How Kiss's Alive! Saved Their Record Label—And Changed the Music Industry

Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images
Peter Cade, Central Press/Getty Images

It was late 1974, and Neil Bogart, CEO of Casablanca Records, was falling apart. His wife of nine years had divorced him. Warner Bros., Casablanca’s onetime parent company, had cut the fledgling label loose, saddling Bogart with crippling overhead and advertising costs. The company’s headquarters—a two-story house off the Sunset Strip that Bogart (no relation to Humphrey) decorated to resemble Rick’s Café from the film Casablanca—had devolved into a hedonistic playground awash in cocaine and Quaaludes. A few years earlier, he’d made stars of the Isley Brothers and Curtis Mayfield, whose soundtrack for Super Fly had been an instant hit. Now, at 31, he was watching his career crumble.

But Bogart had a plan. As part of the split with Warner Bros., Casablanca inherited a promising project: a double LP of audio highlights from The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. It seemed like a sure thing. In 1974, The Tonight Show drew 14 million viewers a night. The year before, as the CEO of Buddah Records, Bogart had sold more than a million copies of a similar compilation titled Dick Clark: 20 Years of Rock N’ Roll. Bogart was so confident in The Tonight Show project that he envisioned the album as the first of four highlight records, stretching back decades.

Before SoundScan existed to track album sales, the recording industry conferred “gold” status to any album that shipped more than 500,000 copies. Bogart shipped 750,000 copies of Here’s Johnny: Magic Moments From the Tonight Show. As it turned out, no one wanted to listen to audio clips of a late-night talk show. The album was such a flop that distributors even mailed back their free promotional copies. Industry insiders joked that it had been shipped gold and “returned platinum.” Or as Casablanca cofounder Larry Harris put it, “It hit the floor with a lifeless, echoing thud.”

By the end of 1974, Casablanca was broke. To make payroll, Bogart cashed in his line of credit at a Las Vegas casino. The label seemed doomed. It needed a cheap hit just to survive.

One of the bands on Casablanca’s roster was in similarly rough shape. Kiss, a flamboyant heavy metal outfit from New York City, had released three albums by the spring of 1975. The band had a cult following in the Rust Belt. But the moment Kiss stepped into the studio, they deflated, unable to replicate the raucous energy of their live concerts.

This may have been an impossible task. Since their first gig in 1973, the foursome had performed only in Kabuki-style makeup, black leather costumes, and towering platform shoes. Onstage, Gene Simmons, the Israeli-born bassist with a 7-inch tongue, spat fire and fake blood at the audience. Blasts of smoke and pyrotechnics punctuated hard-driving songs like “Strutter,” “Deuce,” and “Black Diamond.” At the end of each set, drummer Peter Criss rose 10 feet above the stage atop a hydraulic drum riser. This intimidating stagecraft belied Kiss’s sound: more pop than metal, closer to David Bowie than Black Sabbath on the ’70s rock spectrum. Kiss’s stage show was so over the top that Bogart pitched the band as a headline act before the foursome had a legitimate hit. Queen, Genesis, and Aerosmith all canceled bookings with Kiss because no one wanted to play after the band.

But if Kiss was a circus act, Bogart was its P.T. Barnum. At pitch meetings, he’d unleash fireballs from his hand using magician’s flash paper, declaring “Kiss is magic!” Bogart hounded DJs, TV hosts, critics, and music magazines, pushing the Kiss brand. He even convinced Kiss to record a cover of “Kissin’ Time”—a single by ’60s teen idol Bobby Rydell—as a promotional tie-in for a nationwide kissing contest called “The Great Kiss-Off.”

None of it worked. And Kiss was fed up. The band received a meager $15,000 advance for its first three albums—Kiss, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill— and despite Bogart’s fiery efforts, it had yet to see royalties. He’d even produced Dressed to Kill himself because he was unable to afford a professional producer.

Then Bogart had an idea. What if Kiss put out a live album? It’d be less expensive than a studio recording and might preserve some of the band’s incendiary live show. At the time, live records weren’t considered a legitimate product; bands released them mainly to fulfill contracts. But Bogart didn’t care. He knew this was his last chance.

Kiss liked the concept. Within days, Bogart had arranged to record a multicity tour, with stops in Detroit; Wildwood, New Jersey; Cleveland; and Wyoming. Since Bogart couldn’t finance the tour himself, Bill Aucoin, Kiss’s long-suffering manager, put $300,000 of his own money into costumes, expenses, and effects. To oversee the recordings, Bogart roped in Eddie Kramer, a star audio engineer who’d produced albums for Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin.

On May 16, 1975, 12,000 people packed into Detroit’s Cobo Hall—the largest venue in a city many considered the capital of rock ’n’ roll. Bogart and Aucoin went all out on production. To fire up the crowd, a cameraman followed the band from the dressing room to the stage, projecting the shot onto a giant screen overhead. During the song “100,000 Years,” flamethrowers wrapped the band in a curtain of fire. And this time Criss’s drum kit rose to twice its usual height.

The concerts were a massive success, yet the recordings were still mediocre. The energy was there, but the band’s musicianship suffered in its frenzied live performance. In the end, sound engineers recorded over much of the material. Nevertheless, certain core elements remain, including Criss’s drum tracks, lead singer Paul Stanley’s stage banter, and the propulsive fury of early singles “Deuce” and “Strutter,” in which the band’s energy soars in response to the sound of thousands of screaming fans. The physical record was an accomplishment of its own. A double album with a gatefold sleeve, it featured handwritten notes from the band, a glossy eight-page booklet, and a centerfold collage of in-concert photos.

Alive! was released on September 10, 1975. Five days later, Aucoin sent Bogart a letter of termination: Kiss was leaving the label. In desperation, Bogart, who’d recently mortgaged his house, cut Aucoin and the band a check for $2 million to retain them. Then everyone sat back and watched the Billboard chart.

The result was unprecedented. Alive! peaked at No. 9 and remained on the charts for the next 110 weeks, becoming the band’s first record to sell more than a million copies. By the end of 1975, major rock bands from Blue Öyster Cult to REO Speedwagon suddenly found themselves opening for Kiss. Today, Alive! has sold more than 9 million copies, making it the biggest selling Kiss album of all time.

Alive! rescued both Kiss and Casablanca from oblivion. The band’s next three albums—Destroyer (1976), Rock and Roll Over (1976), and Love Gun (1977)—were all certified platinum. In 1977, Kiss topped a Gallup poll as the most popular act among American teens. The late ’70s saw a superstorm of Kiss merchandise, including Kiss makeup kits, pinball machines, Marvel comic books, and even a made-for-TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park.

But Alive! also changed the music industry. “Shortly after it hit, just about every hard rock band issued live albums,” says Greg Prato, a writer for Rolling Stone and the author of The Eric Carr Story, about Kiss’s short-lived drummer Eric Carr. “Some of those albums were the best live rock recordings of all time: Thin Lizzy’s Live and Dangerous, the Ramones’s It’s Alive, Queen’s Live Killers, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same, Cheap Trick, At Budokan.”

What makes Alive! a masterpiece, though, is how it captures the essence of Kiss—a hard rock band that was meant to be seen, or at least heard, live. “The emphasis on a live album is the experience itself, specifically how close the record translates and interprets the experience of actually attending the show,” says author and Kiss fan Chuck Klosterman. “[Alive!] jumps out of the speakers. It feels like a bootleg of the highest quality.”

Ultimately, Bogart’s excessive spending habits, along with his prodigious cocaine use at Casablanca HQ, led to his ouster from the label in 1980. By that point, he’d become the reigning king of disco, breaking such acts as the Village People and Donna Summer. He died of cancer two years later at age 39, having just created Boardwalk Records and signed the then-unknown rock goddess Joan Jett. In the decades after his death, the iconic metal band he’d helped bring to the top continues to tour, even making an appearance on American Idol in 2009. For 40 years, Kiss has been sending drum kits aloft (albeit with a different drummer), performing in fully painted faces, setting stages on fire, all in an effort to recapture an impossible sound. With Alive!, Bogart had created a chimera. It was a record that could never exist in real life: part raucous energy, part polished studio overdubs, a “live” masterpiece better than the best live act in rock history.

This piece originally ran in Mental Floss magazine.

21 Far Out Facts About Dazed and Confused

Criterion Collection
Criterion Collection

Since its 1993 release, Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused has gone on to become a cultural landmark. On the 25th anniversary of the film's release, we encourage you to find the nearest paddle, toss on some Foghat, and enjoy these 21 Dazed and Confused facts you might not have known.

1. IT WAS A BOX OFFICE FLOP.

It might be hard to believe now, but Dazed and Confused was a turkey at the box office, making just short of $8 million (on a $6.9 million budget). Of course, the film has gone on to have lasting financial legs, selling big on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray. The soundtrack also eventually went double platinum (back when soundtracks did that kind of thing).

2. A HUGE CHUNK OF THE BUDGET WENT TOWARD SECURING RIGHTS TO TUNES.

Speaking of the film's soundtrack: What would Dazed and Confused be without timeless classic rock tunes like Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane,” Aerosmith’s “Sweet Emotion,” and Alice Cooper’s “School’s Out”? Knowing that music was absolutely vital to the film, Richard Linklater spent a whopping one-sixth of the film’s budget on securing the necessary music rights.

3. THE TITLE IS A REFERENCE TO THE LED ZEPPELIN SONG, BUT IT'S NOT ALL ABOUT BOOZE AND DRUGS.

According to Linklater via an interview with Dazed Magazine (no relation), while the title is lifted from the Led Zeppelin song of the same name, it’s actually meant to accompany the idea that “it takes a full decade to process your teenage years.” Unfortunately, Linklater wasn’t able to secure rights to any of Zeppelin’s music for the film, as the band wasn’t interested in licensing their music for movies at the time.

4. IT'S ONE OF QUENTIN TARANTINO'S ALL-TIME FAVORITE MOVIES.

In surveys conducted by Sight & Sound magazine in 2002 and 2012, Tarantino included Dazed and Confused alongside classics like Taxi Driver; The Great Escape; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; and Carrie as one of his 12 all-time favorite movies. Tarantino also spoke about the film when it was honored at the Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards in 2013, calling it “maybe the only movie that three different generations of college students have seen multiple times.”

5. LOTS OF FUTURE STARS WERE TURNED DOWN FOR ROLES.

According to casting director Don Phillips, “every actor in [Los Angeles] wanted to be in it.” Claire Danes, Elizabeth Berkley, Ashley Judd, Brendan Fraser, Jon Favreau, and Vince Vaughn were all considered for roles, but didn’t make the cut. (Vaughn was in the running for the role of Fred O'Bannion, who was ultimately played by Ben Affleck.)

6. A CHANCE MEETING LED TO MATTHEW MCCONAUGHEY GETTING CAST.

Before he was an Oscar winner, Matthew McConaughey was just another University of Texas graduate with a film degree aspiring to be a director, with small roles in a beer commercial and a music video on his acting resume. He landed the role of David Wooderson after a drunken chance meeting with casting director Don Phillips, which ended with the two getting kicked out of an Austin bar. He then nabbed the role following a now-infamous audition.

7. TO HELP GET HIS ACTORS INTO CHARACTER, LINKLATER GAVE EACH ONE OF THEM HIS OR HER OWN MIXTAPE.

In Maxim's 2013 oral history of the film, actor Jason London (Randall "Pink" Floyd) recalled that, “'[Linklater] said, ‘Don’t listen to anything but this music.’ We had to morph into living as if we were in ’76.”

8. THE CASTING DIRECTOR WAS RESPONSIBLE FOR ANOTHER TEENAGE CLASSIC.

Dazed and Confused wasn’t the first time Phillips had been charged with discovering an ensemble of future stars. He was also the casting director for Fast Times at Ridgemont High, which featured early-career appearances by Sean Penn, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Forest Whitaker, and Nicolas Cage, among others.

9. THE CAST INCLUDED ONE FUTURE STAR YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED.

One of the reasons why Dazed and Confused has become near-mythic is in the amount of future Generation X acting successes it caught in its crosshairs. The massive cast includes pre-fame turns from Milla Jovovich, Anthony Rapp, Ben Affleck, Matthew McConaughey, and Parker Posey, alongside many more faces that are highly recognizable in 2018. One future Oscar-winner you might have missed, however, is Renée Zellweger, who pops up as an uncredited extra. (That's her in the blue and red striped tank top in the clip above; she walks by at the :45 mark.)

10. WOODERSON WAS SUPPOSED TO BE A MUCH SMALLER PART.

McConaughey's now-signature character was originally only supposed to have a few lines, but Wooderson got more screen time when one of the hired actors had some trouble fitting in with the rest of the cast. This resulted in Wooderson getting written into the scene on the football field, which is where he gave his “Just keep livin’” speech. The lines were inspired by a conversation between McConaughey and Linklater about the passing of McConaughey’s father during the first few days of filming.

11. UNBEKNOWNST TO RICHARD LINKLATER AND MCCONAUGHEY, THE TWO SHARED A SURPRISING BOND.

In a 2015 interview on WTF with Marc Maron, Linklater revealed that his dad and McConaughey's father played football together at the University of Houston, both competing at the defensive end position in the early 1950s. McConaughey's dad, Jim, would go on to be drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 27th round of the 1953 NFL draft (they were a bit longer back then), but never played in the league.

12. MCCONAUGHEY REPRISED THE ROLE OF WOODERSON FOR A 2012 MUSIC VIDEO.

The music video for Butch Walker and the Black Widows’s song “Synthesizers” features McConaughey lip-synching, air-trumpeting, slow-motion walking, drinking, and womanizing as his career-making character. For more proof that McConaughey hasn’t forgotten his first major role, look no further than his 2014 Oscar speech, where he dropped two of Wooderson’s best and most timeless lines: “Just keep livin’” and “alright, alright, alright.”

13. ONE OF THE YOUNG ACTORS BECAME SUCCESSFUL IN AN ENTIRELY DIFFERENT FIELD.

While many of the movie's cast members became recognizable Hollywood actors, Wiley Wiggins—who played Mitch Kramer—had a very quiet acting career after the film. It’s not because Wiggins couldn’t cut it as an actor, he just shifted his focus to designing and developing video games and running an independent gaming festival called Fantastic Arcade. He has popped up in a few more films, including Linklater’s trippy philosophical piece Waking Life in 2001 and in the Sundance Film Festival favorite Computer Chess in 2013.

14. LINKLATER WAS SUED BY SOME OF HIS REAL-LIFE CLASSMATES.

Linklater wasn’t especially creative when it came to making up character names with which to populate the fictional Lee High School. In fact, at least three of the characters' last names—Wooderson, Floyd, and Slater—were lifted directly from Linklater's own Huntsville High School, which became the basis of a defamation lawsuit for the real-life trio in 2004. According to the real Wooderson, Floyd, and Slater, the movie resulted in an onslaught of, well, mostly kids wanting to party with them all the time. The case was eventually tossed.

15. ORIGINALLY, LINKLATER IMAGINED IT AS A BEING A STRANGER, MUCH MORE EXPERIMENTAL MOVIE.

 Richard Linklater attends the Headline Gala Screening & International Premiere of 'Last Flag Flying' during the 61st BFI London Film Festival on October 8, 2017
Vittorio Zunino Celotto, Vittorio/Getty Images for BFI

According to Linklater, the plan for the movie was always to examine a single day in the life of a group of high schoolers in the '70s, but his original idea was a movie about “four guys in a Le Mans, listening to an eight-track tape of ZZ Top’s 'Fandango!'”

16. LINKLATER TRIED TO KEEP THE ATMOSPHERE PROFESSIONAL ... BUT OCCASIONALLY FAILED.

Linklater claims to have enforced a professional atmosphere on the set that included no drugs or alcohol, saying “People are surprised how militant I am about that kind of work ethic. I set a tone.” Although, by Linklater’s own admission, while the on-set marijuana wasn’t real, “the cast does admit to being stoned in several scenes, particularly at the very end."

17. THE FILM FEATURES A FREQUENT LINKLATER TROPE YOU MIGHT HAVE MISSED.

One scene features Slater (Rory Cochrane) smoking a cigarette and hammering away at a 1972 Bally "Fireball" pinball machine. Linklater’s films Waking Life, Before Sunrise, and his little-seen 1988 debut It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books all feature scenes that include characters playing pinball.

18. SLATER'S LINE ABOUT GEORGE WASHINGTON GROWING WEED IS (KIND OF) TRUE.

Milla Jovovich, Shawn Andrews, Jason London, and Rory Cochrane in 'Dazed and Confused' (1993)
Criterion Collection

Slater, the pottiest of Lee High School's potheads, had some memorable theories about the goings-on at Mount Vernon, claiming “George toked weed, are you kiddin' me, man? He grew fields of that stuff, man.” While Washington did indeed grow hemp at Mount Vernon (fun fact: the Declaration of Independence was written on hemp paper), significantly less evidence exists to claim he ever grew or smoked a psychoactive strain of cannabis.

19. IT MADE ITS AT-HOME DEBUT ON A LONG-FORGOTTEN MEDIUM.

Dazed and Confused was released on September 24, 1993 and hit home video in March of 1994. But anyone up on their huge-discs-that-are-soon-to-be-defunct technologies could have grabbed it on LaserDisc two months earlier, which seems oddly appropriate for a movie that’s all about nostalgia. The movie became a formally-sanctioned cult classic in 2006, when it received a Criterion Collection DVD release. (It's also available on Blu-ray via Criterion.)

20. LINKLATER AND UNIVERSAL PICTURES WERE CONSTANTLY AT ODDS OVER THE MOVIE.

At first, Universal wanted the movie to be rated PG-13, with the belief that it would lead to better box office results, to which Linklater responded, “we have 78 'f***s' in the script, pot smoking all the way through, and teenagers drinking and driving." Later, the studio complained that Linklater hadn’t used the movie’s R-rating to its fullest extent, lamenting the film’s lack of nudity.

21. LINKLATER SAW IT AS AN "INVERSE" OF JOHN HUGHES'S TEEN MOVIES.

Unlike John Hughes’s Sixteen Candles, The Breakfast Club, and Pretty in Pink, which culminated in important kisses and life-changing revelations, Linklater designed Dazed and Confused to feel more true to the mild drama of real life, saying “I don’t remember teenage [years] being that dramatic. I remember just trying to go with the flow, socialize, fit in, and be cool. The stakes were really low. To get Aerosmith tickets or not? That’s a big thing.”

Can You Find the 30 Album Covers Referenced in This Picture?

Norman Records
Norman Records

Album covers were once a respected art form and representation of a band’s identity. Now, after more than a decade of music being readily available online, they can be more of an afterthought.

In tribute to this dying art form, online vinyl retailer Norman Records has created a fun visual quiz featuring some of the most iconic album covers of all time. (Hint: Most are classic rock albums, but there are a few that fall into different genres.)

Check out the interactive image below, and use your cursor to hover over any areas you’d like to enlarge. Once you give up, keep scrolling to reveal the answers.

How many did you get? Some, like David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and Led Zeppelin’s self-titled album, are fairly obvious. Other references are a little more obscure (any Neutral Milk Hotel fans?).

If this quiz has you feeling musically inspired, check out these stories behind 22 classic album covers, including Nirvana’s Nevermind, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and the Grateful Dead’s Skull and Roses.

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