From their earliest tours onward, Kiss’s Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons prided themselves on selecting their opening acts. So for all the shock and awe properly heaped upon Kiss for their larger-than-lust, louder-than-life concert spectaculars, one aspect that gets overlooked is the group’s peerless skill as talent scouts.
As with each live performance’s (in)famous costumes, sets, fire, blood, lasers, thunder, lightning, robotics, and earth-shattering amplification, Kiss understood straight away that the first special effect to either grab or lose an audience immediately would be the musical act that kicked off any given night’s proceedings.
So for thirty-one tours over the course of forty years, Kiss has broken dynamic new talents to their massive, ferociously loyal fans that now spans multiple generations. The number of Kiss openers who became world-class headliners themselves is astonishing. Here’s a chronological look back at fifteen of the biggest and the best.
Rush – 1975
1975 was a crucial year for both Kiss and Rush, so it was fortuitous for the two decidedly unique entities to come together.
Kiss struggled on the brink of extinction until the September release of their mega-platinum mainstream breakthrough album, Alive! Rush transformed as drummer Neil Peart took the lyrical reigns and the group issued the two albums that set the boilerplate for their superstardom to come: Fly by Night and Caress of Steel.
As a result, the Dressed to Kill tour began in 3,000 to 5,000 seat venues and, about sixty shows later, the bands were playing arenas. One thing that didn’t change, however, was the difference in how Kiss and Rush unwound backstage after the show.
Both groups still affectionately remember Kiss exploding into full superstar bacchanal mode while Rush would quietly slink off back to the hotel, maybe smoke a little weed, and watch TV.
“It was always a crazy scene,” Alex Lifeson said. “They’d plaster us with cream pies, there was always some sort of surprise lurking around a corner! And certainly, there were some fun nights — parties and things like that. They lived a little more of a ‘rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle’ than we did.
Blue Öyster Cult – 1976
On December 31, 1973, Kiss officially debuted for music industry professionals by opened for Blue Öyster Cult at the New York Academy of Music. Gene Simmons, for the first but certainly not last time, accidentally wrapped up his fire-breathing stunt by setting his hair ablaze.
With their shared hardscrabble, ethnic New York backgrounds and inherent otherworldly weirdness, Kiss and BÖC made an instantly fitting pair. After Alive! hit and Destroyer conquered the world in 1976, Kiss happily hit the road with Blue Öyster Cult, just in time for the Long Island extraterrestrials to score their own instant classic monster anthem, “Don’t Fear the Reaper.”
Scorpions – 1976
The now half-century-long saga of Germany’s Scorpions begins with the group as hard rockers that struggled from 1965 Berlin onward before finally taking flight among power metal’s mightiest titans in the mid-’70s.
Perhaps seeing how courting controversy had worked for Kiss, Scorpions issued their next-level-launching album Virgin Killer with an original cover image far more shocking than anything Gene ever barfed up on stage (do NOT do an image search at work… or at home… or anywhere). The ploy paid off, but only because the music on the LP itself packed such a Teutonic wallop while also being fun to stomp along to at a party.
Scorpions charged forward on the Kiss rails for the Destroyer tour, a pivotal moment in why fans worldwide still know and adore these groups as powerfully as they did all those decades ago.
Ted Nugent – 1976-77
The Motor City madman hitched his Sherman tank to the Kiss express for the very tour in which the headliners opened each night’s show with “Detroit Rock City.”
Like Gene Simmons, Nugent is famously a teetotaler, and thus did not partake in any chemical intoxicants backstage. However, also like Simmons—along with Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley, and Peter Criss—The Nuge definitely did indulge in limitless pleasures of female flesh following each night’s on-stage revelry.
As a result, Ted’s dates on Kiss’s Rock and Roll Over Tour, which corresponded with his smash release Cat Scratch Fever, rank high among the most only-in-the-’70s orgiastic occasions ever mounted (pun most definitely intended).
Sammy Hagar – 1977
On the heels of fronting Montrose, an enormously influential (albeit popularly underappreciated) hard rock wrecking crew headed up by guitar beast Ronnie Montrose, Sammy Hagar felt constricted by how record execs were handling his solo career. The suits wanted pop hits, Sammy wanted to cut loose and show what he could pull off as “a heavy metal guy.” Kiss provided the Red Rocker with the ticket to do just that.
Tearing it up on the ’77 Love Gun tour, Sammy presented himself to audiences as the axe-shredding, power-wailing dynamo he’d reinvent himself on record as with his million-selling early ’80s LPs Danger Zone, Standing Hampton, and Three Lock Box. Van Halen, among others, took notice.
AC/DC – 1977-78
Riding the wrecking ball momentum of their consecutive LPs High Voltage, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and Let There Be Rock, Australia’s ultimate high decibel outlaws opened for megalithic acts on the order of Black Sabbath, Aerosmith, and Blue Öyster Cult, but it was there slot on the Kiss Alive II tour that permanently plugged the band into humanity’s headbanging consciousness.
Original AC/DC frontman Bon Scott lit up the Kiss audience each night with an intensity to rival the literal fireworks to come, and schoolboy uniform bedecked guitar dervish Angus Young bedazzled in a manner that made him an instant rock icon.
After touring with Kiss, AC/DC radiated a colossal buzz that they quickly parlayed into their global breakthrough album, Highway to Hell. We’ve all been singing that song, and all their other ones, ever since.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images]
Judas Priest – 1979
1979 was to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM) what 1977 had been to punk. As a result, then, ’79 proved pivotal to Judas Priest, a pack of Birmingham bruisers who’d been hammering away for a solid decade with slow-but-steady snowballing success that made them both NWOBHM inspirations and spearheads.
Kiss, meanwhile, stood at a different type of crossroads. Their ’79 album Dynasty, the last to feature the original line-up, contained “I Was Made for Lovin’ You,” a disco single that, while subsequently beloved, enraged hard rock stalwarts. Drummer Peter Criss’s drug problem got him booted from the group (the first time). In addition, Kiss’s initial teenage fan base seemed to be moving on—coincidentally or not, to bands like Judas Priest.
Thus these two bastions of hard rock firepower boosted each other by combining forces on the road. Priest went on to forge fresh heavy metal history the following year with British Steel. Kiss entered a rocky period, starting with the Unmasked LP, but they negotiated it via evolution and transformation, inspired, no doubt, by the down-and-dirty, yet muscularly operatic Englishmen who’d just opened for them.
Iron Maiden – 1980
The New Wave of British Heavy Metal has been described as “metal played with punk attitude.” No group more electrifyingly embodied that ethos than London-spawned, long-haired, leather-jacketed, hard-and-heavy hooligans Iron Maiden who, upon releasing their eponymous 1980 debut album, created an iconic hard rock character— their ever-mutating zombie mascot Eddie—that’s been topped only by Kiss themselves.
The young, brash, punk-paced Iron Maiden helped propel Kiss through Unmasked tour, the troubles of which would have broken any lesser group: drummer Peter Criss was gone, guitarist Ace Frehley’s enthusiasm and participation was imploding, and sagging stateside sales led to shows only in Europe, Australia, and New Zealand.
Kiss barreled through their performances like pros though and, in turn, they helped to spread Maiden mania throughout the most metal-hungry corners of the up-and-comers’ home continent. It all set the stage for each group’s incredible triumphs throughout the ’80s.
Mötley Crüe – 1983
Kiss didn’t tour in support of 1981’s Music From “The Elder,” the group’s lofty, ludicrous misfire of a concept album that has since been laughingly embraced by fans and the band alike. They rebounded on the following year’s Creatures of the Night, but it was actually 1983’s Lick It Up that fully rebirthed, revitalized, and reinvented Kiss as they gambled by revealing themselves without makeup—and the public loved them for it.
With Vinnie Vincent on guitar and Eric Carr on drums, Kiss Mach II matched its own combustive power by recruiting L.A. glam metal sensations Mötley Crüe to open their shows. Crüe, out in support of their breakthrough LP Shout at the Devil, was still very much in their own makeup-and-costume phase which seems ironic at first, but it proved to be a perfectly potent balance.
No one flashpoint has ever been officially credited with fully igniting the hair metal ’80s, but a case could certainly be made for this Mötley Crüe/Kiss matchup. Just ask anyone who saw the shows—although odds are they had so much fun there’s no way they’ll remember it.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images]
Bon Jovi – 1984
Yes, Bon Jovi was once “heavy metal.” New Jersey’s most celebrated non-Springsteen sons hit the charts as a high-haired, leather-vested, zebra-pantsed glam combo not just lumped in with Twisted Sister, Mötley Crüe, Poison, and the like, but often depicted as leading the mousse-boosted pack.
Bon Jovi’s stadium-ready blend of synth-pop and hard rock, in fact, fit in ideally with Kiss during the latter’s 1984-85 Animalize tour. Now wholly embraced by fans new and old as essentially in their post-makeup phase, Kiss finally scored heavy rotation on MTV and rock radio with the hit “Heaven’s on Fire.”
In the wake of this trek, millions upon millions of poodle-heads bloomed.
Anthrax – 1987-88
Kiss forever keeps their ears to the ground and thereby could not miss the up-from-the-underground ascent of thrash running parallel to hair metal’s pop culture takeover in the second half of the ’80s.
Ozzy famously grabbed Metallica for his 1986 tour, so Kiss responded by taking Anthrax out for their Crazy Nights trek. Truly, the two groups could not better befit one another.
Both Kiss and Anthrax consist of working class NYC wiseguys whose backgrounds and personalities are steeped in Jewish humor, Italian swagger, and Bronx/Brooklyn street smarts that come across in their music. In fact, had they just added the Ramones, it would have been a flawless trifecta.
Guns N’ Roses 1987-88
Upon immediate impact, Guns N’ Roses revolutionized rock from the inside out as the Sex Pistols of hair metal, but with one crucial difference separating them from punk’s provocative pioneers: like Kiss, Guns N’ Roses sold millions upon millions of records and, in short order, could fill football stadiums on their own.
Kiss snapped up the Gunners for their Crazy Nights tour and fed off the young scrapper’s unprecedented grit, madness, and energy—not to mention the entire new generation of groupies Axl and company attracted backstage.
[Photo Credit: Getty Images]
Alice in Chains – 1996
Grunge never hid its love for Kiss. From Nirvana covering “Do You Love Me?” on a 1990 tribute album to the Melvins’ loving 1994 sludge remake of “Going Blind” to Eddie Vedder standing starstruck alongside the original members when they returned in full makeup on MTV in 1995, the Lollapalooza decade’s alt-metal elite loudly and proudly embraced the Hottest Band in the World.
So when the original Kiss foursome reunited in full face-paint for the 1996-97 Alive/Worldwide tour, they returned the love by taking Seattle foursome Alice in Chains out to play their biggest and best-attended shows to date.
AIC had broken through a few years earlier with their Dirt and Jar of Flies albums, but teaming with Kiss elevated them to a level that had previously seemed unattainable: forever after, they’d be classic rock stars.
Rage Against the Machine – 1996-97
At first blush, the hardcore left-wing rabblerousing of Rage Against the Machine seems an ill companion for the hyper-capitalism behind Kiss Koffee, Kiss Kondoms, and Kiss Koffins, but Rage mastermind Tom Morello always puts music before politics. And, in that sense, he puts Kiss before anything and everything.
Rage got to rock out in major league ballparks while opening for Kiss’s fantastically packed and popular Alive/Worldwide tour and, in 2014, Tom Morello repaid the honor by inducting Kiss into the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame with a speech that will stand forever as the ultimate declaration of victory for the Kiss Army.
Rammstein – 1999
Germany’s premiere industrial metal marauders Rammstein imbued late ’90s shock rock with fresh Teutonic terror. The unsmiling, bondage-geared band members stormed the planet with neck-snapping goosestep anthems backed by epic-scaled sadomasochistic stage shows so intense that even Kiss had to take notice.
Appropriately, Rammstein opened for Kiss on the Psycho Circus tour. As the last outing for Kiss’s four original members, the shows incorporated every trick, trope, and pyrotechnic effect in the Kiss canon, along with a slew of new, cutting-edge theatrics that included Ace’s guitar firing rockets, laser-shooting Paul Stanley flying over the audience, a giant Gene Simmons stomping the stage, and a live “3D” sequence that required 50,000 audience members at a time to don cardboard eyeglasses.
Rammstein, in the aftermath, upped their already impressive performance dynamics by imbuing their performances with the one element that Kiss only ever sang about: live sex on stage. So we’ll have to call that contest a draw.
[Photo: Getty Images]