In 1977, KISS was featured in a Marvel Comics Super Special. The inclusion of KISS in a comic book solidified their status as superheroes playing rock music; it also solidified their status as the Barnum & Bailey of the music business. You see, KISS had their blood drawn and mixed in with the ink. So fans actually got a piece of KISS’ platelets.
U2, on the other hand, did not bleed for fans in their 1992 comic book. A deep web-search revealed no such information. This slight can be rationalized for only one reason: U2 lead singer Bono isn’t human and therefore doesn’t bleed. He is some sort of alien life form, coming from a planet where inhabitants sniff their own farts. Bono and U2 can’t be stopped because as Arnold Schwarzenegger taught us in the classic 1987 film Predator, you can only kill something if it bleeds.
However, KISS’ bass player and co-founder, Gene Simmons, does bleed; during his bass solo, Simmons spits fake stage blood all over himself. He does this as he’s playing the character he’s created for himself, the Demon. And that’s the thing: Simmons and the rest of KISS are characters. That’s a fact they don’t try to hide. They put on a show, they blow shit up, and the set list is usually the same twenty-five songs. Seeing KISS is like eating McDonalds: you’re going there to consume junk food, and they never disappoint.
Comparing the Players
U2 can play circles around KISS – there’s no doubt about that. But the members of KISS are much better rock stars. KISS isn’t concerned with saving the world; they just want to rock, and there’s nothing wrong with that. The Demon, Starchild, Space-Ace, and Catman may be very charitable human beings when no one is looking; but they leave it out of the public eye. But with U2, it seems every time they join a new crusade, a press release follows. Just look at this Louis Vuitton luggage ad featuring Bono and his wife, Ali Hewson. Proceeds from the bag will go to charity, and that’s noble; however, it’s interesting that Bono is lugging around a guitar case in the ad. He isn’t much of a guitar player, so it’s almost like Bono is reminding people that, yes, he really is in a rock band.
The two main players in this dichotomy are the principle players of each band, Gene Simmons and Bono. Now, U2 fans would scoff at the idea that these two men have anything in common. But the similarities are there; they are both ego-maniacs. Both men have adopted stage names (Simmons was born Chaim Witz; Bono’s real name is Paul Hewson); both use props to help their look, with Simmons’ makeup and tongue and Bono’s hair and sunglasses. Bono tries very hard not to be a character like Simmons’ Demon, but he essentially is. And it’s the refusal to accept his character that makes Bono a phony. There is one more similarity between the two: they’re both doctors. In May 2008, Bono received an honorary doctorate from Tokyo’s Keio University in recognition of his anti-poverty campaigns. Simmons, of course, is Dr. Love, and he’s got the cure you’re thinking of.
However, when it comes to being a self-aggrandizing media whore, Simmons can’t be let off the hook completely. His reality TV show, Family Jewels, is an exercise in self-love. The program has all the trappings of bad reality television, and there’s no real need to watch more than a few episodes. But there is one important caveat: the viewer gets the sense that this is how Simmons acts all the time. He’s the same guy on Family Jewels that he’s been in every interview for the past thirty-five years. His views on marriage are embarrassing, and while on tour with KISS, he travels around in a bus that doubles as a moving billboard, selling his custom “axe” bass to motorists. Simmons has always been about selling KISS, from lunchboxes in the ’70s to his bass advertisement now. He’s an asshole, but he’s the best kind of asshole: an honest one.
Bono, on the other hand, is a hypocrite. He tells world leaders what African development projects to join while wearing designer sunglasses, and then sells a deluxe edition of Achtung Baby (2011) complete with a replica of those sunglasses (the price? $438.98 on Amazon.com). He also pimps out a U2 iPod. At least KISS doesn’t tell you that it’s raining when they piss on your leg. Bono also seems like he’s devoid of any sense of humor; Simmons was willing to be roasted on Comedy Central, at least. But Bono would freak out if you messed up his hair. U2’s video for “Vertigo” is all the evidence that you need:
How the Bands Handled Adversity
KISS had a bad year in 1981.
Coming off a record-setting tour of Australia in 1980 (the band was even honored by Sydney’s mayor at the city’s Town Hall), KISS was poised to unleash a rock masterpiece, a magical concept album not seen or heard since the Genesis classic, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (1974).
There was just one problem: KISS wasn’t Genesis. Released on November 16, 1981, Music from “The Elder” sounds like it was recorded by a rich, self-important band that was trying to get critics to like them. The album sold poorly, and KISS almost broke up. Some of the music is cool (check out the Ace Frehley-penned instrumental “Escape from the Island” and Paul Stanley’s “The Oath,” which would’ve sounded great in a packed arena in 1981 if KISS would’ve been able to play packed arenas).
“The Elder” was the brainchild of producer Bob Ezrin, who was taking too many drugs at the time, and Simmons and Stanley, who obviously weren’t taking enough drugs at the time. Frehley, the band’s guitarist, hated the music so much that he refused to take part in recording sessions that took place in his home studio.
However, KISS came back with a vengeance. In 1982, they released Creatures of the Night, a brutally loud return to form. The band’s new drummer, Eric Carr, added a thunderous element to KISS that original drummer Peter Criss couldn’t provide (listen to the kick-drum intro of “I Love It Loud”). More importantly, the record contained a modern rock sound – or, at least, it was what modern rock sounded like in 1982. The bloated version of KISS was vanquished, making way for a newer, tougher-sounding band. At the lowest point of their career, KISS came back with heavier music than they had ever released. Just check out the video for “I Love It Loud”:
U2’s lowest point, 1997’s Pop, was a mess of samples and electronica. Like “The Elder,” Pop sounded like a bloated mess. After that, the band entered a period of playing it safe, a period they still seem to be stuck in. All That You Can’t Leave Behind (2000), How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004), and No Line on the Horizon (2009) feature a bevy of producers who’d worked on earlier and better U2 albums: most famously, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Flood, and Steve Lillywhite. U2 didn’t come back with an extreme album after Pop, they went backward, as evidenced by Pop‘s “Discotheque,” which marked the beginning of the end:
Do the Fans Matter?
One surefire way to test a band’s humility is to see how often they mention the people that made them rich, the fans. In this regard, U2 falls into the same category as another great modern band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They seem almost detached from their fan base, like everything happening around them would be happening anyway, regardless of who is watching. U2 doesn’t owe anybody anything, but a shout-out once in a while would be nice. There are U2 fan conventions, but these conventions seem to have no official involvement from the band.
KISS, with all their faults, go to great pains to talk about their fans. Simmons and Stanley in particular seem to have a grasp on how much their fans mean to them and what they want from the band. In 1995, there were official KISS conventions across the country. For about $100, fans got a day-long festival, which included KISS tribute bands, the band’s old stage costumes on display, and an unplugged, request-oriented set list from KISS themselves.
This past fall, the band outdid itself and offered the KISS Kruise. That’s right – an actual cruise from Florida to the Bahamas, complete with a full-on concert from the band, an unmasked and unplugged show, a Q&A with KISS, a casino, and the chance to hang out with support band and international superstars Skid Row. There will be a return engagement next fall, and the price is $750 to $3,800.
That’s a lot of money, but no one has to do it. However, the option is there for a fan-friendly experience. U2 doesn’t organize events like this, and probably won’t be promoting a “U2 U-Boat Cruise” any time soon. Bono and his sunglasses are too busy saving the world.