Kiss: The Beginning
The record was going nowhere.
Wicked Lester had been blessed, in many ways, by the times. Somehow, with almost no live performances under their belt and no management to speak of, the band were able to get signed by a major label on the strength of a demo. Only in the ’70s, right? But blessed as they were, the band were squandering the opportunity.
The first problem to solve was the replacement of guitarist Stephen Coronel, whom Epic had deemed unsuitable. Firing a bandmate, fortunately, wasn’t a problem for the band’s bassist, Gene Klein, and rhythm guitarist, Stanley Eisen. In fact, firing band mates would become a bit of a habit for the duo in subsequent years, better known by their adopted stage names of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley.
So, Coronel was out and session musician Ron Leejack (whose chief previous credit was Cactus) was in. Stylistically, Leejack was far enough away from Coronel that the band decided to scrap the master tracks from their demo and re-do everything. But even that was proving to be a bit of a train wreck. For one thing, the group and the label had a spotty recording schedule, ultimately taking a year to get their collective acts together to complete the record. In addition – and this was, indeed, the root of the problem – the record was a mess. It was an unfocused patchwork of pop, folk-rock and rock. And even when the band finally finished the album in late 1972, they didn’t feel too great about it. Certainly, Gene and Paul didn’t think much of the record. Neither did Epic’s A&R director, Don Ellis, who refused to release it. Almost immediately thereafter, Wicked Lester sought and were granted a release from their contract.
At this point, Simmons and Stanley decided that the only way to move forward was to burn everything else down. They parted ways with the rest of the band and set out to find a more stylistically and stylishly cohesive unit. Stylistically, they were looking for a more stripped-down, hard rock sound. Stylishly, they were looking for a unified look… though they hadn’t quite worked that part out yet.
They started their quest by hiring a drummer from the Rolling Stone classifieds, who had advertised, “EXPD. ROCK & roll drummer looking for orig. grp. doing soft & hard music. Peter, Brooklyn.” Peter from Brooklyn was, of course, Peter Criss. The veteran Criss was an immediate upgrade in musicianship from the previous drummer, Tony Zarrella. Now a trio, the updated Wicked Lester worked tirelessly to write music and hone their sound. By November 1972, they were confident enough to approach Ellis for an audition. Ellis granted the audition but, ultimately, turned the group down… perhaps aided in his decision by Criss’ brother, who drunkenly vomited on the record exec as he was leaving.
In December 1972, the group placed an ad in the Village Voice, stating, “LEAD GUITARIST WANTED with Flash and Ability. Album Out Shortly. No time wasters please.” Among the many responses was a guy from the Bronx who showed up to the audition at the Lower East Side’s Live Bait Bar wearing non-matching sneakers. As spacey as he looked, the guy could play. And so, they asked Paul Frehley – who had acquired the nickname “Ace” in high school – to join the band.
With a few weeks of rehearsals under the group’s collective belt, Simmons set out to get the band some bookings, having already parted ways with their new manager, Lew Linet, and having finally jettisoned the name Wicked Lester. In its place was a moniker much simpler, with perhaps a touch of glam-stamped camp to it: KISS. The name was inspired by one of Criss’ previous bands, Lips. Stanley gets the credit for coining the name, while it was Frehley who created the now-familiar logo, with the S’s so eerily reminiscent of Nazi SS regalia.
Simmons put together a press kit for the newly christened group during his day job at the Puerto Rican Interagency Council. Criss got a friend in the printing business to help with the invites. But they still lacked a stage.
Finally, a cold call to a club in Queens called the Popcorn Club and some fast talking by Simmons scored the group a three-night stand (two sets a night) at the venue, from January 30 through February 1, for a flat fee of $150. The first night of the stand gave almost no portent of the massive success to come. The group played to three people during their first set and no more than 10 over the course of the evening. The next two days were hardly better.
During the performances, one other crucial component was lacking (besides an audience). While the music very quickly melded into that now-familiar KISS ’70s sound, the look – specifically, the makeup – was nowhere in sight. It would, however, make its debut five weeks later. Just a few weeks after that, the band would record a five-song demo that would start their meteoric rise to the top of rock stardom. Considering how long it took their previous band to make its half-hearted leap at the brass ring, KISS’s ascent was not unlike the lightning in their logo.