Interview: Bill Aucoin
“Because everyone hated us, we had no one disturbing us….So they stayed out of our way. The more people stay out of the way, the more we did.”
Note from Rachel: In November of 2008, I interviewed Bill Aucoin, the former manager of Billy Squier, Lordi and, most famously, Kiss; also commonly known as the genius behind Kiss’s revolutionary marketing techniques. In spite of these accomplishments, Aucoin impressed me as a gently-spoken, unpretentious and humble man as well as an entertaining raconteur. His stories of how he got the world to pay attention to Kiss should be fascinating and inspiring to anyone with a vision of their own, be it music-oriented or not. To put the first question of this interview, which was published in Popular 1 magazine, into context: Barack Obama had just been elected President of the United States. Sadly, Bill Aucoin passed away in June of 2010.
Some elections, huh?
Yeah, it was a good one. It’s about time. (laughter) We’re all very happy here.
So are we. Everybody in Spain is very excited.
Yeah, I know, it’s gonna be good. We really needed a complete change, and that’s what happened. Fortunately, when it’s desperate, the voting system really works.
It’s the first time in my life experienced such a euphoria with the political process. The reelection of Bush was so disappointing, I still keep pinching myself to see if I’m just dreaming that Obama was elected.
Yeah, I think we all did. People were crying over it. It was really just fascinating. It was great. One of the biggest frustrations that certainly I had was the fact that Bush got reelected. It’s funny, when I travel around the world, (laughter) most of the comments would be, “Well, we can understand why you might have elected him the first time. BUT, (laughter) what in hell made you do it again? And I just have to shake my head because I think what happened, clearly, was that it was that whole thing about the fear of the war, and this and that, and terrorists, and he just used it to get his way. And unfortunately, it wasn’t good. But now it’s different, so that’s great.
Hallelulah. You’re the manager of a new band, Crossbreed. What sort of a band are they?
It’s a metal-techno band. They had one album out a few years ago on a label that really wasn’t a metal label. They really didn’t know what to do with them. But they still went on the road, on their own, by the way, and sold over 50,000 units by themselves. So they really did very well. I got to know them, I like the guys in the band, and I like the band. I took them off the other label. We changed a couple of people in the band, and then we just finished another album and it’s gonna be coming out on a new label called Driven Music, which is owned by Head.
You’ve worked with Lordi also as their manger, right?
Yeah, in fact, Lordi was in town. They just left to go on an American tour. We did the Conan O’Brien show last night on the NBC television network, and that went great. Their new album just came out about a week ago. So that’s going well also. And then they come back and they do a European tour starting the 24th of January.
Are they as fun in person as they seem as a band?
Yes, they’re quite unique. Any one of these bands, just like Kiss was, they all have unique personalities underneath the mask, whether that’s just makeup or mask. And so we get to see them the way they normally are, and they’re really some characters, to say the least.
Do you see some things in common between Lordi and Kiss, besides what you just mentioned?
Yeah. Actually Tommy, the lead singer of Lordi, was the president of the Kiss fan club in Finland. And he always thought that he wanted a band, and he always idolized Gene Simmons. And he said, “Well, instead of having one Gene Simmons, suppose we had four or five monsters? Wouldn’t that be exciting? And basically that was his idea. And he put it together a few years back, and of course then they finally got major recognition with Eurovision.
How long have you been working with Lordi?
Right after Eurovision, I got a call from a friend of mine who said, “You should watch Eurovision and see who won.” And I said, “God, Eurovision, is that still around? (laughter) I hadn’t watched Eurovision for years. He said, “Oh no, you’ve got to watch this. Go get a tape, go look at it and see what you think. So I looked at it, and obviously I was surprised because I hadn’t seen anything like that on Eurovision. And the fact that they won was even more exciting.
And so I talked to my partner. We were about to start a new company. And I talked to my partner, and he said, “Look, I really think we should see that this Lordi band is about.” So I called Tommy, and of course Tommy knew who I was, and I said, “Look, I would like to come over and see you. And maybe go to a few shows on the tour that you’re going through, and see whether or not maybe we can do something in the States. And he then told me that they had lost their manager, he had gotten ill, and they were looking for a new manager. So when me and my partner went over to see them, we stayed with them on the road for I guess a couple of weeks. And by the end of it, they had decided that they wanted us to manage them. So it was kind of unique and something I hadn’t expected.
Sounds like it happened organically.
Yep, that’s correct.
You’ve worked with some really good bands in the past. What can you tell me about Piper?
There was a band in Boston, a three-piece. I can’t remember their names, but Billy Squier was in it. And the three guys were all very good, but I thought that Billy Squier was unique. So I pulled him out of the band and I asked him whether he would come to New York, and whether he would leave the band, and so forth. And he said yes, and he came to New York. And he didn’t want to do a solo career at that point. He really thought it should be a band. So we put together a band called Piper. And signed them to A&M. And we did two albums on A&M.
And then that kind of fell apart for a couple of reasons. One, it didn’t totally break through, and second, it became really clear that it was gonna be Billy Squier. I mean, without a doubt, it wasn’t gonna be Piper, it was gonna be Billy Squier. So I even told Billy, I said, listen, I think this has come to an end. I don’t see you fitting into a band anymore because you have specific ideas, you write a specific way, you know how you want to sing the songs, you know how you want to play them. It really should be Billy Squier. And he went away for about a year and a half, and finally came out as a solo artist: Billy Squier.
How difficult is it being part of your job to sometimes have to break up a band when you see that it’s not gonna work to the best of its potential the way it is?
It’s always tough. I think, however, what I did is I just saw what was happening. I mean, it was becoming very obvious that Billy was not only the star, but had specific ideas that just didn’t fit into having people come along with him in a band format. And also, I think that he felt that the band that he had put together maybe wasn’t the strongest band that he really wanted to perform his music. And so it kind of had its own life, when I saw what was happening.
It wasn’t as tough as you might think. I mean, normally, if you have something that’s happening at all, and you say to the band, “We’re going to break it up, we’re taking so-and-so out of the band,” that’s a tough one. That’s tough. But this kind of happened, again, organically. You could kind of see what was going on. You could see that Billy wanted even stronger musicians to play with him.
And also he had done some tours now, and he felt more confident about himself. I think that initially, part of starting a band, not him having a solo career, was a little bit of that insecurity. You know, “I think I’ll fit better in a band, I’ll feel more comfortable if it’s a band.” It took the onus off of him, of using his name as a vehicle. So I think he finally felt strong enough that it made sense. And I discussed it with him, in fact, I even told him that I thought that’s the way that it had to be. We had a discussion whether or not the band should continue, get another record label. But it was pretty obvious to me at that time that he was the strength. And he needed to be on his own.
What’s your opinion of how his solo career evolved?
Billy’s very strong. He’s a terrific writer. He could be a little difficult sometimes – wanting what he wants, and how he wants it. He never was with me, but some of the record companies felt like, “He doesn’t listen enough, or he doesn’t this, or he doesn’t pay attention, he doesn’t show gratitude for what we’re doing” and so forth. But Billy’s a rock-and-roller and he’s a great writer, and he had a specific view of what he had to do, and how he wanted to do it, and it became a big success.
And then at the end of his contract with Capitol, they really were at odds with each other. Capitol wasn’t happy with him, he wasn’t happy with Capitol, and they kind of came to an end over what was going to be done, because I think he owed Capitol one more album. They didn’t really want it, so his lawyer went in and said, “You’re gonna owe him so much money if he doesn’t do the album because it’s under contract,” and so forth, and so I think they came up with a settlement and that was that.
And after that, I think that Billy decided he needed some time. You know, because he had gone through a lot, he had done a lot of touring, he had a lot of success. You know, the ups and downs, and the craziness. And he kind of backed away from the business. I would talk to him and he would say, “Well, I’m mountain climbing.” Or “I’m planting something in my garden.” And I would said, “Well, are you writing?” “No, no, I’m not writing.” And I’d keep getting this from him: “No, I’m really happy. I’m walking in Central Park, I tried to do some good for the city” and so forth. So he was in that kind of mode, where he was content, and found some individual happiness that I think that he hadn’t really found before, and it had to do with really being away from everything, and just finding himself.
In any case, I guess for the last five years, I’ve been taunting him about writing. Because I just think he’s one of the best writers. And I love his voice. I went to see him, he was playing with Ringo – he’s done two Ringo tours. And the last tour, I mean, he was so good, it was kind of like the Ringo-Billy Squier tour. And he was just great. I mean, all that enthusiasm and that great stage performance, and the vocals and the guitar playing – it was all back, it was all there.
I guess a couple of months ago, I had talked to him, and then I had seen him on one of the last shows that Ringo did. And he said, “I’ve found a writer that I think I like writing with.” And although he usually wrote most of his stuff on his own, but I think he had to feel secure and he had to feel good about writing. He doesn’t sit down and write because I said so, or someone else said so. And so he found a writer, and I told him that I would put up the money to do an album when he feels ready, because I think he’s missed. I think he has a lot of fans. Plus, I think he could write a spectacular album again.
I’m a fan. He was one of my first sexual idols as a child, when “Everybody Wants You” came out. And that song hasn’t dated at all. It’s totally current.
Yeah. It’s interesting that most Billy Squier, and Billy Idol’s music remains current. You can hear them on the radio, and it just sounds like it could have come out yesterday.
It’s certainly better than a lot of the stuff that’s coming out nowadays.
Exactly, I agree.
Another great band you worked with was Starz, although they were never as popular as Kiss or Aerosmith. But they were a really good band. How did you discover them?
I didn’t discover them, actually. It was Sean Delaney who discovered them. What I tried to do was to give other people a chance in the company to bring in artists if we thought that the potential was there. And that actually all happened. And Capitol came in. An A&R guy at Capitol liked the songs, and we got them signed, and then we went on the road with Kiss. Michael Smith, Michael E. Smith was really an incredible writer as well. Here’s another guy who really had the ability to write some incredible lyrics. And that kind of went along, and we did a few albums for Capitol, never really broke through.
Ironically, I don’t think the promotion department at Capitol believed in them. And you know in those days, the promotion department was everything. They’re the ones that got them on the radio, they’re the ones that really made the hits. And they just didn’t ever quite understand Michael’s writing, I don’t think. So they never totally got behind them, and therefore it never happened.
And toward the end, it kind of got a little crazy. Capitol really didn’t want to resign them. Michael came back and his wife had left him, apparently left him a note saying, “I’m gone. You’ve been on the road, you’ve got your own life now”, something like that. So it was a trauma for him. Everything happened at once, and the band kind of fell apart. And ironically, I think they think I just let them fall apart. That I didn’t care, and that I just let everything die. But that wasn’t really the case. It was really something that, the band was kind of falling apart in its own right. And Sean, who was the real key element, because he found the band, he didn’t have that interest in the band the way it was. So it kind of lost that momentum, and that was really the end. However, if you listen to some of the albums, like “Attention Shopper”, for instance, it’s really unique. And the lyrics are phenomenal. And I hope someday that maybe someone else covers some of those songs, because they’re really good.
You sound like a very secure person, but how much does that bother you when you get blamed for something that’s just part of a dysfunctional group?
Well, it’s part of life, if you’re in the business. If you love the music business, which I do, and I love the artists. I think artists are phenomenal. I just love the whole entertainment business. But I really fall in love with these artists. I care about the, I really want it to happen. And when it starts falling apart, look, it’s hard. Yeah, it cuts to the quick. You feel it inside. I feel it. I feel guilty, I feel awkward about it. I wonder why we couldn’t have done it, why we couldn’t have pulled through. And then what happens is, another artist comes along, and your energy and love and everything goes to that artist. So luckily, from a creative standpoint – if you’re lucky – some other creative force will come along and fill that void.
But during the time when something is falling apart, ugh, wow! It just takes the life out of me. There’s nothing worse than seeing a creative project fall apart. For me, any way, it’s horrible. And it has nothing to do with potential success or money or anything else. It just has that, like that knife in the side that’s, “Oh, why? Why is this happening? This could have happened. This could have made it. This had all the elements…” And, “Is it my fault? Could I have done something else?”
So yeah, I do take it personally, but again, I think fortunately, creatively – and if you’re lucky creatively, and I have been – there will be another wonderful artist that will come along, or something else that’ll motivate you, that kind of takes its place, and brings you out of those doldrums that you get into when something doesn’t work, or when you feel you’ve let someone down.
Before working as a rock manager, you had a TV show called “Saturday Night at the Movement”, correct?
How do you remember that experience?
That’s amazing that you even brought that up. That never made it. That was kind of like a Saturday Night Live show, which I did a pilot for back in the early seventies. I made a pilot, and it was about bands playing, and skits, you know, writers that would write skits, and so forth.
And I wanted to do it in and around NYC, with a mobile unit. Like we went to the Fillmore East at the time, and we covered The Byrds when they played there. And then we did some shooting – well, one writer wrote something about something in Central Park, we did that there. And then we shot down on St. Mark’s Place in the Village, with another story. And so it was kind of that type of a show.
And ironically, I brought it to NBC, where Saturday Night Live is. And they looked at me kind of cross-eyed. And then I said, “This is a late-night show. This really should be on late night. That’s where the audience is.” And they looked at me and they said, (laughter) “You can’t expect us to have our affiliates keep someone at the transmitter and someone in master control. Two paid salaries for a late-night show?” That was their answer.
Yeah, they had no clue of what was gonna happen, or that television was gonna be 24 hours a day, or that it was the coming thing. They just, at the thought of asking their affiliates to keep a couple of people on, that they had to keep someone at the transmitter and someone as master control to be able to put this show on, was just way too costly. So that went on the back shelf. And the show that made it was a show called Flip Side. And Flip Side was another pilot that I did. And I shot it in the recording studios with artists that felt comfortable in the recording studios.
The worst thing for artists in those days was when they went on network television, or any television, usually the sound was terrible. They certainly didn’t know how to record rock-n-roll music, that’s for sure. It was just horrendous. So there was a two-play here. One, the network executives thought it was terrible, so they didn’t want them on. But if the producer of the show thought that, “Here’s a superstar act, I want ‘em on,” the act always felt uncomfortable because they never sounded good.
So my thought was, let’s go into the recording studios where they recorded their albums with their producer, or their record president, whatever. So that they’d have their engineers, they knew the sound was gonna be good. And then we’d do some discussions about their music and themselves, and their latest album, and whatever. So that was basically it. And that’s how I got around the whole thing of the bad sound that the networks had. And that’s how I got everyone from John Lennon to Stevie Wonder. Everyone did my show, and people were just amazed.
And ironically, again, the network, (laughter) this is, oh, God, talk about being out of touch – I would give them a show, I’d say, “We’ve got a great show with Stevie Wonder. We’ve got an incredible show with John Lennon.” And they would look at me and say, “This is the network. Why are we putting these people on the network? They don’t belong on the network. You should be getting Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra. These young artists just don’t belong on the network.”
So I kept getting bludgeoned every week. So I had a contract to do 13 shows, which I did. And after that, I said, “I’ve got to get out. I can’t stand this anymore. I think I’ll go in the music business. And ironically, one of the people who kept writing me notes every week was Gene Simmons. “I saw the show with so-and-so. You know, I have a band called Kiss.” And “You should come and see us, and we’re gonna be playing here…” And then he’d send me a hand-written pass. (laughter) Not a printed pass, a hand-written pass to come and see us.
So when the show came to an end, I said, “Ugh, wow. This is just too much of a headache.” I remember I was out having dinner with one of the account execs from an agency who sponsored the show when it was on the network. And I said, “You know, I’m gonna take a look at this band. Do you wanna come with me?” And he said, “Yeah, sure.” So he didn’t realize who it was. And I had never seen them before, but I had read Gene’s notes. Anyway, we went to this dilapidated hotel called The Diplomat, and it really was just.. it really was in bad, bad shape. What happened was that a bunch of local bands would get together and rent one of their small ballrooms, they had a little stage. And then they would charge their friends to come and see them, and they would hope to get someone from the record labels, and they’d get signed. Anyways, so we go to this hotel, and I mean, there were hookers and drug dealers hanging in the lobby. I mean, it really was bad. And the elevators don’t work. And we’re climbing the stairs to the second floor ballroom, and we had to step over holes in the floor, that’s how bad it was. And how he thinks i’m out of my mind. But on the other hand, it’s rock-and roll, so he’s kind of going along with it.
So I walk in, and obviously we don’t look like the normal two guys that are gonna come. We’re not the young friends of teh band that anyone knows, so they’re like, “Ooh, look at these guys, they must be from a record label.” So they escort us in, sit us in the front row, and Kiss comes out. Now, Gene wasn’t spitting fire or blood or anything at that time, but they had a little bit of the makeup. Everyone didn’t have White Face the way we eventually did it. But they were really performers. And I said to my friend, “You know, this is really interesting.” And he kind of looked at me like I was out of my mind.
And we left, and I invited Gene and Paul and the band to come to the office, which they did. And they brought a tape, a demo tape that Eddie Cramer had done on them. And I liked it. And I said, “Gee, you guys, if you give me 30 days, I’ll try to get you a record deal. If I can’t get you a record deal, at the end of 30 days you can either leave me, or we can stay together and see what can happen.” And I got them the deal with Casablanca within 30 days, and that was the beginning of the whole Kiss experience.
Was there some meeting you had with Gene where he showed up with a groupie on his lap or something?
No, no, it wasn’t quite that. Things get embellished. But Gene and Paul came out and talked to me after they performed in this little ballroom. And that’s when I said, “Why don’t you come to my office next week, and let’s see whether there’s something.” No, Gene kind of embellishes things that happened later, and fits them into the proper mode that he thinks it belongs in. He wasn’t quite that flamboyant in that time. I think he thinks he was, but it wasn’t quite that.
They were actually pretty business-oriented – at least trying to get the deal. They really wanted hopefully to get someone behind them and to try to help them, and so forth. And that’s where their heads were at.
How did you react to the makeup when you first saw it?
It didn’t bother me. Don’t forget, I was a television director-producer. In my mind, I didn’t want to be a manager sitting behind a desk. I really wanted to be a director. And if you look at some of the first albums that I did with them, you’ll see Aucoin Direction/Management. And I really meant that. In my mind, direction is as important as management. And because I was a director, I really wanted to help them. It wasn’t to just say, “Hey, I’ll get you a deal.” Or, “I’ll take care of the business side.”
So part of why the Kiss shows started to develop and get bigger and bigger is that was kind of my baby along with them. I mean they wanted to do it, but the more things that we came up with, the more exciting it got, the more I wanted to do it. And as a director, you can see why it all came together, and why it was so much fun.
And one of the great things about Kiss is that – and this is really important today, because I find that bands, and artists sometimes, they either don’t want to listen, or they’re fearful of listening, or they think it’s being pushed on them, or whatever. But when we decided on things together, there was never a question. Once a decision was made, we went ahead and did it. And I must tell you that we won more than we lost. I always used to say, “Guys, if we win more than 50 percent, we’re gonna be winners.” And I think most of the things we came up with for the Kiss show, and merchandising and everything, I think we won more than 80, 85 percent.
So that other 15 percent that was a failure, or that just fell apart, or didn’t work at all, no one ever cared about, because all you knew was what was happening, and what was good. So we were really lucky, but I was lucky because they were hard workers, and they really cared, and they really wanted to do it. And they were always open to new suggestions.
And believe me, today it’s not that easy to be in that same position. There’s been a lot of books written about the music industry. There’s been a lot of things out on the Net. There’s all sorts of things that people tend to get in their head that’s not necessarily right for them, or that aren’t even right for the industry today. And they get that locked in, “Oh, I read a book about the music business, and you’ve got to do this.” And I say, “Well, that might have been true ten years ago, but I’m not sure it’s right today.
And every artist is different. And just because you read that book, or you went on the net and you read something doesn’t mean it’s right for you, and it may not be the way I operate or the way I feel it’s right to develop a major artist.
Are you thinking of any specific example of that?
I’m just thinking of artists that have come in to talk to me, or that I’ve met, and they start talking about promotion guys. They already know names. You know, “If we could get so-and-so,” and I’m saying, “Hold it. You don’t even have a career yet! (laughter)” And they’ve already read every book on the music industry, and they start throwing names out. And I just sit back and say, “Well, wait a second. What’s more important? Is it your career? Is it your artistic view of what you’re doing? Is it your writing? Is it your performance? Or is it knowing every name in the music industry?” And it’s very frustrating.
And for me, for the most part, if an artist comes to me that way, I probably would never get involved. I haven’t in the past, when an artist comes in thinking that they know everything about the industry, and what has to be done, and who they have to see, and who they have to talk to, and who has to come in for promotion.
Because things change from month to month in this industry, like it does in most industries. And from a creative standpoint, you never know which direction you’re gonna go in. Something may happen tomorrow that changes everything, that you take advantage of, if you’re smart, and if you can gamble a bit and take a chance.
I’ll give you a good example with Kiss. When we did the show in Cadillac, Michigan, at the high school. I got a call one day, and it was from the coach of this Cadillac High School.
And he said, “I’m gonna tell you a story. Would you mind if I just tell you why I’m calling?”
And obviously I wanted to know anyway. And he said, “We have a real apathy problem here at our high school. Our football team is now winning, and it’s bringing the school together.”
I said, “Yes. How does that affect me? (laughter)”
And he said, “Well, it seems like every time we play Kiss music, we win a game.”
And I said, “Well, that sounds great.”
And he says, “Well, I’m wondering if Kiss would come to our high school and kind of help the town, because it’s been a real problem. The kids are down, and there’s lots of apathy and depression and everything.”
And I said, “Really? And you think Kiss could help you with that?”
And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Let me call you back.”
And I thought about it, and we had some meetings on it, me and my staff. And I called him back and I said, “Well, if the school gets in Kiss makeup.”
He said, “What?”
I said, “How about if everyone in the school gets in Kiss makeup and Kiss will show up?”
And he said, “How do we do that?” I said, “We’ll make out the forms, and the kids can decide what they want to do, which member. We’ll get the makeup and we’ll send it to you. That’s what you do, and Kiss will show up.”
Now, we were really struggling then, but I just thought that this was kind of an unique thing, and let’s give it a show. To give you an idea, when we had someone actually photograph it in 16-millimeter film, we could only afford so much film. I mean, we were lucky we got any of it. I mean, literally it was like by the skin of our teeth. And paying for the makeup and everything, oh my God, this was a tough road.
But the school didn’t know that. They assumed that Kiss was this huge group. They hadn’t really made a lot money then, and if they didn’t, we didn’t. So it was a tough road at that time.
Anyway, so they agreed to do it. And then everything grows from that. If you let your mind wander and say, “What else can we do to really make this work?” We’ve already hired a cameraman to go and shoot as much film as we could afford.
Then we heard back, “The mayor would like to give you a breakfast the next day before you leave.”
Okay! So I said, “Well, this is really getting exciting. So how about if we fly in by helicopter? That’s kind of a Beatles thing.”
And we found out there was an airport very close to this school. So we could afford to have the helicopter go up over the trees, land on the football field, and go back. That’s it. (laughter) Five minutes, that’s all we could afford. But it looked fantastic.
So that’s how they arrived. We went to the airport. The airport was literally a mile or two away, it was nothing. And they get in the helicopter, went up over the trees, down, and of course, the whole school was in Kiss makeup and they had a parade. They had changed the streets to “Kiss Street” and everything else. And it was quite amazing. And it not only helped us, but it brought the whole town together. So it was positive for everyone.
And then the highlight for me was, the next morning, there was this breakfast. And we were gonna take pictures with the mayor and the senator, and the fire chief and the police chief and everything, right? So we get there, and the mayor’s in makeup, the fire chief is in makeup, the police chief is in makeup, and their wives are in makeup (laughter).
There were pictures, which you might have seen. But it’s bizarre to think that it really captured the town. And it fortunately helped them. It was great. It was great for us, it was great for them, but it came because of a phone call that I said, “You know, this could work. Let’s take this chance.”
And could we afford to do this? Well, maybe not, but somehow we’ll scrape the money together to do it, because this sounds really unique. And we have a whole town that wants you there, it’s kind of, “Wow.”
There’s nothing in the book that tells you to do this. And there’s no sane way of saying, “We’re gonna do something when we can’t afford to do it, and how are we gonna do this, and are you out of your mind? And what do you think, this town is really gonna do this? Do you think the kids are gonna do it? I can hear all the answers that would normally come back. But we never thought that way. So I think that’s what helped pull it off.
And that’s an example of, if you don’t play by the book necessarily, and you never know what’s gonna come across your path. And you just have to have either a second sense, or have someone who will guide you so that you will have the chance to have these unique experiences that could help your career.
And again, you won’t win everything. I don’t expect to win everything, but I expect to win more than I lose. And that idea, if you believe in that idea and you go with it and if you’re not afraid of losing, knowing that there will be some things that won’t work, then I think you have a great chance of developing a career and having fun, and remembering things that are those chances that you took that really are a part of life and in the long run are very exciting.
There’s a DVD out now that includes that film from the high school and it was one of the most hilarious and inspiring things I’ve ever seen because it’s so outside the box…
And it happened the way that I described it. It kind of looks like, “Oh, this was all planned.” Well, it was, kind of. But it really happened because the coach called me and got through to me. That’s something else. Sometimes people call and then nothing happens, or somehow it gets lost in the shuffle. So there are some things I’m sure where we missed out because either I never heard about it, or it never got through to me or the guys, but that was one that did. And it literally happened because the coach decided to take a shot.
And because every time they played Kiss music they won a game, it just made all the sense in the world to him. I’m not even sure he realized what he was doing. It’s kind of like, “I’m gonna ask this rock band to come to our high school.” But it just mushroomed and got bigger and bigger and bigger. And it not only helped the high school, but it helped the town. And it accomplished what he wanted to accomplish. So it worked for everyone.
Casablanca was a real cool label and Neil Bogart helped the band a lot in the glory years. How would you describe Neil Bogart for people who never had the chance to meet him?
You know, Neil was a singer. Neil had actually put out a single and had a semi-hit. And so he kind of knew it from the other side. He knew the record industry from the artist’s side because he was a singer when he was younger, before he got into the record label side. And Neil did one of my Flip Side shows, along with a couple of artists that were on Buddha Records. He was co-president of Buddha Records. And one of the artists from Buddha Records did my show, and we had Neil on to talk about the artist, and to the artist, and so forth.
And that’s how I got to meet him. So he was not only gregarious but fun in many ways. And he really loved music and loved musicians. You could tell that. So as I got to know him, he then asked me and my associate, who is Joyce Bogart now, to get involved. And he said, “Would you two do some advertising for us? Because we’ve got a little company together called Direction Plus. And we started doing videos for them.
I think we did some of the very first videos that anyone ever did in the industry. And we did them for Neil. And there wasn’t any MTV then or anything, but he thought, well, you shoot the song. Someday it might be valuable, but I can also take bits and pieces out of that to make advertising pieces for television so we can promote the albums. So he said, “Go ahead, we’ll do this songs. Do this song for this artist and shoot a film on this song for that artist.”
So Joyce and I were doing these videos back in the beginning of the seventies that no one else was doing. And he basically asked us to do it because he had done the Flip Side show and we had gotten close. So when the whole situation had happened with Kiss, and I thought, “This is really interesting, and I can really do something with this,” and, “Wow, they really want to be entertainers, they really want to be rock stars,” I went to Neil. And Neil said, “I loved your television show, and you’ve done these videos for me. And you and Joyce, I like both of you, well, yeah. Let me see whether or not my head of A&R will like it.”
And it so happens that Kenny Kerner and Richie Wise were the two guys that ran the A&R department at Buddha. And they had some success there, and so Neil brought them there. Now, Neil didn’t realize how much they wanted to do a rock-n-roll band because Kenny and Richie were rock-n-rollers. So when they heard the Kiss stuff, they just, “God, we gotta do this. We gotta do this. This is rock-n-roll!” Because Neil was kind of famous for doing Gladys Knight and the Pips and things like that. So all of a sudden, “Rock and roll! Rock and roll band!” So whether or not they totally believed in Kiss or not, it didn’t make any difference. I mean, they knew the music was kind of good, but they wanted to do a rock-n-roll band. So they gave their blessing, and Neil gave his blessing, and we signed to his new label.
And in the midst of this, when he’s having the success at Buddha, Warner Brothers offered him a label on his own. And they said, “You can move to L.A. and you can have your own label and you’ll be part of Warner Brothers.” So he said, “Absolutely” and he went to L.A. and we were one of the first artists that he signed to this new, new label Casablanca. And Neil and I had fought over some things, but we always got past it. And the great thing about Neil was, when he said something, you could take him at his word. I mean, you could shake Neil’s hand and you didn’t need a piece of paper. Now, you might have eventually done a contract or a piece of paper on something that you were planning, but you knew if Neil gave his word, that was it, period. There was no question about it.
And Neil was always thinking.
Is it true that Neil didn’t want Kiss to use makeup because he was afraid they wouldn’t be taken seriously as a band?
No, no. Neil was much more flamboyant than that. Neil had an energy and a drive that really was different from most people. He didn’t try to change artists so much. He would try to add to them. But no, it was Warner Brothers that didn’t believe in the makeup. And Warner Brothers, when he did a presentation for Warners, he did this big party out at the Century Plaza Hotel in L.A. to show Kiss off to all the Warners executives.
Well, it wasn’t a great night. It was a great party, but Kiss was nervous, and they didn’t play very well. And they played too loud, and oh my God. So what happened was, the executives went back and said, “God almighty, what is Neil doing here? I mean, we really believe in Neil, but this Kiss band, and the makeup, and ugh, my God!” So anyway, the album’s about to come out, and Warner’s calls Neil and says, “Neil, look. We’re not sure of this band Kiss.” And he says, “Well, we’ve got the album done, we’re gonna release it.”
“Well, Neil, uh, we don’t think that they should have makeup on. I mean, that just doesn’t work. And that’s not gonna happen.”
And so Neil figures, “Jesus, Warners gave me all this money…” So he calls me. We’re in the middle of rehearsing the show. We had hired the old Fillmore East after Bill Graham closed it down, and we were doing the brand-new Kiss show, the first big Kiss show in the Fillmore East. And I get a call from Neil, and Neil says, “Now Bill (laughter), I gotta ask you this, and if you don’t want to do it, you don’t have to do it, but I have to ask. Warner Brothers came to me and they really don’t want the band to wear makeup. And I told them I’d ask you about it and you could ask the band.”
And I said, “Neil, that’s not gonna happen.” I said, “Because it’s you, I’ll definitely ask them, but I just don’t think so.” So I go and ask the band, “Listen, Neil’s having problems with Warners. They don’t think you should have makeup.” And so the guys said, “Well, what do you think, Bill?” I said, “Well, this is us. This is Kiss.” And they said, “Do you think they’ll hurt us if we don’t?” I said, “Well, I don’t know if it’s gonna happen, but I think we should keep it. What do you think?” And of course they said Yes. I get back on the phone with Neil and said, “No, Neil. We’re gonna keep the makeup.”
So he went back to Warners and they didn’t say anything. The album comes out, and there’s a secret memo passed around Warners between the top executives saying, “Listen, let’s just let this Kiss album die. We really like Neil Bogart. He’s gonna come up with some really good hit music. We know him from the past, he’s done it over and over again, but let’s just let this happen and let this die. Don’t work this record.”
Well, by that time, this is months after Neil had made the deal, and Neil was a great schmoozer. Neil took people out, they’d go to dinner, lunch, Neil took them to Vegas, I mean, he would just make people happy no matter what. Anyway, so he got to know a lot of the other executives. And someone passed him the memo. Wow! Neil went nuts. He couldn’t believe that they were going against his first big record. So he goes into Warners and there was a co-presidency at Warners at that time, too. It was Joe Smith and Mo Ostin. And (laughter) he says, “What about this memo? How can you do this to me? This is my new label. This is my act. How can you do this? It’ll destroy my company before I begin.”
So what came out of that meeting was that Neil decided to leave Warners. He just was so upset with what they did behind his back that he decides to leave. And Warners is so embarrassed that they don’t ask for the money back that they gave him already, but they’re not gonna give him any more money. Which means that he’s gonna have to find a way to run the label.
So he mortgages his house, and he goes to the independent distributors that he worked with when he was at Buddha Records, as opposed to Warners. And he tells them, “Listen, this is what happened with Warners. I’ll distribute my label with you instead of Warners, but I need and advance.”
So they all gave him an advance because he’d had success with Buddha Records. They all knew Neil. And he mortgaged his house, and that’s how Casablanca continued. All because of Kiss. I mean, literally, it could have all gone down. It could have ended right there and then. But that’s how strong Neil was. It’s great to be around people who have such beliefs that they’re willing to stand up for.
Mortgaged his house for a rock band.
Yeah. You know, and I’m used to people worrying about their paycheck as opposed to believing in their creative ideas or believing in the artists. Greed has kind of taken over in many ways, but in those days, this was just our life, our soul, our everything. And Neil was right on board. And we went through a period, then, of starvation (laughter).
There’s a wonderful story – ‘cause Neil didn’t have any money, we didn’t have any money. There’s a great story I love, with Paul Stanley coming into my office in the middle of the winter. And he starts talking, and then he talks about something else. He’s not really getting to any point. And I’m thinking, “Okay, Paul. Yeah, you’re here talking, but yeah, okay.” And he keeps bringing up something else, and then bringing up something else. And then finally he leaves the office.
Well, years later, he says, “Remember that time I came into your office in the middle of the winter and I really didn’t have much to say?”
I said, “I never figured out what that meeting was about.” He said,
“Well, I needed five dollars. And I couldn’t figure out a way to ask you for it because I knew we were kind of all in tough shape.”
And he says, “As I was talking to you, I noticed you had a hole in your sweater. And then as I kept talking to you, you put your foot up on the desk.”
And he said, “I saw you had a hole in your shoe. And with that hole in your shoe, I couldn’t ask you for the five dollars. So I got up and left.”
Is it true that Neil Bogart would go to Vegas to gamble to get money for the label?
Oh, yes. There were two things that Neil would do. He’d go to Vegas to gamble to get money, and he had one other thing — which I don’t really subscribe to, but that was Neil. When things were horrible, like when things are falling apart, and oh my God, problems here and problems there, Neil would go on vacation. (laughter) And his philosophy was, (laughter) “I’ve gotta get away. And when I come back, it’ll be better.” (laughter) Somehow it worked.
I envy people like that.
Yeah, I know. (laughter) It was bizarre.
Anyway, but yeah, that was Neil. But Neil would also come up with some crazy ideas, like the Kissing Contest. The band thought, “Just because our name is Kiss, we’re a heavy rock-n-roll band.”
“Oh no, we’re gonna do the Kissing Contest.”
“Oh God, Neil. We’re gonna do a kissing contest?”
“Yeah, because it’s the only way I can get all the major radio stations behind it. So we’re gonna do the Kissing Contest.”
“Oh, but Neil, I don’t know… Well, okay, Neil. We’re gonna do it.”
Now, we’ve already finished the album. He says, “You know, we need a song for the Kissing Contest.”
And I’m thinking, “What?”
And he says, “You know, there was a song by Bobby Rydell called “Kissing Time”. That’s what we should do. We should do a version of “Kissing Time”!
I said, “Neil, this is a rock-n-roll band. That’s a pop song. What? Are you kidding me?”
He said, “Oh yeah, but Bill, if we have this, I can get them to play them in every station. Everyone will know about Kiss.”
I said, “Oh boy. Is that the only way you think we can do this?”
I go back to the band and I say, “He wants us to do ‘Kissing Time’”.
They look at me like I have five heads. They said, “Are you kidding me? We’re gonna do ‘Kissing Time’? But the album is done.”
I said, “Yeah, I know it’s done. It’s already pressed, it’s already out. But we’re gonna have an alternative version of the album with ‘Kissing Time’ on it.”
So there are two versions of the first Kiss album: one with ‘Kissing Time’, and one without. And it was done because Neil came up with this huge promotion with all the major stations around the States of this kissing contest. And they all played ‘Kissing Time’. And that’s how we got initial airplay for Kiss on radio, because radio hated Kiss for the most part, and most of the legitimate rock press hated Kiss too because they all felt like Warner Brothers did. “Oh, what is this group with makeup? This is never gonna happen.”
Now, ironically, on the other side of that, that really helped us. And I tell this story to a lot of people. I say, “Sometimes, when people think you’re gonna be a big success, everyone grabs ahold of you and everyone wants to hand with you and everyone’s got an idea and everyone wants to be part of it, and it kind of drains your energy and drains your creative forces.
Because everyone hated us, (laughter) we had no one disturbing us. No one wanted to be near us. So we just did what we wanted to do, and everyone said, “Oh God, this band won’t happen.” And they didn’t want to be a part of a failure. So they stayed out of our way. The more people stay out of the way, the more we did.
Less cooks in the kitchen.
Yeah, that’s exactly right. And it worked to our favor.
I wanted to ask you about the merchandising for Kiss.
That’s a whole other interview, just the merchandising. I will tell you that, in brief, the merchandising happened again because no one got in the way. It was kind of like, “Why can’t we do this?” “Okay, let’s do it!” You know, “Well, why can’t we do that?” “Yeah, okay, let’s do it.”
The real key, well, I’ll tell you one more story, it shouldn’t be too long. One other thing was how to protect Kiss. I spent three years getting their faces copywritten in the Library of Congress here. No one had ever done that before, and we protected their name, their faces, their logo, their everything. And that was just one of the things: “Why can’t we do that? Why can’t we protect their face?”
Everyone said, “You can’t do that, that doesn’t happen, you just don’t do that.”
“Well, yeah, but why not? Why can’t you do that?”
“Well, I don’t know…“
And so, we got it done. It took three years, but we got it done. And again, it was like, “Why can’t you do a pinball machine?”
“No, no, you don’t do rock-and-roll pinball machines. That doesn’t happen, that doesn’t sell. A pinball machine, you have sexy ladies on it. But rock-n-roll bands? No.”
But we got it done, and it turned out to be one of the most successful pinball machines that Bally had ever put out. But they didn’t want it, and we had to convince them, and we had to go through all sorts of crazies to finally get it done and finally make it work.
But again, part of it is that people stayed out of our way, and the other thing is that sometimes when you believe in things enough, and you really care about your artists and what they’re doing and what you think you have, you can make things happen that normally you wouldn’t be able to.