The Ace and Peter (No) Show

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.

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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.

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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.

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Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

As the hard rocking 1970’s drew to a close, American bands ruled. Aerosmith and Kiss were all over the radio; Blue Oyster Cult and Ted Nugent were routinely selling out enormo-domes across the country, and relative newbies Boston and Cheap Trick broke in a big way. Readers of the popular rock rags of the day couldn’t escape pictures of Gene Simmons’ tongue or The Nuge’s loincloth. Soft rock hits by Fleetwood Mac and the Eagles rubbed shoulders with Ram Jam’s ‘Black Betty’ in the Top 40.

With this kind of massive success, U.S. record companies did what record companies always do: milked it to death. Labels signed up anything that rocked, plucking average bar bands from relative obscurity, packaging them as arena rockers, and marketing them as the next big thing. The Machine wanted what Creem magazine referred to as ‘AeroKiss’; and that’s exactly how these bands were marketed to young buyers. While most of these bands would never have gotten a shot at the big leagues without allowing themselves to be molded into the styles and shapes of the bigger bands of the era, this ‘devil’s bargain’ denied them the possibility of ever making it on their own merits. This dynamic made for an interesting bunch of bands; here are a few of my favorite examples…

Starz

New Jersey’s Starz evolved from the remnants of pop band Looking Glass, who had a #1 hit with ‘Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl)’ in 1972, and Stories, who also hit #1 with ‘Brother Louie’ in ’73. The unofficial ‘5th member’ of Kiss, Sean Delaney, recommended Starz to Kiss’, manager Bill Aucoin, who secured the band a deal with Capitol Records. In order to make sure this new band sounded nothing like Stories or Looking Glass, Aucoin secured legendary hard rock producer Jack Douglas (Aerosmith, Cheap Trick, the Runaways) to toughen up their overall sound. Aucoin, always image-conscious, had a killer logo designed, tweaked their look (lead singer Michael Lee Smith, brother of Rex Smith, had the frontman appeal of Paul Stanley… and the lips of Steven Tyler) and the transformation into AeroKiss was complete.

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The debut album by Starz is a decent enough arena rock debut; a little clunky here and there in the songwriting department (Delaney gets a co-writing credit), but weren’t the debuts from Aerosmith and Kiss, as well? Second record ‘Violation’ is widely considered their best. Two songs from ‘Violation’ got a decent amount of radio play; check out ‘Sing It, Shout It’ and ‘Cherry Baby’ and see if they don’t sound familiar. The third record, ‘Attention Shoppers!’ suffers from the absence of Jack Douglas in the producer’s chair, and trades hard rock muscle for power pop bounce. After a line-up shift, 1978’s ‘Coliseum Rock’ returned Starz to a hard rock sound. It’s a solid, confident record, and the single ‘So Young, So Bad’, returned the band to rock radio. Unfortunately, ‘SY,SB’ sounded so much like Kiss that it confirmed this band was never going to make it past the ‘AeroKiss’ jokes. They split in 1979 after being dropped by Capitol.

Angel

Angel’s origin story doesn’t include any #1 hits, and can be traced back to a band working the bars on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. BUX included guitarist Edwin Lionel Meadows (soon to be immortalized as ‘Punky’) and bassist Mickey Jones, as well as singer Ralph Mormon. BUX were managed by Frank Connolly, who was also managing Aerosmith at the time; Connolly managed to secure the band a deal with Capitol Records. The band recorded their debut in 1973, but the label shelved it after the band split, with Meadows and Jones decamping to DC and forming Angel. The BUX album was finally released in 1976 to capitalize on Angel’s second album buzz. Mormon moved to Boston and eventually became the frontman for the Joe Perry Project (you know, Joe Perry of Aerosmith?).

As the story goes, none other than Gene Simmons saw Angel play in a nightclub in DC, and quicker then you can say ‘Bat-Lizard’, the band were signed to Casablanca. Angel’s 1975 debut is devoid of the usual Casablanca gimmickry (that would come later) and is an amazingly strong debut. If these guys had been left alone to sound and look as they saw fit, their music would have been taken a lot more seriously. Alas, Casablanca being Casablanca, Angel were transformed into shtick for the artwork for their second album ‘Helluva Band’. Again, the visuals took over: another nifty (ambigrammatic!) logo was designed, ridiculous outfits and spectacular stage show were conceived, and Angel became too much of a joke for their music to be taken seriously.

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‘Helluva Band’ is a GREAT album, and deserves to be appreciated without all of the Casablanca-bullshit attached. Combine Styx’s ‘Equinox’ with Rainbow’s ‘Rising’ and you’ll get a close approximation. But it’s a lot more fun than either of those two records, and so ‘HB’ deserves its status as a cult classic. Third record ‘On Earth as it is in Heaven’ rocks as well, and contains some of the band’s strongest material (including an old BUX tune, ‘White Lightning’). Sure, there’s a Queen rip here, a Boston steal there… but it’s still a great record. ‘White Hot’ followed in 1978 and earned the band some airplay, most notably via ‘The Winter Song’, which hit #44 on the Billboard Hot 100. A Christma-tized version of the song was released, as ‘The Christmas Song’, but strangely enough, that one never got any play. ‘White Hot’ is good fun, an adventurous hard rock record with a overall commercial feel. Things were looking good for the ‘Anti-Kiss’…

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… Until their fifth and final studio album, ‘Sinful’. Originally titled ‘Bad Publicity’, the album art was to depict the band in street clothes, partying with some hot babes in a wrecked hotel room while members of the press observe (a few promos did sneak out with this title and cover art). This cover concept was scotched at the final minute, and the record was re-titled ‘Sinful’. The cover art was changed to something much less ‘dangerous’: a soft-focus black and white shot of the band in full angel regalia. The music itself was decidedly more commercial than on Angel’s previous releases, with each song sounding like a stab at pop rock radio. Coming packaged in what looked like a magazine add for hi-end shampoo, the relative ‘wimpiness’ of the record was magnified. For fans of the band’s earlier music, their credibility was now all but gone. A waste-of-time double live album followed, but a disco single (‘Twentieth Century Foxes’, featured in the 1980 movie ‘Foxes’) sealed the deal.

The Godz

Midwestern biker band The Godz were no better/no worse than a thousand other bar bands in America in 1977, but someone in the Kiss organization saw God knows what, and booked them as the opening act for Midwestern leg of Kiss’ Love Gun Tour. Soon after, they were signed to Casablanca Records and a debut record followed in 1978. Truth be told, The Godz were a pretty terrible band, possessed of exactly ONE great song, ‘Gotta Keep A Running’. The Casablanca marketing machine, well known for pushing style over substance, played up the tough guy biker image but forgot that people would eventually listen to the records.

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‘The Godz’, produced by Grand Funk Railroad’s Don Brewer, is the sound of a band that doesn’t get it’s own joke. It’s truly dumb record, with dumb songs, dumb lyrics , and a (dumb) 11-minute cover of Golden Earring’s ‘Candy’s Going Bad’. Somehow this record has gained some sort of cult stature; I’m a huge fan of the aforementioned ‘Gotta Keep A Running’, but after that, there is absolutely nothing on this record that I can recommend. Second album ‘Nothing’s Sacred’ rips off its cover art from Judas Priest, playfully mis-spells almost every word in its song titles a ‘la Slade, and somehow manages to be even more dumberer than the debut.

The Aerosmith/Kiss connections are inescapable. It’s as if the monster success of these two bands created opportunities for anyone even peripherally connected to them. It’s also apparent that the Kiss mafia had its fingers in a lot of pies. Hey, those two arena champs needed opening acts, so why not just make them to order? Unfortunately, some decent bands got caught between the gears in the process, with a few brief brushes with greatness their only reward. I love all of these records dearly (yes, even the two by the Godz), due to the both quality of the music and the undeniable cheese factor. Nothing wrong with a little American cheese in your musical diet.

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Attn: Marketing Dept

 

Ever wonder why Scorpions’ ‘Taken By Force’ cover art is so ridiculously bad? Great record, but the album cover looks like it was thrown together by an uncaring record label, unwilling to spend any coin on anything half-decent, and assembled by art department interns. And, in fact, that’s exactly what happened. But why?

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‘Taken By Force’ was the third consecutive Scorpions album that the U.S. arm of RCA Records decided to change for the stateside market. Their third record, ‘In Trance’, needed only minimal altering; but their fourth, ‘Virgin Killer’, is a different story altogether. Featuring a completely nude prepubescent girl in an unquestionably provocative pose, ‘Virgin Killer’s artwork was and still is blatantly inappropriate and offensive. Yes, sensitivities to this type of imagery in the 70’s (especially when used on a rock album cover) were different than they are today; remember the Blind Faith album? But even back in 1976, several different territories issued the record with a completely different cover.

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So, when the Scorps handed the ‘Taken By Force’ artwork to RCA, the label wasn’t willing to take any chances. The US and UK branches of RCA rejected the cover. “Two kids playing with guns in a military cemetery” (as Francis Bucholz characterized the shot in a recent interview) was once again too much for the label bosses to deal with. In the 1970’s, Scorpions was RCA’s token heavy metal band, their records tossed out into the US and UK markets without any discernable promotion. Clearly Scorpions were not a priority for RCA; the label didn’t need all of this ‘cover controversy’ hassle. And, as they established with the towering mediocrity of the ‘Virgin Killer’ replacement art, they certainly weren’t willing to replace the original with anything challenging or even the least bit artistically valid.

Kiss Destroyer Resurrected

When Kiss broke through with their ‘Alive!’ album, their label paired them with Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin for their next studio album ‘Destroyer’. Massive mainstream success was just one ballad away. Casablanca Records was taking no chances, however, and demanded changes to cover art that they felt was “too violent”. And so, Kiss dancing while a city burns was changed to Kiss dancing in the ruins of a destroyed city. The original is definitely more badass, with the red and orange fire-inspired color scheme (‘Flaming Youth’, after all), now famously replaced by cool blues and pale yellows.

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The opportunity was also taken to depict Kiss in their new stage costumes, which makes sense. Simmons’ new Godzilla boots always made for a pretty striking image. But I have such an emotional attachment to the replacement cover, having spent countless hours staring at it as a kid, that it’s hard for me to acknowledge that there’s a better version. But even the 13 year old in me agrees: The original has flames!

The Beast that is Judas Priest was no stranger to record company foolishness. Their third album for CBS, ‘Killing Machine’, was retitled for the US when record company execs objected to the “murderous Implications” of the original title. The title to the song ‘Killing Machine’ remained unchanged, but another song title was used for the title of the US version: ‘Hell Bent for Leather’.

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After the global success of the band’s 4th studio album ‘British Steel’, which featured one of the most iconic album covers in heavy metal history, Priest followed up with the rather left-field ‘Point of Entry’.  The cover featured an abstract representation of the title concept; not a very ‘metal’ image, but a cool, futuristic image with a slightly scifi look.

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Why on earth anyone decided to change the original cover to the one we got here in the US has to be one of Metal’s Greatest Mysteries. A never ending trail of computer paper unfolding down the middle of a highway and leading into the horizon. Ok. Plain white cardboard boxes of various sizes placed on the ground in the desert. Um… Not exactly making Hipgnosis nervous here, fellas. Someday, someone will explain this to me… and I will still think it sucks

1978

It’s 2013, the Chinese year of the snake. Year of the Black Water Snake, to be precise. Didn’t know they got that specific.

For me, 1978 will always be Year of the Metal, because it was a hugely-impactful year for me, music-wise.

Before 1978, I had been listening to bits of hard rock on the radio for a few years, as a lot of hard rock bands had big singles that were played on AM Top 40 Radio back in 1976 and ‘77. Anything on the radio that featured loud guitars caught my ear back then: Aerosmith, Nugent, Rick Derringer, Blue Oyster Cult, Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Foghat. Also my older sister had Zeppelin albums!! But the mighty Kiss reigned supreme in my music universe. Kiss had spent the last few years brainwashing me and kids all over the world into believing that they were, in total fact, “The Hottest Band In The Land”. (Gene Simmons probably just got paid because I typed all of those public domain words in that sequence.) And on February 2nd of 1978, I saw them live on the ‘Alive II’ tour at the Providence Civic Center (since renamed the ‘Dunkin Donuts Center’…wtf?) in Rhode Island. Yes, my head exploded; yes, NOW I was a super-fan for life! It sure would take one helluva band to knock Kiss off the throne. No one could ever tell me that Kiss were not actually the Hottest you-know-what in the you-know-where.

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The weekend after I saw Kiss live, I accidentally recorded (on a blank 8-track!) a portion of WAAF’s ‘Friday Night Six Pack’ while playing around with my dad’s brand new stereo system. The ‘Six Pack’ played 6 complete albums during the overnight hours overnight every Friday, some of which were due to be released the following week. I woke up Saturday morning and saw that I had recorded something, and played it all back, and my world changed forever. I had captured most of Van Halen’s as yet unreleased debut album. I bought my copy at Music Machine the following Tuesday; $5.77 plus tax. That record knocked me flat on my ass every time I put it on. Suddenly Kiss seemed silly, tame, juvenile; even cheesy. I still loved Kiss (and still do, up through side four of ‘Alive II’ anyway), but I no longer felt that they were The Greatest Rock Band Of All Time. My mind sufficiently blown, I found that I was suddenly much more receptive to music made by bands that were not Kiss.

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The following month, March of ‘78, I heard AC/DC’s ‘Powerage’ in it’s entirety on the same radio show. I was hooked in the first 30 seconds and listened to the rest of it without moving a muscle, fearing I might lose the great reception I was lucky to be getting on my touch-and-go portable am/fm radio. ‘Powerage’ has been my favorite album of all time since March of 1978. Now, thirty-five years after it was released, I seriously doubt that I’m going to hear anything that’s going to change that.

There are a handful of other great records that came out that year and I worked hard to stay in the loop. It was hard being a fan back then… but if you put the work in, you were amply rewarded. There was no internet in 1978; all we had was WBCN & WAAF, late night TV and Circus, Hit Parader & Creem magazine. I had heard ‘Walk This Way’ 100 times before I had ever even seen a picture of Aerosmith. In those days, if you liked the single or the picture accompanying the article you just read (for free, while thumbing through a copy at the drug store; hardly ever buying) then you rolled the dice, saved your allowance and scrounged for change, and bought the album, hoping the rest of it was good.

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Late night TV was a goldmine. Of course, you had to sit through a lot of disco and R&B to see anyone holding a guitar. I saw Cheap Trick on the TV show ‘Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert’ in March and bought their ‘in Color’ record the following week; ‘Heaven Tonight’ came out in May and bought it without hearing a note. UFO appeared on Kirshner’s show with a video of ‘Only You Can Rock Me’—one more copy of ‘Obsession’ sold. In October, Ted Nugent hosted an airing of ‘Midnight Special’ that featured AC/DC, Cheap Trick, Thin Lizzy, Aerosmith, Golden Earring, and of course, His Nugeness. That same month, AC/DC’s first live album, ‘If You Want Blood, You’ve Got It’ was a no-brainer. I remember riding my bike back from the mall in the rain with ‘If You Want Blood…’ in a plastic bag (an awkward thing to try to carry while riding a bike, let me tell you), afraid the I was going to drop it or wreck my bike… but more worried about the record.

It was a huge year for new discoveries. I snapped up Rainbow’s ‘Long Live Rock ‘n’ Roll’, Rush’s ‘Hemispheres’, Judas Priest’s ‘Stained Class’, all released in 1978.  So many excellent live records that year as well: Frank Marino and Mahogany Rush’s ‘Live’, Blue Oyster Cult’s ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, Scorpions’ ‘Tokyo Tapes’, Aerosmith’s ‘Live Bootleg’ and Thin Lizzy (who also had an extended live showing on ‘Kirshner’s’ in October) released their legendary ‘Live and Dangerous’. Even the newer generation of ‘second tier’ hard rockers like Angel and Starz put out strong albums (‘White Hot’ and ‘Coliseum Rock’, respectively). What a fucking year.

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Needless to say, my musical tastes were formed that year, and truth be told, they haven’t changed all that much. 1978 was the year I moved from slavish worship of a single band to an enduring fascination with an entire genre. Kiss validated my decision to move on by releasing 4 solo albums, which were 75% junk, and then by unleashing the complete disaster ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’ TV debacle. But I suppose one could say that for many, Kiss served a valuable purpose: initiating those of us in a certain age group into the world of rock n’ roll. Kiss was like a ‘gateway drug’, first getting you hooked and then leading you to the harder stuff.