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It is 1975. The place, a San Francisco nightclub. On a dimly lit dais, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS are standing center stage guitar-to-guitar, facing each other. As guitarist Ace Frehley closes his eyes and rips through bluesy arpeggios stage right, and as drummer Peter Criss pounds out the pop-pop-pop snare beat of the song "Deuce," Simmons and Stanley rock their heads from side to side like two man-size metronomes. Fans go wild. The scenario is captured and eventually released on a commercial video, KISS My Ass.
Cut to 1997. A bachelor party on the other side of the continent. The groom and a friend are standing on a dimly lit stage on the second floor of a German social hall. "Deuce" blares from the portable disc player behind the bar. Having seen KISS My Ass at least a hundred times between them, the groom and his pal (both KISS Army members since grade school) rock their heads back and forth in sync with the song. No one is paying attention, but who cares? When listening to KISS, acting like KISS -- tongue wag for tongue wag -- is most of the fun.
KISS is everyband. More than any other outfit in the history of American music, KISS has tattooed its image, writ large in indelible fake blood, on the pop marketplace and consciousness. Everyone with a TV or access to a magazine rack knows the deal. The band is made up of four characters, each possessing an identifying Kabuki face and persona. One is a child of the stars (Stanley), another is a demon (Simmons), another a spaceman (Frehley), and the fourth a man-beast (Criss). The band has lent this image, or these images, to almost everything -- throw blankets, lunch boxes, board games, coffee mugs, key chains, movies -- and everyone. Fans paint their faces for KISS conventions and concerts. Cover bands perform in full makeup across the country to packed houses. Even today, a professional wrestler who goes by the name Demon (taking Simmons's nom de guerre) grapples in black-and-white face paint. His facial design is identical to Simmons's.
By encouraging millions to walk in their seven-inch platform soles, the members of KISS are ensuring their immortality. So long as dressing up is fun and Halloween comes around once a year, there will always be KISS -- each character as memorable as Frankenstein or Captain America. (If only the guys from Moby Grape had thought of this.)
"There are certain bands that without a doubt have changed the face of rock and roll," says David DeCasper, drummer of local metal heads Sid-17 and Criss body double in the Houston-based tribute band The Band Not Formerly Known As KISS, which will perform at a pre-party Friday, March 31, at VQ Live the day before KISS's concert at the Cynthia Mitchell Woods Pavilion. "Taking the rock and roll thing so far, they've taken it much farther than any other band. And they've developed this cult following. Years from now people will still be buying their merchandize and still dressing up like them for Halloween."
Even though KISS has announced that this year's tour, which comes to Houston April Fool's Day, will be its last, the band's legacy remains in its infancy. A theme park, a cartoon and more comic books are on the way. Of course, as the mastermind behind the marketing, Simmons is just getting warmed up.
At times he talks about the band as if he were not even a part of it, as if it were an independent, living, breathing organism. "It's like giving birth," he says, before rattling on about some KISS-related projects. "That will all continue."
Contrary to its outlandish outward appearance, the band's music is no-frills rock and roll. On vinyl, style gives way to substance. No one ever hogs the spotlight for too long, though Stanley frequently falls in love with the sound of his strong voice. Frehley plays tastefully, never allowing himself to get caught up in sonic pyrotechnics. His solos are well paced, clean, even soulful. They never outshine the songs. Criss, though not inventive by any stretch, plays crisply and quickly, and Simmons can turn a funky phrase every once in a while but mainly steals the show with his gravelly voice. Stanley just makes all the chicks scream.
Double Platinum (1978) includes much of the band's best work (except its ode to Lolita, "Christine Sixteen"). This ancient material, in fact, still helps KISS sell out stadiums; 90 percent of its live set is made up of 20-year-old tunes. No other band does so well with so dusty a playlist. On "Strutter," for example, as Frehley strums a chord and holds it for seconds on end, Simmons works a frenetic, descending bit on the bass. This juxtaposition of a groovy bass line with a deliberately lazy riff is a slight deviation from run-of-the-mill metal, which is typically heavily syncopated. "Strutter" is nothing but rock, nothing but substance. Style is saved for the shows.
The New York-bred band's approach has changed little since its salad days. Even when playing tiny clubs in the early 1970s, honing its theatrical and musical chops, every member believed every show was taking place in Madison Square Garden. Performance remains paramount. "We believe in truth in advertising," says Simmons. "We stand guilty as charged for making complete spectacles of ourselves."
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