Bill Starkey (KISS Army founder)
Bill Starkey: General of The Kiss Army
When one thinks of KISS, thoughts of their anthem-like songs and spectacular stage shows come to mind. However, just as important are their legions of fans. In the mid 1970's they became known as the KISS Army. One man was responsible for this as well as kick-starting the merchandising giant that exists today. His name is Bill Starkey and every KISS fan owes him a great debt. Without him, we might be known as the KISS buddies or the Friends of KISS or some other such uninspired moniker. Those of us from the early days also might not have been able to get our band t-shirts and merchandise without his help.
I spoke to Bill last week about being on the forefront of the band exploding across the world and his relationship with the band over the years.
antiMusic: Before we get to the massive contribution you've made to the best band in the world, how do you feel about KISS' exclusion from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame?
Starkey: I have always thought that their exclusion was very similar to my quest to get them on in my hometown. It just didn't make sense for them to play Aerosmith, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and others when I felt KISS was far superior. Back then it was a stubbornness that had nothing to do with KISS but just the few people who were in charge. When the people were allowed to voice their opinion (the KISS Army) then justice prevailed and really everyone was pleased…including the dj/ program director who I feuded with.
My primary purpose with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is to get non-KISS fans involved. The KISS fans are already aware of the problem. I think the true shame would be in pointing this out to ALL rock and roll fans in general, not just the KISS fans. Really all this is a handful of people (critics) who didn't like the band in 1974-75 and will never admit that they were wrong in the first place. This is beyond stubbornness. It's the same thing with KISS never appearing on Saturday Night Live. Yet minimal artists like Jessica Simpson's' sister are invited to lip sync.
I wanted to get involved in something like this many years ago. However, a good friend of mine who has ties outside the band told me that KISS didn't really care about the snub and actually preferred that we fans NOT bring attention to it. Now I can't say how true this is but it's really for the KISS fans. I'm sure KISS hasn't lost any sleep over this and if they told me to stay home and mow my lawn in August instead of partaking in this then I would do so.
antiMusic: What are your thoughts about this rally? Will you be attending?
Starkey: I am looking forward to meeting the fans and staging the biggest rally of KISS fans, or fans of any artist, that's ever been arranged.
antiMusic: OK, take us back to the moment you first heard them. Was this the first record? Can you share with us your thoughts and how it made you feel?
Starkey: I first saw them on Don Kirshner's Rock Concert. I was waiting up to see Foghat. Boy was I shocked. My first impressions were they must be an English band because they were so cool for me not to know who they were. For me not to have heard them I figured that they were a British import. I loved Slade and Mott the Hoople back then so I just guessed them to be British. As far as the albums go I loved they way that the first three albums sounded so different. Of course the first album was good but what really freaked me out was the poster that came with the first album. To this day I love that picture of the band and I'd love to see it reissued. Mine is so worn from taking it to my high school and other places that it now looks like a kid's security blanket after 30 years.
antiMusic: Tell us about your initial attempts to have KISS played on the radio station in Terre Haute?
Starkey: I had befriended some of the DJ's at the station. They told me that the program director hated the band when he first saw the cover of the first album. He supposedly called them "a New York fag band" and threw the album out. So they couldn't play any KISS because he threw the records away. We knew who we had to direct our letter campaign/phone call assault on. One evening we, (Jay Evans and myself) called his request line and he told us that, "KISS was just a mediocre Bachman Turner Overdrive." I think that's when we really got pissed and started writing nasty letters about artists that the program director favored. Yes it was obvious. When KISS Alive came out in September then we knew we had a just cause for our actions. Yes another radio popped up and was looking for listeners. They gave in and the dj would say, "This song goes out to the KISS Army." People would immediately call the station and ask how they could join.
The program director at the other station wasn't ready to budge. The station asked to borrow my records to dub some singles off of them. It was funny. I had to borrow my mom's car to deliver the albums. I didn't own a car or have a job. Eventually the program director played a KISS song right before they went into a new break which was normal back then for an FM rock station.
The first song he played was "Love Theme." When we called back to complain he just laughed at us said, "Hey, you wanted a KISS song." He was still screwing with us over the air. Soon enough others started to call requesting KISS and he had to give in. That's when KISS announced that they were coming to Terre Haute in November. The program director/dj had an idea. He wanted me to continue writing my letters and he would read them over the air to promote the upcoming November concert. I would gladly do it explaining the greatness of KISS over the airwaves while I trashed the artists they played. So in a way the program director, Rich Dickerson, was as much a monumental figure in all of this too. Without his idea KISS would have never heard about us or our plight. So when the concert sold out we were given credit for our persistence. To think that it all started in my basement. Yes, the movie Detroit Rock City was too REAL for me.
antiMusic: Do you still have any of those letters and can you possibly include the contents of a sample one here?
Starkey: No unfortunately I didn't keep them because they were always mailed to the radio station. I didn't keep copies.
antiMusic: At the same time, you and your friends were making KISS t-shirts and other merchandising. Can you tell us how that all got started and who did what shirts, what they looked like?
Starkey: In my high school part of the plan to get the band recognized at my high school was the making of the KISS t shirts from a copy of the first album. One of my original KA soldiers, Rob Smith, made the shirts in the school's print shop. At that time there were NO mass produced KISS shirts anywhere. Hell, this was May 1975 and Dressed To Kill had only been out a month. We had two pictures of us taken in the men's restroom of our school. Funny, several of those guys went on to become doctors, lawyers, and engineers. We were geeks but we were passionate about KISS. We would always hear people assault us with, "KISS? KISS my ass….or Hey Starkey, if KISS is so f---ing great, then why aren't they on the radio?" That always got me and I couldn't respond to it. That's when I knew I HAD to get them on the radio somehow. (I even put my application to one of the radio stations thinking that I might get on as d.j. in order to get my way). So starting the KISS Army was ALL about the music. Had nothing to do with their great live act. I thought that The music was viable, still do.
Can you imagine the end of the story? I graduate in May and spend my summer attacking WVTS from my basement. In less than a year, November to be precise,
I'm standing in front of my hometown onstage with KISS receiving a plaque for my efforts with the KISS Army. The band sold out the same 10,000 seat arena that Aerosmith, Skynyrd and the Eagles couldn't. Every other song on the radio was now a KISS song. I'm looking out at the same kids who gave me s--- saying, "KISS, KISS my ass." Except this time they're chanting, "WE want KISS, WE want KISS!" To this day, 30 years later, I've still not attended any of my high school reunions. No grudges there I just don't feel right taking part in them. It's a great story.
antiMusic: Had you seen the band in concert by this point?
Starkey: I had seen the band three times before November of 1975. All shows were quite memorable.
antiMusic: What were your feelings when you finally got to see the band live?
Starkey: Do you mean the very first time or the fourth time in TH (Terre Haute)? In TH, I got to watch the last three encores while sitting on an anvil flight case with manager Bill Aucoin and Alan Miller who helped me coordinate KISS' arrival in TH. Now that was an experience getting to watch the last three songs from the side of the stage. Un-f-forgettable!
antiMusic: My first time seeing the band was on the Love Gun tour and it was an almost exhausting affair. I didn't know where to look. I loved everybody in the band but was most interested in watching Paul and Gene. I really wanted to see them four times in a row so I could watch each member. Did you experience similar feelings?
Starkey: Before I got to meet the band I was a huge Ace Frehley fan. I am a guitar player myself and Ace was incredible. Very, very under-rated. But all of my quality time with the guys would be with Gene and Paul and sometimes Peter. Ace was…..out being Ace somewhere.
antiMusic: During the first few years, what were your favourite KISS songs? Why?
Starkey: My faves???? I always loved Deuce because it opened so many of the early shows for me. Black Diamond and Strutter were good too. Asking me to pick one song is like asking me my favorite member. That's a no answer.
antiMusic: What was the reaction of your parents, family and schoolmates when you first started public declaring your support for the band?
Starkey: My parents were real cool. My father took me to my first KISS show and my mom took me to my second. I was on my own after that. My dad worked in a factory as an expediter. He shipped out records over the phone to everywhere around the world. At that time most of the vinyl records came out of Terre Haute, Indiana. My dad let me wear my hair long and never got on me about my crazy hippy lifestyle back then. He'd always tell me which artists he was shipping a lot of records of and that I should be listening to those artists. People like Dylan and Todd Rundgren I believe were some of the artists. Of course today I'm a big fan of both but hell I was 16 back then.
Many times recording acts would tour the record plant and my dad would get to meet them. I think he really respected the money these bands made so he thought it was cool. Here he was in his 40's, a Sinatra fan, taking me and my little brother to Evansville on December 8, 1974. Originally he offered to take me to see Deep Purple in Indianapolis as my first rock concert but that show sold out quickly. One of the perks to his job was that he could get comp tickets to shows since he handled the accounts for Warner Brothers. At that time, Casablanca was shipped out by them as was Deep Purple.
My father knew I liked KISS and he would come from work every day and tease me about talking to the KISS people at Casablanca. He would tell me how bleak sales figures were for the band but he told me that they were still out there touring. So he took me to KISS when the Deep Purple show sold out. Even though I'm sure he wasn't a fan of the music he told my mother after the Evansville show, "Jane, hey, ya gotta see these KISS guys. Ya gotta go just once." My mom took the dare and strangely enough KISS would be playing three weeks later at Christmas Jam in Indianapolis at the Convention Center on December 28th 1974. REO Speedwagon was the headliner of a show that started at 5pm on a Saturday night and featured many bands. Rush didn't show and KISS didn't come on until 12:30am Sunday morning. My brother and I did everything we could to stop my mom from taking us home. My dad was sitting outside in his truck babysitting my three year old sister. They had killed time at a car show while the three of us went to the concert.
Three months later my father would have a terrible accident falling down some basement stairs. He had irreparable brain damage, lost his job and was never the same person. My mom had to go to work at McDonald's to make ends meet for us. To this day I thank my father and mother for being so open-minded and non-judgmental about the whole teenage thing. But I truly regret my father not being around to see the KISS Army. I think he would have been very proud of his son especially since he used to tease me about their lack of record sales after two albums.
antiMusic: At what point did the band itself become aware of your efforts? What contact, if any, did you have with them?
Starkey: I was first contacted by Mr. Alan Miller on November 10th 1975…my birthday!
What a birthday present! Miller and I would discuss plans for organizing a welcoming committee for KISS, the U.S. Army and other fun stuff. This was just a month after the Cadillac, Michigan thing so it had its similarities.
antiMusic: Can you please describe your first conversation with band and what surrounded it, i.e. how nervous were you prior to the contact; how you felt during and after the call/meeting when it had sunk in that you actually spoke to them.
Starkey: I talked to Miller for several weeks and never got to meet the band until really after the concert in a backroom at a pizza parlor with RUSH. Gene and Paul were wonderful and sat down and talked with us most of the night. Can you imagine all of the stupid questions we had for them? God they knew we were nuts. Junior Smalling put me in charge of gathering groupies for the band. I was a bad choice since I couldn't even find a date for my prom let alone find willing concubines for the band. A local DJ gathered some college girls from the local Catholic girl's school across the Wabash River….St. Mary's of the Woods. Did the band score??? Your guess is as good as mine….They did play Terre Haute eight times later so I don't think it was because of ME! Ha!
antiMusic: When did the band start incorporating the KISS Army ideas into their own marketing plan?
Starkey: By spring of 1976 I started to receive mail from Boutwell Enterprises in Canoga Park, California. They were already handling Elton John's fan club and they were always asking me questions about the band. Every once in a while my mom would let me call them long distance and they'd keep me up on the band. They were always good about sending me ANYTHING that the band was merchandising at the time. That was cool and I'd usually send these things as "gifts" to radio personalities and people who were fans.
antiMusic: Were you recognized at the time, or later on, as being the originator of the concept?
Starkey: I was always given proper recognition by both KISS and Aucoin Management. I never forgot the time Bill Aucoin gave me a big hug and gave me a copy of KISS Originals with my name in the trading cards. Gene asked me to stay an extra day because they were doing an interview for KSHE radio in St. Louis the next day. I balked because I didn't want to take another sick day at work. I'm still kicking myself about that opportunity wasted.
antiMusic: Have you remained a fan over the years?
Starkey: I have remained a fan over the years. Not as passionate in some years as in others but that's understandable. The music business can be a very tough thing when you are just a teenaged kid. You get all kinds of advice. Some good, some not so good. What do you do? I tell most KISS fans you don't really know until you put yourself in my shoes. I've always been about honesty and telling the truth because people will always find out for themselves when you aren't. I'm proud to be connected with what I consider to be one of, if not the greatest, rock and roll bands in the world. It makes one proud to see those 40 foot KISS Army banners fly each night onstage.
antiMusic: What are your impressions of the band in 2005?
Starkey: I was blown away by the band in 2005. I stayed away from the Aerosmith tour because it just didn't feel right to me. KISS shouldn't share the stage with ANYONE! Especially not those guys. Eric Singer was always headlining the KISS Expos I attended yet I never really got to meet the guy. Always loved his work and he was always great at the Expos. So when I was told that he was in I felt like the band had been reborn. Eric was a fan before I was and it was fun just to talk about those early experiences with him. Then I met Tommy Thayer at the KISS Convention here in Indy in 1995. He too was a fan so it's just icing on the cake for me. It's new blood and now anything is possible with KISS. New album? Tour? Anything!
antiMusic: What, if any, contact has the band made with you since the early days?
Starkey: What contact??? At the 1995 KISS Indy Expo Gene let me sit in his chair and
talk to the hometown Hoosiers about the KISS Army. Sitting in Gene's chair with Paul, Eric and Bruce??? Can't get any better than that!! First time I met Tommy too!
I talked to Tommy three weeks ago about putting some pictures in the new 2006 KISS calendar of the original KISS Army members. It's was great hearing from him. He's a great guitarist and a wonderful guy.
Eric will kid me but I enjoyed getting to talk with him last September in Chicago over breakfast. I'm an Eric fan. I didn't hesitate when I heard he needed people to help out at his Katrina benefit for the Red Cross. He's a first class guy and an awesome drummer!
Gene and Paul…two of the most unique people I've ever met even to this day 30 years later. Honestly, they would have been successful at whatever profession that they would have chosen. We're just glad they chose to do what they did.
antiMusic: Favourite all-time KISS song, record, and concert memory.
Starkey: Favorite song…Deuce
Favorite record….KISS Alive
Favorite concert memory….onstage in Terre Haute for the first time
antiMusic: I've heard you are a teacher, is that correct? Do you ever tell your students about your experiences with KISS?
Starkey: Yes I am a teacher. My students are mostly inner city kids with a very limited background on music other than what they hear on their radio station. However they are a product of their environment like all of us. I have brought a guitar into my classroom and they've loved it. A couple of my parents saw one of my VH-1 interviews and asked to meet me after school to discuss it. Of course then they told their kids but I don't think it sunk in. In 1996, in another school with an uptight female principal, some kids found out who I was and wanted me to talk to their class about it. The principal forbid it saying that KISS stood for Knights in Satan's Service. Needless to say I don't work teach there anymore. At my new school the President of our school board was a KISS fan and a Parliament/Funkadelic fan. So he's pretty cool to the KISS stuff.
antiMusic: As General of the KISS Army, what would like to say to the troops, in preparation for the assault …I mean rally…on Cleveland?
Starkey: What to tell the fans??? Mark your calendars for August in 2006 for the largest gathering of KISS fans ever assembled in one place. We will show the rest of the world what a travesty this has been. This band has existed for over 30 years, sold millions of records and more importantly, has influenced so many others to become artists as well. If that's not making a dent in the rock and roll world then I don't know what else it takes.
Like I said, pride is a very strong emotion and to this day, some critics don't like to admit that they were wrong. Their judgment was flawed. The people HAVE spoken and this time we will be SEEN as well!!
antiMusic and Morley Seaver would like to thank Bill Starkey for doing this interview.