Thursday, April 7, 2011

They Sure Know Something

I grew up as a KISS fan starting in 1975, when my little hillbilly self walked to Britt's Department Store in Richmond and bought their Alive! album with piggy-bank money. From there, I rode along with the boys through the next three albums that represented the peak of their classic years (Destroyer, Rock and Roll Over and Love Gun.) And that's when things got kinda sketchy.

1977's Alive II was a great album, and I worshipped the bonus studio/soundcheck songs on side four ("Rocket Ride" actually broke the Top 40, but you never hear it on classic rock or oldies stations today). But part of me really thought, "do we need a second live album already? I would rather have had a full new studio album." As fast as the band had been cranking out material, I was certain there'd be a new solid rockin' KISS album out before I could turn around and say tequila.

But that album didn't come.

To my surprise, they followed up the expensive double live album with another expensive double album - this time a greatest hits collection, except all their hits weren't on it, and some of the songs were remixed and sounded tinny and weird. "Strutter" was completely re-recorded with a slightly disco-fied beat, of all things, as "Strutter '78". I was pissed. As a kid, every cent of my allowance was important and after I took Double Platinum home, I wanted my money back - I really didn't need my fourth version of "Deuce". But I forgave them. I knew that next new solid rockin' KISS album would be out before I could turn around and say vodka and orange juice.

I was wrong.

Instead, my allowance was completely wiped out by the simultaneous release of four KISS solo albums - in which Gene Simmons sings Walt Disney, and Peter Criss revealed himself to be a frustrated Leo Sayer. Paul and Ace's albums were pretty good, but still, all of these parts did not add up to a whole for me. I had blown every teenage cent I had on four albums yet somehow still managed to feel like I had less than one album to show for it.

By now my interest in KISS was starting to show some cracks, and I wasn't alone: many of my friends at school tried to keep a stiff upper lip but by then there were plenty of other bands who were starting to seem a lot more interesting. We had our doubts now whether the KISS we knew and loved would return to form, and we didn't hold our breath waiting to see if it ever would be cold gin time again.

Dynasty was another big disappointment. Ace's unexpected cover of an obscure Rolling Stones song, "2000 Man", showed promise that KISS was not yet totally braindead, but they were now going for an overtly disco-rock fusion. That wasn't what we wanted. The next album, Unmasked, was even worse, going full speed ahead into pure disco and pure pop like never before. Looking back, I love these albums now, of course, and it's easy now to forget exactly how annoyingly revolutionary it was for a hard rock band to try to merge their style with disco. But back then, my high school compatriots and I were completely appalled at how far our favorite band had drifted, so fast.

At this point, we all gave up on KISS and moved on to other things. By then my favorite bands were The Dead Kennedys, The Clash, The Jam, Devo, and increasingly avant-garde stuff like The Residents. My taste for pan-directional eclecticism had no room for a has-been 70's band trying to go disco after disco itself was already dead.

And then the unthinkable happened: KISS released an album that was the apex of pan-directional eclecticism.

On November 16, 1981, KISS released, out of nowhere, Music From The Elder. They'd been working on it in the studio since March 13, during which time Ace essentially gave up on the band. Everyone else around me - that is, among those who bothered to buy it or listen to it - fiercely hated it and chalked it up as yet another disappointing KISS flop. Me, I fell in love with it instantly, if at first for no other reason than the album was completely insane and was almost a surrealist art-object unto itself.

The citizenry of 2011 are savvier than those of 1981, thankfully. Thirty years after it was foisted upon an unknowing world, The Elder has become a cult classic, highly regarded among KISS fans as being way ahead of its time, and one of their finest achievements.

The "story" of the concept album is only hinted at piecemeal, and various explanations of limited authenticity can be found circulating online, but the gist of it is: a young boy joins up with an ancient and noble organization, undergoes training to become worthy of the fellowship, and somewhere in there, somehow, there's a guy named Mr. Blackwell. Oh yeah, and somebody escapes from an island, apparently.

It's actually a good thing the story wasn't delineated more clearly, because it leaves the listener to speculate for himself - and that might be a whole lot more interesting than what mssrs. Stanley and Simmons had in mind. Then again, there are plenty of nuggets of wisdom on the record that exemplify the general message - like the haunting "Only You" (with Rush-like prog-rock flanged chords and voices over, of all things, a reggae beat). Not only is it the only pop-rock song I know that uses the word "manchild", but it pompously proclaims things like:

"In every age, in every time,
A hero is born as if by a grand design!"

Definitely not the stuff of Hall & Oates. Nor do you hear medieval horn instrumentals on a Huey Lewis album. Nor do you get backing vocals that sound like choirs of Rosicrucian monks on a Loverboy record. Paul, who usually was the anchor keeping any KISS record down to Earth, actually provided the most spaced-out "WTF" moments. Consider "Just A Boy", sounding more like Queen with its falsetto vocals and synthesizers. And then there's the total ELO-ish "Odyssey":

"From a far-off galaxy
I hear you callin' me
We are on an Odyssey
Through the realms of time and space
In that enchanted place
You and I come face to face."

Was it genius? Or drivel straight out of a little girl's school notebook? Both, maybe? No one knew for sure at the time. But a lot has happened on this third rock since then, and a lot of things make more sense with the passage of time. Uh, and space.

The album wasn't a 100% disaster - "The Oath" was actually a big hit in Italy, and "A World Without Heroes" reached #56 on the U.S. charts. A far cry from the days when "Beth" hit #7 and "Calling Dr. Love" reached #16 (#2 in Canada) but hey, at least they made it onto the Billboard Top 100 charts at all, and halfway up it at that.

For my yankee dollar, however, it's "I" that marks this album as the most crucial pivotal moment in KISStory. Musically, it's like a heavy metal show tune (especially live) with an Adam Ant beat, an Elvis-like swagger in Paul's voice, and a stop-start vamp right out of Rocky Horror's "The Time Warp". Literally the last thing on Earth we ever expected from KISS.

Loaded with positive affirmations and more shibboleths than you can shake a stick at, it provides the philosophical keystone for Gene's much-remarked-on egotism:

"I was so frightened I almost ran away
I didn't know that I could do anything I needed to
And then a bolt of lightning hit me on my head
And I began to see, I just needed to believe in me

Cause I believe in me
And I believe in something more than you can understand
Yes, I believe in me."

Whether you look at the song as a sort of mystical invocation, a "law of attraction" affirmation, or a mind-over-matter psi experiment, it worked. Their next album, Creatures of the Night, finally was that hard-rocking classic KISS album the fans had been waiting on for six freakin' years, and it yielded an identity-restoring hit, "I Love It Loud". KISS subsequently played their largest show ever in Brazil, then took off the makeup to reinvent themselves as a cutting-edge hair-metal band. In the process, they racked up far more hits in this new guise than they ever had in the old one and wowed a whole 'nother generation of fans.

Amazingly, they then had a third lease on life. They returned to the makeup and the original lineup and had a great run with that, touring nonstop until Ace and Peter, whose health was fragile because of their drug use, gave out. Ace quit the band all over again, and Peter had to be let go. Gene and Paul, on the other hand, were still healthy and still going strong and gave the band a fourth incarnation - the age we are presently in - with Tommy Thayer, pro golfer and player of Ace's solos better than Ace ever played. As Gene said in Sex Money Kiss, "this strange band continues to write its own rules."

Oh yeah, and their new music is better than ever.

Ironically enough, all those albums from KISS' great "odd period" between Double Platinum and Killers are now among some of my very favorites. Time has been kind to each of their efforts, to the extent that I even love Peter Criss' solo album, for which my Judas Priest-craving adolescent mind had zero frame of reference for upon its original release.

I also think it's worth noting that some of my favorite songs from the solo albums seem to have a very Elder-ish quality to them, not only musically but thematically. I have to wonder if they weren't cooking on the concept long in advance. Take a cold hard look at Paul's "Take Me Away (Together as One)" or Gene's "Man of 1000 Faces". Even the triumphantly celtic prog-rockness of "Fractured Mirror" seems to indicate that whatever Gene and Paul had tapped into, at least some of it had rubbed off on Ace.

2011 marks the 30-year anniversary of Music from the Elder and its transcendentally off-kilter beauty. Let's make this an Elder year. The people gotta know. The band also has a new album in the works due for a summer release. We're in for some interesting times. Can you feel it coming?

- - JSH

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