Ironic that those are the first words you hear. Who indeed was steering the KISS ship during this stormy period? Gene Simmons? Paul Stanley? Bob Ezrin? Cocaine? On November 10th 1981 KISS released their 9th studio album (Music From) the Elder. It would be their first and last venture into the world of concept records. Like a Sasquatch darting across a highway only to disappear into the woods, within a year (Music From) the Elder would attain an almost mythical status. Did it really happen? And akin to ole Bigfoot, much of the commentary and analysis of this record and time are the result of over thinking, revolt and fascination. Why did KISS decide to go forward with a concept record? For the three parties involved, Gene, Paul and Bob Ezrin, I’m guessing the reasons are quite different.
For Gene, it’s who he is. The Elder would be his grand statement and an early expose’ into his own nerd-dom. For Paul, a shot at the one thing he didn’t have. Credibility. And for Ezrin, a chance to snort coke off a cracked mirror Iceman. The concept was simple. You got this order of watchers of some sort called The Elder. Something about them already being old when the earth was young. Their job as overseers was to defend earth, or whatever world they watched over, against evil by hiring someone to take care of it for them. So at the time of the story’s telling they are looking for a chosen one. To accomplish this, they employ this Elder whipping boy named Morpheus to be a sort of netherworld headhunter who somehow finds “The Boy”, who while unsure at first, eventually becomes super confident and kicks ass all over our antagonist, the evil Mr. Blackwell. The record ends with the last note of the song “I” ringing out as you hear what is the voice of an Elder asking Morpheus “Do you still deem him worthy of the fellowship?” Which of course he does. But why don’t the Elder? Jesus Christ the kid only found out he was the chosen one about 45 minutes ago and still managed to take care of that whole ‘Blackwell’ problem. What’s the holdup here? Were you expecting more? And don’t think for a second old Morpheus wasn’t feeling a little unappreciated.
My own fondness for this record aside, we just stumbled across what I feel is the biggest problem with this record. The actual concept. It’s as unsophisticated as it is ill-fitting. It is the one aspect of this record I can solidly agree just isn’t KISS. The rudimentary tale of an unlikely boy hero can be traced back to David v. Goliath and Star Wars. All while conjuring images of moss covered trees in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. I could never embrace the story. It’s so lame. A good concept record has themes that are relatable on a broad scale and can spark emotion in us for many different reasons. And while it’s hard for me to digest the tale of a King Tut for an enchanted time, it’s even harder for me to understand how Gene and Paul came to be of the same mind that this would be the story to build a record around. Seriously. A fucking boy hero? Some fellowship of old dudes, who you just know sat around in brown robes held closed by gold ropes, overseeing this enchanted land like Gods who fear their way of life may end. With no alternative, they pin all their hopes, begrudgingly, on the shoulders of some boy. Like Daniel from the Karate Kid or Anakin Skywalker.
And you thought this would make people take you serious?
Guitarist Ace Frehley has always claimed he had his reservations from the beginning. “My gut feeling at this point in our career [that] it was time to do a really heavy metal record and get back to basics, and Paul and Gene didn’t agree with me. I was out-voted.” Years later in his own book Ace would say: “I had the street smarts and common sense to take a giant step back and look at the project with an objective eye and I knew it was a colossal mistake in judgment.” I never put much credence into Ace’s objections. I don’t doubt he didn’t want to do it. But I doubt it was due to any clairvoyance regarding the project being doomed. I don’t think he understood it. I don’t think he’s capable of understanding it. I don’t think he could spell colossal. I’m betting Ace would object to anything out of his comfort zone.
It’s hard to tell where Paul stood at the time of making the record as there aren’t a lot of quotes from him regarding the record before its’ release. Now as he discusses it in hindsight he talks about it like an awkward photo. An historical tragedy he was witness to. A bystander. Standing in the corner while this thing happened in front of him. As if he’s not to blame. Gene and Bob are. From his book Face The Music “Bob entered the picture and floated the idea of a concept record – which really came out of left field. Gene quickly bought into the idea and came up with a generic, vague, typical concept. It would be our attempt to woo the critics.” Yet from his book KISS and Sell former road manager Chris Lendt would imply that Paul was invested enough to take command of the art direction of the cover. “Paul’s inspiration would be used for the new album’s cover, which would show the hand of a boy (Paul’s hand) grasping an iron door.” Bob Ezrin also felt Paul was into the project. Stating in the book The Eric Carr Story; “Paul was proud because he had been doing some writing that had been so different from what he had been used to doing. So I think he was proud.” He also said in a KISS Magazine interview “I’m not sure if it came with it or if they develop together, but both developed a script for a short film to accompany it.” Why would you write a script for an accompanying film if you weren’t really into it? To be fair Paul has never outwardly claimed he wasn’t heavily into the project but he has definitely implied he wasn’t. My gut tells me he was all in.
For his part, Gene thought so little of this time he only dedicated a paragraph to it in his book. And thought the best use of that one paragraph was to take a dig at Ace. From KISS And Make Up: “Ezrin made it clear to Ace that his material was not going to wind up on the album.” I’m not sure what he’s saying. The record flopped without Ace’s crappy songs. What’s his point exactly? They shouldn’t have included “Dark Light”? I don’t get it. He went on to describe a relationship with the label that suddenly seemed distant. “We were no longer with Casablanca Records. Neil had been bought out by Polygram, and we went from having a personal relationship with the record label to Polygram who had an enormous staff.” But that didn’t mean they knew what KISS was doing. Ezrin and KISS (Gene and Paul) worked in complete secrecy. Ezrin insisted that he would only talk with Gene, Paul or Bill Aucoin. And even Bob has a vague deflection of this time and record. “When you’re making something like this, your head is in it, and you’re in the moment. There’s so much to do. But when it was clear people were hating it, I think everybody’s aspiration’s changed.”
I find that attitude cowardly. Man up. You tried something out of the box and it didn’t work. Bob may have been high on coke at the time but Gene and Paul weren’t. If The Elder was the colossal (thanks, Ace) misstep they now refer to it as, they would’ve noticed well before completion. I mean, I guess it’s possible they reeeeeally didn’t want to admit that Ace was right, but the stakes for a new record are big enough they wouldn’t have continued too far if it truly was so obviously ill-advised. And for a group not embarrassed about selling KISS coffins why the feeling of indignity when it comes to The Elder? Has there been another rock band in history so brazenly barren of any shame? Thousand-dollar meet and greets with more restrictions than actual access. Hello Kitty themed KISS bowling balls. KISS Snuggies. And remember in 1981 there was no reason to think cranking out a typical old KISS record would’ve garnered better results. Considering where they were in their career at the time, there is absolutely an argument to be made that mixing it up was the right thing to do. It seems convenient and standard Gene and Paul revisionism to dismiss The Elder the way they have.
Upon the album’s completion, a listening party for all the brain wizards at Polygram was arranged. Chris Lendt seemed to state that Gene and Paul were there while Bob Ezrin recalls going on his own. Thinking at the time it was an honor but retrospectively feels it may have been more like the band was hiding. I imagine the lights were dimmed and the room was silent as all absorbed the brilliance that was The Elder. At the records conclusion, the lights are brought up as the head of the label remains quiet for a few moments before starting a slow clap while coming to his feet. I’m at least sure that’s what Gene and Paul were hoping for. But that’s not what they got. When you’re a label chief at Polygram and KISS hands you The Elder, you might shit yourself a little.
By all accounts, about 3 seconds into the opening song “fanfare” the faces of everyone in the room grew pale and panic set in as people who do this for a living start to realize they have to figure out a marketing strategy for this catastrophe. In the event I’m being too subtle, they didn’t like it. At all. I’ve heard they actually offered KISS a do-over. Come back with something more consistent with KISS. And KISS’ management at the time, Glickman/Marks, supposedly insisted they not be credited on the record. Not sure how much I believe that but it’s part of the records lore.
So the powers at Polygram, worried KISS fans might revolt, decided to change the sequence of the songs so that the first thing you hear is the opening riff from the “Oath” and not the sounds of an impending joust at a Renaissance Festival. The thought being if the listener heard a more classic KISS rocker they may accept the parts of the record that are less that. With no concern that the storyline, of a concept record, was interrupted. They were right to fear a revolt. They were wrong to think changing the song order would quell that.
Very little promotion was done. They played a few songs on ABC’s rip-off of Saturday Night Live cleverly called Friday’s. They appeared on a music show called Solid Gold to lip sync to “I” and “A World Without Heroes” and another lip sync performance, sans Ace, at Studio 54 that was being simulcast in Rio somewhere. Then the Loch Ness Monster that was The Elder dove deep into the Loch never to be seen or heard from again. From there the myth and majesty grew.
In 1983, my dad remarried, we moved into the city, and I got a paper route. Meaning I could start building my record collection. During this time as KISS was cranking out Creatures of the Night, Lick It Up and Animalize. I was starting to embrace new bands like RATT, Twister Sister, and Motley Crue. And while I scoured the latest issues of Circus and Hit Parader looking for new bands and cutting out pictures to scotch tape to my walls, The Elder was always there in the background of my musical urges. I clung tightly to my memories of the song ‘I’. Hoping one day, I would find that misunderstood little bastard and give it a loving home. It was a lot like waiting to get laid for the first time. Until that day comes your mind invariably imagines scenarios in which it never happens. Truth be told I got my mitts on a copy of The Elder years before I got laid. But both seemed unlikely for a long time.
So here’s the thing. I think it’s not just a great record, but it’s also, subject matter aside, a good KISS record. I think they achieved what they set out to do. Show that they are capable of more than just stripper anthems and songs about boners. I saw an article ripping apart the lyrics for “A World Without Heroes” which was nothing more than the music snobbery the band had become accustomed to. Sure “Fanfare” is largely a waste but, for the most part, it’s good songs telling a stupid story. I must confess a big part of my affection for this record was the chase. I was 11 when this came out and my parents had recently split. Money was tight and this was the first KISS album since I became a fan that I didn’t get when it came out. And like that Bigfoot sighting it was gone as soon as I saw it. There was no internet or eBay. Used records were something you bought at a rummage sale. I stumbled across a copy on cassette in the Burnsville Mall around 1986. My first copy on CD was a Japanese import I paid 50 bucks for. It had the songs properly sequenced minus “Escape From The Island.” I think it was released in the States about two hours after UPS got my signature for delivery of my Japanese copy. And I have purchased every copy on vinyl I’ve ever had the chance to. A psychiatrist might say I’m trying to compensate for a darker time in my childhood. I’d say it’s a cool record so fuck you. I love it and still listen to it somewhat frequently (a few times a year) but I can also understand why others don’t feel the same. Sometimes people are just wrong. Kidding aside it brings us to an important point when discussing the attitudes people have towards it. Those of us who have an opinion on it aren’t actually relative to the records success or lack of. This record’s failure has more to do with people who didn’t or don’t know it exists than those of us who love or hate it. Plus in all of the discussions I’ve had with people over the years one constant remains true. People who hated it didn’t bail on KISS. The mutiny started with Dynasty. Two years from Love Gun and KISS returns with Disco? Dynasty pissed people off. People who bought it. All The Elder did was exist in a world that didn’t want it. By the time it came out, most of the people who bailed in 1979 weren’t even aware KISS had a new record out much less had an opinion on it.
KISS had to go away for a while. KISS had to remove the makeup. The world needed some space before it would let them back in. If they had released Creatures Of The Night instead of this it may have done a little better but I doubt much. Ace would’ve still played a minor role in the process and quit a year later as applying his makeup was taking too much of his time away from doing drugs and driving drunk. The Elder only works as a scapegoat if you ignore all that lead up to it. And it’s constant appearances on “Worst of” lists only works with the benefit of hindsight by people who weren’t born when it came out. I’m not suggesting people who don’t like it actually would if they tried. I’m saying it’s time to give it a break. It’s the only time in their career KISS took a chance musically. A move that should be celebrated. It just didn’t work out for them. Better bands have done and experienced the same.
Gene and more accurately Paul seem to view sales as the only sign of success when it comes to their work. Was the lack of sales of The Elder due to the record they recorded or an ever-waning interest in KISS? Very few bands of their legacy have consistent sales. You need valleys either by way of hiatus or marginalized material. It’s natural balance. The Elder wasn’t a mistake. It was the next step. I doubt very much that I would’ve met my wife were it not for the train wreck I dated before her. And much like I needed to go through that quagmire to get to my wife, KISS needed The Elder to get to Lick It Up. The outward revolt of this record is largely from KISS fans. KISS fans who bought the KISS records prior to and after The Elder. And as much as we are entitled to have any reaction we choose to any album, if there were enough of us no KISS record would flop. In other words, it ain’t us diehards that make or break a KISS record. And we’re the only ones who care, one way or the other, about (Music From) the Elder. And I deem it worthy.
Buy The Elder and do it using the Amazon link on the Decibel Geek main page or this direct link: BUY: KISS – (Music From) the Elder