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KISS ‘Destroyer 45’: Gene Simmons, Paul Stanley, Ace Frehley & Bob Ezrin Reflect on the Milestone 1976 Album
Bolstered by the success of their breakthrough 1975 album Alive!, as KISS moved forward, in order to retain their newly anointed status as rock gods their follow-up studio album had to deliver in big bold letters. Enter producer/creative wunderkind Bob Ezrin, best known for his landmark work with Alice Cooper.
Under Ezrin’s tutelage, Destroyer was born; alongside thunderous guitars, pounding drums and fist waving concert anthems like “Detroit Rock City,” “Shout It Out Loud” and “King of the Nighttime World,” the record was a dramatic sonic makeover for the band, employing lush strings, choirs, orchestration and sound effects, all framed by the beautiful ballad “Beth,” a surprise smash-hit that remains the band’s highest-charting single (hitting No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100).
In late 2021, Destroyer 45, a massive 4-CD + Blu-Ray Super Deluxe box set was issued by Universal Records to commemorate the album’s legacy. Packed with a rich array of KISS ephemera including a hardcover book detailing the history of the album, reproduction of their 1976 tour book and KISS Army fan club kit, posters, trading cards, KISS logo iron on and loads more, the musical content is revelatory and features a newly remastered version of the album, two discs of demos, alternate takes/mixes and single edits, a live show circa May 1976 from the L’Olympia in Paris and a Blu-Ray audio disc overseen by Stephen Wilson showcasing Dolby Atmos and 5.1 mixes of the record.
Below, enjoy some collected reflections about Destroyer and its era from KISS original members Paul Stanley, Gene Simmons and Ace Frehley along with Destroyer producer Bob Ezrin to share the back story behind this signature studio recording.
Rock Cellar: As producer of the album, what was your MO of taking KISS to the next level?
Bob Ezrin: I encouraged the band to draw deeper than just the sex and rock and roll themes. That was the point the meeting, we had to put some flesh on these characters. We had to give them a little bit more humanity. And while the original idea was that they were going to be kind of cartoon superheroes and not themselves, I said, “We have to put some of the real you back into this thing.” They were excited by that challenge. Nobody had really ever spoken about in that way before, and I think that the minute we started to talk about it, it resonated with them. They got it right away.
Rock Cellar: I understand Bob Ezrin put the band through its paces in pre-production.
Gene Simmons: When we first met up with him in pre-production rehearsals, he sat down and he said, “OK, tune up,” and he saw how we turned up and said, “No, no, no, that’s not how to tune up,” because we had taught ourselves how to tune the guitars and how to play and plug in. It was all sort of homemade.
He taught us about harmonics. He was the one. He showed us, “Now here’s an arrangement.” Before, we just started building. “You want to build a house over there? OK, let’s just build it.”
And it came together fast because we were touring all the time, and in the early days released Hotter Than Hell and Dressed to Kill in the same year. Wrote the songs, recorded them in the studio and went on full tours. We didn’t have time to arrange or anything. It was, “OK, here’s a new song and here’s your part, boom, let’s go.”
Paul Stanley: Where Bob was really shining was in the pre-production and tirelessly rehearsing whoever needed to be rehearsed to play the parts, which most of the time he came up with. All the drum patterns were Bob’s and the bass parts, most of the time, were Gene’s ideas, because Gene had a really good sense of walking bass parts. Although in songs like “Detroit Rock City,” Bob very definitively had a bass part.
Gene Simmons: We didn’t have a master plan for Destroyer. We didn’t know what we were doing. We were just running on automatic. We had no experience and no qualification. We were just being ourselves, so the songs came out as the songs. Just doing it naturally wasn’t good enough, because we were just running on fumes. We had no experience. We had ideas.
“I like that and I don’t like that.” Sometimes that’s good, but sometimes it’s just not enough. KISS never spent enough time in the studio because we always hurrying out to tour. We’d give ourselves two or three weeks in the studio and then go right back out the next day, hop on a plane and go off and play. Because of that, our first three records are like primitive art, kind of stream of consciousness poetry and stuff, and that’s good.
People like it and it is what it is. Maybe punk has a lot more in common with that where you just kind of play and not worry about the mistakes. That’s what the first three KISS albums were all about. And Ezrin said, “No, no, you want to up your game, you’ve got to give it time.”
Rock Cellar: What are your most indelible memories of the Destroyer sessions?
Ace Frehley: Working on Destroyer was like nothing I’d ever experienced, because prior to actually recording the album, Ezrin sat down in something like a classroom and started lecturing us about music and all sorts of crazy shit. I’ve never worked with a producer like that.
I think Bob is a genius. One of the things I remember distinctly about Bob that I never heard producer say was when he said to Paul, “Detune your guitar a little but, not a lot, and lay down a track and then tune it up correctly and double your part.” If the pitch is slightly different, then you get a thicker and richer sound and Paul did that on Destroyer.
It’s the same principle as with a symphony. When you get ten violinists playing a part, they’re not all playing it exactly the same way. So when ten violinists play the same melody, you get slight differentiations in pitch, and that’s what makes it them big.
Paul Stanley: Destroyer is an ambitious album. Working with Bob Ezrin that first time was like boot camp. We went in there kind of green, and came out a lot smarter for it. It stands the test of time real well.
Bob Ezrin: We had a lot of fun doing that album. We spent so much time kidding around. There were so many moments of gaffer taping someone from their neck to their ankles and dumping them into the garbage outside [laughs]. Or pie fights. When I started working in New York at the Record Plant, I discovered a whole level of experimentation and playfulness in sound of records that I hadn’t experienced before, and there were so many toys and so many possibilities.
Basically, the studio was run in a way that not only encouraged experimentation, but kind of rewarded it. You’d become a hero if you found a new way to use a piece of gear and everybody would come upstairs and listen to what you were doing. So it was like the world’s biggest chemistry set meets a home modeling set or something. It was just a Technicolor playground, and all the people that worked at the Record Plant were used to that. They were not afraid of it.
They didn’t believe you could break anything by pushing it too far, and they were willing to try absolutely everything and anything, so that kind of an environment was conducive to these sort of soundscapes that we started to make, starting with [the Alice Cooper album) School’s Out.
With Destroyer, [engineer] Jay Messina was invaluable because in spite of my sort of flying off in all directions, Jay kept the sound and the focus of that record as tight as a drum; it was powerful, in your face and unrelenting. That gave us the freedom to be able to try all this other stuff, knowing that we weren’t going to break the back of the record by doing that. The essence of the record was captured in the basic tracks, which, by the way, in the studio KISS played live. We had them all in the studio at the same time and they played the basic tracks together.
Rock Cellar: How did you come up with Destroyer as the album title?
Gene Simmons: Back in the ‘70s, Howard Marks was KISS’s business manager; he was a financial suit-and-tie New York City guy who worked in advertising. When we were trying to think of a name for the new Bob Ezrin-produced record and couldn’t come up with a title, Marks said, “My son heard your conversation and suggested, ‘Why don’t you call the record, ‘Destroyer?’” just like that. We all looked at each other like, “Out of the mouths of babes, I guess.” We immediately went, “Yeah that’s right, ‘Destroyer.’ Wow, that’s cool.” I remember wanting to call it Dynasty, which we used much later on, you know, like the Ming Dynasty, the continuation of China.
Rock Cellar: I understand there was trepidation on the band’s part about the album after it was finished.
Paul Stanley: We were scared as the next person of Destroyer. I remember playing “Shout it Out Loud” for my girlfriend at the time who I was living with and the feedback that I got was a little disconcerting. I could tell it didn’t move her. She went, “Well, this is different.” And it was different.
It was much broader in its sound, more polished. She thought the whole album was not KISS-like and I think she wasn’t alone in feeling that. We had given up a certain rawness that was on Alive! for expanding the depth and the cinematic quality and sonics. When the album first came out, it reached about 860,000 copies, and then it kind of stalled. It wasn’t being embraced over the long haul as a successor to Alive!
But certainly over decades, it’s become the source of the most songs making their way into our setlist. So it was Bob’s vision, and although it took us off the track that we thought we were on, it turned out to be a smart move.
Gene Simmons: When Destroyer came out, the fans hated it initially. Alive! more closely captured what KISS was. We had to do the record because once you do a double live record you go, “Okay, that’s the bookend to that part of our career.” Either you become trapped by your own doing — or your undoing, in this case — or you try to move on and evolve. We were writing these songs all along but we were editing ourselves a lot more ‘cause I had always written Beatles-esque stuff. And Ezrin let some of that through.
For most people it’s, “give me that thing that I’m expecting,” and then when you go a little bit off-center or widen the perspective, you’re listening not just with your ears but also with your mind — because initially Destroyer was a listening record. The other albums before it had a beat and you could tap your foot to it, you know, straight ahead rock, but Destroyer was more conceptual. Think of the beginning of “Detroit Rock City” with the radio announcer and there were sound effects, the kids, and then we had the Brooklyn Boys Choir.
Well, it took some doing. It was a more immersive record and it worked better when you sat by yourself. It’s one of those solitary things where you put on your headphones and you get into it. The other albums are more like you put it on at a party with your friends and turn it up.
Rock Cellar: 45 years after its initial release, Destroyer is celebrated with a new multi-CD Super Deluxe box set, what’s the album’s legacy?
Paul Stanley: The career-lasting impact Destroyer had on me was eye-opening and ear-opening in terms of layering instruments in ways that fortified other instruments or sounds that would make them bigger. Whenever I’m in the studio, I do find myself saying, “What would Bob do?”, and to me that’s about the biggest compliment that I can give somebody.
Gene Simmons: Destroyer seems to resonate for decades with the fans. But it bears repeating, when the album was first released, the fans were not crazy about it. And initially, sales were somewhat sluggish. Eventually, over time, the songs on the album became a staple of our shows and some of the fans’ favorites. So while it’s important to listen to the fans and their point of view, their perspective tends to be limited to the here and now, without a much broader perspective.
Bottom line, to thy own self be true. Do what you think is right. Sometimes we got it right, sometimes we got it wrong. With Destroyer, we got it right.
We are thrilled to celebrate the 45th Ann. of Destroyer with a Super Deluxe Edition out Nov 19! Includes 4-CD + Blu-ray Audio box set as well as on standard double black vinyl & limited edition yellow & red double colored vinyl, 2-CD set, & digital. https://t.co/S53diDgnQf pic.twitter.com/VexQuXxnuk— KISS (@kiss) September 17, 2021
Ace Frehley: I think the reason Destroyer holds up so many decades later has to do with working with Bob and his writing ability, and his ability to take us musically to another level than just being a regular straight-ahead hard-rock band and I tip my hat to Bob for that.
Bob Ezrin: For me, the entire Destroyer experience was fun. I know that there were difficult moments and we worked long hours in order to get it done. We had a budget and a schedule. In every part of it was the excitement of building something we had planned to build. That’s really important to understand.
We didn’t go in hoping that we’d get something. We knew what we were going for. We didn’t exactly know how we were going to embellish it or the new things that we would discover that would make it even better.
But we knew what we were going for, and that gives you a fabulous sense of freedom for experimentation and sonic soundscaping, so it was it was just it was solid invention from the time we went into the studio until the time we left. Destroyer holds up because the songs were really well-written. The lyrics were smart. The characters were developed in an interesting multi-layer.
The sounds were innovative and different and were an amalgam of really tough basic rock with some theatrical elements and some classical elements and we even had a calliope! [laughs]
March 7, 2022