Only about ten people had gathered at the Popcorn Pub in the New York borough of Queens when, on January 30, 1973, four men with a little make-up on their faces entered the small stage. They call themselves Kiss and play their first concert that evening. Nobody suspected that Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss would soon write rock history with anthems like "Rock And Roll All Nite", "Detroit Rock City" and "Shout It Loud" on this evening.
Kiss bassist and singer Gene Simmons (73) remembers the sparse audience. "My girlfriend at the time was there, a girl named Jan, a friend of hers who had something with Paul, Peter's then-wife Lydia and a few more friends," he says in a zoom interview with the German Press Agency in London.
$35 or $50 fee for the first gig
He arranged the gig himself on the phone before the band was called Kiss, but Wicked Lester. "We had just fired our first manager, so I was sort of the manager," Simmons said. "I remember telling the manager to hire us because we're great. And I remember bargaining for the whole band for $35 for the first show." Simmons may not remember exactly. In the past he also spoke of 50 dollars for the gig. In any case, little money for today's hard rock millionaires.
The fact that the Popcorn Pub - sometimes also called the Popcorn Club - was pretty empty didn't bother the musicians back then. "We were so excited that we could play these songs that we wrote - 'Deuce', 'Strutter', 'Black Diamond' and all those songs," says Simmons. All three ended up on the first Kiss album a year later and are now considered classics that the US rockers regularly play at their concerts.
"It's funny because after all this time, I don't think Paul or I could write simple, straight forward riff songs like this," Simmons says today, "because back then it was all so innocent. You didn't think about it. We We had nothing to lose because we were desperately poor. If you don't make money anyway, at least you can do what you love."
Iconic livery with superhero appeal
Soon to be renamed The Coventry, the club doesn't stay empty for more performances. "When we played there for the first time, nobody was there," remembers Kiss singer and guitarist Paul Stanley (71) in the program of the current tour. "The last time we played there, you could hardly get in the door."
Initially inspired by the band New York Dolls with their make-up, Kiss soon developed the iconic, imaginative face painting with superhero identity. Stanley is "Starchild", Simmons is "The Demon", guitarist Ace Frehley becomes "Space Ace" and drummer Peter Criss becomes "Catman". They also wear fancy stage costumes.
After the release of the debut album in February 1974, the quartet released the follow-up "Hotter Than Hell" in October of the same year. It goes very fast. The third album "Dressed To Kill" followed in March 1975. The records are initially not a success. But with increasingly wild stage shows with fireworks and flames, Kiss cause a sensation. Simmons spits fake blood and fire and even burns his hair at one point.
With success comes tension
Simmons' memory of the time is a bit hazy 50 years later. "Just a year and a half after the band formed, we were playing Anaheim Stadium in California," he claims, "with no hit album, no videos, no anything." However, it didn't go that fast. In fact, the performance in Anaheim took place in August 1976 - after the release of the live album "Alive!", which brought Kiss the breakthrough, and after "Destroyer", which is now considered the magnum opus of the group.
With the success, tensions in the group increase, eventually leading to the departure of Peter Criss and, soon after, Ace Frehley. "Fame doesn't change you. It just allows you to be the asshole you already are," says Stanley in the documentary Kiss: World's Hottest Band.
Simmons and Stanley have continued with Kiss, going well over ten years without the famous makeup. After several line-up changes - including an acclaimed reunion with Criss and Frehley - guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer join the band today. Both have been there for over 20 years.
In the summer they play in Germany
In the anniversary year, Kiss continue their farewell tour and give the impression that they really don't want to stop. After all, the "End Of The Road" tour is now in its fifth year. In the coming summer, Simmons and Co. want to let it rip in Munich, Dresden, Berlin, Mannheim and Cologne. With fire and fake blood.
"We've always done our own thing," he says. "We played around with disco a little with 'I Was Made For Loving You'. We did some ballads and stuff like that. But basically, if you look at it: guitars, guitars, guitars. We're closed won on our own terms."
So, 50 years after their historic debut at the Popcorn Pub, "The Demon" is extremely pleased with Kiss' career. Would the 73-year-old say something to 23-year-old Gene Simmons? "Yes. I would tell him: Do everything the same way."