On December 16th, 1979, the last show of KISS’ Dynasty tour, one thing was certain. Something had to give. Peter was an unreliable grump who barely partook in the recording of Dynasty. His live performances were as erratic as his off-stage behavior. While still towing the company line, Ace had grown ambivalent as he was only slightly more into being in KISS than Peter at this point. And Gene and Paul were building a wall between them and Ace and Peter that Roger Waters would write a record about. So with winds of change blowing, the necessary change came via the firing of Peter Criss. By fire I mean record and release an album he played no role in. Put his face on the cover and then announce to the world he quit to pursue his own music. He was replaced by unknown Eric Carr after the release of Unmasked. A brief Australian tour and back into the studio to record the concept album Music from the Elder. Which would of course tank as the only thing the music buying world in 1981 wanted less than a new KISS album was a new KISS concept album. Ace decided to quit and by quit I mean the band recorded an album he played no role in. Put his face on the cover and then announced he quit to pursue his own music. He was replaced by unknown Vinnie Vincent after they released the intentionally heavy Creatures Of The Night. Of course, the subsequent tour tanked (pun intended) because in 1982 the only thing the concert attending world wanted less than a KISS concert was a KISS concert without Ace Frehley.
KISS had hit bottom. So they did what any band mired in makeup induced anonymity for close to a decade would do. They took off the makeup and recorded a platinum record. With Lick It Up KISS became relevant again and, for the most part, did so through the 80’s. Much has been debated about this time as to who truly saved KISS. The debate has largely centered around whether or not Vinnie Vincent did. For the record, it is absolutely idiotic to not admit he played at least a role. But for this article he is off the table. Look at this as reasons it wasn’t him if you like. I’ve also noticed the debate historically stops at Lick It Up and ignores everything that happened the next 7 years. I think we need to include everything through Eric Carr’s passing. And lastly, the point of this writing is purely debate fodder. Make your own conclusion. Have fun with it. It’s KISSmas in July. So let yourself go a bit and see if we can’t figure out once and for all exactly Who Saved KISS.
Paul Stanley. Not just the voice of KISS he was the writer of their principal hits. His commitment to the band never swayed even in the darkest hours. If not for him the makeup would not have come off and once it did he took over as the face of KISS. He produced Animalize and is responsible for the band’s biggest hit since “I Was Made For Lovin You” with “Heaven’s On Fire.” While Gene found himself more and more distracted by outside opportunities Paul made sure KISS stayed relevant. Seemingly using Music From The Elder as a learning tool, KISS never again swayed from their most successful approach which was hard rock n roll. And Gene’s history suggests if he were calling the shots KISS would’ve taken more than a few goofy turns musically. By moving on from something that didn’t work, insisting on ditching the makeup and being willing to work with outside writers, Paul Stanley saved KISS.
Gene Simmons. At best Gene is treated as an afterthought in the non-makeup years. A lost demon whose wings had been clipped. At worst he is viewed as bailing on KISS to become some sort of super mogul/actor/producer/record label guru. But is that really fair? After the mess of the Elder and still wearing makeup, KISS managed some legit radio play with a song written by Gene that they continue to play. “I Love It Loud” is important as it preceded the success of “Lick It Up.” Like Stockton to Malone, “I Love It Loud” was the alley to “Lick It Up’s” oop. And while he did take advantage of acting and producing opportunities, is that really a bad thing? Didn’t that help keep KISS’ name out there? Was Paul more committed to KISS because he didn’t do those things? By his own admission, Paul wasn’t very trusting in others and had few relationships outside the band. Maybe there was just fewer opportunities for Paul outside of KISS. It’s not like he didn’t try. Having famous girlfriends leave him to marry someone more famous had to make Paul even more envious of the attention Gene was getting from Hollywood. He may have clung tighter to KISS during the 80’s but isn’t it possible finding fault with Gene for not was actually a perk? Just maybe he doth protest too much? And here’s what I consider the biggest argument for why Gene should be given more credit during this time. What if he acted like Paul? Album after album Gene deferred to Paul for EVERY non-make-up single during this time. Paul got the lead track on almost every KISS album. He never let Paul’s pettiness get to him and in that way he cared about the greater good. In the 80’s more than ever KISS needed Paul AND Gene. He had every right to stake his claim to KISS and had he pushed back at Paul it would’ve killed the band. And I think the concept that Paul was cranking out constant top notch material while Gene strived to be marginal is a joke. Gene didn’t write “My Way.” By staying out of Paul‘s way while simultaneously growing his own and KISS‘ profile, Gene Simmons saved KISS.
Ace Frehley. Simple. He quit. KISS was a tired dinosaur in 1982. And while his reasons for quitting may have been less than magnanimous, had he not quit, KISS would not have sounded like they did on Lick It Up. To keep up with the 80’s KISS needed a slicker, tighter sound. They needed a guitar player that… for lack of a better term, wasn’t Ace. As much as Gene and Paul tried to keep him for contractual reasons, I doubt the success of the 80’s would’ve happened had Ace stuck around. They may have still taken the makeup off, but the sound would’ve stayed dated and as much as you may love Ace, he’s not the songwriter Vinnie Vincent was and my crystal ball doesn’t show a happy end for KISS had he stuck around. By quitting and forcing Gene and Paul to look at EVERYTHING they were doing, Ace saved KISS.
Eric Carr. Outside the drum sound on Creatures and being an overall affable dude, not much is said about Eric Carr. Good or bad. The least polarizing member of KISS’ history tends to be overlooked when it comes to his contributions. You have to remember he was the first and for all practical purposes the only guy to wear his own makeup outside the original four. He joined as the band wasn’t touring the US for the first time and they didn’t tour for the next record at all. The first record he played on was the drastic departure Music From The Elder and the only guy in the band who actually talked to him quit before they recorded their next album. Meanwhile, he had to deal with Paul taking his frustrations out on him. Probably not what he thought he had signed up for. And let’s not forget. He was doing things on the drums that bands like Quiet Riot, Ratt, and Motley Crue would soon be mimicking. By not rocking the boat, taking Paul’s shit, and giving KISS the kick in the ass they needed, Eric Carr saved the band.
Removing the makeup. The makeup was fun but it no longer had the edge of the early days. The costumes had become too pretty and flamboyant and their audience was growing up and looking for something more age appropriate. Frankly they should’ve done it with the Elder since they were looking to be taken seriously. But the fact is Lick It Up would’ve been overlooked, in America for sure, had it just been the next KISS album. Unmasking created a little buzz and having a strong single like “Lick It Up” punctuated that moment. Assuring they got all the juice they could from taking off the makeup as you can only do it once. By reminding people they still exist and creating renewed interest in a largely forgotten band, removing the makeup saved KISS.
MTV. Compared to new bands like Motley Crue or Ratt and fellow 70’s holdouts Elton John and Bruce Springsteen, you might say that MTV ignored KISS. But truth be told, they covered the unmasking. They played the shit out of “Lick It Up” and “Heaven’s on Fire.” They may not have been the darlings that Duran Duran were but the exposure this basically new band got on MTV was very key in their return to platinum. They also televised their Animalize concert in Detroit. You weren’t seeing that on CBS. “Tears Are Falling”, “Crazy Nights”, “Reason To Live”, “X In Sex”, “Hide Your Heart”, “Forever”. These all received fairly regular play on this cool new medium. While radio continued to ignore them MTV didn’t and when you need young people to stay current and cool, the impact of that cannot be underestimated. By giving them exposure on the hip new thing on cable, MTV saved KISS.
Casablanca Records. Sure this is an oddball choice but the deal they negotiated with Polygram made KISS too big to fail. In other words, KISS’ contract with Polygram was so one sided and called for Polygram to guarantee KISS so much money, that dropping KISS was too big of a loss to take. It made more sense to try and profit from the relationship. So when KISS was having a hard time selling tickets and getting contracts for merchandise, they always had Polygram’s tour support. And that stack of money in the form of an album advance that paid Paul and Gene’s mortgage insured KISS would be delivering a new record every fall. By pulling one over on Polygram Records, Casablanca saved KISS.
So for everyone who chooses to minimize the impact Vinnie Vincent had on the bands change in perception, there’s some fodder to strengthen your argument. Ain’t it a bitch? Merry KISSmas (In July).