Tuesday, July 6, 2010

KISStory And Bill Aucoin: The Hottest Band In The World

KISStory And Bill Aucoin: The Hottest Band In The World
By Julian Gill and Tim McPhate/KissFAQ.com

And so goes one of the initial tales of the legend that is KISS. The words? They were uttered by none other than Bill Aucoin during his first meeting with Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley in 1973, who as fate would have it were scheming a similar grand design for their new group KISS. In many ways, the pairing of KISS with Bill Aucoin -- the merging of two entities with big ideas -- was destiny.

Part manager, part businessman, part brother, and part parent, Bill Aucoin was also a visionary. He saw something special in a quartet of guys who played an aggressive brand of rock music and looked like a villain version of the New York Dolls, and formulated a plan to take them to the top. In a sense, Aucoin was also a high-stakes poker player, essentially gambling on his own dime in an attempt to take the rock that was KISS and polish it into a shiny diamond, along the way always projecting bluffs in the form of the "larger than life" KISS philosophy. The gamble would pay off as KISS and Bill Aucoin and his vision would ascend the greatest of heights and emerge the "hottest band in the world."

William Martin Aucoin was born Dec. 29, 1943, and grew up in Ayer, Mass., where his father ran a restaurant. He always wanted to be involved in broadcasting or entertainment and even built a radio station in his parent's basement as a teenager -- until it wad forced by the FCC to go off the air. While he was still a high school student he managed a band who signed to Verve Records, though nothing ever came of the act.

Attending Northeastern University, Aucoin majored in business administration but soon started paying dues for an entertainment career in interning at PBS' Boston affiliate, WGBH. While developing skills as a cameraman and directing, Aucoin also worked on production teams that conceptualized cooking ("Julia Childs' French Chef") and music ("Folk Music USA") shows.

Following graduation, Aucoin joined Teletape Productions in New York City to direct television commercials. His work for major New York advertising agencies earned him recognition through a CLIO Award (CLIO Awards honor advertising and design work in various mediums), and an Art Directors Award. During this time Aucoin also worked on a television special for Barbra Streisand and commercials for the presidential campaign of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy.

Before long, Aucoin was branching out with his own concepts.

Little came of "Saturday At The Movement" -- a pop culture-type program which is theorized by some as the basis for the long-running "Saturday Night Live" -- but Aucoin's music TV show, "Flipside," was in a vein similar to the two of the era's better-known programs, "Don Kirshner's Rock Concert" and “The Midnight Special.” Though short-lived, the show featured diverse musical acts from John Lennon to BJ Thomas and Stevie Wonder to Rick Derringer. (One episode would coincidentally feature a fiery young record label executive, Neil Bogart.)

Aucoin wanted the music side of the show to sound right to the artists, something which was often not the case with many music-based TV shows, resulting in the show being filmed in studios with the producers that the artists were familiar with. “Flipside” lasted but 13 episodes. A key figure who entered Aucoin's life at this time was Sean Delaney, who had been working as a musical waiter in the East Village (8 ). The two would remain partners throughout much of the '70s.

However, it would be those involved in "Flipside" who would become central to KISS' heyday as part of Rock Steady: Aucoin, associate producer Joyce Biawitz (who became KISS' co-manager, would marry Neil Bogart and later co-manage Donna Summer), and producer Howard Marks (later KISS’ business manager). After dealing with the politics of TV executives who thought that rock and contemporary musicians had no place on television, Aucoin decided to try his hand in the music industry, drawing upon his ability to manage musical talent, his directorial background and a sharpening business acumen.

Gene Simmons had noted Aucoin’s name from the NBC broadcasts of “Flipside” and was contacting him with "weekly bulletins." "My only thought about it, from looking at the pictures, was that they'd be a terrific performing band," joked Aucoin. (1)

It would be another record executive who invited Aucoin to go to a KISS showcase at the Hotel Diplomat. Following that show, Aucoin famously offered the band 30 days to get them a contract or he would walk away.

To his credit, Aucoin saw a potential right away, a potential for big things. "When I met Gene and Paul, I said, 'If we're going to do it, if you're interesting in working hard and making this a major, major group, then I'd be willing to put as much as I can behind it,'" he said. (2)

The band, in turn, was also impressed with both Aucoin's spirit and his professional profile.

"Back then, I knew that the manager of KISS would have to be a multimedia person," said Simmons. "[KISS] was going to be a multimedia group... So Bill's television and film background were crucial." (2)

"I remember the first thing I asked him was, 'Why do you want to do this? What's in it for you?'" recalled Stanley. "He said, 'I've never done this before and I want to put together the kind of band that's gonna be the biggest band in the world.'" Peter Criss was also convinced: "I liked him right away. When I met him, I was impressed. I felt he was honest." (2)

Aucoin made good on his promise and got the band signed to the Neil Bogart's fledgling Casablanca Records, and then started the work of honing the rough edges around the band. He immediately took to building on the basic KISS idea and made them wear full unified white-face makeup designs, where previously each band member had been doing their own thing visually. This separated the band from the New York Dolls' visual style of glam, and the direction was an obvious spin-off from Aucoin’s background as a TV producer/director. He also drew upon his background skills to videotape the band rehearsing and then playback the results so that the band could see how they looked when performing. This was an important element of refining the KISS show, and allowed them to be better directed and choreographed.

Aucoin was also responsible for the several of the band's key gimmicks, notably the fire-breathing. "To put it bluntly, the four of us created the makeup, the logo, the tunes, and the look and feel of KISS," said Simmons. "But it was Bill who took it all the way." (2)

But, again visually, Aucoin was already ahead of the game in presenting the band with their first lighted stage logo, to replace their tattered spider-web backdrop, at their first professional show, opening for Iggy Pop and Blue Oyster Cult on Dec. 31, 1973. This set the stage for Aucoin's full investment and commitment to the band.

As another example of his management skill-set, Aucoin saw the importance of financial equality among the band members. "I approached the guys and said, 'We all agree that we're going to be a major act, and that means a lot of money. In the long run, the difference between one person making a few thousand or even a few hundred thousand dollars is not going to mean anything. I don't want you to break up over money.... Let's make our arrangements so unified that nothing can destroy." (2)

Early tours were designed to expose the band to as wide a rock audience as possible. But KISS, with its one-of-a-kind stage show and theatrics, began encountering problems from the get-go. "We used to have fights with Blue Oyster Cult and Black Sabbath," said Aucoin. "They just couldn't believe it, 'What is this act that's opening up for us? This makeup rock and roll band!'" (4)

In another testament to his gambling proclivities, it has been suggested that Aucoin put a quarter of a million dollars of his own money into KISS during these crucial formative years. "Bill Aucoin had used his American Express credit card to push the band for the first like 18 months to two years of their career," said producer/engineer Eddie Kramer. (4)

"I had never put more than about $100 on my American Express card," remembered Aucoin. "And I'll never forget getting a call from American Express and they said, "Mr. Aucoin, you've spent $25,000 this month. Do you expect to pay it?' (laughs) And of course I said, 'Absolutely, no question about it. I'm gonna pay it.' Knowing there wasn't a chance!" (4)

With Aucoin putting up his own money, and sales of KISS' first trio of albums failing to light up the charts, financial situations had turned dire for not only him, but the band and Casablanca Records. For 1975's "Dressed To Kill" album cover photo shoot, there wasn't even enough of a budget for wardrobe rental, as KISS had to borrow four of Aucoin's suits for the shoot.

"We didn't have any money. In fact, I couldn't afford rent," said Aucoin. "Fortunately, I lived in a house where the landlady was a creative person and so she understood. So she just let it slide for a while. My friends said I was nuts because I managed a group wearing makeup." (2)

It was during this time that Aucoin would assume the role of sole manager of the group, as he had been sharing managing duties with Joyce Biawitz, who was becoming involved with future husband Neil Bogart. "Joyce met Neil on 'Flipside' and she fell in love with him," recalled Aucoin. "Neil said, 'You come and live with me and I'll marry you.' Neil told me, 'Joyce is leaving the company. I want you to buy her out.' And I came up with a figure." (1)

All the while, there had been an idea brewing for a KISS live album, which would be a souvenir of the explosive KISS concert experience. On paper, it seemed like a good idea, but it was also a cost-cutting one. "We really knew that if we could capture the live performance somehow, it could be a good album," said Aucoin. "Plus it was a lot cheaper than being in the studio for a couple of months." (4)

As both the label and KISS seemed to be teetering on the brink of abject financial ruin, "Alive!" was released Sept. 10, 1975, and became the key cog in consummating Aucoin's vision. Produced by Kramer, the album exploded past platinum status and reached a high point of No. 9 on the Billboard 200 album chart, backed by the strength of a hit radio single in the live version of "Rock And Roll All Nite." Perhaps most importantly, "Alive!" was more than just music. It resonated the idea behind KISS with millions of fans: the show, the makeup, the characters, the mystique, the fun -- all housed within a double-vinyl set and gatefold cover, and containing a color booklet and hand-penned letters from the band.

"The band had fashioned an image that would bond them with their fans' desires and dreams. Shrewdly crafting this image was the domain of Bill Aucoin and Howard Marks Advertising," recalled Chris Lendt, an employee with Glickman/Marks Management. (3)
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