44 Years Ago: KISS Make the Leap on ‘Destroyer’
One afternoon in 1975, Alice Cooper’s producer Bob Ezrin was heading up the stairs to do an interview with City TV in Toronto, Ontario at the same time as the members of KISS, who had just performed for a the program, were coming down the stairs. Ezrin introduced himself to the face-painted musicians and before walking the rest of the way up the stairs he said, “If you ever need any help, call me.” Less than three months later, KISS’ manager Bill Aucoin rang up Ezrin to ask him if he was interested in working with the band on its fourth studio album. That record, Destroyer, came out on March 14, 1976 and changed the face of KISS forever.
With the help of Ezrin, KISS were transformed from a simple, bruising rock group into a more eclectic stadium band capable of drawing a broader, but equally ravenous following. Ezrin first became interested in KISS around the time the band released Dressed to Kill on March 19, 1975.
“I saw them play at an arena in Ann Arbor, Mich. and the place was only half full, but everybody in the joint was on their feet from the time the band started until the show was over,” Ezrin told me in 2011. “The one thing I noticed from the show, aside from the fact that each and every one knew the words for every song and were all singing along, was that they were all teenage boys. There were hardly any girls in the audience. And I thought, ‘This is an opportunity. If they could just get to the girls this would be the biggest band in the world.’”
While KISS were pleased to be working with Ezrin, they were initially skeptical about altering their sound in any way, shape or form. However, after meeting with the producer during pre-production, they realized that his experience and intuition were just what they needed to go from rock stars to celebrities.
“They really wanted to be a tough, rugged band,” Ezrin said. “They liked the idea of being the bad guys and I told them, ‘Look, you can still be the bad guys, but let’s be like Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. When Brando played the leader of the motorcycle gang he was dangerous, scary, and every mother’s nightmare, yet underneath it all there was this certain sensitivity and beauty that made him attractive. Every girl in the world wanted to mother, nurture, and fuck him.’ They related to that and from that point on they were pretty open to all of my ideas.”
Ezrin co-wrote seven of the nine songs on Destroyer and took control of the sessions from the start. KISS started recording basic tracks from Sept. 3 to 6, 1975, at Electric Lady Studios in New York City between the end of the Dressed to Kill tour and the beginning of the tour for Alive! They recorded the rest of the album in January 1976. Along the way, they let Ezrin man the ship. In addition to providing unconventional songwriting ideas, Ezrin graced the album with colorful embellishments. There were narrative sound effects (“Detroit Rock City”), production frills and children background vocalists (“God of Thunder”) and orchestral arrangements (“Great Expectations,” “Beth”). Also, Ezrin compelled KISS to be on their “A” game, razzing the band members when they weren’t making the grade and forcing them to repeat their parts until they nailed them. He even replaced guitarist Ace Frehley with Alice Cooper guitarist Dick Wagner for “Flaming Youth,” “Sweet Pain” and the acoustic guitars on “Beth.”
"Clearly Ace wasn’t cutting it, but really, we didn’t expect him to ride us like that,” bassist and vocalist Gene Simmons said. "But the results speak for themselves. You can’t argue with success and people know quality when they hear it.”
The opening track “Detroit Rock City” still stands out as an album highlight, not only because of its surging rhythm, abrupt guitar riffs, and chant-along vocals, but because of its 90-second-long concept rock-esque intro; the segments features a family at a kitchen table and a TV announcer in the background reporting about a youth who died in a car crash. The sequence ends with the sound of a car door closing and the song concludes with the sound of squealing tires and an automobile collision.
“That’s one of the songs I’m most proud of having written,” guitarist and vocalist Paul Stanley said. “’Detroit Rock City’ is a fleshed out song that’s dramatic and big. It’s the difference between a regular movie and IMAX. Between the music and the lyrics it broadens the scope of the presentation and it’s still pretty spectacular.”
“It showed more of a theatrical side to KISS,” added Ezrin. “It was a real story and Paul comes off very plaintively and shows a lot of heart and real emotion so the girls loved it.”
Another song with appeal for the ladies was drummer Peter Criss’ ballad "Beth," which was originally the b-side of the “Detroit Rock City” single. “It showed that we weren’t just one thing,” Simmons said. “We could do anything we liked and our fans loved it all and appreciated us for stretching out boundaries like that.”
Perhaps Simmons explanation of the song is a small example of revisionist history. “When ‘Beth’ first came in it was called ‘Beck,’ and it was upbeat and much more of a ‘f--- you' song,” recalled Ezrin. ‘I’m not coming home. It’s me and the boys. The boys understand me and I’m gonna hang with the boys.’ I took it home and rewrote it a bit, turning it into more of a ballad and making it more heartfelt and vulnerable.”
Ezrin insists KISS weren’t happy with the original changes he made and wanted “Beth” to remain up-tempo. Then the producer explained that it was “politically necessary” for Criss to have a song on the record, and since he wrote the skeleton of the song it made sense to use it on the record.
“That was his song, so it was tolerated,” Ezrin said. “But Peter sang the hell out of it and we found Peter’s true heart. Even though he was this street kid from Canarsie, Brooklyn, he was a soft and gentle guy inside. So he was completely believable and the girls fell in love with him.”
The week Destroyer was released it reached No. 31 on the Billboard album chart. KISS’ label, Casablanca, released four singles from the record. The first was the anthem “Shout It Out Loud,” which hit radio two weeks before Destroyer came out and peaked at No. 31 on the Billboard singles chart, helping to propel the record to gold sales on April 22, 1976.
Figuring it would be the beginning of greater things to come, the label released “Flaming Youth,” which only reached No. 74 and “Detroit Rock City,” which surprisingly didn’t make the chart all. Then, in late August 1976 KISS dropped the album’s fourth single “Beth,” which climbed to No. 7 and gave the record new traction, boosting it to platinum on Nov. 11. Destroyer went double platinum on Sept. 9, 2011.
To honor the 35th anniversary of the album Ezrin, Simmons and Stanley remixed, revised and re-released Destroyer. The producer obtained the original 16-track analog master tapes and had them converted into digital files. The three artists tweaked the sound of the mix, added extra vocals to “Detroit Rock City” and “Beth” and replaced Wagner’s solo on “Sweet Pain” with the one guitarist Ace Frehley originally had tracked. The version with Wagner was included as a bonus track. KISS released Destroyer: Resurrected on Aug. 21, 2012 and the album debuted at No. 11 on the Billboard album chart, proving there was still fresh life in the old beast.
To date, numerous musicians including White Zombie, Death, Entombed, The Melvins, Iced Earth, No Use For A Name, Nirvana, Girlschool and others have released covers of songs from Destroyer. In addition, Peter Criss, seeking an opportunity to beat a living horse, recorded a new version of "Beth" for his 1994 solo album Cat #1.
Loudwire contributor Jon Wiederhorn is the author of Raising Hell: Backstage Tales From the Lives of Metal Legends, co-author of Louder Than Hell: The Definitive Oral History of Metal, as well as the co-author of Scott Ian’s autobiography, I’m the Man: The Story of That Guy From Anthrax, and Al Jourgensen’s autobiography, Ministry: The Lost Gospels According to Al Jourgensen and the Agnostic Front book My Riot! Grit, Guts and Glory.
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