In the world of Classic Heavy Metal, we like to put things in boxes. Or baskets. Or containers. Is something Thrash? Glam? Doom? NWOBHM? Something else? It’s a fun game. So, let’s throw in a curve ball with this question – which bucket are we going to toss KISS into?
KISS are difficult to pin down. Classic Metal Hawk has often considered them to be somewhat of an anomaly. As an American act, they clearly didn’t belong to a heavy metal movement like the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM). Nor did they grow out of any US heavy metal hotbed like Los Angeles (for Glam bands), or San Francisco (for thrash). And they pre-dated pretty much all of that anyway, first starting off in 1973 in New York.
If there’s confusion, maybe it’s because the band consciously chopped and changed with their sound. They were certainly considered as heavy metal to begin with, an early review by Rolling Stone magazine going as far as to describe them as ‘an American Black Sabbath‘. An early number like 1974’s ‘Hotter than Hell’ features quite heavy distortion on the guitars, certainly for the time, and a fairly ripping guitar solo at the end. It sounds like an early heavy metal track all right.
But then hot on the heels of that, you have the 1975 signature number ‘Rock and Roll All Nite’, which sounds poppy and commercial, pretty much exactly like a 70’s British Glam band – no coincidence, since the idea for riff on that song came from ‘Mama Weer All Crazee Now’, by UK glam kings, Slade.
Or … Or…
The ‘Destroyer’ album in 1976 was an ambitious crossover effort featuring orchestral sounds, choir, and of course a ballad, ‘Beth’ without a single guitar strum to be heard anywhere. Then we fast forward a few more years to 1982s ‘Creatures of the Night’, and find ourselves obviously back in heavy metal territory again. (Some people have even tried to paint KISS into the devil-worshipping corner, a classic go-to ploy for heavy metal haters in the 80s – did the band’s name stand for ‘Knights in Satan’s Service’? The band always rejected that though, and since they were not averse to any publicity ploy that might increase sales, it’s probably best to take the denial at face value. For what it’s worth, the name was thought to be derived from the fact that original drummer Peter Criss had previously been in a band called Lips.)
Interestingly, all these lurches in musical direction caused no end of tension within the band, and eventually caused 2 members, Ace Frehley (lead guitar) and Peter Criss (drums) to quit in the early 80s. Musical differences writ large, that just could not be overcome.
Original Heavy Metal Showmen
Of course, for KISS, it was always about the overall package on stage, not just the style of music. The ‘characters’ created with their trademark face paint were there virtually from the start, as was the pioneering showmanship including spitting blood, breathing fire, and flaming guitars. Sometimes that could even be improvisational, like when singer / bassist Gene Simmonds would occasionally set his hair on hire during the fire-breathing routine. All part of a night’s work.
Get Your Merch
The band’s management had big ambitions to attract an audience wider than might be thought normal for a traditional heavy metal band. There was merchandizing from the 70s onwards (anything from masks, make-up kits and dolls through to board games, lunch boxes and even a pin-ball machine. They made their first appearance of many in a comic book in 1977 (Marvel’s Howard the Duck issue #12 if you’re asking), many tv appearances, and there was a feature film, ‘KISS Meets the Phantom of the park’ in 1978. Intended to portray the band as comic-book style superheroes, it ended up being more towards the comic-book-clown end of the spectrum, but it was another way to get the band out there attracting fans.
And it worked – by the end of the 70s, merch sales alone had clocked up at over $100 million.
Then, in arguably the biggest about face of all, they junked the make-up completely (the ‘unmasked era’) and went for fully 13 years (1983 until 1996) bare faced. And then brought it all back again, resurrecting the old characters for a live appearance at the 38th Grammy awards.
As a quick aside, Classic Metal Hawk hadn’t realized until the make-up made its return in the 90s that each band member was playing a character, and the faces were a key part of that. Gene Simmonds was ‘The Demon’, guitarist Paul Stanley was ‘The Starchild’, lead guitarist Ace Frehley was ‘The Spaceman’ and drummer Peter Criss was ‘The Catman’. Later replacement members then added their own characters – ‘The Fox’ for drummer Eric Carr and ‘The Ankh Warrior’ for Frehley’s replacement Vinnie Vincent.
The story of the unmasking is worth re-telling in full. The band had released an album, ‘Unmasked’ in 1980, which was – a little confusingly – still part of their make-up-based, masked era. Anyway, the album was a flop by KISS standards, failing to go Platinum, and peaking at only #35 on the Billboard album charts – the worst commercial performance by a KISS album since that early ‘Hotter than Hell’ offering in 1974.
Even worse was to follow with 1981’s ‘Music From The Elder’. In yet another musical change of direction, the album features horns, harps and synthesizers alongside the regular band members. But the real nail in the album’s coffin was the confused composition of the album. Intended as both a concept album AND a soundtrack to a movie that the band claimed was in the works (imagine what the merch potential would have been), disaster struck when the movie side was canned. The band now had a soundtrack for a movie that was not going to be made.
Attempts at salvage ended up making matters worse. The running order of tracks was jumbled up, emphasizing the intended singles for release, but that meant that intended story line of ‘The Elder’ concept was ruined. The album was panned by critics, and the fans voted with their wallets – a US chart high of #75 was disastrous. See what you think – it’s ok musically, just nothing like what you expect from KISS, even knowing how much they chop and change with styles.
The back-to-heavy-metal basics offering ‘Creatures of the Night’ in 1982 stemmed the bleeding somewhat, with a high of #45, but KISS were still falling miles short of their 1970s heydays, and this led ultimately to the unmasking – this time not a record title but the literal ditching of the make up and characters. The intention seems to have been to have the fans reconnect with the music, without too many on-stage distractions. There had been grumbles over the years – were KISS more interested in money than music?
But ditching such an integral part of the act left some fans cold, so it was no surprise that when ‘reunion KISS’ returned with their original line up and a new tour, the catman / spaceman / starchild / demon characters made a return also.
So, KISS were obviously not interested in being pigeon-holed, which maybe is a lesson for the rest of us. And whilst the frequent directional changes in music and image may have pissed off some, it opened KISS (and Classic Heavy Metal more generally to a wider audience). Besides, looking at the back catalogue, would anyone really argue against the experimentation that they made along the way? After all, they were remarkably busy. From their birth in 1973 up to 2012, the band released no fewer than 20 studio albums – 24 if you count the 70’s solo albums by each individual member that were also released under the KISS banner. And 15 (or 19) of those were in the first 15 years, after which time they eased up on the pace, at least as far as recording was concerned. So, with that prodigious level of output, nobody can really say they were short changed, even though we no doubt all have our ‘most hated’ record in the collection.
Look, KISS, whatever box we try to throw them into, undoubtedly helped make the Classic Heavy Metal scene what it became in various ways. As one of metal’s earliest ‘big tent’ acts, they provided opening slots for any number of bands that we now consider heavy metal royalty, but who appreciated the exposure a KISS tour provided them. Iron Maiden were an early beneficiary, opening for them on some shows in 1980. Or there was Queensryche and Bon Jovi (both 1984). W.A.S.P. and Dokken (1985/6).
They were on the Monsters of Rock circuit, appearing at Donnington in 1988 and later, as headliners, in 1996.
So back to our original question – what are KISS? Glam? Heavy Metal? Heavy Rock? Shock Rock?
Let’s just say it’s all of the above. There’s a reason that the Hawk came up with the Classic Heavy Metal tag for this blog. Many bands and styles are welcome if they have the right sound – and any band that shared stages with Maiden, W.A.S.P, Dokken and Queensryche is ok by me. But with that said, The Hawk definitely has a preference for the heavier end of the KISS catalogue. Let’s take a listen to a favourite example.
So, at the end of all that, The Hawk basically gave up on trying to assign K.I.S.S. to any heavy metal genre. Anybody out there want to have a go?
Share your thoughts in the comments below, or send feedback direct to The Hawk.