Kiss and Sell – The Making of a Supergroup (1997)
by C.K. Lendt

Recently, I've been thinking about how J.R.R. Tolkien's "Middle Earth" is a concept that devotées seem to revere to the point of actually believing the place exists. Tolkien has his acolytes, but also nearly as many critics who dismiss his invented universe as "kids' stuff." And somehow, both camps seem to miss the point.

The rock group Kiss has been similarly misunderstood by fans and detractors alike. Some want to appreciate Kiss as the rockin'est band in the history of rockin', while others want to write them off as all gimmick and no talent. But the central point about Kiss is that they were always more of a marketing ideal than a band.

Now, before I lose all credibility by coming across as a staunch defender of both Kiss and J.R.R. Tolkien, and worse still, one who takes them both seriously on an intellectual level, let me say that I've never gotten all the way through The Lord of the Rings (so much walking and singing), and Kiss I find to be just fuckin' hilarious.

But it must be acknowledged that when something attains popularity of this magnitude, it ceases to be viewed for what it actually is. Superstardom breeds surreality, and a whole lot of misguided praise and criticism.

Kiss and Sell tells the story of Kiss from shortly after their major-label signing, through the pathetic decline, and leading up to their recent resurgence in popularity. Written by one of their business managers, the book is marketed somewhat as an "unauthorized tell-all" but in fact would be of more interest to a business student than to a hardcore fan.

Which makes a lot of sense, actually. Take as an example the fact that comic books and action figures continue to be released honoring this band that hasn't released an album of new material in more than a decade (and not a good album in more than twice that).

After their first few albums, Kiss ceased to be a rock band and became something more akin to the old Mexican wrestlers, who as cultural figures were regarded as superheroes. Public fascination with Kiss has never really waned … it's just that their hype machine made it seem like they were a lot bigger at their peak than they actually were.

If ever a career was based on smoke and mirrors, I mean other than those of Vicki Lawrence and John Davidson, it was that of Kiss.

The author paints a pretty respectable picture of Kiss throughout their career, treating Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley in particular with a guarded reverence, coming off sort of like a not-very-cool 4th grader uncontrollably liking the popular 5th graders who regularly beat him up.

Chronicling the band's heyday, Lendt offers a good assessment of Kiss's appeal: a sweaty mix of adolescent sex fantasy, horror movie cheese, and bubblegum rock 'n' roll. He seems to acknowledge that the music was never very good, but in the context of a Kiss concert it was perfect, for what it was.

Lendt tactfully avoids any truly juicy revelations, but peppers the book with enough tales of limousine blow-jobs and cocaine depressions to keep things moving. The pace of the book corresponds to Kiss's mainstream popularity, that is, it's very energetic and entertaining while the roller-coaster is ascending, but it bogs down during the years when it was all falling apart.

Kiss was essentially mega-popular for about three years, so by the time the book hits 1982, it becomes somewhat of a tedious read. Personally, I always find the decline years to be the most interesting, but Lendt doesn't stoop to portray the truly miserable moments, choosing instead to lay out the facts as line-items on a bookkeeping ledger. But what the hell, the guy's an accountant.

While Simmons and Stanley come off, at worst, as spoiled brats or egomaniacal fools, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss come off as slightly insane, insecure idiots. Here, too, though, the reader gets the distinct impression that there's some sour grapes going on. I'd love to read Ace Frehley's perspective on exactly how close to the center of the Kiss scene Lendt was … I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the author was never regarded as anything more than one more suit hanging around to keep an eye on the money.

Highlights of the book, for me, included Lendt's descriptions of Kiss's more ill-conceived projects: their movie (Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park), the flop album Music From "The Elder" (which looked just like a soundtrack, but wasn't … it was a (snicker) Kiss concept album), and "Kiss World," the aborted attempt to turn a Kiss tour into a traveling carnival. Long before Lollapalooza, Kiss envisioned a tour that would feature not only a Kiss show, but sideshows, rides, and party tents … goooood idea.

What I admire about Kiss is their indefatigable ability to come up with more and increasingly grandiose ideas even as the money is walking out the door. Delusions of grandeur might signify mental illness, but to me there's something admirable about chasing windmills.

The book is painfully slow at times, with way too much space devoted to Lendt's business relationship with Diana Ross … a seriously weird tangent, even if she was dating Gene Simmons. And the 80s are given approximately as slight mention as they probably deserve ("Lick it Up!"), though I'd be willing to bet there's some real dirt to be found in that era of the band.

My main problem with the book is that Lendt spends more time discussing business meetings and deals with concert promoters than, say, discussing why principal members of the band left the group. However, the boredom is for the most part balanced by choice anecdotes and insightful comments about how groups get huge. It's a lot more calculated than you'd think.

Kiss and Sell is an interesting book for any musician, whether or not they like Kiss at all, as it really gets to the icey heart of the music business. Lendt, above all, demonstrates that past a certain point, a group is always ruled by the bottom line. The book will shatter a lot of people's naivete about the music business being about "bringing great music to the people." The music business, like any business, is simply about making money.

Kiss was a band whose best songs are cluelessly misogynistic, and whose worst are virtually unlistenable. A band who made an anthem out of "Rock & Roll All Night." They made an awful lot of money and threw it away by stubbornly clinging to their "fame." The book is a lesson on how to follow in their nine-inch-spiked footsteps.

And the punchline is: everything comes back. Those Kiss "Psycho Circus" action figures weren't nearly as cool as the original Kiss dolls that were a permanent fixture of my basement in the 70s, but they're cool enough for the next wave of kids who don't know the difference between The Beatles and, like, Slipknot.

Review by Mason Bray