“When the Earth was young, they were already old…”
30 years ago on this day in KISStory, an album would be issued that would be a turning point, and at the time a low point, for the band and their fans. Music From The Elder, produced by the legendary Bob Ezrin (responsible for the epic Destroyer), was released by KISS on November 16, 1981. The release was a concept album, and a comprehensive departure for the band, which was negatively received by both fans and critics alike.
As time has progressed, however, the album has achieved somewhat of a cult status among both KISS fans and rock/metal fans. For some reason, Music From The Elder has matured well, and while it was perhaps the most obscure and odd of all KISS releases, some now point to the album as their favorite.
This was not always the case, however. After its release, Music From The Elder developed into KISS’ poorest selling album, their first to not even be certified Gold by the RIAA. The business side of things fared so badly for KISS with this release that for the first time ever, the band did not go out on tour to boost the album.
So what went wrong for KISS back in 1981?
Essentially, what turned out to be Music From The Elder was a misguided attempt by the band and producer Bob Ezrin to showcase a more serious and sincere artistic side to the band. While this could have worked for any number of bands, for KISS, it was so distant from their musical identity that the album felt alien to many of their fans. But while it was an effort to make a serious concept album to acclaim a mature side of the band, initially this album was never meant to be that way.
With a look back to the year before, in 1980, KISS’ album Unmasked was not as well received as its 1979 predecessor Dynasty. Although Australian fans made it one of the best-selling albums in their country, causing a Beatles-like welcome for KISS during their down under tour, back home in America it was not a high point for the band. It was clear that the disco influence of producer Vini Poncia was beginning to take its toll for having been a part of KISS for too long. As a result, the band decided that change was crucial.
During their touring period of late 1980, the band announced in several interviews that they were working on a brand new album, and that it would be an authentic form to their hard rock and roll style. It was to be heavier, more aggressive, and more in tune with their earlier releases.
The promise was welcomed by the fans around the world. While the more commercial sounds of Dynasty and Unmasked may have been a welcome temporary diversion, the longtime fans were hungry for a return to form. Instead of more of “She’s So European,” they wanted more of “Deuce” or “Strutter” or “Cold Gin.”
And at the outset, that is exactly what was happening. KISS began recording demo tracks for their 1981 hard rock album, and some of the tunes can be heard and found to this day. Some of the songs that ended up on the 1982 KISS Killers anthology (“I’m A Legend Tonight,” “Down On Your Knees,” “Nowhere To Run,” and “Partners In Crime”) were written for the original album, as was “Love’s A Deadly Weapon,” which ended up on 1985’s Asylum. “Feel Like Heaven,” composed by Gene Simmons, was later recorded by Peter Criss on his 1982 Let Me Rock You solo album.
But among the demo and rarities bootleg trading circuit, other songs have arisen over the years, revealing a heavier sounding intent for their 1981 album. The Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons co-written “It’s My Life” (later taped for 1998’s Psycho Circus, but released on the 2001 KISS Box Set) first surfaced at this time, as did a very early version of “Rock And Roll Hell” from 1982’s Creatures of the Night.
Ace Frehley also contributed a hard rocking demo entitled “Don’t Run,” which would eventually evolve into “Dark Light” on The Elder. Perhaps more importantly would be a significant collaboration between him and new drummer Eric Carr that would become known as “Breakout” — a piece that would become a staple of Frehley’s live show when he toured (and recorded by Frehley’s Comet for their debut album), and the drum solo of which would be later included on KISS’ 1992 Revengein tribute to and in memory of Carr, who passed away in 1991.
Indeed, as all indications seem, KISS in early 1981 was certainly heading for a new hard rock release. Bob Ezrin was brought in to produce the record, and the forthcoming release was being promoted to the fans (particularly via KISS Army fan club newsletters) as a cross between Love Gun and Destroyer, with a deep-seated dash of their first three albums: KISS, Hotter Than Hell, and Dressed to Kill.
The anticipation among fans was relatively high because of these developments. However, the evolution of “The 1981 Hard Rock Album” into Music From The Elder was not unambiguously promoted to fans during the year, something that most certainly would have contributed to their alienation from the band. Playing The Elder for the first time when expecting something like Destroyer meets Dressed To Kill would undoubtedly have been a shock.
The evolution of the project becoming The Elder was quite an organic process. Noticing that some of their songs reflected aspects of KISS’ “superhero” characteristics (as seen in their two Marvel Comics releases in 1977 and 1978), and fresh off his major success with Pink Floyd’s epic classic The Wall, Bob Ezrin suggested tying the ideas together and creating a KISS concept album.
Positioning trust in Ezrin’s experience with concept albums may have been natural for the band initially; after all, he had helped create some memorable ones with both Alice Cooper and Pink Floyd. Unbeknownst to Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley at the time though, was that Bob Ezrin was wrestling with his own personal demon in the form of a private drug addiction — something that was affecting his work as a music producer.
Despite this, Simmons and Stanley redeployed ahead with the idea, and Ezrin brought in Lou Reed to collaborate on the project. Ace Frehley was against the idea of moving into concept album territory, adamant that the idea for a pure hard rock album was the way to go. He was outvoted, and the band went forward — though Frehley’s persistence would be prophetic for the fan’s reception of the album. The division in between Frehley and the two other original members began deepening — so far that the lead guitarist refused to show up for recording, instead maintaining that tapes be sent to his home studio so that he could lay down his tracks on his own. It’s reported Frehley smashed the final tape of the album against the wall when he received his copy.
Eric Carr also conveyed reservations of the concept album route, and understandably so: he was the new member of a hard rock/metal band, and his expectations were that they would be heading back in that direction. Although he had apprehensions, many of them were left unheard: Carr was not an original member, and thus not part of the business or directional decision process for the band. He was, however, partly responsibly on the creative side of the band, and contributed some songwriting to the album in the form of “Under The Rose” and “Escape From The Island” — both perhaps the deeper and heavier of the songs.
Despite protests from inside the KISS camp, the recording progressed. Various reports indicate that the process was a “closed door” and that the band refused to let their record label, Casablanca Records, and their management company, Rock Steady (with the exception of band manager Bill Aucoin — who powerfully encouraged the concept album direction) in on the whole deal.
After its completion, the band held a small “listening party” for Casablanca and Rock Steady. While KISS and Ezrin were overly excited about the sound (notably Simmons and Stanley), the record label and management were not amused in the slightest. The revelation of Music From The Elder was a major disappointment to them — and they originally refused to release it unless they could change the track listing. The band relented to this demand, and “The Oath” (a hard rocking number, and one of the strongest of the album) was moved to be the introductory track, while the strange and ethereal “Odyssey” was moved to a later point of the album.
While this may have been a manner for the record label to save face, it could well have contributed to the confused reaction of fans. The changing of the track listing influenced the flow of the storyline, making it more difficult to follow along. The remastered edition of Music From The Elder, when released in the late 1990s, reverted to the band’s original listing sequence, making the tale much clearer.
But although clearer, the storyline behind The Elder was always somewhat… vague. There were elements that were clear: A boy becomes the chosen one, a superhero to fight the forces of malevolence. He is brought under the care and direction of Morpheus, who serves The Elder, otherwise known as The Order of the Rose. The boy disbelieves his potential, but later through trials begins to believe. He develops into The One, and swears an oath to The Elder to protect the universe against the forces of evil. His nemesis is the evil Mr. Blackwell, who he takes on in battle at some island. The One stands victorious, and finally has full acceptance in his ability as a hero.
Or at least, that’s how it seems to go as a story. These common elements have since become quite legendary among fans around the world. Many have made their own adventures in what would now be called fan fiction, fan art, poems, music, and so on based on the concept and universe of The Elder. One fan, in fact, published his version of the story of The Elder in comic book form. Some also believe that the concepts behind Music From The Elder were clear-cut influences on the development of The Matrix, featuring a guiding master named Morpheus, and a hero who becomes The One.
But this is in all credit to what the album has since become. Upon its release, it was judged a failure. After the poor sales figures flew in, the band decided against going out on tour. Ace Frehley announced to his bandmates his intentions of leaving KISS. Realizing their decision to head in the concept album objective was a disaster at the time, Simmons and Stanley fired Bill Aucoin as their manager, and immediately began ignoring The Elder as part of their history (the band would never play any of the songs live again — not until 1996, when “World Without Heroes” was revived for KISS Unplugged).
Simmons and Stanley took a stronger responsibility in the direction of the band, and resolutely began working towards what would become their resurrection into the world of hard rock and heavy metal – their most uncompromising and heaviest album to date: Creatures of the Night.
But Creatures of the Night is another story for another time…
Despite the way The Elder was felt as a disaster at the time (and in 1981, it certainly was), the album has since evolved into having its own legacy. While perhaps the most obscure release of all time from KISS, it stands up as a historical turning point for them, but also has since become regarded as a favorite album among some fans — and has had clear influence in other media from movies to comic books.