First Kiss Manager Dies
It has now been confirmed that Bill Aucoin, who managed Kiss during their glory days in the 1970s, has died af the age of 66, after a battle agaimst prostate cancer. As a tribute to Aucoin, here’s a previously unpublished interview with the man (who also worked with Billy Idol and Billy Squier) that was done three years ago by Malcolm Dome.
He never spat blood like Gene Simmons. He didn’t croon Beth like Peter Criss. And he was never seen in garish make-up – well almost never. But, there’s little doubt that Kiss owe much of their enormous, unique success and value to the shrewd work of Bill Aucoin who, throughout the 1970s, was regarded as the fifth member of a band that showed how to turn libidos into hard cash, and songs about priapic overdrive into profits.
As crucial to Kiss as Peter Grant was to Led Zeppelin, in many ways Aucoin laid the fundamentals for the way the modern manager is perceived.
Born in Ayer, Massachusetts, he didn’t come from an entertainment background – “My father owned a small food market” – but quickly became fascinated by television.
“I had my own mock studio, made out of cardboard boxes. Me and my friends would put on productions. I loved the medium.”
Going to college in Boston, Aucoin got the chance to do camera work for New York TV production company Teletapes. On graduation, he headed for the Big Apple and fame – or, rather poverty.
“I expected to be offered a job with Teletapes, but nothing happened. I was living with a friend, and down to my last five dollars, when I made a fateful decision. I worked out that, if I bought a glass of orange juice in the morning, and a hamburger at night, then I could survive for three more days in New York. That became my deadline: 72 hours to get a job. On the second day, Teletapes called; I was in!”
At this point, enter Kiss…
“I developed a music programme called Flipside, which featured artists like John Lennon and Stevie Wonder. This guy called Gene Simmons had been writing me notes, saying that he was in a band, and asking if I’d like to check them out. So, one day I went down to see them play at this seedy hotel in New York, a hangout for drug dealers and pimps.”
Aucoin was sufficiently impressed to make them an offer…
“I asked the guys to give me 30 days to get them a record deal. If I succeeded, then I’d become their manager. If not, we’d review where things stood. Well, I did it. Neil Bogart, who’d made his name marketing singles for a label called Buddha, had just set up his own operation backed by Warner Brothers: Casablanca. He took a chance and signed Kiss.”
The year was 1973. Bogart quickly moved his operation to Los Angeles, taking Kiss and Aucoin with him. Hanging out with movie stars and seduced by the glamour of Tinsel Town, the band performed a showcase for the parent company, Warners, at Century Plaza. And they all lived happily ever after…hell, no, this is real life!
“The band were awful. And Warners decided they didn’t want us on Casablanca. Neil came under pressure to ditch Kiss, but he backed us up, and walked away from his own deal.”
So, Casablanca and Kiss went from the comfort of major financial backing to near poverty.
“In the early years we really struggled badly. To keep things going, Neil mortgaged all he owned, and I put in all the money I’d made. And there’s also the famous story about how I bankrolled the Dressed To Kill tour in 1975, via my American Express card.
“After our third album, which was te aforementioned Dressed To Kill, we didn’t have the money to do a fourth one. Neil then suggested a live album, as it was a lot cheaper. I agreed, as long as it was in a gatefold sleeve and had a booklet. So Alive! came out in 1975, and just exploded. It sold over three million copies. We went from poverty to luxury.”
Apart from the vibrancy of the music, what helped to sell Kiss was the unmistakable image. So, how much of this was down to Aucoin?
They all came up with own ideas. My contribution was to insist the guys kept the basic white background to their face paint, and coming from a visual background, I wanted a huge stage show.”
Aucoin developed ideas for major marketing strategies, as he saw the clear potential in selling the recognizable images.
“To me, it was obvious. And it was so successful that, in 1978, the band made $119 million, which nearly put us into the top 500 companies list in America. About $55 million of that came from merchandising.”
There were Kiss pinball machines. Kiss lunchboxes. Kiss lawnmowers. Kiss dolls. And Kiss comics. There were two specials of the last-named, published by Marvel in 1977 and 1978. For Aucoin, these were logical extensions of the Kiss brand.
“Stan Lee, the main man at Marvel, was really good to us. And to have the guys as superheroes in comic form made sense. For the first special, we mixed in Kiss’ own blood with the red ink. We took this to the printing press, and poured it in ourselves. But…it wasn’t for the Kiss comic! That wasn’t being printed the day we went up. It was Sports Illustrated!”
Naturally, any smooth, well oiled machine eventually starts to hit problems. And for Aucoin the beginning of the end came in 1980, when Criss was fired.
“Peter did struggle with huge problems. But both Ace and I felt that we should stick by him. Gene and Paul disagreed. The moment of truth came when we had a big meeting. Ace, myself and our lawyer sat on one side of a huge table, with Gene, Paul, all their lawyers and business managers on the other. We knew it was a hopeless cause.”
The end for Criss somehow was a watershed. And the manager was about to get another shock.
“It was always important to me to protect the Kiss franchise, so I spent literally four years getting the individual make-up trademarked. But I did it, and then the band immediately stunned me by saying they wanted to ditch the make-up altogether. The problem was that they’d seen all their contemporaries grow up and get more adult audiences, and they were still stuck as a marketing ploy for kids! I couldn’t dissuade them from that decision. It was then that I decided to end our relationship (1981).”
In 1983 Kiss did remove the make-up, but Aucoin finds it slightly ironic that they eventually saw his viewpoint, getting back into make-up for the re-union tour in ’96.
“The guys did ask me then to manage them again, but it didn’t appeal to me. But I do smile at the way they’ve thrown themselves into marketing everything – the very point that split us up as a team!”
But Aucoin wasn’t exclusively involved with Kiss. During the 1970s, he briefly looked after Piper (featuring the fledgling Billy Squier) and cult heroes Starz. In 1981, he successfully took up the cudgels for Billy Idol.
“In a way, I had the same credibility problem as with Kiss. With the latter it was the make-up. With Billy, it was the spikey hair and punk reputation.”
Aucoin and Idol parted in ’84. But, if he’s not been high profile since, the man’s still heavily involved in music. And the hot news that he’s just signed on to manage the band many see as the 21st Century Kiss…
“You know that (singer) Mr. Lordi used to run the Finnish branch of the Kiss fan club? Anyway, they excite me, so I’ve agreed to manage them.”
The circle, it would seem, is complete.
RIP, Bill Aucoin.