Forgotten Vinyl – KISS: Music from "The Elder"

So what’s “The Elder” and why did Kiss make music from it? That’s a good question, and today it will be answered in detail beyond your wildest dreams. It’s a famous flop, born of hubris, hobbits and excess.

Back in 1980 I was in 4th grade, and Kiss was the greatest band in the universe. It didn’t help that my older cousins liked to dress up as Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley for Halloween, and had painted the Destroyer album cover on the wall in my grandmother’s spare room. I had Destroyer on cassette and played it incessantly, until it wore out and “God of Thunder” played extra-slow on the stretched tape. Me and my sister preferred it broken, because the giggling children in the song were creepier that way. I also had a single of “Detroit Rock City” that we played over and over, trying to make sense of it. We knew it had a car accident and dancing in it, but before the blessed interweb there was only the rumor that it was about a fan who died in a car accident on the way to a Kiss concert.
Unfortunately I got into Kiss right when their career took a “downturn,” or nosedived into the shitter because of the flood of Kiss dolls (had ’em, lost ’em, cried when I saw them on ebay) and other merchandise. They haven’t learned, either- you can be buried in a Kiss coffin, if you’re a diehard fan (rimshot). In 1980 they came out with Unmasked, trying to shed their glam rock image and get a broader fan base. I had that album and remember feeling gypped that there were no photos of them without make-up in there. The cover had a cheesy comic book story on it, and in the end, they really look like that under their masks! It was the equivalent of “Remember to Drink Your Ovaltine” in A Christmas Story for me.

It was only later that I discovered Kiss’s next album, quizzically titled Music from “The Elder.” It was a huge flop, apparently. They didn’t even tour for it. But I didn’t know that then- I was a fan of the Highlander movie, and David Eddings’ Belgariad Tolkien ripoff, I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, so when I found a fantasy concept album by Kiss I was totally into it. Looking back on it now, it seems like they watched the Ralph Bakshi movie of Lord of the Rings a few times, came up with some generic plotline about an ancient cabal who trains a hero every generation to fight whatever evil has risen in the world, and recorded some songs about it. Some of these songs are pretty damn good, but wow, as producer Bob Ezrin confessed, some are “the product of a serious cocaine addiction.” Ace Frehley left the band over the direction the group took, and while he may have never succeeded above his great single “Back in the New York Groove,” I will posit that the “Space Ace” was the one with his faculties in the finest order during this period. They wanted to make a movie using the proceeds of the album, and Christopher Makepeace (Rudy from Meatballs) was credited on the album. If this was anything like Lord of the Rings mixed with Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park, it would have been epic.
The gatefold sleeve of the album lacks any image of the band, so it’s sort of like The Black Album by Spinal Tap- you can’t immediately recognize it as a Kiss album. It looks more like a disc of Gregorian Chants than hard rock- it was a huge mistake to not go the Molly Hatchet route and put a Boris Vallejo cover on it. Just imagine the band done Vallejo style, swinging axes and breathing fire while riding a manticore. Now, that would have gotten your attention. Instead, you open the gatefold and see a big wooden table with a candle on it, and the inscrutable verses that read:

“When the earth was young, they were already old…”
Since the dawn of time, the Elder have watched silently
over a virgin world and all its creatures…
Now, they have assumed the form of mortals so that they
might walk amongst men and guide them.
The Elder are an ideal…They embody the wisdom of the
ages and the power of goodness and knowledge…
But the Elder were not alone in the beginning and are not
alone still…Another force has existed eternally…

In every place, in every time, an evil is loosed whose
sole purpose is to destroy all that is good. And in every
time, and every place, it is the task of the Elder to find
and train a warrior…a champion to conquer the evil.
As the looming clouds gather, the council of the Elder sits
at their ancient table under the sign of the Rose. Once again
they must combat the evil that is lurking in darkness and
spreading throughout the world.
They await the word from Morpheus, the caretaker, whether the
boy be deemed ready for the sacred rite of accession to the
Order of the Rose…and for the pronouncement of his sacred duty…

The odyssey begins…

Beyond being a crime against ellipses, it sounds like something your brother makes up in between bong hits after watching The Beastmaster or Dragonslayer. I think the horrible fantasy novel I was writing in junior year of high school was something along these lines (It is long since burned, before you ask). The lyrics vary from as bad as this to actually pretty damn good- they did begrudgingly include “The Oath” and “A World Without Heroes” on a box set. The ballads sound nothing like Kiss, but the rockers are some of their best stuff in my obviously biased opinion.

The album originally began with some medieval-sounding horns called “fanfare” which now comes after “The Oath.” According to wikipedia, this throws off the story of the album, but we never noticed. If it began with a processional fanfare, it would have scared off any fans that figured out it was a Kiss album, so it was the right choice.

Like a blade of a sword I am forged in flame
Fiery hot
Tempered steel fire-bright to the night I take
I fear not

The fanfare thing sounded all fantasy-ish back in the 80’s of course, when if you mentioned The Lord of the Rings, you meant the Bakshi movie or the Hobbit movie with “Yo ho, my lads! Down down to Goblin towwwn!” and the Keebleresque elves of Elfquest and their ilk.

Then you cut into “Just A Boy,” where Paul Stanley sounds like he lost his testicles. It’s not badly written, but it was a horrible choice to have the chorus sang in a castrato. There’s some nice guitar work in it, and it does draw you in to the fantasy tale quite well.

Who steers the ship through the stormy sea
If hope is lost then so are we
While some eyes search for one to guide us
Some are staring at me

They smartly stick a rocker between this and “Only You” (not the Platters song) called “A Dark Light.” Despite the lyrics of this one being vague and cryptic, it’s a good song and has a good guitar riff. However, you can tell that Kiss isn’t cut out for prog rock. Things really don’t pick up until the end of side 2. “Under the Rose” is a dark and dreary tune that sounds more like a funeral dirge than a Kiss song, and works well for the concept. If you play it alone, you’ll be horrified. I always thought the lyric was “Only you… are the magi” but I’ve been told it is “manchild,” which is even worse.

(sub rosa– get it??)

Side 2 starts off with the single “A World Without Heroes,” which Lou Reed (!!!) helped pen. It’s a bittersweet ballad and the best known song off the album, which would have worked as a quiet interlude as the camera panned over the landscape, or Christopher Makepeace was molested by orcs. It would be especially fitting, since he was the Dungeon Master in Mazes and Monsters.

A world without heroes
Is like a world without sun
You can’t look up to anyone
Without heroes
And a world without heroes
Is like a never ending race
Is like a time without a place
A pointless thing devoid of grace

Then we’re introduced to what must be the villain- Mr. Blackwell, which sounds suspiciously familiar…. was he named after the famously acerbic fashion critic? By the way, if the music links stop working, the entire album is on youtube, and accessible via this Mr. Blackwell link. With a chorus like:

You’re not well, Mr. Blackwell
And we can tell
You’re not well, Mr. Blackwell
Why don’t you go to hell

Sung back and forth between Gene Simmons as the evil Mr. Blackwell and the scorn of the chorus, it’s very silly but still a bit of fun.

Next is another instrumental called “Escape from the Island” that has sirens in it for some reason. It still sounds exciting and makes me want to escape from an island, chased by goblins in Kiss make-up, but I always wondered why a fantasy tale would have air raid klaxons.

9. Escape from the Island

Possibly then worst song on the album is “Odyssey,” which has the most pretentious and nonsensical lyrics I’ve read in a long time. I mean, even as a teenager they sounded dumb, and I was a really dumb teenager.

Through the luminescent night
On beams of neon light
You and I in wing-ged flight
As we cross the starry sea, powered by what we see
Now and then, the victory

Once upon not yet, long ago someday
Countless times we’ve met, met along the way

I won’t subject you to the awful verse about the stallion and the mare.

One of the best songs rounds out the album, simply titled “I,” with the rocking chorus, “I believe in me.” They even end the chorus with “I wanna rock ‘n roll all nite!” to throw a rockin’ bone to the fans.

The story ends with the boy being accepted into the fellowship (where have I heard that before) so maybe they imagined this as the first in a trilogy. That was rather ambitious of them, don’t you think?

The finale, with the raspy voiced Elders and Morpheus who sounds vaguely familiar…

It’s too bad it was such a failure, but you can sort of see where it overreached itself at nearly every step. I really enjoy listening to it, and not just for nostalgic reasons. As pretentious and vague as some of the songs are, you do get a hint at what the movie would be like. The back of the album says it would include Christopher Makepeace, Antony Parr and Robert Christie- all whom share being involved in a show called “The Littlest Hobo,” about an intelliget German shepherd walking th’ Earth and having adventures. Just imagine the fantasy epic they would have created.
The album doesn’t deserve to be on a “worst of all time” list, which it is, but it was certainly a disappointment for fans, especially after Unmasked, which if I recall, had a song called “She’s So (European)” on it. The band doesn’t disown the album, and I like the self-effacing quotes from Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley regarding it:

  • “I go on record saying it’s not a great KISS record but I think it’s a really great record.” – Paul Stanley, 1996
  • “As a KISS record I’d give it a zero. As a bad Genesis record, I’d give it a two.” – Gene Simmons
  • “We’ve done a lot of fuck me suck me songs and we thought we might like to go a slightly different route.” – Paul Stanley, 1982

That’s right up there with “Lick My Love Pump,” from Spinal Tap if you ask me. Pure classic. Whats even better, is I remember who introduced me to this album, which requires a careful dive into the shipwreck of my high school life. He was a rather insane Kiss fan, and is probably a four-star general in the Kiss Army now. He’s probably better known nowadays as Maul Stanley or C.C. Banana, and while I slap my forehead at the realization that I hung out with this guy, part of me rejoices that if I ever go to a class reunion, it doesn’t matter if everyone else in my class is a Captain of Industry, at least I’m not the C.C. Banana guy.

Though I’ve found out where the church they used for the album cover is on Park Avenue, and I might have to go take a photo of it. Just not in a banana costume.
If you want to experience this album at its fullest, find the vinyl on ebay like I did (yeah I sold my original ages ago) or get the CD off amazon: