KISS was my generation’s initiation into rock music. My own infatuation with KISS was brief but intense. ‘Rock and Roll Over’ was the first record I ever bought, and the first concert I ever attended was KISS in Providence, RI on Feb 2nd, 1978. ‘She’ was the first song I ever learned to play on the guitar. If I’m honest, I’d have to admit that the term ‘hero worship’ might be appropriate in my case. That said, I lost interest in KISS after ‘Alive II’, mainly because I could sense that there was suddenly something …not right… about KISS, but also because I became aware of so many bands that put out better records than the four solo albums, or ‘Dynasty’. And then ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’ happened… Even after moving on, I still have a deep love of their early records and fond memories of their impact on my life.
Today, as an adult, and after reflecting on the KISS phenomenon brings up many interesting questions. What does it mean to be a member of a band? What are a band member’s responsibilities? What are a band’s responsibilities to its fans?
In many cases, especially in bands that have reached a certain level of financial success, being a member of a band means being a member of a corporation, or could perhaps include entering into a legal partnership. Cheap Trick became a ‘corporation’ decades ago, and when drummer Bun E. Carlos stepped down from active duty six years ago, he still retained the right to an equal vote in band business, and still earns a 1/4 share of band revenue, even though the band replaced him with another drummer. This was all according to the charter the band members signed back in the ’70s. So sometimes band membership is a complex thing; sometimes exiting a band is not as simple as ‘quitting’ or getting ‘fired’.
In KISS’s case, here was a band who spent years building a façade made of clearly-defined characters, with the band members codified into instantly-recognizable symbols; once the ‘brand’ had been firmly established in popular culture, the band was reluctant to mess with it. But KISS, like Cheap Trick, had become a corporation after the success of ‘Destroyer’, with all four members sharing in the revenue equally and having equal voting power on major band decisions… including decisions relating to terminating a shareholder’s membership. This forced KISS into some difficult situations, when certain band members’ functionality became questionable… starting right around the ‘Alive II’ album.
KISS’s first three records are the real deal: authentic hard rock albums made by four so-so musicians with a shared vision, forced to crank out 3 records in 13 months, with a bunch of classic songs being the result. Their fourth album, ‘Destroyer’, is an anomaly. It’s really a Bob Ezrin album, and fits in with his own discography better than it fits into Kiss’s. Ezrin co-wrote almost all of the songs, and, as with all Ezrin productions, if you can’t deliver, he’ll find someone who can. Hence the un-credited appearance of Ezrin’s go-to ghost guitarist, Dick Wagner. Admirably, after ‘Destroyer’, KISS again kept it ‘real’ on their next 2 albums, ‘Rock and Roll Over’ and ‘Love Gun’. After that, KISS’s corporate charter would begin to accommodate the band members’ every whim and dysfunction, while the public face of the band remained intact.
One could say that Ace Frehley’s solo career started right after he recorded his lead vocal for ‘Shock Me’ in 1977. On everything he recorded with KISS after that, he sang the lead vocals, and played all the guitars and most of the bass. It was a unique arrangement, and one that KISS’s corporate charter apparently allowed. And so on the studio side of KISS’s ‘Alive II’ album, the only song Ace appears on is his ‘Rocket Ride’. This, in turn, implies that charter also allowed for session musicians to ‘ghost’ for the Spaceman, as Bob Kulick plays the solos on the rest of the material, uncredited.
This would be Ace’s modus operandi with KISS’s next three records. Understandably, he sang and played all the guitars on his solo album, but when KISS reconvened for the ‘Dynasty’ album, Ace contributed 3 songs, each recorded separately from the band in his home studio and with solo album session man Anton Fig on drums. Same with ‘Unmasked’.
The Space Ace was absent completely from the sessions for ‘Music from “The Elder”, as Frehley refused to travel to Toronto to work with Bob Ezrin. Ace mailed his recordings to Ezrin, who rejected most of what he heard. Ace went ‘missing’ when the album was completed, and KISS decided not to tour the album. Ace says in his book that he quit the band in 1982, after recording sessions for ‘Elder’ wrapped, but perhaps ‘retired from active duty’ descries it better. KISS would continue to feature him on the covers of albums that he had absolutely nothing to do with for the next few years.
Four new studio recordings appeared on the ‘Killers’ collection, and there was Ace on the cover… but once again an uncredited Bob Kulick played lead guitar on each song. The ‘Creatures of the Night’ album was written and recorded without Frehley’s involvement, but Ace’s face is on the original cover… AND he appeared in the ‘I Love it Loud’ video, perpetuating the lie that all was well in KISSville. Only when KISS planned to hit the road in support of ‘Creatures’ and Frehley declined to participate, were KISS finally forced to announce that Ace had spaced out… over a year after he ‘quit’.
Peter Criss contributed even less. The jury is still out as to whether it’s him playing on Side Four of Alive II, so we’ll leave that one alone, but the sum total of the Cat Man’s contributions to KISS’s post-solo album output is one song: ‘Dirty Livin’ from the ‘Dynasty’ album. Anton Fig played on the rest of the album and on ALL of ‘Unmasked’. Criss stepped off the KISS merry-go-round after the Dynasty tour, sat out ‘Unmasked’ completely, and was (unanimously) finally voted out of the band just before filming a video of the song ‘Shandi’, a song he didn’t play on from an album he had nothing to do with.
KISS’s records at this point should have come with labels: “WARNING: MAY CONTAIN LESS THAN 75% KISS”. The truth is, this band had broken up along time ago. But The KISS Army didn’t need to know that… Here’s a section of Gene Simmons’ biography that explains why the band hid his Ace and Peter’s status from the world for as long as they did:
“We tried to move things along as smoothly as possible. We put (Ace’s) face on the cover and pretended that he played on the album… We were concerned that our fans wouldn’t be able to deal with the departures of two members… It would be devastating to them and to their idea of us.”
Of course, what this boils down to is a fear of line-up changes damaging the brand and having a negative impact on cash flow. To be fair, Ace and Peter both played along too, supporting the sham for years, no doubt also concerned about the gravy train drying up. But continuing the charade didn’t ensure continued success; ‘Unmasked’ tanked even with Criss’ name and face on the cover, as did ‘Elder’ and ‘Creatures’, both sporting Ace’s face and name. The strategy of deception didn’t work. The fraud the band had been perpetrating on its fans had failed.
KISS’ next move was to totally re-invent themselves by taking the make-up off. But Frehley and Criss remained one-quarter shareholders; Frehley continued to earn his share right up through the ‘Lick it Up’ and ‘Animalize’ albums, and was eventually bought out. Criss’s deal lasted even longer. Did Frehley and Criss deserve to earn their one quarter shares after their material contributions to the corporation ceased? Maybe. Their initial work helped make KISS a pop culture phenomenon, a brand that continues to thrive (and earn) to this day. But small wonder that there’s always been considerable animosity between the Stanley/Simmons and Criss/Frehley camps; one half of the ‘band’ consistently contributed more than the other, yet all four original ‘members’ received an equal share of corporate earnings.
Fast-forward to 1996 and the inevitable ‘Classic KISS’ reunion. No doubt new contracts were signed by Frehley and Criss, but otherwise nothing much had changed. After a monumentally successful reunion tour, the inevitable reunion album was recorded… aaaand session drummer Kevin Valentine plays drums on every song on ‘Psycho Circus’ except ‘Into the Void’. In fact, ‘Void’ has the distinction of being the only song on ‘Circus’ on which all four members of KISS perform. Ace plays three solos on the album, and Bruce Kulick and Tommy Thayer play all the rest. ‘Psycho Circus’ was marketed as the first studio album by the band’s original lineup since 1979’s ‘Dynasty’; with Ace only appearing on 3 tracks and Peter on only one, the ‘Dynasty’ comparison was perhaps more apt than intended.
Having a discussion about the ethics of KISS is a little silly, I know. This part of their history makes more sense when you stop thinking about KISS as a band and start thinking of them as a business. But didn’t that business have a responsibility to its customers? Didn’t KISS fans deserve the truth from their heroes? Did the very fans that supported this commercial juggernaut deserve to have their loyalty exploited?
You Wanted the Best, But Did You Get It? Up until 1978, sure; after that, buyer beware.