KISS vs. the critics

A version of this text originally appeared in issue no. 48 of Destroyer, the magazine of KISS Army Sweden.

Audiences got them, but critics rarely did. Rolling Stone named them Hype Of The Year in 1975 [sic.], and legions of reviewers complained that they were ”derivative”, ”prosaic”, ”simplistic” and mostly a joke, a band that catered to the lowest common denominator.

Jaan Uhelszki in Classic Rock no. 261 (p. 28)

Anyone who has read interviews with the band recognizes this type of statement, it’s a major component of the classic mythology of the band and this is just one of the more recent examples. The basic rhetoric is always the same: critics didn’t understand KISS but the fans, the fans got it, and the band’s success was (at least partly) due to the fact that they didn’t care about the critics. The critics derided the band at every turn and dismissed them simply because the band allowed the show and the image equal attention to the music. Looking through the autobiographies of the four original members there are versions of this story in all of them.

Critics were less easily impressed. We were ripped in the New York Times, ripped in Rolling Stone, ripped in Creem. Serious rock journalists seemed incapable of looking past the makeup and costumes and objectively reviewing our performances or recordings.

No Regrets

From the very first tour, the press would always go after us. I used to go back to my room after a show and think, Wait a minute, we just did a sold-out show and the people went absolutely wild for us. So why was I reading, ’KISS might just be the worst band on the planet. The only good thing about them is they are loud. I would never buy one of their records’?

Makeup to Breakup: My Life in and Out of KISS

Journalists constantly dismissed us with the same basic argument—if we were any good musically, we wouldn’t need any of the visual effects.

Face the Music: A Life Exposed

We wanted to stand guilty as charged by the poor, deluded critics who thought they were insulting us by charging that we made complete spectacles of ourselves.

Kiss and Make-Up

Judging by the statements of the members themselves and those who worked with them, every critic and their grandmother hated KISS. What the critics really thought? Well…

The bad…

Truth be told there were a few downright dismissive articles and reviews in the early years. When New Musical Express in March, 1974, mentioned a new album by a brand new band they noted that ”it absolutely reeks. Already someone has claimed that Kiss might be a glam-rock Grand Funk but it’s hard to forsee anything beyond failure on all levels”. In his review of the March 23 show at the Academy of Music, Ian Dove of the New York Times wrote KISS off as ”yet another plastic and empty rock quartet”. (New York Times 74-03-25, p. 40) Patrick McDonald’s review in May, 1974, is classic and in the annals of KISS, considered representative: ”I hope the four guys who make up the band, whose names don’t matter, are putting away money for the future. The near future, because Kiss won’t be around for long”. (Seattle Times 74-05-27, p. B-4) Paul has been particularly fond of this review, referring to it repeatedly.

Photo session with Raeanne Rubenstien 74-01-28.

Later in the year Jim Knippenberg reviewed Hotter Than Hell and although he didn’t foresee the band’s immediate demise, he was somewhat less than laudatory: ”Take everything bad you’ve heard about metal—screeching vocals, repetitive riffs, tired arrangements, totally primitive instrumentation, inane lyrics, mindless power without purpose—and multiply it by six. That’s Kiss.” (The Cincinnatti Enquirer 74-12-15, p. G-9) But, and when we’re dealing with KISS’s own version of their history there is always a but, at the start of the band’s career the harsh and dismissive critiques were actually in the minority.

…the begrudning…

There were plenty of writers who, in 1974, considered KISS just another band among many; critics who saw the band as simple, good old rock ‘n roll in a new dress (and with plenty of makeup). These critics were often mildly impressed with the musical elements but, viewing the band objectively, thought that they were nevertheless a commercial success waiting to happen. Robert Adels also reviewed the March 23 show at the Academy of Music but where Ian Dove found nothing of value, Adels wrote that ”the night did seem to belong to the opening act Kiss (Casablanca). Take away their frills (and maybe after they receive their due, they will!), and you’ve got a fine rock band. […] This could be the next Grand Funk. Like the Railroad, the quartet might once again prove that across–the–board good press is occasionally irrelevant to the power of rock”. (Record World 74-04-06, p. 36)

Photo session with Eric Stephen Jacobs 74-04-30

Eugene Chadbourne reviewed KISS’s second show in Calgary and although he obviously didn’t like it, he was pretty sure they’d be a hit: ”One wishes everyone involved would lose a fortune, but they probably won’t. […] Next time [they play Calgary] Kiss will be on its own and will no doubt sell out the house.” (The Herald 74-05-21, p. 66) Shortly thereafter Richard Cromelin reviewed the show at the Long Beach Auditorium: ”Opening the show was KISS, mutant offspring of glam-rock and heavy-metal. […] By borrowing from people like Alice Cooper, Blue Oyster Cult, et al, and taking these elements to ludicrous extremes, KISS has come up with an oppressive package that will probably turn them into stars.” (Los Angeles Times 74-06-03, p. IV-13)

…the… good?

These begrudgingly respectful reviews—the ones that didn’t see the merit of the band but thought that they would be a hit nevertheless—were also, believe it or not, fairly uncommon. Once one starts to really dig through the music trade magazines and the newspapers of the time, a completely different picture emerges. In 1974, the majority of critics believed in KISS.

Cashbox, a rival publication to Billboard, sang the praise of the debut album—”A brand new group, a brand new stage act, and a great new album describe Kiss to a tee”—and they even thought that ”Nothin’ To Lose” was a viable single release. The verdict? ”Look out for this band, they will happen, and big, in the coming weeks. This rocker is just the beginning.” (Cashbox 74-02-23, p. 26 and 34) Bruce Meyer was a music reporter for United Press International (UPI) and he repeatedly praised KISS throughout 1974. His review of the debut album, which was syndicated and printed in numerous newspapers, began ”here it is, friends, rock ’n’ roll, 1974”, and concluded ”[t]here’s a little fiddling around on side two of this one, but side one is an absolute classic of a party record”. (Harrisburg Daily Register 74-03-13, p. 11) Later in the year, in a piece which was actually devoted to Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship, Meyer ended the piece with ”a prediction: Kiss is going to be a super-group”. (Lubbock Avalanche Journal 74-05-30, p. B-4)

And so it continued. Over and over…

One can easily sense that the band has more to give than is present here. Nevertheless a striking debut for a group that is sure to be very big, very soon.

Gary Deane in The Brandon Sun (74-05-09, p. 25)

Quite simply, Kiss oozes with promise of becoming one of North America’s premier hard rock bands.

Andy Mellen in Winnipeg Free Press (74-05-11, TV Diary section p. 23)

If a half-hour on record is this enjoyable, a half-hour on stage would be a treat, and if Kiss can maintain this quality, we’re going to have a real star act on our hands.

Pete Bishop in The Pittburgh Press (74-06-30, p. F-8)

[I]t is not simply a voyage to the roots of rock that Kiss has undertaken; for having found its beginnings they shake them, riddle them with vitality and reroute them for the return trip. […] If you have an opportunity to see Kiss, don’t pass it up, but don’t worry, the four will be around for a long time.

Mark Moran in (Green Bay) Press-Gazette (74-07-07, Close Up section p. 14)

At the moment, I prefer Kiss (Casablanca, NB 9001), the group’s debut album, to almost any record I’ve bought this spring and summer.

Mike Duffy in (Port Huron) Times Herald (74-07-07, p. E-6)

So why have the band spent the past 45 years convinced that the critics hated them and predicted their swift exit from the music business? Part of the reason is that a myth is easier to sell than the truth and a myth, in turn, works better when it’s simple.

The myth

The simple antagonistic dichotomy—good vs. evil, light vs. dark—will always work better than a nuanced presentation of the facts. As far as origin stories go, it’s not very memorable to say that ”well, even though there were some horrible early reviews, quite a few critics actually liked us… and then we spent two years trying to break through…” People respond to stories and most of the time people love an underdog, somebody who succeeds despite the odds: ”The critics hated us and said we wouldn’t last but look at us now!—we’ve sold [any number of] millions of albums.”

However, this view of the press as some sort of monolithic obstacle, a bunch of mean old curmudgeons who just didn’t understand, wasn’t just a good blurb for the band’s biography; it was probably a way to foster an us-against-them mentality. Bill Aucoin was aware of the pitfalls of the business and he made an effort to create a unit out of four very different invividuals. The equal sharing of royalties was one step towards that, establishing an external enemy was another.

Hotter Than Hell photo session with Norman Seeff 74-08-18.

Reading through Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975) it is a recurring theme that Rolling Stone magazine hated KISS: Gene and Paul mention it on numerous occasions; several people who worked for the band at the time are quoted saying the same thing; and journalists like Jaan Uhelszki (then of Creem) and Gerald Rothberg (of Circus) use Rolling Stone as a contrast to their respective magazines’s more positive coverage of the band. In one section of the book Gene is talking about the appearance on The Mike Douglas Show (taped on April 29 and originally broadcast on May 21):

Bill told us ’Look, we can’t get inte houses with radio. Rolling Stone won’t put us in their magazine. How are we going to reach people? I’ll tell you how we’re gonna do it: we’re gonna crawl into people’s homes with our appearance on The Mike Douglas Show, when people least expect it.’ And that was a brilliant idea.

Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975) (eBook p. 244)

This obviously isn’t a direct quote from Bill, it’s something Gene has constructed long after the fact, but it shows how much the band’s collective memory of this time has been shaped by this narrative; that there was an attitude that a band like KISS could never be allowed entrance into the hallowed halls of rock because there were gatekeepers (the critics) denying them; that their only chance at success was to sneak in the back. This is one of the truest examples of us-against-them, this is promotion of a band rewritten as guerilla warfare. And as the quote shows, the most vile among ”them” was Rolling Stone.

The evil Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone magazine was the enemy, plain and simple. Judging by any number of quotes through the years—and even a cursory glance through the aforementioned Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975) will reveal plenty—this wasn’t actually just in the member’s heads, publisher Jann Wenner supposedly hated KISS. But, the main obstacle presented by the magazine was that they refused to put KISS on its cover. The actual coverage of KISS in Rolling Stone, of which there actually was a fair amount, wasn’t particularly demeaning. If anything, Dan Fletcher’s review of the debut album reads as one of the more positive:

Kiss is an exciting Brooklyn based band with an imaginative stage presentation and a tight new album. The music is all hard-edged—they call it ”thunderock”—and throughout their electrical storm solid craftsmanship prevails. […] An exceptional album, Kiss could have been even better had the group incorporated more of their concert sound into the recording studio. Onstage they rain a Black Sabbath-like fury, but here they sound more like a cross between Deep Purple and the Doobie Brothers. […] A firm commitment to their stage sound (as in ”Deuce” and portions of ”Black Diamond”) could well insure excellence—a course worth pursuing.

Rolling Stone #158 (street date 74-04-11)

This is obviously not to say that Rolling Stone actually loved the band, far from it. There were several digs at KISS’s appearance and the low-brow nature of the spectacle in those early years. But for the most part the reviews of albums or shows landed squarely in the bregrudgingly respectful or positive, Ed Naha’s review of Hotter Than Hell (Rolling Stone #179, street date 75-01-30) pretty much alternated subtle digs at the band with praise for the music.

Photo shoot with Bob Gruen 74-10-26.

Bill Aucoin read Rolling Stone. He was a true entertainment business lifer so he read all of the trade magazines. Hell, even Gene in his quest to treat the band as a proper business venture picked up all these magazines: ”Every week I’d go out and buy Cashbox, Record World, and Billboard and I’d read the articles and learn things.” (Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975) eBook p. 413) They knew what the critics actually thought. But in the long run the myth of KISS vs. the critics was more important than the truth.

The case of Variety

Nothing proves a point better than a specific, unequivocal example. Thus, Variety. As we saw above the members of the band have been pretty good at talking about bad reviews, but there is one example of the complete opposite. Fred Kirby of Variety has—to the best of my knowledge—been the only critic who has been named by the band themselves as being in favor of the band in the early years. This isn’t odd since he reviewed the band as early as the Hotel Diplomat show in August 1973, a time when they weren’t exactly used to being reviewed at all: ”From the plethora of Gotham glitter-rock comes Kiss, who already outshine most others in clean, pulsating rock ‘n’ roll, high in volume and excitement. […] But, it’s in the music that Kiss catches hold and never lets go.” (Weekly Variety 73-08-22, p. 41) Variety also had favorable mentions of the band when reviewing several shows throughout 1974.

It’s hard to say when the supposed lack of critical acclaim became a major part of the band’s self-image but by 1978, when they were truly at their commercial peak, it had started to show up. When Paul was interviewed for Guitar Player in late 1978 he noted that ”In the beginning, critics had said, ‘Look, these guys are gonna last three months.’ They were wrong. […] the critics […] didn’t want us around, and we didn’t stand for what they thought was either ethical or musical.” (Guitar Player January 1979, p. 58-60) But again, both the band and their management knew. In fact, they were so aware of it that they went out of their way to thank Variety for the support:

Daily Variety 79-12-05, p. 75

That’s why it’s a little hard to swallow the ”critics hated us” spiel. Granted, in some rare instances the myth was softened a little to ”a lot of the critics” rather than all, but those times really were exceptions. Over time the myth prevailed and lent a retroactive filter to the band’s collective memories. KISS was a success in spite of the critics; they succeeded because they gave the fans—not the critics—what they wanted. We can’t deny that it does make for a slightly better story, everyone loves the underdog who triumphs despite overwhelming odds, but the fact remains: in the spring and summer of 1974, KISS’s debut album and first tour was met by an overwhelmingly positive critical response from writers who saw and heard a band with a bright future.

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