They discovered guitarist Ace Frehley (real name Paul Frehley) and drummer Peter Criss (born George Criscuola) through auditions and set to work, writing tunes that married catchy pop hooks to heavy metal thunder and developing a stage show that combined the power of hard rock with the thrills of a carnival.
Each donned makeup and black leather to become a character: Stanley was the Star Child, Criss was the Cat Man, Frehley was the Spaceman, and Simmons was the Demon, using his seven-inch tongue as the band’s trademark.
In 1974, KISS released their self-titled debut album. Their raucous blend of pop songwriting and sizzling guitar riffs overflowed with future air-guitar classics like Deuce and 100,000 Years. KISS toured America non-stop, honing their skills as they developed tricks like Gene’s habits of spitting blood and fire at the audience.
In between concerts, they sharpened their sound on albums like Hotter Than Hell and Dressed To Kill.
In 1975, KISS got their well-deserved breakthrough when they merged their live shows and their recording career to create the classic double-live album KISS Alive. It became a huge success and produced a hit single in Rock And Roll All Nite, a rousing party anthem with a sing-along chorus.
KISS decided to break new ground for their next album and enlisted Alice Cooper‘s producer, Bob Ezrin, to help them create an album called Destroyer (1976). The album included a full slate of massive rockers like Detroit Rock City and Shout It Out Loud, plus the group’s first-ever ballad, Beth.
This sweet song contained no electric guitars, just Peter Criss’ forlorn voice against an orchestral ballad. It became a Top-10 hit and sent Destroyer‘s sales through the roof.
KISS began to tour internationally and built a worldwide fan base that still numbers in the millions today. These fans became known as The KISS Army.
The KISS stage show became even more elaborate as the band used their newfound wealth to design bigger and better spectacles for their live act. KISS concerts now featured Gene flying out over the audience with a wire rig, Ace playing a special guitar that shot rockets and smoke, and Peter manning a set of drums that would rise up several feet in the air.
On record, KISS kept knocking out slick but hard-rocking albums like Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun. They also celebrated their ongoing success as a live band with Alive II, a double album with three sides of live tunes and one side of new songs.
By 1978, KISS was the most popular rock and roll group in the world. They were also the most merchandised group in the world. If you visited any department or toy store in the late 1970s, you would see all kinds of KISS-related merchandise: dolls, makeup kits, posters, etc.
There was even a comic book for which the members of KISS each donated a vial of their own blood to be used in the red ink so that Marvel Comics could advertise it as ‘printed in real KISS blood!’
The group also starred in a surreal fantasy movie called KISS Meets The Phantom Of The Park (1978), and each member cut a solo album. Ace’s album was a surprisingly big success and spawned a hit single in the stomping rocker New York Groove.
KISS returned as a group in 1979 to record Dynasty. It had a stronger pop edge than previous KISS albums and spawned an international hit single in I Was Made For Loving You, a song that mixed traditional KISS power chords with a trendy disco beat.
The next year, Peter Criss left KISS to pursue a solo career. He made his final appearance on Unmasked and was replaced by Eric Carr.
In 1981, KISS reunited with producer Bob Ezrin for the most unusual album of their career. Music From The Elder was an artsy concept album based on a fantasy film idea dreamt up by Gene. It featured a choir and an orchestra on several tracks, including A World Without Heroes, a ballad that Gene penned with Lou Reed.
In 1982, KISS returned to straightforward rock and roll with Creatures of the Night. It was their heaviest album to date, filled to the brim with stomping rockers like War Machine and the title track.
It was also the last album to feature Ace Frehley, who soon left to front his own band, Frehley’s Comet. Guitarist Vinnie Vincent joined up in time for the ‘Creatures’ world tour.
On 18 September 1983, after a vintage video clip of Rock and Roll All Nite, Kiss made an MTV appearance without their makeup (pictured).
Oddly, the band had not used the ploy to publicise their 1980 album Kiss Unmasked, but three years later – with the release of Lick It Up – the band decided to show their faces and dump their anonymity.
This slab of riff-happy metal became a hit, and the video for Lick It Up, which featured a bevvy of cavewomen swooning over the group, became an MTV favourite.
KISS did even better in 1984 with the platinum-selling album Animalize, which featured the shout-along favourite Heaven’s On Fire. They added new guitarist Bruce Kulick the next year for Asylum, a collection of catchy metal tunes. This album featured one of MTV‘s most-requested videos of 1985, Tears Are Falling.
Among its highlights were an exploding mini-volcano and Paul Stanley swinging around Tarzan-style on a vine.
Asylum also saw KISS playing up the pop element of their sound once again, a trend that would continue on Crazy Nights and Hot In The Shade.
The latter album featured a hit single in Forever, a sweet power ballad that was co-written by adult-contemporary superstar Michael Bolton.
Drummer Eric Carr passed away on 24 November 1991 after a brief fight with cancer. KISS fans around the world were shaken, but the band continued on with new drummer Eric Singer and devoted their next album, Revenge, to Carr’s memory.
This hard-rocking affair showed a new maturity and heaviness in their sound on songs like Unholy, and it quickly became a hit. The band followed it up with a successful world tour that was documented on Alive III.
KISS also began organising their own KISS fan conventions, leading to a reunion with Criss and Frehley for an acoustic concert. The acoustic reunion was a smash success for KISS, and the original group teamed up once more up for an MTV Unplugged concert.
In the wake of the concert’s popularity, the group decided to reunite on a long-term basis for a comeback tour, returning to the makeup and pyrotechnics that made them famous.
KISS also recorded an album called Psycho Circus, proving their reunion did not have to coast on nostalgia to succeed.
The KISS reunion tour became ‘the’ must-see show everywhere it played and led to two further tours that satisfied fans worldwide with its blood-spewing, fire-breathing antics.
As the new millennium began, the members of KISS announced that they were hanging up their platform boots for good.
KISS fans everywhere were stunned by this news, but the desire to “rock and roll all night and party every day” was too great and KISS has continued to tour into the 21st century.
No doubt they will continue to inspire rockers all over the world for many years to come.
Mark St. John