KISS is a polarizing rock band - or brand, depending on how you look at it. From their first days together, KISS supposedly created an image linked to Nazis, Satan, and blood. That image has become a marketing juggernaut and demonstrates why people are split when it comes to the KISS rock and roll legacy. Were they serious musicians that managed to parlay their success into continuous fame, or were they simply actors in it for the money, sex, and drugs?
To some, KISS is known for their outrageous outfits, makeup, and antics - everything from Gene Simmons's tongue action to on-stage blood-spewing and fire-breathing - aspects which reach far beyond their music. KISS got their start with Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss, and Ace Frehley in 1973. Each member played a part - Simmons as the Demon, Stanley as the Starchild, Criss as the Catman, and Frehley as the Spaceman (or the Space Ace). By 1982, Criss and Frehley were out, but the band still played on at shows. Later members Eric Carr and Vinnie Vincent became the Fox and the Ankh Warrior, respectively.
KISS's biggest hits were released in the 1970s, and their international fame eventually led to solo projects. During the 1980s, KISS without makeup toured the world, but - after a resurgence in the 1990s - the original KISS band members dove back into their personas. Did they do it for the music? Or for the brand they had created?
KISS's songs intended to play up their image as a sex-crazed, Lucifer-loving group of guys that lived outside the lines, exactly what parents hated. The song "The Oath" is allegedly about giving into Satan:
Like a blade of a sword, I am forged in flame
Tempered steel, fire-bright to the night I take
I fear not
Now compelled by something I cannot see
I go forth surrendering to history
Your glory, I swear I ride for thee
Your power, I trust it rides with me
Your servant, I am and ever shall I be
This song, among others, got KISS a lot of attention and die-hard fans intrigued by the band's supposed demonic ties. Decades later, KISS still capitalizes on this so-called deal with the Devil - and so have the band's fans.
While the band hasn't had a hit since the late 1970s, they continue to sell merchandise and profit from their connections with the Prince of Darkness.
What is the truth when it comes to KISS and their hardcore rock and roll lifestyle? One story that has multiple versions is what happened during a photo shoot for the Hotter Than Hell album from 1974. Based on the pictures, it appeared to entail a full-scale group sex session. Peter Criss, in his autobiography Makeup to Breakup: My Life In and Out of KISS supports that notion.
Criss states that he was drunk, and Paul Stanley was reportedly "lying half-naked on a velvet bed, offering no resistance at all to the half a dozen girls and guys who were buzzing around him like bees drawn to honey."
Others present at the photoshoot tell a different story. Lydia Criss, Peter's ex-wife, alleged there was no sex and that her former husband may have played fast and loose with the truth in his autobiography. The original KISS drummer also wrote that Ace Frehley may have gone down on him, something his ex-wife refutes as well. Criss's autobiography is full of claims about KISS:
[We] went from smoking weed and chasing girls to f*cking 19-year-olds in their signature makeup and costumes (the ultimate form of rock-star narcissism), doing mountains of blow, destroying hotels, hurling lunch meat on naked groupies, then shoving them in hotel elevators.
It's a challenge to separate fact from fiction.
When lead guitarist and founding KISS member Ace Frehley published a memoir in 2012, his crazy tales spread like wildfire through the internet and among KISS Army members alike. AV Club music critic Nathan Rabin reviews Frehley's book:
In his 1970s prime/nadir, Frehley's behavior deviated so wildly from even the fuzziest, most generous conception of acceptable human behavior that he might as well have been an other-galactic Harpo Marx, communicating largely through gestures and sounds.
Throughout the decades, rock-star hedonists have been able to assure themselves that while they might be pretty drugged-up and f*cked-up at any given time, at least they weren't Ace Frehley-level drugged-up and f*cked-up. They similarly could take comfort in the knowledge that even if they were losing their minds, they weren't Ace Frehley-level crazy.
Bill Starkey went to his first KISS concert in 1974 and became enthralled by the music. By the next year, he had enlisted several of his friends and started the fan group KISS Army. Starkey and his fellow high school classmates began disseminating KISS music - they claimed it wasn't about the gimmick, costumes, or makeup; it was all about the music. Starkey was the first commander in chief of the KISS Army, with his pal, Jay Evans, as his field marshal, and they made it their mission to get KISS on the radio.
Starkey's efforts on behalf of KISS got the attention of the band, and he met them in 1975. He decided to run the KISS Army out of his home, but in 1976, he received notice that KISS's management would be taking over the group. Starkey got no compensation for his idea. Management also designed a logo and began recruiting members, reaching as many as 100,000 members. The group waned for a time, but was revitalized in 2007 with a new website.
As of 2018, joining the KISS Army includes receiving a t-shirt, discounts on KISS merchandise, and pre-concert ticket information for a yearly subscription of $50. There are also millions of unofficial members.