The musical trends have popped and fizzled over the past four decades, be it disco, grunge or nu-metal. But one thing’s basically remained the same: KISS comes to town with a slew of arena-rocking songs, and a whole lot of pyrotechnics get blown up in the process.
KISS is celebrating the 40th anniversary of its self-titled debut with a tour that includes Def Leppard, another band known for its multimillion-selling albums and epic choruses, as the opening act. The show brings its mix of stage blood and sing-alongs to “Rock and Roll All Nite” to the Sleep Train Amphitheatre on Thursday.
The story of KISS really begins 41 years ago, with the barely known band taking the stage at a Queens, N.Y., club called Popcorn, later known as Coventry. They didn’t have much in the way of fans or fire-breathing razzle-dazzle, but KISS was still on a mission.
“What I remember about that first gig was that the commitment and conviction that the band had to itself,” said Paul Stanley, a co-founder of KISS, in a conference call to reporters. “The focus and the sense of what we are and what we represent has never changed. It didn’t matter whether we were playing for 20 people or 20,000 people, or almost 200,000 people. We are KISS, and we started building a legacy at that very first show.”
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Fast forward those 40 years, and KISS can claim more than two dozen gold albums and tens of millions of albums sold in the United States. The band built a venerable KISS Army of fans that’s stuck with the group through its personnel shifts. Along with Stanley, KISS circa 2014 features fellow co-founder and resident blood-spitter Gene Simmons, plus Tommy Thayer playing the role of Ace Frehley on lead guitar. Eric Singer has held the drum chair since 2004, when he replaced Peter Criss.
But the big news coming out of the KISS camp this year was its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Leading up to the April ceremonies, the honor was bogged down with bad vibes, including infighting among the original KISS members that prevented a musical reunion from happening. Stanley had also criticized the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for inducting only its original members, not other musicians who later played with the band.
The ceremonies ended up being civil, with Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine inducting KISS with an impassioned speech praising the band. The truth was, for all its record sales and Hall of Fame status, KISS was typically a punchline for music critics. KISS didn’t even get its first Rolling Stone cover until March of this year.
“KISS was never a critic’s band. KISS was a people’s band,” said Morello, in his induction speech.
Stanley says he’s left the Hall of Fame drama behind him.
“The Rock Hall was really not much more than a mosquito buzzing around my ear,” said Stanley. “Ultimately it was, and always will be, about the band, the music, and our fans. And no small organization with a big name can call the shots or decide what is or isn’t valid, or does or doesn’t belong.”
That means, it’s time to rock the platform boots and “Shout It Out Loud,” as their song goes. KISS will perform on a stage where the lighting rigs take the shape of a giant spider. The set list will span the band’s career, from such early classics as “Cold Gin” and “Black Diamond,” to select tracks from the 2000s. While KISS’ bombastic stage show has been synonymous with the band, Stanley says all of that eye candy wouldn’t mean much without good songs.
“We are a rock band and have always been a rock band,” said Stanley. “Our roots are in bands that we loved and I saw growing up. We enhanced it with a great show. With the amount of albums we’ve sold, there were no smoke bombs or lasers inside those albums. The songs have stood the test of time.”
KISS will meanwhile continue with its various business enterprises. After all, Simmons is fond of saying, “KISS is a brand, not a band” – hence, the band’s merchandising empire that includes Pez dispensers in the members’ likeness, action figures, Christmas ornaments and much more. Stanley and Simmons are also part owners of the Los Angeles Kiss, an arena football team.
But for now, the focus is on the concert trail and celebrating 40 years of rock ’n’ roll.
“The band is firing on all cylinders,” said Stanley. “Between that and the fact that we’re psyched up for this, and we’re celebrating our 40th year, we are out there to do a victory lap – although the race isn’t over yet. There will be more races. This is a celebration of everything we’ve done to today.”