How Kiss Created a Great Brand with Rock Theater

They finally made the hall.

After selling 100 million albums, reinventing the rock concert as theater, launching their own comic book series, and scaring the bejesus out of parents everywhere, Kiss was finally admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2014. But the band really belongs in a hall of fame of its own. More than 40 years ago, Kiss created a modern template for rock branding. As I discuss in my new SlideShare presentation, the band’s ability to create compelling rock theater was one essential element of the band’s blueprint for success.

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Kiss made memorable music in its heyday, but it built a true following by creating visual personas that inspired intrigue, derision, and fright — in other words, a reaction, which means attention. The four original members of the band — Peter Criss, Ace Frehley, Gene Simmons, and Paul Stanley — were more than a drummer, lead guitarist, bass guitarist, and rhythm guitarist. In public, they were known by the alter egos they created, each of which was expressed through elaborate costumes and face paint. If you grew up listening to rock and roll in the 1970s, you didn’t even have to like Kiss to know about the Catman (Peter Criss), Space Ace (Frehley), Demon (Simmons), and Starchild (Stanley).

No one had seen anything quite like Kiss. They created intrigue and curiosity, even fear that they were somehow linked with devil worship — all of which, of course, made them more appealing to record-buying teens. Onstage, the band’s four personas thrived like they could nowhere else. Demon, Catman, Space Ace, and Starchild were like three-dimensional performers, spewing blood, spitting fire, levitating from drum kits, and literally creating smoke from their guitars as they sang in their elaborate costumes (including exaggerated high heels). Although they were actually decent musicians, fans came for the experience.

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Their stagecraft earned them the scorn of critics, who viewed the pyrotechnics as a slap in the face of real rock and roll. But in reality, Kiss were adopting ideas that other bands were using, too, most notably David Bowie, Alice Cooper, the masters of shock rock, and Genesis. But Kiss made rock theater more accessible and fun — pushing the boundaries of taste without crossing over them as Alice Cooper did, and playing tighter songs than did Genesis.

Concerts made Kiss. The band actually struggled to sell albums until fans began to learn about them on tour. It was, in fact, a concert album, Alive!, that triggered a run of multi-million album sales that continues to this day.

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For modern rock bands, albums don’t sell: concerts do. The more established artists with bigger budgets have created fully realized theater. For instance, Roger Waters recently achieved massive financial success through the visually stunning Wall Tour. And U2’s 360º tour — the highest grossing of any rock band — was a theatrical tour de force that featured a massive “claw” structure that resembled a space ship.

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Today Miley Cyrus and Kanye West best exemplify the Kiss legacy of music as theater. Cyrus has been making headlines with her controversial Bangerz tour, which launched in February. She collaborated with several designers on costumes, including Roberto Cavalli, Jeremy Scott, the Blonds, and Marc Jacobs. Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi has created visual props, including “imaginative animals he’s made on his own.” Her tour has featured Cyrus emerging from a giant image of her face and sliding down a facsimile of her tongue; riding a giant hot dog; and wearing provocative sexually provocative costumes.

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Meantime, Kanye West has created his own brand of music theater with his on-again-off-again Yeezus tour, which features West performing (at times) in a bejeweled mask, massive, surreal stage sets, and elaborate choreographing. At one point, the show features the appearance of not one but two mountains, one of which splits in half and becomes a volcano.

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Jonathan Ringen of Rolling Stone describes the Yeezus show this way: “crazily entertaining, hugely ambitious, emotionally affecting (really!) and, most importantly, totally bonkers.” As for the bejeweled mask, Ringen writes, “OK, so yeah, he does wear bejeweled, full-face Martin Margiela masks for most of the show. And while on one level they suggest a supreme ‘look not upon the face of Yeezus, mere mortals; arrogance (which is so off the rails it’s kind of awesome), the masks also have real theatrical usefulness. Given that most of the audience is way too far away to see his face, they provide a vivid, readable visual.”

A “vivid, readable visual” — that’s how you turn an impersonal arena into your own stage. And Kiss created the model 40 years ago.

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