Gimmicks are used all the time in the world of marketing and they can be viewed as humorous, quirky, in poor taste … or brilliant. Many gimmicks are associated with advertising campaigns and product slogans, but not infrequently gimmicks have a connection to music.
The Monkees were a creation. A 1965 ad in Variety touted “Madness!! Auditions. Folk & Roll musicians and singers for acting roles in new TV series.” A band made for television. There was some musical ability in the four band members but look/appearance and acting skills were the primary talent wanted. It was the writers of the show, and the songwriters (Neil Diamond, Tommy Boyce, Bobby Hart, and others) and studio musicians (including the Wrecking Crew) who created the hits. A couple of years later, songwriters and producers were hired to create music for a television cartoon version of the long-running Archies comic book. Songs and recordings like 1969’s “Sugar Sugar” proved, once again, that the right idea (or gimmick) could drive success.
Neil Bogart was, in his day, the P.T. Barnum of popular music. At Buddah Records he was responsible for early Melanie recordings, like “Lay Down (Candles In the Rain),” “Oh, Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, and “Yummy Yummy Yummy (I’ve Got Love In My Tummy)” from Ohio Express. Three genre-crossing hits clearly proved he had an ear for pop music, but that he was a marketer as well.
And then came KISS.
KISS became a key component at Bogart’s subsequent endeavor, Casablanca Records. The members of KISS were probably the perfect artist for Bogart. His “Barnum” nature and the band’s idea to construct a successful rock band with some real, organic musicianship was the equivalent of planets lining up. Many in the music business were filled with wildly conflicting emotions when introduced to KISS. Peter Criss, Ace Freely, Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley would add makeup and stage sense to a burgeoning repertoire of solid original songs, while introducing the music industry to “theater rock.” It was more than playing music, as their stage shows evolved to the point that the act featured smoke, rockets, fire-breathing, blood-spitting, pyrotechnics, pancake makeup and more. But underpinning it all was a real band. Bogart and KISS weren’t looking to mirror the image of a coiffed and choreographed band, but rather musicians who could create a legendary brand.
Speaking as one who worked for a competing label, some of us from the competition looked askance at the act from Casablanca Records. After all, Neil Bogart was always looking for a gimmick, a trick, a theatrical moment to help launch his artists, so why would KISS be any different? And yet, they were. With heavy stylized makeup and costumes they each embraced an alternate persona of a comic book-style character: Starchild Stanley, Demon Simmons, Space Ace Frehley, and Catman Criss. While, at the time, we could look at them and think about writing them off, they proved everyone wrong. Including me. (I’ll even ignore the disastrous simultaneous release of four solo albums in 1978.)
Almost 50 years on, there’s no one associated with any rock band in the past half-century that doesn’t recognize the simplistic brilliance of songs like “Rock and Roll All Nite” packaged with the theatrics of KISS. While the band never reached #1 on the singles charts in the 1970s – they only had one top-10 track – they did chart 13 separate singles. More importantly, they evolved, by design, into one of the most legendary performing units in the history of rock ’n’ roll. For me, a surprise B-side hit, “Beth” (which peaked at #7 in 1976) turned me from a skeptic to a believer. Others knew it from day one. Through personnel changes, retirements, un-retirements, masking, unmasking, and more, Kiss has proven to be as durable, successful, and worthy of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as anyone. (They were inducted into the Hall in 2014.)
The KISS “End Of The Road” tour hits stages across North America in 2019. Love them or not, there is no question that they have left an unforgettable impression on American music and the music industry. Simmons himself wrote a fitting epitaph for the band: “You can’t go through life and leave things the way they are. We can all make a difference, and if I die today, I know I made a difference.”