Mahler & Motown, Metal & Makeup: A Conversation With Paul Stanley of Kiss

Mahler & Motown, Metal & Makeup: A Conversation With Paul Stanley of Kiss

“If it’s part of you, it’s gonna come out of you.” That’s how Paul Stanley sums up the process by which his formative influences found their way into the music of Kiss. Given the iconic band’s reputation for hedonistic party rock, those influences are surprisingly varied and often unexpected.

The quartet, comprising founding members Stanley on vocals and guitar and Gene Simmons on vocals and bass, plus lead guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer, are currently winding up Kiss’ improbable, nearly half-century-long career with the seemingly endless “End of the Road” farewell world tour.

“The first music I really remember vividly listening to on my parents’ Harman Kardon hi-fi was classical music,” recalls Stanley, who was born Stanley Bert Eisen in 1952 and grew up in New York City. “From very early on I heard Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Schumann and Mozart. My parents were music lovers who were also into Italian opera and show tunes. I was fairly well versed in all of that, but somehow I went astray and found rock and roll.”

Perhaps that veering off was inevitable. Even listening to his parents’ symphonic albums, the future Starchild seemed to be anticipating his hard-rock future. “I would crank up Beethoven in the house and it was glorious,” he says. “The first time I went to a classical concert I was pretty dismayed by the lack of volume. I was wondering, ‘How do you turn this up?’ Some of that music is so stirring and so emotional, and to me the volume was a key component.”

He later found what he’d been looking for at his first rock concert, a bar-setting show by the Yardbirds with Jimmy Page on lead guitar. But the bombast and grandiosity that he’d loved in the over-amplified classics were certainly elements he carried into Kiss. Despite his songs’ lack of concern with subjects more cerebral than a college kegger — Kiss enjoyed singing about sex, rock and roll, partying, more sex, drinking and sex again — there was always an opulence of scale to his band’s music.

It’s one reason why their first three albums, which are packed with the band’s best songs (Kiss and Hotter Than Hell in particular, both very nearly readymade hits packages), failed to catch on with audiences initially. It took the exaggerated in-concert antics of Alive!, however heavily retooled in the studio, to fully capture Kiss in its gargantuan element, which the leaden production of the early albums largely missed.

Alice Cooper producer Bob Ezrin finally herded that sound into the studio with cartoonish majesty on 1976’s Destroyer, the band’s shining hour. Beethoven makes an explicit (albeit uncredited) cameo on the album: The second movement of the composer’s “Pathétique” Sonata is the basis for Gene Simmons’ “Great Expectations,” which borrows the music of Ludwig Van and a Dickensian title to offer the ultimate explication of the Demon’s simultaneously ego- and phallocentric worldview.

Like most teenagers of his generation, Stanley discovered rock and roll via the television set — significant for a band that would so strongly emphasize the visual aspects of their stage personae. “I think that almost everybody can remember Sunday [at] 8 o’clock, watching Ed Sullivan and seeing the Beatles,” he says. “That was pivotal, of course. But before that, when other kids were outside playing Cowboys and Indians, I was watching Alan Freed’s TV show [The Big Beat], or watching Dick Clark on ABC Channel 7 with American Bandstand. Eddie Cochran doing ‘Summertime Blues,’ or Buddy Holly doing ‘Peggy Sue.’ Music was a refuge for me, a place where I could live a fantasy.”

The links to nascent rock and roll are still evident in Kiss’ earliest songs, and no wonder; the timespan between the Beatles’ Ed Sullivan Show and the 1974 release of Kiss’ self-titled debut is almost exactly one short decade. The “woo-hoos” of “Firehouse,” a song that Stanley wrote while still in high school, would work just as well with mop-tops as they do with leather and face paint, and “Kissin’ Time” is a reprise of a Bobby Rydell hit.

Kiss simply brought a heavier edge to those influences, a movement that had been well underway since the beginning of the decade with bands like Black Sabbath and Alice Cooper. While both emboldened Kiss to pursue their own direction, all these bands shared common inspirations, which Stanley had the opportunity to see firsthand growing up in New York City.

“I was lucky enough to go to the Fillmore East almost every weekend,” he remembers. “New York was so fertile at that point. On any given weekend you could see the Who, Led Zeppelin, Vanilla Fudge, Humble Pie, Derek and the Dominos, the list just goes on, for 3, 4 and 5 dollars. I saw Jimi Hendrix twice with Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell. For me it was not only pleasure, it was a learning experience. You were seeing the masters, and, frankly, I studied it. It was a great, great education.”

And that was just one venue; the city offered a wealth of opportunities with little regard for genre distinctions. “Before I ever heard Led Zeppelin,” Stanley continues, “I had heard Otis Redding. I saw the Temptations, I saw Solomon Burke. I saw bluegrass hootenannies with the Greenbriar Boys and Dave Van Ronk playing down in the Village. I listened to a lot of doo-wop: Dion and the Belmonts, the Elegants, the Impalas. It was all part of my daily menu and it all found its way into what I was doing in one form or another.”

Stanley’s love of soul music has been integral to Kiss’ sound, supplying the groove that balances the monster riffs; at its best, the band sounds like what would happen if Sabbath had cut a record at Motown. (“Black Diamond” and “Parasite” come to mind.) Little more than instrumentation separates a song like “C’mon and Love Me” from the overt disco of Dynasty. When Stanley won the argument in favor of removing their make-up in the early ’80s, he also tinged their heavier turn with an R&B bottom on albums like Animalize and Asylum. “You want to talk about an anthem? ‘Dancing in the Streets’ by Martha and the Vandellas is an anthem,” he says. “It’s a call to arms, and I’d like to think that there’s certainly some of that in what I’ve done with Kiss.”

“Rock and Roll All Nite” is obviously stamped from the same mold, and it’s hardly alone in the Kiss catalog; “Shout It Out Loud” is yet another example. Motown also provides an early link between Kiss and Detroit, the metropolis that would become the first to embrace them, a favor returned in the perennial show-opener “Detroit Rock City.” When Kiss emerged in the mid-’70s they seemed a perfect fit for a Motor City that had already churned out the MC5, Alice Cooper and the Stooges.

Kiss was, though, unmistakably a New York band, at least in the fleeting moments before they took to the world stage. They arose in the wake of the New York Dolls, who took the inspiration of tough-girl groups like the Shangri-Las to a cross-dressing extreme. “The Dolls were the big fish in New York City,” Stanley admits, “and at that point rightfully so.

“Gene and I went to see them at the Hotel Diplomat and they looked amazing. The chemistry and camaraderie within the band made you want to be a part of it. The music was lacking, but they were clearly miles ahead of where we were in terms of image. Early on we looked like linebackers in drag. My wrist was as big as their waists. We realized that we could never be a better Dolls, so we decided to forego the color and the overt femme look and to go black and silver.”

There was never any doubt in the minds of Stanley and Simmons that image would be emphasized, however. Where the New York Dolls took rock into a sleazy back-alley burlesque and Alice Cooper into a vaudevillian guignol, Kiss would be a three-ring circus complete with fire-breathing, greasepaint and pyrotechnic spectacle.

“When we first came about, bands in America really showed a tremendous apathy if not downright disrespect for the audience,” Stanley says. “There was very little interaction with an audience. That’s why those bands all had light shows; the band was so damn boring that you’d rather see oil on water pulsing around on a big screen. The New York scene, if nothing else, was explosive. What it lacked in musical prowess it made up for in style and attitude. But while all the other bands were hanging out at Max’s Kansas City, we were rehearsing.”

From the Village folk scene to his education at the Fillmore to Kiss’ rigorous practice regimen, what comes across in talking to Stanley is equal parts passion and work ethic, with the scales tipping slightly in favor of the latter. “It’s a craft,” he agrees. “Anybody can write a song, but that doesn’t make you a songwriter. As a 15-year-old kid I went to the Brill Building and played songs for people. If they didn’t take the songs — and they didn’t — they probably admired the guts.”

Deep into Kiss’ (alleged) final victory lap, Stanley credits the diversity of his influences as a crucial part of the band’s longevity. “Everything you absorb finds its way into whatever outlet you’re using,” he says. “I really think that the foundation of everything I did was so varied that I never had to explore. If your frame of reference is too similar to what you wind up doing, it almost becomes incestuous. That leads to faulty chromosomes.

“You have to listen to the things that you like,” Stanley adds, “and if your quality is not comparable you need to work harder. I was tough on myself early on. I had heroes that I looked up to, and that’s what you have to aspire to be. If you’re impressed with too little, you’ll achieve that little.”

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers an eclectic array of arts, culture and travel. He contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, and has written for NPR Music, the A.V. Club, DownBeat and Metro, among other outlets.

Image: Paul Stanley (right) and Gene Simmons of Kiss perform in Oslo, Norway, in 2019. Credit: Rune Hellestad – Corbis/Corbis via Getty.

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