October 06, 2009

KISS is back with a new record, a concert tour and a promotional blitz coming to a Walmart near you.

Yes, the guys are older now, but they're still wearing spandex, painting their faces and putting on quite a show.

"The thing about KISS is, there's a real timeless appeal to it," lead guitarist Tommy Thayer said in a recent phone interview, before donning his "Spaceman" garb and playing a concert in Montreal. "The same thing that caught people's hearts and passions in the early 1970s is the same thing I see happening with kids today. Obviously, you have to bring kids into the fold for bands like KISS to keep reinventing themselves."

The four-man rock band will unveil its first new music in 11 years as part of a three-disc set titled Sonic Boom that drops at Walmarts nationwide Tuesday. The $12 set, which includes a CD of new songs, a CD of classic hits and a DVD of live performances this year in Argentina, won't be the only value-priced memorabilia on display. Each Walmart will sport a KISS Korner in its electronics department, with KISS T-shirts, fleece blankets, M&Ms and even Mr. Potato Head figures.

A fall tour of North America is just under way, with a stop Dec. 6 at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.

KISS has changed personnel more than a few times over 36-plus years, with two original members, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, staying in the fold. The guys have performed with and without makeup. They've gone through a disco phase and a melancholic-medieval phase, and they've pursued solo careers.

But they keep coming back to a formula that has appealed to multiple generations of fans. It's partly about the music - KISS has never enjoyed much critical appeal or benefited from radio play, yet the band's Web site says it has sold more than 100 million albums worldwide - but its calling card is the live performance. And that means lots of blood-spitting, fire-breathing, pelvis-thrusting, laser-shooting and fireworks-blasting action, plus, most importantly, audience involvement.

Which brings us back to Walmart. The nation's largest retailer is relying on transcendent acts such as KISS to boost sagging CD sales, at a time when young consumers prefer to buy digital songs online - one track at a time - and then share them.

"They're just an iconic symbol of rock 'n' roll music," said Melissa O'Brien, a Walmart spokeswoman. "They have a following. Everyone knows the KISS logo."

Over the years, KISS has learned that its fans want the characters to keep the mystical makeup. After all, who wants their heroes to show their age? (The oldest band member, bassist Gene Simmons, celebrated his 60th birthday in August.)

In addition to the goodies for sale in electronics, Walmart will offer KISS makeup and wigs in the seasonal aisles. "This Halloween is kind of an adult Halloween, because it's occurring on a Saturday night," O'Brien said.

Halloween, huh? I must admit I've trick-or-treated as a KISS character - twice. Maybe it's time to go again...

Sources: KISS Online, Billboard, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Recording Industry Association of America, and others.

Five fire-breathing questions about KISS

1. Who are the KISS alumni? Two original members are still in the band: bassist Gene Simmons, the "Demon" character, once dated Cher and Diana Ross and stars in A&Eís Family Jewels; and lead singer Paul Stanley, the "Star Child," who still excels as the flamboyant frontman. Simmons and Stanley put the group together while playing the New York club circuit in 1973.

The lead guitarist is Tommy Thayer (the Spaceman), a native Oregonian who once played in a KISS tribute band, and the drummer is Eric Singer (the Catman), a Cleveland native who has played percussion for Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Lita Ford and Queen.

The current four-man lineup has been intact since 2004. Drummer Peter Criss and lead guitarist Ace Frehley were the other original members. The KISS roster also has included drummer Eric Carr (who died in 1991.) Other lead guitarists included Vinnie Vincent and Bruce Kulick.

2. What are KISS' biggest hits? Oddly, the KISS music that climbs highest on the charts is often dramatically different from the hard-driving sound its most loyal fans prefer.

The band's all-time best-selling single is Beth, a 1976 piano ballad made famous by now-departed drummer Criss that rose to No. 7 on the pop charts. The disco-influenced single I Was Made for Lovin' You reached No. 11 in 1979, and the ballad Forever hit No. 9 in 1990. The band's first Top 40 single was a live version of the party song Rock and Roll All Nite in 1975. KISS' bestselling album was the back-to-basics Psycho Circus in 1998, which rose to No. 3 on the album charts. The title song reached No. 1 among heritage rock listeners for four weeks and mainstream rock listeners for one week. Over the years, the band has produced seven studio albums that have gone platinum and one live album that has gone double platinum (KISS Alive II). The single Modern Day Delilah from the new Sonic Boom CD debuted last week at No. 26 on the heritage rock survey, according to Billboard.

3. How long does it take to put on all that makeup? KISS members have a pre-show ritual that includes putting on the makeup, and it takes about two hours, lead guitarist Thayer says.

"We do our own makeup," he said. "A lot of people are under the impression we have makeup artists, but every member of KISS has always done their own makeup. We get together in the dressing room for about two hours prior to a show. It's a very solitude environment. We don't let anybody else in there. We listen to our favorite music and transform into KISS characters. Our mind-set is being ready to go onstage, getting into that stage frame of mind. When we get onstage, it has to be 110 percent. We better be ready to go."

4. Has KISS been in the movies? Well, there was that unforgettable 1978 made-for-TV movie KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. The cult classic - KISS fans have learned to harbor a good sense of humor about these things - was shot at the California amusement park now known as Six Flags Magic Mountain and was shown on NBC, in prime time. It was among the highest rated shows of the year. On a more successful note, KISS' music has been featured in films such as Endless Love (I Was Made for Lovin' You); Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (God Gave Rock 'N' Roll to You II); Dazed and Confused (Rock and Roll All Nite); Speed (Mr. Speed); Detroit Rock City (Shout It Out Loud, Detroit Rock City and Nothing Can Keep Me From You); and Halloween (God of Thunder).

5. Is KISS in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame? No, but the band may be on the way. Last month, after 11 years of being eligible but snubbed, KISS was nominated for possible induction to the hall of fame, which is in Cleveland, in 2010. Inductees will be announced in January.

Key moments in KISStory

1974 - KISS' self-titled album debuts. Sales of the record and two subsequent efforts lag until the 1975 release of KISS Alive!, an explosive live recording that elevates the band to fame.

1975 - A high school football team in Cadillac, Mich., wins the state championship after a coach, desperate to bring out an extra effort from his students, plays KISS music before every game. KISS later visits the school and plays a show at the homecoming game.

1977 - A KISS comic book is published by Marvel. Band members donate their blood to be mixed with the red ink.

1980 - Drummer Peter Criss quits.

1982 - Original lead guitarist Ace Frehley quits the band.

1983 - KISS band members ditch their makeup.

1991 - Drummer Eric Carr, a character known as "the Fox" and a fixture of the band since 1980, dies from a rare form of heart cancer.

1995 - The four original KISS members reunite at a KISS convention and later appear on MTVís Unplugged. They launch a reunion tour the following year, with a re-emphasis on their hard-driving 1970s rock music and makeup-wearing stage personas.

2004 - The current foursome is put in place: Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer.