Music From The Elder: The most divisive album Kiss ever released
Words: Geoff Barton (and Ace Frehley)
Art or arrogance? Love it or hate it, Music From The Elder has long been considered to be the most divisive album released by Kiss (yes, even more so than Psycho Circus or Carnival Of Souls). The Elder is so divisive, in fact, that even we at Classic Rock can’t make up our minds about it!
A couple of years back we included The Elder in a list of the Top 50 Worst Albums Ever, saying:
The Pan-Stik’d rock titans dropped a bollock the size of Jupiter with this bafflingly bad tale of one boy’s stand against extra-terrestrial invaders.* So embarrassing that guitarist Ace Frehley left the band soon afterwards. The Elder reached its nadir with the God Of Thunder’s uber-syrupy ballad A World Without Heroes – closer to Diana Ross than Kiss. Only The Oath kicked something approaching arse.
…Oops! We obviously forgot that way back in Classic Rock issue 72 (November 2004 edition) we named The Elder as one of the 20 Most Underrated Rock Albums Ever, saying:
The Elder was a mad concept album that confused the hell out of everyone. A colossal failure in sales terms, this anomalous release nonetheless has much to recommend it. A spooky atmosphere is conjured up by bizarre opening track The Oath, and a sense of impending doom never departs. For The Elder Kiss rehired Bob Ezrin, who had produced their 1976 classic Destroyer, and whose last project had been Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Which probably accounts for much of the demented nature of The Elder. Surprisingly, some of the songs were even co-written with Mr Lou Reed.
Bob Ezrin is a brilliant producer, but when it came to the ninth Kiss studio album (and what would turn out to be, for all practical purposes, my last Kiss album for a while), Music From The Elder, I disagreed with him and the band on many issues. I could see it from the beginning. 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. Paul, Gene and Bob didn’t get it. They went forward with the whole ridiculous concept.
As anyone who knows rock’n’roll can tell you, concept records can be career killers even for the most talented bands. The problem is that instead of ending up with a masterpiece like Tommy, you could end up with Saucy Jack, Spinal Tap’s unproduced rock opera about Jack The Ripper.
I co-wrote two songs for the record. One was called Escape From The Island, and the other was originally called Don’t Run but was later renamed Dark Light, after Lou Reed rewrote some of the lyrics. I didn’t understand the concept, and I didn’t give a fuck about the central character (some old fart nobody knew anything about). It was ludicrous. I kept trying to tell the guys that if we released an album of self-indulgent nonsense, complete with spoken dialogue and haunting wind instruments, we’d be slaughtered. Our core fans would get pissed, and serious rock critics would laugh at it. It was doomed from the beginning.
Didn’t matter what I said, though. I was outvoted.
Ezrin has willingly taken considerable heat for that album over the years and admitted he was doing a lot of drugs at the time, which clouded his judgment. Dammit! I was doing a lot of drugs, too, but I could still see that the project was going to be a flop. At one meeting after another, I went on record against it, but the other guys insisted on moving forward.
Even weirder was the fact that we recorded a big chunk of Music From The Elder at my home studio in Connecticut, but I avoided being in the studio most of the time. If I wasn’t doing vocals or laying down a guitar track, I was usually upstairs shooting pool and having a cold one and a toot. Granted, that’s not the way it’s supposed to work. If you’re enthusiastic about a project, you want to be there as much as possible, but I was so opposed to the album’s direction that I went into avoidance mode.
After the project moved up to Canada, I decided to remain behind most of the time and continued to work on guitar solos and overdubs at home. To my dismay, a lot of the solos I recorded were missing from the final mix. Go figure.
The thing is, Music From The Elder is not really a terrible album. It’s just a terrible Kiss album. The songs themselves aren’t all that bad, but some of them simply aren’t appropriate for a Kiss album.
We changed the costumes and cut our hair, and I went along for the sake of consistency. The whole thing was ridiculous. When I see video footage of Kiss performing songs from that album on television, trying to look so serious and self-important, I don’t know whether to laugh or cringe. Like I’ve always said, I’ll try almost anything once, but if I had a do-over, I’d take a pass on Music From The Elder. I think we all would, and the Kiss Army would be grateful.
1. Kiss convened at Ace Frehley’s Ace In The Hole studio in Connecticut to initially start work on a straight-forward, self-produced rock record. One of the first songs they came up with was Deadly Weapons but it didn’t make it on to the end product. It would eventually be recycled for inclusion on the 1985 album Asylum as Love’s A Deadly Weapon.
2. Paul Stanley suggested getting rid of the iconic make-up for The Elder but record company execs decided that it would stay for the time being while “not necessarily hiding from cameras off stage when not wearing it”.
3. However, Kiss did decide to drop the platform boots, shorten their hair and get less outrageous in the image department, with more streamlined costumes. Eric Carr, for one, had a black jumpsuit with multiple zippers for no practical reason other than to have zippers. Ace Frehley’s outfit sported a crudely rendered lightning bolt, a far cry from his previous be-caped, big-shouldered Spaceman persona. Gene Simmons, meanwhile, had chainmail pants, a leather-studded codpiece, his hair in a ponytail and will be your waiter for the evening. Finally, Paul Stanley’s pirate boots and purple bandana made him look like he wanted to conquer the seven seas after some aerobics. As can be guessed, fans were not happy with the look.
4. Gene Simmons had been looking to expand into Hollywood and was starting to develop ideas, which in the case of The Elder could have either been a movie or a musical album. Gene showed a rudimentary script of The Elder to producer Bob Ezrin who immediately grabbed at Gene’s story as being perfect for a Kiss concept album.
5. According to Ezrin The Elder was the first part of what was to be a three-album saga. Paul Stanley himself commented that he wanted to call the second album Elder II: War Of The Gods.
6. The track Only You is a reworking of an ancient Gene Simmons song called Eskimo Sun.
7. A World Without Heroes was created with some strange lyrical assistance from Lou Reed, whose sole input seems to have been scrawling the title of the song on a piece of paper. Reed also has credits on Dark Light and Mr Blackwell.
8. Drummer Eric Carr, who had replaced Peter Criss, made his first significant contribution to the band by co-writing Under The Rose with Simmons. Carr also managed to get a credit on the instrumental piece Escape From The Island.
9. The Odyssey is credited to songsmith Tony Powers, who also wrote We’re The Banana Splits.
10. The Elder stalled at No.75 in the American charts, the worst performance of a Kiss album for seven years.
Adapted from The Kiss Album Focus Vol. 1 by Julian Gill and KISS FAQ by Dale Sherman.
* Actually, the basic plot of The Elder involves the recruitment and training of a young hero (The Boy) by the Council Of Elders who belong to the Order Of The Rose, a mysterious group dedicated to fighting evil. The Boy is guided by an elderly caretaker named Morpheus. The album’s lyrics describe the boy’s feelings during his journey and training, as he overcomes his early doubts to become confident and self-assured. – Ed.