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Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Vol. 1: KISS - The Elder

Concept albums.  For someone like me who is an avid book lover and writer but loves music with all of my heart, this is an area where my two worlds meet.  It should be the nexus of all things Cary Christopher.  Instead, I tend to despise concept albums.

Is there any worse idea in the history of rock and roll?  I would argue no.  For the most part, they are overblown, pompous and usually not very well thought out. However, there are exceptions.

For instance, Pink Floyd's The Wall is a master class in how to tell a complete story while also writing fantastic songs.  The Beatles' Sgt. Peppers' Lonely Hearts Club Band takes a much looser approach to the idea of the concept album by just reimagining the band itself and using that to experiment with their artistic direction.  More recently, the Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock Opera uses a combination of the legendary rise and fall of Lynyrd Skynyrd and an honest and open look at the cultural atmosphere that formed them to create one of the greatest albums ever about the American South.  

I'm not here to talk about the good ones though.  I want to talk about the ones that went completely and totally off the rails because while they may not be fun to listen to, the circumstances around them are usually very interesting to read about.  Plus, for sheer content there are easily more bad concept albums out there than good ones.  I'd personally put the ratio at 50:1.

One thing that the vast majority of horrible concept albums have in common is that they tried to do what The Who's Tommy or Pink Floyd's The Wall did.  They try to tell a story instead of using the concept as a broader unifying idea. There is no more perfect example of this than the album I want to kick off this series with.

Ladies and Gentlemen, I present to you KISS' Music From The Elder.

This album's reputation for being an ultimate clunker is very well known, but since many of you come here as fans of things other than music, let me recap a little for you.  From 1974 - 1977, KISS released eight albums of solid rock and roll, including their seminal Alive and Destroyer albums.  They literally became the most popular band in the world, even topping Led Zeppelin at one point in concert revenues and record sales.  Their manager at the time, Bill Aucoin, had laid out a plan to make them megastars by infiltrating other revenue streams and thus KISS was the first band to really exploit their brand on a massive scale.  They released toys.  They had their own pinball machine.  

They even had a Marvel comic book released with them fighting Doctor Doom and...  it was printed with their own blood mixed into the ink.  That last part is not a myth.  I have the comic and there's a feature in the middle that shows them pouring vials of their own blood into the ink vats.  Snopes verified it.

KISS started to become pure promotion; a caricature of the hard nosed, rock and roll band they'd started out to be.  As such, the music began to suffer but at the same time the four members' egos were expanding on an exponential scale.  How could they not?  Money was coming in faster than they could spend it and everyone working for them or with them was telling them they were geniuses.  This continued to be the case as they put out four solo albums in 1978 (one for each band member).  The idea had been Aucoin's again but this time it was a disaster.  None of the albums did very well and when the stunt bombed, cracks in KISS' armor began to show. 

Aucoin was undeterred.  He convinced the band to do a movie (KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park).  It's a complete disaster.  Partially financed by Hanna Barbara, it is basically a live action Scooby Doo adventure with KISS as the good guys.  It's hilariously inept and we'll probably talk about it in another post at another time.  I only mention it to say that when the movie flopped and the record sales for both the Dynasty and Unmasked albums were well below expectations, one would think that a band would start to reassess their work and either make a course correction or call it a day.

However, this band has Gene Simmons in it.  There is no ego bigger in the world today than Gene Simmons’.  In fact, the scale for gigantic ego is measured in “Simmons”.  

For instance, Donald Trump is the first person to register at a perfect 10.0 Simmons other than Simmons himself.  U2's Bono measures a 6.0 Simmons now but was marked at an 8.5 Simmons when he recited his "When Love Comes to Town" lyrics to B.B. King.  He's mellowed with age.

I digress.

Simmons flexed his egotistical muscle to his songwriting partner Paul Stanley and convinced him that they didn't need to go back to basics.  The real problem was that KISS weren't being taken seriously as musicians.  What they needed was to show the world that they could stretch beyond the rock genre into something grander, dare Simmon's think it, even classical.  

Stanley ate that shit up like ice cream.
Now to be fair, KISS weren't taken seriously as musicians by much of the mainstream music press.  Rolling Stone famously once likened an early KISS album to the sound of "buffalo farts".  However, by the time KISS started writing Music From The Elder they had already established themselves as a world class band.  Had they regrouped and focused on their strengths (stripped down, groove heavy rock and roll with a killer live show), I'd probably be writing a different post right now.  Instead, they decided to write a concept album.

Simmons had the story idea.  It was to be a modern day fantasy about a secret society looking for a hero.  The problem was, the story itself wasn't fleshed out beyond a mere outline.  Instead of doing more work on it, the band decided to move forward with the concept as it was and began writing songs.

The album took months to record.  It was created in a complete vacuum.  The only people allowed to hear the mixes were the band and the producer, Bob Ezrin.  They reached out to other (more esteemed) songwriters for help and actually got the likes of Lou Reed to contribute on three tracks. Still, it's questionable as to whether he even heard anything but his own contributions prior to the release.

Of course the problem with creating in a vacuum is that you get no outside perspective and to make matters worse, only half of KISS was truly represented in the studio.  Peter Criss (drummer) was fired before the sessions started.  His replacement (Eric Carr) had no say at all in the sessions.  Ace Frehley (lead guitarist) was also completely frustrated with being in the band.  He'd descended into an alcoholic haze and was so disconnected from the band that he only showed up to record his parts.  That left all of the big musical decisions to three people:  Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and the producer Bob Ezrin (who admitted he was snorting enough cocaine at the time to support several Columbian druglords and their families).  

How could this happen, you ask?  Leave that, once again, to Bill Aucoin.  He had convinced the record company that KISS knew exactly what they were doing and were going to deliver a pure winner.  The man was persuasive enough that his argument won the day and so instead of getting a preview to what was happening, the executives at Polygram sat and waited.  The finished album was unveiled at a listening party for Polygram execs and higher ups within the KISS organization.  Imagine the silence in that room when those people realized all the money they'd  poured into this project was lost forever. 

Music From The Elder is a complete and total mess.  It's exactly the opposite of what KISS needed to do in order to get their career back on track.  Filled with symphonic passages and a barely tangible storyline (again, about a secret society choosing a champion to fight the lords of darkness), Music From The Elder is as far from a KISS album as anything you can imagine. 

I have it on vinyl. 

I bought it as a teenager from a bargain bin at my local record store.  It said "KISS" on it so I expected it was going to be filled with snarling guitars, booming bass and songs about partying.  Boy, was I wrong.  That I didn't toss it in the trash is a testament to how much I love music.  The collector in me wouldn't let me discard it.  In fact, up until recently I still had every record I'd ever purchased. Of the albums I have shed, this is not one of them, simply because no one wants it.

The only song on the set that's worth playing out of something more than curiosity is "Dark Light" (Frehley's one contribution).  Of the rest, there is not a singable chorus or catchy hook in sight.  Not one memorable line.  Instead, there is a plethora of strings, horns and even dialogue. 

The resulting lack of sales would haunt KISS for over a decade.  It took incessant touring by the band to pay off their advance and it would also take them years to regain their audience in the U.S.

Thanks to Music From The Elder, KISS easily stands on top of the pile when it comes to worst concept album of all time... but it's not like they didn't have challengers.  We'll talk about some of those in later posts.

Until then, if you feel like you absolutely need to hear some of this record, then you are in luck.  You can hear the whole thing for free on YouTube at the link above.  I'd suggest skipping around a bit just to get the flavor and then going for a palette cleanser somewhere else.

If you're into horror but want something truly scary instead of horrible in and of itself, I encourage you to check out my Amazon Author's page.  There you'll find my horror novel The Wash as well as a couple of short stories that should scratch your itch.  

Also, please sign up for my mailing list.  It costs you nothing, you get a free short story and a promise from me not to e-mail you unless I have something important to share (like a promotion or major book release announcement). 

Until next time, happy listening!


Lisanne Harrington said...

Never could stand KISS, and especially Simmons. I just thought the whole make-up thing was stupid.

Cary said...

I was the right age (about ten when they got really big), PLUS... my parents forbade me from listening to them. Needless to say, I did everything I could to listen as often as possible. Now, I still like a lot of those albums but like you, I can't stand Simmons.