INTERVIEW: KISS Talk About Their Rise From The Streets Of New York To The Stages Of The World

Alternate cover for Alive! album. [Photo: Fin Costello/KISS Catalog Ltd.]

When road manager J.R. Smalling introduced KISS as “The hottest band in the land” on their breakthrough double live album Alive!, it wasn’t just hyperbole. There was no one else in the world at that moment delivering a more exciting live concert experience full of great songs, electric performances and groundbreaking theatricality. And while that 1975 album was the band’s watershed release they had already built up a large and fanatical live following from non-stop touring since the release of their self-titled debut album in 1974.

The new book Nothin’ To Lose: The Making of Kiss (1972 – 1975) chronicles the band’s embryonic days as rock n’roll fanatics from New York City’s outer boroughs with a relentless will to succeed. The book is an oral history and includes interviews with the band, their friends, and crew, as well as opening acts and other musicians who were there first hand to witness the group’s hard scrabble ascent to worldwide fame. Co-authors and for nearly 40 years the band’s leading lights, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons sat down to talk about the band’s past and future.

VH1 TUNER: How did this book come about?

Paul Stanley: Ken Sharpe put the book together. He’s a long time fan. We’ve known him since he was literally about 8 years old. He’s an avid fan of the band and an avid fan of rock n’ roll. He’s been conducting and compiling interviews over the years and it seemed a natural thing for us to do at this point. We’ve always told the story from our point of view but it’s really interesting to hear what managers, promoters, roadies, all kinds of people who were there recall because quite honestly there’s things in the book that I don’t remember. I don’t know that they’re true but if they make me look good then they’re true (laughter).

VH1: What was it about those years that you wanted to focus on that you felt was special and was an untold side of the Kiss story?

Gene Simmons: When you’re at the front of a train all you’re seeing is what’s coming at you. We have a very unique advantage because we get that adrenaline rush but you don’t get a chance to figure out what it all means. What the side scenery is like. Do I have my mother’s hips? You know, all that stuff which everyone else in the train gets and then the very last person sees it all go by. So they’re all different perspectives of an interesting, astonishing train ride that we’ve had which is now approaching 40 years and boy, do we look good (laughter).

VH1: When you see live footage of Kiss from the years covered in the book you’re killing it and you clearly have that hunger to succeed. What do you miss the most about those early days?

Paul Stanley: Nothing, honestly. It’s great to look back, when I see early footage (of Kiss), I couldn’t be more proud of it. We were totally committed to what we were doing. We believed in it against all odds. People said it would never work. We were four guys and we were a nation. Nothing was going to get in our way and when you watch early footage it’s absolutely undeniable the band was going to succeed in spite of what everybody said about it. Most of the people who were the naysayers feared what we were doing. Rock n’ roll in its purest form is always feared. Whether it was Elvis Presley, The Beatles or The Stones. You’re doing something right when people say “This is crap,” or “It has no redeeming value.” It’s rock n’ roll. And we were the essence of that and delivered the goods. We were the guys in the audience who went up on stage and said “Let us show you how it’s supposed to be done.”

VH1: I was watching an old interview with you from your first time playing England and the interviewer asks what you care more about, the music or the spectacle and Gene you say “The audience.”

Gene Simmons: Well, sure. If you ever lose sight of the fact that your bosses are standing on their seats then you become delusional and think it’s all about you. At the end of the day we just work here and it’s our job like court jesters to make the kings all around us proud. We need to earn the crown that’s being bestowed upon us by those who have the power because, let’s call it for what it is, if our bosses, our fans don’t like what we’re doing or any band, that’s why the word “Next” is in the dictionary. So we’ve been around 40 years and proud by the way to have given a chance to lots of new bands on their first tour – AC/DC, Rush, Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Bon Jovi, Motley Crue – you name a big band, we gave them their first start because we’re also fans but at the end of the day, we can’t crown anybody, we all bow to everybody’s bosses, the fans.

VH1: It’s funny you mention that because I think helping younger bands such as Rush, who you took on tour, and Van Halen, whose demos you (Gene) produced, are one of the many things you don’t get credit for. What are other things you think people got wrong about Kiss in the press?

Paul Stanley: I don’t think that the press matters. The press never made a band. If you look at most critics’ Top 10 lists, it’s usually a contest of who knows the most obscure artists. In terms of the people that matter to us, we have no problem. Those people think the songwriting is great, think the shows are amazing and come see us time and time again. How can you listen to somebody who gets free tickets? If they’re not paying for tickets how good is their opinion of anything? The beauty of being a critic is you don’t need a diploma, you don’t need to go to school for it, you just one day say “Hey, I’m either a comedian or I’m a critic.” And if somebody listens to you, you become a critic. Whether they get us or don’t get us, the people who matter, get us. It’s 40 years and untold millions, 90 million, 100 million, you pick your number, who’s counting at that point?

Gene Simmons: I’m going to quote you the critics. Rolling Stone reviews Led Zeppelin, and this is a quote, “the Limp Blimp.” This is from a guy that never got laid in school, clearly has too many pimples on his face to count and continues to live in his mother’s basement. Sour human beings who’ve accomplished nothing and have been nobody and their only chance to be anybody is to just whack it. If you’ve got a point to say, show me what you’ve got. Otherwise, shut the fuck up.

Paul Stanley: Clearly, look, critics aren’t in their teens, and whether or not they continue to live at home, the fact remains these are bitter people. They pontificate and have made no real contribution to music or to the field. They’re not journalists. They’re clowns. They’re entertainers only they take themselves seriously. I don’t.

Kiss official signing photo op backstage at New York’s Fillmore East. [Photo: Eddie Solan/KISS Catalog Ltd.]

Recording at Bell Sound Studios. [Photo: Eddie Solan/KISS Catalog Ltd.]

VH1: The book covers your early days in New York City. Another thing I think is important that people tend to overlook is that Kiss is a quintessential New York band. Could Kiss have happened in any other city?

Paul Stanley: No. We were clearly a product of New York and the streets. We came up during a time where British music was looked upon as the music of the gods. There was a glitter scene in New York. A lot of bands who really were better looking and better dressed than they were at playing music were our contemporaries at the time. I don’t think we ever wanted to be a New York band. We wanted to be a world band. Perhaps that’s why we became a bit disassociated with New York because we’re bigger than New York. We are of the world.

Gene Simmons: It is interesting to note that while Detroit and Liverpool and London and lots of cities have given the world bands that have played stadiums and arenas around the world, other than Kiss, New York has never given the world a stadium sized rock band. Not one. There’s Kiss and there’s nobody else. You can talk about Ramones and everybody else; you’re talking about club bands. So if New York is such a great rock town, it was on a certain level, but to get to the top you’ve got to appeal to the world.

VH1: You also had a work ethic that many of those other bands didn’t have. Your closest contemporaries were The New York Dolls but they didn’t tour like you did. How many months straight were you on tour in those first three years?

Paul Stanley: It was one long tour. We would see a day or two off on a calendar but for the most part we were always gone. We would sometimes be doing two shows in a night because a show would sell out so quickly. You know, the bands you spoke of from New York City, most of those bands were more concerned with hanging out than actually rehearsing. That’ll get you so far. At the end of the day you’re going to have to play a song and do it well. For a lot of those bands the music became the soundtrack for their fashion show. They looked great. There’s no arguing. When Gene and I saw The Dolls you just looked at them and said “These guys kill us at looking androgynous.” We looked like football players. We went “We can’t beat The Dolls at being The Dolls but we sure as hell play better than them. Now let’s find out who we are.” And that was really the start of us finding the Kiss look.

Gene Simmons: It’s worth going back for a second because I remember it like it was yesterday. We went to the Diplomat Hotel. We wanted to check out The Dolls because they were a few months ahead of us. We looked at each other going “Wow, they look great.” As soon as they started playing we put our fingers in our ears and went to each other “We’ll kill them. We’ll shit on their pretty clothes.” Critics always loved the band and we loved their style but I don’t know anybody that does Dolls songs.

Backstage at Capitol Theatre, NJ, 1975. [Photo: Fin Costello/KISS Catalog Ltd.]

VH1: There’s a new documentary in the works. Will that again be about the early days?

Paul Stanley: Hopefully it will be the definitive documentary about the band. Others have done great pieces like The Clash documentary. Alan Parker, who’s doing ours, did that. We’ve amassed an incredible amount of footage. A lot of it, nobody’s seen yet. There are things in there that will be a real surprise and a real joy for all of us to see. What we’re really trying to do is really the definitive Kiss documentary. Not selling Kiss. Not an advertisement which is what a lot of times things come off as but really something that will tell the tale.

VH1: You also have a new AFL football team, the L.A. Kiss. 

Gene Simmons: We have four partners; we have Brett Bouchy, who has been in the Arena Football League for awhile, (famed music manager) Doc McGhee and Paul and myself. Those are the only partners in it. Instead of being passive celebrity guys who lend their name, we’re actively involved. Paul worked with designers on the team outfits. We’re doing the media and we’re involved right at the ground level talking with the corporate guys and making sure it’s legitimate. We’re involved from beginning to end. We don’t intend on being these celebrity guys that lend their names and then go back to Beverly Hills. It’s real football. To our season ticket holders to show you how grateful we are we’re going to give you a special free Kiss concert. All the bells and whistles. We have more firepower than most Third World countries and we’ll bring the full thing as a thank you.

Paul Stanley: AFL sometimes gets maligned as being second rate football. The fact is that all the players are of the first order, the top 1% of football. The rules are different but every seat at the game is a great seat. When you go to an NFL game you may have to mortgage your house to get tickets at this point. We have tickets that are $99 for a season plus other tickets. These are great, great athletes. We’re putting together a team that’s really is based on quality from the coach up. AFL is faceless in the sense that you really don’t know the players. That’s going to change. We will become the model for what every AFL team is going to want to be. We’re bringing football back. Anaheim is the second largest media market in California and Los Angeles is dying for a team and we’re bringing it.

VH1: What would a world without Kiss be like?

Gene Simmons: We can be self-serving and say “Boring,” but it’s pretty accurate (laughter). Somebody made an assessment that without Kiss wrestling would just be wrestling, McCartney would sing the great Beatles songs, Garth Brooks would sing the great country songs, political parties would talk the way the usually do, but they wouldn’t have fireworks and bombast. Where did they get all that stuff? Air Supply?

Paul Stanley: I think we serve a great service in that we have been the wake up call to Kiss fans and rock fans of what can be done. What is possible. A lot of fans I think were taking less than they deserved. A lot of bands were giving less than they should. We were a wake up call to America and the world of what you should expect from a band. If we weren’t here? It would be more boring. Life would continue. Somebody at some point would come along and be Kiss but we’re it, and we’re the real deal.

Gene Simmons, live in California, 1974. [Photo: Jeffrey Mayer]