The wild history of Kiss — and how they almost never made it out of Queens
In the early 1970s, David Bowie, Lou Reed and the New York Dolls made men in makeup cool. So it was no wonder that a Queens band wanted to try it out, too.
“Kiss originally wore lipstick and eyeliner,” recalled musician Binky Philips, who went to high school with guitarist Paul Stanley. “But Gene [Simmons, bassist] saw himself in the mirror and realized he looked like a pro wrestler in drag.”
The only way they could make it work was to create theatrical characters inspired by comic-book superheroes: a starchild, a demon, a spaceman and a freaky-looking cat.
But success was a long shot. Former yeshiva boy Simmons and opera-loving Stanley were nobodies who couldn’t cut it at Manhattan hot spots. Instead, Kiss played its first gig, in 1973, to an almost empty Popcorn Club in Sunnyside.
“Most musicians thought the kabuki makeup was lame,” Philips told The Post. “They made a big noise as a group but, individually, there were no stellar musicians in Kiss. They were not handsome. Peter [Criss, drummer] had a weak chin and Ace [Frehley, guitarist] had bad skin.
”Stanley (real name: Stanley Eisen) and Simmons (born Chaim Witz) met through a mutual friend and teamed up for the short-lived band Wicked Lester.
The two decided to try again, but needed a catchier name. “Gene wanted to call the band F–k,” Doug Brod, author of “They Just Seem a Little Weird: How Kiss, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith, and Starz Remade Rock and Roll” (Hachette Books), told The Post. “Paul suggested that they go with Kiss.”
Tom Werman, an A&R man for Epic, remembers them wearing spandex and whiteface when he brought his boss to a practice. “Afterward, my boss looked at me and asked, ‘What the f–k was that?’ ” he told The Post.
After the gig in Queens, Kiss played Times Square’s dilapidated Hotel Diplomat on Aug. 10, 1973. In the audience was Bill Aucoin, the producer of a rock-themed TV show called “Flipside.”
He loved the band, face paint and all. Despite no experience in handling musicians, Aucoin offered to manage Kiss and swore that he would land them a record deal in 30 days. “Everybody thought Bill was crazy,” said Carol Ross, the band’s original publicist. Two weeks later, Philips said, “Paul told me they had a deal. I asked which label. Paul said that it did not yet have a name. I was, like, ‘If you say so …’ ”
The label was soon dubbed Casablanca — a cheeky homage to owner Neil Bogart.
Aucoin’s stage-actor boyfriend taught the band choreographed moves. The manager maxed out his credit cards on a drum elevator, fog machines and elaborate costumes. In 1974 Kiss released its self-titled album of rudimentary rock. But their show was a marvel: Simmons breathed fire and dribbled blood as staged explosions punctuated beats.
It drew the attention of the “Mike Douglas Show.” In full makeup, Simmons sat across from the host and worked hard to seem devilish with weird lip-scrunching and remarks about eating people. Comedian and fellow guest Totie Fields was not having it. “Wouldn’t it be funny if under this, he was just a nice Jewish boy?” she asked. Simmons deadpanned: “You should only know.” Fields shot back, “I do. You can’t hide the hook.”
Simmons’ family was supportive — to a point. When he showed his mother, Flora, a Holocaust survivor, his first $10 million check, she said: “Wonderful. Now what are you going to do?”
For all the hoopla, album sales remained disappointing. Low profits and high expenses pecked at Aucoin’s finances and tried the patience of Bogart. So rather than pay for studio time, Kiss put out a live LP, 1975’s “Alive!” It included the song “Rock and Roll All Nite,” which had flopped when the band first released it as a studio take; this time around, the live cut went to No. 12 on the Billboard charts, giving Kiss the break they needed.
After that, Kiss mania was in full swing: Six Top 20 songs in the 1970s, arena shows around the world and a wild array of merchandise — everything from logo-emblazoned deodorant sticks to $4,000 caskets — made bank for the band members. Despite decades of breakups and reunions, Simmons and Stanley were touring with a version of Kiss earlier this year, before getting derailed by COVID.
“History shows Kiss had a really good idea,” said high school pal Philips. “They got their share of lucky breaks. But they deserved their lucky breaks.”