At the height of the disco era, four men from New York City* showed rockers worldwide how glamorous dudes in platform shoes could be. And today, when KISS comes to mind, it isn’t usually in connection to “Detroit Rock City” or “Rock and Roll All Nite,” but rather painted faces and Gene Simmons’ seven-inch tongue. The music has always played second fiddle to the band’s over-the-top stage show.
KISS didn’t exactly take rock ’n’ roll by storm in 1974: Rolling Stone called their brand of rock simplistic, nonsensical and repetitive, and slammed their image as a Walt Disney reject.
Their studio albums were no match for their stage show — and it showed in the difference between ticket and record sales. Bloodspitting, massive pyrotechnics and levitating drums stirred mystery around the band — despite their unpopular music.
KISS: Alive! — a live album bleeding with raw intensity — was the band’s ticket to stardom. Even though critics called it more of the same, the album broke the Top Ten, staying on the charts for 110 weeks. And they started building a legacy based around their image. Soon Marvel was making a KISS comic book — printed with the band’s blood in the ink — which would sell over 400,000 copies. KISS had carved its legacy into the history books.
That legacy propelled the band even as the behemoth slowed: By the ’80s they had lost members, and in 1983 they took off the makeup, revealing their true selves for the first time. Still, the band forever upped the ante for what a stage show could be. And they left a permanent mark on modern rock.
Here are four elements we’re expecting to see at the Arena show (along with some of the other performers who’ve tried to rip those elements off).
The make-up: KISS were the original face painters, bringing a certain amount of anonymity to the band. Although modern music has been able to make eviler demons and better-looking costumes, most have failed to build the archetypes within each member like KISS did. We’ve seen this showmanship replicated by masked bands like Slipknot, Lordi and GWAR. But we’re peeved that face painting is also a cornerstone for the Insane Clown Posse and a host of juggalos. Thanks for helping create ICP, jerks.
Getting lifted into the sky: Suspension wires. Yes, in a dark arena with God-worthy music being played, they will appear to be propelled into the air by the power of rock. Did Satan actually give the God of Thunder (aka Gene Simmons) the power to fly? It would seem that way! Mostly, it’s been pop stars that have picked up on this: Chris Brown, Pink and Beyoncé have all appeared to float above the crowd. Michael Jackson pretended to use a jetpack for an exit. Spinal Tap floated. The illusion of flying is used these days by pop stars, but sans instrument. Simmons always thumped his bass as he floated above the crowd.
Pyrotechnics: What makes rock music sound better? Explosions! KISS, one of the first bands to use pyrotechnics in their live show, has been mimicked ever since — but clumsily. Metallica has indulged in pyrotechnics, even though it lit singer James Hetfield on fire in 1992. Michael Jackson’s hair ignited while he filmed a pyro-heavy commercial for Pepsi. Rammstein may be the only band to rival KISS’ use of fire. Till Lindemann, lead singer for the German band, actually lights himself on fire during the set. On purpose!
Bad Boy Factor: Ozzy bit the head off a bat. Marilyn Manson humped a
security guard’s head. But Gene Simmons, the guy with the seven-inch
tongue, appears to gouge the inside of his mouth to produce a fountain
of blood. Kid Rock tried his hand at the bad boy thing with his
whitetrash, beer-soaked image, but it’s hard to transform an ugly man
with bad facial hair and a beer belly. Eminem could dethrone Simmons but he has built too realistic of a persona
— he’s missing that spark of theatrical escapism that Simmon’s “Demon”
held. Has Marshall Mathers ever spit fire right before he turned his
mouth into a fountain of blood? Simmons has — and he’ll do it while
flying above the crowd.
KISS • Fri, June 24, at 7:45 pm • $48-$98 • Spokane Arena • 720 W. Mallon Ave. • ticketswest.com • (800) 325-SEAT
* An earlier version of this story misstated the band's provenance.