It all started with a fish. When Tomorrow Show host Tom Snyder introduced his guests Kiss on Halloween night, 1979, he called Gene Simmons the “bass player,” pronouncing the first word like the freshwater fish, not the stringed instrument.
As he brought the band out, apologising to an unamused Simmons for the mispronunciation, guitarist Ace Frehley jumped in and said, “I'm not the guitar player, I'm the trout player.”
A harmless joke, except it's immediately obvious from Frehley's slurry delivery and much-too-loud laughter that he is drunk.
Frehley said, “I was nervous as hell about going on network TV, live in front of millions of people, so I started pounding some Stoli in the back of my limo as soon as I passed through my gates on the way to the city.”
It's certainly not the first time a rock star appeared under the influence on live TV, but because the band sat with Snyder for a half-hour interview without playing any songs, Frehley's drunken behavior got a full airing.
“It might have been the first time a single appearance so clearly delineated the diverse personalities of Kiss,” Ace said. “I enjoyed myself on the show and I wasn’t trying to anger anyone.”
But as he continually interrupts his bandmates and laughs over their answers, it's clear that he's not succeeding. Gene Simmons glowers and throws dagger looks at Frehley, while Paul Stanley has the air of an exasperated parent trying to rein in an unruly child. Only Peter Criss seems to be enjoying Frehley's antics, even egging him on in places.
When Frehley and Criss are laughing about the occasional misfirings of the chain-driven mechanism that lifted Criss's drum riser up, Simmons looks especially pissed, as if they're revealing trade secrets and undermining the band's superhero mystique.
Of Frehley's drunkenness, Paul Stanley later said: “It may seem funny that someone’s drunk, but the fact is, the root of it was, I believe a contempt and lack of respect for the audience and the fans. So, sure you can look at it and chuckle. Yeah, I can too, but what a shame to take this lofty position that somebody gave us and spit in it by showing up inebriated. It may be funny on the surface, but what’s below the surface is a lack of appreciation for a gift that you’ve been given.”
1979 found Kiss at a divisive moment. On one hand, they were riding high with I Was Made For Loving You, a hit from their seventh album Dynasty. But the disco flavour of the song alienated a lot of their early fans. Meanwhile, all four members had released their first solo albums as a way to blow off some pent-up creative steam (Criss and Frehley had both threatened to quit the group before they did theirs).
But tensions remained. Frehley and Criss were dealing with substance abuse issues at the time, which made them increasingly unreliable on stage and the studio (Criss, who was recovering from a car accident, only played on one track on Dynasty). And as would come out later, they both bristled at being treated like employees by the controlling Simmons and Stanley. After deliberately sabotaging some on-stage tempos at a concert, Criss was sacked in 1980. Frehley left two years later.
But the seeds of the break-up are evident in The Tomorrow Show appearance.
Frehley said, "It's true that we often played two on two – me and Peter against Paul and Gene – but when tempers flared, I usually tried to be the peacemaker... If you watch the interview, you can actually see me turning to Gene and putting my hands up at one point. It’s quietly saying, 'What?' Like a child who's misbehaving at a family function and wants his dad to loosen up a bit and join in on the fun.
"How seriously can you take yourself when you're sitting there in superhero costume and a full face of makeup? I love the guy but he never clearly got it."