After the first three KISS studio LPs failed to sell, album #4 was a do or die situation for the band and their label, Casablanca Records. The company had sunk a ton of money into the group, but had little to show for it. They were so broke, they couldn’t afford to make royalty payments, forcing KISS to borrow money to stay afloat. By mid-1975, attendance for KISS concerts was on the upswing, but that wasn’t reflected in album sales. During Halloween night 1975, Casablanca president, Neil Bogart, and his vice president, Larry Harris, took Bogart’s children trick-or-treating, and saw one kid after another made up to look like their favorite member of KISS. Despite KISS’s lack of commercial success, there was certainly something brewing in the zeitgeist.
Though the members of KISS each have their own unique makeup and costumes, highlighting their personas hadn’t initially occurred to the band or anyone else in their orbit. In a TV commercial for the band’s second record, Hotter Than Hell
(1974), they’re referred to as “the demons of rock,” depicted more as a marauding gang than as an group of intriguing individuals.
After KISS’s third LP, Dressed to Kill
(1975), didn’t make much of an impact, it was decided that rather than go back into the studio, the group would record a live record. For a number of reasons, this was a risky proposition. Live albums generally weren’t big sellers at the time, and they acted as a kind of live greatest hits, but KISS didn’t have any hits. The release would be a double album housed in a gatefold sleeve with a booklet, adding to the manufacturing costs, which the label could scarcely afford. With band and record company hemorrhaging money, if Alive! tanked it had the very real potential of sinking both Casablanca and KISS.
Their earliest promo photo.
For the first time, an advertising agency was hired to design the packaging for a KISS album, and Dennis Woloch at Howard Marks Advertising was given the task. In the book, Shout It out Loud: The Story of KISS’s Destroyer and the Making of an American Icon
, Woloch talks about the inclusion of handwritten messages from KISS pictured on the inside of the Alive! gatefold:
I don’t remember if it was me or Bill [Aucoin, KISS’s manager] who came up with the idea, but the image of KISS was just starting to form. We told those guys, ‘You’re different characters. You each have your own persona. How about writing a little personal note to the fans from each of you?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, sure, fine.’ They just went along with everything in those days, because they weren’t hot shit yet.
More from Woloch, as quoted in KISS’s official biography, Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975)
I knew that the notes would look great just lying there; you could see all the detail and the paper. I knew that would have a tactile feeling about it. I got David Spindel to shoot that. He’s a photographer I worked with a million times. I had each member of the band use a different pen and a different kind of paper so it looked like it was personal from them, like they wrote it in their bedroom at night while they were thinking about their fans. As far as the content of the messages, some of the band members may have been helped along a bit by our copywriter, Petty Tomarkin.
Alive! captured the fire and fury of The KISS Show, and went on to sell millions of copies, saving Casablanca and making KISS superstars. For their next studio LP, Destroyer
(1976), a painting of the group (commissioned by Woloch) was used as the cover art, in which the larger-than-life characters introduced in the Alive! jacket were expanded upon. KISS were now full-fledged superheroes.
The Starchild, the Catman, the Space Ace, and the Demon.
A TV commercial for the 1978 compilation, Double Platinum
, shows just how fully the marketing of KISS had evolved. They’re not just a band anymore, but a rock-n-roll juggernaut comprised of four distinct, towering personalities.
We’ll leave you with a very cool promotional film from the Alive II