In ’96 when KISS hit Chicago for the first time on the death-defying Reunion Tour with the fab four in tow, I got tickets for both shows out at the Rosemont. (More smoke than a Bigfoot drag race!!) Anyway, my mom snagged this comic strip by Dave Toone that Sunday in the ‘Trib. Sadly, it appears I must have colored it with crayon at some point thereabouts because, well, in ’96, this Dave was 28 years old. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. All in the life of a KISSTorian I guess?
Renown rock critic and noted-KISStorian Mitch Lafon graciously took a few moments out from daily family KISStory lessons and other duties to give us the straight dope on the hottest band in all the land. He is the very first first to walk this plank. and is Canadian no less; such bravery! Funny: we all have so much in common and yet have so much left to disagree about. C’mon and …what?!
first KISS song heard? Most likely the first song on Love Gun, ” I Stole Your Love”
first KISS concert? Aug 6th 1979 – Montreal Forum
favorite 5 KISS albums? KISS – Kiss, COTN, Revenge, Love Gun, Alive 2
favorite KISS member? Paul Stanley for keeping it Alive for 40 years
favorite KISS tour? Revenge
favorite KISS guitarist? Ace
favorite KISS drummer? Eric Singer
favorite KISS merchandise? The albums
favorite ear / costumes? Dynasty
favorite KISS song? “C’mon And Love Me”
Yup. As David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap would say: “Check me on this…am I losing my fucking mind?” UNMASKED is way better than I remembered. Maybe’s it’s the high-end turn table and brand new Shure headphones that aided in this recent KISSTory lesson? In any event, some random observations and quips in no order….
Well, swear to God, it’s actually a cool mix. I give Vini Poncia long overdue high marks for how he transformed KISS on Unmasked, They wanted pop, and they got it. Each song gets a slightly different treatment one may only catch on a great system, or with the speakers spread far apart, or in headphones, or on an actual record. A band? If it doesn’t sound like a band, it’s because it wasn’t – in terms of dis-function, it may KISS’s White Album.
Guitars? There is not a bad solo on this record, they all just fit like a glove. Paul’s on “Shandi” is a crowning achievement and Ace’s are easy as it seems and right-on high points of each track, as is customary. Really catchy and singable. In fact some of his most ‘pro’ sounding shit, period. I hear drop in’s here and there on guitar to carry small parts through that I believe are Paul as I really can’t imagine Ace sitting through the process to add color on such poppy stuff, at least not the stuff that he didn’t write. Plus, Paul usually knows what he wants already. he must have done the solo on Gene’s “Your All That I Want” as well and, during its’ fade, Paul is stellar is not, dare I say better than Ace? Damn right dreamy. The rhythm guitars are also nicely distinct throughout the record . If you listen close, they are a tad more intricate also than the standard KISS fare ….you’ll see.
Drums? It’s the drum sound that sucks the sheer life out of the record, from the kick to the snare and on and on, save for “Shandi”. On the other cuts, the cheez-verb is a serious distraction. Not that Anton doesn’t play really well-crafted, tight drum patterns/parts on every tune, he does — but the snare sound alone is enough to make you want to look for one of Pete’s old Pearl snares in the vault. It’s second only to the disaster that was the drums (especially the snare) on Hotter Than Hell. It’s a damn good Peter impersonation by Anton but, even as a kid when I first heard it, I was like “Wow Peter sounds really good on “Torpedo Girl” huh? Maybe he was trained by Krupa after all?
The Spaceman? Unless your high and full of shit, it’s clear Ace’s contributions shine far above everything else on the album. While we don’t know the behind the scenes on Unmasked (yet), I find the quality of his cuts here fly in the face of everything Gene & Paul have said about the Spaceman’s lack of effort to bring in new material. The fact that Ace to get “Torpedo Girl” on the record speaks volumes to pecking order of the day. He played the bass and apparently all the guitars on his cuts and they are super-duper, no? Go back and listen – headphones.
Our Starchild? With “Shandi”, “Easy As It Seems” and “Is That You”, a cover, Paul’s tunes verge on minor pop revelations (at least in KISS terms) and are downright gutsy in retrospect, as if he literally was able to forget who he once was, and what they once were entirely. That shipped sailed when “I Was Made For Loving You” hit the airwaves in ’79. If Dynasty was the KISSco record heard around the world, Unmasked was the full-departure that set the table for the next ill-conceived experiment; The Elder.
The Demonic Bat-Lizard? Gene’s whole thing gets a little fractured on the record but I still say “Naked City” is a semi-cinematic KISSterpiece in production, vibe and content. I feel it’s a way under-rated snapshot of the demon in reflective flux that highlights his versatility as a songwriter and singer. At one point in the tune, one can even hear the influence of The Police in the bass line and quasi-reggae / faux-sca guitar tags. It’s very cool. In fact Gene’s baseline’s on the record are pretty out of the box and don’t sound like anyone else. Pretty fun.
Oh yeah, great back vocals all over this record and the keyboards? Take them out and you’ feel a sadness no KISStorian wants to feel, betcha.
It’s almost an arrogant effort and I still love it, better with every listen somehow. Perhaps for that very reason, because KISS does what KISS does and well, no matter what it is. No one seems to want to talk about or remembers anything about it leaving me to wonder if they planned to angle Unmasked‘s promotion over-seas from the albums inception? I’ll assume they knew they couldn’t risk a proper US Tour in support of the album but to everyone else, KISS were still legends. In America, they had sold out and Unmasked was the final stake in the their rock coffin, not The Elder.
I bought a Van Halen shirt right after I heard Unmasked year and wore it every other day. Even though I bought The Elder too, only Creatures could have really brought me back as it did, setting the table for the kick in the ass that was Lick It Up was for all of us holding out hope.
Except for the bubble-gum finger snapper “What Makes The World Go Round” and the regrettable chorus of “Tomorrow”, both Starchild offerings, I don’t know if I would change a thing on Unmasked and even then, how could I? You wouldn’t either!
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.
What a relief huh? It could not have gone better. Gene was classy and set the tone nicely, Peter was heartfelt but held it together, Ace was at ease, lucid and funny, and Paul laid down the rock & roll law with final defiant words on behalf of the band and the fans.
Remarkably, even without their instruments, make-up, or a show, it was classic KISS because, as nature would have it, the four personalities remain intact. In fact, standing there together again, the undeniable force of their dynamic tension and unique chemistry was in clear evidence.
Paul was right: this was” vindication for our fans” and, were not a fluke. They had the talent, a vision, drive, attitude and belief. Funny thing is though, for all their keen planning over the years, you create four divergent characters by design and then expect them to assume the roles and get along? Eventually you have the runaway rock & roll roller coaster that was KISS circa ’79. That engine had proven to need a lot of fuel and the track a lot of grease(paint). And so it goes …..two of the pistons got fried, and all for the love of rock & roll I might add.
Unlike other bands that fell by the wayside in the 40 year span that is KISSTory, KISS learned to evolve like any successful enterprise, outsourcing to plug and play. If they hadn’t, the glory that was this induction may never have happened. Maybe the Rock Hall gave up waiting for them to quit but, as KISS fans have known all along, the word is not in Gene or Paul’s vocabulary. They stood tall to make us proud, our intrepid champions ….the Hottest Band in The World, then and now: KISS!
This event marks the very beginning of my KISStory timeline and is stranger than fiction …but true.
It was Valentine’s Day 1977 and I was in 4th grade. In hindsight, a funny thing happened on the way to school that day. I didn’t take the bus for some reason or it would not have happened but on the way in to school that day I heard KISS for the first time on the car radio,
It was “Dr. Love”. I can even remember where on the ride exactly I heard the opening riff. The cowbell clank, the simple urgent heavy guitar riff and the voice of the demon were like nothing I had ever heard on my mom & dad’s Beatles, Stones, Kinks or Dylan records. I then and there declared it mine and was advised / rebuffed by mom that “one purchases such things by saving their allowances and going to the record store”.
Flash forward to the end of the school day and we are all lining up to leave the building in “single file” to the buses. One of my best friends had a “girlfriend” named Michelle and I was secretly in love with her. As he and I waited in line in the dark while our teacher Mrs. Loving (who was Marlon Brando’s sister) waited for “total silence before you can leave” I must have realized it would be my last chance to let Michelle know how I felt about her on that special day. I asked my pal quietly if it would “be okay if I KISSed Michelle also … for Valentine’s Day?”
As we walked down the hall towards the buses I called out to Michelle …….she was like “yeah … what?” I said “I have to tell you a secret” and she was like “yeah…. What?” ……I leaned in clumsily and whispered quite literally “pppsss –ppppssss—pppsssss”” and then KISSed her on the cheek.
It was exhilarating but it didn’t go well. She screamed Yuck!”. Everyone heard it and looked over to see. On the ride home I sat alone on the bus in anguish and tears.
When I got home, my mom had bought me a Valentine’s Day gift. It was a Ronco Presents hits record called ‘Superstars’ that included “Dr. Love” by KISS but, given the gravity of the situation, I was still inconsolable, This was especially so when the weepy Bay City Rollers “The Way I Feel Tonight” came on and reduced a love sick 4th grader to a puddle.
Today Michelle and I are Facebook friends and I would tell her she is on my KISStory timeline but fear it would be a step backwards. Sometimes mom knows best.