Working dead-end jobs and barely getting by, two aspiring rockstars begin rehearsing in a beat-down warehouse. Quickly hooking concertgoers with their unmistakable sound and novel stage makeup, the New York City rock group is set to become one of the most popular bands of all time.
“We weren’t going anywhere; it just didn’t feel right. There was no direction. There was no image… We were floundering.” – Gene Simmons
It’s 1973 in New York City where two tall, scrawny guys have put together a rock-and-roll band by the name of Wicked Lester. Stevie Wonder and David Bowie top the charts, but Gene Klein and Stanley Bert Eisen have something else in mind—a musical juggernaut poised to conquer the world.
The Supreme Court has just ruled on Roe v. Wade, and the oil crisis is crippling Americans’ ability to move about the country. As the Vietnam War winds down and Richard Nixon continues to withdraw troops, the Watergate scandal breaks, further eroding the country’s trust in their elected leaders.
Only four years after the Stonewall protests in New York City, in a crime possibly born of fear and homophobia, arsonists in New Orleans burn down the UpStairs Lounge, a gay club above the Jimani in the French Quarter.
George Foreman knocks out Joe Frazier, and The Exorcist and American Graffiti are box-office hits. Elvis Presley’s Aloha from Hawaii television special is broadcast and watched by more than 1 billion people worldwide.
Motown legends like Michael Jackson and Diana Ross make way for a new, slick, poppy sound known as disco, heralded by four Swedes who call themselves ABBA. With Altamont in the rearview mirror, the Rolling Stones release “Goats Head Soup” a few months after the debut of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon.”
And at a hotel for “hookers and junkies,” a new band is born. At 116 W. 43rd Street, just west of 6th Avenue, stood the Hotel Diplomat. It’s in this rundown venue where the biggest band in the world will get its start, launching a career that will extend five decades into the future.
“When I first saw KISS at the Hotel Diplomat in 1973 they didn’t have much of a show. They had the red beacons, a couple of amps. They were wearing black jeans—no one could afford leather. The show was just a regular rock-and-roll show except they had spontaneity. They wanted to do something different, and they wanted it very badly. That kind of devotion is worth more than anything. It’s so special, and you start picking up on it. I saw that magic in them.” – Bill Aucoin
This is the story of Gene Klein and Stanley Eisen—who reinvented themselves as Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley—and how their unlikely partnership with Bill Aucoin and Sean Delaney would take the rock-and-roll world by storm, spawning a band that will undoubtedly live beyond the lives of its members. Enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and arguably the most recognized band in the history of popular music, Aucoin and Delaney transform KISS from yet another noisy band into rock-and-roll royalty.
I’m your host, J. Thorn, and this is, “Consequences of Rock.”
In 1972, the year before the legendary Hotel Diplomat show, KISS is struggling. In fact, the band is not even called KISS yet.
Gene and Paul survive as two starving, struggling musicians trying to find their way in the cutthroat New York music scene. Paul takes a job at the legendary Electric Lady Studios where he’s sweeping the floors, getting cigarettes, and rubbing elbows with the most talented artists of the twentieth century.
“It was a great education. This was like the war room for the hierarchy of rock; this is where it all happened… At any given time, twenty-four hours a day, Zeppelin could be in there, the Stones could be there, Mountain, Jeff Beck, Stevie Wonder, David Crosby and Steve Stills. I remember popping into a session when Mick Jagger was doing something with Eddie Kramer and I also remember going in when they were mixing Rocking’ the Fillmore and talking to Jimmy Page.” – Paul Stanley
But Stanley wasn’t yet the object of Eddie Kramer’s attention. Paul wasn’t recording in the same studio as his rock idols. Instead, he had been trying to find the rest of Wicked Lester.
“We were just aimless.” – Paul Stanley
In a rat-infested warehouse, Paul and Gene rent a rehearsal space from month to month. Wicked Lester struggles to develop an identity. Gene and Paul can’t even find two other musicians to round out the lineup. When things seemed to be at their lowest for Wicked Lester, it gets even worse.
“Wicked Lester was getting to a point where it looked like the band was going to split. One day we walked into our loft and realized all the equipment had been stolen. We were devastated. And we needed money to replace it.” – Gene Simmons
Not ones to give up on their dream, Paul and Gene soldier on through 1972. They get new gear, begin writing songs, and even get offered a record deal from Epic. They record a demo, but neither of the men believes it represents their vision. Too eclectic and lacking a definitive sound and identity, Wicked Lester bails on the Epic deal. The band calls it quits.
Paul and Gene lick their wounds, but they’re determined not to give up. Staring failure in the face, they form a new band. Gene isn’t exactly sure why they did this because it just didn’t make sense at the time.
The band is broke. Gene pays their rent because none of the other guys can. Paul drives a cab and gets a job working at a sandwich shop.
They might not have been rocking and rolling all night, or partying every day, but Paul and Gene have ambition. Paul, in particular, has a sonic vision in mind. Humble Pie had been his biggest musical inspiration, and he dreams of a band with a more guitar-driven sound, songs with strong melodies and a huge chorus.
Stanley is an Anglophile, a huge fan of the Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks—bands from across the pond that had been rooted in electric guitar while “hooking” the listener with catchy riffs and lyrics.
Gene and Paul may have been influenced by those who came before them, but they weren’t interested in standing on the shoulders of giants. They wanted to become giants.
“Quite simply, we wanted to be the band we never saw on stage.” – Paul Stanley
In the dog days of the summer of 1972, the stars begin to align. In the August 31st issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Paul sees an ad:
EXPD. ROCK and roll drummer looking for org. grp. doing hard and soft music.
Gene and Paul answer George Peter John Criscuola’s ad. The man joins the band and becomes known as Peter Criss.
As summer turns to fall, the trio is now rehearsing in a loft near the Flatiron Building at 10 East 23rd Street, above a bar called Live Bait. At this point, the guys are still calling the group Wicked Lester.
“It was a roach-infested fire trap with no windows. It cost $200 a month to rent the loft, which was a lot of money at the time.” – Gene Simmons
Tom Werman is assistant to the Director of A&R at Epic Records. He goes with Don Ellis to watch Wicked Lester perform. Don said, “I don’t get it… Great band, no songs.”
Paul knows the band lacks a certain element. Without the dual-ax attack he admired from bands like the Stones and Aerosmith, Wicked Lester would never reach its full potential, so the band decides to run an ad in The Village Voice in the December 14th, 1972 issue.
“LEAD GUITARIST WANTED with Flash and Ability. Album Out Shortly. No time wasters please.”
Sixty guys show up to audition. And one of them immediately catches Gene’s attention.
“I thought he was an asshole. I disliked him right away.” – Gene Simmons
As Paul Daniel Frehley plugs in and strums along, everything clicks.
“As soon as he started playing, both Paul and I looked at each other when Ace started soloing. We finally heard the sound.” – Gene Simmons
“Ace belonged in the band. He was the missing piece, the missing link. It just all jelled and made sense.” – Paul Stanley
By the end of 1972, the lineup is in place. Gene, Paul, Peter, and Ace rehearse 7 days a week, 8 hours a day.
But the band has to be bigger than the music if it is going to live up to Paul’s dreams. Instead of following trends, the band goes against them. Alice Cooper took off his makeup, and David Bowie stopped using it—and that was when the guys in Wicked Lester experimented with it.
They scour the S&M stores in the West Village, gathering a collection of black leather, studs, and belts—even buying dog collars from pet stores.
Peter’s mom even gets into the act, embroidering the band’s name on t-shirts.
The four members have nothing in common, but they bond over loud rock and roll and are ready to take it to the next level. From the very beginning, Gene and Paul have creative control of the band, including the origin of their iconic name and logo.
“I thought of the name KISS because it just seemed like a name everybody was familiar with. And it was universal… There are moments in our career that are so undeniable, and that was one of them.” – Paul Stanley
Ace designs the logo in time for their first show as KISS on January 30, 1973, at the Coventry. They play to a crowd of six people.
The first half of 1973 sees the band experimenting with their sound, look, and stage show.
“We wore makeup then but it was not as sophisticated as it is now. The rest of the band pretty much looked the same, but I didn’t. I wore just eye makeup and rouge.” – Paul Stanley
They leave Manhattan to refine their act with a series of gigs at the Daisy in Amityville, Long Island.
“The Daisy was a really cheap place–drinks were 35 cents. Most bands playing there were doing four sets a night and we came in like big stars and told them we’d play twice a night for a weekend’s worth of work. They gave us $100 for two nights. After expenses I think the four of us walked away with $3.50 per man.” – Paul Stanley
But as they begin to gather a following, KISS must decide on a creative direction. A band known as the New York Dolls has been taking Manhattan by storm and it’s clear to Paul and Gene that New York isn’t big enough for both bands. Should they compete with the New York Dolls for the same audience or carve out their own niche?
The answer was already in the DNA of KISS.
They borrow elements from their idols, as all rock musicians do. The Beatles had a uniform look and sound and yet, they each had a way of expressing individuality, something KISS would do later with their face paint. The Beatles also put a strong emphasis on merchandising and marketing, going beyond the music.
Bill Aucoin liked to say that KISS was like having “four Alice Coopers on stage.” From Gene’s fire-breathing antics and blood-spitting, to Ace’s smoking guitar, to Criss’s levitating drum kit, to Paul’s guitar-smashing, Alice Cooper had undoubtedly left his mark on the guys.
From Slade, KISS learns how to write hard-rocking songs that also work as anthems, something Aucoin had also suggested.
And inspiration comes from as far away as Birmingham. KISS is influenced by an early ad for a Black Sabbath concert that said, “Louder Than Led Zeppelin.” KISS, like Sabbath, foregoes art, and focuses on entertainment.
In 1973, the New York Dolls and KISS are vying for the hearts of the rock-and-roll kids.
“One night after KISS was rehearsing they went to see the Dolls at the Diplomat Hotel. The Dolls were the best-looking band around, and KISS couldn’t compete with the Dolls in terms of trying to be better-looking. So they did something completely opposite, which was to be monsters instead of trying to be attractive. The Dolls were very rhythm-and-blues oriented, where KISS had much more of a metal, hard rock sound.” – Bob Gruen (photographer)
Paul knows what is happening. He can feel it.
“The Dolls were the biggest band in New York, and we wanted to be the biggest band in the world. I think they were scared shitless of us.” – Paul Stanley
With a groundswell of industry buzz, KISS heads back to Electric Lady Studios in March of 1973. Studio engineer Ron Johnsen arranges for Kramer to produce the demo as a form of payment for Paul and Gene’s session work.
By July and August of 1973, KISS is playing to bigger and bigger crowds at the Hotel Diplomat, the same venue where they had played to only a handful of people a few months earlier.
On August 10th, 1973, TV producer Bill Aucoin comes to watch KISS perform in the Crystal Room of the Hotel Diplomat. Most of the industry professionals in attendance aren’t impressed by KISS, most writing them off as simply a loud rock band. But Aucoin sees something else, and what he says to the band after the show that night will become rock-and-roll legend.
Sean Delaney was raised in Cranbury, New Jersey. As a gay man living with Mormon parents, Delaney had been a walking contradiction from the beginning.
When he was 15 years old, Sean was caught having sex with an older man at Joe Bear’s Truck Stop and was sent to live with his aunt in Utah.
Believing that a stint in the U.S. military will “cure” him of his homosexual tendencies, Delaney enlists in the Army where he plays bassoon in the 101st Airborne Division’s marching band at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. With a natural inclination toward music and performance, Sean thrives in the creative atmosphere. However, after being sexually assaulted by a superior officer, he realizes that the Army isn’t all straight—and it can’t make him that way either.
After an honorable discharge, Sean floats through San Francisco and then Los Angeles before heading back east. He lands in New York City, finding a place to stay in Greenwich Village.
Sean struggles with mental illness, and during a stay in a mental hospital in 1968, he learns how to play the guitar. Delaney becomes an aspiring singer/songwriter and takes a job as a waiter at The Hippodrome dance club in 1969.
The Hippodrome is where Sean meets Bill Aucoin, the man he would go on to affectionately call “Gui.”
Gui would eventually become Sean’s business partner and life partner as Bill was gay, too.
Sean has dreams of becoming a famous musician, and Bill believes in him. So much so that Bill puts Sean in front of Neil Bogart, an executive at Buddha Records. But Bogart isn’t impressed with Sean as a musician, passing on an opportunity to sign him to the label. Neil says that Sean is “nothing more than a hobbyist.”
Despite Bogart’s assessment, Sean’s musical career gains momentum. He hires a stellar backing band, which gets him a record deal with Elektra. However, the band quits on Sean unexpectantly, and when that happens, Elektra backs out of the record deal they had offered to Delaney.
With his own musical career floundering, Sean doubles down with Bill, searching for the next big thing.
In 1973, Sean receives a press packet from a new band calling themselves KISS.
“The press packet represented a band that touted itself as the biggest-up-and-coming band in the tristate area. It was complete bullshit! I was so ingrained into the local music scene that if anything in this press packet were true, I’d have been able to corroborate it…but I couldn’t…these guys were a fraud.” – Sean Delaney
Against his better judgment, Sean joins Bill as they head to the Diplomat to see KISS perform for the first time. Sinking time and money into a band is a risky venture and not something Sean wants to do unless he’s sure the band is legit. He goes to the show at Bill’s urging and leaves unimpressed.
“The band sent two tickets for us to go to the Diplomat Hotel and see them play. We weren’t expecting much based on the demo tape they sent, which featured only two members of the band from a previous band called Wicked Lester… Gui and I witnessed their performance in a banquet hall at the Diplomat Hotel. Admittedly, I left before the end of their set.” – Sean Delaney
But Aucoin has a different take. He’s been a popular TV producer, running the show, Flipside. However, he has no experience managing bands. But he sees something that night at the Hotel Diplomat. Something undeniable. After the show, while the band is mingling with industry executives, Bill approaches Gene. He says, “If I can’t get you a deal in thirty days, then I won’t be your manager.”
Whether he knew it in his soul or simply took a calculated risk, Bill sees potential in KISS. And he would make good on his promise to Gene Simmons.
“Bill’s sexuality actually added something to the band. Bill’s close friend, business-wise and socially, was Sean Delaney, who was also gay. He was our first road manager. Sean’s sexuality also contributed greatly to the band because he would point out what worked onstage and what didn’t.” – Gene Simmons
Once the decision is made, Sean puts everything he has into KISS. He coaches the band, becomes friends with the guys, and even co-writes some of the songs that would become KISS classics.
Delaney suggests that they all dye their hair blue-black to put “everybody on an equal level.” He teaches them the “synchronized sway,” which, at first, the band doesn’t want to do.
“You’re too big and too strong to use one finger,” he tells Gene. “You should use your fists.”
Sean creates many of the choreographed signature moves for the band, which molds the live experience into something unique. Gene calls Sean, “the idea man.”
Delaney cowrites “Mr. Speed,” “Makin’ Love,” and “Take Me,” from Rock and Roll Over, as well as “All American Man” from Alive II.
And while Sean is busy crafting the band’s image, Bill begins to remove roadblocks to their success. As a TV producer, Aucoin recognizes the value of video. He wants KISS to be “bigger than life.” He sees the band as a theatrical experience, not just a loud rock band.
Bill begins videotaping rehearsals, forcing the band to analyze them like professional athletes use game film. Sean points out mistakes and opportunities, developing a strong choreography for the live show, while convincing the band of the value of the total performance, not just the music.
The promise Bill Aucoin made to Gene after the1973 Hotel Diplomat show would forever change the trajectory of the band and history of rock and roll. On November 1st, 1973, Bill Aucoin delivers—KISS signs with Casablanca Records.
It isn’t easy to convince Bogart to sign the band. It takes everything Aucoin and Delaney have to convince him. They arrange for KISS to play a small, private show for Bogart, who says about them at the time, “KISS had no show, no choreography, and no makeup. They were nothing more than a really loud, ambitious band.”
As Delaney recalls, it wasn’t necessarily the performance that convinced Bogart—it was the undeniable drive of Gene Simmons.
“They finished their first song; the silence felt like a death wish. Neil, Gui, and Joyce just sat there without any reaction to what they had just seen and heard. Suddenly, Gene Simmons swung his bass guitar behind him and walked off the six-inch stage riser, approached Neil, looked directly into Neil’s face, grabbed a hold of his wrists, and made him applaud.” – Sean Delaney
At that moment, Sean no longer has any doubts about the inevitable success KISS would enjoy.
“At that moment, I had an epiphany, a glorious new appreciation for what these guys could possibly become. I saw Gene as a man who was struggling to make his band go somewhere… KISS was driven to succeed, and I was driven to ensure they would succeed. They were loud, but they soon would become so much more.” – Sean Delaney
The choreography and creative direction introduced by Delaney and Aucoin made KISS unique and impossible to ignore. KISS practices in Sean’s band’s space and he treats them like rock stars from the beginning.
It is Sean who becomes instrumental in getting the deal with Marvel Comics for KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park. He suggests using primarily black and silver face paint. Delaney convinces Gene Simmons to play up the “demon” persona, in addition to the characters he develops with the other members of the band.
Delaney choreographs the band’s early pyrotechnics. He convinces the guys to wear platform shoes. And when they fall, he uses his training from the Army Airborne to show them how to stand back up while on stage—without missing a note.
At the New Year’s Eve bash at the Academy of Music, KISS opens for Iggy Pop and Teenage Lust. Sean utters a version of their now-legendary introduction:
“You wanted the best, you got the best, put your lips together and welcome… KISS!”
And in 1974, Sean Delaney becomes the official road manager for KISS.
The band embraces Bill Aucoin as well.
“I liked him right away. When I met him, I was impressed. I felt he was honest. He’s one of the most honest men I’ve ever met in my life. He’s helped us a lot. He is ‘the fifth KISS.’” – Paul Stanley
Bill believes in KISS. So much so that he maxes out his personal American Express card to finance the band.
“I had been approached by other bands, but KISS were the ones that were probably the most conscious of where I was. A lot of potentially successful bands will call or send something once and then give up. They called and wrote to me week after week. And I was just one of hundreds of people they were contacting regularly. They showed a determination to succeed.” – Bill Aucoin
He uses his experience in the industry to guide the young rockers. Bill uses the five-song demo produced by Eddie Kramer to market the band. “Strutter,” “Deuce,” “Cold Gin,” “Watchin’ You,” and “Black Diamond” become legendary songs.
Aucoin teaches the band how to manage finances. In September of 1973, he puts them on a $75-per-week salary. Under the umbrella of Bill Aucoin’s Rock Steady management company, he orchestrates an unheard-of deal between all members of the band. He creates a financial democracy where all members receive an equal share of the profits.
“I don’t want you to break up over money… Let’s make our arrangements so unified that nothing can destroy it and certainly not money.” – Bill Aucoin
But nothing lasts forever. Even the gods of thunder fall silent.
Neil Bogart eventually tries to oust Bill Aucoin. The band settles the dispute but ultimately, parts ways with Aucoin, Bogart, and Delaney in the early 1980s when KISS makes the decision to remove their makeup and to head in a different creative direction.
Sean feels marginalized by the band. As early as the 1977 CREEM interview, Gene and Paul begin to claim they did everything themselves. History is being rewritten. In 2002, at the age of 57, Sean Delaney says this about his involvement with KISS in his autobiography, Hellbox:
“KISS became the biggest band in the world and still is today. They were as much a piece of me as they were themselves. History has unfortunately been written to exclude me and I want to set the record straight. I’m not a footnote in the history of the band. Just as Gene was displeased with my first interview in Creem magazine, he’s discounted my influence ever since.” – Bill Aucoin
In 1982, Neil Bogart dies of cancer and lymphoma at age 39. In 2003, Sean Delaney dies from a stroke at age 58. In 2010, Bill Aucoin dies of surgical complications from prostate cancer.
In 2015, KISS becomes America’s #1 gold-record, award-winning group of all time. They earned 30 Gold albums (26 KISS albums + 4 Solo Albums that were all released simultaneously—a feat never before achieved by any band), plus 14 Platinum albums, and three multi-Platinum albums.
Who gets credit for the ideas? And how far into the future should that credit extend? Five decades later, would we still be talking about KISS if Bill Aucoin and Sean Delaney had not gone to the Hotel Diplomat on that night in 1973? They did, so we’ll never know. KISS fans will always be grateful for the consequences that emerged from that rock-and-roll rendezvous.
I’m your host, J. Thorn. And this is “Consequences of Rock.”
Episode written by J. Thorn, edited by Eve Paludan.
Recorded at 88.7 FM WJCU studios.
Audio mixed and engineered by Adam Phillips.
Produced by J. Thorn and Adam Phillips.
All research was conducted at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – Library and Archives in Cleveland, Ohio, with a special thanks to Jennie Thomas, Director of Archives, William Jackson, Archives Assistant, Sule Holder, Library Assistant, and Laura Maidens, Librarian.
Rocker Chicks by Audionautix is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Chasin’ It by Audionautix is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Hot Rock by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
TV Drama Version 2 by Audionautix is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Cast of Pods by Doug Maxwell
Frame of Mine by Freedom Trail Studio
Gently, Onward by ELPHNT
Wonder by VYEN
Elementary Wave 11v2 by Erokia of freesound.org
Alien sky by X3nus of freesound.org
Car breaking skid 01 by Medartimus of freesound.org
Concert applause 2 by ultradust of freesound.org
Fireworks by inchadney of freesound.org
For a complete list of sources cited, see the show notes for this episode.
Sherman, Dale. KISS FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the Hottest Band in the Land. Backbeat Books, 2012.
Leaf, David, and Ken Sharp. KISS: Behind the Mask: The Official Authorized Biography. Grand Central Publishing, 2005.
Sharp, Ken, et al. Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975). Itbooks, an Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2013.
Sherman, Dale. Black Diamond: The Unauthorized Biography of KISS. CG Publishing, 1997.
Simmons, Gene. Kiss and Make-Up. 1st ed., Crown, 2001.
Delaney, Sean, and Bryan J. Kinnaird. Hellbox. Xlibris Corp., 2004.
Wilkening, Matthew. “The Day Kiss Signed Their First Record Contract.” Ultimate Classic Rock, 1 Nov. 2013, ultimateclassicrock.com/kiss-first-record-contract/.
BraveWords. “KISS Frontman PAUL STANLEY Reflects On His Days As A NYC Cab Driver – ‘I Remember Driving People To Madison Square Garden To See ELVIS PRESLEY.’” Bravewords.com, bravewords.com/news/kiss-frontman-paul-stanley-reflects-on-his-days-as-a-nyc-cab-driver-i-remember-driving-people-to-madison-square-garden-to-see-elvis-presley.
“13 Classic Kiss Stories.” Performance by Bill Aucoin, YouTube, 3 July 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kq2jtzOe1Bw.