I am endlessly fascinated by the breakthrough of KISS over the course of the fall of 1975. We will probably never get a clear picture of how the band experienced that time, too many years have passed and legends have replaced memories, but we can use the (relatively) few facts we have to piece together a kind of narrative. Using the power of hindsight I think we can pinpoint about one week where all the signs of a real breakthrough are in place. It wouldn’t have been very noticeable at the time but looking back at the (slightly long) week from December 4 to December 12, 1975 there is a huge, blinking neon sign that screams: SUCCESS!!
One thing that points to this is that the venues slowly got bigger and bigger and the opening slots became fewer. Promotor Alex Cooley of Atlanta, GA was one of the earliest supporters of the band and he booked the band in his Electric Ballroom repeatedly. In February/March of 1975 he tried to repeat the success of the previous year – KISS played four-night stands at the Electric Ballroom in June and September 1974 – but the scheduling didn’t quite pan out. As seen below Cooley made two valiant tries: first for a run of shows with Richard Torrance February 27 to March 1 and, when that evidently didn’t work out, for a set of shows March 13 to March 15 with Pretty Things.
Ad on the left from The Atlanta Constitution of Atlanta, GA 75-02-09 p. F-9. Ad on the right from The Atlanta Constitution of Atlanta, GA 75-02-23 p. F-11.
Not one to be discouraged, Cooley tried to get the band back to Atlanta later in the year instead. In early October the music fan could read that ”Kiss, the theatrical rock ‘n’ roll group, is listed for a show Thursday, Oct. 23, in the Municipal Auditorium. A show which the group was to have given Dec. 1 at the Fox theater [sic.] is in doubt”. (1) Both of these lasted just about a week until readers were informed the following: ”Canceled is a show which Kiss, the theatrical rock ‘n’ roll group, was scheduled to give Thursday at the Municipal Auditorium. Instead, Kiss has ‘definitely’ been announced for a show Friday, Dec. 5, at the Fox Theatre”. (2)
Both the Municipal Auditorium and the Fox Theatre were mid-sized venues but they were most definitely a step up the ladder for KISS. Alex Cooley’s Electric Ballroom had a capacity of 1,100 and the Fox Theatre (probably) had a capacity of about 4,000. I say probably because we really don’t know, so far I’ve found no contemporary records of the capacity. In the mid-40’s, when it was named the most popular and successful theater in Atlanta, The Fox Theatre had a capacity of 3,500 (3) and today it seats about 4,600. In 1974 ”The Fox” was sold and was supposed to be torn down but a grass-roots movement to ”Save the Fox” managed to stave that off. A show by the Allman Brothers on New Years Eve 1974, promoted by Alex Cooley as part of his ”Midnight at the Fox” concert series and the last before the venue (temporarily) closed on January 2, drew a crowd of about 4,000.
”The Fox”, however, proved to be a bit on the small side for KISS and their superstar-in-waiting status. The December 5 show was still advertised for the Fox Theatre in late October but by November 16, as evidenced by a brand new advertisement, the decision had been taken to move the band to The Omni instead. (4) There are different figures bandied about regarding the capacity of The Omni as a concert venue but the absolute max in 1975, which KISS obviously didn’t reach, was 18,400 by ZZ Top. (5) Even if we go by the 16,607 noted by Kiss Alive Forever (6) that is still a HUGE step up from the shows that were planned at the 1,100 capacity Electric Ballroom in March. Cooley evidently felt that the band merited (more than) a ten-fold increase in venue capacity.
KISS making an appearance at Peaches in Atlanta on December 5, 1975. That night they would play The Omni for the first time. (Photographer unknown)
The fact that the band sold tickets wasn’t lost on promotors around the country and over the course of the fall of 1975 the press caught on as well. In some places the press coverage was massive considering that the band was, at the time, a commercial also-ran. Case in point: Port Huron, Michigan. The show at McMorran Place Arena was announced almost a month in advance and the promotors, Fatso Productions (previously SG-Fatso) and the student government office of St. Clair County Community College, were so sure that it would be a hit that they eschewed a regular ad in favour of what more or less amounted to footers that read ”KISS Tickets Now on Sale at McMorran Arena Box Office”. Imagine the size of the font required for that text to run across a full page in a classic newspaper! For two consecutive days these ”ads” appeared on three (3!) pages of the morning paper!! (7) The result? 2,700 tickets sold in three hours. (8) Tickets could apparently only be purchased at the box office, there were no mail or phone orders as far as I’ve been able to tell, so that’s a ridiculous number. (To put a different perspective on that number, the population of Port Huron, MI in the 70’s was about 35,000.)
The Times Herald knew a story when it hit them in the face and – no doubt cheered on by columnist Mike Duffy who was an early KISS aficionado – over the next few weeks they published several small ”blurbs” about the show and a number of features (many of them with photos) that culminated in the band gracing the front page of Applause, the paper’s Sunday entertainment guide, the weekend before the show. (9) Although the better part of the tickets had been sold after two days and the total was up to 3,500 by November 9, the promotors managed to release some additional obstructed-view tickets: ”Almost 600 tickets for the rock extravaganza concert featuring the bands Kiss and Rush will go on sale at the McMorran Place box office this Monday at 10 a.m.” (10) These additional tickets were advertised in the same ”footer” manner, this time with the text ”KISS – Obstructed View Seats – Now At McMorran”. (11)
Happy fans Cynthia Johnson and Brian Brennan at the show in Port Huron, MI 75-11-19. Pay no attention to the person in the background with binoculars. (Photo by Larry Peplinski)
Even if the numbers presented in The Times Herald don’t quite add up (to me) the concert at McMorran Place Arena was considered a sell-out at just over 3,700 and it was far from the only one. The next night in Traverse City the Glacier Dome, which generally seated 5,000 fans for concerts, was oversold and there were, by almost all accounts, close to 6,000 in attendance. (12) Sadly, none of those expectant fans got to see KISS but that’s a story for another day. By early December KISS were putting so many people in the seats that Billboard felt the need to note that the band had ”sold out 14 consecutive concerts”. (13)
As all this was happening Alive! was apparently flying off the shelves. There were relatively few retail ads in newspapers until early November and then it was mostly the usual stuff with reduced prices and generally with an eye towards Christmas. To be fair, on October 18 Casablanca had placed beautiful full-page ads in both Billboard and Cashbox (14) claiming that this was ”The album your customers are screaming for!” but that really only reached the retailers themselves. For the fan who just wanted to buy anything new by KISS there was precious little. A few stores took out ads where Alive! was listed among the newly arrived discs, and there was a fairly sizeable ad in the Lansing State Journal from a place called Grinnell’s in late October which had a large picture and the text ”live two-record set partly recorded at Cobo Hall in Detroit. Includes best of recent tour and 8-page booklet” (15), but overall there wasn’t much promotional activity for the album in newspapers. Instead, the real push probably came from radio where FM stations added the album to their playlists.
Apart from the ”traditional” stronghold in Detroit, MI, radio stations in the Southwest took to the album right from the start and Billboard’s Album Radio Action list for the week ending October 4 had Alive! listed as a breakout album (16) and it stayed in the rotation as one of the most-requested albums well into November. (17) This was reflected in sales as the album entered the Cashbox Top 100 Albums chart at number 63 on October 18, shot up to number 32 the next week, and had hit the number 20 spot on November 8. (18) Somewhat less impressive but still representative, on December 7 Alive! jumped to number 7 on the Record Hit List published by The Journal News in White Plains, NY. (19) It’s unclear what some lists printed in local papers were actually based on, some explicitly stated where the information came from (when it wasn’t Billboard or Cashbox it was usually Record World) but some were actually based on locally sourced numbers. The Record Hit List doesn’t mention any source.
I hate to break out the classic ”in those days” argument but in this case it is valid: in 1975 album reviews could be slow in getting to the public. Alive! was released on September 10 and although the trade magazines had theirs to say early on, (20) the daily press didn’t really start printing reviews until late November. (21) Reviews could easily appear a month or more after the actual release of the album and in the case of KISS’s albums in 1974-75 that’s exactly what happened. If anything except the band’s touring and word of mouth bolstered sales it had to have been radio play and the effect was startling. Casablanca ended up reporting ”November as its highest grossing sales month at $2 million. Neil Bogart, president of the label, cites Kiss’ ‘Alive’ and Donna Summer’s ‘Love To Love You Baby’ albums as being largely responsible for the increase in sales”. (22) On December 4 Alive! became the first KISS album to get certified gold by the RIAA and on Billboard’s Top LPs & Tape (the album charts) it cracked the Top 10 for the week ending December 6. (23)
The attentive reader might notice something about the list above that most certainly was in KISS’s favour. Once retail ads started showing up they all focused on the same thing, that this was a specially priced 2 LP set. For (roughly) the price of a single album you got two LPs and an 8-page booklet. Since the price was quickly reduced, I’ve yet to find a single retail ad that actually has the suggested $7.98 price, the album truly was a spectacular bang-for-the-buck.
The last indicator suggesting that KISS was at last a true success was another show. On December 12, 1975 KISS opened for Black Sabbath at the Onondaga County War Memorial in Syracuse, NY in front of a decent, but not sell-out, crowd. And why, you might wonder, would this be a marker of success? Because December 12, 1975 marked the last time ”classic” KISS was the opening act, in fact, KISS wouldn’t open for another band until they played Donington in 1988. Even more so, KISS was probably the reason for a large part of the attendance that night even though they had actually headlined the same venue themselves in early October. Black Sabbath had another show scheduled in Rochester, NY on December 11, this one with support act Mahogany Rush. It was advertised locally (24) and was noted in the calendar section of local newspapers, some as late as the day of the show. (25) Alas, that wouldn’t be enough: ”The performance by the British rock band, Black Sabbath, scheduled for last night at the Community War Memorial, was canceled by the promotors because of poor ticket sales”. (26) Somewhat facetiously we can say that KISS may very well have ”prevented” another canceled show.
And there you have it. During what was really a slow week for the band – they only played three shows over the course of those eight days which was pretty much a vacation for them in 1975 – almost everything they had worked for suddenly came to fruition. Of course, once they had scaled that particular mountain there appeared yet another peak just ahead.
1 The Atlanta Constitution of Atlanta, GA 75-10-12 p. F-9
2 The Atlanta Constitution of Atlanta, GA 75-10-19 p. F-5
3 The Atlanta Constitution of Atlanta, GA 75-11-21 p. A-23
4 The Atlanta Constitution of Atlanta, GA 75-11-16 p. F-12
5 Billboard 75-10-11 p. 80
6 Curt Gooch & Jeff Suhs Kiss Alive Forever – The Complete Touring History p. 90. This figure is from the show 77-12-30, for some reason there’s no listed capacity for the 75-12-05 show. The capacity for sports events at The Omni is well-documented but concerts obviously ”steal” varying amounts of the available space.
7 See for instance The Times Herald of Port Huron, MI 75-10-22 p. A-2, A-12 and D-3
8 The Times Herald of Port Huron, MI 75-10-26 p. A-12
9 The Times Herald of Port Huron, MI 75-11-16 Applause section p. 1
10 The Times Herald of Port Huron, MI 75-11-16 Applause section p. 3. This small article could just as well have been penned by the band’s own promotional team. In addition to calling the show a ”rock extravaganza” it mentioned ”the phenomenal band Kiss” and predicted that it would be ”one of the wildest and strangest shows ever to hit Port Huron”.
11 The Times Herald of Port Huron, MI 75-11-12 p. A-2
12 Record Eagle of Traverse City, MI 75-11-20 p. 3; Record Eagle of Traverse City, MI 75-12-03 p. 5
13 Billboard 75-12-13 p. 77
14 Billboard 75-10-18 p. 75; Cashbox 75-10-18 p. 111
15 Lansing State Journal of Lansing, MI 75-10-23 p. D-10
16 Billboard 75-10-04 p. 74
17 Billboard 75-11-15 p. 98
18 Cashbox 75-10-18 p. 109; Cashbox 75-10-25 p. 49; Cashbox 75-11-08 p. 46. The Cashbox Top 100 Albums chart only reflected sales while the Billboard charts have always been a combination of at least two variables, usually retail sales and radio play. That’s why most albums climbed the Billboard charts slower than they did the Cashbox chart.
19 The Journal News of White Plains, NY 75-12-07 p. M-19
20 Billboard 75-10-11 p. 77; Cashbox 75-10-04 p. 29. The review in Cashbox assured readers that ”Alive is so much a captured performance of prehistoric rock that a pterodactyl flew in the window while the album was playing and built a nest on my turntable”.
21 One of the first mentions was actually by the previously mentioned Mike Duffy in the Times Herald (Port Huron, MI 75-10-12 Applause section p. 5) but that’s just a throwaway mention in a review of Rush’s Caress of Steel (which was erroneously attributed to Mahogany Rush). Also worthy of mention is a column in the Detroit Free Press where one high school student wrote: ”Have you heard the new live Kiss album? On a scale of one to 10, I rate it a 156. It’s great.” (Detroit Free Press of Detroit, MI 75-10-14 p. A-9) Everybody else just waited, the real review of Alive! in the Times Herald, again by Mike Duffy, didn’t appear until late November. (Times Herald of Port Huron, MI 75-11-30 p. Applause 5)
22 Billboard 75-12-20 p. 6
23 Billboard 75-12-06 p. 66
24 Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, NY 75-12-07 p. G-3
25 Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, NY 75-12-08 p. C-3; Daily Messenger of Canandaigua, NY 75-12-11 p. 8. The Daily Messenger did manage to give them the name Blath Sabbath but I doubt that mattered much.
26 Democrat and Chronicle of Rochester, NY 75-12-12 p. C-2