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CNN Spotlight: KISS

Aired May 2, 2014 - 22:30   ET


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All right! You wanted the best and you got it. The hottest band in America, KISS!

POPPY HARLOW, CNN HOST: The iconic look.

GENE SIMMONS, SINGER, KISS: KISS are the four most recognized faces on the planet earth.

HARLOW: The outrageous costumes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Where do you start in the outfits and the makeup. The pyro, everything's over the top.

HARLOW: That wagging tongue. Indestructible rockers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: KISS is kind of like the cockroach of rock 'n roll. You can't kill them.

HARLOW: They evolved from band to brand.

PAUL STANLEY, KISS: People talk about the golden years of KISS in the '70s. That is dwarfed by what we do today.

SIMMONS: KISS lotteries, KISS Mr. Potato Heads, KISS boots, the KISS condoms.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And into new arenas. Now, after four decades, the cover of "Rolling Stone."

SIMMONS: This is vindication.

HARLOW: And the industry's ultimate honor. But not without some rock star drama.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They only wanted to induct the four original guys.

HARLOW: Tonight, CNN shines the spotlight on KISS.

A historic night in Brooklyn, New York.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The class of 2014, welcome to the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame.

HARLOW: Legendary musicians took home rock's highest honor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: KISS! HARLOW: But for KISS, the victory was bittersweet. Their induction came 15 years after becoming eligible.

SIMMONS: We won our own hall of fame long ago. So the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame, we appreciate it, we're very gracious. Mostly we're thanking the fans.

HARLOW: Some fans had hoped for a reunion of the original band. Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss. But this is KISS today. Guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer replaced Frehley and Criss more than a decade ago, wearing the same makeup and costumes.

ERIC SINGER, DRUMMER; I never tried to act or play in any way like Peter Criss. I've always played like Eric Singer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: KISS is a 40 year story, and KISS has weathered the storm.

HARLOW: Early this year, tempers flared when the Rock Hall announced they'd only induct the original band members.

PAUL STANLEY, KISS: When we said what about other members? They said it's a non-starter.

HARLOW: The KISS founders accepted the induction but flatly refused to perform as the original four.

SIMMONS: The last thing we would do is to get up on stage and just play with Ace and Peter because that's running a race looking backwards.

HARLOW: And there was worry Frehley and Criss wouldn't perform to their standards.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You won't be disappointed.

STANLEY: To go up with Peter and Ace dressed as they once were, regardless of how they play or how they look, is a risk I don't want to take.

HARLOW: Criss and Frehley wouldn't comment to CNN, but backstage at the ceremony, Ace Frehley was disappointed.

ACE FREHLEY, FORMER KISS MEMBER: It wasn't my choice. I wanted to do it. But bottom line is we're still brothers in rock 'n roll.

HARLOW: In the end, they were all there. Singer and Thayer in the audience, the original KISS members accepting their award together.

STANLEY: Let me hear ya!


FREHLEY: I want to thank Paul, Gene, and peter. It's great to be home in Brooklyn. This is my home. (CHEERS AND APPLAUSE)

PETER CRISS, FORMER KISS MEMBER: I never thought this would this could happen in my life.

STANLEY: This is vindication.

HARLOW: Vindication for the band that's been around for four decades.

STANLEY: We are in the glory days of KISS. To think that 40 years on, our plate is more full than ever.

HARLOW: And spilling over the top with their next venture.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons!

HARLOW: Stanley and Simmons are the new co-owners of L.A. KISS, an arena football team in Anaheim, California. This is not your father's football game.

STANLEY: It's sports jacked up on steroids. And we're not advocating steroids in sports, folks, but we're trying to give people as much as we can.

HARLOW: And taking the KISS brand to a whole new level -- literally. For about a third the price of an NFL game ticket, fans see pole dancing, pyro, lasers, electric guitar, and football players that look like rock stars.

STANLEY: This is the three-ring circus but it's also a sporting event, and why can't the two co-exist?

HARLOW: L.A. KISS co-owner Brett Bushy is banking on it. He says the combination of cheaper tickets and the band's star power will draw fans and money.

BRETT BUSHY, L.A. KISS OWNER: I don't think it works for any other music brand. KISS is a brand. It's an iconic brand that's been around for 40 years. I will tell you right now, it's going to be huge. It's going to change the way sports does business.

HARLOW: But it's a risky business. Arena football has failed four times in California. Financially, what is at stake here?

STANLEY: It's millions. But it's not about how much money we have at stake. If this doesn't work, it impacts KISS the band because at the core of everything is the band.


HARLOW: L.A. KISS won their home opener, a score for the band and the brand.

STANLEY: This is the victory lap for us so --

HARLOW: Does that mean it's over soon? SIMMONS: No.

STANLEY: No. We've had other victory laps, but to do it 40 years on, look, we're in our 60s. That's insane!

SIMMONS; I think if you go as fast as you can and achieve as much as you can before you drop dead.

HARLOW: Coming up, how KISS came together -- face paint, face, and fury.

STANLEY: We had a love/hate relationship. He loved me, I hated him.



UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, KISS!

HARLOW: The Coventry, January 1973. Queens, New York.

STANLEY: The first time we played, the only people that were there were a couple of friends and some lonely guy at the bar.

SIMMONS: It was four guys off the streets of New York who were nobody.

HARLOW: Four guys who hoped to stand out during the heyday of glam rock.

KEN SHARP, AUTHOR, "NOTHIN' TO LOSE: THE MAKING OF KISS": You look at someone like Alice Cooper, David Bowie. That was just one person. KISS' idea was why don't we create an entity which has four Alice Coopers? So they transformed themselves from just a bunch of regular rock 'n roll musicians into superheroes.

HARLOW: Part superhero, part sci-fi villain. KISS created personas for each band member. Guitarist Paul Stanley, the star child. On base, Gene Simmons, the demon. Lead guitarist, Ace Frehley, was Spaceman And on drums Peter Criss, Catman.

Did anyone tell you you were crazy?

STANLEY: Of course! Everybody!

Platform boots, are you kidding? People would be in the front row hysterical, hitting each other and laughing at us.

I spent half the night jumping up in the air.

HARLOW: They designed their own costumes, those legendary platform boots. Look at these heels! And black-and-white face paint.

STANLEY: We had to learn to put on the makeup through trial and error. We used to go on stage in clubs and be blinded by this stuff running into our eyes until we figured out how to do it.

I just tell them buy something that's white and red.

HARLOW: Forty years later they still do their own makeup, so two-hour process.

How does it not all drip off during the show?

SIMMONS: We bake it in.

There were no designers, no marketing people. We didn't even have a record deal.

HARLOW: They booked their own gigs, flooded music execs with demos, and by the summer of '73, KISS had their first deal.

SIMMONS: We were the very first act on Casablanca Records.

HARLOW: Next, they brought out the fireworks. Their first three albums bombed, but KISS quickly built a rep as the hottest stage act in town.

SHARP: Gene Simmons blowing fire, Gene Simmons spitting blood, Paul Stanley breaking a guitar. Ace Frehley's guitar smoking.

HARLOW: Fans were blown away. They banded together, calling themselves the KISS Army.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I like their act, their stage show.


HARLOW: But critics were brutal.

SHARP: Throughout their career, critics have always leveled barbs at KISS, calling them clowns.

SIMMONS: All the critics and all the bad reviews have helped buy us the empire that is KISS.

We chew them up and spit them out!

STANLEY: KISS. Not only have we survived, we've thrived.

HARLOW: The KISS frontmen say that survivor instinct instilled at a young age propelled them to stardom.

STANLEY: I am product of a tribe of survivors. Our backgrounds were very similar. We were both from families that in one form or another had fled from Europe to avoid the Holocaust. All the friends of my mom and dad had numbers on their arms.

HARLOW: Gene Simmons was born Chaim Weitz in Haifa, Israel. He was raised by his mother, a Holocaust survival.

SIMMONS: She went in at 14. The rest of the family was wiped out.

HARLOW: Your father leaving you when you were almost seven years old, what did that do to you?

SIMMONS: Well, I felt betrayed or abandoned. I decided that I wasn't going to depend on anybody.

HARLOW: Gene and his mother immigrated to New York when he was eight years old.

SIMMONS: I'd never seen a television set. I'd never seen comic books or toilet paper. Literally. For me, it was like from zero to 60.

STANLEY: The fact is that the opportunities are here. I'm the living proof of that.

HARLOW: Paul Stanley was born Stanley Eisen and grew up in Queens, New York.

STANLEY: My parents slept on the sofa, and my sister and I shared a bedroom in a one-bedroom apartment walkup.

HARLOW: You overcame a huge challenge, and you kept it a secret for a long time.

STANLEY: Yes, I was born without a right ear. And deaf also.

HARLOW: Were you an outcast?

STANLEY: Totally. A deaf kid who was painfully shy, ridiculed, succeed beyond his and everyone else's wildest dreams.

HARLOW: From a young age, Stanley and Simmons dreamed of becoming rock stars. The two met in 1970.

SIMMONS: I learned how to play guitar on my own and so when I met him it was like, oh, really? Let's see what you got. Actually he was pretty damn good.

HARLOW: So good they united with a game plan.

STANLEY: We in essence wanted to be the band we never saw.

HARLOW: I have heard the two of you didn't necessarily really like each other when you first met.

SIMMONS: That's not fair. He hated me.

STANLEY: We had a love/hate relationship. He loved me, I hated him.



SIMMONS: Yes, oh, yes.


HARLOW: The feuding between band members would escalate. SHARP: Peter Criss was the first to join the alliance with Paul and Gene, and Ace answered an ad in "The Village Voice" and joined the band in December of '73.

HARLOW: They began to build a following. It paid off in 1975 when they broke through with mega hit "Rock and Roll All Night."


STANLEY: We did KISS Alive, which captured what the band was. And then all the other albums suddenly caught on.

HARLOW: Selling six platinum albums in three years with hits like "Shout It Out Loud."

SHARP: I would say by 1977, KISS were probably the most popular band in the world.

SIMMONS: Within a year-and-a-half, we are headlining Anaheim Stadium. I remember opening up the curtains and the place was packed. And my sense was we're on the roller coaster, you better hold on because we're going up and the ride's about to begin.

HARLOW: Momentum was high, but by the late '70s the ride came to a crashing halt.

SIMMONS: Good night, Detroit!

HARLOW: There was fighting within band, and disco fever in the air.

STANLEY (singing): I was made for loving you, baby.

SHARP: KISS had a big hit with a disco rock song "I Was Made For Loving You." It alienated their hard core audience that loved the hard, raunchy rock 'n roll.

HARLOW: When we return, sparks fly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was a betrayal.

HARLOW: And KISS unmasked.


HARLOW: September, 1983. KISS live on MTV.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is a really big moment.

HARLOW: A decade after their debut, a radical decision. KISS loses their masks.

STANLEY: The band feels so strong and it just felt like, do it.

STANLEY: It really came down to saying, look, if we're a great band and if we're really good, it's trial by fire.

HARLOW: Gone was the paint, and gone was the original lineup. Peter Criss left in 1980, and Ace Frehley quit two years later.

SHARP: Once fame and success happened, it REALLY divided the group into the more level headed guys, Paul and Gene, and the partiers, which was Ace and peter.

HARLOW: Simmons is still bitter about the split.

SIMMONS: During their time in the band, they were miserable human beings. Drugs, self-abuse, alcohol, dark clouds, nothing was ever good. It's like you couldn't make them happy.

HARLOW: We reached out to both Frehley and Criss; neither would comment. However, in the March edition of "Rolling Stone" magazine, Frehley admits to substance abuse during his early days with KISS, but says he's been sober for seven years, adding, "I'm healthy and working."

In the early '80s, a stripped-down version of KISS emerged with new faces Vinnie Vincent and Eric Carr. The band turned out more platinum albums, but KISS began to unravel.

(singing): Lick it up

SIMMONS: We had taken off the makeup, Ace and Peter we are no longer in the band. There was some real changes in music, so I was completely lost. I didn't know who I was.

HARLOW: Simmons drifted from the band.

SIMMONS: I was seduced by Hollywood, power. Socially happened to meet Cher, moved in, then moved in with Diana Ross. Start to spend time making movies --

HARLOW: Did you sell out for a while?


STANLEY: In this case it was a betrayal. It was a betrayal of a bond that we supposedly had. In essence, leaving me holding the bag, going off to do other things and still wanting equal credit.

HARLOW: Simmons returned, but the KISS Army, their faithful core of fans, had deserted.

STANLEY: We were playing to empty halls. To go out on stage and have somebody go, "You wanted the best, you got the best, the hottest band in the land, KISS." And you go out on stage and the place is empty. I was shaken to the core.

HARLOW: They went back to the makeup and the original lineup a decade later for a wildly successful reunion tour. But after several more tours, the band was still fractured. The four had a final farewell in 2000.

STANLEY: Never forget us! I had really hoped when we got back together for the reunion was that we could really resolve issues, having pride in what you do, and living up to your vows in the band. Those were all broken.

HARLOW: Criss wouldn't respond to CNN, but he told "Rolling Stone" magazine, "I wish there wasn't so much bad blood." In his and Frehley's place ever since, drummer Eric Singer and lead guitarist Tommy Thayer with big shoes to fill.

TOMMY THAYER, CURRENT KISS LEAD GUITARIST: When I first discovered KISS, I was 15 years old. I had friends tell me that when I saw KISS in the beginning that I told them I'm going to be in that band one day.

ERIC SINGER, CURRENT KISS DRUMMER: I've been with KISS for a good part of 25, 30 years now. Year after year this thing has evolved and grown.

STANLEY: We couldn't be here had we not had Ace and Peter in the beginning, and we couldn't be here today without Eric and Tommy. This is the winning team.

HARLOW: The team blazed on with 2009's "Sonic Boom," the highest- charting KISS record yet. And continue to sell out concerts. The show bigger and louder than ever. But today, the KISS brand may be even bigger than their music.

SIMMONS: We're joining forces to have some fun.

HARLOW: Simmons' L.A. Home has become a shrine to the KISS collection of merchandise. From KISS coffins --

SIMMONS: That's really very restful.

HARLOW: -- to KISS comics.

SIMMONS: I love these cartoons.

HARLOW: Do you think of KISS as equivalent to, like, a Fortune 500 company?

STANLEY: It's the music business. I always tell people, as good as you are at playing music, someone else is just as good as stealing your money.

HARLOW: KISS now boasts some 3,000 different pieces of merchandise.

STANLEY: KISS lotteries, KISS Mr. Potatoheads, KISS boots, KISS bibs, KISS glasses. And, of course, the KISS condoms.

HARLOW: Can you put a dollar sign on the KISS empire?

SIMMONS: We make a living.

HARLOW: $500 million?


HARLOW: $750 million?


HARLOW: A billion?

SIMMONS: Give me a cookie.

HARLOW: A billion dollars?

SIMMONS: Anywhere from one to five.

HARLOW: KISS marketers say the band has sold shy of a billion dollars in goods. Stanley and Simmons have equal say in all things KISS, but Gene's the one you'll find IN the spotlight.

HARLOW: You've said that Gene is sort of more about the flash and the image of KISS. Do you ever worry, Paul, about oversaturating the market?

STANLEY: Well, that's part of my job. My job is to say let's slow down.

SIMMONS: My favorite piece of merchandise is me.

SHARP: They've always had that ying-yang quality. Gene is certainly much more business and entrepreneurial, where Paul is really the creative engine of KISS. They're the polar opposites. They're the light and shade of KISS.

HARLOW: Differences that have led to years of ups and downs and some scars.

STANLEY: This isn't my family. If you want a family, find a wife, have some kids. But this is the office. The key to a great partnership is knowing its limitation.

HARLOW: But back on stage, the band is as unified as ever.

STANLEY: Now the fun begins.

HARLOW: Four decades after they began, the KISS empire is still rocking.

SIMMONS: Nobody can touch our platform heels. We are the finest rock band on the planet, bar none.

HARLOW: And after they say their final good-bye, they hope four new rockers will one day fill their boots.

STANLEY: KISS will live beyond us. We're a part of it, but we're also holding onto it. It's an animal that's gotten its own life, and at this point, we're on for the ride.