Is Gene Simmons the man to give our economy the kiss of life?
London Business School seems to think so. Recently it invited the fire-breathing, blood-spitting Kiss frontman to lecture MBA students on how to build a $1bn brand, selling everything from condoms to coffins (“we’ll get you coming and we’ll get you going”) - while finding time to sleep with 4,800 groupies.
Under Simmons’ ruthless leadership, the 1970s shock-rockers, famed for their live shows, pioneered the notion of the band as a brand. When Simmons, 61, isn’t flicking his seven-inch tongue at audiences, you’ll find him hard at work on his spreadsheets, masterminding 3,000 licences, a new coffeehouse chain, two reality shows and numerous other ventures. Performing is just the night job. Simmons is unapologetic about his priorities. “Music, marriage and religion, it’s all a business,” he says. “Rockers are idiots.”
That cynical outlook is evident, some say, in Kiss’s output. The band’s lyrics “are up there with some of the most gonzoid”, says one heavy-rock aficionado. The one time Kiss got serious – ditching the make- up and producing a concept album – they crashed and burned. So it was back to Plan A: reclaim the trash, as that’s what coined it for them.
Outsiders may find Kiss’s longevity and fans’ willingness to mortgage themselves for the latest merchandise mystifying.
But Simmons is a class act at retaining the loyalty of a fan base now into its third generation (hence the growth business in Kiss Kaskets and funeral urns). “Americana has always been about imagery, often above content,” he says. “Kiss is very all-American, in the sense that our constituency has never had anything in common with critics.”
Born Chaim Witz in Israel, Simmons arrived in Brooklyn with his mother as an eight year-old and has been practising his version of the American Dream ever since. “The best school is the street,” he says.
It was The Beatles who made him want to be in a band. Renaming himself after rockabilly singer Jumpin’ Gene Simmons, he learned bass guitar and formed the forerunner to Kiss, Wicked Lester, in 1970. It was only when the band gave itself a new look, inspired by Simmons’ love of comic-books, that Kiss emerged in its full gruesome glory.
Their first gig, at the Popcorn Club in Queens, drew an audience of three.
But Simmons, who took fire-breathing lessons and dragged the band on non-stop tours, has never been a quitter. “I fail all the time. It means nothing. In the 1929 stockmarket crash, people jumped out of buildings, although they were healthy and could make money again. My mother survived the Nazis and taught me an ideal: ‘if you’re alive, you’ve won, no matter what’.”