The world’s most photogenic band, their makeup and costumes as good an example of greasepaint cosplay as any, still pops up on your social media stream. You have good taste, you follow popular rock bands as well as you cherish your hand-assembled indie playlist on Spotify. And, given the average social media music-fandom algorithm (picture some laboring, wheezing server in the basement of some corporate dungeon), KISS will inevitably pop up.
OR… say you’ve been dragged out thrift shopping while your domestic partner replenishes the household throw-pillow eco-system and you get bored enough to fan through the record crates. There’s KISS, black-and-white proto-Juggalos stage-diving off of posters and T-shirts. Surely, these modern customers ask rock critics, KISS must have been a big deal back in their day?
No really, they printed those shirts themselves. It’s marketing. You know how everybody dumps on The Monkees for being a commercialized band despite having arguable talent? KISS is the opposite: The corporate sellout’s corporate sellout, perhaps 1+ ½ hit wonders, hyped up way more than they were merited.
How Many Say “KISS Sucks”?
Not that I’m trying to prove much by numbers, but here’s a recent search snapshot. Don’t look at me shocked like I’m Pete the meanie Penguin picking on some poor defenseless band. I’m doing my part as a responsible music historian. Don’t mistake me, KISS isn’t completely talentless. They could croak out a meager tune once in awhile. It’s not like their signature song, “Rock and Roll All Nite,” isn’t still rotating on the oldies stations today.
But still, you look at the merch, and you look at the average playlist even from that era, and you now have this Bermuda Triangle, a dark matter of missing KISS fans. Contemporary artists of the time (admittedly, you see merch of them too) would be Elton John, Wings, Bee Gees, Wild Cherry, Chicago, Diana Ross, and of course Paul Simon anchoring the #1 spot for 3 weeks with yet another of his catchy, crowd-pleasing jingles. KISS is never spoken in the same circles as these artists, at least not around the campfires I frequent.
Where is the KISS Army? What happened to them? Did they get ambushed by the Motorhead militia and turned over as POWs?
The Infinite Merch
But before we argue the band’s merit, first we have to haunt the bowels of the Internet to assemble a collage of marketing examples. Since we don’t have all day here, thought I’d condense this down for you:
Even after a cursory search, I hardly know what’s fake and what’s real anymore, what’s parody and what’s sincere. We have followed a white rabbit in leather down a rabbit hole of eternal merchandise marketing, and we may never find our way out. I hear some ninnies whine at me (I don’t blame them; I’m a convenient shoulder to whine on) that other bands have lots of marketing crossovers too, and OMG did you see how the Beatles and Elvis and etc. bands sold out?
No, you’re not getting the big picture. MARKETING! In the mid-1970s, the tie-in marketing platform was invented, forging a path directly from KISS to The Smurfs.
I was there when they released their biggest hit single. Can you guess? Not R&RAN – controversial though it be to call for the right to party every day, no band’s ever thought of that one before. By the citation of Billboard, KISS’s highest scoring single is “Beth,” #7 (Hot 100) on 9/25/76.
Yes, that song totally justifies the costumes. If I told you that their top charting hit doesn’t even sound like it was written by KISS, I’d be right because it was actually written by Stan Penridge, uncredited. Not the only song he wrote for them, either.
I can testify that even at this peak – the bicentennial of America – KISS was not on everyone’s mind. Top-selling artists in 1976 were a diverse circus of clashing genres, still in a Baby Boomer iron grip naturally, but popular US radio music yawed to the easy-listening side, or else funk and disco, or to early experimental hard rock bands like Nazareth. Now, right there, you know that in a cage match, Nazareth could stomp KISS into circus-painted Silly Putty.
As for the rest of KISS’s chart history: Huh. No #1s on the Hot 100. That was their only top ten.
Of course, we vintage rock historians (I’m counting all of you because seriously, who else reads this blog?) know better than to judge a band by its Billboard chart history. Again I say, KISS is a competent, capable band, just the Nickelback of the ‘70s hard / power rock wave. Without the make-up, they’d be an OK-average band. They’ve had a sprinkle of chart success including some #1s on alt. charts, and certainly a lasting career, so they’re bound to get a chart in somewhere.
But still, look at these clowns:
To get immortalized between Darth Vader and Batman! Why? The makeup.
What a tragic waste of perfectly good branding KISS has been. Say what you will about Slipknot, their music lives up to the costumes. KISS dresses like the succubi of Satan stepped fresh out of a Glenn Danzig flick, while basically being the nicest band your mother considered to hire to play at her wedding. KISS’s branding is the corporate suit and tie choking the neck of a bad boy image, but only on the weekends and after church lets out. Being a KISS fan has always been like having a mullet.
Gene Simmons admitted to being a brand first
The holy link I am about to hyperlink you to is the threshold of one of my sacred places on the Internet, the very music blog inspiration that chiefly informs some of my work. Behold the now-defunct WFMU, at their old Gene Simmons article with interviews on Beware of the Blog. Gaze in wonder, hobbits! Once the hall of great legends. So Gene Simmons says:
> “Sure! We're whores. I have no credibility. I don't want credibility. I want to do whatever I think works and is a lot of fun. You know, to me, a prostitute has always been much more ethical than a wife, and here's why: Before a prostitute gives you a blow job, she will tell you it's going to cost twenty-five dollars. Not your wife! Your wife-to-be is never going to say a word about money, never! Love, love, love, love, love. Once you get married, your ass is hers. 'Cause if the day ever comes you get divorced, one of your two god-given balls is going to be ripped out of your body, entrails and all.”
So… Lot to unpack there! To ignore the other charming aspects of Simmons (insert video clip of tongue waggle here) delivery, he has a uniquely lawyer-influenced view of this whole love thing. But anyway, point nailed: KISS was never that big a deal musically.
Consider a more Monkees-like approach to appreciating KISS for what they were. I mean, they have the most iconic makeup of any band. The persona, the merchandise, the wacky licensing, the collector’s market: It’s all part of the post-consumerism act! I mean, I don’t hear anybody calling Insane Clown Posse virtuosos either.
It’s part of the show. In a way, KISS redeems itself through its backwards marketing image. It’s a “safe” band to be a fan of in every way, without the big bullies at school kicking your ass for toting around a Diana Ross lunchbox. Music practically as wholesome as Christian contemporary, broad mass appeal, fan gear that just sits there and looks rad.
Maybe Gene Simmons really just wanted the world to get along better.
But oh, Lord! Lord-de-lord-de-lord, that merchandising!
And there's even more junk where this came from. If it exists, there is KISS branding on it for sale.
Anyway, yeah, in conclusion:
Historians, please ignore the vast pile of unclaimed, still-in-the-box KISS merchandise you excavate from landfills. They were surplus made for nobody. We didn’t all belong to a cult that worshiped Pepé Le Pew or anything.