Thursday, December 5, 2013

Early KISStory Not All Flash Pots And Groupie Polaroids | By Bob Ruggiero

Nothin' to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975)
By Ken Sharp with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons
It Books, 560 pp., $29.99

If a 500-plus page oral history about a band which only covers the period before their first hit sounds like it's over the top, it doesn't when you realize that the band is KISS.

Sharp, who also co-wrote official KISS biography Behind the Mask, conducts more than 200 interviews with band members (including former players Ace Frehley and Peter Criss), managers, promoters, journalists, fans, agents, roadies, club owners, costume designers and just about every musician who either opened for KISS or watched helplessly trying to follow their spectacle.

Does the girlfriend of bassist of a long-forgotten local band that once opened for KISS have a story to tell? You betcha.

And while many of the remembrances lapse into repetitiveness to where the reading eyes gloss over -- how driven KISS was, how nobody had seen anything like them before, how they blew everyone else off the stage, how they always knew they were going to make it, etc. -- the little story details about the band's years of struggle are priceless.

Like how Criss' mother would sew stage pants for the band, or Simmons accidentally burned a fan's face during an early fire-breathing experiment, or how Simmons' mother, upon hearing the band would tour Canada, beseeched management, "are you sure he has a sweater?"

Even when KISS was playing shitty dives and bizarre bills (like a library fundraiser) and struggling to find enough money for hot dog dinners, they performed as if they were headlining Madison Square Garden. After three records with minimal sales, it took the ballsy-move two LP Alive! and single "Rock and Roll All Nite" to push the band to the next level.

One of the book's more interesting aspects is charting the development of the band's look and stage show as they start to make an impression on audiences with their high energy, no frills rock and roll.

Also of note are the voices of co-manager Bill Aucoin and Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart, for whom no expense was too great and no promotional opportunity too small to push the career of a band whose concert attendances grew as their record sales tanked. It also shows that, as driven and ambitious as Stanley and Simmons were, they had a whole support system behind them that any band would kill for.

How much of the band's success over the decades can be attributed to the makeup, costumes, and pyro vs. the actual music is something that fans and detractors can debate forever (and have). But as Nothin' to Lose makes clear, one thing that nice Jewish boys Chaim Weitz and Stanley Eisen had in abundance (besides ego) was moxie.

"A storm of attitude, oversize ambition and plain old dumb luck," is how Sharp characterizes the rise of KISS. And that includes merchandising. The book points out that KISS has officially licensed more than 31,000 products raking in more than $500 million in fees alone.

Gene Simmons has even gone on record as saying once he and Stanley (the two original members left in the current lineup) retire, he envisions several versions of "KISS" continuing to tour and record.

After all, it seems that anyone can put on the black, white, and silver greasepaint and transform themselves into the Demon, the Spaceman, the Cat, and the Starman. And while today KISS as a phenomena has transcended their musical output, Nothin' to Lose is a fascinating -- if somewhat lengthy -- glimpse into the band's origin and development.

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