C.K. Lendt’s Kiss And Sell: The Making Of A Supergroup captures something profound and insightful about its subject’s essence while dealing only tangentially with the group’s artistic side. That’s fitting. As musicians, Kiss never rose above the level of a decent bar band with some catchy songs and a terrific stage show. As a business proposition and commercial entity, however, Kiss continues to cast a long shadow over the sum of pop culture.
Kiss was never merely about four guys playing rock ’n’ roll. It was never about musicians performing music. It was about entertainers putting on a show, a razzle-dazzle synthesis of Alice Cooper’s morbid theatrics, E.C. Comics atmosphere, P.T. Barnum hokum, and head-banging rock ’n’ roll hedonism.
Like a lot of innovators, Kiss went from making trends to following them: When disco hit like a nuclear winter Kiss became unlikely disco hit-maker with “I Was Made For Loving You.” When Kiss noticed that Pink Floyd was making a mint and earned critical kudos with a Bob Ezrin-produced concept album called The Dark Side Of The Moon, it hired Ezrin to produce the hilariously misconceived concept album (Music From) “The Elder.” And when Bon Jovi began selling records and concert tickets in such volumes that they were able to go from opening for Kiss to asking Kiss to open for them, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley consciously decided to remake themselves in the younger band’s image.
Simmons and Stanley had a strong, clear vision for Kiss coming up, but once its commercial fortunes started sinking, the strong, clear vision for Kiss morphed into a flopsweat-drenched mad dash to do anything to retain favor with the kids. Kiss’ first grand vision was that kids—especially poor, undereducated kids in shit towns—who’d grown tired of the flower-powered and authenticity-crazed 1960s would embrace kitschy B-movie-style escapism as a respite from demoralizing jobs, go-nowhere relationships, and other assorted nonsense such as God, state, and family.
By the time Lendt, fresh out of business school, joined the Kiss organization as part of its management team, the group had long since graduated from playing smoky clubs in shit towns to playing big-ass venues in shit towns. The group was on a sharp upward trajectory, but that wasn’t enough for Kiss or its managers. The modestly gifted hard rock group had already accomplished more than anyone had ever dreamed possible. When faced with that level of success, why stop dreaming?
Kiss was less a band than an idea, and as the ’70s progressed and the group’s popularity exploded, the idea evolved into an even bigger idea: Super Kiss. In its earlier incarnation, Kiss was bound by the foolish laws and strictures governing even the biggest groups, idiotic mandates dictating, for example, that group members shouldn’t all release debut solo projects on the same day, especially if you’re not entirely sure that the market will support even a single Kiss solo debut, let alone a competing quartet.
But Super Kiss was more than a band. It was an idea with boundless potential; so if Super Kiss thought releasing four solo albums on the same day was the key to breaking, say, Peter Criss as a R&B hitmaker for the ages, then godammit, Criss was finally going to have an opportunity to expose his suffering soul to the world. Nothing was too big for Super Kiss. Anything was possible.
Kiss went ahead and made the Hanna-Barbera-produced television movie Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park even though the band couldn’t act and Criss’ incoherence required his lines to be post-dubbed by another actor. It didn’t matter that at the height of its popularity, Kiss’ special effects, pyro-, and laser-crazed concerts cost so much to do that the group had to sell out huge venues to keep from losing enormous amounts of money. If Kiss insisted wanted it bigger and bigger and bigger, then it was everyone else’s job to realize its puerile adolescent dreams. At one point that included Kiss World, a traveling Kiss theme park that would shadow the group’s concert gigs. Think about how expensive it is to build a theme park. Now imagine how expensive it would be to build, then pack up a theme park so it can be transported to another city in a few days. Needless to say, Kiss World never made it past the exquisitely bad idea stage.
Unfortunately, Ace Frehley’s home studio did and represented the downfall of Super Kiss in miniature. Begin with a ridiculous, blatantly unfeasible rockstar indulgence like spending $60,000 for a home studio for the third most important member of a band. Then keep adding to that initial investment until a bad idea becomes a genuine disaster: a barely used home studio costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. To be fair, Frehley did use the studio to record his 2009 comeback album, Anomaly, so it’s entirely possible that without it, we never would have experienced this:
The problem was that Super Kiss got so big that it no longer proved feasible. It was Lendt and his colleagues’ job to bring fiduciary restraint to the Kiss organization. In this he was a distinct failure. Much of what makes Kiss And Sell such a page-turner is the comic contrast between the ridiculous world of Kiss, a neverland of eye-popping spectacle and pervasive silliness, and the buttoned-down world of financial management. Lendt consequently faces the kind of problems they never deal with in business school, like how to convince your client that the flying rig he uses to soar above the clouds every night like some sort of Man-God might not be a necessary expense, or that a rockstar should at least think about paying his thousand-dollar-a-week champagne budget out of pocket.
Yet those were exactly the kinds of demands Lendt faced watching the money and managing the tours as Kiss became Super Kiss and then entered into a long period of commercial and creative decline, which that lasted until the group slathered the make-up back on for a spectacularly lucrative comeback tour. By that point, Lendt and his firm had been coldly let go following a coal-mining tax write-off gone awry.
Lendt’s account of his time with the band splits Kiss’ classic line-up into matching pairs: Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons/Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. Stanley and Simmons are the uncontested leaders of the group. They are its yin and yang, its beauty and beast, its monster and matinee idol. They both lived the high life, partying with the rich, famous, and infamous. Simmons famously dallied with Cher then Diana Ross. Stanley less famously went out with Donna Dixon before she married Dan Aykroyd. Damn, you’re Paul fucking Stanley, and Dan Aykroyd stole the love of your life.
In a decadent era where cocaine inhabited more shoeboxes than sneakers, Simmons and Stanley were proud teetotalers who would show up at backstage bacchanals and soberly select their sexual conquest, or conquests, for the night. That was never a problem with Criss and Frehley, whom Lendt depicts as the ragged heart and soul of Kiss, a couple of drunken, coked-up, out-of-control ragers who lived the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and paid a terrible cost for their transgressions. Stanley and Simmons didn’t like Frehley or Criss because they could not control them; they were summarily replaced by talented but anonymous hired guns Simmons and Stanley could fire at their leisure. Simmons and Stanley had antithetical personal styles: Simmons is loud, obnoxious, and aggressive, where Stanley is prissy, arrogant, and cutting, but they were united in their belief that the only things that matter in life are money and pussy.
Kiss has long flaunted its boorishness and crass commercialism, but after the four solo albums underperformed dramatically (it’s almost as if the world wasn’t interested in the soulful R&B stylings of Kiss’ drummer) the quartet decided to make a bold artistic statement with the ultimate in rock star pretension: a concept album. Here’s a video of the first single, “A World Without Heroes.”
The world, alas, wasn’t ready for Kiss to rock ’n’ roll all night and elucidate the fundamental nature of mankind through an elaborate allegory every day. The hilariously titled album, (Music From) “The Elder” belly-flopped big time. In just a few years Kiss had gone from the hottest band in the land to a nostalgia act in face paint.
Kiss began its career with an unbeatable gimmick, but by the time 1982’s Creatures Of The Night came around, the gimmick had lost its freshness and was replaced by another gimmick: Kiss unmasked! It wasn’t enough to halt the band’s commercial slide, however, and Lendt writes wearily of Reagan-era tours in cavernous, half-empty venues where the group was reduced to sleeping with second-rate supermodels and trashing the rooms of four-star hotels.
Simmons, meanwhile, went from portraying the campy, glowering bad guy in Kiss’ stage show to playing campy, glowering bad guys in terrible movies like Runaway and Wanted: Dead Or Alive. It’d be tempting to write that Simmons lost focus, but Simmons was never particularly interested in music as anything other than a way to make money.
To his credit, Lendt understands that he’s interesting to his readership only because his crazy post-college gig afforded him intimate access to a surreal, decadent realm most of us can only dream about, not because he has profound or insightful things to say about art or science or philosophy. Kiss And Sell is a business book by a businessman about a business-minded rock ’n’ roll band, though Lendt never takes full, or even partial, responsibility for the role he must have paid in Kiss’ commercial downfall. As a key part of Kiss’ financial team, Lendt deserves some of the blame for Kiss squandering its ’70s fortune on ’80s excess. He’s not innocent, but I’m not going to lose sleep tonight over Simmons’ fortunes. Kiss lived by hype, and it died by hype, only to be brought back to life through lightning-bolts of hype like a monster in one of Simmons’ beloved comic books.
Late in the book, a cute young woman absentmindedly asks Lendt what it was like in the glory days, in the late ’70s when Kiss was single-handedly rewriting the rock ’n’ roll rulebook. Lendt is flummoxed before issuing the ultimate copout, “You had to be there.” Thankfully Kiss And Sell gives everyone—not just women the author is hoping to impress—an extensive, juicy glimpse into the madness, the music, and, most importantly, the sexy, sexy business of Kiss.