Feature image credit: PeterCrissDrums.com
By Andrew Daly
KISS’ original drummer, Peter Criss, is something of a polarizing figure in and out of the KISS universe – Peter is very emotive, and for better or worse, he has never been afraid to say what’s on his mind regarding his own self, his bandmates, and his role in KISS.
While it’s true that Peter is a founding member of the band, and he is deservedly given his due as such, it’s also true that he is very often underexposed, and even ignored by KISS fans and his fellow co-founders as a solo artist.
The question of who the greatest drummer that KISS ever had is a debate that could go on forever and beyond. Personally, I believe that while both Eric Carr and Eric Singer are technically better drummers than Peter Criss, Peter’s drumming on KISS’ early recordings (1974-1977) was a massive part of the development of the KISS sound.
Peter is certainly not a traditional rock drummer, but what he did bring to KISS was swagger and brazen attitude. As a natural jazz drummer, Peter Criss has a certain improvisational style, which simply cannot be duplicated. While I wholeheartedly respect Eric Carr, and Eric Singer as drummers, and wholeheartedly, and embrace what they brought/bring to KISS, no one will ever be able to play those early KISS songs in the way that Peter Criss did.
Many KISS fans are well aware of Peter’s contributions to KISS, and songs such as “Beth,” and “Black Diamond” are concert staples to this day. While deep cuts such as “Strange Ways,” “Mainline,” “Baby Driver,” “Getaway,” “Dirty Livin’,” and “Hooligan” are standout gems that diehard fans of the band will also know and love.
Peter is often perceived as “the least talented” member of KISS, and in general, he wasn’t given much of an opportunity to showcase his talents. As such, what too many fans don’t recall, or simply haven’t embraced is Peter Criss’ post-KISS solo career, which consists of four stellar albums, Out Of Control (1980), Let Me Rock You (1982), Cat #1 (1994), and One For All (2007).
With all this being said, let’s dig into the softer, jazzier, and sometimes heavier world of Peter Criss outside of KISS with, Beyond “Beth”: Ten Essential Solo Cuts From Peter Criss. Let’s get started.
“Space Ace” from One For All (2007)
The final track from what has amounted to Peter Criss’ final album is one of his most emotive, and that’s saying something. It’s been well documented that KISS’ Reunion Era was not as rosy as it was initially made out to be, and apparently, the Farewell Tour was a particularly venomous time. What’s been reported was that at some point, Peter Criss caught wind that Ace Frehley, who has always been Peter’s closest friend, and ally in KISS, was making a substantially larger sum per show than Peter was, and basically – Peter lost it. It was this event that led to Peter infamously destroying his drum kit during a show in South Carolina, on October, 7th 2000, which was to be the final show of the North American leg of the Farewell Tour. This act led to Peter immediately leaving the band and was soon replaced by Eric Singer. The original four members of KISS have not played together since. Peter Criss did serve one last tour of duty with KISS from 2002-to 2004 after Ace Frehley had left the band. Fast forward to 2007, Peter was hard at work recording One For All, an album that seemed to find Peter with a great deal on his mind regarding his time as a member of The Hottest Band In The World. “Send In The Clowns” recounts Peter’s feelings regarding the band as a whole, and the almost Psychedelic “Space Ace” takes us through Peter’s feelings toward his old friend, Ace Frehley. At a glance, one might take “Space Ace” as a tribute but dig deeper, and you will find this is actually a recounting of Peter’s feelings of deep betrayal felt toward someone he had felt so close to for so many years. When it comes to “Space Ace,” there is a lot to unpack, and the backstory, depth, and singular sonic nature of this track warrant repeat listening.
“Doesn’t It Get Better Than This” from One For All (2007)
There are two ways to look at One For All. You could take it at face value, and label it as Peter’s weakest effort. You might see it as a soft rock collectanea which finds an aging rock star, with nothing to lose, paying tribute to his influences and legacy. You could also look at it from a different perspective: One For All is a direct representation of Peter Criss the person, not Peter Criss the drummer for KISS. Out of all the members of KISS, Peter Criss has always carried a striking duality with him wherever he goes, and that has perpetually spilled over into everything he has done. On one hand, we see Peter spitting venom toward his old bandmates on tracks such as “Send In The Clowns,” and “Space Ace,” and then we come upon a track such as “Doesn’t Get Better Than This,” which sees Peter finding not only peace but balance in his life. Having traveled the world many times over, having played a decisive hand in some of the most seminal rock music of all time, and having influenced thousands to get behind drumkits of their own. Yes, it’s nice to see Peter embrace the more positive side of his journey, and settle in as an elder statesman of sorts. While his bandmates may never fully understand him, his fans do. More so – we appreciate him, and his varied musical pallet. Peter is something of a mixed bag as a drummer and a man. He’s relatable, and he owns that. For this reason, we love him.
“Bad Boys” from Let Me Rock You (1982)
While Let Me Rock You may not be Peter Criss’ best solo record, it contains a great many of his most consistent recordings. This time around, Peter enlisted Vinnie Poncia, who also produced Peter’s KISS solo record, Peter Criss, in 1978, and also produced KISS’ 1979 record, Dynasty, as well as their 1980 record, Unmasked. So, it does appear that Peter was trying to capture a bit of past fairy dust this time around seeing as his debut solo record, Out of Control, failed to make much of a dent on the Billboard Charts. Personally, I really like Let Me Rock You, it was my first exposure to Peter as a solo artist, and as such, it sticks out in my mind. It’s got a ton of tracks that feel like they could have come out of Peter’s 1978 sessions, and that, along with the Vinnie Poncia effect, really makes Let Me Rock You feel as if it’s the spiritual successor to Peter Criss. One of the many standout tracks from this truly undervalued record is “Bad Boys,” which serves to close out the album. Musically, it’s typical early-stage Peter Criss solo fare – groovy, semi-disco laden soft rock stylings, slightly off-tempo drumming, and sudden, unexpected classic rock guitar popping in and out. What I like most about Peter’s solo work is it rarely knows what it wants to be. While that may not serve Peter well from a commercial standpoint, from a listening standpoint, it makes things fun. If you’re unfamiliar with Peter’s post-KISS work, Let Me Rock You is your safest entry point.
“Blue Moon Over Brooklyn” from Cat #1 (1994)
After years of inactivity, swells of poverty, and near-death experiences, in 1994, Peter began his musical journey once again. First, he assembled a solid team of musicians who were willing to record some tracks that Peter had been writing and demoing while in Los Angeles. Next, he signed on with a tiny record label called Tony Nicole Records, and soon, he headed into the studio to lay down what probably amounts to his heaviest work to date in Cat #1. For this 1994 hard rock rager, Peter laid it all on the line, and we find The Catman singing with renewed vigor, and enthusiasm not seen since his mid-70s heyday with KISS. As a member of KISS, with other members of the band often writing for him, Peter’s heavier side was often drawn out, but as a solo artist, Peter often leaned more toward his softer side. I find Cat #1 an interesting artifact as we see Peter willingly embrace his edgier roots. The album’s cover depicts Peter half unmasked, and half done-up as “The Catman.” Between the cover art, and the sonic shift, one has to wonder if the decision to lean more toward hard rock served as an attempt to garner mainstream attention as a quasi-harkening to his past with KISS. Regardless of the reasons, Cat #1 is a fantastic record, and “Blue Moon Over Brooklyn” not only speaks to Peter’s past as a kid from NYC, but it also speaks to his days in KISS as Ace Frehley plays lead guitar on the track, along with three others, and delivers a quintessential solo to boot. If you haven’t heard this record, dig it up, and dig in. Cat #1 finds Peter Criss on the road to recovery, and just months later we would see him on the road with the KISS Convention, and a mere two years later we would see him drumming for KISS once again. For Peter Criss, Cat #1 was the end of one chapter and the beginning of another. In all our lives there are what I call “sign markers.” For Peter Criss, Cat #1 is a substantial one.
“My Life” from Out of Control (1980)
As I mentioned before, Let Me Rock You was my first exposure to Peter Criss the solo artist, and I will admit, when I first heard the record, at the age of eight years old – I didn’t like it. I was expecting it to be a continuation of KISS, and, it couldn’t have been more different than KISS. In retrospect – I get it. Peter felt repressed in KISS. He felt disrespected. He felt he couldn’t get any tunes in, and so, given the chance, Peter did what he always did – shoot from the hip, lay it all out on the line, and wear his heart on his sleeve. At the time, I wasn’t ready for what I was hearing. It was too varied, too soft, and just wasn’t…KISS. With all of this being said, given my initial impressions of Let Me Rock You, I went ahead and ignored Out of Control, and I didn’t end up listening to the record in full until I was an adult. It was at this point that I realized I’d made a grave mistake. This brings me to my first potential bold statement – Out of Control is the best thing that Peter Criss ever did from start to finish. When it comes to the first track from this outstanding record I will touch upon, “My Life,” we see a song with a cool, crunchy riff, and some telling lyrics to boot. Here, we see Peter plainly announcing his independence from the repression he felt as a member of KISS. For better or worse, he’s ruddering his own ship now, which is a theme that would run through all of Peter’s four solo records as he moved forward. Peter Criss, despite his massive success, and influence, was, and always will be a guy with a chip on his shoulder, and that inner dynamic is on full display here.
“There’s Nothing Better” from Out of Control (1982)
Another fantastic track from Peter’s Out of Control album is “There’s Nothing Better.” What a lot of fans may not realize is that many of the songs from Peter’s debut solo affair came from the Dynasty sessions. Throughout Peter’s time in KISS, he had a lot of trouble getting any of his tracks onto KISS’ records, which had nothing to do with the quality of the songwriting, and more to do with the perceived stylistic differences. In truth, Peter’s songwriting style seemed to lean more Gene Krupa meets The Doobie Brothers, and as a reminder – KISS is a hard rock band. So, while one might empathize with Peter’s frustration, one can also see why Peter’s KISS bandmates weren’t so keen on including many of Peter’s tracks on their made-for-the-arena hard rock albums. The result was, with the exception of “Beth,” Peter would often end up singing tracks written by Ace Frehley, and Paul Stanley, which over time became frustrating for Peter. Anyway, as most KISS fans will remember, Peter was only allowed to contribute “Dirty Livin’” to Dynasty, and the rest of Peter’s tracks were rejected. One of the rejected tracks was “There’s Nothing Better,” which was actually demoed by KISS, for Dynasty, but ultimately held off. You can find the demo online if you like, but the album version from Out of Control betters it, I believe.
“Bad Attitude” from Cat #1 (1994)
I touched on Cat #1 earlier and mentioned that it was bar none, Peter’s heaviest work of his entire career. Well, the heaviest track off Peter’s heaviest album is most definitely “Bad Attitude.” Simply put, Peter is downright nasty on this track. His vocal performance is fantastic, with his sandpaper meets a running chainsaw throat theatrics being on full display. Subtle backing vocals underscore his acrid screaming as the chorus churns along, and the lyrics speak to Peter’s reputation of being a “bad boy.” Further propelling the “bad boy” vibe is the presence of Ace Frehley on lead guitar once again. Ace’s signature riffing, and awe-inspiring guitar solo sends this one home. This is a track that if it had been subject to major label attention, may have been a big-time hit. It finds Peter at his most ill-tempered, and delightfully mean-spirited, and Ace’s guitar work is right there with him. If “Beth” wasn’t already Peter’s “signature song,” then “Bad Attitude” would certainly be in the running. This is can’t miss Criss.
“Some Kinda Hurricane” from Let Me Rock You (1982)
After the massive and undeserved commercial failure of Peter Criss’ debut solo record, Out of Control, Peter enlisted the help of professional songwriters to assist in his quest for a hit. While Peter ultimately would not achieve his objective, Let Me Rock You does feature a great many songs, which with the assistance of outside songwriters, ended up being very good. “Some Kinda Hurricane,” which was written by Russ Ballard of Argent, is one of the album’s best tracks. It’s got the classic Peter Criss vibe. There is something about Peter Criss’ solo work, which oozes a desperate urgency. It’s hard to explain, but if you can pick it up, it’s unmistakable. Overall, when it comes to Let Me Rock You, the album flopped, but I still feel that Peter hit the mark. Vinnie Vincent and Gene Simmons join the songwriting party, you’ve got the very solid cover of John Lennon’s “Jealous Guy,” and interestingly, this serves as the first commercial record which depicted Peter Criss without makeup, even though he had left KISS in 1980.
“I Found Love” from Out of Control (1980)
This will be the last track I will touch on from Out of Control. To me, it was obvious that Peter felt as if he had something to prove during the recording of this record. My personal favorite from the record is a little bit of a low-key song in “I Found Love.” This is a track that never would have been accepted for a KISS record with its piano-led, disco, and synth-inspired vibe. Still, I find it to be one of Peter’s most consistent songs in terms of songwriting and timekeeping. My understanding is that Peter played all of the drums on Out of Control, and I give major props to him for making the effort to stay within himself as a drummer and deliver what the song needs rather than juxtaposing jazzy flourishes. In retrospect, it’s sad that this record flopped in the way that it did. One would think that Peter’s involvement with KISS would have carried this one to at least some modicum of success, but it was not to be. Still, as I mentioned before, despite the lack of a true single, Out of Control is Peter’s finest hour. Furthermore, given the state of his personal and professional life at the time – the record’s title could not be more fitting.
“Move On Over” from Let Me Rock You (1982)
While I believe that Out of Control is Peter Criss’ best career work, I also believe that Let Me Rock You was Peter’s best shot at solo commercial viability. The hiring of multiple established and proven hit songwriters, and a masterful producer, combined with his status as a past member of KISS could have ably guided Let Me Rock You to US Billboard Chart success. So, what happened? Well, the big issue is Peter chose a can’t miss strategy for his second album, and not his first. Here’s a hot take – if Peter Criss releases Let Me Rock You, or an album recorded with the same formula as Let Me Rock You first, he would have had one hell of a career as a solo artist, and probably would have changed the trajectory of his personal, and professional life. An album with tracks as catchy, and seemingly can’t miss as “Move On Over” should have at least gone gold, but the issue was Peter Criss released the entirely solo written and recorded Out of Control first, and it flopped, which effectively buried him. Peter Criss had one shot to ride his KISS fame to glory, and he either listened to the wrong people or simply made the wrong choice. This said, “Move On Over” is a fantastic rock song, and if you missed it – change that.
So, that wraps up, Beyond “Beth”: Ten Essential Solo Cuts From Peter Criss. If you’re a KISS fan, and you’ve underappreciated Peter to date, I hope this changes that. If you’re more of a casual fan of the band, but never dug into what The Catman had to offer a solo artist, I hope this was an eye-opener for you, and that you came away with some new listening material.
As for Peter, I think we can all agree that he’s far more talented and important than he’s sometimes given credit for. Oftentimes, drummers are the forgotten man, and I think Peter Criss is the poster child for that phenomenon. As a drummer, Peter will never be seen as the best or most technical of his generation, but his influence on the genre of Rock is undeniable. Beyond that, his importance on the early sound of KISS, and their enduring importance with the genres of both hard rock, and heavy metal is immeasurable.
As a solo artist, it’s obvious that Peter wanted to forge something entirely different than what he had done in KISS and exert his independence over the music, while also displaying his varied musical influences. To that end, Peter accomplished his objective. While this ideology has undoubtedly led to something of an uneven and undefinable catalog, it also gives Peter’s music an unmistakable, nuanced quality that one can only attribute to Peter Criss.
As a drummer, as a songwriter, and as a man, Peter is a true individual. His music, style, and cultural significance are certifiably singular. The underground nature of his solo career has led to his four solo records being criminally underexposed. So, let this be the start of a grand exploration of Peter’s solo output. So, what’s your favorite Peter Criss post-KISS record?