Kiss’s ‘Wow’ Album
By Paul Rigg
Following the commercial breakthrough of Alive! Kiss fans might have been expecting something similar for the band’s fourth studio album; but what they got was Destroyer (15 March 1976; Casablanca Records).
Vocalist Paul Stanley, lead guitarist Ace Frehley, bassist Gene Simmons and drummer Peter Criss decided to go with Canadian Bob Ezrin to produce something different, and the man who had worked with Alice Cooper, Lou Reed and Aerosmith, did not disappoint. Not only did he introduce the band to new sound effects, such as ‘screaming children, reversed drums, and a children's choir’ but he also added contributions by a full orchestra. The guitar parts, which largely excluded solos, were bolstered by piano sections and created a Phil Spector-like wall of sound effect. As if that was not change enough, the disciplinary-inclined Ezrin, exasperated with the group’s poor technical knowledge, often brought the whole process to a halt to teach the band some basic music theory. It has been said that it resembled a ‘musical boot camp’ but even the normally rebellious Simmons later acknowledged "It was exactly what we needed at the time."
The resulting record, with its famous comic-book hero album cover, initially received mixed reviews, but it grew in fame and stature, and soon the band were packing stadiums and embarking on extensive tours.
Nothing epitomises Kiss’s change of direction more than Peter Criss’s Beth, which was based on a ‘clingy girlfriend’ of one of the band. The piano and strings of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra were employed to back Criss’s raspy voice. Simmons and Stanley in particular disliked the song because it was not ‘typical Kiss’. “The rule was to put the weakest song, the song that had no chance of ever becoming anything, on the B side. So we released Detroit Rock City as the A side,” said Ezrin, and thought “Hell, let’s put Beth on the B side!” However, the song least likely to become a massive hit for Kiss, became one, and catapulted the band into superstardom.
The opening track Detroit Rock City also was innovative, as it began with an intro in which a news announcer tells the story of a fan driving to a Kiss concert, and crashing, before the band let rip. On a live version of the song at the Mandalay Bay Events Centre at Las Vegas Frehley can be seeing playing his 1973 Gibson Les Paul Deluxe.
“When I first wrote Detroit Rock City, it was just an ode to Detroit as a great rock city,” Stanley said. “But then I’d heard about someone who got hit by a car and killed right out in front of an arena where we were playing down south. It really struck me. So I turned the song into a story of … the disparity of wanting to celebrate life and it ending in your demise.”
Another heavy and anthemic song on the album is Shout it Out Loud, on which Frehley plays his signature Gibson Custom Shop Les Paul at a live 1996 gig, and which gave the band their first number one. God Of Thunder provided another single release for the band, which came to be known as ‘Simmons’ song’, because it fitted his persona better, even though it was written by Stanley. The genius Ezrin added ‘backwards drumming’ and ‘demonic voices’ - provided by his kids as they played with their walkie-talkies.
The rocking Flaming Youth represents a further change of direction and became another single. As Frehley was too busy playing cards the day of the recording, Ezrin asked Alice Cooper guitarist Dick Wagner to step in and play guitar on this track. The ballad Great Expectations, based on Beethoven, added another bizarre twist, as did ‘the real’ album closer Do You Love Me, which was later covered by Nirvana.
Destroyer cannot be described as the definitive Kiss album because it explored new effects and experimentation that took the band far away from ‘their sound’, but as drummer Peter Criss said “it was our ‘Wow!’ album”; and from that point on, the band never looked back.