47 Years Of Flaming Guitars, Levitating Drums & Pyro: KISS Touring Nears The End

Cover of Pollstar 2/17/2020
Keith Leroux

KISS plays Golden 1 Center in Sacramento, Calif., in February 2019.

A couple of restless kids from Queens, N.Y., realized they weren’t getting what they wanted from the bands they were seeing in concert and instead created their own in 1972. The band, Wicked Lester, even got a look from Epic Records, which signed the group but shelved its album debut. 

A year later, and long before “rebranding” came into the lexicon, schoolmates Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley auditioned a drummer named Peter Criss and guitarist Ace Frehley and reimagined themselves as a fire-breathing, blood-spitting, ass-kicking, blowing-shit-up, rock ‘n’ roll band. It isn’t a case of arrested development or male adolescent fantasy – it’s KISS
Today, after some 10,000 shows, at least $1 billion in tickets and merchandise sold, according to manager Doc McGhee, countless tons of pyro exploded and possibly the first and one of the biggest official fan clubs known to man in the KISS Army, the band embarked last year on its “End Of The Road” tour, which is to close its 2020 leg Oct. 2. Time will tell what the band may add between then and its final blowout July 17, 2021 in New York City. The final venue hasn’t yet been announced, but the team hints the final month will be a party for the ages with several possible sites in the mix.
“It’s very clear, we’re the hardest working band, period,” the mighty, self-assured “Demon” that is Simmons tells Pollstar. “If you put on dragon boots that weigh about 10 pounds, break your back for two hours flying through the air and stuff, you wouldn’t last a half-hour. … Now I’m 70; I look great. I work out every day and get the heart pumping because we don’t want to do a paint-by-numbers rock show. Now’s a good time to go out on top and with a tug at the heart and a lump in the throat for me.”

It’s Alive!
Michael Putland / Getty Images
– It’s Alive!
“When you’re down in the dumps, and you need something to bring you up, there’s only one thing that’s gonna do it the way you want it” – Paul Stanley, “Cold Gin” intro from KISS Alive!
Stanley, the “Starchild,” yin to Simmons’ yang, is a bit more reflective about the final tour. “I hate to use the word closure, because there will never be closure,” he says. 
“KISS would exist with or without our blessing. It’s so much a part of culture at this point there’s no way it could really stop. But in terms of touring, it’s certainly a chance for us to have a victory lap and celebration with the people who have made this possible and also the people who have championed us against all kinds of odds.”
 And sometimes those odds were heavily weighted against them. One early review in particular stood out for Simmons. Critic Patrick McDonald, writing for a now-defunct Seattle publication, wrote in 1974: “I hope the four guys who make up the group, whose names don’t matter, are putting money away for the future. The near future, because KISS won’t be around long.”
Funny how things work out. And Simmons hasn’t forgotten, tweeting about the review 44 years later. 

Me & The Boys Are Playing All Night:
Igor Vidyashev
– Me & The Boys Are Playing All Night:
KISS changed the game of concert production with special effects, video and enough pyro to fill 16 trucks on its current “The End Of The Road” tour.
The screed, according to Ultimate Classic Rock, also called KISS  “a very flashy glitter band that tries to make up in theatrics what it lacks musically” with songs “strictly on the moron level … made up of a series of simple chords any child could learn and lyrics that are there because they rhyme.”
“We’re actually good-natured about the whole thing,” the outspoken Simmons concedes. “We’re blessed to have had a good ride. When you’ve had a good ride and the time of your life, what people are saying on the ground doesn’t mean anything. Not everybody liked Jesus, either. You’ll never be able to have everybody love you. To thine own self be true, do the best you can, have pride, and be true to your own morals, ethics and beliefs. Otherwise you become somebody else’s hand puppet with their hand up your ass.”

KISS has certainly had the last laugh. Since then, the band has played virtually every market in the U.S. and every corner of the globe, according to Doc McGhee of McGhee Entertainment, the band’s manager since 1995. As proof of the band’s staying power, even though its biggest radio hits are some 40 years behind them, KISS is averaging 12,046 tickets sold per show for an average gross of more than $1.2 million reported to Pollstar on “The End Of The Road” caravan.

The Unmasked:
Pete Still / Redferns
– The Unmasked:
Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of KISS perform at Wembley Arena in London Oct. 23, 1983, during the “Lick It Up” tour, the first of the band’s “unmasked” phase. Manager Doc McGhee refused to discuss working with them until they agreed to put the makeup back on.

Over the years, Criss (“The Catman”) and Frehley (“The Spaceman”) departed the band, and for the last 17 years the band has comprised Simmons, Stanley, lead guitarist Tommy Thayer and drummer Eric Singer. In addition to personnel changes, KISS toyed with “unmasking” – performing without makeup – beginning in 1983. McGhee told them he wouldn’t manage them without the makeup. 

”I asked Gene if they were going to put the makeup back on and, when he didn’t answer, I said, ‘I’ll be right over,’” McGhee says of the beginning of his managerial tenure with KISS.

Mitch Rose, CAA’s co-head of contemporary music, has been with the band for about 35 years – even before the agency formally established a music department. 
“The show has just gotten louder, brighter, more over the top than it’s ever been, which is exactly what KISS fans want,” Rose says. “KISS was revolutionary in how a concert was presented, and they brought theater to the concert. They brought pyro, they brought explosions, I can’t say they were the first but they were among the first to weave those elements into the show.”
Jay Gilbert
Gene Simmons rocks out with his tongue out, spitting blood and entertaining the masses as KISS prepares to wind down its touring career. But not to fear: he and the KISS team insist there’s much more to come after the final tour date.

Rose has been instrumental in booking and routing a farewell tour that aims to hit all the bases. 
“I think the interesting thing about farewell tours is people see they are still on the road two years later since there’s a lot of cities in the world and you can’t do them in one year,” he says. “We are doing a lot of primary markets but we are also doing a lot of secondary and tertiary markets and where people want KISS, we will go. But that’s always been their touring philosophy.”
“We’ve made sure that this show is the greatest one we’ve done and the most all-encompassing in terms of songs, song selection, visuals,” Stanley says of the final caravan. “I think it’s safe to say that any band with money can put on a KISS show, and many do. But you can’t be KISS.”
Scott Legato
– Firehouse:
Tommy “The Spaceman” Thayer unleashes a torrent of sparks as his guitar transforms into a flamethrower during a KISS show at Detroit’s Cobo Hall, now known as TCF Center, in 2009.

Live Nation President of Talent/Touring Rick Franks marvels at the current show. “They blow more stuff up than anyone on the planet. It’s the craziest, most awesome show you can ever imagine. 

“There’s never a point you can ever get bored at a KISS show because there’s just so much going on in so many different ways. It’s wild.”
Just how much “stuff” does KISS blow up? It’s probably close to a battalion’s worth of ordnance. 
Each show requires 1,300 pieces of pyro including gerbs, comets, mines, flash trays, SPD bullet hits, mortar hits, jets, waterfalls, sparkle cannons, flash reports, cannon simulators and more, according to production manager Robert Long. KISS blew up more than 13,000 pounds of pyro in 2019 alone. 
Setting it all off requires roughly 100 liters of Isopar and more than 21,000 grams of multi-gas fuel, Long says, and each show also uses more than 2,250 pounds of liquid Co2, roughly 800 pounds of dry ice and 30 liters of fog fluid.
In Cold Blood:
Igor Vidyashev
– In Cold Blood:
Gene Simmons spits blood one of the final times as KISS heads to “The End Of The Road” with a tour that is booked through October, but won’t officially end until a blowout finale in New York City July 17, 2021.
McGhee has been with the band some 25 years and has also managed Bon Jovi, Mötley Crüe, Scorpions and, briefly, Guns N’ Roses.
“After over 40 some years of touring, it’s amazing the number of shows we’re doing,” McGhee says. “There’s not a lot of huge hits. We had a lot of fun and a lot of songs and musical lyrics that people loved. What they weren’t was some kind of red-carpet band. They weren’t going to win the Nobel Peace Prize. They weren’t going to get anointed by the Queen. They were going to get kicked out of town because they were ‘Satan worshippers’ and a ‘mothers, lock up your daughters’ thing.”
Ah, yes. The “Knights In Satanic Service” rumor. The stylized logo that some conspiracy theorists interpreted as supposedly promoting National Socialism. McGhee brushes that off, pointing out that “I have two Jewish guys here, and people are saying ‘Look at the SS logo’ in the KISS logo. None of that ever happened. 
“KISS was, ‘Let’s party, have a great time. You can be whatever you want to be, and stand up for yourself,” McGhee says. “They meant it and went out there and played it. They didn’t talk about ‘kill your mother’ and how pissed-off they were. They talked about what they did, which was party and have a great time. Life’s short.” 

Heaven Is On Fire:
Getty Images
– Heaven Is On Fire:
Gene Simmons adds fire-eating to the KISS repertoire at Calderone Theater in New York in 1975.
Forming with original members Simmons, Stanley, Criss and Frehley in 1973, KISS has released 20 studio albums, 11 live discs, 14 compilations and greatest hits packages and nine boxed sets. After 1974’s impressive, eponymous debut, the band broke through in a big way with 1975’s classic, double-disc live album, Alive! that spawned the anthemic hit “Rock And Roll All Nite.” That was followed by platinum-sellers Destroyer, which contained the two-sided single with hits “Beth” and “Detroit Rock City,” Rock And Roll Over and Love Gun. 
By this time, KISS developed a massive stage production including generous amounts of pyro, confetti, video presentations, ever more elaborate costumes, and stage antics unrivaled to this day. Effects including spitting blood and a flame-throwing guitar joined the most famous tongue in rock (rivaled only by The Rolling Stones’ logo) to became KISS trademarks. 
The KISS Army was well on its way to recruiting more than 1 million foot soldiers over the years, according to Epic Rights chief Dell Furano, who has handled the band’s merchandising, marketing and fan club relations since 1980. Furano credits KISS with being the originators of the now-ubiquitous classic black concert T-shirt, considered the gold standard of band merch across the industry and accounting for about 80% of at-show merch sales.  

Igor Vidyashev
– Strutter:
Paul Stanley dons the trademark 10-pound KISS platform boots and hoists his smashed guitar as rock’s high priests of bombast end another show on the “End Of The Road” tour.
“Prior to the late ‘70s, merchandise wasn’t really considered ‘cool,’” Furano says. Simmons, the consummate rock ‘n’ roll capitalist, is all too happy to elaborate. “We didn’t care about what was cool or what was not. We just wanted to own, and therefore reap the rewards of, anything we created,” he says. “We trademarked our faces before anybody even knew what that meant. In the Library of Congress, the only four faces of human beings are the KISS faces. You can’t get within 1,000 yards of our faces without paying an entrance fee.
“So everything from our faces to our songs, before it was cool, we owned. We started the fan club because we wanted that,” Simmons continues. “We started doing T-shirts and belt buckles and condoms and caskets and all that because we wanted to do it, not because it was cool. We were lambasted for it. But eventually, even the Grateful Dead had Cherry Garcia ice cream, for fuck’s sake.”
Stanley says the band’s ability to listen not only to its team but to its fans is a key element of its success. “In terms of merchandising, people have always said we’re geniuses. But the fact of the matter is, the only thing I would take credit for is that we listened. 
“We’ve never put out products on a whim, even from the very beginning when we started doing T-shirts, which was fairly unheard of, and belt buckles,” Stanley continues. “It was because fans wanted to align themselves with us in a way that was almost like wearing a uniform. That was really the start of it but, to this day, any merchandise that we put out is based on feedback. When we plan a tour, we always work on not what is best for us in terms of the financial or economic end. If the lowest of expectations isn’t appealing to us, then we don’t do it. We know before a tour happens what the bottom line is, even in the worst case scenario.” 

Beware Of Axe-Wielding Demon:
– Beware Of Axe-Wielding Demon:
Gene Simmons cradles his metallic axe backstage at a 2018 show, as only a proud demon could.
The KISS team is the first to say the band has never been about producing high art; it’s about entertainment and giving the fans what they want. And KISS fans are among the most loyal in the world, with shows drawing three generations and the band reciprocating with generous meet-and-greets and no hesitation about playing even the smallest markets even though they could route the biggest venues in major markets and call it a day.
“We’ve played Dawson’s Creek at mile marker one on the Alaskan Highway,” McGhee says, laughing, but quite serious about the band’s dedication to its fans. “Those guys would play a pay toilet and use their own change if it meant connecting with a fan.”
Being able to make a connection with fans is of utmost importance to KISS and its team. McGhee says he hangs out with fans during 
every show and listens not for what makes them happy, but what doesn’t. 
“We created the template that a lot of bands try to follow now,” Stanley says of fan engagement. “In many ways, we were the wakeup call to audiences as to what they should not accept, which is less than the best.
“When we came on the scene there was a tremendous amount of apathy and even disrespect by bands for the people who were buying tickets. In essence, I feel like I came out of the audience, came onstage and kicked whoever was onstage off of it, and said, ‘Let me show you the way it should be done.’ The way we’ve always tried to be is the band we never saw. With that in mind, we have a tremendous sense of gratitude and also a sense of responsibility to the fans to deliver what we’ve fought for over the years and what they’ve embraced.” 
Psycho Circus:
Igor Vidyashev
– Psycho Circus:
The disembodied face of The Demon floats over the rest of KISS while Gene Simmons rises to the top.
Franks explains that KISS has mastered not only the art of staging the kind of show that makes them happy, but how to do it most effectively for the fans and for themselves.
“Gene and Paul both are two of the smartest, veteran music guys there are,” Franks says. “They’ve done this for 40 years on a worldwide basis, so there’s no surprises for them. They understand every aspect of it. 
“Just from a financial standpoint, so many artists don’t really understand how much it costs to really do the show and how we build and settle a show. But these guys know everything and exactly what has to be done. It’s really helpful as a touring partner to make this stuff even better. We’re all about being in the KISS business and couldn’t be any more respectful of these guys.”
Being astute businessmen doesn’t mean KISS is necessarily cheap, at least not where its stage show is concerned. The band travels with about 30 vehicles – 20 trucks, and about 10 other vehicles including crew buses and merchandise trucks. It sets off an inordinate amount of pyro and confetti over the course of a show, and the production includes band members flying across arenas. It’s a tall order.
Production Manager Robert Long started his career with KISS as Stanley’s guitar tech when he was 23 years old. He moved into production, working with the band on and off for decades, and regularly since 2009. He also works with Mötley Crüe and several other bands. 
He says he’s currently running 16 trucks carrying nothing but production for “The End of The Road.” 
KISS uses several vendors to supply the firepower, including gear from MagicFX, Club Cannon, Artistry in Motion, and LOOK Solutions. It employs a state of the art, proprietary dry ice machine developed inhouse by ffp-fx, along with a flame system custom built for KISS in Berlin.
Lightwave International provides laser effects while Christie Lites supplies the elaborate lighting that is a key component of any KISS show. 
It all takes six to eight hours to load into a venue and two and a half  hours to load out, making for a long day for Long and his crew, without a doubt the unsung heroes of the KISS team.
Merchandise sales helps offset some of that cost. Furano says some shows average per-head sales up to $60 to $80, compared with a typical per head of $7 to $10 for a concert by mere mortals. Another popular merch item is the collectible lithograph poster, and KISS-branded tote bags to carry all that bounty home from the show. 
“People used to say, ‘You’re sellouts’ and I’d say, ‘That’s right, bitch, every night,’” Simmons says. To some, “The Demon” might sound somewhat defensive until he explains his reasoning. 

“You have a big KISS show that costs an enormous amount of money. But the imagery of KISS has surpassed everything. I know it often sounds like I’m boasting, but the four faces of KISS are the most recognized faces on Earth. People aren’t sure how many faces are on Mount Rushmore or who they are. But they know the four faces of KISS.”
Rose echoes other members of the KISS team about what their association with the band has meant to him.
“It’s been one of the joys, one of the best things in my career with KISS, is they keep the same level of excellence and standards for their fans that they have over the life of their career,” he says. “They never compromise, they always have the fan first and foremost in mind when deciding when to tour, what the ticket prices are, what the show should be, and every element is geared toward the fans.

Hasta La Vista:
Keith Leroux
– Hasta La Vista:
The road may not go on forever, but the party never ends for Gene Simmons, Eric Singer, Paul Stanley and Tommy Thayer of KISS, which will end its touring career in July, 2021.
“If you go to a show and see the meet and greets, you’ll see the joy of people, adults aged 30 to even in their 80s, in meeting them. You can’t replicate that connection – KISS is at the top of connection and loyalty of a fan base.” 
Franks adds, “It’s been tremendous. I’ve been with them around the world, we’re in business in Europe, the U.K., South America, you name it. It’s the traveling circus. It’s a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey of a rock show. 
“It’s a giant thing to move from city to city. We blow more stuff up than anyone. The show is more entertaining than anything in show business. The KISS logo is such a branded logo that when you see it, you immediately know what you’re getting. There’s no secret. It’s KISS.”