We used to run a sorta-popular column on the blog called Justify Your Shitty Taste, in which bloggers and musicians would defend the universally-maligned turds in great bands’ catalogs. It’s still pretty much defunct, but extreme drummer extraordinaire John Longstreth (Origin, Gorguts, Dim Mak) e’d us out of the blue the other day begging to defend KISS abomination Music From “The Elder.” We gladly agreed.
Grade school. Kickball. I was a learning disabled student and I loved “The Elder,” by KISS.
November 16th, 1981. Utter that date to any KISS fan and you’re going to get punched or hugged. Who knows, you may get nothing because maybe said KISS fan never did his homework. Either way, it doesn’t really matter because this is Justify Your Shitty Taste, and I’m talking Music from “The Elder” by KISS.
I’m not the biggest KISS fan anymore. I enjoyed Sonic Boom and I’m looking forward to Monster and that’s about it. In the past, however, i was a huge KISS fan, and I studied, to say the least. I know “The Elder” the same way everyone knows Destroyer.
The story is pretty well-known and simple. In ’81, KISS is suffering a severe fan backlash and popularity downfall after a serious back-to-back, one-two punch to the ribs delivered by Dynasty and Unmasked. At this point, management is pissed and they want a return to true-to-form hard rock KISS, so enter producer Bob Ezrin (Destroyer). Sounds good, eh? Ezrin plus KISS, throw Lou Reed in there for good measure, and one would think a killer album was on the way.
No ma’am. Ezrin returns to the fold only a couple years after co-producing The Wall, by Pink Floyd, so Ezrin, Simmons and Stanley all have a meeting and decide NOT to do the hard rock album that management is adamant about, but instead let’s do this Pinky Floyd-y, Lord of the Rings type concept album based off this story Simmons wrote. (I would assume after reading Tolkien.) Frehley protests, Carr shrugs his shoulders and rolls with it, and “The Elder” is recorded. The uppercut is thrown, and KISS is flat on their back and down for the count.
OK, so we know why so many people (including the band) hate this album. From a general point of view (what society says), it sucks. It never even went gold, the story is generic, Peter is gone from the group. And i LOVE it! Am i justifying my shitty taste? Or am i reiterating where so many people can find the REAL art in a situation like this? KISS was miserable at this point: millionaires, bored, going through the motions, shedding members, plummeting towards the bottom. Total meltdown, the ’70s were over and seemingly, so was KISS.
Why people LOVE this album is a better way of looking at it. As with any band, a cult forms to embrace everything that is wrong with them as if it was the best thing they ever did. At a certain point, bands get pushed in the wrong direction and we end up with these unfocused, desperate attempts to pull it all together and release an album. Depending on what version you listen to, the album either kicks off heavy with “The Oath” or it kind of oozes out of the speakers with “Fanfare.” Yeah, “Fanfare”… sure. The latter of the two, the “international version,” appropriately plays like a movie soundtrack.
For KISS fans in 1981, it makes perfect sense as to why this album pissed off nearly everyone. I was young enough to be given the “U.S./Euro version” in the late ’80s, so when it kicked off with “The Oath,” it struck me as different, but not so different that i immediately shut it off, threw it in the snow and retreated to the familiar confines of Hotter Than Hell. Different enough to be looked into because “The Oath” is heavy, and considering the source, a serious-sounding song. The initial listening was a shocking experience. I had looked at that album cover in record stores for about a year before I acquired it, so I was curious by the cover alone. I was already irritated with Paul’s falsetto from the Dynasty album, but holy shit, there’s double bass? What? And that opening riff? So, I was able to let the falsetto gripe go. The rest of the album played out like a Pink Floyd album to my then-uninitiated ears.
“Just a Boy” is bizarre in that it struck me more like a commercial than a song. “Dark Light” is Ace’s song, so its a ripper from the get-go. “Only You” is cool because it’s a bigger song with multiple changes, and Paul and Gene swap vocal leads, and it returns to that fanfare melody (key to having that concept album/theme feel). “Under the Rose” actually frightened me. The male chorus spooked me out to the point of avoiding the song for the next few months. I was frightened by many things as a child, but nothing got to me as much as certain sounds. After puberty, i was able to man up and allow the song to capture my heart, and to this day it’s one of the standout tracks for me.
“A World Without Heroes” has a Disney-gone-wrong vibe on the album, and a Renaissance Festival feel on the Unplugged album. It has duality!
“Mr. Blackwell” and “Escape From the Island” I typically pair together (along with “The Oath”) NOT because they are anything alike, which they aren’t, but they make me wonder where the band was BEFORE they decided to go this “concept album” route. Were these three aggressive, heavy songs the start of what was to be that classic, heavy album the band had originally promised to the fans? I love “Odyssey.” Again, that Disney-gone-bad theme pops into my head. “I” … you can keep “I.” I can’t stand that song, and the outro, the aptly titled “Finale,” is even dumber.
So now that I’ve completed the “Patrick Bateman segment,” I must go on for a little longer just to conclude that when I was younger, it made perfect sense that KISS would want to simply “try something different.” What did I know or care? “The Elder” also spawned four strangely excellent tracks with Bob Kulick that appeared on the Killers album: “I’m a Legend Tonight,” “Down on Your Knees,” “Nowhere to Run” and “Partners in Crime.” Also, “Carr Jam 81” came from these same sessions. These four songs, plus the four heavy songs on “The Elder” and “Carr Jam,” illustrate that the heavy album KINDA SORTA got recorded. If you look deep enough, and suspend your disbelief, you’ll find that very album.
As much as I loved the classic KISS albums, “The Elder” jarred me, and allowed me some access to albums like Dark Side of the Moon, In the Court of the Crimson King, The Wall (ironically) and various other epics from the ’70s. Today it strikes me as a band that was in a serious bind, struggling, and taking wild, desperate swings at an opponent they didn’t understand. If I look at it in that respect, it’s art. They were pushed, they scrambled, and art came out. However, in the real world, I’m sure it was a seriously ill-fated, disorganized, cocaine-hazed mess of an effort, and someone took it hard in the wallet.
Am I taking pity on Gene and Paul’s red-headed stepchild that couldn’t get a chance in gym class? Or am I giving credit to the fact that a progressive KISS album exists? Maybe both. However, at the end of all of it, this album was smeared by the public. It doesn’t really fit the catalog, it’s self-indulgent and fat, it has a cult, it’s well-executed, and I’ll never get tired of it. To me, these points epitomize the art in it.
It’s KISS meets Tolkien meets Pink Floyd! And why not? Now they say the movie is actually going to happen. The end. Literally.