Say it ain’t so, Space Ace! KISS After 27 years of greasepaint, fireworks and three-chord nonsense, the heavy-metal conglomerate known as KISS kicks off its farewell tour Saturday night at the Blockbuster/Desert Sky Pavilion in Phoenix. The fearsome foursome has been raking in the millions ever since they re-donned their makeup and costumes in 1996, but now the band members insist they’re hanging up their platform shoes — for good.

A mere plot to sell more tickets, you say? Please. Would a guy in monster makeup lie?

“I don’t know what else we could do except keep making records and keep touring,” bassist Gene Simmons recently told Wall of Sound. “And I admire with all my heart what the Stones have done, which is basically put your head up high and go forward and do whatever you want to do that makes you happy instead of trying to figure out what works for other people. So, like our shows, we would always prefer to leave them wanting more instead of overstaying our welcome.”

Yes, this sounds like a noble end to an epic career. After all, Kiss ranks third behind the Beatles and the Rolling Stones for consecutive gold records (23, tied with Rush). But this is a band that revolutionized marketing in the music biz — they had their own action figures, lunch pails and comic books long before it was the norm.

Does anyone believe they’re going to walk away from all that?

“Actually, all the fans I know do not believe that this is the end,” says Marko Syrjala, head of KISS Army Finland (http://members.xoom.com/kissfinland/). “My personal opinion is that makeup-era KISS should come to an end. But KISS should continue from where they stopped, with their previous [non-makeup] lineup. The original members won’t do anything in the future, except maybe something small when their 30th anniversary comes, in 2003.”

KISS was formed way back in 1973 in New York by Simmons (b. 1949 in Israel, real name: Chaim Witz), singer-guitarist Paul Stanley (b. 1952, real name: Stanley Eisen), guitarist Paul “Ace” Frehley (b. 1951) and drummer Peter Criss (b 1945, real name: Peter Crisscoula). For the uninitiated (if there is such a thing), Simmons dresses up like a fire-breathing, blood-spitting demon; Stanley as a “star child”; Frehley as a “spaceman”; and Criss as “the cat.” They played their first gig at a little club on Queens Boulevard in Long Island City, and the rest, as they say, is “KISStory.”

Simmons and Stanley were always the business and musical brains of the operation, while Frehley and Criss always seemed like they were more interested in the free beer. Criss quit the band around 1980, and Frehley left (or was kicked out, depending on which version you believe) around 1982. After that, the band dropped its makeup (for 1984’s “Lick It Up” record) and went through a series of different lineups in the 1980s and ’90s. One of their drummers died of heart cancer; one of their guitar players had to quit because of arthritis.

But ask most any fan, and they’ll tell you that the original vintage KISS was the best.

“I’m disappointed in a way [about the band’s retirement], but it probably is the right decision,” says Steve Stierwalt, editor of KISS Freaks. “The bottom line is they are not the KISS of the ’70s. KISS is not putting together albums like ‘Destroyer’ and ‘Rock & Roll Over’ anymore. The shows are still great, but the albums are average compared to their successes in the past. The last album [1998’s ‘Psycho Circus’] wasn’t as well received as projected, so I guess it makes sense [to quit].”

KISS became a major act when its double-disc live album, “Alive,” became a hit in 1974. The band’s biggest single of the 1970s was “Beth,” a ballad that was atypical of their numbskull hard rock (see: “Detroit Rock City,” “God of Thunder” and “Calling Dr. Love”). By the late 1970s the guys were struggling to stay interesting; they even made two disco albums (“Asylum” and “Unmasked”), and a movie (1978’s kiddie TV pic “Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park”).

After playing together a couple of times at KISS fan conventions and on MTV’s “Unplugged,” the original four members regrouped and launched the mega-successful “Reunion Tour” that was the biggest concert draw of the 1996-97 season. The new shows were big, loud, obnoxious and bombastic. (In short: Same old same old.) The shows also were rehearsed and pre-programmed to the smallest detail, with no hint of spontaneity. And the KISS merchandising and marketing machine never was more impressive.

For the fans, now mostly in their 30s (and beyond), the reunion tour was disposable-income nostalgia. Nothing more, nothing else to most grown-up ears.

“Musically, the ’70s KISS was superb, but everybody who has seen the reunited KISS knows the truth,” Syrjala adds. “The original spirit wasn’t there anymore. Of course it was incredible to see them in makeup for [my] first-time ever. I was at their show in Donington [England] in 1996, but to be honest they played quite badly. And even later, when I saw eight more shows, it wasn’t much better.”

So why did “the hottest band in the world” decide to pack it in? Why have they nixed plans for future studio albums (the so-called final disc by the original four members will be the forthcoming “Alive 4”)? Have they made so much money that they’re tired of counting it? Are Gene and Paul sick of party boyz Peter and Ace again? Is Gene bored with fornicating with groupies? Did the box-office failure of their movie “Detroit Rock City” fill them will self-doubt?

No, says Simmons, they just want to do something else. Paul Stanley will play the lead in “Phantom of the Opera” on Broadway this fall (he first did the role in Toronto last year) and Simmons will go back to being a mogul and maybe acting. Peter and Ace will do whatever it is they did before the KISS reunion pulled them out of obscurity.

But is it really the end? Of course, there’s always a loophole.

“The loophole is that you’re alive and well, and you have the right to change your mind about anything,” Simmons tells Rollingstone.com.

“I can’t see 60-year-old guys in Spandex and makeup. It would really ruin the magic of the past, if that happened. KISS is KISS though, so don’t count it out,” says Stierwalt.