KISS Singer-Guitarist Paul Stanley Reflects on the Band's Remarkable 40-Year Run
Photo by Keith Leroux for KISSonline.
After more than 40 years of being a band, hard as it is to believe, there are still cities that KISS hasn’t played. With its current Freedom To Rock tour, it’s marking some of those places off the list, playing dates in four cities that, prior to this year, had never had a single KISS tour date on the schedule.
The rest of the tour, including stops this week in Youngstown and Toledo, brings the band back to markets it hasn’t played in a decade or longer.
Talking via phone from a Des Moines tour stop, singer-guitarist Paul Stanley explains that they’re retracing some of their earliest steps on this current run of dates, traveling the highways and byways that took the band from town to town and city to city when they were first working to make things happen and find success as a group in the early ‘70s.
“The majority of [these cities] are places that we played closer to the beginning of the band, that really helped us become who we are,” he says. “A lot of the cities that we played, most bands flew over on their way from L.A. to New York. We came about in a time where people really ignored a lot of the more blue collar and Middle America cities and we made a name for ourselves by going in there and playing. Nobody decides where they’re born, nobody chooses where they’re born and everybody deserves the same treatment and music. So that’s really where we cut our teeth. To be able to go back is something very special for us. The reviews, the response of the audience, everything has been stellar. I mean, I don’t know the last time we got such glowing acceptance and reviews from both fans and press. So we’re doing something right and we’re doing it full tilt.”
Fans who are coming out to see their very first KISS show can expect a setlist that will cover a good cross-section of the many different eras. There’s a heavy dosage of ‘70s favorites like “Shout It Out Loud,” “God of Thunder” “Cold Gin” and “Deuce.” They dip into the ‘80s for “I Love It Loud” and “Lick It Up,” and there are a few cuts that veer off the traditional beaten path of well-known hits, particularly the rarely played Destroyer-era nugget “Flaming Youth.”
“We’re very aware that most of the people seeing us don’t go to multiple shows and for those [who do], we understand that some people may have issues with the fact that the setlist stays pretty much the same from show to show,” he says. “That being said, it’s a great setlist. To be able to play ‘Flaming Youth’ is really a joy for us. It’s a gem that somehow was ignored for a long time, just in the midst of how many great tunes we have. It’s always a challenge for us to try to figure out what we can drop to put something else in its place when you have songs like ‘Detroit Rock City,’ ‘God of Thunder,’ ‘Love Gun,’ ‘Shout It Out Loud,’ the list goes on and on. What do you drop? To be able to put some songs in [like] ‘Do You Love Me’ and ‘Flaming Youth’ in particular, it’s great.”
He says the band is playing better than ever so fans who see the group for the first time will undoubtedly by impressed.
“It’s astounding,” he says. “For those people [who have never seen the band], they’re coming based upon a legend. They’re coming based upon what they’ve heard and it’s for us to not only live up to that, but go far beyond that — and we are. We prove every night that any band with money can buy a KISS show, but no band can be KISS.”
On the heels of the massively successful Alive! live album, which was released in 1975, KISS came roaring back with two albums the very next year that matched and further amplified that success, firmly establishing the group. To this day, many musicians can point to their weathered vinyl copies of Rock and Roll Over and Destroyer as the key moments that lit the spark that made them want to not only join the developing KISS Army but also follow a similar path. Of the two albums, Stanley points to Destroyer in particular as one that was a defining moment for the band.
“We were in a position where we were coming off a massively successful album that nowadays, it would be hard to correlate the sales of that album. But it was incredibly successful compared to other albums of the time. It took us from a certain kind of notoriety, but no album sales, to becoming a juggernaut," he says. “We had to follow it up with something special and the pressure was on us and we really went to boot camp to do Destroyer. So Destroyer was a pivotal album, and we knew a lot was riding on it. It wasn’t initially embraced quite as we’d hoped it to be, because it was much broader in its scope and it was more cinematic and perhaps less bombastic, but those songs have stood the test of time like no others. They still make up a larger percentage of our show than any other album.”
KISS Rocks Vegas, their newest release, commemorates the Las Vegas residency that the group did in November of 2014 as it was in the midst of its 40th anniversary tour. As a bonus, there’s a seven-song acoustic set that finds the band running through a loose, fun and inspired selection of cuts, including “Plaster Caster” from the Love Gun album, “Comin’ Home” from Hotter Than Hell and “Love Her All I Can” from Dressed To Kill. Playing acoustically has long been an outlet for the group to dig a little bit deeper in its song archives and for Stanley, it’s also something that reveals the power of the songs themselves.
“I’m a big believer that a great song is great because it can play on acoustic instruments or on a single instrument,” he explains. “If a song depends upon pyrotechnics or volume or production, it’s not a great song. I dare a lot of bands to strip their songs down to a few guitars and see what you get. And so I’m certainly of a school that comes out of whether it’s the Beatles or Gerry Goffin and Carole King or Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil or Ellie Greenwich and Jeff Barry, Doc Pomus, Jerry Ragovoy, Bert Berns — all of these pop writers, who really wrote from the heart. Their songs stand the test of time and I think when we play these songs acoustically, it’s very, very obvious that these are great songs.”
But hearing the band play these songs in stripped back form is also something that reveals the musicality of KISS, hard evidence for anyone who might think that there isn’t much going on behind the smoke and pyrotechnics to examine.
“Look, you can’t exist for 40-plus years, based upon a smoke bomb. It doesn’t hold up. Ultimately, if it were purely about the image of the band, there would be a whole lot of other bands around who attempted it and failed,” he says. “It just goes so much deeper. It’s really about the heart and soul of what we’re doing and what embellishes it and enhances it and takes it to another level is what we look like, what we present on stage, the attitude of the band and what we give our fans. So at the end of the day, you can’t package a smoke bomb when you put out ‘Rock & Roll All Nite’ or ‘Strutter.’ It really comes down to great music and a band that totally and wholeheartedly for 40 years believes in what we do.”
During the most recent KISS Kruise last fall, the band performed that classic Alive! live album in its entirety and one can wonder, based on the success of the Vegas residency, whether or not the group would ever consider using a future residency to tackle other albums in full as well.
“We did KISS Alive!, and that was fun. I like more diversity than that,” Stanley says, when confronted with the question. “I understand some bands doing it, but perhaps that’s more a niche for other bands. I think that part of the KISS experience is taking you on a rollercoaster ride through our career and I don’t really like the idea of limiting it. The reason that [playing] KISS Alive! live worked was because in essence, it was a catalog of the first three albums. But to be saddled with playing one album, it’s too narrow for a band that’s been around as long as we have. At least I [don’t] feel that works for us. Perhaps for other bands it’s something else, but I’ve said a hundred times before, we’re not other bands. We don’t play by those rules.”
It’s been 20 years since Stanley and his longtime bandmate and fellow KISS co-founder Gene Simmons brought guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss back into the group and put their classic makeup back on for the first time in years. They played two back to back sold out shows at Gund Arena in July of 1996 in the midst of its highly successful reunion tour and added another sold out date at the same venue later that year in October. Looking back, Stanley describes the experience as one that was initially pretty “magical.”
“Unfortunately, I guess like magic, many times, you don’t get to see what’s going on behind the magic. Although it was a momentous time and a monumental time, it just didn’t hold up for many reasons and most of them have to do with human shortcomings and differences of opinions,” he says. “The one thing that it did reinforce more than ever was the need and a reason for KISS to continue in full gear. We spent, I would say, 12 years out of makeup and were very successful, although I’d be the first to tell you that you can’t compete with the original identity of the band. So to go back to it and then think about leaving it again was a question that we never pondered. Once we got back together, it was full tilt and the idea was, at least in my mind, to see it through to the end. That the original lineup couldn’t do that was unfortunate, but was in some ways, a blessing."
The band today that now includes guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer, a Cleveland native, who came back for a second stint after drumming for the band from 1991 through 1996 has never ever been better and that comes both critics and the fans.
"The band is explosive and one thing that the reunion taught me was that by the end of it when I thought we were saying farewell, I realized that the fans didn’t want it to end, and that the farewell needed to be to some of the members,” says Stanley.
Even as the group soldiers forward with the modified lineup, which has been in place since 2004, Stanley found time recently to reunite with Frehley, who invited him to come and add vocals to a version of “Fire and Water” on his covers album, Origins Vol. 1. As a longtime fan of both Free and vocalist Paul Rodgers, who he counts as an influence, Stanley was happy to accept Frehley’s invite.
“It was terrific. Ace called me and asked me if I would sing on one of his tracks and I didn’t hesitate. You just don’t know what you are missing out on,” he says. “I’d rather find out that I shouldn’t have done something, than wonder if I should have. As it turned out, it was terrific doing it. It was terrific reconnecting in a positive way [with Ace] and then it was so much [fun] that he asked me to do a video and again, I didn’t hesitate. It was a really, terrific, terrific time and what made it terrific is that at least for me, there’s no temptation or thought of repositioning Ace in the band. It’s more about that life can continue with people, even if the position is slightly different. Just having Ace back in my life and enjoying our moments together is terrific. We created something amazing and to be able to smile about it and be proud of it together is something that I’m very fortunate to have embraced and seen through.”
It’s been a busy past few years for the group, with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, the Vegas residency, the release of Stanley’s autobiography and regular touring. Monster, their most recent studio album, was released in 2012 and if they decide to add another entry to their discography at this point, Stanley says they’ll do it on their own terms and for their own reasons.
“Records at this point are really something that if we do, we do it for us more than anybody else. The market, the sales aren’t there….the delivery system isn’t there,” he says. “There really is no music industry. It’s a guy who ran Tropicana last year, that may run a record company this year. It’s not a bunch of people who love music. It’s a commodity at this point. So if we do an album, it’s because we feel there’s a reason. Sonic Boom, there was definitely a reason to do. Monster, there was a reason to do. We’re toying, certainly I’m toying, with the idea of doing another album. I think it will happen. The only thing I’m adamant about is that it’s not Son of Sonic Boom or Son of Monster or son of any other album. I’m not interested in making a concept album, but I’m also not interested in just rehashing the last two albums, so it has to be something fresh. Because initially, the people we’re doing it for, are us.”
KISS, 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 26, Covelli Centre, 229 East Front St., Youngstown, 800-745-3000. Tickets: $36.50-$122, covellicentre.com.