It's hard to get used to the new Kiss. For one thing, its four members are of a normal size. These guys used to wear platform shoes that were like stilts, making them look more like basketball players than rock 'n' rollers.
You can see their faces now. They're not hiding behind layers of garish makeup any more. For most of their 11-year career, nobody knew what they looked like because they wore makeup onstage and offstage refused to be photographed without it.
The purpose was to build a mystique, to make them the mystery men of rock 'n' roll. It worked. When they were one of the hottest bands in the business in the '70s, fans wondered what they looked like. Even those who didn't like their screeching heavy metal were probably somewhat intrigued by the mystery. It was hokey and contrived but still sort of fun.
The band abandoned the props two years ago, a victory for conventionality over flash and intrigue. When Kiss guitarist Paul Stanley, in town briefly between out-of-town engagements, showed up at a restaurant for this interview, he had no air of mystery. He's just a charming, laid-back, lanky New Yorker. With only that long curly hair, he's a throwback to the glitter-rockers of the early '70s.
"Mystery isn't what we're about any more," said Stanley, preparing a simple cup of tea at his corner table. "That was for another time. When things were different in the world and different in Kiss. We don't need the mystery any more. We don't want the mystery. Now you get the real Kiss, the Kiss behind the mask."
When they were still a New York garage band, the musicians would wear makeup during rehearsals. "The makeup made us larger than life," he recalled. "It pumped us up. It gave us spirit." In later years, Stanley tired of the makeup, the platform shoes and the rest of the gaudy props. He had wanted to dispose of all that years ago. But the rest of the band hadn't. "It took them a while to see the light. You can't let something you've created become a ball and chain. All that stuff we were wearing got to be outrageous and impractical."
When the band finally dumped the props two years ago, it was in a slump. "We were in turmoil," Stanley said. "It was a confusing period. We had people around us giving advice that wasn't on target. So we cleaned house and got rid of those people. We rallied and came back."
Kiss, which will be performing tonight and Monday at the Long Beach Arena, certainly isn't what it used to be. For one thing, the band isn't as popular. After 17 albums, mostly on Casablanca Records, that's to be expected.
But Kiss, now with PolyGram Records, still has an audience. Its last album, "Lick It Up," sold over a million. The figures on the band's latest, "Animalize," are even more impressive--1.4 million copies sold.
Now, only half of Kiss is original--Stanley and bassist/singer Gene Simmons. Drummer Peter Criss left in 1979. Guitarist Ace Frehley dropped out a year later. That was just the beginning. They have been through a parade of lead guitarists, particularly in the past year. Frehley was replaced by Vinnie Vincent who was replaced by Mark St. John, who became ill and was replaced by Bruce Kulick. There has been less action at the drummer's post. Eric Carr, who took over for Criss, is still there.
These personnel changes, Stanley said smugly, haven't been detrimental to Kiss. His point was that in this band musicians don't really matter. "I don't believe anybody in this band isn't expendable," he said. "Members come and go but Kiss is still Kiss."
Stanley has this idealized, romanticized view of the band. To him, it's indestructible, almost omnipotent. He compared it to a tank, a powerful engine, a mighty train. As he made these analogies, fervor crept into his voice: "We believe in Kiss. We're dedicated to Kiss. There's honesty, passion, purity, integrity in our music." Still, Stanley is enough of a realist to recognize that Kiss is basically playing simplistic, melodic heavy metal. Its music is coarse, raunchy, loud and rambling. In heavy metal, these are pluses. Kiss' music is still surprisingly effective.
Stanley bragged that he was the best art student in his grade school in Manhattan. He got even better while studying at the famed High School of Music and Art. But an art career didn't interest him. "I was geared toward music," he explained. "I secretly wanted to be a rock 'n' roller."
In high school, Stanley met Gene Simmons. "He was older than me," Stanley recalled. "He was in college and he was doing side jobs like working in offices. I really liked him. He and I got together and realized we clicked. We played in the same band. We wanted to make music together."
After high school, Stanley worked assorted odd jobs while he and Simmons were forming Kiss, recruiting Criss and Frehley.
"It was a hot band," he said. "It had promise. It had power. We all clicked. It was getting better and better. The songs were a little rough but they had passion. People responded to them. Casablanca (Records) just couldn't pass us up . . . "
That fervor was creeping back into his voice. He continued to explain how good Kiss really is.