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All of which surely must flatter the present-day Stanley and Simmons, but as the pair takes some pains to point out, the band's not quite dead yet. Despite slipping sales (1993's Alive III has yet to hit gold, a KISS first) and advancing age, KISS continues on, scowling grand old men of metal winking at the past.
"Since we've taken off the makeup, which is now twelve years, we've probably sold another twelve million albums," Stanley points out. "And there are some fans who consider Lick It Up -- the first album without makeup -- they consider that the first album. We have fans that go back twenty years and we have fans that go back two years. That's really the beauty of it."
In truth the KISS story took a turn for the worse, appropriately, right about the time the Seventies ran out. "Towards the beginning of the Eighties, there was a lot of tension and a lot of problems in the band," Stanley admits. "There were all kinds of chemical excesses and egos out of control. We were all, in our own ways, a bit lost."
Drummer Peter Criss, "the Cat," left the band in 1980, to be replaced by Eric Carr (who took on the makeup persona of "the Fox" and boasted the highest high heels in the band -- nine inches). The band recorded an odd concept album called Music From "The Elder" (with songs co-written by Lou Reed); a few critics liked it, but the kids stayed away in droves. Guitarist Ace Frehley took off shortly afterward, and it looked as if KISS's strange heavy metal dynasty was in its twilight.
"We continued with the makeup for another year or two, and then we really had to think, 'Is it time to leave this behind?'" Stanley recalls. "Not because we weren't proud of it, but because we're very proud of it. If you're proud of something, you should know when to say goodbye. When people say, 'Wasn't it a pain in the ass in the Seventies to put all that makeup on?' Hey, that was the proudest part of the evening for us...to go out and really put on your war paint and blow up the arena."
Stanley has resisted the urge to cash in on the band's recent surfeit of nostalgic goodwill by recruiting the departed Frehley and Criss, slapping on makeup, and blowing up arenas with a full-blast heavy metal reunion. "It's morbid," Stanley says. "We did something once, because we believed in it. To do it now as mimicry or to re-create something A unless our hearts were in it, I think it would be real transparent. If you're heart's not in it, you're just doing a Vegas act. It might let people down, and even if it didn't, quite honestly, it would let us down. It's no secret that there's a lot of money to be made doing it, but it's just not appealing."
Instead the group has made a unique devil's bargain for the conventions, hiring KISS tribute bands to duplicate painstakingly the costumes and pyrotechnics of a vintage Seventies stage show; this way the band avoids having to don the gear and explode the flashpots themselves. KISS employs a rotating lineup of regional mimics to close each day's festivities with a full two-hour set. Apparently Stanley enjoys the spectacle of seeing his past come back to sweaty, hairy life. "I haven't seen the ultimate me yet, though," Stanley muses. "I guess I'm the harshest critic when it comes to doing me. I'll look at these bands and think, 'Man, that Gene is amazing.' Or, ~'That sure looks like Ace.' But I can't say that guy looks just like me or moves like me. And, quite honestly, the chances of somebody jumping around and doing splits in eight-inch heels [again] are pretty slim."
It is a canny deal: The fans get their fix of blood-spitting theatrics, and KISS gets to rock with its dignity more or less intact. Given the band's long march to pop iconhood, it is easy now to forget that KISS was -- and remains -- an actual band. Their last studio album, 1992's Revenge, broke a string of increasingly feeble mid-Eighties releases and surprised critics and fans alike, many of whom had written off KISS as lumbering hair-metal relics. Revenge rocked, mostly. And when the last leg of their last big arena tour was cancelled due to poor ticket sales -- a reminder both of the dire state of old-school hard rock and the band's own increasingly selective appeal -- KISS ditched the smoke bombs and hit the clubs for a gritty no-budget mini-tour.
Stripped of their goofy spectacle, the band revealed itself to be, well, a band -- a pretty good one. Stanley's voice is still quite the force of nature; the yowling old Mean Gene actually sounds better with age; and guitarist Bruce Kulick faithfully replicates the spirit, if not the actual exuberant ham-fistededness, of Frehley's leads. KISS's battery of teen anthems might not be as life-changing as they seemed in 1975, but the best of them hold up impressively. More impressive still was the unexpected enthusiasm these vets mustered in delivering the hits. Even twenty years later, KISS can parachute into some crummy club and throw themselves into that galloping opening riff to "Deuce" with a frankly astonishing passion.