The History of Peter Criss’ Post-Kiss Solo Career
Leaving the safety of a hugely successful band is often a challenge for even the most accomplished artists. Few high-profile musicians can attest to this more than co-founding Kiss drummer Peter Criss, who spent fifteen hard, frustrating years on his own before temporarily re-joining his old band in the late ’90s.
The history of Criss’ post-Kiss solo career actually begins in 1979, while he was still in the group. As substance abuse threatened to consume him, Criss was replaced on most of the ‘Dynasty’ album by session drummer Anton Fig. Producer Vini Poncia felt that Criss’ skills had simply deteriorated to the point that he was not fit to record. That decision was somewhat vindicated during the ensuing tour, which was marked by poor playing and, at some shows, blatant insubordination by Criss — including purposefully playing at slower tempos and fluffing his performance of ‘Beth.’ When the tour ended in December 1979, it was clear to all that his days in Kiss were numbered.
Although the official Kiss timeline lists May 1980 as the month Criss left the group to pursue his solo career, he had in fact begun it months earlier. While the rest of the band and Poncia were busy recording the album ‘Unmasked’ in the early months of the year, Criss was not even in the studio with them. Rather, he was elsewhere in New York working on his own album. His last official act as a member of Kiss was to show up for the filming of a promotional video for the ‘Shandi’ single.
With his tenure in Kiss officially at an end, Criss turned his attention to his own career. As it turned out, he was one of the few people paying any attention at all.
Released on Casablanca Records in September 1980, ‘Out of Control’ was met with indifference from record executives and music fans alike. The material, mostly co-written by Criss and longtime musical collaborator Stan Penridge, alternated between sentimental ballads in the vein of ‘Beth‘ — still his most famous performance from his time in the group — and harder-rocking tracks that were decent but hardly earth-shattering. Two of the songs on the record, ‘Out of Control‘ and ‘There’s Nothing Better,’ were originally recorded as demos for ‘Dynasty’ but ultimately rejected.
To promote ‘Out of Control,’ Criss appeared on shows such as Tom Snyder’s Tomorrow, making him the first member of Kiss to appear on TV without makeup. Strangely enough, however, Criss did not take advantage of this same marketing opportunity by appearing on his own album cover.
With little in the way of a promotional push from Casablanca Records (or from Criss, who didn’t attempt a supporting tour), and with songs that were somewhat out of step with the expectations of Kiss fans and the general record-buying public, ‘Out of Control’ sank into obscurity. It failed to enter the Billboard Top 200 at all and, after Casablanca folded in the mid-‘80s, spent the better part of the next few decades out of print.
Undeterred by the failure of ‘Out of Control,’ Criss returned to the studio in the spring of 1982 to record his next solo effort, ‘Let Me Rock You.’ This time, however, his involvement was mostly limited to recording his vocals and drum parts. He was instead supported by a host of session musicians and guest players, including Steve Stevens, Steve Lukather, Davey Faragher, James Newton Howard, and even former bandmate Gene Simmons.
Criss has just two songwriting credits on ‘Let Me Rock You,’ which is arguably a more consistent and focused record than ‘Out of Control.’ The rest of the tunes were either written by outsiders or were covers (most notable was John Lennon’s ‘Jealous Guy‘). Most interestingly for Kiss fans, there are contributions from Gene Simmons (‘Feels Like Heaven‘) and Vinnie Vincent (‘Tears’).
By this point, Casablanca was circling the drain and there was little appetite on the part of their corporate parent PolyGram to issue ‘Out of Control’ in the U.S. So when the album, which did feature a photo of Peter without his Catman makeup, was released in May 1982 it only appeared in Mexico, Japan, and parts of Europe.
Having released two commercial flops in less than two years, Criss dropped out of the music business for a while. His next project, launched in the spring of 1984 and based in Nashville, reunited him with Stan Penridge, and was appropriately called the Penridge-Criss Alliance (also known as the Criss-Penridge Alliance or just the Alliance). The group recorded a series of demos and even played some live shows, but things ended when Peter abruptly quit in either late ’84 or early ’85 (depending on which source you read), which also severed his relationship with Penridge. The two never worked together again, and Penridge died in May 2001.
Criss surfaced again in 1986, this time as the drummer for a female-fronted rock band called Jane which was later renamed Balls of Fire. In interviews from this time, Peter compared Balls of Fire to the Pretenders, but in fact the group’s sound was more straightforward hard rock with a slight glam edge. Balls of Fire played a handful of shows in the summer of ’86, although a record deal never materialized and there are no known demos in circulation. By the end of 1986, Criss had returned home to raise his daughter Jenilee.
Aside from a few subsequent guest appearances on albums from Black ‘N Blue (Tommy Thayer’s old band, another Kiss connection), King Kobra, and Ace Frehley, Criss’ solo career was dormant until 1989. That year he made what might be his most unexpected musical connection to date when he hooked up with former Kiss lead guitarist Mark St. John.
According to a 1999 interview with St. John, he and Criss became close friends while the latter was in the midst of a divorce from his second wife, Debra. (The two did not officially divorce until 1994.) The pair formed a new band called the Keep, along with one-time Black Sabbath vocalist David Donato and St. John’s brother Michael Norton on bass. In essence, this was really the second version of St. John’s prior band White Tiger, but with Criss replacing drummer Brian James Fox. The Keep recorded a demo tape and shopped it to record labels with no success. In May 1990 the band made their first and last live appearance, during a drum clinic at a Guitar Center music store in Lawndale, California. Sensing that the Keep had no future, St. John informed an angry Criss that he was leaving the project.
Criss and Norton quickly morphed into a new band simply called Criss. Between 1991 and early 1996, Criss cycled through at least six different lineups and featured two notable members — ex-Talas singer Phil Naro and future Queensryche guitarist Mike Stone. Criss made its live debut in November 1991, and began to tour more widely in 1992. In July 1993, they entered the studio to record a self-titled, five-song EP released that December by a tiny, short-lived independent label called Tony Nicole Tony Records. It was the first officially released Peter Criss solo material since ‘Let Me Rock You’ more than a decade earlier.
In August 1994, a full-length LP followed, called ‘Cat No. 1.’ Like the EP, the full-length album was centered on slower and mid-tempo hard rock songs, with a few typical Criss ballads thrown in for good measure.
By this time of ‘Cat No. 1”s release, Criss seemed a little more willing to openly embrace his past. His touring band included Kiss classics like ‘Hard Luck Woman‘ and ‘Nothin’ to Lose’ in their setlist, while the covers of both ‘Criss’ and ‘Cat No. 1′ feature a photo of Peter with half his face covered in his old Catman makeup. Both releases also feature an acoustic remake of ‘Beth,’ while ‘Cat No. 1′ boasts lead guitar work from Ace Frehley on three songs. Despite all of this, Criss as a solo act continued to appeal only to the most diehard minority of fans.
In the summer of 1995, as the flames of Kiss nostalgia were being stoked, Criss took to the road along with Ace Frehley’s band on the so-called Bad Boys of Kiss Tour. During the shows Peter often hopped on stage with Ace to perform fan favorites such as ‘Strange Ways,’ ‘Nothin’ to Lose,’ and ‘Rock and Roll All Nite.’
At long last, after years of fan wishes and months of speculation, in April 1996 the original Kiss lineup announced a reunion and subsequent world tour. For the average fan, this late-’90s reunion was a dream come true. But Criss says, for him, it became a nightmare of ego and money woes.
When he left the first time, back in 1980, it was as an equal partner. By 1996, however, Criss was no longer returning as a full member, but as a paid sideman. That ultimately created a rift that he never overcame. Criss quit in 2001, returned and then quit again for good 10 years ago in 2004.
“To have put something together, through blood, sweat and tears, and then one day to be told: ‘If you don’t do what I want, there’s the the door,’ it really blows your mind,” Criss said, in a 2012 interview. “You started this thing like GM, and you were a CEO, and now you’re washing floors. It’s that kind of feeling. It was tough, being how I am, and doing things my own way. Now, I was sort of having to walk the line. It got really uncomfortable. It wasn’t fun anymore.”
Over the course of this reunion stint, Criss would be featured in one Kiss studio effort, 1998′s ‘Psycho Circus,’ as well as two new live albums — 2003′s ‘Kiss Symphony: Alive IV‘; and 2006′s ‘Alive!: The Millennium Concert.’ But something fundamental, he insists, had changed in the interim. Simmons and Paul Stanley had gotten comfortable in running things as a two-man partnership, cutting out Criss and Frehley.
“From Day 1, they just loved the power of everything being their way or no way,” Criss lamented in another talk from 2012. “The almighty dollar. I was almost like a worker now. I was treated like a grip.”
Criss, meanwhile, was fighting for his own financial life. He says he only rejoined the group as his personal debts were mounting after a divorce and IRS problems. Today Criss admits that, for all of their disagreements, he emerged from this second stint with Kiss in a far more stable place. “The reunion was a blessing for me,” Criss said. “I knew it was going to be a great ride — and it was a good 10-year ride. This time, there was a lot more clarity, because there were no drugs. I knew this was a chance to have my pension. I can enjoy my time now, and be comfortable. I worked very hard for it.”
Since what appears to be his final split with Kiss, Criss has largely kept a low profile. After at least a few years of rumors and promises, in July 2007 he finally released his fourth post-Kiss solo LP, ‘One for All.’ Composed almost entirely of collaborations between Criss and former bandmate Mike McLaughlin, ‘One for All’ is easily his most laid back album to date. Acoustic guitars and soft ballads dominate the record, with barely any attempt made to placate Kiss fans hoping for anything like ‘Baby Driver,’ or even the more up-tempo songs from Criss’ 1978 solo album for that matter.
Criss’ long-promised autobiography followed in 2012. He then appeared — but didn’t perform — with the other original members of Kiss during their induction earlier this year into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Hopes for a larger reunion were dashed, however, when the honor devolved into an on-line shouting match between Criss and his former bandmates. Criss remains a solo artist.
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