- Peter Criss
- Ace Frehley
- Gene Simmons
- Paul Stanley
KISS combined the blues-glam swagger of New York Dolls and Alice Cooper's b-movie theatricality with the Beatles' melodic and pop chops.
Better yet, they highlighted that rock & roll could be both well-crafted and shameless, exuberant fun.
When KISS emerged from New York City in the mid-'70s, they were larger-than-life superheroes from another planet—the coolest planet in the universe, one where fire-breathing rock stars spit blood, wore space-age costumes and platform shoes, and slashed out glam-inspired party songs in front of explosive pyrotechnics.
It took the world a few albums to catch up with the band's genius. That came in the form of their fourth effort, 1975's double live album, Alive! The speakers-blowing record presented KISS as a dynamite rock group favoring tough-guy vocals, muscular riffs and rumbling grooves. "Rock And Roll All Nite," which had a lukewarm reception as a studio cut on 1975's Dressed To Kill, hit the Billboard top 20, while tunes such as "Strutter," "Deuce" and "Black Diamond" had a seismic impact.
For KISS, the success of Alive! was a long time coming. In the early '70s, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons decided to scrap the approach of their former band, Wicked Lester, and start something new. Drummer Peter Criss joined the pair; shortly thereafter, so did guitarist Ace Frehley. This new group, dubbed KISS, took inspiration from the New York Dolls and Alice Cooper, and had designs on greatness.
In 1973, the band found a perfect ally in Bill Aucoin, who had directed the music TV show Flip Side, among other things. Aucoin had actually never managed a band before, but he got KISS a record deal with a new label, Casablanca Records, in a mere two weeks.
By this point, the band had already adopted different stage guises as a way to resonate with different groups of people, à la how the Beatles possessed individual, distinct personalities. The members of KISS took a glammed-up, makeup-led, dramatic take on this approach, however. Rhythm guitarist/vocalist Stanley was the Starchild; bassist Simmons was the Demon; lead guitarist Frehley was the Spaceman; and drummer Criss was the Catman.
Each man played up different facets of these personas, which gave KISS wide-ranging appeal. It also made them naturals for merchandise tie-ins. As the '70s progressed, the band appeared in comic books and had KISS-branded lunch boxes, board games, toys and even a pinball machine. 1978's cheesy, made-for-TV movie Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park, meanwhile, became a cult classic. Well before it became commonplace, KISS were unapologetically ambitious (naysayers might say shameless) about self-promotion.
At the same time, the band continued their musical hot streak. 1976's Destroyer and Rock And Roll Over, as well as 1977's Love Gun, featured a string of indelible songs hewing toward bluesy, corrugated hard rock: "Shout It Out Loud," "Detroit Rock City," "Calling Dr. Love," "Hard Luck Woman" and even the piano-based power ballad "Beth." In 1978, all four band members released solo albums, and 1979 brought the disco-inspired "I Was Made For Lovin' You."
As that song and the solo albums demonstrated, KISS weren't afraid to take risks with their sound—for better and for worse. 1981's orchestrated, synth-heavy Music From "The Elder," although a fascinating fan favorite curio, was ill-received at the time; 1982's underrated, heavy metal-leaning Creatures Of The Night, was only slightly more successful.
This period coincided with more visible personnel changes. Criss left in 1980—replaced by Eric Carr—and Frehley departed in 1982 and was replaced by Vinnie Vincent. In 1983, Kiss even decided to wipe off the makeup and tour and record without it—a major unmasking move announced exclusively on MTV. That year's Lick It Up, however, was a comeback of sorts that went gold.
Bruce Kulick replaced Vincent in 1984, and KISS soldiered on throughout the '80s, the patron saints of both the heavy metal and hair metal movements. In fact, this lineup remained stable until 1991, when Carr passed away from cancer.
In 1996, however, KISS decided to capitalize on their enduring popularity and announced a reunion of the Simmons, Stanley, Frehley and Criss lineup. The "Alive/Worldwide" tour was naturally a huge success, and begat 1998's Psycho Circus LP, although the renewed musical partnership was short-lived. Frehley and Criss once again ended up departing, and guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer took their spots—positions they still hold to this day.
Today, KISS continues to tour and expand their brand: Stanley and Simmons co-own an arena football team called the Los Angeles Kiss, and are co-founders of a chain of restaurants called Rock & Brews. Not only does this reflect their razor-sharp business acumen—but it's ensured KISS have enthralled new generations of fans.