Few bands have survived such a fall from grace. Somehow KISS’s The Elder managed to turn off almost everyone at once. It was the perfect KISStorm, a deadly concoction we’re lucky they survived and yet the album helps define KISS. I am going to go ‘full monty’ here so please indulge my ramblings ….in no particular order.
To start ….I give it a 7 out of 10 because there are some moments that transcend KISStory on every listen (since the first which, as most admit, left us all in a state of confusion). In hindsight, I like some of the lyrics, vibes, and the age-old ‘child-to-hero’ premise that mirrored Star Wars, but set in the dark ages in the case of The Elder. Knowing Gene & Paul way better now than then, I (almost) bought into it at the time but decided wisely around then to keep my continued fascination with KISS on the down-low. None of my coolest buddies could have given a fuck about the band at the time. Somehow in three years they had gone from the biggest band in the world to a side-show of sorts.
The Elder seemed a grim omen too: KISS had really lost their way and needed a face lift. They probably should have taken the make up off then, but the lesson had to be learned to get to Creatures of The Night or Lick It Up.
The Elder costumes were rough and didn’t help matters for us as fans. Ace’s was the only cool one with Eric’s as nondescript close second. Gene looked almost human and Paul’s new ‘puffy jump suit with purple neck bobble would not have worked in any decade. Paul’s new look was way worse than the record itself.
The Elder effectively killed the original KISS and I believe their decision to not put their faces on it anywhere, with new member Eric Carr, was a slight hedging of the bet by the band. Bold as the musical endeavor was, the band stopped short of giving it their full endorsement. Instead it looked like a children’s book; not cool.
They were in a hard spot …trying to get their old audience back somehow and yet appeal to a new audience, a more critical one. The album could have been better with a couple more rockers and less between track fluff. Fuck, they should have made it a double album and spent a little more time until they found a song to sell it with at least?
In any event, Ace was in bad shape and the only way he would play along, or show up, would be to do the tracking at his house, in his studio. Still didn’t work. Like Sir Paul (McCartney) saving the Beatles by convincing Lennon to be ‘not the Beatles’, Gene (and Paul to a lesser extent it seems) gravitated towards the idea and figured it was time for the band to get serious in order to shake off the sticky yoke of the poppy Unmasked .
The band had just put out two back to back records in which Ace had 3 cuts, all on the heels of the surprise success of his ’78 solo record. Sure, moving it to his place for recording is a giant concession to Ace but the concept and inclusion of Bob Ezrin (with whom he had had issues) was like bringing hell to Ace’s front door. In sales it’s called ‘chasing’ and it usually drives the customer away. And, as fucked up as he was, and already worried he would kill himself if he stayed on the road, it might have been a bit much of the guys to move forward at the time. At the end of the day, the same thing happened ironically: some of Ace’s guitar work and tracks were scrapped at the behest of Mr. Blackwell and Lord Ezrin, probably because communication broke down again leaving the boys to piece together an album with a flagging Ezrin.
Ace didn’t mind direction, but not when he didn’t believe in the album. He preferred being with a guy like Eddie Kramer where he could just be a guitarist and not challenged at every musical turn by a diverging and less than enthusiastic voice like Bob’s. Bob was, to be fair, in the Gene & Paul business in ’81 and was apparently at least as out of his mind as Frehley. In fact, much reference to the fact is made by Paul when talking about Ezrin’s condition during The Elder as if he wasn’t doing his best work either but, by all reports, Sir Ezrin was equally coked-up during the session for Destroyer but still did a fine job in the ultimate ‘production’ of The Elder in terms of sound and performances. What was lacking wasn’t him or the concept, it was a cohesive KISS with an engaged Frehley.
They should have not gone forth with the project if they wanted to keep Ace and so, as smart as Gene & Paul are, I believe this was a psychological misfire that came as a result of the sheer stress the whole unit was under to continue or fold. Subconsciously perhaps Gene & Paul wanted to be left to their own devices and to be no longer at the whim of Frehley’s crumbling sanity but it seems they unwittingly drove Ace from the band and almost sunk the ship. Maybe Gene’s vision involved some deception?
And so, yeah …Ace was right about The Elder being a bad idea and, even with Eric Carr with his back in the argument (whose vote didn’t count), he was outvoted …it appears now that manager Bill Aucoin was on the ‘outs’ with the band at the time. I believed he stayed on simply because he cared about them, didn’t want abandon them when the chips were down, and so went along with the titanic plan. Ultimately it’s the band trying to re-create the magic they had originally, especially with fans, by creating a magical record …like “we still believe, do you?” It could have been a great album, but not with Ace being unwilling participant in what he thought was career suicide.
I believe The Elder could still have legs folks: KISS could put out The Elder: Part II now and it would have a bigger chance of critical acclaim than the original ….or finally put out a movie or cartoon using the material and story? The band could partner with someone to put out a video game based on The Elder. …do a Broadway or Vegas fantasy show based on it? …parlay the project into a ‘self-help’ life affirming thing by creating a new non-profit that, I don’t know, brings attention to real Elders with a story to share with youngsters?
The story of the epic failure of The Elder to re-ignite KISS’s career and reach a new, more critical audience teaches us not to stray too far from what we are, that timing is everything and that, if you fall, get up and try again.