Tag Archives: KISS

When Popular Culture Historicizes Itself

If you’ve read my earlier post titled Pop Bands Mythologizing Themselves, this entry may feel familiar. The previous post was limited to only “pop” bands (umbrella term for all popular genres) who actively built their own history in order to secure their working futures. Today’s post expands the concept to other areas of popular culture; namely the National Football League (NFL) during the 1970s, and Marvel Comics during the 1980s, and I will write a little more about my previous case study — the rock band KISS — during the 1990s.

Self-reflexively, these pop culture creations, that eventually became institutions, are chosen due to my familiarity with them during my childhood. These pop cultural institutions chosen definitely skew male. My belief is that my interpretation here could apply to other institutions whose audience is predominantly female that choose to historicize themselves, but which I am currently unfamiliar.

A necessary questions is to ask “why did these three groups choose to create their own history?” and “why did it occur when it did?” The foundational answer is that there is a perceived value added to the cultural creation when it is not viewed to be either new or existing within a vacuum without context. There are some creations, such as certain technologies, where a perception of history or oldness, acts as a detriment to its acceptance or adoption. This is not the case with the NFL, Marvel Comics, or KISS. Additionally, each cultural institution has specific and unique reasons for why these chose this particular strategy. The following sections provide these answers as it covers each case study.

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One element to this strategy of creating your own history can be viewed as propaganda. Earlier governmental examples include George Creel’s Committee for Public Information (CPI) that helped president Wilson during World War I, the Office of War Information’s various efforts including war bonds to help president Roosevelt during World War II, and of course for more nefarious purposes, the work of Joseph Goebbels on behalf of the Third Reich and their hopes for a 1,000 year reign in Nazi Germany. Each of these examples shows an institution (government) getting their message across via a communications department (propaganda). At a macro scale level, we see the same relationship between the NFL (private business) and its arm NFL Films (propaganda).

Thankfully the intentions behind the creation of NFL Films were pretty high minded. Steve Sabol (1942-2012), son of founder Ed Sabol (1916-2015) repeatedly said publicly that his intention was to combine his love of football with his love of cinema. At its best, NFL Films created this combination, taking an inherently repetitive, and at times, boring sports and presented it using the cinematic techniques formerly reserved for student and experimental films. Initially, I believe, both Sabol’s looked at this as a fun and potentially money-making business opportunity only. Former NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle may have been consciously looking for the medium (the Sabols) through which to expand and supplement its thriving weekly television message. However, I don’t believe initially, the NFL and the Sabols marched in lockstep to purposely manipulate the image. That would come later through a combination of implicit directions, habits, and the desire to repeat what was successful.

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Steve Sabol (l) and Ed Sabol (r)

Pete Rozelle’s innovator as NFL commissioner was his insight to marry his sport to the then new medium of television, to have all teams share revenue from the lucrative television contracts, and to merge, buyout, or adopt rival concepts — like TV revenue sharing — from any and all competitors. An early example of self-mythologizing, that was based in part on truth, was the 1958 NFL Championship game played on December 28, 1958 at New York City’s Yankee Stadium between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. The factual reasons for why this game was significant and thus should be recorded in the history books is that it was the first televised playoff game to go into sudden death overtime. This game sold the television audience on the viability and excitement of televised football rather than America’s previous preoccupation and pastime – baseball (and to a certain extent, collegiate football). This success is what, in part, drove the competing American Football League (1960-1969) to be established and became so successful, so quickly, that it forced the NFL to merge with them. See the wonderful website http://www.remembertheafl.com/AFL.htm for more information. Also, the great 2009 documentary Full Color Football about the history of the AFL. We’ve discussed Full Color Football on the Inside the Box: The TV History Podcast as well: link.

The mythology began when it began to be referred to as “The Greatest Game Ever Played” and the transformation of Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas and running back Alan Ameche into godlike figures. What is significant is that it permanently married U.S. football and the medium of television. Referring back to this game perpetually, and consistently creating an archive of past games, seasons, and personalities brings a significance to the sport that otherwise at worst would be ephemeral and at best be locked away within individual memory.

Film and television provided three key utilities for U.S. football – a large and steady revenue stream, a weekly archive for fans to create a context to  enmesh themselves in creating greater buy-in, and a visual and narrative history for their league to be learned, repeated, and give additional significance to the act of throwing, catching, running, and tackling a person holding, a football. NFL Films, through their NFL Films Presents, annual team-specific season re-caps, annual Super Bowl highlight recap, and various other assorted clips packages created a historical narrative that has been replayed hundreds if not thousands of times for the past forty-five or so years.

Broad brush strokes of the NFL’s history can be seen as the following: “Johnny Unitas was the quarterback archetype, the 1960s Green Bay Packers the greatest team ever, Jim Brown the greatest player ever, Joe Namath united the leagues, the Steelers were the team  of the 1970s, the Cowboys – America’s Team, the Raiders were the villains, the 49ers dominated the 1980s, Dan Marino a quarterback you see once in a generation, the 1990s was the rejuvenation of the Cowboys, John Elway, and Green Bay, the 2000s were Tom Brady’s time as he battled Peyton Manning.” In a league now defined by constantly moving free agent players, it behooves teams, and the league, to re-entrench the history of the team, the history of the uniform. Though, literally, those uniforms continue to change with apparel dollars floating in owner’s eyes, and for that matter, some cities change too.

One of the most important decisions regarding an effort to build a history in the NFL was NFL Films decision to film rather than to video tape. The change in medium, complete with excessive use of slow motion, added musical score, and film grain lends an immediate archival credibility to the content. In fact, most re-broadcasts of even originally videotaped game footage is derezed (decreasing resolution) so as to alert audience that the footage is old. Think about that. There is a deliberate effort to differentiate for the audience between old and new game footage. My theory is that the only reason there needs to be new televised football is mostly for the very large and lucrative gambling business. Otherwise, HD quality footage, combined with an increasingly casual fan base ignorant towards most player movement between teams equals most people probably wouldn’t know what they were watching is actually from two  weeks ago or two years ago without checking. A creation of an archive and a conscious desire to demarcate when that content is “new” versus when it is allowed to enter the archive even though technologically today all HD content can look brand-new no matter how old it is.

Marvel Comics

Marvel Comics is not unique as a publisher in having the problem of what to do with older content that has already been paid for but might have future utility and value if framed in a new way. Time, Newsweek, Life, and almost any magazine that has been around long enough has decided to reuse already-paid-for content in numerous “remembering” special issues on various dead celebrities (James Dean or George Harrison) or commemorative journalism events (World War II and the Gulf War). We’ve also seen this in terms of film footage already paid for and then re-purposed as in the case of the HBO series Dream On (1990-1996) and VH1’s Pop Up Video (1996-2002). So, it would be unfair to Marvel to single them out as some sort of lone re-print fiend. However, that being said, what is unique about Marvel’s desire to historicize itself is also connected to one of the two original innovations introduced by Stan Lee.

Stan Lee (left) sitting next to his co-creator Jack Kirby along with the Marvel Bullpen
Stan Lee (left) sitting next to his co-creator Jack Kirby along with the Marvel Bullpen

Before Stan Lee became a living legend and corporate figure head complete with his signature mustache, glasses, and hairpiece, he was a writer, who along with Jack Kirby helped launch the modern latter twentieth-century success of the U.S. comic book superhero. Stan’s two major contributions was to write his heroes as humans full of doubts, tension within their teams, and an ability to make mistakes. His and Steve Ditko’s Spider-Man is arguably his greatest success in such character development. His second contribution, and one upon which the current billion dollar Marvel film franchise is continuing to be built upon is to have all of his characters published by Marvel co-exist in the same narrative universe. Spider-Man could run into the Fantastic Four in NYC, the Avengers were distrustful of the X-Men, and everybody showed up to say congratulations at Reed Richards and Sue Storm’s wedding. Such narrative interweaving and complexity creates at least two outcomes: a desire for continuity and a need to learn all this interweaving so as to understand the current story’s context. Organizing a history would help to accomplish both.

By 1982, Marvel Comics had been riding the wave Stan and Jack started for twenty-one years. At the same time, the publisher had been bought once in 1968 and was about to again a year later. Constant internal personnel changes, an increasingly large backlog of stories, a desire to continue in-story continuity, and a need to help writers and artists come up to speed quickly on the books’ histories required an organization of history. This resulted first in the fifteen issue The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe (1982-1984) that provided details, history, and representative image for each major Marvel character.

The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: Deluxe Edition #1
sample entry from the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe featuring popular X-Men character Rogue

Later, in 1985, Marvel began to tell or re-tell its own history in a narrative form with its twenty-five issue series The Marvel Saga: the Official History of the Marvel Universe (1985-1987). For younger readers in the 1980s, this series provided a quick-study guide to the first twenty-five years of Marvel’s history. For the company, it served dual purposes because, a) it was cheap since most of its content was reprint, simply reordered or supplemented by a small amount of new bridging artwork, and b) it gave renewed significance to its flagship characters since a specific history book was devoted to them.


This strategy was utilized again the following year for Marvel’s best selling characters, the X-Men, with a series called Classic X-Men (1986-1995). More money was spent on this series for new supplemental art, covers, and short stories at the end featuring X-Men characters in solo adventures during their pasts. Smaller in scope than Marvel Saga, but — at least initially — with higher quality storytelling and art, Classic X-Men achieved a trifecta for publishers creating their own history. The series: a) taught new readers a history, b) provided another avenue to sell popular characters or topics, and c) was relatively inexpensive since most of the content had already been paid for.


Perhaps the ultimate expression of historicizing occurred in 1991 during the speculative collector phase that the industry briefly enjoyed and suffered from after its bubble burst with Lee Daniel’s official book Marvel: Five Fabulous Decades of the World’s Greatest Comics. This coffee-table hardcover full color book went through company, creator, and character origins while also publicizing the company’s efforts to market it characters in other media and products.

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This entry will be relatively brief to those about NFL Films and Marvel above, due to my writing about the rock band Kiss in my previous blog post on pop bands who mythologize themselves. Nonetheless, the band’s strategy to create and sell their own history arrived via a confluence of forces. Initial steps were taken in 1987 when the band released a VHS tape that straddled the line between their contemporary image as MTV-style glam rockers and their unique vintage stage presence of full makeup, chaser lights, blood-spitting, and levitating drum risers. As written about in my previous post, this choice ultimately sealed off their history as a unique and somewhat unreachable curious artifact whose unattainable nature made it ultimately more valuable.

If we read the text chosen to organize this 1987 offering, we see purposeful and historical language chosen. We read “KISS Photo Album,” “KISS Through the Years,” “KISSTORY,” and “The KISS Kollection.”

table of contents for the 1987 VHS release

This language would not be out of fashion if used within either a museum exhibit or a family scrapbook. A photo album has value as a visual archive. KISS through the years constructs value by constructing a transformative narrative arc one often associated with characters in a book or film that the audience can watch unfold. KISSTORY is self-explanatory while the KISS Kollection is an obvious call for the listener to buy as many albums as possible, it also inherently suggests each release fits together somehow to create a larger, more meaningful whole or collection. Other bands, of course, want you to buy all their albums or feel a particular duo or trio of albums creates a thematic arc but only KISS thinks of itself as an experience, a story, that can only be understood fully, by knowing and buying its history.

Later, in early 1990s, out of necessity due to shifting musical tastes and lower record sales, KISS would create its own fan conventions as a way to generate income, interest, and literally create a traveling museum to themselves as a way to help shape and share their own legacy. The uniqueness of this effort was to marry the experiential aspect of fan culture usually associated with attending concerts with the band’s attempts at creating their own history in the form of their small-scale museum or KISS Konvention. Yes, the fans still saw the band perform live — albeit acoustically — but they now could share their knowledge and wares with one another in an officially sanctioned commemorative marketplace for KISS. There had been and continues to be fan-run conventions, but founding members Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley wanted their cut from their own legacy and created the official version.

Somewhat obviously, when the costumes and props are presented on mannequins and in display cases, the audience unconsciously understands these cues as those of a museum, and perhaps then treat the subject matter with an added layer of significance befitting an object worthy enough to be presented via institutionalized memory. Of course, the hardcore fan would already be bringing in a level of passion for the band that would not require such cues or this hypothetical fan would already know enough and possess enough agency to decide which artifacts are worthy of their veneration and which ones are not.

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example of costumes on display during the 1994-1995 traveling Kiss Konvention
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the band plays an acoustic set during the traveling Kiss Konvention

This konvention was preceded by a musical family tree included in the CD booklet for the band’s Alive III live album, a tribute album by contemporary stars, and assorted nostalgia-based efforts paying homage to the 1970s incarnation of KISS [see my earlier post on some of these items]. Suffice it to say, the band would eventually becoming the living embodiment of their own history by wearing makeup again, literally write their own history book, and eventually — in order to receive new recording royalties — re-record some of their classic songs for inclusion in television commercials. For the hardcore fan, the band by itself or just one album isn’t the truest expression. The band equals a story, a history, a mythology that when absent — perhaps for the casual fan — never seems satisfying. KISS actively cultivated and now live next to their own history in every decision they make.

NFL Films, Marvel Comics, and the rock band KISS each added value to their own creations by actively embracing and constructing a history. Each strategy created a significance to the work that otherwise may not have been inherent within the creation. Each became an institution whose history construction provided an additional context for their product and avenue for the new fan to head down and learn about the group. Deconstructed to their essential parts — throwing and catching a football, man wearing cape with powers, and misogynistic three-chord rock while wearing face-paint — doesn’t possess much variety or complexity. However, once narratives and histories both surround and buoy the experience, it delivers a richness that can be enjoyed by both the solitary fan or shared between two. Value is added, product is sold, and history legitimizes it all.

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from left to right: Sabol surrounded by his film vault, 1996’s Marvels limited series re-telling the 1960s history of the comics, and Simmons presented in the style of Warhol

Pop Bands Mythologizing Themselves

Definition sticklers will call me out on my use of the term “pop” when really I mean rock, pop, R&B, etc., but pop or popular is a nice umbrella term for the mainstream acts I’m referring to. Bands who have actively worked at historicizing themselves or to build their own mythology is fascinating. Rock n roll used to be thought of as a young person’s game  or was associated with some type of rebellion. Today it is expected there will be an initial band 15 minutes of fame, then a solo album, break-up, big money making reunion, and tasteful, nearly annual reunions to pad the retirement nest egg or children’s college funds. Simply put, before it was institutionalized and generally humans’ lifespans became longer, pop, rock, or whatever could have just been something that occurred for two or three years during your early twenties. “Say something once, why say it again?” – David Byrne.

But this changed and we began to see bands actively building their own histories. For this short pilot of an essay, I choose the following as my case studies: the Beach Boys (1961-present), Michael Jackson (1958-2009), KISS (1973-present), and via parody, The Rutles (1975-intermittently through-2002). Each of these examples shows a performer mythologizing or historicizing a particular element of their performance persona.

If we focus solely on the performer’s music, there are many examples today of singers and bands consciously aping their earlier or original style in order to regain popularity, increase sales, or attempt to reignite the particular authenticity that originally brought them notice. Cruder or mediocre attempts in this vein can generally be filed in shallower container of nostalgia or retro. This is not quite the same as mythologizing or historicizing, though it can play a smaller part in these larger concepts.

In the case of The Beach Boys, there are certainly numerous examples, especially later in their career, of usually Mike Love-led attempts to practically imitate themselves and lock themselves back into the early 60s bubble of upbeat surf-based songs. As early as 1968, after their first career decline, they released Do It Again. Though the audio didn’t match the visuals with their late 60s long hair, beards, and white suits .

As driving force in the band Brian Wilson continued to suffer with addictions and The Beach Boys delivered surprisingly fresh, though commercially disappointing, albums (see Sunflower (1970), Surf’s Up (1971), Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” (1972), and Holland (1973) ), increasingly Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston went back to the well of nostalgia. However, sonic nostalgia – as I mentioned above – doesn’t equal creating your own history or mythology. The Beach Boys truly achieved that by constructing a direct parallel between their band and the season of summer. This really locked in between 1980-1982 when the group began performing Independence Day concerts on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. as part of a neo-conservative wave ushered in by Ronald Reagan’s presidency and a hangover-like fatigue from 1970s Vietnam War, oil shortages, and hostage situation. Respectable institutions have long histories defined by a consistent output  of quality and that is what The Beach Boys aspired to become. This was no longer the Brian Wilson-led band who released songs such as Caroline, No (1966) and Heroes and Villains (1967). The Beach Boys mythologized a season and a time (post-war early 1960s) whereas Michael Jackson was relatively focused on the present musically throughout his career and left the mythologizing for live performance and curated imagery.

Michael Jackson was only eleven years old when the group he led, the Jackson 5, released their single I Want You Back on October 7, 1969. He grew up in the last vestiges of Old Hollywood, learning and internalizing its rules. His upbringing was not that of the New Hollywood portrayed in Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998). His world – one he both literally knew and revered – was filled with Diana Ross, Elizabeth Taylor, and Gene Kelly. His Hollywood was one with a distance between front stage and back stage, between audience and performer, public behavior and private behavior. To demarcate the line between performer and regular Joe was to be bigger, flashier, more outrageous – on stage – then a normal person, to use and display your power. So, while we can never make the case for self-mythology or base nostalgia within his music – except 2001’s “You Rock My World” from his last album Invincible – his stage presence and image are rife with it.

One of the earliest examples is from the 1980 The Jacksons album Triumph. Four years earlier, the group left Motown for Epic/CBS records. With the move Jermaine Jackson left the group and stayed with Motown to be replaced by younger brother Randy. One year prior to Triumph (1980), Michael scored his first big solo hit as an adult with his 1979 album Off The Wall. So, the goal was to look big, important, to continue the winning ways. The Jacksons, for their single from Triumph, “Can You Feel It” LITERALLY did this by portraying themselves a ethereal giants across the cosmos.

As Michael Jackson hit it even bigger in 1982 with his album Thriller money and performance aspirations quickly increased. Across both his solos tours and last tours with his brothers, the choreography increasingly included more “power” stances usually while standing atop a fan-vent blowing dramatic smoke up and around the performer. While such stage stances are certainly no stranger to the rock dynamic between a lead singer and lead guitar player (ideal type would be Roth/Van Halen), The Jacksons are not merely conveying the emotion of the song, but rather constructing an image of power and resiliency reserved for statuary composition rather than a pop-star.


During the late 1980s and into the early 1990s, increasingly Michael Jackson wore royalty and military inspired jackets and pants. He would often have himself photographed with local military and police from the countries he was performing in. It was a convenient arrangement for stage craft – he could say – and at certain times in his career he was being honest – that he needed such local security and of course the photo out of context spoke volumes – “Michael Jackson Leads Army.”

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By the mid-1990s, Michael Jackson was under investigation for child sexual abuse and needed damage control. All guns, so to speak, were fired: a marriage to the daughter of Elvis Presley, a greatest-hits package combined with a new album, and that album’s title was “HIStory: Past, Present, and Future, Book 1” (1995) with the image of a giant statue of Michael Jackson on its cover. Fighting for his career created his penultimate attempt at self-mythologizing via image.


To state the obvious, this image tells us Michael Jackson is important enough, and has been important long enough to have a history with a capital “H”. Also, history, that big important subject that everybody takes seriously, well, it is actually “HIS” story because again, he is really important. Not only has he been important in the past, but the subtitle informs us that he is also VERY important today, and will continue to be important in the future. His story is so revered that this is no mere PR release or trashy audio tell-all, but a “book”, almost religious if you will, and long because this is only the first. Behind the text is a pseudo-royal crest spelling out his initials, “MJ”. How revered is pop star Michael Jackson? Well, they built a statue so tall it needs dramatic flood lights to illuminate it against a very powerful and dramatic sky. Such image work would eventually no longer work in a post-internet, social media world Michael inhabited for the last ten or so years of his life, but unfortunately Michael still played by the rules of Old Hollywood that he was trained in. It didn’t quite get it; the moat between fan and performer had quickly eroded. Michael Jackson’s efforts alone probably support my point regarding band’s conscious intentions at self-mythologizing and historicizing themselves, but nonetheless would be incomplete without the band who literally wrote a history book about themselves, KISS.

Conceptualizing rivaling Michael Jackson in their inherent understanding that projecting an image of being “larger than life” equals success, KISS traded on their mystique and mythology almost from day one. First, of course, is their makeup that acts like a mask. Masks can act as symbols. We often assign greater meaning to such symbols. So, right out of the gate in 1973, these were not simply a slightly-better than bar band foursome – there MUST be something more to them because the mask acts as a symbol to be decoded and begs us to ask “who are they really?”


The mythology built when their first three studios albums failed to sell in 1974 and 1975 but word of mouth said “they were amazing live”. This led their manager Bill Aucoin to gamble and release a double-live album (like other “live” albums, it was perfected in the studio in order to live up to the building mythology) and it paid off: Alive! (1975) was certified gold and truly launched their careers. Buying wholeheartedly into their manager focus on visuals and perception, the band at the height of their career released a greatest hits package titled Double Platinum (1978). Other bands might have worried that essentially titling an album “two million sold” might set them up for embarrassment if sales were poor (and this album actually did only sell one million), KISS understood the value of self-mythologizing. This strategy would eventually provide diminishing returns, especially for bassist Gene Simmons, but in the beginning, it built the band.

The first cracks in this strategy are well detailed in C.K. Lendt’s wonderful book Kiss and Sell: The Making of a Supergroup (1997) beginning with the group’s 1979 tour in support of their album Dynasty in which the group began hemorrhaging money due to the manager and the band working under the delusion that everything had to be “SuperKISS”. Career-wise, the band first bottomed out in 1982 as they were viewed as an over-promoted, over-commercialized “dinosaur” act who couldn’t rival the then beginning new-wave of 80s heavy and glam metal. This didn’t stop them from attempting the old strategy by promoting a small contingent of citizens who protested one of their poorly-attended concert stops by saying the band’s name stood for Knights in Satan’s Service. In that moment they were not a tired old act attempting to slough through an abysmally attended tour but rather a “dangerous” rock n roll band who got protested and hopefully would now be more appealing to the youth demo in small town USA.

However, it was truly the makeup again that helped build the mythology and mystique – or rather the taking off of the makeup in 1983 for their surprisingly successful Lick It Up album. By taking off the makeup, the band essentially hermetically sealed a portion of their career and bifurcated their past between “makeup” and “non-makeup”. By only existing in the past, during the by-gone days of a 1970s defined by arena rock and disco, the footage of the makeup days seemed like a portal into another planet. The makeup element of their performance began to perform double-duty for Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons. Its absence allowed them to appear contemporary and be an active, working rock band during the 1980s. It also acted as a special historical treasure trove that Paul and Gene could reach into occasionally in a pre-internet world in discreet dollops either to an appreciative long-time fan or curious young newcomer.

This began in 1987 with the long-form video VHS release KISS:Exposed intercut the band’s contemporary MTV videos with 1970s makeup footage. Similar to Michael Jackson’s child sexual abuse charges propelling him to self-mythologize, KISS hit their second career nadir from roughly 1993 to 1995. A combination of their natural aging, death of a band member (Eric Carr), and changing musical tastes left the band without a forward direction, so they went back. The first inkling of this course appeared in their 1993 live album Alive III (itself a part of a self-aware trilogy). The accompanying compact disc (CD) booklet contained both contemporary and archival band imagery along with a musical family tree of band members and which bands they played in.

kiss alive 3 family treeKiss-Alive_III_CD_booklet1-

This purposeful historicizing of the band continued in March 1995 with the release of the 440-page hardbound “bible” Kisstory for $149.99 and a 27-show “KISS Convention” tour. The tour was essentially the band’s own mini-touring museum featuring props, costumes, and other artifacts mostly from the 1970s combined with a live acoustic set from the band. This was followed in 1996 with an acoustic set on MTV’s Unplugged television program with former members Ace Frehley and Peter Criss which led to a full in-makeup stadium worldwide tour in 1996-1997. The band continued to archive itself in 2000 with its 435-page updated sequel to their Kisstory book, Kisstory II. These were later followed by a trilogy of DVD box-sets featuring restored concert footage from all the band’s various eras and lineups in 2006 and 2007 titled Kissology volumes 1-3.

books_kisstory KISSology_Vol._1_cover

It is important to differentiate here the forces occurring around the rock band KISS during the 1990s. On one side, you have the band actively constructing and promoting a history of themselves that builds upon the mythology they had always been working on since the start of their career. On the other side – perhaps the audience, perhaps the industry – embracing or seeking out a nostalgia that for some included KISS during their initial popularity in the 1970s. It is this side that produced the 1994 album Kiss My Ass: Classic Kiss Regrooved where various popular contemporary artists covered classic KISS songs. I’m sure Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley were only too happy to help a new generation venerate them and support their work in making their own history significant. It is also this nostalgia side that placed KISS songs on the soundtracks of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), Dazed & Confused (1993), and Speed (1994). The important point, I think think, is to remember that all of this can not be understood solely by nostalgia or a retro-craze on their own. Rather, it is a conscious effort on the part of performers to historicize and mythologize themselves. This can cause an uptick in nostalgia, it could be caused by an uptick in nostalgia, or they may never actually intersect with one another. There is no one way that it necessarily unfolds, and in fact, one case study – The Rutles (1978) shows parody of the band, rather than the band itself, can perform the same function.

It seems silly to introduce them, but as this YouTube video shows, some of today’s youth really don’t know or care who The Beatles were.

So, simply, The Beatles were an English rock band from 1960-1970 who literally changed the pop music world and who accomplished the rare feat of both being commercially successful and critically loved. In 1978, former comedy troop Monty Python member, Eric Idle wrote, directed, produced, and starred in a mockumentary called All You Need is Cash about a fictional rock band called The Rutles.  The Rutles are almost an exact copy of The Beatles. The film builds a distinct history of The Rutles (The Beatles) and pokes fun at their choices, their words, and various events that happened to them. Since Beatles guitarist George Harrison actually helped create the film, was a fan of Idle, an even played a TV reporter in the film, it can be argued somewhat that the actual band does play a hand here in constructing its own history, albeit via parody.  I would argue it is actually Idle’s passion for the band, both its pros and cons, that fuel the film. If anything, Harrison’s willingness to puncture holes in the seriousness and significance of The Beatles would work against the institutionalization of the band’s history. However, ultimately, Idle’s parody reifies the significance of the band since they are not merely being criticized for common missteps but are powerful enough, important enough that satire is what is needed to reveal the errors and silliness of it all. This film in 1978 along with John Lennon’s untimely murder in 1980 both ended The Beatles and immortalized them. The history of the band perfectly preserved via the audio and visual between 1960-1970 to be dissected, discussed, and parodied as needed. A similar but somewhat different effort occurs with John Lennon’s career as his widow Yoko Ono has carefully curated his history and what it means since his death.

the-rutles rutles-front-cover1

What does this all mean? Who cares if a pop band wants to actively promote its own history – there are certainly fans who both enjoy it and would gladly exchange money for the various artifacts offered. The first answer is the old, shallow one – pop is meant for the young and to be ephemeral and perhaps rebellious. To actively, and “always already” be working to create your own archive is the antithesis of this. Unless of course, your message of rebellion needs to be preserved, but we assume if it was effective, your converts would carry on the legacy. A more controversial answer is that perhaps it draws focus away from music as the medium and instead to the visual archive and the biography as a form. The third answer I offer in this pilot essay is admittedly related to the first – how vibrant and progressive can a musical creation or expression be, if it is always couched in “getting ready to remember”?