All images courtesy of Getty Images/Wiki Commons
By Andrew Daly & Dylan Peggin
“People do sometimes listen with their eyes,” Stanley lamented. “And I think that may have been the case with Creatures.”
In hindsight, Creatures of the Night has proved to be one of KISS’ most iconic records, but the silence was deafening upon its release.
KISS exited the ’70s as rock royalty, but by 1981, the ruins of a once great band had been jarringly discarded by a once loyal fanbase. And as KISS entered 1982, they had just about everything to lose.
With critics now licking their chops, menacingly ready to drive a final stake through the Kabuki-clad hero’s vampire hearts, KISS needed to make a statement, and boy, did they ever.
These days the noise surrounding KISS is nothing but pomp and circumstance, but as KISS endeavored to save their careers, recording what would amount to the most metal album they ever produced, there was no red carpet and little fanfare.
When it comes to the Creatures of the Night, the stakes were high, and the atmosphere was make or break. With all their cards on the table, KISS laid themselves bare and ripped their creative hearts to shreds producing the nearly 40-year-old classic.
The story of Creatures of the Night is compelling to be sure. Stick around as we peel back the onion of how Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons, Eric Carr, and a diverse cast of characters battled breakups, and makeups, in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
A series of misguided failures leave a once proud band a shell of its former self.
After charting through interesting disco and pop territory respectively with Dynasty and Unmasked, KISS had every intention to return to their roots. With producer Bob Ezrin on board, KISS hoped to reclaim some magic found on Destroyer. Given the notoriety of Ezrin’s work with Pink Floyd on The Wall, the aim was shifted to work with a concept Simmons had conceived for a film called The Elder, and the resulting album would serve as a soundtrack.
Needless to say, the film never came to fruition and what fans were left with was KISS’ most polarizing album, filled with orchestral arrangements and choirs. It is safe to say that this was KISS’ prog album. The disappointment from fans and critics resulted in the album not being certified by the RIAA, the band parting ways with manager Bill Aucoin and guitarist Ace Frehley leaving the band. Times were dire for KISS to be revitalized.
While Bob Ezrin took KISS’ hard rock sound and made it more cinematic, the failed experiment of Music from “The Elder” yielded a fresh set of ears. In the wake of that, producer Michael James Jackson set the tone for re-introducing the band to their fanbase, who had moved on. This would prove to be crucial to them.
While Music from “The Elder” may have been a good idea on paper, it was the wrong thing for KISS to pursue. As a manager, Bill Aucoin had every right to redirect the band in their next endeavor. Still, it’s Aucoin’s, along with Simmons’ and Stanley’s, fault for wanting to do an album that appeased critics and tried to garner recognition from their peers. This goes to show that going so far to please people who don’t like you doesn’t get you very far at all.
When I look back on the era leading up to Creatures of the Night, I can’t help but lament the sheer amount of revisionist history. What do I mean by that? Well, look, you can’t argue with the facts. And the facts were simple: Dynasty was a platinum record, and Unmasked was a gold record. The idea that KISS had fallen so far and fast due to lackluster sales and fan indifference simply isn’t true, and the sales proved it.
Make no mistake; I am not saying that Dynasty or Unmasked were as popular or as well received by die-hard fans; they weren’t. But again, the sales dictate the reality, and the reality is those albums were successful. There’s always a catch, though, and in the case of those two records, the catch is that they alienated many core fans. But to the point of commercial failure? No. I’d wager to say that for every metalhead KISS pissed off, they probably added some kid who thought the band looked cool. Or maybe they added a teenage girl who dug Paul Stanley’s pouty lips, mouthing, “I was made for lovin’ you, baby.” I’d also like to point out that those same hardcore dudes who hated “I Was Made for Lovin’ You” in ’79 seemed to eat it up during the ’96 Reunion Tour and do to this day. C’est la vie.
As for Music from “The Elder,” it’s an excellent record, but yeah, it was the wrong album at the wrong time. KISS wanted recognition from fans who loved bands like Pink Floyd, Yes, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, which was downright asinine given that they had spent the ’70s making themselves out to be the antithesis of that. When it comes to Music from “The Elder,” it seems KISS made it for the wrong reasons and hiring a coked-out Bob Ezrin didn’t help matters either. For starters, Bob Ezrin and Destroyer were never all they were made to be. Secondly – and no one ever seems to point this out – in an era where punk rock and new wave were all the rage, why was KISS diverging into prog rock, a bloated genre which was not commercially viable at that time?
In short, KISS and Bill Aucoin weren’t savvy enough at the time to understand that they were chasing failure at full speed. And surprise, surprise, they got exactly what they asked for.
As a Spaceman exists, a “savior” emerges.
Ace Frehley was staunch in his views on not pursuing Music from “The Elder” and honing in on a heavy album the band discussed doing after Unmasked. After Frehley’s success with his 1978 solo album providing the highest charting single of the four solo albums, he earned a bigger voice in the songwriting and lead vocals duties on Dynasty and Unmasked. His credibility found him practically even with Gene and Paul. While the two dove head first into Music from “The Elder” project, Frehley’s doubts and frustration for pursuing it definitely fueled his reasoning for leaving the band.
It is very hard to imagine Creatures of the Night without Vinnie Vincent’s involvement. His knack for songwriting was a distinctive flavor that affected KISS’ work during his tenure in the band. While his lead guitar playing is subjective to the ear, he had the flash and ability that Frehley inhabited to even be considered to become a member of the band. Given the urgency of finding a suitable replacement in time for a tour, it was the right place and right time for Vincent. Did he save KISS? He helped the band regain some control, but their fate didn’t lie in his hands.
Vincent had a real knack for songwriting and brought plenty of songs to the table, some of which appeared on the first Vinnie Vincent Invasion record and the Warrior project prior. While this material was strong, I’m sure Simmons and Stanley were primarily focused on utilizing him as a co-writer and pushing ahead with their own material. If he legally signed on as an official member, history might be different in terms of what songs appeared on the record.
Narratives, narratives, narratives. When it comes to Ace Frehley and his role in this whole era, there’s a very particular narrative, and as much of a fan of Frehley as I am, I have to punch some hole’s in this whole thing. We’ve all heard it before, Frehley wanted a rock album, and instead, he got Unmasked. Again, Frehley wanted a rock album, and instead, he got Music from “The Elder,” and he was so pissed off that he turned around and left KISS.
On the surface, that checks out, right? The Spaceman wanted to rock, and KISS was no longer rocking, right? Wrong. The reality is that Ace Frehley wanted to leave KISS as early as 1977, and Stanley and Simmons – knowing how badly they needed him – ultimately agreed to the solo albums idea, which was conjured up by management. This appeased Frehley for a while and kept him in KISS.
As history dictates, Frehley’s solo record did well, and in the wake of that, the guitarist was brimming with confidence. The result? Frehley dominated Dynasty and Unmasked with “2,000 Man,” “Save Your Love,” “Hard Times,” Talk to Me,” “Torpedo Girl,” and “Two Sides of the Coin,” amounting to some of the best tracks of the era. So, you could say that Frehley was getting his space on each album. He was getting so much space, and the fans loved his songs so much that once again, Frehley wanted to leave KISS. The idea that Frehley was upset about KISS erring toward disco and pop when his own single “New York Groove” was as disco-rock as it gets comes off hypocritical.
The truth? Frehley felt he didn’t need KISS to create good music, and he was right. His entire solo career is evidence of that. The only thing that held that back was his addiction issues. I have a hard time believing that Stanley and Simmons would have been so bold as to anger Frehley as described simply because they felt they needed him. I think Frehley was OK with the direction or was so out of it that he didn’t care until – erratic as he is – he wasn’t. Evidence of this is Paul Stanley’s recollection of driving to the guitarist’s house in Connecticut and begging him to stay in 1982.
As for Creatures of the Night, I think KISS was better off without Frehley for this one. It’s KISS’ most heavy metal record, and I don’t believe the record sounds anything like it does with Frehley in the fold. Frehley is not a metal guitarist, and his songs are not metal in any way, shape, or form. The anger and despair that Simmons and Stanley felt in the wake of Frehley leaving cannot be understated, and that angst is intertwined throughout the entirety of Creatures of the Night. Hell, “Saint and Sinner” is Simmons explicitly lamenting Frehley’s place in his life.
As for Vinnie Vincent, he’s labeled a savior. I don’t believe that to be true. Steve Farris played the most metal solo on the whole record, which belongs to the title track. Robben Ford played lead on “Rock and Roll Hell” and “I Still Love You,” and my understanding is Ford may have contributed even more than that, to the point he was asked to join KISS, which he declined. Vinnie Vincent was an excellent guitar player – probably the most technically proficient KISS ever had – and his songwriting ability proved integral to Lick it Up thereafter. Still, it’s overstated on Creatures of the Night, especially given that even at this early stage, Vincent was withholding his best tracks for his solo endeavors, which had yet to manifest.
All in all, Creatures of the Night was better off without Frehley there, and while Vincent certainly aided the cause, he did not impact this record as much as many think.
With their back’s against the wall, an ailing band faces the music.
With Michael James Jackson at the controls and Frehley out of the picture, a slew of session guitarists, such as Robben Ford and Steve Farris, were brought in to fill the void. Among the session players was one named Vincent Cusano, AKA Vinnie Vincent, who also co-wrote several songs and contributed much of the session guitar work.
The result was Creatures of the Night, the band’s heaviest album to date. With the emerging sounds of thrash metal coming out of the West coast and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, this was an album that perfectly resides within the musical climate of the time. The album’s production style has thunderous drumming from Eric Carr, very akin to John Bonham’s explosive style. A prime example is the drum fill that signals the album’s opening title track, which kicks the album off to the races.
For me, Creatures of the Night has proved its staying power with tracks like “I Love It aloud” and “War Machine,” songs that have consecutively appeared in tour setlists to this day. Even some of the album’s mellower moments, such as the ballad “I Still Love You,” are still as heavy as the other tracks on the album. While this album was a proud musical statement from a band finding their musical feet again, the unpredictability of KISS’ track record with their fans didn’t translate well in ticket sales for the resulting tour, and the fact that it wouldn’t be certified gold until 20+ years after its release.
In retrospect, Simmons and Stanley consider it to be one of their finer efforts after their ’70s heyday. Stanley has generally pointed the blame on the album’s shortcomings due to the fact they were still wearing the makeup. It does pose the question: would Creatures of the Night fared out better if KISS had unmasked at this point?
After a bit of persuasion, KISS ultimately unmasked themselves on MTV, which coincided with the release of the band’s next album, Lick It Up. The end result was an album that brought the band back into comfortable territory with a music video for the title track that was in heavy rotation on MTV and the album being certified platinum. While Lick It Up brought the band into the MTV generation, it goes without saying that the heaviness of Creatures of the Night paved the way for reclaiming their throne.
KISS’ objective was clear: to make a heavy album and to save their asses. The idea that they wanted to “win back fans” seems shortsighted in retrospect. If that was their intent, then Simmons and Stanley completely misjudged the situation. KISS did not need to win back fans; no, what KISS needed to do was compete. More so, they needed to compete against bands who were 10 or 12 years their juniors.
The irony? Many of these bands crafted their music in KISS’ image, and now, on the verge of prominence, those same bands were stepping on KISS’ throat, crushing their windpipes, and laughing as KISS’ final dying breaths wheezed out. Does that sound dire? Well, it was. To this point, KISS had made some outstanding records. Still, if we’re being honest, their lyrical content was impish, and their musicality was sometimes repetitive, and I say that as a huge fan, albeit an objective one. Utterly reliant on their gimmick and stage show, KISS needed to find a way to be more competitive musically.
If KISS planned on remaining a band – let alone a relevant one – they would need to up the ante.
To their credit, KISS did just that. With the aid of Vincent and friends, heavy metal riffs were injected into the mix. Finally allowed the space to breathe, Eric Carr was unleashed and now uninhabited. While Ezrin underplayed Carr and even replaced him on Music from “The Elder” track “I,” Michael James Jackson did his part to open up the sonic field and mic the drummer’s Ludwig kit in such a way that left the album’s roaring percussion akin to a stampeding heard and ravenous buffalo.
As far as songwriting was concerned, tracks like “Rock and Roll Hell,” Saint and Sinner,” and “I Still Love You” showed a depth of songwriting akin to a band entering its collective 30s. This was a wise move. If KISS had resorted to the “sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll” themes of years past, I believe this would have degraded the overall product, and left them looking up at younger bands.
Long story short, KISS was a maturing band, and finally, they were acting like it.
As for the sonic mix, I don’t think thrash played into this one so much as traditional metal and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal did. You have to remember that 1982 was a big year for metal across the board, with Iron Maiden’s The Number of the Beast, Judas Priest’s Screaming for Vengence, Motörhead’s Iron Fist, and Scorpion’s Blackout, among others, all debuting that the same year. I’d wager that KISS was chasing those shadows more than anything else.
KISS answered the bell and crafted an album that stands chest to chest with all those records and then some.
An album to remember.
In hindsight, I feel that the fans that were wanting KISS to return to their roots but with this hard-driven twist got what they wanted. With that said, this margin of fans was already small, given the turnout of the tour and how many people had more or less moved on from the group. Stanley’s feelings on removing the makeup could be seen as a way to win back those fans or simply shake up the cycle. His statement, “People listening with their eyes,” again, makes me wonder how Creatures of the Night would’ve been looked upon if the makeup had already come off. Looking back, it’s certainly one of those big “what ifs” in KISStory. Creatures of the Night is an album that has aged like fine wine decades after its release. The determination KISS showed in making this album still comes across as it is one that is highly regarded by the band and fans alike.
For me, Creatures of the Night is hands down in the top-ten of the KISS catalog and goes neck in neck with anything they did in their ’70s heyday. The fact that it’s getting the 40th anniversary super deluxe treatment just further proves its significance in KISStory. It’s certainly a release that I, myself, and plenty of other KISS Army soldiers wanted. Hopefully, some of the more casual fans that aren’t as locked in with the band’s backstory will become aware of this record and see the good in it to dive a bit deeper into everything else that followed and surrounds it.
Would Creatures of the Night have succeeded had KISS taken the makeup off before its release? That’s an interesting question, to be sure. My answer is “yes,” but with a caveat. I don’t think KISS would make the same album had they taken the makeup off beforehand.
Look, Creatures of the Night was a reaction to their perceived failures. It was also an attempt to save what they had created, and part of what they had created was the makeup. In their collective minds, the lynchpin of KISS was the four members in character, wearing makeup. To me, the band’s reaction in making this record reads as if they felt that without that makeup, there was no KISS.
In Creatures of the Night, KISS made an album seething with urgency and desperation to save what they had built. If they took the makeup off, the record wouldn’t have needed to be what it was; it wouldn’t have needed to be such a stark contrast to all of what they had done prior, as they would have only had to ride the gimmick of taking it off to success. Proof of this would be the spoils of Lick it Up, a great but inferior album.
The legacy of the record? Well, we can go back and try and dissect why Creatures of the Night was buried upon its release. We can lament that one of the fiercest iterations of KISS – Stanley, Simmons, Vincent, and Carr – only got to play to half-empty halls. We can scream until we’re blue in the face about how this record was ignored at the time due to people “listening with their eyes.” While it might be true, none of it matters. Not even in the slightest.
What does matter? What matters is that Creatures of the Night is getting its due. While Stanley and Simmons will forever deride Vinnie Vincent and minimize his role in KISStory, that doesn’t change the fact that while he didn’t save the band, he bridged the gap. Sure, Creatures of the Night may have been buried in 1982, but in 2022, we’re looking at a gold record, and one day it’ll probably be platinum.
My take on Creatures of the Night is pretty straightforward: its backstory is legendary, if not mythical. And, yeah, that’s fun, but it’s bred inaccuracies and bias-based half-truths. But that’s OK because it only adds to the mystic, and it keeps people engaged. For me, despite it not being the original lineup – not that it matters – Creatures of the Night is KISS’ best and most cohesive record.
Most importantly, though, I feel Creatures of the Night is KISS’ most crucial record. With their back’s against the wall, Stanley and Simmons came out of their self-imposed haze and threw an absolute Hail Mary to save KISS and foster its legacy. If KISS didn’t make Creatures of the Night, I believe they would have been finished within a year.
Some 40 years on, while Creatures of the Night is brimming with great music, its legacy lies in the details. And those details are what saved KISS.
– Andrew Daly (@vwmusicrocks) is the Editor-in-Chief for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at email@example.com & Dylan Peggin (@Record_Spinner) is a columnist for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org