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Masked men of music

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July 11, 2019

They trialed it in ’73, used it to build a global career, stopped using it and slipped into decline and then on the Doc’s orders, KISS resurrected the full-make-up and costume show and stormed back to the top. Johnny Black reports on The End of the Road Tour, although the title may be a few years premature.

If something’s worth doing,” says Doc McGhee, “It’s worth over-doing.”

McGhee has managed KISS for almost 25 years. 

When he took over the reins of this larger-than-life phenomenon, they were languishing in career doldrums that had lasted 13 years – more or less since the day in 1983 when they first appeared in public without their trade-mark painted faces and comic-book costumes. McGhee turned it all around.

The band’s current tour, billed as The End Of The Road, sees them ravaging arenas and stadiums across the US and Europe, and has proved so successful that McGhee says, “We’re now looking at an end date sometime in August 2021. 

“We’ll do South America next year, maybe a third US leg, then back to Europe again, with probably China and South East Asia in 2021.”

It’s an astonishing turnaround, especially given that the men inside those outlandish outfits are anything but spring chickens. Indeed, KISS founder Gene Simmons turns 70 this August and the others are not far behind 

But, thanks to their make-up and stage clothes, they still look as they did when they established the full make-up and clothes image, although it was apparently only Gene who adorned his face with paint when they first stepped onto a stage. That was in front of just three people at New York’s Popcorn Club (cap. 500) on 30 January 1973.

As for McGhee, he was born in Woodstock, Virginia, on 5 September 1960. “Doc is the name I was given at birth. My father was off playing baseball, so I was delivered by his best friend, Doc Miller. So I was named after Doc.”

By his mid-teens, McGhee was playing guitar in a band in Chicago, but his hopes of stardom were dashed by army service. “After which, I went to Florida, became a waiter and, at night, would play in a recording studio.” 

He claims to have drifted into management because “people thought I was smart, I guess, or smarter than them at that time, so I kinda fell into it.”

His first significant charges were in r’n’b artistes James Brown and Isaac Hayes, but he switched to heavy rock after encountering Mötley Crüe and Bon Jovi. The Crüe, largely because of their drug excesses, proved to be a nightmare, but they did at least provide him with his first encounter with KISS.

“In 1983 I had Crue open for KISS on their Creatures of the Night tour shows in the United States. Then in 1984 I had Bon Jovi opening on KISS’ European tour.”

International agent Rod MacSween of ITB in the UK recalls, “I was working with KISS before Doc. That was in 1983, around when they took their make-up off. I’ve booked every international show outside the US for them in the last 40 years.”

MacSween points out that, although McGhee is an undeniably astute businessman, his machinations for KISS have always been enhanced by the fact that the band themselves are anything but the comic-book characters. 

“Gene Simmons has a very dry sense of humour,” says MacSween. “He’s articulate, friendly, generous. He’s gregarious, a social animal, but he’s never had a drink in his life or taken any drugs. I also became good friends with their guitarist Paul Stanley, because of our shared love of Led Zeppelin. I think of KISS as my extended family.”

It’s worth remembering that KISS were no slouches in the self-promotion game long before Doc appeared on the scene. Their stage shows featured fire-breathing, blood-spitting, exploding guitars, levitating drum kits, and extravagant pyrotechnics. In 1977 they launched their own Marvel Comic, which they claimed had been printed with inks including phials of their own blood.

But by the time they encountered McGhee, their former glory was waning. Recognising that McGhee’s managerial acumen had made him hugely successful, Gene Simmons had tried to lure him to look after KISS. But he felt that, without their make-up, there was little he could achieve with them. 

“The first time I booked KISS was for a Monsters Of Rock show in 1988, headlined by Iron Maiden,” says Claudio Trotta of Italy’s Barley Arts Promotion. “It was very successful, nearly 40,000 people, but I felt the KISS performance lost something because they did not have the make-up or the costumes. 

“The strength of a KISS show is a combination of different factors – the riffs, songs, production values – but also the make-up and costumes.”

McGhee’s friendly relationship with KISS continued through the subsequent years, and when Simmons approached him again in the mid-‘90s, he asked if they were now ready to restore the masks and costumes. This time, he got an affirmative and felt that the time was right.

“It was the height of grunge in 1995,” he reflects, “which was not about fun, and people always want to have fun. I knew KISS could be huge again if it was done correctly. They had previously had a major connection, but lost that for 13 years when they abandoned the make-up.”

The comeback kicked-off in April of that year, when McGhee staged a press conference aboard decommissioned aircraft carrier The Intrepid in New York Harbour. “We announced just one show, at Tiger Stadium [cap. 50,000] in Detroit. It sold out in 20 minutes, and we were off to the races.”

Today, McGhee Entertainment has offices in Los Angeles and Nashville, with Doc’s estimated net worth listed at $45 million. Much of that success can be attributed to the seemingly unstoppable rise of KISS.

Rod MacSween reckons KISS have proved an ideal match for McGhee. “They’ve got a good team, and they behave themselves,” he says. “Whereas Motley Crue were all over the place, KISS have never been like that. They don’t go out and party after shows, don’t get wrecked – they’ve actually got a fairly stable lifestyle.”

By the time KISS returned to Italy for a show at the Forum (11,000) in Milan in 1996, Claudio Trotta could see that the transformation was underway. “They have been continually growing since Doc arrived,” he says “With every tour, they come up with something new, but the brand remains the same, so people know what to expect. With KISS I have played the Arena [12,000] in Verona twice, very successfully, the Forum in Milan five times, plus two successful open-airs.” 

Psycho manoeuvres

En route to the End Of The Road tour, McGhee engineered a string of innovative high profile manoeuvres which restored KISS to its former world-beating status. 

In 1998, for example, their Psycho Circus tour was the first rock band tour to incorporate 3-D visuals. “We decided we could do six songs with 3-D elements,” reveals McGhee, “and we distributed 3-D glasses to people. So that they knew when to put the glasses on, a little man appeared on the screen and demonstrated what to do.”

Todd Lepere of the Chicago-based audio-visual company Solotech remembers, “KISS has always had spectacular productions, but the most complex tour we have done with them was Psycho Circus, which was the first time 3D video playback and 3D cameras were used on a tour.”

Another profile–raising moment came in 2003 with the recording of the album Symphony – KISS Alive 4 in Australia’s Telstra Dome in Melbourne, in front of 33,000 fans. 

“We had the Melbourne Symphony orchestra and a choir, 57 people in all,” laughs McGee, “with their faces painted as KISS masks.”

In 2011, they took to the high seas for the first KISS Kruise, sailing from Miami to The Bahamas and Jamaica. “It’s like a floating summer camp for grown-up rock fans from all over the world,” he says. “For this year’s Kruise we have 33 countries represented among the passengers.”

One year later, KISS launched their own restaurant chain, Rock & Brews. “We opened the first one in El Segundo, right on Santa Monica bay, very convenient for LAX airport,” says McGhee. “The idea of a restaurant with the atmosphere of a rock show just appealed to everybody. We currently have 19 locations and it’s still growing.”

Throughout all of these adventures and extravaganzas, live touring remained at the heart of McGhee’s KISS strategy, but with the band not getting any younger it was evident that they could not continue forever. The End Of The Road tour was announced on 19 September 2018.

“The idea was simple,” says McGhee. “Just to play in front of as many people as possible. So I constructed it in sections where we could do a run with, first off the United States, then Europe, then back to the USA six months later but hitting different markets. It’s been a dream tour already, playing places we’ve never been before.” 

Fire power 

With the band travelling on a Gulfstream jet, and the crew in a convoy of 17 trucks, the tour thundered into life in front of 13,373 people in Vancouver’s Rogers Arena on 31 January, and by the time they hit San Diego’s Viejas Arena (7,521) one week later, the complex production, devised by Robert Long of the Nashville-based SRae Productions, was running smoothly. 

Perhaps the most visually thrilling aspect of any KISS show is the pyrotechnics, handled by Matt Varley, a pyro designer with Los Angeles-based FFP-fx. 

“Each show contains roughly 1,250 pieces of pyro, made up of over 30 different types of product,” explains Varley, who travels with a seven-person team. “The band wanted this to be the biggest show they’ve ever had, so we have packed as much onto the stage as possible.” 

Asked which aspect of the show particularly pleases him, he says, “We’ve taken our LFG flame heads – which produce massive flames – and turned four of them on their sides at the center of the set and shoot them out horizontally across the stage. The effect is very impressive and gives that larger than life feel that KISS emotes.”

Front-of-house sound engineer Adam Stuart is employed by Switzerland-based Clair Audio Rentals, and has been overseeing KISS’s sound since 2011 as part of a six person team. 

“I wouldn’t say we’re supplying anything unusual,” he believes. “One challenge is the many different types of venues, from arenas to amphitheaters, stadiums and fields, but we can handle it well with the system we use.”

The band has to be at each venue at least two hours before showtime, because that’s how long it takes to don their costumes and make-up. 

“There’s a wardrobe truck just for the costumes,” reveals McGhee, “but the band does all their own make-up and dress themselves. Gene has the heaviest costume which we lightened from 60lbs to 40lbs by replacing metal components with carbon fibres, and using material that looks like leather but isn’t.”

Not only do the outfits, with their platform-soled boots, make the band several inches taller, but they make it imperative that all four members pay a visit to the smallest room before taking to the stage. 

“You can’t just have a zip in the front of costumes as snug as those,” points out McGhee, adding, “It’s like taking a kindergarten class on a field trip. ‘Go to the bathroom now.’”

The 45 shows on the first North American leg include stops at venues ranging from Atlanta’s State Farm Arena (6,945) up to Boston’s TD Garden (16,843) and New York’s Madison Square Garden (configured for 13,359) before a well-earned break for most of May. 

They then cross the Atlantic and launch into another 26 dates, starting at Germany’s Arena Leipzig on 27 May, performing at a handful of major festivals and winding-up at The SSE Hydro (13,000) in Glasgow, Scotland on 16 July.

Over to Europe

MacSween explains how geography and the immovable dates of festivals shaped the European schedule. 

“There are landmark events that you have to route around, notably Scandinavian festivals like Rockfest [30,000} in Finland and Sweden Rock [40,000], so geographically it made sense to go from there to Russia, which meant St Petersburg and Moscow, and onto Kiev in Ukraine. 

“That led into their first ever stadium show in Ukraine, for 40,000 people, and then a sold-out Tauron Arena [16,000] in Krakow, Poland – somewhere else they’ve never been before – before swinging round into the rest of Europe, finishing up in the UK.”

In Germany, Wizard Promotions founder Ossy Hoppe has six shows. “Doc McGhee is my best friend in the music business,” he declares, “and the godfather of my son. 

“When Doc took KISS over, he realised immediately that they had to go back to what they used to do, that theatrical rock ’n’ roll show. I don’t know why they ever even considered taking their masks off, because the strength of KISS is always based in that cartoon dream concept.”

In the UK, Live Nation Entertainment executive producer of touring Andy Copping has worked with KISS for over 20 years, and is keenly anticipating their July shows, and shares one memory which reveals how a complex production can easily become unstuck for unpredictable reasons. 

“We did an underplay show in 2010 at the 800-capacity 02 Academy Islington [North London] and at the end, they set off arena-level confetti cannons that not only deposited confetti up to our knees, but sucked the air out of the room. Gene passed out and Paul Stanley was physically sick – they couldn’t come out for the encore! It was bonkers.”

After the UK tour, The End Of The Road tour returns to the US for a second leg of 26 dates, winding up at Los Angeles’ 19,000-capacity Staples Centre on 20 September, before nine shows in Australia and New Zealand, under the watchful eye of Andrew McManus, CEO of One World Entertainment, who was instrumental in organising their 2003 live recording with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. 

“Ever since, I’ve been KISS’s exclusive promoter in Australia and promoted five more tours here. One of my favourite moments came when their former guitarist Ace Frehley wanted more money and I gave him an IOU on a napkin, signed ‘Andrew Mickey Manus’, just to get him on stage.”

Five Japanese dates will bring this portion of The End Of The Road to a close on 10 December, but, as McGhee makes clear, there’s probably two more years to go before KISS can swap their platforms for slippers and their cod-pieces for longjohns.

Exhausting though life on the road is, he’s not looking forward to the end. 

“The worst thing about being the manager of KISS,” he concludes, “is just that I know it’s coming to an end. Anybody who says they wouldn’t miss something like this would have to be nuts.”

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