CADILLAC, Mich. — On a sunny October afternoon 40 years ago, this northern Michigan vacation destination became center of the universe for fans of the rock ‘n’ roll band Kiss.
The New York band, known for its lavish costumes, face paint and pyrotechnics, rolled into town to meet the Cadillac High School football team, which credited its winning season a year earlier to the band’s pounding sounds.
The Oct. 9-10, 1975 visit left an indelible mark on the town of 9,200 nestled beside Lake Cadillac. And it’s widely acknowledged as one of history’s most famous rock ‘n’ roll publicity events, even though publicity came primarily after Kiss left Cadillac.
It also left an indelible mark on the band, which last year was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
“It’s so deeply engrained and the visions that come forward with Cadillac Michigan, it’s an honor to have been part of this,” band member Paul Stanley said in a telephone interview with Traverse City radio station WKLT-FM.
Cadillac will celebrate the 40th anniversary this weekend with a Kiss tribute band concert Saturday afternoon and the unveiling of black granite monument beside the football field to commemorate the historic event.
“When the band started playing, it was so loud, one person said it was like swimming against the current,” said retired assistant football coach Jim Neff, who spearheaded the Kiss visit in 1975. “People in town got to hear the concert even if they didn’t attend.”
Ringing eardrums wasn’t the only thing the band left behind. A “battle-ready” helicopter landed on the 50 yard line the day after the concert to spirit Kiss away. As it lifted 100 feet off the ground, members Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley unleashed 4,000 jumbo postcard-sized leaflets that read: “Cadillac High – Kiss loves you. Peter, Ace, Gene, Paul.”
“I think everybody thought somebody was throwing garbage out of the helicopter and you didn’t know what it was until you got one in your hand; and it said Cadillac High – Kiss Loves You,” said David Schemmel, 56, of Rockford, a junior running back at the time.
Not all of the fliers landed on Viking field. The helicopter created a windstorm that sent fliers across town. Neff, who lives a few blocks from the high school, recalls pulling them from his shrubs.
“The idea of playing was really a way of acknowledging what the team had done, so that was number one,” Stanley said. “And everybody seemed to embrace the idea so much . . . the breakfast, getting the key to the city, the parade, Kiss Boulevard. There were so many things thrown at us and most of them, we just said ‘yeah.”’
Rockin’ to Victory:
So how did Neff get an internationally acclaimed rock band to show up for Homecoming weekend in the former lumber town located near the geographic center of Michigan?
It started a year earlier when the Cadillac Vikings varsity football team began the 1974-75 season with a 0 and 2 start. Neff, the assistant coach and history teacher, began playing Kiss songs in the locker room to fire up his troops.
The band’s name also provided an acronym for the Vikings: Keep It Simple Stupid.”
Kiss in 1974 was starting to get noticed. Its self-titled debut album Kiss was released in February and included the songs Nothin’ to Lose and Firehouse – two mainstays of the Cadillac locker room. Its second album, Hotter than Hell, was released that October, coincidentally about the time Neff first fired up the locker room records.
The repertoire included ‘Firehouse,’ ‘Hotter than Hell,’ ‘Nothin’ to Lose’ and ‘Deuce.’ “Strutter was a popular one,” Neff said. “I think the defensive ends were called ‘strutters.’ We had a lot of those classic Kiss songs off the first few albums that we used.”
Neff, an early Kiss aficionado, wrote the band during the 1974-75 season and explained how its music helped inspire the team to seven straight victories. To Neff’s surprise, the band responded and asked to be kept appraised of the teams’ weekly games. The Vikings ended the 1974-75 season as North Central Conference co-champs.
In September, 1975, the band released its fourth album – Kiss Alive! Sales exploded; it went gold after three months. Its release so close to the Cadillac concert isn’t lost on Neff.
“That combination of events – Kiss Alive – which was the seminal album for Kiss, and the Cadillac concert, which got publicity worldwide, turns Kiss from a really good band into a worldwide phenomenon,” he said.
After learning that Kiss would be performing at Western Michigan University just prior to Cadillac’s Homecoming weekend, Neff floated the idea of having the foursome visit Wexford County.
Stanley, the Kiss guitarist and an ardent football fan, says they didn’t need much prodding to make the 145-mile trip.
“The idea was so off the wall, it fit us perfectly,” he said. “It’s like, you know, a team – a football team that listens in the locker room and has turned their season around? OK. Let’s go.”
School officials didn’t make a formal announcement until shortly before Homecoming week to avoid a mob scene – even though the word was out among students. Given the setting, Kiss agreed to forego one of its concert mainstays – the spitting of fake blood.
“I told them ‘I’m in enough trouble – you’re not going to spit blood are you?” laughed John Laurent, Cadillac High School principal at the time.
Gene Simmons willingly obliged. He did breathe fire to help start the traditional Homecoming bonfire on a practice field east of the high school, however.
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