Wednesday, April 28, 2010

KISS: Gods Of Rock And Roll

By Andrew Perry

As heavy-rock veterans Kiss launch their latest assault on Britain’s arenas, they explain why they’re one of the world’s biggest brands.

On Saturday, heavy rock’s most dazzlingly pyrotechnic roadshow thunders in for its umpteenth sold-out blitz on Britain’s arenas. Love them or loathe them, Kiss are icons of post-war American culture. The band’s no-holds-barred live show is a worldwide institution, featuring fireworks, smoke, ridiculous costumes and make-up, eruptions of fake blood, winches, elevating platforms, sufficient illumination to cause a power cut for miles around, and, of course, two hours’ worth of over-amplified, bone-crunching riffage.

“Everyone loves Kiss,” Gene Simmons, their lascivious, tongue-waggling bass-player, tells me. “Wherever we go, people stop in their tracks when they see us in make-up.”

Their repertoire is perhaps not quite as ubiquitously familiar as that of the Beatles or even Led Zeppelin, but, when Kiss formed in the early Seventies, those were their two inspirations – the one melodic, the other excessive and loud. Though they have had few hits in this country, feel-good songs such as Rock and Roll All Nite, Love Gun and Do You Love Me? have become anthems in their own right.

Where Kiss have really excelled, though, is in generating excitement in stadiums, and, more controversially, in selling their own image. At the turn of the Seventies, it was Kiss, among others, who dispensed with hippiedom’s cooperative logic and ethical hand-wringing and approached concert touring as business: you pay your money, you get a show you’ll never forget.

“The strangest people grew up on Kiss – Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe,” says Simmons. “We snuck into the Grammys one time, and Luther Vandross was like [high-pitched voice], 'Oh my God, it’s Kiss!’”

Simmons, now 60, embodies Kiss’s brazen attitude. At the beginning of our interview, he removes his chewing gum from his mouth, sticks it on the table in front of me and beneficently suggests, “There – eBay it!”

He was born Chaim Witz in Israel, and changed his name to Gene Klein when, aged nine, he moved to Brooklyn with his mother. He embraced the American Dream, and capitalism and applied it to his version of the “British Invasion” music that he obsessed over in the late Sixties. It was a penchant he shared with Paul Stanley, Kiss’s helium-voiced singer/guitarist.

The duo struck on a sound that stripped back the era’s noodly, progressive tendencies for punchy mass consumption, and devised a look (“the visual unity of the Beatles was terrific,” says Stanley), and their attention-grabbing stage show.

Thanks to a “bull-headed, delusional, crusader mentality”, Kiss soon crashed on to the emerging stadium circuit, and became kings of what America called “glitter rock”, which those who still clung to hippie ideals regarded as a sell-out.

“I always hated hippies with a passion,” says Simmons. His biggest beef was with their druggy lifestyle, which he describes as “a failing of moral character”. Simmons and Stanley ruthlessly booted out their lead guitarist, Ace Frehley, and their drummer, Peter Criss, for their dissolute lifestyle.

“My mother, at 14, was in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany,” Simmons reasons, “and saw her whole family incinerated in the ovens. Her philosophy has always been: every day above ground is a good day. Life is a gift, not a birthright. Don’t waste it! When you have that kind of cancer growing in your band, you have to cut it out.”

Stanley adds: “When everyone started talking about sex, drugs and rock and roll, I was saying, 'You keep the drugs, and I’ll take the sex and the rock & roll.’ ”

Kiss’s sexual boasts are almost as preposterous as their costumes. In the Eighties, Simmons claimed to have slept with 3,000 women, among them, verifiably, Cher and Diana Ross. Today, he coolly assures me, his total is nearer 5,000.

At times, Kiss have seemed just as indiscriminate musically, hopping into bed with trends such as disco and so-called “hair metal” in the Eighties, when they unsuccessfully presented themselves without their familiar make-up and regalia.

Yet they made it to the new millennium, largely thanks to their bare-faced furthering of their own brand. Famously, they have sold franchises for production of everything from a Kiss Kabernet Sauvignon, to a coffin – the Kiss Kasket – which doubles as a fridge.

“You don’t know how big the image is,” Simmons marvels. “By some experts, it is believed to be the most recognised pop culture image on Earth – even above Mickey Mouse. You know, there’s no U2 comic book, there’s no Mick Jagger action figure. We have our own Visa card. You can go into WalMart and get M&M’s with our faces on. We have a Dr Pepper campaign now. It’s unbelievable!”

Other lucrative brand extensions include Simmons’s Osbournes-style reality-TV show, Gene Simmons: Family Jewels, which co-stars his partner, Shannon Tweed, a former Playboy Playmate. Simmons was also the central figure in the BBC reality-TV series Rock School.

Perhaps the unlikeliest triumph, though, was last year’s rip-roaring album, Sonic Boom, which, 35 years on from their debut, hit the charts around the world, including the UK.

The night after our interview, the band play a rare club gig at the 800-capacity Islington Academy, and I am invited along for the preparations at the nearby Hilton. As the four current members ritualistically apply their make-up, they are watched by a succession of TV crews and admirers, including the Appleton sisters and the Mighty Boosh. Do they ever feel like not transforming into their superhuman selves?

“Never,” says Simmons. “The most important thing is getting up on stage. It’s electric church, there’s no experience like it. Popes, presidents, prime ministers, even kings – none of them get to feel like I do. Only maybe Olympian gods would.”

Read the full article HERE.