Saturday, February 12, 2011

Why Kiss Belong in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

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When you’re relegated to geek status in 7th grade, you look pretty hard for someone – anyone – who ranks lower on the totem pole. For me, that meant the weird kid with greasy hair who liked Kiss. Who liked Kiss in 1980? They dipped into the disco pool a year before with “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” and mass ranks of the Kiss Army deserted to join up with heavy metallers like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.

Whatever Kiss had to contribute to rock music’s legacy began and ended with two songs and a pair of albums in the mid-‘70s. “Rock and Roll All Nite” was a respectable party anthem and “Beth” was a template for the power ballad. The Alive! and Destroyer albums garnered just enough clout to land on the occasional best-of-all-time list. What else has Kiss done to deserve any serious consideration?

Click to read more about the Alive! album.

When my buddies and I argued with the greasy-haired-weird kid in the junior high school library, we weren’t even that generous. We just said Kiss sucked. They were campy has-beens who used clown makeup and pyrotechnic-filled stage shows to mask their shallow music. They whored themselves out to any product willing to “get KISSed.” Get with the times! The bands that were tearing up the charts and selling truckloads of albums were jeans-and-T-shirt arena rockers like Styx, Journey, REO Speedwagon, and Foreigner.

By 1983, even Kiss realized their irrelevancy and made a big stink about going makeup free. Their big reveal on MTV provoked a collective too-little-too-late sigh from the music community who simply felt sorry that this band didn’t know to hang it up.

So just how should history remember Kiss? By inducting them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.


I tuned into a live stream recently from the Hall’s museum regarding a discussion about the first rock and roll song. Terry Stewart, the museum’s president and CEO, commented about the frequency of fan emails whining about their favorite bands not being in the Hall. Stewart challenges them to instead make arguments for bands they don’t like. He’s never had a reply. Until now.

I am not a Kiss fan. I could rattle off hundreds of artists who I rank higher. I still own the same number of Kiss albums that I had back in 1980 – zero. Meanwhile, I have an embarrassingly large Styx collection. You won’t however, find me arguing that the band who gave the world “Mr. Roboto” belong in the Rock Hall.

However, here’s the thing – I am not a rock elitist (or am at least fighting desperately not to be). Kiss are not in the Hall because the music scholars, historians, industry bigwigs, and, well, just plain snobs, just can’t get their heads around one thing – how can you possibly take Kiss seriously?

Stripping down a classic ballad for an acoustic performance
on MTV’s ‘Unplugged’ isn’t a bad place to start.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame website states that for an act to be inducted, ingredients must be considered such as “an artist’s musical influence on other artists, length and depth of career and the body of work, innovation and superiority in style and technique, but musical excellence shall be the essential qualification of induction.”

There are impressive words and phrases here like “influence,” “depth,” “innovation,” “superiority in style and technique,” and “musical excellence.” Even diehard Kiss fans would snicker at trotting these words out to describe their beloved band.

However, these subjective terms have been injected with doses of musical snobbery. After all, if one judges “length and depth of career and body of work” how does freshman inductee Buddy Holly make the cut? He released three albums over two years before his tragic death at age 22.

You gotta wonder what Buddy Holly would look like with Kiss make up.

Kiss’ length of career and body of work trounces Buddy Holly. As close as Kiss came to death back in 1983, they fumbled their way through the eighties and had a resurgence in the ‘90s that has extended their career into a fifth decade. They have collected two dozen gold albums and amassed more than 100 million album sales worldwide.

The kicker is the word “depth.” Here’s where the whole “influence on other artists” thing plays in – you know, the idea that an act has significantly impacted the music that came after. While Holly’s presence has been felt in many an act over the years, let’s consider another Hall inductee – Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers. They came and went faster than Buddy Holly. Play word association with the average man on the street and people might note that this was the doo-wop group who sang “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” but what else can they say? Influence? Other songs? Albums? Tell me something else. Anything. Anything at all.

Sure, it was a pretty instrumental song in the development of doo-wop. But that really was about all the group did. But what have Kiss done? Well, they laid out the template for an entire genre as well – albeit perhaps the greatest blemish in the last thirty years of rock and roll – the hair band. Tight leather pants, hairy chests bursting out of open shirts, ozone-killing hairdos, and men with more mascara than cheap hookers. Motley Crue, Poison, Quiet Riot, Ratt, and countless other bands used it to land top 20 hits and ensure lines of groupies outside their hotel rooms. Nothing those bands did was new – Kiss did it all first – and bigger and better.

Without Kiss, we might have missed out on this phase of rock and roll.

Certainly no one should get kudos for THAT, should they? Let’s look at the word “innovator.” It implies that one pioneered some new guitar technique or something amazing like how to play the piano with their toes. It would be a joke to tag a band as innovators for popularizing spandex and poodle hair. However, innovation is simply about doing something first or bigger and better than anyone else. I guess that would make Kiss innovators.

Also, it is easy – really easy – to dismiss hair bands as an embarrassing trend that died about the time Kurt Cobain put on a flannel shirt for the first time. You can’t give serious merit to a movement that devoted that much attention to the length of Jon Bon Jovi’s hair or Tommy Lee’s schlong. However, something bigger than either of those things (as hard as that may be to imagine) is at play here – a transformation of how people listened to the radio and bought music. The eighties birthed mega-superstars who were masters at hijacking pop radio and convincing a bazillion adolescents to cough up their allowances for albums which would later stock the shelves of used music stores.

So, Tommy Lee, we can’t help but wonder…how big are your FEET?

Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were rock giants in the ‘70s who had multiple million-selling albums. However, their radio audiences were primarily niche markets. Album-rock radio played the hell out of them, but their appearances on the pop chart were relatively slim. By comparison, Bon Jovi and Def Leppard achieved their multi-platinum album sales through chart-topping songs and multiple hits on pop radio.

So Kiss were innovators because they carved the template which allowed rock bands to infiltrate pop radio and mall music stores like never before. Okay, but surely the phrase “superiority in style and technique” leaves Kiss’ bid for Hall enshrinement in the dust?

Let’s take a look at another Hall inductee – Madonna. What is she celebrated for? Songwriting? Vocal prowess? Guitar playing? Don’t make me laugh. Well, music is about writing, singing, or playing, isn’t it? So how the hell did she get in the Hall?

Unlike Kiss, Madonna has always gone for the understated look. Uh, right.

Self-promotion. She mastered image control. She knew how to dress to get tongues wagging and gossip columns talking. She knew how to make videos that had teens gawking and parents gasping. She was a trend setter and a dancing machine. Mostly, she knew how to sell product.

Perhaps no one has cornered the market on, well, shamelessly trying to corner the market quite like Kiss, although the Elvis Presley estate’s sell-everything-and-the-kitchen-sink marketing tactics might challenge them. The sheer volume of Kiss merchandise makes most bands look like they’re hocking homemade CDs at a single table outside a 500-seat concert venue. Check the official Kiss website and you’ll find everything from potato heads to golf club covers to diaper bags. So if you do something better than anyone else, does that make you “superior”? Uh, yeah, I guess it does.

We’ve got one phrase left: “musical excellence.” Consider the architects (and inductees) who ushered rock into commercial viability in the ‘50s. Initially Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis were mocked for their lack of technical proficiency. They weren’t “real” musicians who could sing opera, conduct an orchestra, or play trumpet in a jazz band. These guys used over-the-top, in-your-face personalities and on-stage antics like pelvis shaking, the duck walk, and downright abuse of the piano to pander to a predominantly teen audience. These guys wanted to put butts in the seats, not master Tchaikovsky.

However, these are artists who achieved excellence not through music theory, but by being “innovators” who had “influence” and were “superior” to others at what they did. Okay, we’ve covered all that, so I guess Kiss still fit the bill.

That’s it. That’s all the criteria. Kiss fans are probably pissed that I haven’t given their band enough props and the Hall committee are rolling their eyes that I have misinterpreted their high-falootin’ phrases. Throw all that out, though, and Kiss still meet the most important criteria of all. They personify rock and roll.

I mean, come on, who doesn’t want to rock and roll all night?

On VH1’s “100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock,” Kiss earned a top 10 spot. They pulled off the same feat on MTV’s “Greatest Metal Bands” list. Hit Parader named them #1 on their list of the top 100 live bands. VH1 named them one of the “100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” Surely the average person would concede that Kiss may not be a lot of things, but they are definitely rock and roll.

There is a problem, though. Being “rock and roll” is not actually part of the criteria. Yeah, that’s right. To be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame you don’t have to actually have anything to do with rock and roll. I kid you not. I could digress into another full essay here, but will stick to the point. Kiss are rock and roll. Even if we throw that out (no matter how absurd that sounds), Kiss meet the Hall’s standards. The induction committee might think otherwise, but I’ll risk not being part of their club – and side instead with the weird, greasy-haired kid from 7th grade.

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  1. Your statement that KISS's contributions to "rock music’s legacy began and ended with two songs and a pair of albums in the mid-‘70s" are absurd and that they "they fumbled their way through the eighties" are both absurd but your arguements on their behalf are well thought out and appreciated. Thanks Dave.

  2. Dave, I am a 35 year KISS fan and see your points as someone who is not. KISS, from a hit song perspective, had RNRAN in the early 70's, Beth in the mid, and IWMFLY at the end of the 70's. In the 80's they had LIU at the beginning, TAF in the mid, and Forever at the end of the 80's. Their three studio albums in the 90's are great work for every KISS fan, but from a hit single perspective they are not. For two decades KISS was able to begin and end with hits. The last two decades this has not happen, at least in the US. What is important is that KISS is now going into their fifth decade and are currently making a new record! For a KISS fan this is huge! For a non KISS fan it is another opportunity to discover new music. In the near future the RNRHOF will induct KISS in. The demand is just to great. It will be the largest amount of tickets every sold to the ceremony. And the most talked about in magazines, news, etc. All KISS has to do is sit back and wait. Dave, thanks for being a non fan!

  3. Obviously Kiss had more than just a couple hit songs and albums, but my guess is that the average fan wouldn't go much deeper (if at all) into the catalog than that. I definitely think Kiss hit their commercial low in the '80s and lost some relevancy, but had a revival in the '90s. Remember to keep all of this in mind from the perspective that I am trying to look at Kiss first from the point of view of those who would dismiss the band. In the end, though, my assessment is that the band simply cannot be dismissed and belong in the Hall.

  4. I've got to call you on the Buddy Holly thing, first off, he was inducted at the start of the R&R Hall of Fame, when they were only inducting people that had to do with the original Rock & Roll, you know, 1954-1963, and while he only released 3 albums, he has made over 100 songs, and is more important to history than Kiss will ever be, even though he only lived 2 years.

    Not saying Kiss doesn't belong there as it looks now, but I feel kinda sad they started inducting newer and newer artists as the thing went on.

  5. DJGrandPa - I am not arguing in any way that Kiss is more deserving of Hall enshrinement than Buddy Holly. I absolutely agree that Holly rightfully was inducted as one of the first artists. His role in rock and roll is pivotal. My point was simply that if "length and depth of career" are criteria, than Kiss would trounce Holly on sheer numbers in regards to output and longevity. The whole point was to use the Hall's criteria against them to show how an obviously deserving artist like Holly actually has less credentials based on the Hall's own standard.

  6. FYI - in light of the 2012 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominations (a list which still doesn't include Kiss), I've updated this page with videos and photos. Maybe someday this blog entry will be rendered irrelevant.