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.

Elvis Presley’s Lincoln Limousine "Family Car" Is Hitting the Auction Block

Elvis Presley not only liked peanut-butter-bacon-and-banana sandwiches, he also loved cars. The King owned more than 100 automobiles, including several limos. Whereas most of his cars—and his plane—have been preserved at Graceland, one of Elvis’s lesser-known and most sentimental cars has almost been forgotten. Atlas Obscura reports that Presley’s 1967 Lincoln Continental Executive Limousine by Lehmann-Peterson will hit the auction block in Monterey, California, on August 15, courtesy of Mecum Auctions.

“Colonel” Tom Parker, Presley's manager, gifted the limo to Elvis and Priscilla on their wedding day in 1967. For the '60s, it featured a lot of advanced amenities, like air conditioning, power steering, power brakes, power windows, a power antenna, and a power front bench seat. Over the years, it became known as the Elvis Presley Family Car. Elvis’s imprint is all over it: The limo’s Tennessee license plate reads “1-Elvis,” and comes with a copy of the car’s original title application, with Elvis’s name on it.

But since Presley’s death in August 1977, the car has fallen into disrepair—dust covers the black exterior and interior. In 2014, the car was found in car collector James Petrozzini’s collection after Petrozzini died. As Mecum Auctions states, Petrozzini liked to use the limo to pick up his son and his friends from school while wearing a chauffeur’s hat and white gloves.

If you’re interested in bidding, Mecum Auctions recommends calling for an estimate. For comparison: In 2018 Presley’s 1971 Mercedes-Benz sold for $116,600.

12 Facts About Woodstock For Its 50th Anniversary

Tucker Ransom, Getty Images
Tucker Ransom, Getty Images

From August 15-18, 1969, an estimated 400,000 spectators attended Woodstock, a music event held in Bethel, New York, that quickly became a defining moment in the counter-cultural movement of the era. Nearly three dozen acts performed over the course of four days, ranging from the Grateful Dead to The Who to Jimi Hendrix, who closed out the show. To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this milestone in music history, we're looking at some of the things about the festival you might have missed.

1. Woodstock was banned from its original site because of toilets.

Attendees at Woodstock pose while sitting inside a car trunk
Three Lions/Getty Images

Woodstock was conceived in early 1969 by a group of twenty-somethings: Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang, Joel Rosenman, and John Roberts. In January of that year, the four men—Kornfeld and Lang as music industry vets and Rosenman and Roberts as venture capitalists who provided the financial backing— formed the company Woodstock Ventures, named for the New York town that Kornfeld and Lang were scouting to build a recording studio in. Woodstock had long been known as an artists' retreat about two hours north of New York City, and even has its own "Artists Cemetery" for a variety of creative types.

The original site of the festival was intended to be at Howard Mills Industrial Park in Wallkill, near Middletown, New York. After negotiations with landowners, the four believed they had found a solution. But Wallkill residents shot the idea down, fearing that an influx of visitors—possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs—would be potentially problematic. By insisting the concert's portable toilets weren't up to code and refusing to grant a permit, Wallkill effectively banned Woodstock from taking place there just a month before its scheduled August 15 start date.

2. Woodstock was saved by a farmer.

When Wallkill fell through, promoters turned to Bethel, New York, a small town with just 2366 residents where a farmer named Max Yasgur owned a 600-acre dairy farm. As in Wallkill, Bethel residents were not terribly enthusiastic about hosting a concert that would attract a considerable crowd. But Yasgur didn't share their apprehensions. Even though he was middle-aged, blue-collar, and as far from a "hippie" as he could be, he respected the desire of concert-goers to share in a communal experience and allowed organizers the use of his property for a fee of $50,000. He even came out at one point to address the crowd (above), congratulating them on the assembly. It was said he received as loud an ovation as Jimi Hendrix.

3. Woodstock wasn't meant to be a free concert.

The crowd at Woodstock is pictured
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Mounting Woodstock was not intended to be an altruistic venture. Kornfeld, Rosenman, Roberts, and Lang paid for talent, production costs, Yasgur's site, and incurred other expenses in the hope of profiting from ticket sales. One day's admission was $7; attending all three (which stretched into early Monday morning due to rain and technical delays) was $18. But as people began to show up to Bethel days before the scheduled start, the infrastructure was still incomplete. Fences still needed to be erected and ticket booths set up. With no practical way of turning away crowds, the partners decided to make it a free event for people who had not purchased one of the 100,000 tickets that had been pre-sold. Of the 400,000 who ultimately attended, 300,000 were never charged an admission fee. (The total number of attendees would have likely been more if not for traffic back-ups. Some people walked miles to the site.)

After expenses, the partners ran into a deficit. Two of them—Kornfeld and Lang—sold their share in Woodstock Ventures, the company they had formed to put on the concert. Roberts and Rosenman eventually saw a modest profit after other income sources, like the 1970 concert film Woodstock, were tallied.

4. Many cows were in attendance.

Attendees at Woodstock sit near their car
Three Lions/Getty Images

Yasgur's farm was a functioning site of business, which meant that the incoming crowds were going to be displacing the cattle usually present on site. His workers tried to corral them into a fenced area, but so many people ran over the barrier and set up campgrounds that they decided to just let the cows wander and mingle with attendees. One of Yasgur's employees, George Peavey, told United Press International that the cows and music fans "seem to be getting along together fine."

5. Jimi Hendrix got $18,000 to perform.

Booking big-name acts didn't come cheap. Jimi Hendrix was Woodstock's highest-paid performer, earning $18,000 (roughly $125,000 in 2019 dollars, accounting for inflation). Creedence Clearwater Revival, the first act booked, received $10,000. The Who received $6250 (although another report has them receiving $11,200) and Joe Cocker made a relatively paltry $1375. Sha Na Na got $750, while Quill was the most economic booking at $375.

6. Woodstock's musical acts needed to be helicoptered in.

Musician John Sebastian performs at Woodstock in 1969
Tullio Saba, Flickr // Public Domain

The traffic leading into the event was so awful that Sweetwater, which was due to open the festival, didn't make their scheduled start. (Richie Havens went on instead.) The band was airlifted to the grounds by helicopter so they could go on second. A number of other performers also traveled by air to circumvent the traffic issues.

7. Woodstock's crowd was actually very well-behaved.

Attendees at Woodstock are pictured
Three Lions/Getty Images

Despite concerns from both Wallkill and Bethel over the anticipated misbehavior of attendees, virtually no reports of violence ever came out of the festival. When those in attendance used telephones to place long-distance calls back to home, local switchboard operators were amazed that all of them said "thank you." Lou Yank, the chief of police in nearby Monticello, declared them "the most courteous, considerate, and well-behaved group of kids I have ever been in contact with in my 24 years of police work." The only real impropriety came as a result of concession food shortages, driving some attendees to loot nearby farmland for corn and produce.

While it's possible law enforcement could have arrested many, many people for marijuana possession, they opted not to. As one state police sergeant said, there "wouldn't be enough space in Sullivan County, or the next three counties, to put them in."

8. Even the ice had acid in it.

Attendees at Woodstock in 1969 are pictured
Paille, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Woodstock has a well-earned reputation for being a trip in more ways than one. Drug use was pervasive and seemingly inescapable. In 2009, the Who's John Entwistle told Billboard that he decided to drink a bourbon and Coke and realized that someone had spiked the ice with acid. The use of psychedelic drugs was estimated to have resulted in 25 "freak-outs" every hour the first night of the festival; emergency medical staff and members of a commune known as the Hog Farm sat with attendees until the drugs wore off.

9. The Who's set was crashed by Abbie Hoffman.

Performing on day two of the festival, British rock band the Who experienced an interruption when political activist Abbie Hoffman (who had co-founded the Youth International Party the previous year to protest the Vietnam War) rushed on stage to protest the imprisonment of White Panther Party leader John Sinclair. Pete Townshend swung at Hoffman with his guitar and ushered him off-stage. It was probably worth the hassle, as Townshend later said he thought their performance boosted sales of their Tommy album.

10. There were public service announcements between each act.

In an era before cell phones, trying to communicate with friends in a sea of humanity was challenging. To try and facilitate important messages, a member of the production staff named Edward "Chip" Monck (seriously) took to the microphone to deliver announcements, alerting the crowd to unattended children or to notify people where to find help. "Kenny Irwin, please go to the information booth for your insulin," he said. "Paul Andrews, Mike needs his pills and will meet you where he did yesterday." In the above video, you can also hear someone—possibly Monck—warning the crowd about some potentially harmful "brown acid" making the rounds.

11. The original Woodstock site is now on the National Register of Historic Places.

A plaque stands at the original site of Woodstock in Bethel, New York
Mario Tama, Getty Images

Cementing its status as a historic site, the concert area was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2017. The farm is now known as the Bethel Woods Center for the Arts. It contains a campus, museum, and 15,000-seat amphitheater. The site will be host to a number of 50th anniversary events, including performances by Ringo Starr and original Woodstock acts Arlo Guthrie and Carlos Santana the weekend of August 16, 17, and 18, 2019.

12. Even the garbage had a message.

People clean up the garbage left behind at Woodstock in 1969
Three Lions/Getty Images

Woodstock's pacifist vibe extended to the extensive clean-up required after the crowds began to dissipate following Hendrix's closing performance on Monday, August 18, 1969. By then the audience had dwindled to just 25,000 or so. When Hendrix was finished, a crew set about picking up the considerable garbage left behind. Surveying the concert site in a helicopter, co-promoter Michael Lang noticed that workers had started to shovel the trash in formation. A peace symbol appeared, made up of the litter left behind.

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