with producer Bob Ezrin, whose previous work included producing Alice Cooper.  Ezrin brought in an orchestra and choir in an ambitious endeavor on the album Destroyer.  The single "Detroit Rock City" became popular with KISS fans, but the general public did not like it.  

Destroyer sold well at first, but began to fade without the lack of a hit ("Shout It Out Loud" and "Flaming Youth" also fizzled).  Then, radio stations began playing "Beth", which was the flip side of the single "Detroit Rock City".  "Beth" is the song that gave KISS credibility, rising to #7 to become one of their biggest career hits, and carrying the album on its back to Platinum status by the end of the year as well as increasing concert revenues.  "Beth" won a People's Choice Award for Favorite New Song.  Destroyer has since gone Double Platinum.

KISS released the album Rock And Roll Over later in the year, which went Platinum shortly after its release.  The single "Hard Luck Woman" peaked at #15.  

"Calling Dr. Love" also stalled at #15 in the U.S., but rose to #2 in Canada.

KISS released the album Love Gun in 1977, which contained the hit "Christine Sixteen". 

"Christine Sixteen" peaked at #25, and the title song only made it to #61, so KISS released another live album, Alive II later in the year.  As the first live album did, it sparked a resurgence in the group's sales, sending both Love Gun and Alive II past Platinum status.  In fact, Alive II has now gone Double Platinum.

Between 1976 and 1978, KISS earned $17.7 million in recording royalties and music publishing, as their back catalog caught fire.  The live version of "Shout It Out Loud" was much better than its studio predecessor. 

In 1977, KISS made their first appearance in a comic book, appearing in Howard the Duck.  The group released the greatest hits compilation Double Platinum, which contained several remixed versions of their hits, and a reworked version of a song on their debut album entitled "Strutter '78".  The song did not chart, but is one of The Top Unknown/Underrated Songs of the Rock Era*

Double Platinum didn't quite live up to its name, but it has gone Platinum.  But it was merchandising that fueled KISS's profits during this period.  Memorabilia included two Marvel comic books, a pinball machine, KISS dolls, "Kiss Your Face Makeup" kits, Halloween masks and board games.  Membership in the KISS Army, the group's fan club, now topped six figures.  From 1977 to 1979, sales of KISS merchandise topped $100 million.

Manager Aucoin wanted to take KISS to higher heights, and came up with a two-part strategy.  First, all four members recorded solo albums, that were released on the same day and marketed as KISS albums.  It was the first time in history that all members of a group released solo albums at the same time.  Frehley's was the most successful of the four, thanks to the hit song "New York Groove".

The second part of Aucoin's strategy was for the group to appear in a movie that would make them appear as superheroes.  The project underwent several rewrites, and members of KISS became annoyed by the process.  The finished product, KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, debuted on NBC in 1978.  While it was scorched by critics, the movie was one of the highest-watched television films of the year.  After many further changes, Attack of the Phantoms opened in theaters.  It was an artistic failure, causing a rift between Aucoin and members of the band. 

KISS released the album Dynasty in 1979, featuring the Disco Rock song "I Was Made For Lovin' You".  Anton Fig filled in for Criss on drums for most of the album, as Peter was recovering from a serious automobile accident.  "I Was Made For Lovin' You" reached #1 in Canada, #2 in Germany and Australia, but only #11 in the U.S., making it another Top Unknown/Underrated Song of the Rock Era*.

"I Was Made For Lovin' You" helped KISS score another Platinum album with Dynasty.  However, many of their early fans had outgrown them, and many of the fans at the group's concerts were adolescents in KISS makeup.  Criss, meanwhile, had serious alcohol issues, leading to rising tensions in the band.  Criss's performance on December 16, 1979 was his final one before leaving the group in 1980.  He was later replaced by Eric Carr. 

KISS continued to enjoy success on the road, and reunited with Criss in 1996.  The group sold 10 million albums in the Seventies.  In 2014, KISS was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 15 years after becoming eligible.  

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