Gary James' Interview With
former KISS manager
Lillian Roxon once wrote about Rock managers, "The great managers of great acts are almost invariably great acts themselves. Presenting an act or a performer to the public is a flamboyant an act as getting up on a stage and singing. But in the manager, the artist has to be a businessman as well. Not many make it in that perfect combination, but those who do are probably as much the real stars of Rock as the people they represent."
Lillian Roxon never knew Bill Aucoin, but she could very well have been describing him. You see, Bill Aucoin was the former manager of KISS. He's the guy who was with KISS in the beginning. Bill Aucoin spoke about the early days of KISS, his management style, and why "The hottest band in the world" has yet to be inducted into Cleveland's Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame.
Q - I would've thought that after managing KISS and then leaving the business, that would've been it. But you're now back in the management business. Why?
A - That's actually a good question. I decided to get back in because of the way the industry is. I've kind of had the opposite view of everything. When I did KISS, everyone said, boy, that's a disaster. Why are you leaving television? Why are you leaving directing and producing? That's ridiculous. It's a make-up group. This is just foolish. In fact, most of my friends thought Bill will get over this and he'll come back to television. Just let him get over this craziness and he'll be back. When I believe in something, even if it's tough, and that was really tough, I believed in it and we made it work. The next artist I had, Billy Squire, was somewhat a similar thing. He was a little easier. People understood he was a writer and they liked his music. Although the first thing with Billy only got so far with Piper. Then that didn't happen. A&M decided to let them go. I told Billy to be an individual, to be a solo artist so that he could focus on what he really wanted to do. He was very strong, and that worked. Then, Billy Idol came along. The same thing happened. I went over to see him in England and the company says to me "Well, we're gonna let this group go, Generation X, but you know, there's something about this kid Idol. Take a look at him and see if know what to do." I saw him and went back to the company and said "I know exactly what to do. I'd like to bring him back to the States." Billy Idol didn't want to go. I said "OK. We'll do one more album. If that doesn't work, will you come to the States?" And he said "Yeah." So when they brought him to the States, the American company didn't want him. (laughs) I said "well, here we go again." It's something like KISS, only in a different area. We knew Casablanca liked KISS and were really there for them. In this particular case, Chrysalis didn't want him. They figured, why in the world are you bringing Billy Idol over here when I know the company is gonna let the band go. Punk music never worked here. Why do we have to put up with this? Are we putting up with this because of Bill Aucoin? Is that the reason? So, I kind of got that backlash again. Once again we pulled it off. In the last few years, the industry has really kind of changed a lot. A lot of people didn't know what to do about the Internet, didn't know what to do about e-commerce or sharing...everything to do with music. I thought, well, it's a crazy time again. I like that. I'm used to being under the 8 ball. What will work and what won't? Why am I back? It's a horrible time to be in the business. I kind of like that. I kind of feel it's an exciting time. I think things will start changing, but you have to look forward and you have to really be gutsy enough to stick behind something and go with it. If there's one thing that's really tough today, it's to get people to make decisions. And people are in the business 'cause they want to make sure they get a paycheck next week. Who can really make decisions? Who can't make decisions? And even if they can make decisions, will they make decisions? Do they really understand e-commerce? Do they really understand where the 'net is going? Do they really understand how music will be shared or be bought in the years to come and are they willing to back themselves into a corner to make it happen? Or are they afraid if they say the wrong thing, they won't have a job. So, all these things are out there and I look at it as more of an exciting time as opposed to a horrid time, which a lot of people are thinking it is. I think a lot of good stuff can come out of this. I think a lot of new artists will come out of this. It may not be the same industry, but so what? Everyone goes through changes as you go through life. So, do business. I just think it's the right time to be back, so I decided to give it a try.
Q - Did I read on your website that you charge $5,000 a day to advise Rock groups?
A - Well, that's the business consulting. If you're not managed by me or part of Aucoin Globe and you want me to just go out and work with the band or work with something, that's kind of my daily fee. But again if someone wanted to come and say "Listen, I can't afford that. I can only afford this. Will you try to come up and help me?" I'd work out a deal with them. But that's something aside. That's a whole separate consulting business that has nothing to do with management per se. It could be a group that already has a manager or already has everything going for them, but they want my point of view or my background and want me to come in and help them with some ideas how to break or put their show together or what they could do to get more of a response from an audience or how they could help their marketing. That's a whole separate thing.
Q - Do bands approach you with a demo tape and a press kit, asking for advice on how to get a deal, or ask if you'll manage them?
A - Yeah. That's not unusual. You know, I get that all the time. Then, there has to be a real belief. I look for a number of things. One - if they're really secure on who they are. Whether I believe they're going to be together a year from now, if they want to be an international group and they see it as a world domination as opposed to "I'd like to get a record deal and put some money in my pocket;" if they listen, 'cause a lot of artists talk a good game, but they really don't listen, and whether or not I really believe in my gut that it's all there, whatever that is, so that I can say "Yeah, c'mon, let's work together." So, there's a number of things. Today, one of the things most labels look at is how long a band has been together, 'cause a lot of bands break up so easily. So, I guess you could say if a band has been together for longer than a year, that's a good point. Is it the same band? Have they been touring? Have they put out their own CD? Do they have an idea where they're going? What do they want to do? All of that comes into play because ultimately, not unlike KISS or Billy Squire or Billy Idol, who are still around twenty years after or longer, it's because I knew that, that was their life. This is what they wanted to do. There's gonna be plenty of ups and downs; the album that doesn't make it or doing the wrong album or didn't write the right music or didn't have a tour that worked this time. Everyone has those down moments. Major superstars have them as much as new young groups. The difference is most artists who have that desire in their life to do that, get through it. The ones who are in it because they think there's going to be money or fame and that's it and the minute something happens they fall apart, will go by the wayside or the "one hit wonders" that made so much money on their first album, the money drove them apart before they ever got to the second album. So, I mean there's a lot of things that I look for.
Q - The one group you didn't mention, that you managed and was a personal favorite of mine was Starz.
A - Yeah. It was one of mine as well.
Q - Nothing seemed to have happened for those guys. I don't understand it.
A - They were very good. Michael Lee was a great writer and a great performer. The head of promotion at Capitol (Records) never liked them. I just couldn't get past it. Really I was just banging my head against the wall. He just never, ever thought they were gonna break. He never really liked the group. We just never got past that. It was really tough. When Capitol let them go, the group kind of blamed me, actually. They said "You just let us..." It was over. I said "there were a lot of things that happened in between, people leaving the group and Michael's wife leaving him and having kind of a bout with depression and all sorts of stuff. Ultimately, it wasn't there and I wasn't prepared to pick up the pieces and put it all back together again at that point. But, if you listen to those songs, I think other bands should try to cover the songs. They're great songs. A lot of incredible times we had. They were great performers. Once the whole Capitol thing fell apart, it just never got back together again and I wasn't prepared to go after it again.
Q - They should have been on Casablanca (Records).
A - Well, Casablanca kind of came after me with that too. Why didn't you give it to us? Why did you go to Capitol? We could've done this, we could have broken them. Believe me, you're not far off from that. But I suffered the wounds from that as well.
Q - You were in TV. You were in films, a documentary film maker.
A - Yeah.
Q - Why did you want to be a personal manager?
A - I did Flipside for a reason. First of all, it was fun. Second of all, I came up with an idea where the artist knew they were gonna sound right. The networks never cared about sound. A couple of microphones. That was it. That was pretty much the way they handled it, especially for Rock 'n' Roll bands. Plus, they really didn't want contemporary music on most of their shows. They just didn't think it was the right place. These young rock 'n' rollers didn't belong on the network. Well, I came up with a show called Flipside , where actually we went into the studios with the producers that these artists were used to. So, they felt very comfortable talking and playing, 'cause they knew the sound was gonna be there. That was basically the idea - make artists comfortable, especially with the way their music sounded. It did well except... I had Stevie Wonder, John Lennon and a lot of great artists on. They thought I should have Frank Sinatra and Barbra Streisand. It was kind of like these rock 'n' rollers don't belong on television. We don't understand why you're doing this, and certainly not on our station, on our network. So, after doing 13 shows, which was the first package, I said screw this. I love music. I'm going to go in the music industry. Gene (Simmons) had been writing me notes every week - "Bill, can you come and see us? Please come up and see us." He used to watch the show every week and he wanted someone to sign him. So, I said I'm gonna go in the music business. It's a lot more fun. I don't have to deal with all these outside people. I went and took one of the people from the agencies, one of the account executives who was sponsoring the show, and we went out to dinner. I said "Listen, I'm gonna go see this Rock 'n' Roll band. Do you wanna come with me?" He said "Yes". We went to the Diplomat Hotel. And here we are at this run-down hotel with holes in the floor. I'm sure the account executive thought I'd really lost my mind. But I decided this is kind of interesting because they were trying to put on a show. Now, they had black jeans with a couple of studs on it. The make-up wasn't all the same in the sense that everyone didn't have the white-face. But I told Gene and Paul, "if you want to come to my office, let's talk." They came to the office a week later. I said "Look, it's very interesting. I'm glad you want to do a show. I'm a director. I'm a producer. I really don't want to sit behind a desk as a manager. If you're willing to do it and give me a shot, give me 30 days. If I can't get you a deal in 30 days, you can decide to leave me or you can stay and we'll work together." Well, I got the Casablanca deal in 30 days and that was kind of the beginning of it.
Q - Did you model your managerial style after Colonel Tom Parker or Brian Epstein?
A - I think it's really my own style. I really fashioned it after being a director. How do you direct things? What do people look like? How do they perform? What kind of image do you portray? How do you get across to the mass media? I mean, all of this really came out of my directing days. Plus in college I was a marketing major, marketing in business and economic major. All those marketing things were always there in the background. That's pretty much why I get into merchandising as well. Basically it came from being a director. It didn't come because of Colonel Parker or anyone else.
Q - How successful did you think KISS would become? Did you have to like their music? Did you see they were entirely different from everybody else at the time?
A - Well, they were entirely different at the time, first of all. I just believed. Look, in the beginning it was how much fun you had, how hard you worked, whether it was dying to come together, even through the ups and downs. Ideally the momentum happens because of what? I give to an artist and what an artist gives back. If you're talking about the creative side, the more an artist gives to me, the more I'll give to them. It has to work. I have to get excited and then I give it to them and they get excited. It goes back and forth and back and forth. When it stops for any reason, because they're having problems or not making money, money starts breaking them apart, everything becomes more important than the creative process, then it bothers me. It's one of the things that broke KISS and I up. Once everyone had money in their pocket and went their own ways and spent more time talking about what they own as opposed to the production and creative side, it became tougher and not as much fun. So, ideally it's a two-way street. It's not just a manager saying "Do this. Do that." It's an artist saying "I'd like to do this. How about this? How about that?" Kind of encouraging me and then I encourage them back.
Q - If every member of the Alice Cooper group had worn make-up, that would have diminished the impact of KISS, wouldn't it? With KISS, thanks to the individualized make-up, the public knew everyone's name in the band. That hadn't happened since The Beatles.
A - Yeah. I really wanted to do that. But you have to also realize that Alice really broke down a lot of doors for us. I told Alice this. I said "Thank-you Alice because you broke down a lot of doors that we just took advantage of. You broke a lot of walls down from what you did. You were an individual entertainer and then their was this Rock band around you." We wanted to have something that capitalized on itself and capsulated within itself. So, it was one image with four individual guys that you knew and you knew 'em for different reasons, whether it's Space Ace or Peter The Cat or Gene The Monster or Paul The Rock Star. You got to know them not only because of their names, but because of what they portrayed. In many ways, The Beatles were somewhat the same way. It was the drummer, the bass player, the lead singer and so forth, but never the less, what kind of brought them all together ironically was their hair. Then of course the outfits and everything else. There was something kind of cohesive that worked for them and then of course the McCartney - Lennon thing. God, if you're ever lucky enough to have two great writers in the same band, that's just amazing. Probably that won't happen again. But that was something added to it because they were both imagining writers. Then they were lucky enough to have George Martin, who brought in kind of a classical side to them, which no one would have thought. Not in Rock 'n' Roll in those days. It just wouldn't have happened. But that was his (George Martin) ability to bring that into some of the songs which made it very unique on top of what The Beatles were. With KISS, it's the same thing. It came out of their images, which were specific images and everything we did had to kind of build up those images and make them stronger and make them more unique and more one of a kind.
Q - What did you think of The Beatles' manager, Brian Epstein?
A - Well, he took the first step. He might not have known everything that had to happen and unfortunately he died before we knew whether he would have carried it out or not. The truth of the matter is, what he began, and don't forget what he did, he changed their image. He helped them do things they normally would never have done. I mean, if you see them when they were playing in Germany and what finally broke it, it was a completely different group. It was totally different and yet it appealed to the masses and it worked. And that was mostly him. So, from that point of view...OK. Hello? The sad part is that he died before he got to see what could happen. But on the other hand, I don't think if it wasn't for him to get it started, I'm not sure it would have happened. And maybe the same thing with KISS and myself. If I hadn't been there at that certain time, with the background I had and everything else, the connections and all of us together, including Casablanca and Neil Bogart, it probably wouldn't have happened.
Q - How much of a role did Wally Meyrowitz and A.T.I. play in the success of KISS?
A - Wally was kind of a crazy agent. He's what I miss in agencies today. You could say "Wally, we need to do this. We need to have this tour." Well, he would stay up night and day. If you happened to be with him at midnight at a club someplace, he'd be talking to an agent in Europe, saying "We gotta do this. This is what I need!" You say to yourself, Holy shit. You kind of assumed that's the way every agent is. But every agent wasn't like that. Again, he was an intricate part of getting the tours done, trying to get as much money as we could to sustain ourselves on the road because even at the beginning, we had a bigger show than anyone else had. It was just beginning. Peter had the levitating drums. We had more amps. We had a candelabra. We had things that were exploding. It wasn't as big obviously as what we became, but on the other hand, no one else was doing anything like it. Everything we did cost money. Even putting together a road crew. Our road crew absolutely believed in KISS. There wasn't anything else. They were incredible. I think they got 50 bucks a week as I recall. When we went on the road, that was it. It was one for all and all for one. It had to do with KISS being the best band in the world, and that's what it was. It wasn't just me or the people who worked for Aucoin Management, and it wasn't just Casablanca. The road crew played an intricate part of making it happen 'cause they absolutely believed in them. It was absolutely important that everyone who worked for the organization knew that we were in it for the long run and we were gonna make a major group. Whether or not it would've happened or didn't happen, we believed that it was gonna happen and that was our focus.
Q - The "KISS Alive" album broke the band, didn't it?
A - Well, it broke the band because of the show. That's why I talked about the road crew. The show is what broke the album. The fans were being built anywhere we went. The reason we didn't do another studio album is Neil (Bogart of Casablanca Records) couldn't afford to do a studio album. He said "Maybe we can do a live album." Because he knew the show was exciting and we were building fans on the road. We said OK. I remember saying "Neil, if we're doing a live album, I want to do a double-fold with a book and everything else." He said "Bill, it's gonna cost money." I said "If we're gonna do a live album Neil, we have to do a major live album" and he agreed. That's how we did the live album and that's how it became a double-fold with a book.
Q - I recall having a conversation with a promoter about KISS. He said the reason "Beth" was a hit was because of KISS' stage show. I said "When the record comes on the radio, you don't see the stage show. The record has to stand on its own." Am I right?
A - Well true, except there were a lot of times the songs were played on the radio because of the stage show. Casablanca got people to play it because of what was happening on the road. You have to play this song because look at the fans. We'll drag you to the show. Look at the fans! Look at their reaction! Then the program director would go back and put something on the air. They didn't put it on the air 'cause they liked the music. They put it on the air because of the show. They saw the fans reacting. Then it kind of mushroomed, certainly the live album was a huge success for its day. Even then, people didn't believe in it. People in the industry said this is a one shot. Why is this make-up group making it? Most of the people in the industry had never been to a KISS show. But it absolutely happened because of the show. There's no question. I can remember many times program directors did not want to do it. They would drag 'em to the show and we'd wine and dine 'em and everything else. But when they saw the reaction of the audience and that audience was from their town or city, they knew they should probably play something. The only song that kind of worked on its own was "Beth". It kind of fit into all sorts of formats. Then the audience loved it, it kind of changed the whole thing.
Q - Who choreographed KISS onstage shows? Was that Joyce Bogart?
A - No. It was Sean Delaney and myself. Sean and I did all the work for the stage show. Joyce was my partner. She really held down the camp at the office and certainly came on the road with us, and was kind of the link between us and Casablanca. Eventually she became Neil's wife. But that was really it. Boy, talk about a hard working person, and very bright. Another part of this chapter that couldn't have worked without Joyce. We had a group of people that worked with Aucoin Management that just never let down. Plus, we also played together. We went out together. We ate together. We drank together. It was much more of a family and it made it easier.
Q - I recall Peter Criss telling me about a car accident he was in, which I never heard about and he was in the hospital. You hired a guard to stand outside his hospital door?
A - (laughs) That's only because we didn't want him seen without the make-up. We didn't want anyone to come in. A lot of things we did, we did because the marketing of it made sense. When we went to Cadillac, Michigan, we couldn't afford to go to Cadillac, Michigan. I knew we could only afford so many reels of film to shoot it. The thing with the helicopter, no one really knows. We found out that the airport was literally a mile away from the school and that we could rent the helicopter. The helicopter went up and down. That was it. We couldn't afford to take a helicopter any place. So, all the things we did from a marketing or show point happened and then of course the town did the rest of it. Everyone got behind it. Everyone did the KISS make-up. But we had to supply all sorts of stuff that we really couldn't afford. We were begging, borrowing and stealing most of the stuff to make things happen. But the belief behind it, which then carried on to the town and then to have someone actually shoot film which we couldn't afford to do either. All of those things that happened, happened because of a belief. Whatever it took to make it happen, we made it happen. But the truth of the matter is, we were all starving in between. You must have heard the story about Paul Stanley coming into my office?
Q - No, I haven't.
A - His main reason for being there was to borrow $5 and this was in the middle of winter. He kept talking about all sorts of things. I couldn't understand. He didn't seem to be coming to the point of anything. I was sitting behind my desk and he kept talking and talking. Finally, I put my feet up on the desk and then he decided to leave. I never knew until years later he said "Remember when I came into your office and you didn't know what I wanted and said goodbye?" I said "Yeah, what the hell was that all about?" He said "I came in to borrow $5 and as I was sitting there, I noticed you had a hole in your sweater. Then when I kept talking you put your feet up on the desk and you had a hole in your shoe. I couldn't ask you for $5. So I made an excuse and left." (laughs) But that was true. I had friends in the television field that knew I was doing this thing and of course thought I was out of my mind, but also wondered. I spent all my money on this group and actually got together and decided to take Bill out to eat on Tuesday and then you take him out on Saturday. At least we'll know he's eaten 3 times a week. Those were rough times. Warner Brothers didn't want KISS on the label. They sent a memo around - don't work with this group. Neil went crazy and left Warner Brothers, mortgaged his home. God it was nuts. That's the time also I put the entire KISS tour on my American Express card for about $25,000. We had never spent more than $150 on my card, ever. This is all part of that time. That inner belief we're gonna do this come hook or crook. We are really gonna make this happen. The reason it was easy to think that way and do things is KISS worked every bit as hard as everyone else did. They were out on the road performing their asses off, making things happen, developing fans. If they weren't willing to work as hard as they did, I don't think all of us would have done the same.
Q - How were you able to keep the press from publishing pictures of KISS without their make-up on for as long as you did? I don't think you would have been able to do that today.
A - It would be harder today. In those days, don't forget the real press, supposedly the real press, whoever the real press is, didn't care about KISS. It was a joke. We're not gonna cover this band with make-up. So all they had to do was contend with the Rock 'n' Roll press. As the Rock 'n' Roll press realized how important it was to get an interview or a picture on the cover, the more they were willing to go along with me on everything. If they wanted to do it because it was something happening, it was something magical, it was something that had a great fan base, they went along with us. And of course, I promoted that like crazy and on top of it made sure that no one ever had it. There were some people that got pictures that we took their cameras away or the film away. Basically all the photographers that were making money on KISS knew if they went against us, they'd never be allowed in to shoot KISS again. So, it kind of ultimately worked in our favor. Today it would be a lot harder.
Q - When KISS went into the studio, did they have the say on what material went on the album, or did they consult you?
A - Sometimes. I think the biggest thing was "Beth". Most of the guys hated "Beth". Obviously Peter wanted it. I knew it was a hit. I said "Guys, I'm sorry. This is going on the album." But when we listened to it, Gene, Paul and Ace didn't want it. This was not a Rock 'n' Roll song. This wasn't KISS. But it was so obvious to me that it was a hit. Plus, it was a song about Rock 'n' Roll. So they didn't fight me too hard on it. Everything else was pretty much "here's what we recorded. This is what's gonna go on the album." So there wasn't very much of a question about it. The only time we had problems was doing "The Elder", because no one wanted to go in the studio. Gene and Paul didn't want to go in the studio. Ace wasn't getting along with them. It was just a horror story. "The Elder" was really a Bob Ezrin album. We should have put a Bob Ezrin album out as opposed to a KISS album. And of course the record label didn't like it. It happens to be a great album, but it just wasn't KISS. It was kind of the beginning of the end for all of us being together 'cause they didn't' want to do it. We had to have an album out, then the label didn't like it, and then the band was breaking up even further. Peter was out of the band. Then they wanted Ace out of the band. It was not a pleasant time.
Q - I see Gene is doing TV commercials for Dr. Pepper.
A - Yeah. I wouldn't have allowed him to do it, but he did it. It's hard to stop Gene.
Q - How about when KISS appeared on the cover of Playboy magazine ten years ago? Would you have allowed the group to do that? I though it was the best cover Playboy ever had!
A - Well, you're a little prejudiced. (laughs) I'm not sure I would say that. Look, we did specific covers like the cover of Cream on the 4th of July, or Circus. We did specific covers that we knew absolutely would stand out for years and years afterwards. Those were all our designs. I wouldn't say that the KISS cover of Playboy was their best cover, but I certainly thought it was a great cover.
Q - Why did you call your management company Rock Steady in the beginning?
A - I always thought you needed another name. One of my friends said "Well look-it, you're doing all the work here. It should really be called Aucoin management." I said "I like Rock Steady." So we changed it to Rock Steady Productions, then Aucoin Management. It was really like if you're promoting them, you should promote yourself. That's basically why it happened.
Q - You mention that you parted ways with KISS because every guy in the band eventually had money. But KISS went on to get another manager!
A - They actually took the business manager. I told them I didn't think it was right, but they went with Howard Marks. But when that didn't happen, they ended up suing Howard for hundreds of thousands of dollars and they went with Paul's psychiatrist and I thought that was just crazy. Then the psychiatrist ran away with their money and went to South America with some young girl. It's just a horror story. I don't know why they did all that. I love Doc. Doc and I got along great. I think Doc is great for them. But they now do what they want. A manager today is kind like, OK, I'll take care of things. What Gene wants, Gene wants. What Paul wants, Paul wants. It's not quite the same. It's not as much fun as it was when we made it happened during that 10 year period. That was really magical and fun. Almost everyday fun. So when it stopped being fun, it all kind of started falling apart between me and them. It was just a very odd time. Even after that, I remember talking to Gene and Paul maybe once a year saying "it's gotta come back. You gotta realize the real value of what we worked so hard to do over that 10 year period. If you do a reunion tour, it'll work." "Oh no Bill, we're not gonna get back together." Eventually they had to say to themselves, well, maybe that's what should happen. What helped to encourage them is when they did the KISS convention themselves. There was a time when they couldn't tour. The promoters wouldn't pay for the KISS tour because of the cost of production. So they then did the KISS conventions 'cause they couldn't do the tour, but when they did the KISS conventions they saw the fans and the fans wanted KISS back. That led to them deciding they would finally do it again, which obviously was good for everyone.
Q - There will never be another group like KISS, will there?
A - I don't think so. There may be some close to it or some other idea that people relate to, but it's a one of a kind. They still have their ups and downs. Jann Wenner of Rolling Stone told his people never to put KISS on the cover and never to put them in Rolling Stone. "They can't play. They're not a real group." And he's on the board of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and votes against them every year for the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. So, there's people today who feel they don't deserve what they've had. They don't believe they're musicians. They don't believe they're singers. It's really bizarre to me, but it's still there. I'm not sure how they could convince Jann Wenner that it really is real and they deserve to be in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. I think eventually he'll come to that fact. But for years he's voted against us and has stopped them from being on the cover of Rolling Stone. If there's anything I would like to do is change that and make it happen.