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Flashback: Kiss and Conan O’Brien Announce the Band’s 1996 Reunion

The press conference had barely begun when Gene Simmons weighed in with typical bluntness. “This tour and the whole event,” he said, leaning into a microphone, “it is a culmination of more than a decade of our fans being on top of our asses saying we have to do it.”

The “it” was the fantasy of Kiss fans across the globe: a reunion of the original quartet, in full makeup, reviving the songs and stage costumes that had made Kiss one of the all-conquering bands of the Seventies. And on April 16th, 1996, the fantasy became reality when the band announced its plans for such a tour at a media event aboard, of all places, the U.S.S. Intrepid, docked on the west side of Manhattan.

“Last week when they asked me to introduce Kiss,” deadpanned Conan O’Brien at the start of the press conference, “I had just two questions, two questions: what time, and what aircraft carrier?” (In his memoir Kiss and Make-Up, Simmons said the idea was inspired by an event his ex-girlfriend Diana Ross had held aboard that same ship in 1981.) And with the opening of a curtain and the blaring of one of their deepest and raunchiest cuts (“Take Me” from 1976’s Rock and Roll Over), there they were again: Simmons, Paul Stanley, Peter Criss, and Ace Frehley, in full rock-kabuki look, to announce a worldwide tour launching in Detroit that June.

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The roar of Kiss Army fans who had invaded the Intrepid made it clear that the reunion idea was a smart one. By 1996, Criss and Frehley had both been out of the band for about 15 years. In 1983, Kiss, still run by Simmons and Stanley, had wiped off the face paint and revealed their actual mugs on stage and on album covers. Thanks to hits like “Tears Are Falling” and “Heaven’s on Fire,” Kiss had intermittently proven they could endure in the hair-metal era.

But something was missing, which became all too apparent one day in the summer of 1995. Toward the end of a taping of their episode of MTV Unplugged, the band — which by then included guitarist Bruce Kulick and drummer Eric Singer — introduced Criss and Frehley. The reconvened foursome played several songs, including “Beth,” and the fix was in. Although he’d long been reluctant about working with Frehley or Criss again, Simmons, ever the savvy businessman, heard the cheers for himself and sensed an opportunity. And months later, a tour that few thought would happen again was announced to the world — literally, since media reps from more than two dozen countries were aboard the Intrepid.

There, Simmons assured their base that Kiss would give the fans what they wanted, and the tour more than lived up to that promise. The set list focused entirely on the band’s Seventies repertoire; nothing from the post-Criss/Frehley years was played. In another return to their days of peak mystique, the band ordered road-crew members to leave the venue during soundchecks so that workers wouldn’t see them without their makeup.

But would a Kiss reunion tour work during the waning days of grunge and the early days of boy-band pop? As Simmons probably calculated for himself, it would. The indie and alt kids then dominating rock had grown up with Kiss, and opening acts on the Alive/Worldwide Tour included Alice in Chains, Stone Temple Pilots, and the Verve Pipe. Shows immediately sold out, and additional dates were added. According to the concert-industry publication Pollstar, Alive/Worldwide went on to become the top-grossing tour of 1996, pulling in $43.6 million over the course of its 92 shows that year before continuing into 1997 (and earning a total of about $150 million). In second place for 1996? The then-massively popular Garth Brooks, with $34.5 million.

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While lauding its financial success, Simmons would look back on the tour with mixed emotions, often frustrated with Frehley and Criss: “Now that the band had reunited and I was spending more time with Peter and Ace,” he wrote in Kiss and Make-Up, “I was starting to see the effect 20 years of drug and alcohol use had had” on them. (Talking about the reunion era to RS in 2014, Criss countered, “I wanted to prove to the fans that I was cool, I was better, I wasn’t on drugs anymore, I was a new man.”)

But for those Kiss cultists, who weren’t aware of any of the backstage drama, the tour could be an emotional experience (or, if the band were marketing it in their usual over-the-top manner, a “Katharsis”). “In 1996, when they put the makeup back on for the reunion, I went 10 times and I cried every night,” Anthrax’s Scott Ian told writer Doug Brod in his recently published They Just Seem a Little Weird: How Kiss, Cheap Trick, Aerosmith and Starz Remade Rock and Roll. The concerts announced 25 years ago were pure show business, but that was the point: They were a ticket back to the pre-grunge days of flashier, larger-than-life rock spectacle, when demons, not despair, ruled the world.

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