Bill Aucoin: Manager who masterminded the rise of KISS and made Billy Idol a solo star
Monday 12 July 2010
For all the braggadocio the KISS bassist and motormouth Gene Simmons exudes in interviews, he always acknowledges the role Bill Aucoin played in the emergence and the rise of the glam stadium-rockers.
Described by Simmons and singer, guitarist and co-founder Paul Stanley as their "irreplaceable original manager, mentor and dear friend", Aucoin saw the band play a showcase gig at New York's Diplomat Hotel in the summer of 1973 and secured them a record deal with Neil Bogart's Casablanca label in November that year.
However, despite their striking use of make-up and the look of the characters created by Simmons – the blood-spitting, fire-breathing "Demon" (Stanley), the guitar-smashing "Starchild" and the other two original members, Ace Frehley (the "Spaceman" whose guitar burst into flames) and Peter Criss (the "Catman" with the revolving drum kit) – at first, their ham-fisted attempt at hard rock failed to set the world alight. Their eponymous 1974 debut only sold 75,000 copies in the US. A determined Aucoin backed his hunch, maxed up his credit card to the tune of $25,000 a month and kept the group going over the next 18 months and two more studio albums. His belief and investment were rewarded in autumn 1975 when the double in-concert set Alive! and the single "Rock and Roll All Nite (live edit)" made the US charts, inaugurating a run of success which has seen KISS sell 100 million albums over the last 35 years.
However, Aucoin and KISS parted ways in 1982, citing creative and directional differences. The impresario was unhappy at the musicians' desire to abandon the make-up and the image that had proved central in establishing them as one of rock's most lucrative brands, with all the attendant merchandising opportunities (belt buckles, Halloween costumes, make-up kits, action figurines, vitamins, a pinball machine and even a KISS coffin).
Simmons had started to question Aucoin and Bogart's drug use – and their manager's business methods, in particular the 25 per cent gross commission he was receiving from tour, recording and merchandising.
"Let's just say he was earning too much for the work he was doing. We were new, we didn't know. Bill, as it turned out, was a terrific ideas guy, but he didn't seem to know how to make the best use of the money," Simmons wrote in KISS and Make-Up, his autobiography. "When you plan a tour, maybe you don't need four security guards. Maybe you just need two. And if every security guy is getting $1,500 a week, then if you cut out two guys, you're saving $3,000 a week for say, 20 weeks. Every dollar saved could be a dollar in our pockets. But these kinds of cost-cutting measures were not really his strong suit."
In 1977, Aucoin famously proclaimed that Van Halen – whose demo tape Simmons had financed in New York – "had no chance" and turned down the opportunity to manage them. But, after breaking away from KISS, he masterminded Billy Idol's transformation from has-been singer of British punk also-rans Generation X into a snarling, pouting, peroxide Elvis Presley and one of the biggest stars of the Eighties, with hits like "White Wedding", "Rebel Yell" and "Eyes Without a Face". In recent years, Aucoin served as international artistic manager to Lordi, the 2006 Eurovision-winning Finnish rock group whose use of masks and pyrotechnics owes a huge debt to KISS.
Aucoin grew up in Ayer, Massachusetts, where his father ran a restaurant. He was fascinated by radio and, in the late 1950s, aged 14, set up a small station that was soon closed down by the Federal Communications Commission. He avoided a hefty fine and a jail sentence because of his age and his promise to take the antenna down.
His interest in broadcasting continued and, while studying film and business administration he did casual shifts at WGBH, the PBS affiliate in Boston. After graduating he moved to New York, where he proved a versatile cinematographer and director, working on a Barbra Streisand special one week and a documentary on John F Kennedy the next. He helped develop the much-exported format of Supermarket Sweep and for NBC devised a show called Flipside, which went behind the scenes and into the studio with superstars Stevie Wonder and John Lennon. This attracted the attention of the members of KISS, who invited him to their early gigs in New York. Aucoin was impressed and chucked in his TV job.
Aucoin promised Simmons and his bandmates he would get them a deal within a month of becoming their manager and was true to his word. Indeed, the success of KISS helped turn Casablanca's fortunes around and enabled Bogart to sign Donna Summer and Village People and turn the label into a disco powerhouse. KISS reached a higher level of international popularity in 1979 with their disco-flavoured stormer "I Was Made for Lovin' You", but were ridiculed for such ill-advised ventures as the simultaneous release of solo albums by all four band members and the TV movie KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park in 1978.
KISS were reported to be making over $100m a year but seemed to be spending huge amounts. The jettisoning of Aucoin was an attempt to put business on firmer footing, though they shot themselves in the foot by ditching their make-up in 1983. While managing KISS, Aucoin had taken on Starz, Manowar and Billy Squier, and helped Chrysalis Records launch Billy Idol in the US. As Chrysalis chairman Chris Wright recalls, "We flew into the Isle of Man where Billy was doing a festival. Bill thought it was a real hoot that there was a place by that name. He fell in love with Billy and moved him to America, where he guided the next stage of his career. Bill became family, the rest is history."
After taking a break in the 1990s and moving to Florida, Aucoin became a consultant to acts such as Crossbreed, Tantric and Dreaming in Stereo. He also appeared in several KISS-related documentaries. He died of surgical complications from prostate cancer.
Simmons and Stanley paid the following tribute. "Bill was instrumental in guiding us from the beginning. Without his vision, leadership and unending dedication, we could never have scaled the heights we have reached. Bill loved life and lived it to the fullest. Over the years, he never missed an opportunity to be with us at our shows near his home or fly in for special concertsWe loved him, told him, and have peace that he knew it."
William Martin Aucoin, rock manager: born Ayer, Massachusetts 29 December 1943; died Aventura, Florida 28 June 2010.
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