Kiss Expo Tokyo 2016: How the Band’s First Official Exhibition Came About
From Oct. 13-31, the first-ever band-sanctioned Kiss Expo took over the top floor of Laforet, a boutique-filled shopping mall in the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo.
The Expo was arranged like a museum exhibit, with memorabilia, artifacts and interactive elements, as well as a gift shop stuffed with exclusive merch — from a toilet paper holder featuring Gene Simmons‘ visage (the unfurling roll mimics his tongue) to T-shirts and prints reflecting a Kiss collaboration with the beloved cartoon character Astro Boy.
During the expo’s opening weekend, Ultimate Classic Rock received a guided tour of the exhibit from Hanako Tabata, an executive producer in the strategic marketing division of Sony Music Entertainment Japan. After walking by a gigantic Kiss logo — and mannequins dressed in familiar Kiss outfits — visitors were greeted with a trio of gems from band lore: Kiss’ 1976 formation contract, the legal documents which served as trademark registration for the band member’s distinctive faces and Simmons’ concert-used fire sword.
Lucky for fans, however, the members of Kiss were meticulous about keeping everything that might be of interest in the future. The Expo’s offerings included early show posters hand-drawn by Simmons and Paul Stanley; Kiss fan-club flyers; scrapbooks and photos; call sheets for TV appearances; and an impressive, colorful array of backstage passes from across the years. One glass case even contained a bunch of cassette demos and recordings — including one featuring Simmons’ collaboration with Bob Dylan.
Elsewhere, the Expo highlighted the costumes, clothing and tour ephemera that made Kiss so one-of-a-kind — from a Peter Criss satin jacket (compete with vintage dirt and a rip) and Simmons’ Spector “Love Gun” bass to an entire wall highlighting Kiss’ history of broken guitars, from 1976 through 2015. And, of course, there were no shortage of awards: a gold 8-track, Simmons’ gold discs and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction trophy and a wheel of platinum discs signifying 30 million albums sold.
At the end of the Expo (fittingly) there was even a Kiss coffin on display. Still, the Expo was very much a living, breathing, immersive entity. A virtual reality element brought fans into Simmons’ Kiss memorabilia museum and Stanley’s art studio, while a stage with band instruments and a blazing Kiss logo provided a photo opportunity.
“Those instruments, they were actually used on tour,” Tabata says. “It’s not just instruments — it’s Tommy Thayer’s guitar. It’s Gene’s bass that he just played.” Some of the fans at the Expo were in full, high-quality Kiss makeup, which was another attraction: MAC makeup artists were on hand at the Expo to paint the faces of visitors — a process that took at least an hour.
Mark Stroman, who works with Kiss in his role as VP Marketing & Sales for McGhee Entertainment, says that now was “perfect” to launch this Expo. “Celebrating heritage artists is growing, and lucky for us, Kiss fans are growing via relationships with their families.” (He’s not kidding: According to Stroman, 50 percent of people attending Kiss’ 2016 summer tour were “first-timers.”)
Tabata sees exhibitions like the Kiss Expo as part of a trend toward musicians providing a “new experience for the fans” — as seen in other recent collections such as David Bowie Is … and the Rolling Stones‘ Exhibitionism. “I think it’s a new way — other than concerts or buying CDs — to appreciate the artist more, at a different angle,” she says.
Stroman says the idea for the Kiss Expo had been percolating for awhile, but David Bowie Is … set the wheels in motion to make this a reality. The band had plenty of support. “Sony got involved,” Simmons told Ultimate Classic Rock before his appearance at the Visual Japan Summit. “They wanted to celebrate America’s No. 1 gold record-award-winning group of all time — in all categories, believe it or not.”
In terms of where the Kiss Expo should first launch, Simmons says Tokyo was the answer. “We could’ve done it in America; we could’ve done it in England. But Tokyo’s one of the few modern, 21st century cities. Real-cutting-edge — the music, all kinds of forward thinking. It’s very young. And, bizarrely, we’re somehow still connected to the young kids, from Kiss Hello Kitty to [the fact] we just teamed up with Kiss Astro Boy.”
Tabata confirms that Kiss’ decades-long relationship with Japanese fans still endures. “A lot of these fans, especially fans that started in the 1970s, are the people that actually really listen to music,” she says. “They devoured music; they lived it; they loved the artwork on the LPs. It was a different time. You embraced all the information you got. These people were aggressive getting as much information about Kiss as possible. [Magazines such as] Music Life meant so much to them, like a Bible.”
Unsurprisingly, although many items and elements of the Kiss Expo’s displays came from the collection of Gene Simmons and other band members, other artifacts came from fan collections. At the Tokyo Kiss Expo, for example, concert memorabilia came from the Japanese promoter Mr. Udo and a fan named Hiro. (In fact, one of the many broken guitars on display included one inscribed to the latter personally)
When asked about any challenges faced in launching the Expo, Stroman cites potential wariness: “‘What is this?’ band members asked,” he says. “‘Is this a museum? Because we are still rockin’ the globe!’” But he invokes the speech mega-fan Tom Morello gave inducting Kiss into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which discussed the band’s widespread impact and influence, as he explains the Expo’s aim.
“This is a celebration of over 40 years of the building of a global musical phenomenon never before seen, and will never be replaced — Kiss — as built by millions of fans,” Stroman says. “The Kiss Expo now exposes to many more millions just how this band began and captured rock ‘n’ roll.”
In the Expo’s first week, fans from more than 25 countries made a pilgrimage to see the extravaganza. But if you couldn’t make it to Tokyo, never fear: As with recent rock ‘n’ roll exhibits David Bowie Is … and Exhibitionism, plans are brewing to take the Kiss Expo on the road in the future. “It will be a tour, and this is just the beginning,” Simmons says. “We’re going to have lifts and levitating drum risers and all kinds of stuff, so the fans will be able to put on their virtual reality things and get up onstage and play onstage with Kiss.”
Stroman also confirms that the Expo has “many, many ways to grow and build, as has been the plan. Gene’s collection on behalf of the band is extraordinary in terms of memorabilia and memories. The magic of this collection, is the amazing memories that it created, and the momentum it has inspired in our youth for music.”
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