The Ace and Peter (No) Show

KISS was my generation’s initiation into rock music. My own infatuation with KISS was brief but intense. ‘Rock and Roll Over’ was the first record I ever bought, and the first concert I ever attended was KISS in Providence, RI on Feb 2nd, 1978. ‘She’ was the first song I ever learned to play on the guitar. If I’m honest, I’d have to admit that the term ‘hero worship’ might be appropriate in my case. That said, I lost interest in KISS after ‘Alive II’, mainly because I could sense that there was suddenly something …not right… about KISS, but also because I became aware of so many bands that put out better records than the four solo albums, or ‘Dynasty’. And then ‘Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park’ happened… Even after moving on, I still have a deep love of their early records and fond memories of their impact on my life.

Today, as an adult, and after reflecting on the KISS phenomenon brings up many interesting questions. What does it mean to be a member of a band? What are a band member’s responsibilities? What are a band’s responsibilities to its fans?

In many cases, especially in bands that have reached a certain level of financial success, being a member of a band means being a member of a corporation, or could perhaps include entering into a legal partnership. Cheap Trick became a ‘corporation’ decades ago, and when drummer Bun E. Carlos stepped down from active duty six years ago, he still retained the right to an equal vote in band business, and still earns a 1/4 share of band revenue, even though the band replaced him with another drummer. This was all according to the charter the band members signed back in the ’70s. So sometimes band membership is a complex thing; sometimes exiting a band is not as simple as ‘quitting’ or getting ‘fired’.

In KISS’s case, here was a band who spent years building a façade made of clearly-defined characters, with the band members codified into instantly-recognizable symbols; once the ‘brand’ had been firmly established in popular culture, the band was reluctant to mess with it. But KISS, like Cheap Trick, had become a corporation after the success of ‘Destroyer’, with all four members sharing in the revenue equally and having equal voting power on major band decisions… including decisions relating to terminating a shareholder’s membership. This forced KISS into some difficult situations, when certain band members’ functionality became questionable… starting right around the ‘Alive II’ album.

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KISS’s first three records are the real deal: authentic hard rock albums made by four so-so musicians with a shared vision, forced to crank out 3 records in 13 months, with a bunch of classic songs being the result. Their fourth album, ‘Destroyer’, is an anomaly. It’s really a Bob Ezrin album, and fits in with his own discography better than it fits into Kiss’s. Ezrin co-wrote almost all of the songs, and, as with all Ezrin productions, if you can’t deliver, he’ll find someone who can. Hence the un-credited appearance of Ezrin’s go-to ghost guitarist, Dick Wagner. Admirably, after ‘Destroyer’, KISS again kept it ‘real’ on their next 2 albums, ‘Rock and Roll Over’ and ‘Love Gun’. After that, KISS’s corporate charter would begin to accommodate the band members’ every whim and dysfunction, while the public face of the band remained intact.

One could say that Ace Frehley’s solo career started right after he recorded his lead vocal for ‘Shock Me’ in 1977. On everything he recorded with KISS after that, he sang the lead vocals, and played all the guitars and most of the bass. It was a unique arrangement, and one that KISS’s corporate charter apparently allowed. And so on the studio side of KISS’s ‘Alive II’ album, the only song Ace appears on is his ‘Rocket Ride’. This, in turn, implies that charter also allowed for session musicians to ‘ghost’ for the Spaceman, as Bob Kulick plays the solos on the rest of the material, uncredited.

This would be Ace’s modus operandi with KISS’s next three records. Understandably, he sang and played all the guitars on his solo album, but when KISS reconvened for the ‘Dynasty’ album, Ace contributed 3 songs, each recorded separately from the band in his home studio and with solo album session man Anton Fig on drums. Same with ‘Unmasked’.

The Space Ace was absent completely from the sessions for ‘Music from “The Elder”, as Frehley refused to travel to Toronto to work with Bob Ezrin. Ace mailed his recordings to Ezrin, who rejected most of what he heard. Ace went ‘missing’ when the album was completed, and KISS decided not to tour the album. Ace says in his book that he quit the band in 1982, after recording sessions for ‘Elder’ wrapped, but perhaps ‘retired from active duty’ descries it better. KISS would continue to feature him on the covers of albums that he had absolutely nothing to do with for the next few years.

Four new studio recordings appeared on the ‘Killers’ collection, and there was Ace on the cover… but once again an uncredited Bob Kulick played lead guitar on each song. The ‘Creatures of the Night’ album was written and recorded without Frehley’s involvement, but Ace’s face is on the original cover… AND he appeared in the ‘I Love it Loud’ video, perpetuating the lie that all was well in KISSville. Only when KISS planned to hit the road in support of ‘Creatures’ and Frehley declined to participate, were KISS finally forced to announce that Ace had spaced out… over a year after he ‘quit’.

Peter Criss contributed even less. The jury is still out as to whether it’s him playing on Side Four of Alive II, so we’ll leave that one alone, but the sum total of the Cat Man’s contributions to KISS’s post-solo album output is one song: ‘Dirty Livin’ from the ‘Dynasty’ album. Anton Fig played on the rest of the album and on ALL of ‘Unmasked’. Criss stepped off the KISS merry-go-round after the Dynasty tour, sat out ‘Unmasked’ completely, and was (unanimously) finally voted out of the band just before filming a video of the song ‘Shandi’, a song he didn’t play on from an album he had nothing to do with.

KISS’s records at this point should have come with labels: “WARNING: MAY CONTAIN LESS THAN 75% KISS”. The truth is, this band had broken up along time ago. But The KISS Army didn’t need to know that… Here’s a section of Gene Simmons’ biography that explains why the band hid his Ace and Peter’s status from the world for as long as they did:

“We tried to move things along as smoothly as possible. We put (Ace’s) face on the cover and pretended that he played on the album… We were concerned that our fans wouldn’t be able to deal with the departures of two members… It would be devastating to them and to their idea of us.”

Of course, what this boils down to is a fear of line-up changes damaging the brand and having a negative impact on cash flow. To be fair, Ace and Peter both played along too, supporting the sham for years, no doubt also concerned about the gravy train drying up. But continuing the charade didn’t ensure continued success; ‘Unmasked’ tanked even with Criss’ name and face on the cover, as did ‘Elder’ and ‘Creatures’, both sporting Ace’s face and name. The strategy of deception didn’t work. The fraud the band had been perpetrating on its fans had failed.

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KISS’ next move was to totally re-invent themselves by taking the make-up off. But Frehley and Criss remained one-quarter shareholders; Frehley continued to earn his share right up through the ‘Lick it Up’ and ‘Animalize’ albums, and was eventually bought out. Criss’s deal lasted even longer. Did Frehley and Criss deserve to earn their one quarter shares after their material contributions to the corporation ceased? Maybe. Their initial work helped make KISS a pop culture phenomenon, a brand that continues to thrive (and earn) to this day. But small wonder that there’s always been considerable animosity between the Stanley/Simmons and Criss/Frehley camps; one half of the ‘band’ consistently contributed more than the other, yet all four original ‘members’ received an equal share of corporate earnings.

Fast-forward to 1996 and the inevitable ‘Classic KISS’ reunion. No doubt new contracts were signed by Frehley and Criss, but otherwise nothing much had changed. After a monumentally successful reunion tour, the inevitable reunion album was recorded… aaaand session drummer Kevin Valentine plays drums on every song on ‘Psycho Circus’ except ‘Into the Void’. In fact, ‘Void’ has the distinction of being the only song on ‘Circus’ on which all four members of KISS perform. Ace plays three solos on the album, and Bruce Kulick and Tommy Thayer play all the rest. ‘Psycho Circus’ was marketed as the first studio album by the band’s original lineup since 1979’s ‘Dynasty’; with Ace only appearing on 3 tracks and Peter on only one, the ‘Dynasty’ comparison was perhaps more apt than intended.

Having a discussion about the ethics of KISS is a little silly, I know. This part of their history makes more sense when you stop thinking about KISS as a band and start thinking of them as a business. But didn’t that business have a responsibility to its customers? Didn’t KISS fans deserve the truth from their heroes? Did the very fans that supported this commercial juggernaut deserve to have their loyalty exploited?

You Wanted the Best, But Did You Get It? Up until 1978, sure; after that, buyer beware.

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Ninety Dollar Babies Get Their Wings

Ever ponder the giant leap from the weed-fueled garage band jam of Aerosmith’s 1973 debut and the polished, mature hard rock statement that is the ’74 follow-up, ‘Get Your Wings’? What happened? Was it the change in producers? ‘Aerosmith’ wasn’t so much produced as merely recorded, but on GYW, Jack Douglas polished the band’s sound and performances to the perfect mid-70s hard rock sheen. He brought in lots of help; the famed Brecker Brothers formed the core of a horn section for the GYW sessions, and songwriter/keyboardist Ray Colcord (who, as Columbia Records A&R, signed Aerosmith in 1972) added keys. But Aerosmith played Guitar music with a capitol G, and apparently Douglas found the Boston band’s two axemen somewhat lacking…

The executive producer on ‘Get Your Wings’ was Bob Ezrin. Ezrin was on a hot streak, having produced Alice Cooper’s first four albums for Warner Brothers, with the fourth, ‘Billion Dollar Babies’, having topped the Billboard charts at Numero Uno in 1973. In a few short years, Ezrin had transformed Alice Cooper the band, a psychedelic anti-music nightmare, into hard rock champions, with several hit singles and a Number 1 album. Anyone who has heard AC’s two pre-Ezrin albums for Straight Records knows exactly the caliber of miracle Ezrin performed with this bunch of wierdos. So then how was Ezrin able to take what was arguably the world’s worst band and morph them into chart-topping pop stars?

The common denominators to the amazing transformations of both Alice Cooper and Aerosmith were session guitarists Steve Hunter and Dick Wagner. Yes, AC had already had a hit in 1970 with ‘I’m Eighteen’, but by ’73, alcoholism had rendered guitarist Glen Buxton pretty much useless, and Ezrin needed to bring in session musicians to bolster the playing on BDB. It was a tactic Ezrin had used before; Rick Derringer played lead guitar on ‘Under My Wheels’ from ‘Killer’, and Wagner had played the outstanding solo on ‘My Stars’ from the ‘School’s Out’ album. Ezrin had a vision for Alice Cooper’s music, and Wagner and guitarist Steve Hunter were called in to work on ‘Billion Dollar Babies’. They were each paid $90 per song.

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A hundred-or-so gigs had no doubt honed Aerosmith’s chops between first and second albums, and the writing had progressed nicely as well, but in the studio, Jack Douglas still found them wanting. Douglas was an engineer on ‘BDB’, and had worked with Hunter & Wagner before hooking up with ‘Smith, so when the sessions ran into guitar trouble, both men got the call. As far as the specific reason that session players were utilized for GYW, Douglas himself has never addressed the issue, nor have the members of Aerosmith, who neither confirm nor deny what has been an ‘open secret’ for decades. Wagner has said that he was called in because “Obviously for some reason he (Joe Perry) wasn’t there to do it and I never really questioned it.” Whatever the reason, the end result is the guitars on GTW are played with a command and authority that’s utterly absent on the band’s first album.

So: Who are these guys, anyway? Both natives of the Detroit area, H&W cut their teeth in bands on the club circuit; Hunter with Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, and Wagner with his own band, The Frost. Wagner then formed Ursa Major, who at one point included Billy Joel on keyboards, and cut one album for RCA (Note: I highly recommend this album!). After the guitarist worked on ‘School’s Out’ in ’72, Ezrin produced Lou Reed’s ‘Berlin’, and Wagner was invited put together a band for the European ‘Berlin’ tour. Wagner recruited Colcord and Steve Hunter for the touring band, which appeared on Lou Reed’s ‘Rock n Roll Animal’ live album. Both guitarists are given full credit for their contributions. Which brings us back to ‘Billion Dollar Babies’ in ’73 and ‘Get Your Wings’ in ’74.

Neither guitarist was credited on BDB or GYW, but the truth about who played what on these two records has gradually established itself over the years. I’m sorry to report that it’s now an acknowledged fact that Steve Hunter played the solos on the first half of Aerosmith’s version of ‘Train Kept a’Rollin’… And Dick Wagner played the solos on the second (‘live’) half. So yes, boys and girls, it’s true: that ain’t Perry or Whitford you’ve been air guitaring to for 40 years. Perry and Whitford would obviously quickly evolved into great guitarists in their own right, but the soloing on this song formed the basis of their reputations as players when I was a kid… Wagner also played the solo in ‘Same Old Song and Dance’. This is as yet unconfirmed, but take a close listen to ‘Spaced’, specifically those lightning-fast neo-classical ascending/descending flourishes near the end; methinks that’s either H or W as well.

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Wagner plays uncredited guitar all over ‘Billion Dollar Babies’, but also co-wrote ‘I Love the Dead’, and was not credited. Hunter played uncredited on the title track, ‘Hello, Hurray’, ‘Raped and Freezin’, ‘Sick Things’, and ‘Generation Landslide’ (so basically, the entire record). Wagner would also play on AC’s next album, ‘Muscle of Love’, and when Alice went solo, Wagner would receive official credit for his work on all subsequent AC albums. Wagner would, in fact, become a valued member of the Cooper camp as a songwriter; the Cooper-Wagner songwriting team would write 7 out of 9 of Cooper’s Top 10 hit singles. Hopefully his pay rate went up a bit.

Wagner continued working with Alice as a songwriter and guitarist until 1983’s ‘DaDa’. He published an autobiography called ‘Not Only Women Bleed’, and if you’re interested in recording session minutiae and behind the scenes dirt, it’s essential. Sadly, we lost Dick Wagner in July of 2014 after several years of major health issues. Steve Hunter’s most notable session outside of the Reed/Cooper/Aerosmith triangle was for Peter Gabriel’s ‘Solsbury Hill’. Hunter is still playing and recording, and released an album called ‘The Manhattan Blues Project’ in 2011, which featured several famous guests… including Aerosmith’s Joe Perry!

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There are two places to go to hear the Hunter & Wagner duo playing together in their prime: Lou Reed’s ‘Rock n Roll Animal’ live album, and the 1975 Alice Cooper ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ TV Special, which features an awesome guitar duel between the two, is out there on DVD. The ‘Nightmare’ special is interesting, because it highlights a key Reed/Cooper connection: The band assembled by Wagner and heard on Reed’s ‘RnR Animal’ album consisted of Hunter, Wagner, Ray Colcord, and Prakash John and Pentti Glan, and eventually became Alice Cooper’s backing band for the ‘Welcome to my Nightmare’ album, tour, and TV special.

So: There’s your answer to a trivia question no one will ever ask… Q: What do Lou Reed, Alice Cooper, and Aerosmith all have in common? A: Hunter & Wagner.

And Ray Colcord.

Alice in La-La Land

One of the measures of a great band is how good their bad albums are. Bad records by great artists fascinate me. I believe that you can never really understand an artist or his works unless you can understand their failures. Diver Down, Point of Entry, Technical Ecstasy, Presence, Stormbringer… Sure, we still love these records dearly, but aren’t they failures? And don’t we somehow love them even more because of it? The weaker records in a band’s canon can sometimes be their most interesting works. I listen to these records with an intense curiosity: What happened here? Why were these choices made? What’s the back story? Where does this fit into the big picture?

I’ve just spent some time with the albums released during what Alice Cooper refers to as his ‘blackout period’: ‘Special Forces’, ‘Zipper Catches Skin’, and ‘DaDa’. These 3 records are universally dismissed as terrible by all but the most hardcore Alice fans, were commercial disasters, and are completely ignored by Alice himself. A casual listen reveals why. But I don’t do the ‘casual listen’; I’ve dug deep into this much maligned music so you don’t have to, and I’m now ready to share my findings. Submitted for your approval: Alice Cooper’s Twilight Zone.

Our journey should probably begin with Alice Cooper’s 1980 effort ‘Flush the Fashion’. A little background: After a well-received concept album about his time in alcohol rehab and newfound sobriety (‘From the Inside’), Alice crashed and burned yet again, this time with a serious cocaine addiction. As the coke-addled Cooper entered the 80s, he threw away his 70s persona, ended his association with producer Bob Ezrin, and re-worked his sound (and look) completely. Many 70s icons adapted their styles as they entered the 80’s, but Alice’s update was so drastic that many fans walked away.

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Nonetheless, 1980’s ‘Flush the Fashion’ became Alice’s highest-charting album in several years (#44), and set Coop on a course he would follow through his next few records. Alice’s new musical landscape featured short, punchy tunes, minimalist guitars, new wave synths, and whacked-out subject matter. Producer Roy Thomas Baker (The Cars, Queen) buffed it all to a hi-gloss finish, placing the record squarely in the early 80s. If you accept all the brave new sounds, Side One starts off strong. A cover of The Music Machine’s 1966 hit ‘Talk Talk’ segues into the album’s Top 40 single ‘Clones (We’re All)’. This, in turn, segues into one of Alice’s strongest songs in years, ‘Pain’. ‘Clones’ works; it’s catchy, melodic, and weird enough work within Alice’s established oeuvre. ‘Pain’ would have fit in on any of Alice’s previous albums, and can arguably be called Alice’s last great song. After these two tunes, however, the record is over. FtF continues with some slick/funny/upbeat material that, unfortunately, fails to make any impact, and the whole shebang winds up in less than half an hour.

So Alice Cooper’s transformation from hard rock horror movie menace to new wave sci-fi pirate was at least a moderate success. But his next move, 1981’s ‘Special Forces,’ has got to be Alice Cooper’s artistic rock bottom. Its 34 minute running time is packed with filler. ‘Who Do You Think We Are’ begins the record with a punkish snarl, but the strongest track here is another 60s cover, this time of Love’s ‘Seven and Seven Is’. A completely useless (not to mention fake) ‘live’ version of ‘Generation Landslide’ closes out Side One. ‘Skeletons in the Closet’ wouldn’t be out of place on a kids Halloween party CD, it’s just plain awful. Once again Alice is only able to cough up two decent songs; the rest of the record is throwaway junk. I know there are fans of this album, as maybe this or FtF served as their entry point into the music of Alice Cooper, but I’m so sorry; this record is Bad.

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Alice claims he has no recollection of recording or touring SF, as he was freebasing cocaine at the time. He also made two TV appearances in support of Special Forces. The first was on the Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder; the second, on a French TV special. This video is difficult to watch, as Alice looks seriously ill, emaciated and frail. The infamous shock rocker’s newly adopted look is truly disturbing, not because of the makeup or the outfit but because we are witnessing a man in the process of destroying himself on stage. We watched Alice wasting away, after several well-publicized rehab attempts, knowing he was likely killing himself, and we expected a good record?

For Alice’s second ‘blackout’ record, ‘Zipper Catches Skin’, the Coop invited several friends to bolster the sessions. Dick Wagner, a cornerstone of Alice’s 70s successes, was brought in to co-write songs and play guitar. John Nitzinger (ex-Bloodrock lyricist) stayed on after the ‘Special Forces’ tour to co-write and also add guitar. Patty Donahue of The Waitresses (remember ‘I Know What Boys Like’, or the inescapable ‘Christmas Wrapping’?) added vocals to ‘I Like Girls’. Jan Uvena and Mike Pinera of late-period Iron Butterfly (Uvena later played drums for 80’s metallers Alcatrazz) added drums and guitar, respectively. Cooper also recorded a song written by Lalo Schiffrin, a multiple Grammy winner and composer of countless notable movie scores; Alice’s recording of Schiffrin’s ‘I am the Future’ was featured in the 1982 film ‘Class of 1984’ and was Zipper’s first single. But with all the bells and whistles, did the record work?

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The lyrics did. Bob Dylan himself once said “I think Alice Cooper is an overlooked songwriter” in Rolling Stone magazine (specifically mentioning ‘Generation Landslide’), and even after years of hard drinking and drugging, the lyrics on ZCS shine. ‘Zorro’s Ascent’ references the original Johnston McCulley books rather than their Hollywood adaptations, while ‘Adaptable (Anything for You)’ is outright hilarious. Sometimes the overt silliness of the lyrics moves the songs into Weird Al Yankovic/Dr. Demento territory (“I’m Alive (That Was the Day My Dead Pet Returned to Save My Life)” is about exactly what it says…), but the mean-spirited misogyny woven throughout the ‘I Like Girls/Remarkably Insincere’ pairing or the punk sarcasm at the core of ‘I Better be Good’ saves the material from sliding into outright comedy.

Guitarist Dick Wagner said ‘Zipper Catches Skin’ “…was a drug induced nightmare in itself. I wont go into details… It’s all too painful to re-tell. I wrote a lot of the songs with Cooper and played some guitar but I left before the album was finished and felt glad to go home.” Somehow, though, a decent-enough record emerged from the dysfunction. The extra guitars bring it, in fact the entire ‘band’ rocks, and with the exception of the soundtrack tune, the songs are solid from beginning to end. Okay, maybe ‘No Baloney Homo Sapiens’ is a missed opportunity, and the neat and tidy production mutes the hard edges a bit, but ‘Zipper’ is worth a visit if you passed on it in 1982. Most did; virtually no one heard this record, as the world had finally turned away from the car-wreck after ‘Special Forces’ and left Alice behind.

After Zipper failed to intrude upon the charts (even after airing a TV spot in some territories to promote it; check it out on Youtube), Warners requested one final record from Alice to close out his contract. Wagner and Ezrin felt it may be their last opportunity to work with Alice, but found Cooper at death’s door, holed up in his Arizona home and unwilling to even consider working on a record. Wagner eventually persuaded Alice to start writing with him, and the result is a revelation.

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‘DaDa’ (1983) is an amazing little record. An exploration of the self set to electronic instruments; equal parts Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’ and Gary Numan’s ‘The Pleasure Principle’. Here we follow one of Alice’s recurring characters (‘Sonny’, or Alice himself) into a maze of introspection and confession. Welcome to his nightmare: I’m no psychotherapist but it’s pretty clear to me that Alice’s demons derived from a severely dysfunctional family history. Just sayin’. Both ‘Dyslexia’ and ‘I Love America’ are a riot, and Alice reveals his tragic physical and mental state in album closer ‘Pass the Gun Around’, a chilling and utterly heartbreaking song about reaching the end of the line. Add the usual artful treatment from Ezrin, and, if you can deal with the layers of orchestrated synths, the result is a minor masterpiece. The fact that this ruined man, so destroyed by drugs and drink, was able to conjure up this set of songs is nothing short of phenomenal.

So there you have it: the sum total of everything Alice Cooper doesn’t remember between 1981 and 1984. According to a 2009 interview, Cooper does, however, remember touring for ZCS and DaDa, which never happened. Neither album made the Billboard Top 200; neither album received any support from Warner Bros. There were no tours in support of these two records. When you remember two tours that didn’t happen, it’s safe to say you were pretty fucked up. After ‘DaDa’ was released, Alice was hospitalized for cirrhosis of the liver and the debilitating effects of chronic crack smoking. Warner Brothers officially severed relations with Alice in February of 1984. The ‘New Wave Alice’ was a commercial failure. But was it an artistic failure as well?

‘Special Forces’ notwithstanding, the relative merit of these records is hard to gauge. They are very much of their time, ‘the early 80s’, and must be considered in this context. Comparing them to what came before or after is difficult, as Alice was a genre-hopper; hard rock in the 70’s and glam rock/hair metal in the late 80s and into the 90s. Perhaps the value of these records and their place within Alice’s larger body of work is best understood when they are compared to his Straight Records material: the ‘Pretties for You’ and ‘Easy Action’ albums. I’ll get back to you on that; I’ve found both of those records to be a tough listen, but dammit, somebody’s gotta do it…