This is a “Nerd Voices” contributor piece from Nerdbot reader Jonathan Meisner. Follow him on Twitter where you can Rock and Roll all Night and pop culture every day.
We’ve all seen them throughout the years. The Beatles. Led Zeppelin. The Rolling Stones.
Hey, love them or hate them, those five ladies took the world by storm in the late 90’s and made a mess-ton more money than I’ll ever see.
One thing these groups have in common, aside from their enormous success and equally enormous bank accounts are that they all made a movie! The Beatles had A Hard Day’s Night (among others). Led Zeppelin had The Song Remains the Same. And Spice Girls had Spice World.
I’m telling you, that Spice World was a masterpiece.
But today, we’re going to talk about THE supergroup. The only one that matters. The only one bold enough to declare themselves “The Hottest Band in the World”.
I’m talking about KISS.
In 1978, KISS could arguably be called the biggest band in the world. Starting off with meager beginnings in early 70’s New York, Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss and Ace Frehley struggled to find success, releasing albums in quick succession with their 7” leather heels, fire, makeup, and enough blood to make Elizabeth Bathory raise an eyebrow.
But not all endeavors were strictly about the music. Co-founder and bassist Gene Simmons was never shy about his visions for the band, specifically in regard to the two M’s: Money and Merchandise. And merchandise was had. But not all of it was…well…good. And just because video cameras exist, doesn’t mean a band has an automatic right to film a movie. And KISS taught us this lesson well.
Too, too well.
4) All the Merch in the Effing Room
By 1978, shortly after the band’s smash success with their 1975 Alive! album, there were dolls, pinball machines, portable radios, and more. Marvel even got in on the act and published a KISS comic book. This made sense, not only because of Gene’s obsessive love for comic books, but because the four personas of The Demon, Starchild, Catman, and Spaceman were hugely larger than life. (That and Fan Fiction didn’t exist yet).
The boys even showed up at the printing plant and poured vials of their own blood into the red ink. Hell, with all the drugs and booze Ace was swallowing and all the blood from Gene’s stage act, plus the 5,000 women he’s claimed to bed, who knows what else contaminated that ink pool.
I mean, he is the Demon after all, no time for manners and decorum.
3) Getting Weird: KISS Makes the Phantom of the Park
By now KISS were mega-stars. Where could they go from here? It would be a few more years before the KISS Kondoms and KISS Kasket would break onto the market (I mean, it was the 70s. KISS fans weren’t dying yet and no one used kondoms, right?)
Therefore, the next logical step was a movie.
The group’s manager Bill Aucoin brokered the idea, and animation studio Hanna Barbera was suckered into producing KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park, one of the greatest bad movies ever to be farted into existence.
Paul Stanley claims the film was pitched to him as “A Hard Day’s Night Meets Star Wars”. In hindsight I’d much rather we had got A Hard Days Night Meets Star Wars. Hell, at this rate I would have taken A Hard Day’s Night meets The Star Wars Holiday Special.
Still though, the concept seemed like a no-brainer: four hotter than hell mythical rock stars in some type of cinematic adventure? Maybe Ace being the Spaceman and Paul being the Starchild they pilot some sort of badass spaceship and hurtle through the cosmos encountering and battling different alien races, while recruiting the Demon and the Catman along the way. Or Gene, The God of Thunder ruling over a Valhalla or Hades type realm and we’re introduced to fantastic beasts and toga-clad ladies.
We’ve got nothing to lose!
I remember being an early teen walking through a local flea market where I unearthed a VHS copy of the film for $2.00. For a young KISS junkie just a year or two into the fandom, this was like striking Black Diamonds! Immediately, a line from the song “Christine Sixteen” popped into my head, and when I saw you, cassette…when I saw it I knew, I knew, I’ve just got to have you, I’ve just got to have you!
Okay, okay, I’ll stop.
I had already been collecting anything KISS related I could get my hands on. I had all their albums on cassette (yes cassette, I’m that old), except for “Hot in the Shade”, which I had on CD for mysterious reasons I can’t recall. I had every magazine that featured them on the cover, I had posters, video cassettes, anything KISS related.
However, being this was in the age just prior to the internet, I had no idea they had their own movie. So, when I saw that thing, I was fucking pumped. Beaming, I handed over my two bucks and walked out of that flea market with my latest prized possession. I couldn’t wait to get home, slam that bad boy into my VCR, and go on a Rocket Ride with the Hottest Band in the Land.
2) Why It Was a (Mostly) Disappointing Butt-Heap
To say I was disappointed…wouldn’t be entirely accurate. These were my heroes. Anything they dished out, I ate up. Therefore, I was willing to give the film a chance.
That said, I wanted my two bucks back.
This “movie” was boring! Absolutely nothing of any real significance happened for the first half of the film. In fact, the band doesn’t even show up until around the 45-minute mark! I was expecting my senses to be assaulted immediately! Give me fire! And then more fire! Blood! Explosions! Powers and magic! These guys are superheroes. Go be…I don’t know…super! I wanted something like what you’d see at their rock shows, but better because movies are supposed to have that little thing called a budget.
But this…this was less “Rock and Roll All Nite”, and more “Rock and no, no, NOPE All Nite”.
The making of the film was a disaster right from the beginning. The screenwriters hung out with the guys in the band to get a feel of their personalities and how they spoke. Ace being Ace, always one to joke around, only replied with a monosyllabic “Ack!”, whenever he was asked a question, so the writers figured that’s all he says? Cool! Our jobs just got 25% easier!
Only after Ace found out about his lack of dialogue and threatened to walk off, did they punch up his contributions in the script. Peter claims he was present everyday for shooting, but when watching the film his lines are clearly dubbed. And it reflects in the film: Ace and Paul were not stoked to be there. Hell, none of the band really was. It was reportedly due to the long shoots required for filming (because duh, movies don’t happen instantly), and what was becoming an obviously lackluster production.
And really, like we’re always saying here at Nerdbot: If you don’t love the art you’re making, how can you expect anyone else to get into it?
But oh wait, there is in fact a plot wormed into this sucker. Long and short, an evil inventor named Abner Devereaux feels underappreciated for his work and resents the attention KISS is receiving in preparation for their arrival to the theme park. (Totally not Six Flags in Valencia, CA. Totally not). The park manager is all “Dude, KISS is going to make us an ass load of cash”, but Devereaux is evil and has no chill. He kidnaps the female leads boyfriend, imprisoning and brainwashing him, then builds evil robot KISS lookalikes to wreak havoc around the park and pin the crimes on the real KISS.
The real McCoy’s encounter some weird werewolf looking robots, have an uninspired fight scene, get kidnapped and put into a cage by Devereaux after he gains possession of the magic talismans that give them their superpowers; which include Ace being able to shoot laser beams from his hands and teleport using a hitchhiking motion, Gene breathing fire, Paul being able to shoot a laser beam from the star over his right eye that doubles as a means of mind control and eavesdrop on conversations from afar, and Peter…does his best Six Million Dollar Man impersonation.
A quick anecdote about superpowers being channeled within some arbitrary object rather than the hero just naturally having it from the get go. I used to watch the Mighty Hercules cartoon from the 60’s as a kid. Herc had two annoying sidekicks; Newton and Toot, and he’d kick some bad guy ass every episode. But, when it came time to fight, Hercules had to put on his special ring that gave him his superhuman strength.
One, he’s Hercules, when did Hercules ever need a special ring to stomp some ass? But ok, let’s roll with it despite how asinine it sounds, then question two is why does he ever take it off? Just wear it forever! Were there showers in ancient Greece? Was he worried about dropping it down the drain when he went to place it in the soap dish? Not likely, so we loop back to question one, why bother having it? He’s Hercules!
Same applies to KISS in the film, just give them their powers, there’s no need for talismans, unless they were planning to sell them to the KISS fans after the films release, as part of clever marketing. That would have been amazing! But no…that would have required caring and foresight. The band escapes their imprisonment, frees our female lead’s boyfriend, defeat the robot clones, and play us out to “Shout It Out Loud”.
The film plays like a live action Scooby-Doo episode, and ironically enough KISS would team up with Scooby-Doo in 2015 for what I’m sure was a far better film than this was.
1) This Could Have Been Done Differently
I can understand manager Bill Aucoin’s desire to brand the group to be even bigger than just sold out arenas and platinum albums. Like I said earlier too, Gene has never seen a dollar he didn’t like. And to be fair this was a made for TV movie on a small budget ($3 million), so an epic Star Wars/Clash of the Titans sort of movie going experience was less than likely. But still…we didn’t have to get the pile of hot garbage we received instead.
This didn’t have to happen.
This was totally the moment when KISS began to lose their street cred, no argument. Phantom of the Park was tossed into the ether in October 1978. Less than seven months later in May of 1979, the heavily disco inspired Dynasty was released.
KISS? Disco? What?! NEVER!
Paul Stanley has always stated that no one is bigger than the band, and has mostly sided with Gene on the business end of things. But even he was quoted as saying; on the bands early 90’s home video Xtreme Close-Up that he was dismayed at the time when he saw families coming to shows with their children, “we’re a street band from New York”.
Phantom of the Park was the first of many missteps, followed by Dynasty, then the mediocre Unmasked which while on the cover and credited for, Peter Criss had no part of and left the band shortly thereafter. The strange concept album, Music from the Elder was released in 1981 for a film of the same name. Sales were dismal and fanfare was…nonexistent. However, the album did feature the song “The Oath”. If you agree that it too rocks your face, then we can definitely be friends for life.
The band regained some of their form with 1982’s Creatures of the Night, arguably their heaviest record since Destroyer in 1976, however Ace Frehley would leave the band shortly after to deal with substance abuse problems and embark on the well-deserved solo career he wanted since 1978 when his solo album out-sold the rest of his bandmates’. Shortly after, KISS took off the makeup and started imitating the music of the bands they inspired. Sure, there are some reasonable tracks. But ultimately, it was a dark time in KISStory.
Which is why the tanking moment can always be traced back to KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. What was meant to be a promising idea in 1978 by Hanna Barbera and Casablanca records, capitalize on the bands success and notoriety with a feature film, fractured and ultimately extinguished the “Hottest Band in the Land”. Hanna Barbera.
The same Hanna Barbera that brought us the Flintstones. In fact, I’m willing to bet good money this was all the Great Gazoo’s fault.
I’ve got $2 in my pocket as we speak.