KISS unmasked on MTV 35 years ago on Tuesday, and in the process wiped away more than just the makeup they were known for.
The early 1980s were not kind to KISS, as original members Peter Criss and Ace Frehley were gone. A move into pop/disco-influence with the 1979 album Dynasty and 1980’s Unmasked didn’t help, followed by the much-maligned 1981 offering Music From “The Elder”. 1982’s Creatures of the Night was a move back to heavier roots, and it was Frehley’s last credited work with the band for 16 years.
In 1983, it’s safe to say KISS was fading into irrelevance if they weren’t already there. A new album, Lick It Up, was released on Sept.18 that year. But something else happened that night to garner notoriety.
The early days of MTV had most mostly ignored KISS. But J.J. Jackson was known as the network’s anchor of rock ‘n’ roll knowledge, as fellow VJ Martha Quinn told Yahoo! Entertainment. The time slot for a televised press conference for the band, 11 p.m. ET on a Sunday night, also pointed to KISS not being a needle-mover anymore.
With co-founders Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons the only original members left at that time, and Simmons starting to push toward outside interests (his film debut without KISS came in 1984’s Runaway), it was time to chart a new course.
KISS “unmasked” that night, turning in their memorable makeup for a look far more fitting of the era. The whole interview clip with Jackson comes off awkward, and it was a bare-bones production with no apparent studio audience or any piped in noise.
Lick It Up went platinum in the U.S, as did the 1984 follow-up Animalize. Through the rest of the 80s, KISS scored rock hits like “Heaven’s On Fire,” “Tears Are Falling,” “Crazy, Crazy Nights” and “Forever.”
The original lineup of KISS would reunite in the mid-1990s for an MTV Unplugged, and they eventually put the makeup back on at the 1996 Grammy Awards. A new album then came in 1998 (Psycho Circus). The original group is back apart now, with Tommy Thayer and Eric Singer replacing Frehley and Criss on 2009’s Sonic Boom and 2012’s Monster.
KISS never totally recaptured their peak popularity from the 1970s. But the decision to wipe away the makeup on Sept. 18, 1983 helped wipe away the memories of a mostly bad period in their music in the few years prior, if nothing else.