An Odyssey through the History of KISS' Music From The Elder
Tim McPhate and Julian Gill both deserve enormous credit, and a loud, sold-out Cobo Arena amount of wild audience cheers for writing an interesting and utterly unexpected book focusing on a fleeting slice of KISS history. Titled Odyssey: The Definitive Examination of “Music From The Elder,” the knock on the enigmatic door on the album’s cover is finally answered and the full tale of the infamous LP. Odyssey is told. Odyssey is an outstanding new addition to a growing list of Kisstory biographies, autobiographies, and record books. The fall is usually when a new KISS book hits stores, and Odyssey arrives perfectly timed for the 35th anniversary of the album’s unceremonious debut.
Odyssey continues the trend of producing a work that focuses on a particular album concept. In the previous year, a brilliant book on the making of the wildly successful Destroyer and one based on the ill-advised four solo albums fed KISS and music fans’ desire to learn the untold tales of how professional record industry production works. The arrival of a new book based on a KISS album and tour was no surprise. The full story on Alive and Dynasty positively would garner attention. No one, however, would ever have dreamed a tome chronicling the mysterious development of the Music from the Elder would ever see publication. The book delves into an LP that was an undeniable and near career-ending commercial flop. To this day, even with its cult status, Music From The Elder has not achieved gold certification and likely never will. An additional 125,000 album sales would seem impossible.
So why write a book about a reviled album? The book, like the album, stands on its own merits. And the tale of how “The Hottest Band In The Land” went so far off the rails is an interesting one, and the tale has never been told with so much detail or passion.
Without this book, the tale would be relegated to what it has always been – an abbreviated mention in passing in books dealing with other primary subjects.
The argument for the study of history is that the past teaches a wise person how to make better decisions in the present and future. History is overflowing with lessons about things that went right and things that went wrong. While some may scoff at and dismiss the actual music from Music From The Elder, few will argue there are great lessons to learn about making good choices in business and life from the various missteps associated with the album.
Bitterness From The Elder
The merits of the actual music consistently spark debates among KISS fans with the negative contingent overwhelming The Elder appeasers. No serious arguments exist that the album soothed any frictions within the band or helped direct KISS on a better career path.
The tale is well documented. KISS was reeling due to overexposure and was struggling to find a place within the New Wave and cutting edge heavy metal 1980’s music scene. Destroyer — a very loose concept album — was the band’s biggest hit, and a decision emerged to release a new concept album. And why not? Several concept albums such as Tommy and The Wall did exceptionally well. The Eldersought to ride the concept album craze and rebrand KISS as a serious band. Long elusive critical praise was to rest beyond The Elder’s door.
Things did not work out as planned in the mythical, musical land conceived for the world of the album’s tale. The result was a reviled LP known for being a “KISS album without any KISS music.”
KISS’ Music from the Elder has been deemed – for years and years – the worst studio album ever produced by the band. Original members Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley are among the album’s most prominent critics. Stanley famously quipped “Elder would be a great Genesis album, but an awful KISS one” or something to that effect.
Music from The Elder, in truth, is not all that bad. A portion of KISS fans finds it too radical of a departure from the hard rock, pre-Dynasty days of the band, and a continuation of disappointing material starting with the four solo albums and continued by the very unappealing 1980 album Unmasked.
And the band members surely are not going to be fond of any album that failed so miserably that a planned tour was canceled. The Elder was the final insult to Frehley. He departed the band in the wake of the album’s fiasco.
The Feel for the Times
As for the book, Odyssey does a fantastic job of capturing an emotional feel for the confusion the band has facing. A lack of direction was causing tension and further exacerbated problems among the remaining three original members. Not knowing how to define or explain what KISS was going to be in the 1980s enveloped the band, its management, and its label.
Odyssey does more than merely regurgitate facts – although the revelation the band toyed with the idea of removing their makeup to coincide with a new Elder inspired image has never mentioned in print before.
Odyssey makes the reader feel like a proverbial fly on the wall watching the band’s overlooked 1980/1981 experiences unfold. KISS was no longer “Super KISS” and, to fans of the menacingly dark 1970’s group, the early 1980’s fall is outright painful and insulting. Among the reasons The Elder is so reviled was the perceived attempt to outright replace KISS’ original fans with new ones who would deliver new longevity in a new decade.
The reader, the fan, truly does get pulled into the events as they unfold in the test. The writing brings the reader right into the fray, something missing from soulless music bios cranked out by so many publishing houses.
No all things Elder history are gloomy though. (Mercifully)
The creation of the album presented many inspiring moments. Lou Reed’s involvement in the songwriting is charted in depth. The former Velvet Undergroundsinger and Gene Simmons worked reasonably well together. Reed was a very unusual choice to help with crafting The Elder, and he did take his duties seriously. Reed, Simmons, and Stanley did want to create something intriguing and unique. Things do seem to go off the rails by over-complicated and over-producing the overly-ambitious album.
A Well Put Together Kisstory Book
Odyssey benefits from its well-structured design. A historical timeline of the planning, production, release, and collapse of Music From The Elder leads nicely into a section analyzing the actual content of the album.
A month-by-month timeline of the band’s activities during The Elder era puts forth important details about the album, interesting trivia (KISS fielded an offer a deal to contribute a song to the forgotten early 80’s filmThe Pirate Movie, Gene almost had a network TV show, and more), legal wranglings (KISS sued their label for back royalties at one point), and every chart, promotional, and sales-oriented stat an Elderfan could hope.
Interviews with people who knew the band members appear prominently in the text: friend Marty Cohen, art director Dennis Woloch, Bill Finneran, and more.
Personal insights add more perspective to the creation of the album. Was an off-the-cuff accidental insult by Cohen to Gene Simmons the impetus for the bass player to create “serious” music? Was a classic 1930’s movie an influence on the design of the cover? How many ideas were bandied about before coming up with a decision on the final cover design? The various included interviews touch on these things.
No one is going to reach the last page of Odyssey, close the covers, and not be newly knowledgeable about the album, the band, the era, and the industry.
The Actual Music From The Elder
What about the actual music? The Elder is the proverbial eclectic mixed bag that harkens back to the Wicked Lester days.
The opening cords of “The Oath” sound hard-rocking, and the song features a few nice riffs – and then things jump into something more akin to Pink Floyd-imitation riffs and then to “I Was Made For Loving You” inspired sound. “The Oath” is a weird mix, but the song does come off as a genre-crossing high-powered (albeit cluttered) original work. “The Oath” appropriately sets the stage for the all-over-the-map album to commence.
“Fanfare” is, in all honesty, laughable. The instrumental is a short segue to the next song, but the connection is disjointed and lacks the flow of Pink Floyd – The Wall. (Ironically, Elder producer Bon Ezrin handled the same duties for the legendary Pink Floyd double-album) “Fanfare” takes the listener to the very maligned song “Just a Boy,” a tune referred in the book as something that belongs “on Broadway.” Maybe so, but this is an underrated odd song with many excellent, un-KISS-like touches.
“Dark Light” brings some ominous menace and the much-needed Ace vocals and guitar riffs that move “The Spaceman” into horror-esque territory. The tone of the song comes lightened up a bit, which is unfortunate. The original version probably was more interesting and edgy.
“World Without Heroes” is Gene Simmons’ top contribution to the album. The weird ballad has many intriguing touches and may arguably be the best track on the LP. “World Without Heroes” would have fit perfectly on Gene’s 1978 solo LP. Or even the notorious Carnival of Souls CD of the 1990s.
“Odyssey” was a perfect song to borrow from the tracklist, but the song is laughably bad. Paul does sound ridiculous singing this off-off-off-way off-Broadway style show tune.
“I” finishes out the LP and is hard rock anthem excellence with a morality lesson. Gene gets a few lyrics that address his anger with band members’ substance abuse. Paul has great moments on this upbeat, inspiring song as well.
Music From The Elder is the quintessential 2.5 out of 5 stars work.
And Odyssey: The Definitive Examination of Music From The Elder rises to the level of a classic 5 out of 5 stars music history book. Ideally put together, Odysseyworks effectively as a serious examination of a musical work while still maintaining the classic music fanzine edge. Positively a must-have for Kiss fans, and Elder fans who admit it.