It should have been their masterpiece. A concept album from one of the biggest rock groups in the world and the producer who had taken Alice Cooper and Peter Garbriel to new commercial and critical heights. Documenting an age-old tale of good vs. evil and the young reluctant hero who must to rise against the dark forces, Music from The Elder was released at a time when rock operas were melding complex narratives and progressive rock to create a new type of musical experience. Yet for KISS, the band responsible, their sole foray into this new medium would be heralded as a colossal failure and one that would almost tear them apart.
Concept albums had first gained prominence in the early seventies with David Bowie’s glam rock opus The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and over the following decade this level of achievement would become the desire of many respect artists. ‘The concept album was originally defined as a long-player where the songs were based on one dramatic idea, but the term is subjective,’ explained the Independent. ‘There is a difference between an album based on a theme and one defined by a narrative.’ Following the success of Bowie’s record, other artists would begin to incorporate stories and themes into their albums that would soon result in such acclaimed classics as The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway from Genesis, Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare and The Wall by Pink Floyd.
‘People hate concept albums. Usually bands write an album, twelve songs, they find one little strand that hooks the songs together and go, ‘We have a concept.’ But that’s not what a concept is,’ claimed Cooper, who would return to the format just three years later with From the Inside, his personal exploration of addiction and insanity. ‘You have to come up with a story first. And then the comic book comes after that. A concept to me is like a multi-media project.’ There is often a debate as to what constitutes a concept album; does there have to be a clear narrative that runs throughout the record or can it merely explore interconnecting themes without a story to drive these ideas? Dismissed as over-bloated and self-indulgent by some and praised as liberating and fascinating by others, one thing that cannot be denied is that a concept album is one instalment in an artist’s discography that often makes the biggest impression, for better or worse.
There was a lot of jealousy
For KISS, their attempt at this concept would arrive when the band were at something of a crossroads. Having become rock superstars overnight with their eponymous debut album in the mid-seventies through their fusion of shock theatrics and groove-laden rock ‘n’ roll, they had enjoyed four consecutive Platinum-selling albums before the formula had begun to wear thin with their eighth release Unmasked in 1980. Both their guitarist Ace Frehley and drummer Peter Criss had endured a public struggle with addiction and by the end of the decade the latter had grown disillusioned with the group. ‘It got to a point where everything I submitted musically was turned down. So I got fed up with my songs being pushed aside,’ admitted Criss to Faces in 1986. ‘There was a lot of jealousy…It became really possessive, not like in the beginning.’
For frontman Paul Stanley, who would remain the creative force of KISS throughout their fifty-year career, he saw the loss of Criss as merely an obstacle that they must overcome if they were to survive. ‘I think he was tired of us! He wanted to be with his wife, he didn’t want to tour. I think he just had it, period!’ Stanley told Rock Scene. ‘I love everybody who’s been in the band, but people can be replaced real easily. You lose something, but you gain something as well. You don’t try to get a copy of anything. You try to get something that’s just as exciting, but different. KISS is kinda like an army. And as long as all the soldiers believe the same thing, then the battle continues. If somebody falls by the wayside, or if somebody deserts, KISS is much bigger than the people in it. So as long as everybody believes in the same music and believes in the same stuff, the band’s fine.’
As Criss slowly distanced himself from his bandmates Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons, the duo who had first masterminded KISS a decade earlier, were forced to search elsewhere for a drummer to complete work on Unmasked and eventually turned to Anton Fig, the session musician that Frehley had recruited two years earlier for the recording of his solo album. The sense that their once close-knit group was slowly fracturing haunted the remaining members and the result would be an album that, while still retaining their classic sound, lacked the passion and energy of their earlier offerings. By the release of the album in May 1980 Criss had already announced his decision to part ways with KISS and after a lengthy audition process the band finally settled on a young fellow New Yorker by the name of Eric Carr.
With Criss no longer in the group Frehley soon began to feel isolated and excluded from KISS, with Stanley and Simmons taking over the decision-making process and leaving the guitarist on the side-lines. ‘I was really unhappy with the band for the last couple of years I was with them,’ confessed Frehley a few years later. ‘At one time there were the four of us sharing decisions and making KISS the biggest band in the world. But when Peter left, everything began to change. Gene and Paul always teamed up to vote me out on decisions and I began to feel like I wasn’t really needed. On top of that I wasn’t in great health. I had let my partying get the best of me and I knew that I really wasn’t up to going on the road with the band at that time. I wanted to take life a little easier and Gene and Paul wanted to forge ahead.’
Other circumstances would also put a strain on the band as Casablanca Records, the company that had been their home for almost a decade, had been bought out by major label PolyGram and despite having signed a new six-album deal, without the close relationship with their management that KISS had enjoyed from the beginning, they began to feel out-of-touch and irrelevant. The music industry had also changed significantly since they had first appeared just six years earlier, with the hard rock sound of the seventies having since been replaced by the British punk scene and the glam excess of Van Halen. The format that KISS had perfected over several popular albums was now in danger of becoming obsolete and so the band were aware that if they were to survive in an ever-changing world then they would have to evolve.
In an effort to present a fresh new attitude to their fans, there was discussion within the ranks about removing their trademark make-up, something that had become as synonymous with KISS as their music, yet understandably there was some reluctance as to whether this would alienate their dedicated fan-base. ‘I wanted to take the make-up off a long time ago,’ insisted Stanley in a 1985 interview with Hit Parader. ‘The only reason we didn’t was because our advisors told us it would be suicide. They didn’t realise that the make-up didn’t write our songs or perform on stage. We did. Whether we wore the make-up or not, the KISS sound and attitude was still going to be there. The make-up became dated a long time ago.’
With opinions on the matter divided the make-up would remain and before long their new label began to put pressure on the group to commence work on another album. Due to the relative failure of Unmasked and their subsequent decision to avoid touring for the remainder of the year, fans had been given little in the way of KISS entertainment and so PolyGram insisted that they offer the world a new record as soon as possible. Still overcoming the loss of Criss and facing something of an identity crisis, the new line-up would reconvene at Frehley’s home studio in Wilton, Connecticut with engineer Rob Freeman to work on material for what was to become their ninth album. Without any clear vision on what this should be, yet well aware that simply recycling their earlier sound would do little to entice their audience, their time at the guitarist’s Ace in the Hole studio would prove to be something of a challenge.
It would became apparent from these initial sessions that Frehley, much like Criss before him, had grown disillusioned with his life in KISS. Feeling uninspired by the song ideas that were being shared, Frehley stepped aside as both Stanley and Simmons tried to mastermind a direction that the band would take next, yet in truth none of the members felt inspired or enthusiastic. Regardless, during their time in Connecticut they would develop several tracks that would include Deadly Weapon, Feels Like Heaven and Reputation, a song that KISS would attempt to record numerous times throughout their career, before finally deciding to release the demo on the KISS 40 compilation three decades later. ‘We had five tracks for another album already recorded and it was very adept, very hard stuff,’ Simmons would recall regarding these early sessions that would take place in January 1981. ‘It was as good as, if not better than, anything we’ve done or is out now. But we weren’t excited by it. We’ve always gone against the grain.’
With it having become clear that the moments of inspiration that had energised their earlier albums was now lacking it was agreed that an outside influence could help guide them to something greater. Vini Poncia had pushed the band into more radio-friendly waters with their two previous albums and while Eddie Kramer, who had been responsible for the raw quality that they had demonstrated on both Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun in the mid-seventies, seemed an obvious candidate it was ultimately decided that they should reunite with the man behind their 1976 classic Destroyer. Bob Ezrin had first made a name for himself after helping to develop the sound and visage of Alice Cooper before producing acclaimed albums for the likes of Lou Reed and Pink Floyd. With Destroyer, Ezrin had taken the raw sound of KISS and created something far more polished and commercial and with the band now struggling to recreate its success, the powers-that-be felt that Ezrin was the inspiration that the recent sessions had been lacking.
The record company was screaming for another album
Yet even with the positive influence of Ezrin, much like prior to the release of their ill-fated motion picture KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park a few years earlier, once again they were exhausted and in desperate need of time away from the industry. ‘The record company was screaming for another album,’ stated their former manager Bill Aucoin on the pressure that KISS were under to produce a follow-up to Unmasked, one which they hoped would ostensibly be Destroyer Part II. ‘They were tired. ‘Oh, do we have to go back in and do another album? We don’t have the songs.’ I had a meeting and Bob said, ‘How about some sort of album that can tell a story?’ For some reason because Bob’s very bright we got into this mythological thing and it got way out of line. In truth, everyone was off the wall. There was no one who was going to fight it at this point because at least we were going to get the album done. It was a very strange time because it was all really loose.’
The inspiration for what would become Music from The Elder originated in a short story treatment developed by bassist and co-singer Gene Simmons who, by the beginning of the eighties, had begun to pursue a career in Hollywood. Having visited numerous studios in an attempt to seduce executives into launching him onto the big screen, he had penned a concept entitled The Elder that he felt would be the perfect vehicle for him to make his cinematic debut with. ‘I wasn’t sure whether it would be a good record or a movie,’ admitted Simmons in his book KISS and Make-Up. ‘All I knew at first was a line that stuck in my mind: ‘When the Earth was young they were already old.’ I conceived a race of immortal beings, energy-based beings, a take-off of Marvel’s Watcher. These beings were more observers than participants. They didn’t interfere with human choice and as a result people were ultimately responsible for their own deeds, good or bad.’
In a 1982 interview while promoting the release of the album Stanley would elaborate further. ‘It’s songs from a story we’ve written. It’s not the entire project but ten or twelve songs from that project. The rest is yet to come. It’s about an orphan boy who is chosen without his knowledge to become a hero.’ With Ezrin searching for a narrative with which the album could be created around, upon reading Simmons’ short story he pitched the concept to both Aucoin and the band, yet while their manager and Simmons were enthusiastic about developing a concept album that would deal with medieval forces and a brave young hero, members from within the band felt that this would betray the very ethos of KISS and thus alienate their audience. With relationships between the original three members already fragile and at times even volatile, the notion of recording a concept album would cause further issues that would prompt their guitarist to distance himself from the project.
‘During the recording process, I kept telling all those guys – Bob, Paul and Gene – I go, ‘This is the wrong album for this period of time. I think fans want to hear a heavy hard rock album.’ They just had a deaf ear to me,’ claimed Frehley in 2018. ‘I said, ‘It’s not going to work’ and, of course, the album bombed. I guess I had a handle on what was happening. Those guys never had any street sense. It’s no fault of their own; Gene grew up in Israel and Paul grew up in Queens, but he wasn’t a guy like me who hung out on the corner and got into fights and did crazy stuff. I always had my pulse on what was going on and I knew at the time, I would have bet a million dollars that the album was going to fail. I didn’t want it to fail and actually if you take that album out of sequence with the KISS records, it’s not a bad record. I did some great solos on it and there’s some really good songs, but it wasn’t the right record for the time.’
With the material that was recorded in Connecticut now abandoned, rehearsals for The Elder would take place during the last week of April and first week of May at SIR Studios in New York City, before the band relocated to Phase One Studios in Toronto on 11 May under the instructions of Ezrin, who with the full support of the label had become the principal guiding force for the direction that the project would take. There has been some debate as to how much involvement Frehley would have during the sessions, as despite sources citing him at the studio on numerous occasions, some members of KISS have claimed that he refused to travel to Canada and would instead provide his contributions via mail. This divide would also put pressure on the band’s new drummer, who was witnessing the self-destruction of KISS without having the power to do anything to save them.
‘It was a bit surprising for Eric, I’m sure. When he first joined, the band was expecting to do a straight rock ‘n’ roll record so he was caught a little off-guard. He was not necessarily a big fan of the idea. Also, as much as Paul and I trusted Bob’s instincts and supported his ideas, Ace opposed it,’ said Simmons. ‘He was completely against it, to the point that he refused to show up yet again. He wouldn’t go to Toronto and said he would phone in his solos. Copies of the 24-track masters were flown to his home studio in Connecticut from Toronto. At home he put down a number of different solos and then it was up to Bob, when it was flown back to Toronto, to figure out which solos to use or whether, as happened in some cases, another guitar player should be brought in. A number of other guitar players played because Ace just didn’t show up.’
Many of the songs that were recorded during the sessions for The Elder had been adapted from earlier material that the band had struggled to develop. A World Without Heroes, the sole single from the album to be released in the United States, was based on an earlier composition of Stanley’s entitled Every Little Bit of Your Heart but with the singer unable to find the right tone, Ezrin reached out to former Velvet Underground frontman Lou Reed to offer some advice. Within an hour Reed had returned the phone call and delivered lyrics for not only A World Without Heroes but also another track, Mr Blackwell. In the overall narrative of the album, Mr Blackwell would ostensibly become the antagonist of the story, with the character stating, ‘You’re all so weak you know it makes me ill,’ before later sneering that, ‘I am a sinner who just loves to sin, I am a fighter who just loves to win.’
Nobody thought it was that good of an idea at the time. In retrospect they were right
Despite Ezrin expressing confidence in the concept that Simmons had developed, in truth the producer was struggling with substance abuse while also juggling several different projects, including work on Amazon Beach, the sophomore album from Canadian group The Kings. Yet Ezrin has since admitted that Music from The Elder was an ill-advised attempt to create something that the critics would finally take seriously. ‘Gene had this story in mind but the development of the story was very much a collaboration,’ he told authors David Leaf and Ken Sharp. ‘The idea to make an album out of this story and make a stage show and all that other stuff was something he had to really be pushed into. The rest of the band had to be forced to go along with it. Nobody thought it was that good of an idea at the time. In retrospect they were right. Given the time and the band that we were working with, it was not the right vehicle. What we attempted was impossible for KISS of 1981.’
With the basic story in place, Ezrin had attempted to map the narrative out on a blackboard, marking where each of the songs recorded during the sessions would appear in the story. The young reluctant hero that would rise to face this oppressive force would be introduced at the beginning of the album on the song Just a Boy, where he would confess that he is frightened that he will fail in his mission. This would be the first track that Ezrin and Stanley would collaborate together on during these sessions, with them temporarily relocating to a small studio in Aurora, a town situated several miles from Toronto, where they would further develop the song. Stanley has since been dismissive of Just a Boy, however, referring to it as ‘a mistake.’ The unnamed protagonist is later brought before the Order of the Rose where he is placed on trial and warned of the dangers that he will face if he chooses to face his destiny, as documented on the track Under the Rose.
Following a brief interlude in recording as Simmons and Carr travelled to Australia to make a promotional appearance, sessions reconvened in mid-June to complete work on the album. Due to the various locations, a lack of artistic inspiration and other factors that had caused numerous delays throughout the belated process, the overall recording of Music from The Elder would last over half a year, a far different experience than the band had enjoyed on their earlier albums, which had usually been completed in a matter of weeks. ‘We’re finishing up the last details on The Elder,’ Carr would reveal. ‘We initially started writing on it seven months ago. We’ve been working on different sections in different places for most of the year because we wanted this to be a really special album.’ While during these early interviews they would insist that the delay in the release was due to their decision to record the album in parts, the reality of it was that The Elder had been pieced together like some kind of bastardised version of Frankenstein’s monster, with no real clear outline or purpose, its existence purely being out of desperation.
‘It was a great attempt to do something but perhaps it fell too short,’ admitted Stanley. ‘We meant very well with The Elder. It was part of a debacle, just part of a big misstep, an attempt to do something that we shouldn’t have been doing. Not because it’s not valid but because it really wasn’t valid for us. When you have ability and talent as a writer what comes out can often have quality, it just may not be what’s called for.’ Yet even as early as 1983 he had been rather honest about the failure that Music for The Elder had become. ‘It was done under a lot of…not arm-bending, but certainly because of advice from people who aren’t with us anymore,’ he stated. ‘Certain people were saying, ‘Show everyone how smart you are.’ Now I guess we’re back to singing about how much we like fucking.’ When asked in the same article about the possibility of a sequel which had been discussed during the making of the album, Simmons mocked the idea, ‘Probably in the year 2000…In the year 2525!’
Released through Casablanca Records in November 1981, Music from The Elder would fail to satisfy the fans who had spent the last eighteen months desperate for a follow-up to Unmasked but, most importantly due to Ezrin’s motivation for developing a concept album, would also fail to win over the adoration of the music press. Whereas their earlier offerings were often dismissed as shallow cock rock, The Elder would be viewed as nothing more than an over-bloated and unfocused disaster from a group whose egos had become unrestrained due to their prior superstar success. The album would be the first of their career to fall short of Gold status and would eventually stall in the American charts at no.75, while the single A World Without Heroes wouldn’t fare much better by climbing to no.56 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts before immediately disappearing without a trace. KISS would make a few notable appearances during this era but in comparison to the promotional tours they had embarked on for previous albums, it was apparent that they had already become embarrassed by The Elder.
‘Unfortunately all the worked that went into The Elder seemed to be for nothing,’ admitted Simmons, who had conceived the original concept to the album, only to see it fail. ‘We had a record that, for the first time, bombed so badly it didn’t even go Gold. We truly were at a crossroads. We had cut our hair, though we still wore make-up. We had a new member in the band, Eric. And we were trying to figure out what to do in the wake of The Elder’s disappointing performance.’ Music from The Elder had been a radical departure for KISS, an album that had boasted many great rock songs but a record that did not feel organic or true to their already-established brand. By 1981 the concept album had already begun to lose popularity with the public and so for KISS to release The Elder at this particular moment felt somewhat misguided and several years too late.
‘In retrospect the band were getting further and further apart. Out goes Peter and in comes Eric Carr and they had brought in Ezrin, who I didn’t think was right at that point in our career,’ revealed Frehley. ‘My gut feeling was at this point in our career it was time to do a really heavy metal record and get back to basics and Paul and Gene didn’t agree with me. They wanted to do a concept album with Ezrin and I was against the whole project. But I was outvoted. Here I am in one of the biggest groups in the world and I feel like my balls have been cut off because they could negate any of my votes because it was a two-to-one. Without Peter there to balance it off, Paul and Gene could run the group. When I realised that, I became very unhappy with the whole situation and I started abusing drugs even more and alcohol because I was really frustrated. I was in a Catch-22 situation.’
The experience of recording Music from The Elder and the continuing feeling that he was being ostracised from the band would finally cause Frehley to announce his departure from KISS in 1982. ‘Ace is still a friend and he will always be a part of the KISS family but he has his life to run now and we have ours,’ Simmons would explain two years later. ‘We had just reached a point where we had some differing opinions and a move had to be made. Ace didn’t want to tour as much as Paul and I did and that was a major problem. He also can be rather erratic at times and we can’t afford to have anyone in the band who’s like that. Paul and I remain totally dedicated to KISS, whether it’s recording or touring, while Ace has other interests.’ While promoting the release of Second Sighting, the latest album from his new project Frehley’s Comet, the guitarist would state, ‘KISS will always have a very special place in my heart. How couldn’t it? I was part of the biggest band in the world and no matter what else I accomplish in my musical career, to some people I’ll always be Ace Frehley of KISS. That doesn’t bother me at all; I’m kind of proud of it.’
It took me a number of years before I felt at home in KISS
While the focus of the making of The Elder has been on the shattered relationship between Frehley and the band’s two leaders, the experience of recording the album and suffering the drama that would often erupt during these sessions would also have a negative impact on their new drummer, who was already struggling with the pressure of stepping into the shoes of his predecessor. ‘It took me a number of years before I felt at home in KISS,’ admitted Carr in 1985. ‘I was the first new member the band ever had and the group’s fans have never been big on change. The guys in the group were great. They were always helpful and always behind me all the way. But I knew I had big shoes to fill, especially in the minds of the fans and that put a lot of pressure on me. The first two years were a little tough, especially because we didn’t tour America at all during that time.’
In the years since its release Simmons has willingly taken the blame for the failure of The Music from The Elder, but in truth the album didn’t fail, it was just not what KISS needed at that point in their career. It was a fascinating experiment which allowed the band to venture out of their comfort zone and had its themes and songs connected with their audience it would have been hailed as a masterpiece, but the project was conceived with the worst of intentions and thus it would never have reached its full potential. ‘We were starting to lose touch. We actually did that one for the critics,’ confessed Simmons. ‘I blame me. I really believed in the vision. I always dabbled in Hollywood anyway. I wrote this short story and I wanted to make it into a film. Ezrin said it was a great idea for a concept record. So when he held up the mirror to my face, poor delusional Gene really bought it hook, line and sinker. I’m going, ‘Yeah, I am great!’ I take full blame for pushing it. I wanted credibility, which is very stupid really when you think about it. If you’ve got everything else, who cares?’