Kiss Flops


...or KISS Went to Middle Earth and All We Got Was This Lousy Album

The only reason that MUSIC FROM "THE ELDER" isn't framed over the door of the Hall of Celebrity Embarrassment is because Kiss and their megastar machinery have done such a good job of hiding its existence for the last twenty years. The album was supposed to be the group's masterpiece, final proof to the public and the critics that Kiss was not just some teenybopper joke, but real artistes. It ended up an overblown disaster that drove Ace Frehley out of the band and lost them much of their audience for some time.

Don't get me wrong. Kiss was, for my money, one of the best rock and roll bands of their era.  However, like many groups who defined the sound of the hard rock seventies, Kiss had a lot of trouble keeping their oars in the waters of the new wave eighties. As far back as 1977, the Sex Pistols and their ilk, while not really making Kiss and their contemporaries obsolete, had clearly pointed towards the wholesale abandonment of the long-haired arena rock tradition that would mark the 1980's. As the attention of the pop world was turning towards Bow Wow Wow, Spandau Ballet, and A Flock of Seagulls, a pack of superheroes in kabuki make-up, with long hair and platform shoes seemed, to many, mawkish and old-hat.

To make matters worse, Kiss had not come into this changing of the guard with engines at full power.  While the four simultaneous solo albums of 1978 all shipped platinum, they sold little after the initial blast of excitement. The next two Kiss albums, DYNASTY (1978) and UNMASKED (1979), attempts to adopt a more restrained AOR feel, were both commercial disappointments.  Then, in 1980, Peter Criss became the first original member to leave. He claimed that the make-up was adversely affecting his skin.

To prove to the world that Kiss was not passe', the band enlisted Bob Ezrin, the producer behind their most successful album, DESTROYER, to help them create a tragically passe' concept album, concerning the adventures of a boy hero and his battle to save the world from an evil wizard.

It had been Ezrin's idea that Kiss should record a concept album, similar to Pink Floyd's THE WALL, which Ezrin had produced to great success in 1979. Kiss was a little too old and settled to "go punk," or otherwise embarrass themselves by trying to pass as new wavers. They could, however, take advantage of their biggest asset - their theatricality - and try to out-Floyd the Floyd as only Kiss could.

Gene Simmons supplied the story, which sounds a lot like a Dungeons and Dragons module: In 161 AD, a prehistoric being of great power and evil rises from the mists to take over the world. Its name is Mr. Blackwell. The Elder, a group of equally ancient good guys descend to the Earth to challenge Blackwell, with the aide of a young psychic (played on the album by Paul Stanley.) The psychic, named Aramis, is trained and nurtured by an agent of the Elder named Morpheus (Gene Simmons.) The story begins in ancient Europe, continues in Africa, where Aramis meets Ace Frehley, and ends with an epic battle inside a volcano.

If all of this seems a little silly, that's because it is.

Had Gene and company forgotten that it was the popularity of Kiss, Aerosmith, and like-minded rock and roll bands that had buried the prog movement years before? The sword and sorcery concept album had more or less lost itself up Rick Wakeman's ass back in 1974, and the demand for a new TALES FROM TOPOGRAPHIC OCEANS was pretty low by 1981. Kiss themselves had helped create a climate hostile to such ideas. Didn't they realize this?

Ace did, and was violently opposed to the project.  Realizing that the strength and popularity of Kiss were outgrowths of the band's enduring simplicity and focus on basic rock, Frehley wanted to record a hard rock album in the manner of the early records.

Ezrin, Simmons and Paul Stanley, however, ignored him. They were all wild about THE ELDER.  They were so wild about it that they were already drawing up plans to dedicate the next three Kiss albums to the ongoing adventures of Aramis and The Elder. They planned to make a movie and re-record highlights from this fantasy extravaganza for the film's soundtrack.

They also began to refigure the band's sound and image to match the pretense of THE ELDER'S concept and, in doing so, turned their backs on much of what made Kiss so special. To appear more sophisticated, they toned down their costumes, retiring their platform boots. They cut their hair. It was further decided that the stage show should be toned down, with no fireworks, no fire spitting, and no blood. They discussed doing away with their make-up, but decided against it. The music became more PARADISE THEATRE than LOVE GUN.

Ace responded to all of this by getting himself even more whacked out on drugs and alcohol than he already was  and refusing to show up in the studio. A session guitarist replaced him on some tracks. Ace quit the band soon after the album was released.   

For a lot of people, including those who created it, MUSIC FROM "THE ELDER" sits atop the Kiss discography like a big pile of doo-doo. Sales-wise, the album was a debacle, the only Kiss album never to attain gold status. Ace Frehley was reportedly so embarrassed by the material that he faked stomach flu to avoid lip-synching songs from THE ELDER live at Studio 54 in January, 1982 (a February appearance on ABC's FRIDAYS would be the only public performance of any music from the album.) Lou Reed co-wrote three of the album's songs, credited as Lewis Reed, but has since flatly denied involvement. When the Kiss discography was re-released on CD in the eighties, THE ELDER was the last to be re-issued. Due to band and label apathy, the album did not appear on CD until 1989.

All of this is understandable, but unfortunate. While the album is not the band's finest moment (look to LOVE GUN for that,) The Elder is not really all that bad. The songs are generally well written and always well played. Paul and Gene both do a good job handling the more technical-than-usual vocal arrangements. The concept of the album, as hokey as it is, is at least palatable, as it does not intrude all that much on the pop-song format. Nowadays, with many music fans less prone to knee-jerk reactions against progressive rock and high-concept than they once were, I could see people actually digging The Elder quite a bit, as many evidently do.

Having said that, the problem becomes Ezrin's production, which buries the band's greatest sonic strength, its ability to rock hard, beneath layers of fluff and studio flash. Ace's signature, rusty, guitar sound is noticeably de-fanged in Ezrin's mix, and the newly revitalized rhythm section, which the addition of Eric Carr had made one of the best of the period, is hidden behind strings and horn arrangements.  Clearly, Ezrin's aim was to create a subdued, sophisticated sound for Kiss's masterpiece. He succeeded mostly in sucking the life out of the material.

In 1982, with Bob Kulick, Steve Farris, and Vincent Cusanoto replacing the departed Ace Frehely, Kiss recorded the hard rock album Ace had wanted to record in the first place. Where THE ELDER had been restrained and artistic, CREATURES... would be one of rawer rock and roll albums in the Kiss canon. While not quite the knock-down classic the band might have needed to regain their commercial stride, CREATURES OF THE NIGHT would prove to be a huge influence on the glam metal bands that arose in the wake of punk and would, for all its flaws, help pave the way for the band's eventual return to the big time.

Why couldn't they have just let Ace write the story for THE ELDER in the first place? It could have been the epic adventures of Axel, a young man with super powers who skips school to snort crank with some underage girls and ends up in the emergency room, where he meets Satan, to whom Axel sells his soul for a bag of pills and the keys to the devil's '78 Gran Torino four-door.  Now that would rock!