KISS off!

On the heels of the release of a fine new biography, the four men in makeup are (finally!) being recognized by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

KISS: still on top of the world.

KISS: still on top of the world.

Whether they were seen as dangerous leather-clad marauders, kid-friendly superheroes, poodle-haired power-balladeers or soulless, cash-grabbing businessmen, KISS always seemed to be rubbing someone the wrong way (figuratively and probably literally).

OK, so some of it is true. But the crime being committed here (most notably by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which has dissed the band every year since it first became eligible for induction in 1999) is that a lot of people get hung up on the periphery and have probably never listened to anything aside from “Rock and Roll All Nite,” and maybe “Beth” and “Detroit Rock City.” I’m going to put this out there right now: If you don’t own a copy of Alive! or Destroyer, your rock fandom is as wobbly as Ace Frehley in a pair of seven-inch heels.

Things get a bit contentious within the ranks of the KISS Army as well. Four decades is a long time to keep a band together, and KISS has gone through its share of eras, styles, personnel, wigs. The current incarnation has guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer playing the roles of Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, which has many fans’ codpieces in a bind. Of course, the original lineup consisting of Frehley, Criss, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley is what most fans gravitate toward (aside from those freaky Vinnie Vincent freaks).

My favorite period of KISS goes back to the band’s earliest days—pre-lunchboxes—when the members were young and hungry, and killing themselves to make the rest of the world believe in what they did. That’s the focus of the new book Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975), an excellent oral history by author Ken Sharp, who interviewed (and dug up old interviews from) an extensive cast of characters, including fans that caught the band in its infancy, roadies, label folks, producers, music writers, and the many bands that played gigs with the four seven-foot monsters from New York.

The book offers a good overview of KISS’ steady ascent, while also satiating the fanboys and ’girls with fantastic anecdotes and minutiae that go beyond the usual trivia—like Frehley showing up to his KISS audition wearing one red sneaker and one orange sneaker, or Simmons’ encyclopedic knowledge of horror flicks. There are lots of goodies: pyrotechnic mishaps, the fact that Frehley designed Stanley’s makeup, the band playing gymnasiums and lunchrooms in Canada. But the real takeaway here is how KISS and their support system (people like manager Bill Aucoin, roadie/choreographer/songwriter Sean Delaney, label owner Neil Bogart, and many more) fearlessly went for it from day one to see their vision through, while their upstart label, Casablanca Records, was on the verge of going bankrupt and radio was avoiding the band like the plague (it was the release of 1975’s Alive! that finally shored things up for the label and the band).

Nothin’ to Lose not only captures KISS, but the New York music scene in the early ’70s as well, with loads of stories from bands like the Brats, The Planets and the New York Dolls. You also get acts deemed “credible”—the Ramones, Black Sabbath, Rush, Iggy and the Stooges—singing the praises of KISS’ music and work ethic. As Iggy Pop recalls: “I saw KISS come out onstage, and from above them lowered the most gi-fucking-normous neon-light-bulb-adorned sign that said ‘KISS.’ It did look cool—in a crude and very vulgar way. It was the largest piece of production I have ever seen used by a third-bill act in a rundown theater in my entire career.”

Now I could give a shit about credibility (take it from someone who’s defended KISS for the better part of 35 years), but the band’s influence is undeniable. I’d even become comfortable with, and even relished, the fact that they weren’t in the Hall of Fame (the original lineup will finally be inducted on April 10). But I do find it criminal that KISS sometimes doesn’t get recognition at a very basic level.

As pompous as Simmons can be, even he misses the point of how good this was. KISS turned out to be an incredibly well-executed piece of art—it ain’t high art, but it’s art. If you don’t get it, you’re missing out (it could also just mean you’re joyless and stuffy). Deep down, even high-minded folks wanna rock and roll all nite.