Kiss: Music from “The Elder”
Released: November 10, 1981
John McNally’s The Book of Ralph begins with the novel’s pre-teen, Southside Chicago protagonist Hank preparing for what may be his last night of trick or treating by dressing up as Gene Simmons of Kiss, replicating his signature hairstyle by spray painting a dinner roll black and pinning it to the back of a wig. As she helps him apply his makeup, his older, wiser sister can’t hide her derision, and Hank demands to know why.
"What’s wrong with Gene Simmons? What’s wrong with Kiss?"
"One day you’ll look back on this moment," she tells hims. "And you’ll consider shooting yourself."
Kiss were giants of the American cultural landscape during the 70s, carving out a deep and unique niche, imprinting their trademarked faces on an entire era. Impeccably commercial, relentlessly marketed, happily outrageous, they were everything a generation of kids and teenagers wanted out of rock ‘n’ roll, and everything critics despised. Kiss never worried much about credibility, as long as the money and adoration from their fans kept coming. By 1981, both were waning. Suddenly Kiss seemed very anxious about not being taken seriously. The album that resulted from that anxiety would nearly sink their careers.
Kiss’s roots were laid in the early 70s when school teacher Gene Simmons and struggling musician Paul Stanley met and formed a duo called Wicked Lester. The two failed to gain momentum, recording an album that was never released, but they were dedicated to a common dream of stardom and decided to expand their project. Peter Criss and Ace Frehley responded to respective ads for a drummer and a guitarist and soon found themselves wearing grease paint and costumes, performing to handfuls of people at New York rock clubs. With the help of manager Bill Aucoin, Kiss refined their image and landed a contract with Casablanca Records. The band released their first three albums within 13 months and played a flurry of shows around the world, but it was the double album Alive! that finally captured the excitement of their stage show and catapulted them to superstardom.
Kiss embraced success and the commercialism that came with it with unprecedented and shameless zeal. There was a Marvel comic book series, an action figure line, board games, pinball machines, lunchboxes, trading cards. A Gallup poll in 1977 cited Kiss as the most popular band in America, and at the height of their fame, the Kiss Army fan club could have been a real army, with over 100,000 members.
Kiss were a perfect formula. They co-opted the makeup and flamboyant fashion sense of glam rock while successfully filtering out all the elements that kept glitter from ever making a significant dent in the American charts. Sure, Kiss wore makeup, but there was nothing gender-bending or ambiguous about them. They were fiercely heterosexual, chronicling conquests and hinting at rockstar sex fantasies in their songs. Their hard rock sound was also decidedly un-glam, heavy and rip-roaring, accompanied by radio-friendly ballads and Beatles-style orchestral pop touches. One aspect of glam that did translate was the genre’s associations with the “low art” of science fiction and comic books, but Kiss once again set themselves apart by proudly embracing its most tacky symbols, branding themselves as superheroes and movie monsters. There was a slight edge to them, too. Peaking during the days of America’s “satanic panic,” the band was quickly pegged as pure evil by some moral crusaders, “Knights In Satan’s Service.” But of course, Kiss were more Alice Cooper than Aleister Crowley, purveyors of harmless horror movie theatrics.
Talented musicians and shrewd businessmen, there was still something essentially juvenile about Kiss. They were like a carefully customized introduction to rock music for the average 14-year-old American boy: transgressive enough to irk parents, campy enough to be thought of as creative and adventurous, masculine enough that no one would call you gay for listening to them.
As Kiss’s popularity reached its height, the average age of their fans seemed to reach an all time low. The band embraced this, amping up its merchandising, filming a popular but poorly received TV movie called Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park and unprecedentedly releasing four collectible solo albums at once. While 1979’s Dynasty ferried Kiss safely through the disco era, their popularity began to flag soon after and tensions arose with an increasingly erratic Peter Criss. Criss left the band that year (he was replaced by Eric Carr) and the pop-focused Unmasked became the first Kiss album to underperform. Their music on the decline, Kiss’s fans finally began to criticize the aggressive marketing tactics that had once driven their success.
The ninth Kiss album was originally planned as a ‘back to basics’ hard rock record, stripping the band to its essence. Those plans were quickly scuttled in favor of something more ambitious. Simmons and Stanley believed–Kiss being a fundamentally theatrical band–that in order to regain their popularity they needed to make a ‘statement.’ They whipped up a concept album, the precursor to a film that never had a chance of being made (though some poor saps in England are trying to right now). While the concept album has probably resulted in more failures over the years than successes, there’s still a kind of prestige attached to it. For Kiss, it looked like a shortcut to credibility and respect, especially after recruiting Bob Ezrin, the producer behind Pink Floyd’s The Wall.
Unfortunately, the concept behind the concept album was generic schlock. The story of “The Elder” is simple and formulaic, a standard hero’s journey surely inspired by the Spielberg and Lucas blockbusters of the period. An unassuming young boy living in a medieval fantasy world (or dystopian future? “There’s a place in the desert / Where an ocean once danced by,” the song “Odyssey” observes) is called upon by cosmic destiny to take a solemn oath, pass a terrifying test and be transformed into a hero in order to… do something. Most of the album is spent blathering about accepting fate and boys becoming men without painting much of a specific narrative. The antagonist is never very clearly defined, but there’s a descending darkness that sounds pretty spooky and a song about a nasty character called “Mr. Blackwell.” The story is left incomplete, our hero finally embracing his destiny and being prepared for his adventure by someone named “Morpheus” only as the album ends (For its U.S. release, Music from “The Elder”'s track listing was completely reshuffled, surely bringing confusion and misery to any poor fan dedicated enough to want to decode the album's already muddled story.)
An orchestra and a choir were brought in to fleck the album with faux-John Williams bombast, but for the most part Music from “The Elder” is Kiss’s typical sound infused heavily with the cheesiest kind of prog rock: dancing acoustic guitars, shimmering synths, flowing song-suites. After an absurd flute and horns introduction (actually titled “Fanfare”) Paul Stanley steps in with guitar and falsetto like a traveling minstrel to introduce the album’s protagonist before “Odyssey,” a painfully earnest jumble of fantasy nonsense and movie strings. Stanley’s working class New York accent renders already ridiculous lyrics like “Through the realms of time and space / In that enchanted place / You and I come face to face” even more hilarious. The album’s most surprising contributor is (potentially) responsible for some of it’s most inane lines. Lou Reed (friend of Ezrin, who had produced Reed’s Berlin) has a writing credit on “A World Without Heroes,” which wistfully offers lyrics like “A world without heroes / Is like a world without a sun,” and “A world without heroes / Is like a never ending race / Is like a time without a place / A pointless thing devoid of grace.”
Music from “The Elder”'s only redeeming moments are when Kiss fall back on their old ways, like the vamping, villainous “Mr. Blackwell” and the anthemic, album-closing “I,” which sees Stanley and Simmons dropping the concept album facade in the final verse to reaffirm their independent rock 'n' roll spirits. Dropped into the middle of the album, “Dark Light” is the lone holdover from the earlier hard rock sessions and one of only two writing contributions from guitarist Ace Frehley. All heavy riffs and squealing solos, Frehley delivers the song's silly lyrics with obvious sarcasm. Frehley was soundly opposed to the concept album, recognizing it immediately as a mistake. He claims his protests fell on deaf ears and that with Peter Criss gone and Eric Carr officially only an “employee,” Simmons and Stanley outvoted him on every decision. Music from “The Elder” would be his last project with the band for nearly 20 years.
Kiss ultimately did little to promote "The Elder", making minimal appearances and quickly canceling a potential tour. While some critics saw the record as a step forward, Kiss’s fans hated the drastic shift in sound and focus. Kiss found themselves backpedaling within weeks of the album’s release, finally recording that hard rock return to form they’d promised with Creatures of the Night. The year after that, they finally ditched the makeup, revealing their bare faces on MTV and adopting a sound and image compatible with mid-80s rock landscape. It was a smart move on paper: Kiss were godfathers of the glam metal movement that was conquering America at the time, predicting its loud, garish style ten years earlier. And it worked pretty well for a year or two, Kiss found themselves topping the charts again and getting frequent play on MTV. But interest dissipated quickly as they pushed out increasingly mediocre, pop metal sound-a-like records year after year, their lineup shifting constantly, and by the 90s Kiss’s fame was depleted once again and their output slowed.
Many of the kids who’d idolized Kiss as cartoon rock heroes grew up and lost interest and maybe even became a little embarrassed about it, but luckily for Kiss, age eventually transforms embarrassment into nostalgia. When the original lineup reunited in 1996, the resulting tour became their most successful ever, and though they split up again soon after, the last 20 years has seen a quietly sustained resurgence in Kiss’s popularity. Instead of buying action figures and lunch boxes, today’s middle-aged fans attend Kiss Konventions and go on Kiss Kruises and even get buried in Kiss Kaskets. Perhaps more than any other ‘classic rock’ act, Kiss capture a very particular aspect of nostalgia: the unselfconsciousness of youth, the unselfconsciousness it takes to fall in love with big, dumb rock ‘n’ roll made by grown men in face paint, maybe even to dress up as one of them for Halloween.
As musicians and men entering their 30’s, there must have been moments when the members of Kiss wondered what the hell they were doing hawking toys and making movies. But Music from “The Elder” proves that Kiss were always capitalists at heart, their band functioned best as a brand. "The Elder" is bloated and poor as a work of art but it was truly disastrous as rebranding. Perhaps in some other universe Kiss took some wild chances early on and crafted a very different career for themselves, but ten years into the one they had in this reality, there was no hope of suddenly becoming ‘respected artists,’ and it was the last thing that their fans wanted from them after a decade of rock ‘n’ roll populism.
In 1984, California’s the Minutemen summarized the punk ethos with the line, "Our band could be your life." Kiss, as different a band from the Minutemen as one could possibly imagine, embodied and subverted that idea in their own way, turning their art into a brand as pervasive, adaptable and essentially American as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s. Kiss was a band that could be with you from childhood to the grave, a band that really could be your life.