Actual drummers know: Peter’s playing early on is the KISS feel and memorable because it fit so well. Criss was loose, raunchy ‘n raw and yet grounded in rhythm ‘n blues, Motown and the Big Band era as well as the 60’s pop rock scene styles. Like Ringo, Peter Criss had a knack for playing what was called for with a spacious, natural old school ‘pocket’ that none of his replacements had or have, great as they may be in other ways.
Every band is defined by their drummer, that’s why Gene once said “when the drummer sucks, even the fat girls know”. A band never gets off the ground until they have nailed down ‘the drummer’. First came Peter, then came Ace.
I’ll assume you are well-versed in the rest for the point of conversation but over the years, as the veil of 70’s-hyper-KISS secrecy has been pulled back some, plenty of shit has been flung Criss’s way for his infamous temper and general carrying on. In a KISS family feud that won’t quit, Criss recently returned a ‘no-holds-barred’ volley with his own biography, PETER CRISS, Makeup to Breakup in response to 20 or so years of sniping in the press from Simmons / Stanley.
Say what you will about ‘Reunion’ era KISS and Peter’s at times uninspired playing, the chip on the ‘Catman’s’ shoulder is sealed in solid rock gold and on clear display on KISS’s first 8 offerings. Bottom line? It all stands up. Were I to hold a KISS drum symposium I would choose these ten cuts as my favorites with Criss on the throne. For all the fucking slagging, I wish once in a while Gene & Paul, and Ace for that matter, would tip the hat and give some credit to Peter’s classic rock & roll feel and phenomenal studio & live takes, no matter how painstaking the proceedings with the ‘Ayatollah Crisscola’ may have gotten at times.
It is my contention that listening to Peter Criss’s drumming is a really good template for learning how to make strong parts that flow together and informed fills/tags of all variety that only come from a broad knowledge of music and innate sense of what fits. For musician’s, it’s called “feel”. Like Ringo, like Charlie.
Everything else after Criss left the band is closer to metal by ‘n large and so, when they try to cop the old grooves on the classic stuff in his absence, I hear a pale imitation simply because you can’t change DNA (yet). See, metal is a more structured ritualistic sort of music, not that KISS isn’t based on pagan principles, but rock & roll, and especially Peter’s approach to it, was more organic and about improvisation and living in the moment. You can hear it . It’s what is lacking on all the post-Criss material, that classic “KISS rhythm section” (Paul Stanley take a bow).
Ultimately KISS were able to evolve after Peter left with the smart choice of the bombastic, more Zep-styled Eric Carr as a worthy replacement, completely re-defining the band’s overall attack. And as with the choice of Carr and later Eric Singer, it’s evident that Gene & Paul are notoriously shrewd so there is no way Criss gets the gig originally if he wasn’t ‘the man’ to them then, even if they miss-fired later w/ Mark St. John and, before him, with Vinnie Vincent on guitar. Drums are more central to the nervous system of a band. History says they lead the charge; Starr, Bonham, Moon, Fleetwood and on and on. Even G’nR sucked after they lost Adler, no?
I feel it’s a pity the game is on in the KISS camp to obscure Peters’s playing and impact he had on their overall sound.
LARGER THAN LIFE – This track is off the Alive II ironic (rare for KISS) studio side of the double LP set. The groove and drum sound finally achieve the Bonham sound Paul, and Peter for that matter, had felt had lacked on Kiss’s prior releases. Everything about the song kills: Gene’s growl, the Beatlesque turnaround. Criss’s flam repeat part going into the solo breaks captures what he had above all, a great primal back beat, powerful in its timing, never rushed (at least not on record).
I WANT YOU – Off Rock & Roll Over, “I Want You” is cool because it probably is the only spot Peter could have added a jazz feeling in some way with his ride cymbal part in the choruses, instead of quarter n’ eighth notes everywhere as in most Kiss music. With Paul’s great rhythm line playing off him it’s about as close to funky as Kiss has ever gotten, real good live on Alive II as well.
SHOCK ME – Pete’s fills throughout the Love Gun version give this song movement it has never had live for Ace, with Kiss or his other solo bands for that matter. It shows Peter’s versatility and a willingness to pull back off the beat. It’s all in the pocket too; tasteful, slick, and a million miles from heavy metal drumming. Great snare work, syncopated stops and starts and real loose. Very hep shit to most drummers I have engaged on the matter. It seems in ways that Ace’s stuff allowed Peter more freedom, Shock Me’s is that proof — bet Gene & Paul weren’t around and ‘the boys’ were left to their devices. Oh the majesty .. no supervision?!
TOMORROW & TONIGHT – Again, the live version off Alive II, which isn’t actually live but a sound check cut tarted up for prime time with canned audience as a convincing canvas. He’s just so fucking on in it, even when he misses a beat with what sounds like a dropped stick… they left it, because it’s ‘the take’. That’s why it’s on the record, it was the albums “Rock & Roll All Nite” moment without having it on both live albums. It’s so good in fact it could have put it on side 3 as the closer after “Shout It Loud”.
DETROIT ROCK CITY – Again, I’ll point to the live version on Kiss Alive II because it’s so hot. Sure, Ezrin probably wrote the part but it’s how Peter delivers it, like no other drummer can. Musicians all know this — when it’s a singular performance it can never quite be duplicated by anyone else but the cat who played it and sometimes not even by him/her!! Very snappy version: the machine gun snare tag at the very end is a rapid-fire ass kicking that Bun E. Carlos loved to tag on to songs live too w/ Cheap Trick.
ROCK & ROLL ALL NITE – The studio version is pretty buttoned down but, as good as it is, the live version on Alive is pure Peter Criss, amped-up and happening all over the place. Loose, crazy, gutsy, groovy, altered, inspired, in a word, ALIVE!! It’s just plain fun, especially during Ace’s solo mid-way through. I am yet to hear a live version of the tune without Peter worth hearing, save the confetti. (Footnote: as a kid in 4th grade I wrote to the Kiss fan club to ask Peter why he changed the beat in the breaks from the album version? … no reply)
GOT LOVE FOR SALE – Off Love Gun, this lovely Gene confession features a great Eddie Kramer mix and amazing sounding drums and Peter Criss laying it down …..pre-chorus when he goes to the toms, and alternates the snare / bass pattern a bit a’ la the cha-cha, it showcases Peter’s knack for the right part at the right time to make it all keep moving and build anticipation like all the best pop songs do.
DR. LOVE – Off Rock & Roll Over is another fave of mine. At first listen it’s so simple but when you zoom in on the snare and hi-hat play, Peter does a lovely soft stick drag on the snare and always pulls the right feel on the open hi-hat tag and close. You can’t teach that shit; you have it, or you don’t. Next drummer please. Peter put personality of his own in ever track without over playing. The tom fills at the end of the cut during the fade are urgent, pure Criss (and no two alike either). It’s also the biggest cowbell part in the history of rock, or at least the loudest! In fact, to try and ape that classic Kiss sound, Kiss threw more cowbell on their latest album Monster than any other release in the band’s history, and I’m not forgetting Dressed To Kill!!
100,000 YEARS – Again, the Alive version, which I am told is completely un-doctored drum-wise, is a crowning achievement in rock history on a lot of levels. But I won’t bore with that — listen to it. Neil Peart aside, it’s the standard for the live 70’s drum solo. The toms and flange effect sound great. It’s not Bonzo or Peart but it could be no other than Peter Criss, his blend of Krupa and a jungle cat.
ROCKET RIDE – Hell, again, the studio side of Alive II, but it’s so Peter. Ace’s is all rigid like dumb punk and Peter is slapping the snare with his little -da-da-da-dat snare roll breaks and real mellow on the ride in the chorus’. Everyone else who has ever played the song live with Ace completely misses it, over muscling the thing. But the kicker is the Gene Krupa inspired drum solo blitz that is the coda on Frehley’s spacey Pagey bit at the end of the number. Hard to deny its one of the hottest drum breaks from anyone, on anything, anywhere in the annals of rock history. It’s rock n’ roll explosion that stops on a dime as if to say ‘take that’ mo-fo!’.
So many others I failed to mention: PARASITE, HOOLIGAN, LOVE GUN, ANYTHING FOR MY BABY, CHRISTINE SIXTEEN, LET ME GO ROCK & ROLL, TWO TIMER, ROOM SERVICE, SHE. Hell, BLACK DIAMOND, STRUTTER. GOD OF THUNDER live …..they’re all A1 because a great song with the right drums is hard to beat, then add a gimmick. Just ask the Beatles!