You have to wash your hands before touching Kiss's new book. Given that only 1,000 have been printed, one would imagine the copy being shown to journalists in a hotel basement in London will be given a wipedown and sold along with the other 999.
It would be a very Kiss thing to do. On the one hand, Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons – long the only two members of Kiss who matter, and around whom drummers and lead guitarists rotate and revolve – want to make a statement about their legacy. On the other, their chosen instrument is an extraordinary collection of photos, almost as large as life – Kiss Monster Book is 3ft high and opens to 5ft wide – that won't fit on your bookshelf and will cost you $4,299.
Kiss at their peak permeated American popular culture. Even now, after 39 years, they are still loved around the world, and still working – a new album, Monster, follows later this year. And their story is about more than just pyrotechnics, sexual conquests and money-grubbing.
1973: The first year
Gene Simmons Paul and I were in a band called Wicked Lester, and we had a recording contract with Epic Records. It was kinda like Three Dog Night or the Doobie Brothers – everything all over the place. Some pop stuff, some heavy stuff, some of this. There was no identity. We were looking the gift horse in the mouth and saying: "This isn't real. We don't believe in it." We quit. We quit our own recording contract to go back and start with songs. And we started to write Strutter and Deuce and Black Diamond. Once we had those core songs, we understood the musical identity.
Paul Stanley [We] were basically following that same formula of: don't bore us, get to the chorus. We weren't about 20-minute jams. By the time you get to the second chorus, you can sing the song. You know it. That's good songwriting. It's not an exercise in jerking off.
GS [The makeup] was warpaint. Let me give you a sense of our warpaint – makeup does not give it enough respect. We played a place called the Daisy. There couldn't have been more than 50 to 100 people there. When we looked across the stage, we felt as if we belonged together. I remember seeing the Beatles as a kid and thinking there must have been a Beatle mother cos they all looked like they were connected. There's no question that our outfits and our boot-heels and our makeup was a unique definition of who we were and helped us become who we are.
PS We had a rule that we wouldn't play more than once every eight or 12 weeks because we wanted people to think we were busy. We were literally sitting in our loft starving and rehearsing. And then we would go out and do a show and I would say: "It's great to be back – we've been gone!" We weren't anywhere. But it was about creating this mythology from the ground up.
GS We designed our own posters, had friends of Peter [Criss, the drummer] print them up, and at night we would go out there and put up our own posters so nobody would see us.
PS We'd load in our equipment in the afternoon so people thought we had a road crew. We had a wall of speaker cabinets that had no speakers in them – we couldn't afford the speakers. We would tell the people working the spotlight: "Don't shine the light on the cabinets," because you'd be able to see through them.
GS People often reference Kiss and the New York Dolls. It's really historically inaccurate. It's not factual. Paul and I went to see them play at a place called the Diplomat Hotel and when they went up on stage we said: "Wow. They look like stars." I'll swear on my children – just so you'll understand this is accurate and no bullshit – when they started playing we turned to each other and said: "We'll kill em." They could not play. Songs were all right – Personality Crisis – but they could not play guitars. Horrific.
PS We were always the black sheep [in New York rock]. And we were the black sheep because we took what we did seriously. The other bands round what they were calling the glitter scene in NY were basically the soundtrack to a fashion show. They were more about hanging out at Max's Kansas City – which I think I went to once. As a rule, all those bands were more about going to parties and being seen than rehearsing. We were rehearsing literally seven days a week, so we had no kinship, we had nothing in common with them, we weren't cool.
GS There was a pride in songcraft and peeing on the ground the way a wild animal does and saying: "This is my territory. This is who I am." Identity was important then, it's the most important thing now.
PS We were the fans that became a band. On any given weekend I would go to the Fillmore East or the Village Theater. And for three, four, five dollars it was the best-spent money on a Friday or Saturday night. As a kid I saw Humble Pie, Derek and the Dominoes, Led Zeppelin, the Yardbirds with Jimmy Page, Vanilla Fudge, you name it. That was what I aspired to. Not necessarily to blow shit up, but to go up on stage and turn it into electric church. Go up there and testify and sing the praises of rock'n'roll. Plugging a guitar into an amplifier and basically singing religious hymns all night. For me that's what Kiss is all about. So it's interesting it's when people will see early footage of the band and be surprised at how good we were. Technically we may not have been great but we were committed and believed 100% in what we did. And we played well enough to put it across. With time we built a massive show, which was us saying: "What would we love to see a band do? How can we be the band we never saw?" But the core of it always has been music. It has to be. You can't last as long as we have because you have big smokebombs. A crappy band with a Kiss show is still a crappy band. There are many bands who can afford to do a Kiss show, and they do. But the DNA is Kiss.
31 October 1976: Kiss's breakthrough TV appearance on ABC's Paul Lynde Halloween Special
PS It signified us being maybe embraced by middle America. We were suddenly on a family holiday variety special. So on that level we were being embraced as Americana rather than an edgy, sex-crazed New York rock band. It somehow took us to another level, but it also sanitised us to a degree. We needed all the exposure we could get. It was all about exposure. We did Kids Are People Too – a kiddy show. We did The Mike Douglas Show, which was for near-geriatrics, and that was our first appearance on national TV. It didn't matter. We had to be out there.
GS When we did the Paul Lynde Halloween show there was Margaret Hamilton, the original witch from the Wizard of Oz, and there were comedians. But when Kiss came on it became the Kiss show. To this today, no matter what canvas we're on, it becomes the Kiss show.
You must have looked like aliens to the viewers.
PS Isn't that the beauty of rock'n'roll? Look at the early footage of Elvis. To this day it takes my breath away when he's just doing this sexual primal dance across the stage. Rock'n'roll at its best is the creation of aliens.
GS Which is why we always protected the makeup, People can see us without makeup now, so what we are protecting is the legend. The legend of Kiss. You've heard about it; you've seen it. The imagery pervades planet Earth and we intend for it to pervade the universe.
PS We are – as opposed to in the beginning when we really were iconic fantasy imagery – a flesh-and-blood band. We are immortal in the sense that it continues bigger than ever. But there are human beings behind it. The great part is that we can sit across from you like this and coexist.
16 November 1981: Kiss follow attempts at disco and pop on their previous two albums with (Music from) The Elder, a disastrous concept album scorned by fans and critics alike.
PS We became enchanted with the idea of becoming the darlings of the critics and proving some sort of credibility. And for my money put out this pompous piece of pap. We were totally drunk with this idea that we were suddenly brilliant. I remember playing that album for people at my house and you weren't allowed to talk: "Ssshhh! This is so brilliant! This is my statement!" Just sitting there being completely enamoured of what we had done. We lost the script.
GS But if you're driving down a road, often the wrong turn you make helps you understand where the right way is, because within a record or two we went back to understanding amps and guitars, and what it was, if anything, was a reaction to The Elder.
PS It became calculated and contrived. Which led to letting go of members, having members leave, and then this idea that we could create new characters [for the new members], which was the next absurdity. All of a sudden we had a menagerie – we were two steps from Turtle Boy. We were just creating these characters that didn't ring true. The fans didn't like it. The fans wanted the iconic images. The images that you can go anywhere in the world and people will go: "that's Kiss". So why did we need Giraffe Man? We already had the winning formula and we lost it.
GS [The next album] Creatures of the Night sounds like a sledgehammer to the balls. Without Ace [Frehley, the original guitarist] and without Peter, we had to get back to who we were, whether it was a harder Kiss or a more song-oriented Kiss. We had to get back to it.
PS We literally at [the time of The Elder] had people opening doors for us. I don't mean figuratively. When we would go to the studio to record, there would be somebody opening the door for us. That's not what this should be about. It was sycophantic. We were surrounded by people who are paid to tell you how great you are. We snapped out of it, but it was a rude awakening.
GS Coldplay is a famous band. There are a lot of famous bands. Kiss had become culture, had become iconic. There were holidays [Halloween] when people dressed like us. Nobody takes Bono's face and tattoos it on their ass. Kiss pervaded culture in ways I hadn't seen bands do. We see children named after our songs and tattoos on people's bodies from before that became the thing.
PS But we engineered our irrelevance. We really did. We lost the plot. We forgot why we did this. We forgot why we got into it. And I don't think we've ever forgotten that since. It was a wrong turn that took years and years to get back on the motorway from. It was not something where one album was going to rectify what we did. People abandoned us in droves, and rightfully so, because we betrayed them and we betrayed ourselves.
18 September 1983: Kiss reveal themselves without makeup on MTV
GS We had just finished working on [11th album] Lick It Up. Then: time to do the photo session. I think it was Paul who kept saying: "Why don't we just take some photos without the makeup?"
PS it wasn't something we were doing out of bravery. We were aware that we were in dire need of reassessing, and we were paying penance for our misdeeds. If all we were was makeup and smokebombs then we should go home and find another job. People were tired of what Kiss represented, or confused about what Kiss represented, because quite honestly we were still trying to dust ourselves off from a good beating.
GS The one who felt most comfortable was Paul. I battled [for my] identity and conviction of who I was. Let me tell you a nightmare scenario. We're going through an airport in middle America someplace, and there's one of these stores in the middle of an airport. And mostly mature women stop in and buy these things, because no young lady in her right mind would go and buy fashion in an airport. And there's this kind of red-sequined glittery top that Dame Edna might wear. I stopped everybody, walked in there, proudly put cash down and took this red sequined outfit. Of course it was too small, so I had to get the seamstresses to take it out. And I proudly walked out on stage like a fucking buffoon, because I had lost my soul.
PS But we survived it and it got us through the 80s and helped us get back on our feet. For a band that's lasted this long, people don't realise some of the lows. But that's how you judge the champ. The champ doesn't win every fight. Muhammad Ali is called the greatest. I was at one of his fights that he lost. [In parts of the 1983] tour when we would pull into an arena parking lot it looked like they had left the lights on. There were no cars there. There were some shows that were virtually empty. And you could tell how empty it was because the opening band would be on and you could just hear an echo. And then you have to go out on stage, and we're still saying the hottest band in the land because that's how we felt, and if I threw a pick far enough it would hit the floor over everyone's head. Journalists were ruthless and heartless. When somebody says to you: "How does it feel to be on a sinking ship?" there's no getting around that the knife is being turned. But consequently I'm the first to say nobody is going to decide when I call it quits and nobody is going to decide when this band is over.
GS It's worth noting that when you take a look at the history of Kiss – cos we've been around quite a bit longer than most bands; it's going to be 40 years pretty soon – we started out before disco, and then disco came in and we survived, and then punk and then thrash and then grunge and on and on and on, all the different movements. Kiss survives not only all those bands but the genres themselves became our cake. Very few bands survive the test of time, and therein lies the word greatness. I am not shy about saying: we are the greats. We are one of the greats. Because when you can survive the times and you are an entity unto yourselves – all those other things are fashion. We are who we are. There's a Popeye philosophy that's profoundly true: "I am what I am and that's all that I am, I'm Popeye the sailor man." And the rest of you fuck off. In essence.
16 April 1996: Kiss announce the reunion of their original lineup, and their return to wearing makeup
PS There was a sense – and I hate the word because it became so overused – of closure. The idea of getting back with these people who we created Kiss with and perhaps rectifying misdeeds and misunderstandings and going forward. [But] although some people came back to the band apologising for a lot of misdeeds and swearing they would never do it again and how lucky they were to be back, ultimately they fell to the same poisons. Once it became clear that band wasn't going to stay together, we were more resolute than ever that those characters would remain. When we did the Farewell Tour, I remember at the end of the tour being sad and then realising I didn't want to say farewell to the band, I wanted to say farewell to two of the members. I ran into someone at a car-wash and they said: "Boy, the farewell tour was great. When are you doing the 35th anniversary tour?" And suddenly I realised: you can always go home, because people want you.
Could Kiss have lasted this long without being superstars? Could they have been a jobbing band, never breaking through, like Ramones were for 20 years?
GS And never rise to arena level anywhere in the world?
PS As long as we loved it. At our lowest point, we were doing it because of our passion for it. You're either a musician or a pop star. When the chips are down, the pop star finds a new job. This is what we do. It's not that different from the blues at this point. You can play this for the rest of your life, cos you're singing about what you love. Johnny Ramone lived down the road from me. After he quit the Ramones, he never picked up a guitar again, never wanted to know about it. God love every other band, but God bless Kiss.