Revisiting Kiss’ Masterpiece, ‘Destroyer’
After finally breaking through to the big time with 1975's Alive! LP, Kiss weren't about to go away quietly — but as they proved with their follow-up effort, they weren't going to play it safe either.
The band got down to work on what would become its fourth studio LP in the fall of 1975, settling into Electric Lady Studios in New York with producer Bob Ezrin. Already a major name due to his work with Alice Cooper, Ezrin exerted a level of authority and discipline that initially took the group by surprise — even if, as guitarist Paul Stanley later admitted, his uncompromising approach was exactly what they needed.
"Bob made a point of letting us know who was the boss," Stanley wrote in his memoir, Face the Music: A Life Exposed. "He wore a whistle around his neck and referred to us as 'campers.' He told us we didn't know anything — which was true."
Ezrin's dogged pursuit of the band's best possible sound led the members of Kiss to do a number of things differently, from following his lead through round-table songwriting sessions to bassist Gene Simmons putting up with the producer yelling in his face for cutting out of a take before being given permission.
Although Kiss had already shown a willingness to use sleight of hand to achieve results, infamously adding heavy in-studio overdubs to Alive!, Ezrin led them a step further. While he wasn't above coaching the band members through the songs in increments so he could stitch together suitable recordings, he also had no qualms about drafting replacement players, as he did when he called in guitarist Dick Wagner to sub for Ace Frehley.
Frehley, according to multiple reports, was habitually late or absent during the sessions, and as Stanley saw it, exhibited an overall lack of interest in meeting the higher standards they saw themselves as being beholden to after Alive! turned into a hit. Whatever the reasons, he was held out in favor of Wagner for emerging tracks like "Flaming Youth," the Simmons composition "Sweet Pain" and "Beth," a ballad brought to the band by drummer Peter Criss.
"If someone doesn’t turn up, the show must go on," Stanley told Guitar World years later. "You know, Ace has got his life under control these days, and I have great fun talking with him. But things were different back then. He was succumbing to the excesses of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle rather than taking advantage of its perks."
Even though the sessions broke down halfway through the album due to a contractual disagreement between Kiss and their label, Casablanca Records, work resumed early the following year at the Record Plant, and wrapped in February 1976. On March 15, fans heard the results in the form of the 10-track LP titled Destroyer.
As tended to be the case with Kiss early in their career, reviews were somewhat mixed, with Rolling Stone famously deriding Destroyer's "bloated ballads," "pedestrian drumming" and "lackluster performances," and Village Voice writer Robert Christgau, the self-styled "dean of American rock critics," targeting Ezrin for ladling "bombast and melodrama" onto a band that already had enough of both.
"They were really, really negative. One Kiss fan actually said that if he ever met me, he’d punch me in the nose on behalf of Kiss fans everywhere," laughed Ezrin later. "The core of the Kiss Army at the time was offended and angry, and particularly angry with me for having taken Kiss in a new direction."
Listen to Kiss' 'Detroit Rock City'
Of particular concern was "Beth," the track that eventually sent sales of the album into overdrive. Though it gave Kiss their first Top 10 hit, the song — which served as Destroyer's fourth single after sneaking out as the B-side to "Detroit Rock City" — added a softer side to the group's theatrically aggressive image. As countless hard rock groups would later discover, courting radio play with a ballad can often yield impressive dividends, but it can also be a risky move in terms of an act's credibility with its hardcore fans.
"'Beth' wasn’t an afterthought. It’s a great song, and was part of the record. But there were other songs on that record that I felt were really important songs," said Ezrin. "And thank God 'Beth' got noticed, but I thought 'Detroit Rock City' was a very important song."
Destroyer went on to become Kiss' first platinum-selling studio album, but the backlash — and slow sales — soured the relationship between the band and Ezrin, who wouldn't work with them again until 1981's Music From "The Elder" LP. While Destroyer has more than earned its place among the group's better records, Simmons later looked back with understanding on the fan base's initial lack of enthusiasm.
"We got big success - raw, mistakes, untuned guitars and all. Then we decided to do an arranged album with Bob Ezrin and do a ballad with a string quartet with kids singing on it," he told MusicRadar. "If you were a Kiss fan, I’d understand why you were angry. Yet it all comes down to songs — either the songs connect with the DNA of a band, or they don’t."
That being said, Simmons stood by Destroyer, insisting they made the right move by immediately proving that Alive! didn't represent the full scope of their ambitions. "A band should have the backbone of a wild animal," he argued. "What they do is take risks. They pee on the ground and say, 'This is my territory.'"
Their territory for the rest of the decade — and much of the ensuing 40 years — was the Top 40, where they'd send a string of bestselling LPs in Alive! and Destroyer's wake. Before 1976 ended, they'd release yet another platinum-selling hit album, Rock and Roll Over, cementing their status as one of the decade's biggest rock bands — even if, as Simmons readily admitted, Kiss' fame had as much to do with the zeitgeist and their image as it did with the music.
"We're not a great band," Simmons shrugged to Rolling Stone the following year. "The musicianship is average, maybe even below, but in a year we're going to be the biggest band in the world. Two hundred million Americans out there don't appreciate subtleties. They want to be sledgehammered over the head with clear issues and no pussyfooting. Nobody hides behind any pseudointellectualism."