By Brian Ives
The cover of KISS's first "unmasked" album cover, "Lick It Up."

The cover of KISS’s first “unmasked” album cover, “Lick It Up.”

It was thirty years ago today (September 13, 1983) that a nation of suburban teens and early twenty-somethings had their young minds blown by the rock and roll equivalent of the curtain being pulled on the Wizard of Oz. On that day, KISS – which was then comprised of perennials Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley, along with their late drummer Eric Carr and one-time guitarist Vinnie Vincent – showed up on MTV, and revealed their true, makeup-less faces.

Watch rock history below.

Whether or not you enjoy the group’s music, their makeup was a masterstroke of marketing. Besides helping them to stand out among the hard rock pack, it gave them a visual appeal that arguably no rockers commanded as well since the Beatles. It also helped the band sell action figures, pinball machines, comic books, and added a level of mystique to the group that few rock bands ever had. Remember, this was the pre-Photoshop era, so, most fans didn’t know what these guys actually looked like, and didn’t have computer programs to help them to figure it out.

Gene Simmons recently stopped by to promote Nothin’ To Lose: The Making Of KISS 1972-1975, but was glad to discuss the seminal decision to unmask, ironically three years after their 1980 album, Unmasked.

“The tour for Creatures Of The Night [the band’s final album in makeup] did not go well in America,” he recalled. “And yet, at the same time we were playing stadiums in South America. We played Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the largest stadium to date that we’ve played in forty years,” noting that the band still had very strong appeal overseas, even as their popularity dwindled in the States.

“So when we came back home, we had a choice to make: ‘Hey, what are we gonna do now?’ And it was Paul who said, ‘Let’s take the makeup off.’ And I said, ‘No! You can’t do that.'”

“[Paul’s response was] ‘Well, let’s prove to people that we’re a band without makeup,'” He knew — the true fans knew — the songs could hold up outside of the context that the band were known for. Simmons’ response: “‘Why? We proved to people that we’re a band with makeup, that’s what makes us different.’ I couldn’t imagine us without makeup. ”

Simmons has always been the main marketing arm of KISS, and he was the one who grew up reading comic books, so of course he was the member most invested in the makeup. They agreed to take one tentative step towards the “big reveal” to see how it went.  “We settled on the idea of doing one photo session to see what  we look like without makeup. We took lots of photos. It didn’t seem like there was a connection to KISS. Finally, one of the photos that we settled on, happened to be one where my arms were crossed, and my tongue was hanging out. And that seemed to be the connection with the soul of the band.” That photo would end up being the cover to their next album, Lick It Up

The title track of that album went on to be a fan favorite, and one of the few from the “unmasked” era to regularly make the set lists in the years since they’ve put their makeup back on. And in the video, if Gene looked a little unsure of what his new persona would be, Paul looked like he was bursting out of his war-paint-less skin, showing off his true face – and his dance moves – for the world to see.

Unfortunately, the rest of the album hasn’t quite stood the test of time. The album’s second single, “All Hell’s Breaking Loose,” found Paul faux-rapping. This was 1983, and hip-hop was still in its early era; if you weren’t part of the scene, you might mistakenly think that anyone could be an MC. Paul proved them wrong in just one verse: “Street hustler comes up to me one day/ And I’m walkin’ down the street, mindin’ my own business/ Now he looks me up and he looks me down and says/ ‘Hey man, what be this and what be that and why you gotta look like that?'”

Paul’s response? “I kinda laughed, I said ‘Hey man, I am cool, I am the breeze!'”

But you can’t argue with numbers (especially if you’re in a band with Gene Simmons), and the fans voted with their wallets. “Lick It Up sold about three times as many copies as Creatures Of The Night,” which Simmons notes is one of his personal favorite albums in the KISS cannon.  “And then the record after that, (1984’s) Animalize, sold twice as much as Lick It Up. We were back in ‘platinum land,’ selling out arenas, without makeup, for over ten years.”

If you read Nothin’ To Lose, (and Simmons will tell you that you should) you’ll quickly notice that Gene and Paul have a brotherly relationship. There’s a lot of love, and a lot of respect. And a few disagreements that last for decades: Simmons actually makes the claim that Stanley ripped off the “Detroit Rock City” riff from him. And even the most casual observer of Simmons knows that he isn’t fond of admitting that he’s wrong. About anything. But when it comes to the decision to take off the makeup, he defers to his partner.

“Well, look: everything is a work in progress, nobody knows everything,” a stunning realization, coming from him. “There were things that I was passionate about that I was wrong about, and there were things that Paul was passionate about that he was wrong about. He hated the (KISS) toys and the games.  I loved them. I was right! He believed we should do it without makeup. I was wrong, he was right.” At least for the next thirteen years.

In 1996, the band appeared at the GRAMMY Awards in full makeup, along with the late hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur, who would surely have laughed at Paul’s attempt at rapping in “All Hell’s Breaking Loose.” This would mark their return to warpaint, which they’ve stuck with ever since. But without the time away from it, it’s possible that the band would have faded into obscurity. Lick It Up made the band exciting again.

These days, the band has it both ways: they do makeup-less intimate acoustic shows for V.I.P.s before their concerts, before putting on the platform boots and kabuki and hitting the big stage. All these years later, it turns out that both Gene and Paul had it right: the band’s songs stand on their own without any stage production (well, a lot of their songs do), but when they hit an arena stage, they’re still the hottest band in the world according to anyone whose opinion counts to Simmons and Co.: their fans.


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