After 30 years, the great debate rocks on: Kiss, or kiss-off?

Gene, Paul, Ace and Peter: Whether you think they’re great or they grate, the painted purveyors of rockin’ and rollin’ all night have staying power

August, 2005, Austin American-Statesman

In the stinky-bad television movie “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” a mad scientist — lab coat, underground lair, sinister cackle, the works — sets out to destroy the world using the rock band Kiss as his unwitting agents.

That’s odd. We thought Kiss was doing a pretty good job of that all by themselves. Apparently the scientist hasn’t heard Gene Simmons’ solo album or seen Ace Frehley without makeup.

Kiss rules. Kiss reeks. You’re either on this side or that side. Being on the fence means you’ve checked out. It means you listen to Enya.

After 32 years festooned in grease paint, chains, platform boots and yards of what might very well be tin foil, Kiss remains a great pop-culture polarizer, an easy critical bull’s-eye and delicious guilty pleasure, the worst rock band ever and the greatest rock band ever. The Michael Bay and P.T. Barnum of rock ‘n’ roll showmanship — kabloom, suckers — Kiss is just a typo for kitsch. Kiss-up. Kiss-off.

A pair of upcoming shows spans this good/bad divide that Kiss has gleefully carved. The good is “Gene Simmons’ Rock School,” a droll and gimmicky reality show premiering tonight on VH1. The bad (wretched, ghastly, kill me) are multi-weekend screenings of “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park,” starting Aug. 26 at the Alamo Downtown. The professional hecklers of The Sinus Show are presenting the movie, lambasting it until it cries. Expect nothing less than a massacre.

“Gene Simmons’ Rock School” is more proof Kiss will not die. Simmons — Kiss bassist, blood-spitter, boffo music mogul — crashes a classical music class of 13-year-olds at an English boarding school. Blustering and snarling with practiced disdain, a makeup-free Simmons arrives to tutor the rather stuffy kids in the ways of heavy-metal stardom. “To create little rock gods,” he says.

Simmons, who is 55, roars, folds his arms and appraises the children through unbudging sunglasses. His scowly grimace suggests he has taken a whiff of the famous codpiece he dons on stage. “I wear more makeup and higher heels than your mommy does,” he taunts the crisply composed class.

The pupils at first recoil. “I think he’s really scary, because he’s really in your face and stuff,” says a girl. (Some of the children’s accents are so thick that subtitles appear.) Declares another: “I don’t like him at all.”

But of course they soon will. As in the Jack Black comedy “School of Rock” and the recent documentary “Rock School,” the show is about coming together for a collective purpose — in this case to open for metal band Motorhead — while learning how to cut loose and be yourself. Simmons even lets the kids in on a little secret: You can be a lousy musician and still rock hard and get preposterously rich.

He should know. Except for lead guitarist Frehley, a bona fide whiz, the players in Kiss are flaccid musicians, lazy tunesmiths and appalling lyricists. Some Kiss poetry: “If you wanna be a singer, or play guitar/ Man, you gotta sweat or you won’t get far.” Sounds like a pop quiz out of Gene’s “Rock School.”

With “Kiss Meets the Phantom,” Kiss nearly met the Kiss of death. Premiering on NBC in October 1978, the band’s first and last movie casts its members — Simmons, Frehley, Paul Stanley and Peter Criss — as rock stars with murky supernatural powers. The bandmates are sort of like superheroes, but the movie is so badly conceived you can’t tell what they’re supposed to be. You have to be acquainted with the special edition Marvel comic books that star Kiss to make any sense of it.

In the comics and the movie, band members become literal incarnations of their stage personas, going by the snickerable names Star Child (Stanley, who has a star over one eye), Demon (Simmons — lizard tongue, bat wings), Cat Man (Criss — painted whiskers) and Space Ace (Frehley — more silver sequins than a Broadway musical).

The evil scientist (Anthony Zerbe, who was in “Cool Hand Luke” and “The Matrix Reloaded” and probably wishes this article would go away) kidnaps Kiss, builds robot replicas of the band and sends the imposters on stage to change the chorus of the Kiss song “Hotter Than Hell” to “Rip, rip/Rip and destroy,” which is supposed to incite fans to riot and ruin everything. That could be the lamest plan ever in the annals of mad scientists.

So disastrous is “Kiss Meets the Phantom” that even the bandmates, who are not known to criticize their splendiferous empire, disowned the movie. Fans reconsidered their allegiance. Critics drove in on bulldozers. And a camp masterwork was born.

When the movie aired, Kiss was at the peak of their popularity, knocking out hit records like “Destroyer,” “Love Gun” and “Alive II” and peddling mountains of Kiss paraphernalia, from trading cards and dolls to belt buckles and bed sheets. (Today you can even get yourself the $5,000 Kiss Kasket. Right, a coffin.)

The band has always targeted young boys, exploiting their fascination with science fiction and horror movies, comic books and fire. Forget childhood sports. Some of us were mesmerized by books and movies, the wide-open realm of the imagination, which happily accommodated the dual fantasy force of Kiss and “Star Wars.” It’s a few paces from a fire-breathing Demon to a growling Wookiee.

In 1978, my best friend brought “Kiss Alive II” to a sleepover. I knew Kiss only from “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” an utterly weird thing that aired on ABC in 1976. I liked their makeup, wild costumes and the clouds of smoke. But the loud music and exciting photos of “Alive II” — “Calling Dr. Love,” Simmons drenched in stage blood — hooked me. I dressed up as Simmons and Stanley, collected the trading cards, covered my walls with KISS posters, bought every issue of 16 Magazine featuring Kiss gossip, owned the dolls and ordered all of the group’s vinyl records from the Columbia House Record Club. I was 9.

And then came “Kiss Meets the Phantom.” This was huge. My excitement was uncontained. Finally, my friends and I would see our favorite band in the whole world actually move and speak. We were too young for Kiss concerts, and this was way before MTV, so bad TV had to do.

Produced by kiddie-show kings Hanna-Barbera, the movie plays like a discarded “Scooby-Doo” episode. Robot werewolves kung fu fight the Kiss guys, who strike back with animated laser beams that shoot from Stanley’s eye and cartoon fire that buzzes from Simmons’ mouth. Stuntmen who look nothing like Kiss stand in for the band during the “action” sequences. There is mild genius behind this kind of awfulness.

While the movie was a ratings hit for NBC, it was a calamity for Kiss. The group’s “street credibility, which had taken four years of nonstop work to develop, was undone frame by frame in just under 100 minutes,” writes Kiss expert Ron Albanese.

This budding Kiss freak didn’t care. Still, I think I knew the movie had failed us, that it was merely grotesque advertisements for the group and Magic Mountain, the California amusement park where it was filmed.

Today, the music of Kiss is hardly more than a cheap nostalgia trip for an older, wiser me. It sounds tinny and slapped together. And the band has changed. Frehley and Criss have been booted from KISS (again), while Simmons’ voracious greed metastasizes unchecked.

Yet something appealing remains. With an atavistic charge, Kiss blew me away at the Erwin Center in 2000. Kiss photos and concert footage pump my blood. My brain can’t shake ancient Kiss trivia. I still have my Kiss dolls.

Straddling the great Kiss divide, I fend off mockery with the shield of original-fan pride. My arrogance wears a wink, my devotion is full of holes. I am not torn, but at peace with the contradictions. And if you ask me if Kiss rules or reeks, the answer is easy: both.

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