INTERVIEW WITH KISS CATALOG CONSULTANT / BOOK AUTHOR ROBERT V. CONTE
Date: June 14, 2021
Interviewer: William Nesbitt
Photos: Second and third photos courtesy of Robert V. Conte
AS KISS’S 1996 LIVE COMPILATION ‘YOU WANTED THE BEST, YOU GOT THE BEST!!’ APPROACHES ITS TWENTY-FIFTH ANNIVERSARY ON JUNE 25, 2021, KISS CATALOG CONSULTANT ROBERT V. CONTE (WWW.STUDIOCHIKARA.COM) SHARES SOME OF HIS RECOLLECTIONS ON WORKING ON THE ALBUM; INFORMATION ABOUT MY KISS STORY, HIS UPCOMING MEMOIR OF THOSE INCREDIBLE DAYS; AND, HIS THOUGHTS ABOUT THE MOST POLARIZING RELEASE IN KISSTORY.
Sleaze Roxx: What was the thinking behind the track selection and/or sequencing of both unreleased and released material on ‘You Wanted The Best, You Got The Best!!’?
Robert V. Conte: The original idea was to have what I would call a faux bootleg, so to speak. The album as released is, sadly for me, a far cry from what was originally proposed.
Sleaze Roxx: A bootleg is already a sort of illegitimate or unauthorized recording, so what is a “faux bootleg”?
Robert V. Conte: What I mean by that is while on the hunt for every tape available in the once Casablanca / PolyGram archive in New Jersey, we found multitrack recordings with live soundcheck material and songs performed in-concert that were recorded for ‘‘Alive!’ and ‘Alive II’ that, in 1996, had been rarely heard or known about. The original vision for ‘You Wanted The Best, You Got The Best!!’ would have looked like a bootleg album but would have been an actual official release.
Sleaze Roxx: Ah, so that already clears up or verifies one thing, which is the source of or context for these recordings. Some songs were technically live but not in the sense we normally think of as live. They were actually from soundchecks and not performed in front of an audience during the concerts. Besides the multitrack soundcheck and unreleased concert recordings, were there other recordings you came across?
Robert V. Conte: There were also some reels featuring radio spots, interviews, and other unused stuff that I hoped to compile into what diehard KISS fans would have considered the ultimate complement to the two Alive albums they likely had already owned.
Sleaze Roxx: Wow, that would have been great stuff to have. That vision sounds pretty different from what we actually got.
Robert V. Conte: The album, as it was originally proposed, would not have been a “greatest hits live” which is what ‘You Wanted the Best, You Got the Best!!’ had, for the most part, become. To this day, I believe ‘Double Platinum’ is the best of all the KISS compilation albums, followed by ‘Killers’ and ‘Smashes, Thrashes & Hits’ — the latter two due to additional and/or alternate tracks.
Sleaze Roxx: ‘Smashes, Thrashes & Hits’ was my first KISS record. I love that and ‘Double Platinum’. Even though I would probably put ‘Killers’ at the bottom of those three compilations you mention, I think any of them give a good overview of KISS and are better albums than ‘You Wanted The Best, You Got The Best!!’. I don’t think we got the best from ‘You Wanted The Best’. That original version you describe sounds much better than what we got, so didn’t we get that original version?
Robert V. Conte: The entire album was meant to feature unreleased and alternate material. When other chefs in the Mercury / Def Jam kitchen decided to dilute the recipe that was formulated for the album, I was just as surprised as my fellow KISS fans were when first informed of the numerous changes made to the album. Frankly, I was shocked, disappointed, and angry. My baby as submitted to the label and KISS was mutated into something categorically different than what was conceived. To date, most of what was first chosen still has not been officially released.
Sleaze Roxx: What else can you tell us about those four unreleased tracks that did appear on ‘You Wanted The Best’?
Robert V. Conte: The four unreleased tracks included on ‘You Wanted The Best’ were what had been considered for possible inclusion on ‘Alive!’ and ‘Alive II’ but did not make the final cut due to format limitations and what have you. Multiple recorded concerts were available to create those records and I was incredibly blessed to hear each and every one of them, multiple times, in order to create the concept CD that was provided to the band for review. What an incredible opportunity! I remember it vividly!
Sleaze Roxx: What was the original track listing for the album?
Robert V. Conte: The complete track listing will be discussed at length in my forthcoming book, ‘My KISS Story’ (www.studiochikara.com), but I will reveal that a live “Hooligan” and “Do You Love Me?” were included on the original version. These tracks were originally intended for ‘Alive II’.
Sleaze Roxx: Does the complete track listing consist of songs that never appeared on ‘Alive!’ and ‘Alive II’, or does the track list also include different versions of songs that appear on those live albums?
Robert V. Conte: Alternate live versions of songs appearing on the two live albums were to be included, too.
Sleaze Roxx: I like the Jay Leno interview on ‘You Wanted The Best’ because I enjoy hearing all of the original members hanging out, goofing around, and getting along, but why include that instead of more unreleased or even released material?
Robert V. Conte: I completely agree! The original concept presented to KISS included audio commentary, similar to ‘The Beatles Anthology’. Somewhere along the line, either Danny Goldberg and/or executive producer Jason A. Linn came up with the idea for Jay Leno, David Letterman, or Conan O’Brien to interview the band. As Leno did the audio interview, O’Brien introduced the band at the 1996 ‘Intrepid’ press conference announcing the reunion tour. I can’t recall if Letterman actually passed or the other two late-night talk hosts quickly accepted the opportunities offered them.
Sleaze Roxx: For those who don’t remember, KISS announced the reunion tour from aboard the U.S.S. Intrepid, a decommissioned aircraft carrier, a couple of months before ‘You Wanted The Best’ came out. What did you think of the Jay Leno interview? Did it belong on the record?
Robert V. Conte: Leno’s interview with KISS is fine, but I don’t necessarily believe it should have been on ‘You Wanted The Best, You Got The Best!!’ as filler. It deserved a better outlet to the fans, perhaps as a bonus mini-CD or as a KISS Army Depot mail-order exclusive. Remember, this is well before streaming. I do recall some talk about airing excerpts of it on radio but that didn’t happen.
Sleaze Roxx: I know from the other interviews that you may have a copy of the digital files for the original version of the album and that there are one or two more copies elsewhere. Do you think we will ever get that version?
Robert V. Conte: I certainly hope so. The ‘KISSteria’ box set that came with the ‘You Wanted the Best, You Got the Best!!’ reissued exclusive should have used the original version. I believe they would have sold more boxes and KISS fans would have received the album as originally envisioned with all the extra goodness that a KISS record of that period deserved — a poster, photos, gatefold cover — you get it. I still have my initial concepts, designs, and layouts. Hopefully, KISS and Universal Music Group (Mercury / Def Jam’s successor) still have their reference CDs they were provided with the original album sequence. They are welcome to reach me anytime. No one wants the original version of that album available more than me. That I promise you!
Sleaze Roxx: Let’s talk a little bit about some other albums. What is it about ‘Music From The Elder’ that divides fans so much? Some people love it and some people hate it. I happen to love it. What is it that produces such strong feelings in the fans?
Robert V. Conte: Being a KISS fan from the early 1980s onward, my perspective of ‘Music From The Elder’ is likely different than the band’s original first fanbase. I first owned the album on cassette in 1984 and bought it bundled as a “3 for $9.99” special at Woolworth’s. The other two albums included were ‘Creatures of The Night‘ and ‘Unmasked‘. I had already owned ‘Creatures’ on vinyl but wanted the cassette to listen to on my boombox when not a home. I listened to ‘The Elder’ for the first time with a few classmates on a school field trip and all of them hated it past “The Oath.” For me, the album was an extension of KISS’ music diversity that was an educational part of the group’s history. Yet, I totally understand how others who loved KISS’ hard rock ‘n roll would be put off. The band’s musical experimentation with ‘Dynasty‘ and ‘Unmasked’ before ‘The Elder’ certainly alienated some who had since moved on to other bands.
Sleaze Roxx: See, I think that sums it up completely. What people love about ‘The Elder’ is the same thing others hate about it — the experimentation. I’ve always felt like what KISS wanted to do is prove that they are musicians and not just rock stars or two-dimensional characters. Even though the story is hard to get out of the album, I think it’s a good album with some great songs. However, I can imagine the label, radio stations, and fans — especially the ones who just bought the album when it first came out — not knowing what to do with it. It doesn’t sound like what we expect a KISS album to sound like. And that hurt KISS with fans when the next album ‘Creatures’ appeared.
Robert V. Conte: That three-record sequence of KISS’ musical experimentation negatively affected sales of ‘Creatures’ when it was first released. Another little known point is ‘The Elder’ was producer Bob Ezrin’s album after Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall’. Ezrin’s fans voiced their disappointment as well and questioned how his masterful production skills were “so poorly wasted” on ‘The Elder’.
Sleaze Roxx: After Ezrin’s work and success with not just ‘The Wall’ but, before that, KISS’ own ‘Destroyer‘, I tend to think KISS expected a better reaction to ‘The Elder’ than what it received. How do you feel about ‘The Elder’ now?
Robert V. Conte: It is not unreasonable to assume the idea for ‘The Elder’ was to elevate KISS to a higher musical plane as ‘The Wall’ did for Pink Floyd. It didn’t work out that way initially, but I think the album holds up well today and is an important part of the group’s catalog. I was honored to help bring the original intended track sequence on the remastered CD and tape that was later re-released on vinyl.
Sleaze Roxx: Yes, except for fans who are just used to hearing that first track order, I imagine most people think restoring the intended track sequence is an improvement. It helps make the story clearer. I know you have previously talked about all the extra material that could go into an expanded ‘Elder’ release. What can you tell us about that?
Robert V. Conte: There were boxes upon boxes of multi-track tapes available at the vaults in the late 1990s [mostly from Ace Frehley’s recording sessions], but there simply was not enough time to listen to everything. From what amount I did hear, I do believe that a “special edition” of the album could be created that would please fans. One thing I will tell you — it would be much better than the “deluxe” ‘Love Gun’ CD that was released.
Sleaze Roxx: I know the fans will be pleased to hear that. Can you explain why an expanded ‘Elder’ would be better than the current ‘Love Gun (Deluxe Edition)’?
Robert V. Conte: Why? Because I heard music in the vault for ‘Love Gun’ that should have been included on that release but was not. More material exists than what is out there. Let’s hope the best of it is finally released sometime in the near future.
Sleaze Roxx: What is some of the extra material that could come out on a future expanded ‘Love Gun’ release? And do you think these bonus items for ‘Love Gun’, ‘The Elder’, the ‘Alive’ albums, and others will ever be released to the public? When? What has to happen for them to come out?
Robert V. Conte: Your last two questions will be answered in my book. I can’t give it all away!
Sleaze Roxx: Fair enough. I appreciate all the information you’ve shared. Thanks so much for your time and good luck with the book.
Stay tuned for Sleaze Roxx’s review of ‘You Wanted The Best, You Got The Best!!’ which will be posted on the 25th year anniversary of the album’s release (on June 25, 2021).