28 years ago on this day in KISStory, a bewildering moment arrived for rock and metal fans that for many seemed to have come out of nowhere. KISS had announced they were unmasking, dropping the make-up, costumes, and personae they had previously “worn” for ten years, and moving forward as an “unmasked” band.
The band officially unmasked on MTV (see video below), and the announcement sent shockwaves through the metalhead communities at the time, which was the beginning that this decision was a good move by the band. Up until this stage, KISS enjoyed the height of their career in the 1970s, and as they journeyed into the earlier 1980s, things were beginning to look somewhat dire for the band.
In the space of two years, from 1980 to 1982, KISS lost two of their original members, Ace Frehley and Peter Criss, who stepped down from KISS or were fired depending upon whose side of the story you wish to believe. Drummer Eric Carr was a solid addition to their line-up, and consolidated the hard rock foundation of the band right up until his passing in 1991.
On the other hand, Vinnie Vincent stepped in to replace Ace Frehley with prodigious guitar talent of his own, but with an ego problem that would cause mayhem for KISS and spawn a sliding turnstile of guitarists and changing line-ups for years to come.
The early 1980s had been a difficult time for KISS –- and could well have been their demise. While 1980’s Unmasked was HUGE in Australia and saw them with a level of fame down under that exceeded well beyond The Beatles, at home in the USA, the album was a disaster. While previous album Dynasty did fairly well, fans were after a return to the hard rock/metal feel of the band – and instead they received Unmasked, which could well have been titled “Dynasty II: The Inferior And Watered-Down Disco Sequel“.
Coupled with the misleading album title (the band continued with their make-up, outfits, and personae), fans began moving away from KISS. The bombshell that made matters worse for them was their next follow-up album.
Several were initially excited. The word was that Bob Ezrin (producer of one of KISS’ most popular albums, Destroyer) was brought on board to help the band deliver an album that was promised to be a return to their Rock N’ Roll sound. The ideas evolved into a concept album that was a disaster for them: Music From The Elder, released in 1981, while appreciated by fans in hindsight, was not the album fans were promised. The album fell flat, sold poorly, marked the first time KISS did not go out on tour to promote an album, and was the only album up until that point not certified by the RIAA (not even Gold).
Realizing their mistake, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley enlisted Michael James Jackson as producer for their next album. The album was a complete kick-in-the-ass and a total return to form. 1982’s Creatures Of The Night continues to be a fan-favorite to this day, containing songs such as “I Love It Loud,” “I Still Love You,” and “War Machine.”
But it wasn’t enough. While the album peaked at #22 on the charts, its reputation was affected by KISS’ previous releases. Despite their multi-platinum successes of the Seventies, Creatures Of The Night was only certified Gold by the RIAA. Coupled with that was the poor results and attendances all through the 1982 U.S. Tour (later renamed the 1983 10th Anniversary Tour in an attempt to get more people at shows). Despite closing the tour with a massive 100,000-plus attended show in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, on the whole the album release and tour for Creatures Of The Night was underwhelming and disappointing to the band.
At that point, transformation was most definitely needed. Simmons and Stanley decided to remove the make-up element from KISS completely, in the hope that it would give the band a fresh start.
And it did.
The first album from ‘Unmasked KISS’ was 1983’s Lick It Up. Despite the fact that some fans would point to Creatures of the Night being a better album than Lick It Up, the metrics disagreed. The album peaked at #24 in the U.S. Billboard charts, but sold well enough to be certified Platinum by the RIAA. It was the band’s first platinum album since 1979’s Dynasty. While it was a sign that their decision to remove the make-up was a good move forward, it was also an indication of the public perception of the band. Paul Stanley had often spoken various times about how he felt Creatures Of The Night was a better album and that people were “listening with their eyes.”
The successful trend would continue for KISS with consequent releases Animalize (1984), which would have the massive hit “Heaven’s On Fire”, and Asylum (1985). 1987’s Crazy Nights would also do well, but significantly explode successfully in the UK and in Japan. While the Eighties never saw KISS reach the pinnacle they’d touched in 1977 and 1978, the decision to remove the make-up in 1983 provided them with enough direction and success to continue forward. If they had decided to leave the make-up on at the time, it may have been the conclusion of the band at that time.
The unmasking of the band was publicly done on MTV (see video below) on September 18, 1983, to coincide with the release of Lick It Up. And while it was the first “official” time KISS had been seen without make-up, it certainly was not the first.
In many ways, it’s amazing that they never resurfaced during the band’s peak when paparazzi intended to capture even the slightest glimpse of KISS members without their make-up. It’s possible that by the time KISS began reaching their zenith in 1977, that the rock journalists associated with Creem had it in their interest to keep the mystique going to help sell more magazines.
In a lot of ways, it feels bizarre looking back at the 1983 unmasking of KISS. I became a KISS fan in 1987 with the release of Crazy Nights, so I was on board with the band during the non-makeup era. But now, as we see the band perform with their personae before a live audience; but openly public without the make-up, it feels weird looking back and realizing how big of a deal it was to fans at the time that KISS were finally unveiled.
But it was a big deal – to KISS and to the fans. It helped ensure their continued success; and at the same time, saw them being embraced by fans of other bands that were hugely popular during the Eighties, including Motley Crue, W.A.S.P., Bon Jovi, Whitesnake, Ratt, Dokken, and many more.
The official unmasking of KISS on MTV in 1983 is a substantial moment in KISStory, remembered well by many fans to this day. It marked the beginning of a chapter for the band that is often overlooked in retrospect, but highly significant in continuing their longevity.
Currently, KISS still continues touring and releasing an unending onslaught of merchandising. 2011 marks the 38th anniversary of the band. While Gene Simmons continues his work on the Gene Simmons Family Jewels television series, KISS is currently working on their follow-up to 2009’s Sonic Boom. The new album has been entitled Monster, has been described as sounding like a cross between three of KISS’ most popular albums among devotees (Destroyer, Revenge, and Sonic Boom), and is anticipated to be released in January 2012.
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