How Kiss Refused to Play It Safe With ‘Destroyer’
Kiss weren't about to go away quietly after finally breaking through to the big time with 1975's Alive! LP. As they proved with their follow-up effort, Kiss also weren't going to play it safe.
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.
Still, as Paul Stanley later admitted, his uncompromising approach was exactly what Kiss 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 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 Gene Simmons putting up with the producer yelling in his face for cutting out of a take before being given permission.
Kiss had already shown a willingness to use sleight of hand to achieve results – for instance, infamously adding heavy in-studio overdubs to Alive! – but Ezrin led them a step further. He wasn't above coaching them 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 was habitually late or absent during the sessions, according to multiple reports. As Stanley saw it, he also 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, Frehley 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.
Listen to Kiss Perform 'Detroit Rock City'
"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."
Sessions broke down halfway through the album, due to a contractual disagreement between Kiss and their label, Casablanca Records. But 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: Rolling Stone famously deriding Destroyer's "bloated ballads," "pedestrian drumming" and "lackluster performances." 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," Ezrin later said, with a laugh. "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."
Of particular concern was "Beth," the track that eventually sent sales of the album into overdrive. It served as Destroyer's fourth single after sneaking out as the B-side to "Detroit Rock City," then gave Kiss their first Top 10 hit. But "Beth" 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," Ezrin said. "And thank God 'Beth' got noticed, but I thought 'Detroit Rock City' was a very important song."
Listen to Kiss Perform 'Beth'
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. He wouldn't work with Kiss again until 1981's Music From 'The Elder' LP.
Destroyer has since earned its place among the group's better records, but Simmons came to understand 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."
Simmons insisted they made the right move by immediately proving that Alive! didn't represent the full scope of Kiss' 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.'"
The Top 40 often remained their territory, as they'd send a string of bestselling LPs in Alive! and Destroyer's wake. In fact, Kiss released yet another platinum-selling hit album before 1976 ended: Rock and Roll Over cemented their status as one of the decade's biggest rock bands — even if, as Simmons readily admitted, their 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."
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