Gene Simmons: The Billboard Kiss Cover
Gene Simmons: The Billboard Kiss Cover

So the visual elements, including the big productions and the makeup, were always part of the presentation?

Everything. A concerted effort was made to explode like a cluster bomb, not just one explosion but every piece of the explosion explodes again. In point of fact, we promoted our own shows, we paid for it, we advertised ourselves, put up our own posters, before anybody did. We had a logo and trademarked it before anybody knew what that was.

When we played the Diplomat Hotel [in New York on July 13, 1973] and took over the ballroom, we were second on the bill and we rented out the whole place, paid the headliners the Brats and some other local bands to play. But when we invited people, we just positioned ourselves as "Kiss, 9:30, Masters of Metal," before there was such a thing as "heavy metal."

I used the offices of the Puerto Rican Inter-Agency Council, where I was the assistant to the director, and after they left I mailed out a photo and a one-pager and an invitation for everybody in the music business to come down and see us-managers, agents, producers-at the Diplomat Hotel, and they did.

Windfall Records, Mountain's label, came down, a few other people, and this guy named Bill Aucoin, who became our manager. When they got there the entire front row was filled with girls wearing black T-shirts with "Kiss" in glitter. [Co-founder/guitarist] Paul [Stanley] and [drummer] Peter [Criss] had stayed up all night the night before and literally glued the shirts and hand-poured glitter on them, and gave the T-shirts out to girls and put them in the front row.

You only get the respect you demand. We created our own buzz. So when people came to see us at the Diplomat Hotel, they saw the place was completely sold out-although they weren't there to see us, they were there to see the headliner-but the people we invited didn't know who was the headliner. They came there to see the 9:30 show; the headliner went on at 11. So they saw us and the entire front row was Kiss girls; it was our show. It cost $5 to get in, you saw three bands, we had about 350 people there, it cost $1,000 to rent the place. We probably made two grand.

It seems very early on you placed a lot of importance on touring hard.

There was no choice, because we weren't the Starland Vocal Band. We didn't do singles. We wrote songs like "Strutter" and "Deuce" and "Black Diamond," and that wasn't a radio staple. "Torn Between Two Lovers" was not Kiss.

But your first album recorded on the road, "Alive!" in 1975, got you a lot of traction.

The history is pretty well-known. The whole live record thing was started by Kiss. Before Kiss, nobody did live records as a career choice. Then after "Alive!" came "Frampton Comes Alive"; everybody used the "alive" thing, they even used our engineer. And they all did double-albums because we were out of our minds.

The first three records kind of floated, though we were huge live. By the third record we were playing Anaheim [Calif.] Stadium and Atlanta Braves Stadium, but we still hadn't sold records because we didn't have singles. This was 1976, and by '77-'79 we were the No. 1 Gallup Poll group in all of North America. No. 2 was the Beatles, No. 3 was the Bee Gees or Led Zeppelin, depending on which year you're talking about.

"Kiss mania" is not even a description of it. We owned your children. We owned them. They looked like us, they painted their faces like us, they walked like us, they knew our songs, and they tattooed their bodies. And eventually they had children and they named them after our songs.

When did it start to become the Kiss Army?

That started in 1975 in Terre Haute, Ind. A guy named Ray Sharkey, I think, was a fan who wanted his local radio station to play Kiss in Terre Haute, but they wouldn't do it because it wasn't the Bee Gees or Pablo Cruz. And he threatened them; he said, "Me and my friends, we call ourselves the Kiss Army. We're going to come down there and surround the station," so the radio station gets nervous and calls the cops. The radio station refuses to play Kiss, the newspapers send over a photographer, the next day a big photo of thousands of fans surrounding this little station, which looks like an outhouse in the middle of a cornfield outside of Terre Haute. [The] headline [was] "Kiss Army Invades Terre Haute," something like that, and there and then the Kiss Army was born.

Did you trademark it?

Immediately. And 35 years later, the Kiss Army still exists, but it's certainly a volunteer army. Everybody proudly belongs and marches. Jagger or [Jimmy] Page or anybody out there would give their left nut to have Kiss fans. Are you kidding me? What are you going to do, tattoo Michael Jackson on your ass?

The army has been amazingly loyal to Kiss, even through lineup changes.

We had to [make lineup changes]. We had to, because there's an ethical and moral commitment that we made to ourselves and our fans: We treat the stage as holy ground. This is electric church. And when we get on that stage, our call to arms starts off with "you," our fans, not "our" or "we." "You wanted the best, you got the best, the hottest band in the world, Kiss!" We say our name last, you come first. And the vow we made to ourselves was, "Dear God, if you ever give us the chance, we will never take it for granted, ever, not one single show, at any time. And if any one of us doesn't deserve to be out there, we will kick his ass off that stage." And if you use drugs or alcohol in Kiss, you're out. If you can't respect yourself and your body, how the hell can you respect the band, and especially the fans who put you there in the first place?

[Guitarist] Ace [Frehley] and Peter, in the beginning, belonged in the band, and later on they did not. They belonged home so they can save their lives and try to turn their lives around, not onstage. This is not a babysitting service, this is the Olympics and if anybody catches anything in your bloodstream, you should be thrown out on your ass. Your medals should be stripped, you're gone. And [current drummer] Eric Singer and [guitarist] Tommy Thayer are professional, they love it.

What did you like about the exclusive Wal-Mart deal with your new "Sonic Boom" album, and why did the band decide to go that way?

The world's a different place. I'm not a fan of downloading for free. I don't believe in anything for free. The kids next door that we think are sweet and have freckled faces were never punished for stealing everything. You can literally point to a million people out of work-the truckers that truck the records to the stores, the stores themselves that used to hire people, the gasoline they used, the warehouses-an entire industry is wiped out because some college kid didn't want to pay for songs. And who's to blame? The record industry, for never having a repercussion.

If you try to break into my house, I'll shoot your head off. Are you out of your fucking mind? But fans were allowed to break into stuff that people created and simply take it without paying for it, and that is nobody's fault but the record industry. It was lax. Wal-Mart is a real company. We met the Walton people-they're fine upstanding people, we're big fans of them, and they give millions of people jobs and we're all for it. And they're willing to charge for the product. Last time I checked, Kiss is not a charity. I will let you know when I want to give my stuff away for free. I don't want you to determine that.

Does it bother you when people say you're just in this for the money?

Anybody who simply wants to do it for free should give me any dollar they don't want. They're all full of shit. Everybody lies, but we don't. Of course we want to get paid for what we do, but there's also a tug of the heart, of pride. We created this thing-this ain't the Monkees, baby. We're the mother and we gave birth to Kiss and I'll be damned if anybody's going to tell me what it is, how it walks and how it talks. And do I want to get paid for that? You bet your ass I do.

But you still have fun when you get onstage, right?

Beyond that. Of course. It's a thrill, an honor and a privilege, but who says you have to enjoy it? That's not a prerequisite. How about treating it like craftsmanship? Whatever you can do, do it well. Most of the people on planet Earth, if they're lucky enough to have a job, they go to a job they probably hate. They go to work and all they want is to get paid at the end of the week. We consider that the salt of the earth. Why is that any less valid than what I do? Forget the thrill of it, you like getting paid. And the better job you do, the more money you make. Even God passes the fucking hat around.