December 11, 2009
By Scott Mervis

Sure, even teenage stoners knew that Kiss was always something of a rock 'n' roll cartoon, but when the band first blazed through the Arena in 1976, it was hard to fathom that someday a suburban super-store would be selling Kiss M&M's for $6 a bag.

That's not just because candy that melts in your mouth, not in your hand, didn't fit with blood and fire. Rather, Kiss members were the "Knights in Satan's Service," underworld, underground metal minstrels that your mom and dad hated -- even though they drove you to the show anyway -- and a partnership with the Mars company was unthinkable.

Of course, it didn't take long for Kiss to become a franchise and a slice of Americana. Now on the "Alive 35" tour, which hits the Mellon Arena on Sunday, it's topsy-turvy, with dads 40 to 50 turning their kids on to Kiss and bringing them along to the show.

We didn't see the family Kiss event coming then, and we didn't see it coming as late as 1988, when the recently unmasked Gene Simmons was telling the PG, "We may put on the makeup again once someday, just for the hell of it, but we don't want to be an oldies show like the Monkees and just go through the motions. Kiss isn't about that. If there's a reason we've spanned the generations, it's because we stayed current."

Kiss' claim to currency on this tour is that for the first time in 11 years, there is new musical product. "Sonic Boom," a throwback to the classic Kiss sound, was released in October, packaged with a sonic upgrade of the greatest hits and a live concert DVD. It was sold exclusively at Wal-mart next to the M&M's and Kiss Potato Heads that flew out the door without having wings -- well, except for the Gene one.

"People say 'What about the Mr. Potato Heads and stuff?'" says Kiss guitarist Tommy Thayer. "To me it signifies that Kiss is an iconic group, with this great history now. But it really starts with a great rock 'n' roll band. We go out there and do a take-no-prisoners, bombastic show, and at the end of the day the merchandise doesn't drive the rock band, the rock band drives the merchandise. And people love it."

Kiss started kicking around New York City in January of 1973, after frontmen Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley abandoned a project called Wicked Lester, and recruited Peter Criss and Ace Frehley for a concept that would combine the sound and theatrics of glam-rockers Alice Cooper, MC5 and the New York Dolls -- and go further over the top. Rather than a devilish acronym, the name was derived from Criss mentioning to Stanley that he had been in a band called Lips.

It's hard now to imagine Kiss squeezing its high-flying act into a nightclub, but that's the way it started, with the full intention of one day destroying arenas. By the end of '73, Kiss, rejected by bigger labels, was signed to the upstart Casablanca Records for a self-titled debut album that wouldn't set the world on fire -- although Simmons did torch his hair a few times while breathing fire.

In '74, Kiss started touring outside New York, beginning with Canada, and did play nearby cities such as Cleveland and Youngstown. The first visit to Pittsburgh was April 15, 1975, at the Stanley Theatre with Rush.

Rich Engler, just a few years into the formation of concert giant DiCesare-Engler Productions, remembers that night for a few reasons.

First of all, he loved the idea of Kiss, even though he wasn't all that familiar with the music. Not many people were, as there was no radio support for the band.

"None," Engler recalls, "but it didn't matter. We wrote our own radio spots, saying 'Kiss is hotter than hell and dressed to kill!' and those spots got the curiosity seekers out. They also had the Kiss Army and they were diehard."

On the day of the show, Kiss management informed Engler that the band wanted a limo. Engler hadn't worked that into the budget, so he talked his wife into picking them up at the airport in their Rolls-Royce. "This one time," she declared.

"She goes out and picks them up and they didn't have their makeup on," Engler says. "They go, 'We don't want anyone to see us, so don't drive anywhere where people can see us.' So when she got down near the city, during rush hour, they were like crouching down in the back of the limo, and of course, at the time, no one would have recognized them anyway because nobody knew them. She calls me and says, 'That one guy is a real character, that Gene Simmons.' She said he had some sexual wisecracks, as he always does. At least he didn't make any advances -- yet."

The show ended up being a near sellout, almost filling the 3,000-seat hall, and while Engler was prepared for rock theater, he wasn't up to speed on every detail.

"The next thing I know," he says, "I see this big ball of fire they're blowing out of their mouths during the show and they catch the top curtains on fire. Fortunately, they were flame-retardant so they sort of like caught and then smoldered. We had to send someone up there with a fire extinguisher and spray it during the show. It was a little drama. The crowd went absolutely crazy for them."

There was minor drama backstage as well. Says Engler, "I'm standing with my wife, and Gene comes over to me and says, 'Hey, she needs to be manhandled.' I said, 'Don't worry, I'll do the manhandling. You just play your music. ...' "

Later that year, on Dec. 20, Kiss returned with plenty of ceiling space for smoke and fire under the Civic Arena dome. This was two months after releasing the explosive "Alive!" and scoring a first Top 40 hit with "Rock and Roll All Nite." Neither of the local papers wrote a word about the show.

Kiss was back already in April 1976 on the "Destroyer" Tour and then again in January 1978. By then, Kiss was voted the most popular band in America in a Gallup poll, so the band got its first ink in the Post-Gazette, a review that read like no one had ever heard of the group before. It noted the "Barnum-and-Bailey-meets-Dracula theatrics" and went on to say, "The'70s are nearly over and still haven't acquired a definitive adjective such as 'roaring' for '20s. So maybe Kiss does represent the decade."

Perhaps. But going into the '80s, the "hottest band in the land" was starting to simmer, a victim of fan fatigue, internal band tensions, too many comics and cartoons, the ill-advised "Music From 'The Elder' " concept album with strings and synths, the departures of Criss and Frehley and the 1983 unmasking.

Simmons and Stanley continued to tour with a string of replacements and churn out an album almost every year, but much of the Kiss Army had deserted. Sadly, by 1984, an unpainted Simmons was blowing fire again back at the Stanley Theatre with Eric Carr on drums and Vinnie Vincent on guitar. It wasn't even sold out. Later in the decade, they were back at the Arena, but playing to half the house on tours for "Asylum" and "Crazy Nights."

A decade later, enough time had passed for Kiss nostalgia to kick in, spawned by a reunion of the original quartet at the Grammy Awards in 1996. When they came through the Arena that summer, they were sporting the best-selling tour of the year.

Now, here we are 13 years later and nine years after The Farewell Tour -- never, ever believe those! Kiss has rocked the Super Bowl, the Olympics and "American Idol," waged a tour with Aerosmith, and continued to change members like underwear. Stanley has released a solo album and endured two hip surgeries to keep him flying around in those boots. "The Demon" has become an unlikely reality TV star with "Gene Simmons Family Jewels."

And the Kiss blitz is on with "Sonic Boom" weighing in as the highest-charting Kiss album ever (No. 2). Lucky enough to enjoy this resurgence is the newest member of Kiss, guitarist Thayer, who actually has a long history with the band. Thayer, 49, first saw Kiss on the theater tour in Portland in 1974 and his band Black N Blue later opened for Kiss in the '80s. As sort of a goof, the guitarist then took on the role of Ace in the Kiss tribute band Cold Gin, which was good enough to be invited to play Stanley's birthday party in the early '90s.

Thayer was then hired as Simmons' assistant before getting to play some of the guitar parts on 1998's "Psycho Circus" and then actually donning the Spaceman suit for the first time in 2002 -- with no mixed feelings about replacing Ace.

"What an honor," Thayer says. "To the contrary, I would have had mixed feelings about a new character or something because after 30, 35 years, you don't want to try to fix what's not broken. That's Kiss. People debate that on a certain level, but there's never been a question in my mind that was a smart choice. Let me ask you, if somebody said, 'You're going to be the new lead guitarist for Kiss tomorrow and wear the Spaceman persona outfit, what would you do?' "

(I would get guitar lessons and do it ...)

Anyway, those who saw Thayer on the Aerosmith tour were relieved to see that not only could he shred, but he wasn't trying to put his own stamp on Frehley's parts.

"Kiss has a legacy, a history," he says. "I remember when I used to see concerts and maybe they had a different guitar player and the guy came out and didn't play the signature solos the way they were recorded -- I was always disappointed. I thought to myself, 'If I'm ever in this situation, I'm going to go out and nail them to the T.' "

Thayer does manage to make his presence known on "Sonic Boom" with a variety of heavy guitar styles, ranging from Ace's to Rage Against the Machine's.

"We didn't make a retro album or something," Thayer says. "The goal was to make one of the greatest Kiss records we could ever make and the approach was smart. Paul spearheaded this and we approached it like a new band coming out of the garage without all these outside influences. The cool thing about it is, it does encompass all the great eras of Kiss. There's '70s flavor in there, '80s flavor, '90s 'Revenge'-era flavor. There's a little bit of everything in there, including some new vigor as well."

Kiss being back on top coincides with the potential ending to a long-simmering, rather controversial snub. At last, after the first-ever fan protest (in 2006), Kiss is nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and will learn this month if it has the votes.

"It's very exciting," Thayer says. "I personally think it's laughable that Kiss isn't already in the Hall of Fame. Although, this is not something that defines Kiss. Kiss is already an iconic group, one of, if not the biggest American rock groups ever, so Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it's nice, but Kiss is already a hall of fame band. I'm so proud to be in it."