KISS — Interviews, concert reviews and commentaries
by Alan K. Stout
KISS Can't Miss With Loyal Fans, Tribute Artists
(Interview, July 1994)
The Times Leader
By Alan K. Stout
Twenty years after the release of its first album and over a decade after dropping its trademark costumes and make-up, rock 'n roll supergroup KISS is still going strong.
In a Times Leader interview, founding members Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley discuss the group's grande grease-painted past, present — which includes a new all-star tribute album — and future. They also reveal an apparent softening of opinion on former members Peter Criss and Ace Frehley.
Last month, Mercury Records released "KISS My Ass," a tribute album featuring some of today's hottest acts covering KISS classics. For KISS, the LP serves as vindication in a career that has seen it sell over 70 million albums, but to little critical acclaim. For KISS, however, the true vindication is to the artists on the album, not itself.
"It's really an incredible thing when your fans not only sustain you and believe in you through thick and thin, but go on to become some of the biggest bands in the world," says Stanley. "That's the ultimate tribute. Not the album as a tribute to us, but the album as a tribute to those fans."
Artists on the LP include Stevie Wonder, Lenny Kravitz, Gin Blossoms, Extreme and Garth Brooks. The arrangement and style of some of the record's tracks differ greatly from the original versions.
"It's what makes it a creative effort as opposed to some kind of nostalgia link," says Simmons. "If the cover was close to the original, that was fine, but if they wanted to take it out to the twilight zone, they had our blessing."
"The overall sense of people re-interpreting your songs and making them new for you is strange, but a tremendous compliment," says Stanley. "Just the idea that you can listen to a song you wrote with new ears and appreciate it for what it is — having nothing to do with the fact that you wrote it."
"I didn't want to shape this," says Simmons. "I didn't want to design the style. If it was going to be real, it had to come from them. "It's humbling and gratifying at the same time," says Stanley. "It's great to have people respect you as the reason or one of the reasons that they do what they do. I don't think anybody on the album made conscious effort to do something that was hip or trendy. What everybody was doing was really putting their perspective and their slant on things."
Dozens of acts wanted to appear on the album but were kept off by record company red-tape. Some of the acts rumored to appear included Madonna, Stone Temple Pilots, Skid Row, Soundgarden and members of Motley Crue and Guns 'N Roses. And while the group's members are totally happy with the finished product and the acts appearing on the album, the experience of trying to put it all together served as an eye-opener on the industry, even for veterans like Stanley and Simmons.
"It's amazing when you figure all of us got into music for the freedom of this," says Stanley. "And in this day and age it's still possible to have someone at a record label convince you that you work for them instead of them working for you."
In a bit of a surprise offering, Stanley wants it known that credit for the songs on the tribute album, and it's very existence, is to be shared with ex-members Peter Criss and Ace Frehley. There's even a heartfelt written message to the two inside the casing of the tribute album.
"It's really important to make it clear that 'KISS MY Ass' is not a tribute in any sense to Gene and me," says Stanley. "'KISS My Ass' acknowledges the starting point, which was me, Gene, Ace and Peter. No matter what people hear, the bottom line is that the four of us started something which was the foundation on which everything was built. The four of us, it's family."
KISS fans may be shocked at the statement, as kind words have been few and far between past and former members, but Stanley says rumors of bad blood have been blown out of proportion.
"If you were having some kind of inner family argument, you're advantage is you don't read about it in the press," he says. "But when people ask you questions, you try to give them honest answers, and sometimes honest answers either aren't what people want to hear, or don't look good in the press. But that being so, it's still important to reiterate that the four guys that started this band are the foundation of everything that came after it."
A KISS REUNION
The second chapter of the group's career began in September of 1983, when the band released "Lick It Up," featuring the group without its trademark make-up. The group's popularity in the U.S. was waning, Criss and Frehley were gone, and the mystique began to wear thin. While dropping the make-up was still a risky move, the gamble paid off as KISS has remained a consistent platinum act and one of hard-rock's top draws. Yet calls for a full-blown costume and make-up reunion with Frehley and Criss are heard frequently by Stanley and Simmons.
"There's no denying that the '70s is going to be the golden period that everybody points to. I accept it and I recognize it," says Simmons.
"It's understandable," says Stanley. "I certainly don't resent it. The past was magical. The '70s, whether it was the make-up or the nine-inch boots, or really what we pioneered ... that's something that's hard to compete with in terms of impact."
Stanley believes, however, that the novelty of the costumes and make-up had already passed by the time the group changed direction over a decade ago.
"When a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat, you go 'Ooh!' and 'Aaw!,' but after five times you'll say that's a great trick, but it's either going to sustain itself for its master of craft, or it's not going to work because the initial impact is gone.
"When we first started off, the impression was so strong that even to this day I think there are people who want us to go back to that and recreate that, rather than doing what we're doing today. I understand it, but I really don't see the reason to recreate something."
Simmons is well known for keeping a clean head. No booze, no drugs, and no tolerance for those not working on all cylinders at all times. Because personal problems led to the exit of Frehley and Criss, there haven't been many kind words in the press between the former and current members. A cover story in "Guitar World" magazine last year, featuring an interview with Ace Frehley, was aptly titled "KISSED OFF." In the article Frehley expressed his displeasure with all of the slagging and put-downs of recent years.
"I personally miss Ace and Peter," says Simmons. "But that doesn't negate the fact that they really hurt themselves royally. They ruined their life and really hurt ours as well as the fans by deciding that substance use or abuse — it's the same thing — was more important than doing the job. We were always more interested in showing up on time and respecting the fans."
"The sense that there's animosity is unnecessary," says Stanley. "We did great stuff together and there are times when people's situation in life leads to hard feelings, and there's really no reason for that. I wish Peter and Ace found the success they were looking for. Peter clearly put himself in the position where the three of us had to ask him to leave. But he truly believed he was going to go off and be KISS by himself. When Ace left, I know he also believed he could recreate what we had in the band. But unfortunately sometimes you don't realize until it's too late that what you have is sacred."
While Frehley has had moderate success as a solo act, including his solo band "Frehley's Comet," Criss' solo career stalled shortly after leaving the group in 1980.
"Clearly, there are two guys in the band that would like to do it, that would be much more anxious than two of the other guys," says Stanley of a reunion. "We've kept going and love what we're doing. To go back to something in an old configuration or the original configuration, it's not appealing. On the same hand, I can say 'anything can happen.' Strange things do happen."
"I'll never say never," says Simmons. "The idea of putting on the make-up is too easy. There's got to be a good reason for it. Money's not the issue here because they're offering a lot of bucks to do that all the time. A lot of it depends on Ace and Peter. They have a lot of problems and they've got to come clean with themselves, their own families and friends, much less the fans."
A tour of such magnitiude would also likely be the final chapter in the band's career, something they nor the fans are ready for.
"I'm not ready for final," say Simmons. "I've got to much blood left in me and I really think there's another 'Destroyer' in our loins someplace. We still have a good record in us."
Stanley, never at a loss for an appropriate analogy, puts it this way:
"When I'm in my car, I spend about 75 to 80 percent looking forward out of the windshield, and maybe 25 percent of the time looking in the rear view mirror, and that's KISS."
Despite a stellar 20-year career, KISS remain one of rock's most misunderstood acts. Like most hard-rock, the underlying theme of KISS' music is good times, love and sex. But if KISS ever had a message, especially in their '80s and '90s material, it's individuality . Believe in yourself, shoot for the top, and try to do it on your own terms. That's the message of songs like "King of the Mountain," "Get All You Can Take," "Trial By Fire," and "I."
"We are not role models," says Stanley when speaking of the KISS "Go for it" mentality. "We don't have the answer. You have the answer. Look inside yourself and you'll find the answer to who you are and where you belong. The truth is, we're all capable of doing what we set out to do. Believing in yourself gives you the ability to climb any mountain."
Simmons makes it clear, however, that other than offering an occasional inspirational message, KISS doesn't preach.
"I don't think just because you play an instrument, it gives you any insight on the human condition."
WINDS OF CHANGE
While critical acclaim has often eluded the group, accolades from peers and fans are abundant. "KISS Conventions" gather across the country, tribute acts pack the clubs, nearly every young hard-rock band cites them as an influence, and now there's the tribute album.
"The reason why we may be getting better press today and the reason why an album like 'KISS My Ass' comes out is because there's a changing of the guard," says Stanley, chuckling. "Yesterday's fan of the band is today's writer, today's journalist, today's musician. It's not a coincidence that there are more people pointing to us. There's been a coup, and they've taken over."
Still, Simmons believes the tribute album will have little effect on attitudes towards KISS by the mainstream rock press.
"It will change nothing," he says. I'm clear that that's good, because the day that people who hate us wind up liking us is the day we go back to being everybody's favorite cup of tea. In the '70s, KISS started off being dangerous, and then became toys. Mom and dad liked us and it diluted it. I think it's better to have aging hippies hate the band and not get it."
"I don't mind if we're acknowledged," says Stanley. "But I only do it on my own terms. If getting acknowledgment means sticking to your guns and having people finally see the light, that's fine, but if it means changing to get somebody's approval, we don't need it."
KISS' plans for the future include a "KISS MY Ass" home video, which will show the making of the tribute album, and a nine pound, 450-page book titled "KISSTORY" which will document its entire career. The current KISS line-up of Stanley, Simmons, 10-year member and guitarist Bruce Kulick, and Eric Singer, who replaced the late Eric Carr, will headline stadiums in South America this August. Then, it's back into the studio, as they plan to have a new album out by year's end.
Twenty years and 70 million album sales later, a KISS is still a KISS. With a celebrated past, but with eyes always on the future, the band — and their millions of fans — have no desire to kiss this thing goodbye.
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