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Well, someone has to be the guardian of all things KISS. Along with co-founding member Paul Stanley, Simmons is half of the core of this four-decade phenomenon. Throughout KISStory, other band members have come and gone, returned, and gone again.
Consider the four iconic characters that the band members portray, attired in leather and spandex with black-and-white kabuki theatre face-paint. The Demon, The Starchild, The Catman and The Space Ace. While Simmons and Stanley have always been the first two characters, respectively, the other two roles have been filled by other musicians.
In fact, when drummer Peter (Catman) Criss left the band, the next drummer, Eric Carr, was a fox character. When solo guitarist Ace Frehley left next, Vinnie Vincent joined and wore facepaint in the style of the Egyptian ankh. It was something akin to free agency in major league sports. The players change but the team goes on.
For a period in the 1990s, KISS even dropped the makeup altogether. This period still yielded hits with KISS eventually earning more gold records than any U.S. rock band. In this time of being taken more seriously, KISS was doing an acoustic special on MTV, back when MTV played music. Criss and Frehley appeared from backstage as a surprise to the live audience. After doing a few songs with six members to close the show, KISS was fielding questions about a reunion tour.
When that tour materialized, it was back in full costume and makeup with the four original members. The “You Wanted the Best; You Got the Best!” tour of 1996-97 proved one major point. KISS sold best as the four original characters.
Not long into the reunion tour, Criss and Frehley left again for various “personal reasons.” It was decided to go forth with replacements in the two vacant roles. Previous replacement drummer Eric Singer became the new Catman and Tommy Thayer eventually took over the Space Ace persona. KISS never missed a beat. Further sales of licensed KISS merchandise based on the four icons were everywhere.
My best friend from college was working at MacFarlane Toys when the deal was being struck for a line of action figures, concurrent with a deal for new KISS comic books. (The original KISS comics published by Marvel in the 1970s actually had vials of the band members’ blood mixed into the red ink.) Simmons was a very active participant in the negotiations and product approvals. A lesson had been learned, sort of like New Coke, that it’s not smart to mess with a successful formula.
The costumes, essentially those from the 1976 Destroyer album cover, were considered to be the “classic” uniforms, just like the New York Yankee pinstripes. That has remained the official look for KISS in all media since. Even the typography for the name KISS has stayed basically unchanged for 40 years.
Simmons, hardly bashful, turned his home life into the reality series “Gene Simmons’ Family Jewels,” yet another extension of the KISS brand. If you get his autograph, it reads Gene $immons, leaving no doubt as to his perspective on show business.
No matter what merchandise a member of the KISS Army wants, beer glasses, pool cues, hats, T-shirts, or furniture, it will have the officially branding and look. In Las Vegas, you can get married in the KISS chapel and play a round at the KISS Monster Mini-Golf during the honeymoon. It might be a touch more romantic to go on the KISS Kruise III from Miami to Key West and the Bahamas.
Even when KISS has crossed over into other genres, such as having pro wrestler Dale Torborg portray “The KISS Demon” in World Championship Wrestling, or sponsoring Tony Pendregon’s NHRA funny car, everything licensed had to pass Simmons’ review.
The latest sports venture, timed to coincide with national television coverage on CBS and multiple sports publications and websites, is the creation of the L.A. KISS in the Arena Football League, bringing pro football back to Los Angeles after two decades. KISS played at Super Bowl XXXIII so it wasn’t their first foray into football. And the helmet logo is the band logo. It will be interesting to see the uniforms and how many players adopt designs with their eyeblack …