As the summer of ‘79 gave way to the fall, I entered high school. This was a weird time for me, and I’ve never figured out why. I guess I wanted to fly solo for a while.
Since ‘78, I’d been hanging with a fairly tight group. Larry, James, Tony, Earl, and me. There were a few others who ebbed and flowed, but the five of us were pretty tight. I’m not sure exactly when Tony showed up, but I’m pretty sure it was ‘78. Tony’s the kind of guy every girl wanted to sleep with and, as near as I can calculate, they probably still do. Hell, I’m as heterosexual as they come, but if I was stranded on island with that dude, I might just … nah, who am I kidding? Tony’d never sleep with me.
(Actually, he’s married to a great gal now and has several awesome kids. He’s living a sweet life and I couldn’t be prouder of and for him.)
For two solid years, the five of us built a very solid friendship. We’d broken more rules and laws than you could count, and all of us had been busted more than once, but we never gave up the others. If one of us went down, the powers that be never learned of the others’ involvement. Omerta, although we would’ve referred to it as being cool. I have stared down more principals, vice principals, and teachers, sat through countless days of detention .. and they did as well. We were always willing to take that bullet, and we never doubted our resolve. If Larry was eating one for the gang, we never questioned if he’d buckle. We knew he wouldn’t.
But for some reason, as I entered high school, I started distancing myself from them. I ventured out on my own and made several friends I otherwise would’ve never met. This went on for many months, probably most of our sophomore year. We’d still hang out on the weekends, but during the week, I intentionally went solo. This carried on for most of the year, but before the school year ended, I was back in the flow. The guys acted like I’d never been gone.
Motörhead released Ace of Spades. Talking Heads released Remain in Light. U2 released Boy. The Clash released Sandinista!. Siouxsie and the Banshees released Kaleidoscope. The Pretenders released their self-titled debut. Devo released Freedom of Choice. The Police released Zenyattà Mondatta. Adam and the Ants released Kings of the Wild Frontier.
And KISS released Unmasked.
True, the band was falling apart. Peter wanted out. Ace was considering his options. The writing for the original four was firmly written on the wall. Peter appeared in the video for Shandi, then was gone. Hell, the band didn’t even tour the US. They played one show, which introduced Eric Carr as their new drummer, then hit the international scene.
As such, the album didn’t perform well in the US. While it was certified gold, it was their first album to not hit platinum since Dressed to Kill, an album I still hadn’t heard at this point.
All in all, 1980 was a quiet year for KISS in the US, although the magazines were full of speculation regarding Peter’s replacement, Eric Carr. Eric was a true hard rock drummer and he was a great choice. He was humble, gracious, and fan friendly. Eric was a great human. As a drummer though, I was exceedingly jealous. If only I had an agent, this gig could’ve been mine … And so went my adolescent brain.
I liked the album, but I wasn’t blown away. Probably due to my widening social circle, my musical tastes were becoming more eclectic. Adam and The Ants were huge for me and Kings of the Wild Frontier changed how I thought about many things. Devo’s Freedom of Choice was great fun. The Police were just making their way onto my radar. Sadly, Motörhead was about seven years away. I couldn’t wrap my mind around Talking Heads and, even then, I thought U2 were pretentious. I thought The Clash were awesome, but I still didn’t understand The Sex Pistols. Punk was making it’s way mainstream, even in the boondocks of West Texas.
So with all that, Unmasked was unremarkable. The songs were decent, but nothing great. Nothing like Detroit Rock City, Calling Dr. Love, Shock Me, or Rocket Ride. Still, looking at the song list today, the songs come flooding back. I can hear every one in my head and, if you got enough alcohol in me, I’d probably try to sing them for you. At least the choruses.
I don’t remember anyone other than a close friend, three years my junior who lived down the block, discussing the album with me. We loved it for about a week, then we moved on. It was an easy thing to do. I was surrounded by so much other great music that a semi-failure from KISS didn’t phase me.
And the summer gave way to fall, and my junior year in high school. KISS released nothing and I didn’t notice. I was busy with Ozzy’s Blizzard of Oz and Diary of a Madman, Gary Numan’s Telekon, The B-52s’ Wild Planet, Blondie’s Autoamerican, The Human League’s Dare, The Police’s Ghost in the Machine, The Go-Go’s, Men at Work, Stray Cats, and Kim Wilde.
Yeah, some of those stretch into 1981, but so did I. And KISS had nothing until November ‘81 and Music From “The Elder”. It was my senior year. I remember playing it while I drove several sophomore and junior band members around town as they sold candy up and down the blocks. The unanimous decision was along the lines of It’s not a bad album, but that’s not KISS.
While I was hard pressed to disagree one one level, the surface level, the KISS IS ROCK level, on another level, I loved it. As a D&D-playing geek, this was the perfect background music. It told a story. It had depth. It was a comic book put to music. But I was in the minority and, when it came to KISS, I found my social circle growing smaller. Very few people agreed with me. I spent too much time defending this album and, more importantly, the band. Too much time explaining what can’t be explained. I mean, it’s music. Either you get it or you don’t. A jazz fusion fan is never going to convince me. More power to the jazz fusion fan, but I don’t get it and I don’t care. Music from “The Elder” was the beginning of my theory that you don’t pick the music you love, it picks you. Nobody wakes up one day and decides “Today I’m going to become a jazz fusion fan.” It doesn’t work that way. Music either moves you or it does not. You don’t get to decide what you love. It picks you.
And Music from “The Elder” moved me. It picked me. I loved it. MTV routinely played A World Without Heroes, which was also the first KISS video MTV ever aired. (Gene cries!) Just A Boy, Dark Light, The Oath, Escape From The Island, I, these are great songs and they’ve stood the test of time. This album sounds just as good today as it did in 1981. Better. And I defy you to play a decent game of D&D with this album as the soundtrack and not agree that it’s great.
But again, I was in the minority. This painted me as something of a fanatic. KISS now had two “losers” in a row, spread over a three year period. Sometimes being a fan is tough, and these were definitely lean years.
KISS barely toured the album. Ace disagreed with the direction from the beginning and severely limited his involvement. Although his face appeared on their next album, Creatures of the Night, this album was his last involvement prior to the reunion tour. Ace was, for all purposes, gone.
Around mid-1982, rumors spread of a new greatest hits album called Killers. I never saw it in any store, but I looked hard. My main interest was four unreleased songs, I’m A Legend Tonight, Down On Your Knees, Nowhere to Run and Partners in Crime. It’d be another 10 - 15 years before I added this one to my collection. Nowhere to Run was almost worth the wait.
All in all, this was hard time to be a KISS fan. But KISS was about to turn everything on it’s head with an album that returned them, with a vengeance, to their hard rock roots. And although the album didn’t set any sales records, it cemented their status for many years to come.