Forty years ago this week, on January 30, 1973, the band formerly known as Wicked Lester played its first gig under its new name. To three people. In a long-forgotten venue in Queens called the Popcorn Club (later renamed the Coventry). Why is this notable, you ask? Well, because that was the first official concert by a not-so-little band called KISS. And four decades, 100 million in album sales, multiple lineup changes, thousands of pieces of mass-produced merchandise, and countless gallons of facepaint later, KISS (or at least founding members Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley) are still rocking and rolling all nite and partying ev-er-y day. While the group’s characters–Paul Stanley’s Starchild, Peter Criss’s Catman, Ace Frehley’s Spaceman, and Gene Simmons’s Demon–weren’t yet fully formed when KISS took the stage that fateful night in Queens (their legendary platform-footed characters would make their true debut 10 days later, at the Daisy club in Amityville, New York), the KISS guys already knew that they wanted to put their own, much more macho spin on the early 1970s’ prevailing glam-rock style.
“At the same time that we were forming in New York, there was a very big glitter scene, where boys were basically acting like girls and putting on makeup,” Gene Simmons recalled during an interview with ’90s fanzine Porkchops & Applesauce, conducted shortly before the original KISS lineup kissed and made up in 1996. “Y’know, all the skinny little guys, hairless boys. Well, we were more like football players; all of us were over 6 feet tall, and it just wasn’t convincing! The very first pictures we took when the band first got together, we looked like drag queens. But we knew we wanted to get outlandish. We weren’t a Grateful Dead kind of band that would get onstage and look worse than the roadie delivering our stuff. Which doesn’t negate what the Dead and other bands were doing; it just wasn’t us. Getting up onstage was almost a holy place for us, like church, so being onstage looking like a bum wasn’t my idea of respect. That’s where the makeup and dressing up came in. It would have obviously been a lot easier to get up onstage in jeans and T-shirts and go, ‘Okay, here we are–we’re the Ramones!’ And that would have been just as valid, but it would not have been honest.”
Considering how iconic the KISS characters have become–inspiring lucrative lines of action figures, lunchboxes, Halloween costumes, even Hello Kitty fashions and coffins–it’s amazing that there was no real master plan, marketing team, or celebrity stylist behind the band members’ character designs. “Nobody else was involved,” Gene recalled to P&A. “I just remember being in a loft in downtown New York, and looking in the mirror and just starting to draw. It was very stream-of-consciousness. What you see is really what just happened.”
Even back in those early club days, these creatures of the night were dreaming of stadiums filled with dry-ice smoke and screaming girls, and none of the band members–especially Gene, always the crafty entrepreneur of the group–have ever apologized for harboring such lofty, mass-market ambitions. “There is a credibility line that we completely ignored, and still do,” said Gene, proudly. “That credibility line of ‘We don’t want to be big, we want to be small and play in small, smoky places, and we don’t care if anybody like us.’ Um, no! We never adhered to that point of view. It seems very self-destructive to me. Anything that prevents a band from becoming as mega as possible is complete idiocy to me. If you think highly enough about the stuff you’re doing, you want as many people as possible to listen to it–it has always been about that for us.”
However, 10 years after KISS’s debut–on September 18, 1983–KISS did leave their larger-than-life, hotter-than-hell cartoon image behind, stripping off their warpaint at an infamous MTV press conference promoting their 11th studio album, Lick It Up. Although that album eventually went platinum, the unmasked men’s fresh-scrubbed faces met with mixed reactions from diehard KISS Army recruits at the time. “Everybody hated it,” recalled Gene. “People didn’t want the paint to come off, but you know what? Tough. It had to happen. You want your heroes to stay the same forever, but then the consequence of that is you get bored with them. We had to take it off. It had run its course.
“New members had come into the band, and then new characters were happening [Vinnie Vincent, aka the Ankh Warrior, and Eric Carr, aka the Fox, had replaced Ace and Peter]. And it just wasn’t convincing to us anymore. We had always adhered to the philosophy that if Peter and Ace ever left, then KISS, at least in that form, would cease to be. And I think, instinctively, we did that. Without killing ourselves, without taking the Cobain way out, we simply killed off that version of KISS and did a different version.”Of course, the original, fully facepainted KISS (Gene, Paul, Ace, and Peter) did get back together in 1996, for one of the most-hyped reunions in rock ‘n’ roll history. Their first joint appearance was a surprise cameo at the 38th Grammy Awards, which was bizarre not only because KISS had never even received a single Grammy nomination in their career, but because they were randomly (if awesomely) introduced by Tupac Shakur, for reasons that have never been satisfyingly explained.
But the makeup didn’t stay on forever: Ace left KISS for good in 2002, and Peter followed in 2004. When Ace and Peter’s replacements, Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer, started sporting the famous Spaceman and Catman makeup onstage, many fans balked, but Gene has pointed out that the group, even in all their clawfoot-booted, cape-brandishing, fire-breathing, blood-spitting glory, can never totally recapture the thrill of their ’70s heyday, with or without the warpaint. “There was a shock value you can never regain again–in the same way that no matter how pretty you are now, you’ll never be as cute as you were when you were a baby,” he told P&A. “And that’s just the cross you have to bear for being around so long. If you’re just a shooting star, people say, ‘Wow! Look at that explosion!’ But if you’ve been around for a while, it’s going to go up and down and up and down. And the idea is really just to enjoy the ride.”