What Made Kiss Fans Lick It Up?

Music Features Kiss
What Made Kiss Fans Lick It Up?

We’re reaching “the end of the road” with Kiss, quite literally, it seems. For many rock fans, this is a long time coming. Kiss was, after all, the most controversial inductee in Rock & Roll Hall of Fame history, viewed by many as being to the genre what professional wrestling is to sports.

But this is all just a loud rallying cry to the Kiss Army, who only grow more committed to their love of the band when it’s trashed. They are the Trump Base of rock ’n’ roll: Kiss could shoot rock dead in the middle of Fifth Avenue and not lose a fan.

What if the question of whether Kiss is a shitty band or the embodiment of the fist-pounding, flamboyant silliness that puts the id in rock’s idiom is beside the point? Instead, let’s stipulate that the reason Kiss is the biggest American brand in the history of rock is precisely because they’re a shitty band.

Hear me out. Remember, Kiss came “Alive” (literally) in the mid 1970s. This was a time without the internet. Television was basically three channels. There was little for teenagers to do outside of the summer months—when parents didn’t know where you were and mostly didn’t even care. So unless you were a latch-key kid, you were trapped in the house with your parents, who grew up with rock ’n’ roll and couldn’t be driven from the room by you playing it. That was unless you could find something so relatively terrible sounding and absurd that they would demand to know immediately what the hell you were even thinking playing such trash. That, of course, is sweet music to every teenager’s ear. So listening to Kiss was necessary for millions of American kids in order to rebel from parents that grew up loving Elvis Presley and the Beatles.

“Kiss happened that way,” says one of the initial members of the Kiss Army, Scott Engel, a broadcaster and writer covering fantasy sports. “They pissed my mother off. But that wasn’t my intention at age 10. My mother bought into the Knights In Satan’s Service [acronym]. When she left the house, I played Kiss. She wouldn’t let me buy the dolls. It was like the beginning of the Detroit Rock City movie. When I put it on, she screamed, ‘Shut that off!’”

Like many fans his age, Engel got hooked when Kiss appeared on a Halloween Special in 1976 hosted by Paul Lynde which also featured the original Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton, and Wilhemina W. Witchiepoo (Billy Hayes) of H.R. Pufnstuf fame.

“I sat there with my jaw dropped open at 10 years old,” says Engel, a member of his industry’s Hall of Fame, who mentioned Kiss in his induction speech. “Not only was the show exciting but the music was—and is—as exciting as the show. It’s like a soundtrack to the show.” Big makeup, big costumes, big music, big tongues, big… shoes.

Engel acknowledges the naysayers, who have long been a nemesis of the band and its fans.

“Some think they suck,” he admits. “But you can’t deny the influence. They had the first huge stage show. Everyone has taken a page from that with the pyro and the bombs. You can’t write about the history of Heavy Metal without mentioning Kiss.”

Still it took Kiss 15 years to get into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and some observers think them getting in at all remains a mistake.

“Definitely NOT Hall of Fame material,” says musician/producer Ben Rowling, who grew up in the U.K. and thus was seemingly immune to the hold the band had on his U.S. counterparts. “Kiss never really got any traction in the U.K. because they were viewed primarily as a crappy glam-rock band who were competing with a tidal wave of punk, New Wave and angst. They were behind the times with their music and stupid anthemic lyrics, a bit like a poor man’s AC/DC with war paint. [David] Bowie and Mott the Hoople, etc. had already nailed the glam era and even Gary Glitter and Slade wrote better songs.”

Engel and Rowling actually agree that the live shows fueled the bands popularity. Though Rowling wasn’t impressed even in their heyday like here on video doing “Let Me Go, Rock and Roll,” at Roosevelt Island in 1976.

“They’re like a corporate Grateful Dead, another band who had shit songs but their live shows were happenings. I think if they had evolved more in their musical style then they would be taken more seriously because I think that, without the makeup, they would have never had a hit record.”

Well, “Lick It Up,” heard here from from a 1984 concert in Nashville did reach No. 66 in the U.S., but maybe that actually makes Rowling’s point.

The Kiss Army of course will argue that the band did evolve. “There’s lots of diversity,” Engel says. “‘Beth’ [a ballad] was a huge hit. ‘I Was Made For Loving You’ was polarizing. Dee Snider said it was like the Incredible Hulk wearing pink tights. Very early they were dark and heavy. Then they became more classic and then pop. Some fans said they were Vegas-y and dropped them. Rock fans weren’t allowed to like disco then.”

And Kiss quickly dropped disco. Despite selling over a million copies in the U.S. and Canada, ’I Was Made For Loving You’ wasn’t even featured in this 1984 show.

What about critics at the time? Were those unimpressed with Kiss’s studio work swayed by their live chops? Not if this New York Times review by John Rockwell, a few months after that career-making 1976 Halloween special, is any indication :

“Stumbling in the darkness into a Kiss concert, as this well-meaning observer did Friday at Madison Square Garden, might lead one directly to dire meditations on the decline of Western civilization. How else, after all, are we to interpret an entertainment that highlights a bass player spitting ‘blood’ atop a tower, surrounded by swirls of smoke and bathed in bilious green light, all the while dressed in a blackleather and silver costume that makes him look like a diabolical armadillo? And the sight of this apparition evoking a dull, throaty roar of appreciation from the sold-out house, the cries of the multitude overlaid with the treble piping of a large pre-pubescent minority?”

But Kiss never did give way to “next year’s Alice Cooper,” as Rockwell predicted. They went on to play thousands of shows over the next four decades. And over just one 15-year period, Kiss generated over a half billion dollars in merchandise sales, including an estimated 10 million t-shirts. You want Kiss condoms or Kiss barbecue sauce, or maybe both if that’s your bag? You can get them among their 3,000 licenses. Come to think of it, maybe “Kiss” is the “Trump” of rock ’n’ roll branding—only they probably could actually sell steaks and water.

They even moved Marvel comics after coming up with the brilliant gimmick of mixing their own blood with the printer’s ink. And, yes, even the comic book has a “so bad it’s good” vibe, according to the nerds.

The same can be said for their lyrics. Is this brilliant, stupid or brilliantly stupid?

You watch me singing this song
You see what my mouth can do
And you wish you were the one I was doing it to

I mean, this is a put on, right? But it also summarizes the band so completely that it could be etched on their Hall of Fame plaque.

Steve Moyer a musician and critic at RockRemants has the most balanced take:

“They’ve shilled and fucked things up beyond hope and recognition at this point,” Moyer wrote in 2014. “The early albums are legit; the debut in particular stands up very well even today. They’re a band’s band, certainly not for the established bands who turned up their noses to them in the beginning, but for many of the next generation’s rockin’-est rockers.”

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