40 Years Ago: Ace Frehley Plays His First ‘Last Kiss Concert’
Ace Frehley played the last concert of his first stint with Kiss on Dec. 3, 1980.
But unlike former bandmate Peter Criss' dramatic 1979 departure, the historical significance of Frehley's performance at Auckland, New Zealand's Western Springs Stadium wasn't clear until much later.
This split instead followed a slow disintegration that actually began in the late '70s. It would be another year and a half before Frehley officially left the group in June 1982, and six more months before his departure was made public.
As the 1980 Unmasked tour drew to a close, Kiss was in the midst of a sudden free fall from the heights of fame they reached together in back half of the '70s. Overexposure and a pop and disco-influenced shift away from their original hard-rock sound had dramatically affected their popularity.
Perhaps more importantly, the already-fragile relationship between Frehley and Kiss mainstays Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons was thrown inexorably out of balance by Criss' exit.
"Before Peter left the band, there had always been a certain amount of creative and personal tension," Frehley acknowledged in his 2011 autobiography No Regrets. "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. With the loss of Peter, I soon realized things would never be the same."
Frehley's rapid development as a songwriter and frontman added extra pressure. His 1978 solo debut had been a bigger commercial and critical success than any of his bandmates' simultaneously released efforts, and he began commanding more and more space on Kiss albums.
He wrote and sang three songs on 1980's Unmasked, including the second single "Talk to Me." The power-pop sound of the album did nothing to turn around the group's sagging commercial fortunes in most of the world, with the notable exception of Australia. In that country, the Stanley-sung ballad "Shandi" unexpectedly raced up to the Top 5 of the pop charts, kicking off a Beatlemania-type wave of popularity that Kiss capitalized on with a sold-out tour.
"It was like a dream tour," Frehley recalled in Kiss: Behind the Mask. "I remember a lot of girls, a lot of champagne. Actually, that was probably one of the most fun tours we ever did because we were there for six weeks and we only did eight or 10 shows."
Still, this brief oasis of success didn't fool Frehley or his bandmates into thinking the Kiss ship had been righted. Things reached a breaking point when Stanley and Simmons decided to steer away from the back-to-basics approach intended for the band's next studio album in favor of 1981's grandiose and utterly doomed medieval-themed concept album Music from 'The Elder'.
Frehley refused to join the band in person for the project, instead contributing his guitar parts via mail from his home studio. "When I see video footage of Kiss performing songs from that album on television, trying to look so serious and self-important," Frehley says in No Regrets, "I don't know whether to laugh or cry."
He cut his hair short to match his bandmates and gamely appeared alongside them on Solid Gold and Fridays, but then skipped out on an Italian television appearance – leaving Kiss to perform as a trio for the first time. The album's commercial failure nixed any idea of mounting a tour.
Frehley decided he needed out, over the strenuous objections of bandmates and business advisors. "I remember a conversation with my attorney, in his office," Frehley recalls in No Regrets. "He struggled to convince me that quitting Kiss was the stupidest thing I could do. ... [But] I knew that if i didn't leave the group, I was going to die. Everything about my life was in disarray at that time. I felt no connection to Kiss anymore and wasn't happy about the direction the band was taking."
He also credits Stanley with making a legitimate attempt at a personal reconciliation. "Paul actually came up to the house and we hung out and talked for a while. We went to a mall in Stamford, Conn., did some shopping and tried to recapture some of our old friendship," Frehley remembers in No Regrets. "I look back on that now and realize it was a generous gesture on his part. Paul tried very hard that day to talk me out of leaving, but there wasn't much he could do to change my mind."
Listen to Ace Frehley's 'Final' Dec. 3, 1980 Kiss Show
The decision put Frehley and Kiss in further financial jeopardy. The already cash-strapped band had recently negotiated a record deal that guaranteed a $2 million dollar advance for each new studio album – but only if all three remaining original members were involved.
"Should Gene, Paul or Ace leave, Kiss would be in breach and Phonogram could cancel the deal," former business manager C.K. Lendt explained in his book Kiss and Sell. "With Kiss' recent string of failures and their tarnished public image, it was highly unlikely that any other record company would offer them a deal that would come close to matching what they had."
Kiss finally recorded the back-to-basics project Frehley had been advocating for, but he wasn't involved with 1982's Creatures of the Night. Instead, five different uncredited guitar players reportedly contributed to the album. That list included Robben Ford, Mr. Mister's Steve Farris and, most notably, Vinnie Vincent. Frehley's future replacement also co-wrote three songs, including the hit single "I Love It Loud."
Frehley appeared on the album cover and liner notes, however, and he agreed to take part in the promotional video for "I Love It Loud." The idea, Lendt said, was to "maintain the fiction that he was still in Kiss and not rock the boat with Phonogram" – at least long enough to collect one last big check.
Their split was finally made public when Kiss kicked off their 10th anniversary tour on Dec. 29, 1982 with Vincent, now sporting his own "Ankh Warrior" makeup design. Poor ticket sales and cancellations plagued the tour, but it was the necessary first step in Kiss' crawl back to commercial relevance.
Frehley spent several years battling addiction and recovering from a near-fatal 1983 car crash before launching his solo career by releasing three albums in quick succession: 1987's Frehley's Comet, 1988's Second Sighting and 1989's Trouble Walkin'.
His momentum somewhat stalled in the early '90s, and Frehley rejoined Kiss for a highly successful original-lineup comeback tour. Two more tours and a "reunion" album on which he barely played followed. Frehley then left the group again, seemingly for good, in 2001.
In a controversial move, Kiss had his successor Tommy Thayer wear the Spaceman face paint long associated with Frehley. "They should have come up with different makeup like they did with Eric Carr and Vinnie Vincent," Frehley told the Village Voice in 2014.
Frehley continued to trade barbs with his former bandmates over ownership of the character and other issues, but they have also since collaborated several times. Stanley sang on Frehley's 2016 cover of Free's "Fire and Water," and Simmons co-wrote two songs on 2018's Spaceman album.
By then, Frehley was openly lobbying to get his old job back in time for Kiss' End of the Road farewell tour, arguing that a return to sobriety meant he was finally back in sync with Stanley and Simmons.
"I told Paul and Gene, 'All the times you worked with me, I was a screw-up. I was always late and didn't show up on time and missed recording sessions,'" Frehley said. "I was telling them this year, 'I'm now the guy you want me to be.' Hopefully it sinks in, you know?"
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