NOTHIN’ TO LOSE The Making of KISS 1972-1975 by Ken Sharp with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons
review by Jon Kanis
(it books, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY, 2013, 550 pages)
book review for issue #36 of Ugly Things magazine [filed on October 10, 2013]
Has there ever been a more absurd notion in the pantheon of rock ‘n’ roll than the fire-breathing, blood-squirting quartet of grease-painted mutants that calls itself KISS? While there has always been flamboyance, spectacle, costumes, cosmetics, volume, pyrotechnics, and other forms of lowest common denominator elements within the sphere of entertainment, no one has ever alchemized those ingredients in their conceptual crockpot quite as uniquely as KISS.
With the studied nuance of a sideshow carnival barker, Nothin’ To Lose finds writer Ken Sharp authoritatively trawling through the embryonic days of the KISS phenomenon with a no-stone-unturned “oral history” of what went down in the nether regions of rock four decades ago. Aided and abetted by founding members Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons (along with the recollections of 200+ innocent bystanders, including co-founders Peter Criss and Ace Frehley), Nothin’ To Lose offers precious little in terms of objective analysis – opting instead for a self-aggrandizing, first-person narrative approach that stays true to the Simmons/Stanley model of cocky self-assurance. Of course, this being KISS, they occasionally obliterate that boundary into full-blown obnoxiousness (that perspective depends upon your level of affection for the band and/or a tolerance for ego-driven male bravado). When Simmons states in an early television interview that he is “evil incarnate,” you recognize a comic book boast when you hear one, with his prodigious tongue firmly in cheek. And yet, the guy is reptilian enough to make such a proclamation believable. That much said, Nothin’ To Lose is a well-organized page-turner, driving home the mythology of a cross-dressing glam rock band from NYC who were so dedicated to make it into the upper echelons of rock ‘n’ roll that they literally did whatever it took to succeed.
Nothin’ To Lose demonstrates quite clearly that without the financial backing of Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records, KISS would most likely have never found their audience. Bogart was a world-class gambler and promotions man, who made a fortune with Buddah Records selling bubblegum acts to AM radio. Bogart was relentless in his faith, sinking half a million dollars into KISS before ever seeing a return on his investment. Also key to the equation were their co-managers Joyce Biawitz (who would go on to marry Bogart) and Bill Aucoin, a gay television director whose discreet sexual proclivities stood in contrast to his hedonistic, womanizing charges.
Casual readers might find aspects of Nothin’ To Lose a tad tedious, as it more than successfully conveys what a slog it is for most bands to break into the mainstream. In fact, two and a half years of relentless touring did not result in much business for KISS’s first three studio LPs (KISS, Hotter Than Hell and Dressed To Kill) and their entire career was on the line with the radical decision to take a band with no hits and create a double live album of previously uncommercial songs. The watershed came in the winter of ’75 with Alive!, a sonic souvenir of KISS in concert that took them to the next plateau, featuring their Top 20, career-defining hit single “Rock And Roll All Nite.”
Excess, duress and conquest: it’s all here and while the music of KISS may be anthemic fun and mega-stupid, Nothin’ To Lose is an enjoyable romp through a bygone freak show and about as substantive as a swirl of cotton candy. You might feel sick once they pull up stakes, but it was certainly thrilling whilst the circus was in town.