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Peter Criss: In The Solo Album Spotlight

A fresh examination of the Catman's 1978 solo album and no, it's not that bad.

By Tim McPhate



"Out of all the records that we've ever done solo or as a group, I think that one showed that the guy behind it didn't really have a clue." -- Gene Simmons

Those are some harsh words, Gene. But who said anything about "Asshole"?

In all seriousness, the answer is no. As in, no, Peter Criss' 1978 solo album is not the musical equivalent of horse manure. Gene and Paul -- and some KISS fans, for that matter -- have staked their claim to the contrary, but at a certain point one has to wonder if their words are really a reflection of the actual music or the person whose makeup adorns the album cover.

Some 35 years later, I'm quite comfortable with saying that "Peter Criss" is the most underrated of the four solo albums, and arguably the most musically mature. And while it will never replace "Hotter Than Hell" in the pantheon of KISS classics, it's a solid effort that can yield an enjoyable listening experience if you're so inclined.

One of the main criticisms levied against "Peter Criss" is that it sounds nothing like KISS. Well, to state the fairly obvious, "Peter Criss" is not a KISS album; it's a solo album. As such, this was an opportunity for Criss -- who sang the lead vocal on KISS' highest-charting U.S. single -- to make a personal statement outside of the constraints of the band.

The mission for the album was certainly clear to the album's co-producer, Vini Poncia.

"At the time we were making [the album], our focus was on Peter the singer," said Poncia. "It was designed around Peter doing songs that were emotional, songs that he could relate to."

In 1978 Poncia was fresh from winning a Grammy for Best Rhythm & Blues Recording in 1977 for Leo Sayer's "You Make Me Feel Like Dancing," a song he co-wrote. A man with a strong ear for melody and a knack for sharp arrangements, Poncia had cut his musical teeth in the '60s as a songwriter with partner Peter Anders, placing songs with artists such as the Ronettes, Bobby Bloom and Darlene Love. Taking notes in the studio from producer Richard Perry, Poncia subsequently made his own foray into record production, taking the helm on albums for artists such as Melissa Manchester, Ringo Starr and Lynda Carter (yes, that Lynda Carter). Aside from his production work, Poncia -- a fellow Italian -- also played a key role on Criss' album by bringing in his own clique of session musicians, including bassist Bill Bodine, guitarist Art Munson, horn arranger Tom Saviano, and keyboardist/string arranger Bill Cuomo.

Once Poncia came onboard to steer the album's final sessions in Los Angeles, longtime Criss cohort Stan Penridge recalled "normal eight-hour" days during which the producer ran a tight ship. For his part, Criss remembered an argument-free atmosphere in the studio with Poncia, allowing him to concentrate on his goals for the project.

"Music is a circle, clothing's a circle, everything's a circle, it comes back," said Criss. "I want to bring back that era when Sam And Dave and Motown was really big. And they had the Supremes and the Shangri-Las, and it was a really happening era."

When pondering Criss' words, one important thing to consider is that he was 32 in 1978. The lone KISS member over 30 at the time, Criss was also between 4 and 7 years older than his bandmates. As such, he was exposed to a different group of artists in his formative years.

"I love R&B. I grew up on that," said Criss. "I've always [listened to] James Brown and Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding. It's good stuff."

"What the album did foremost was give Peter a chance to get in touch with his roots," explained Poncia. "He was able to do some white R&B, and bluesy kind of things that he grew up with. He was able to show the world a different side to him."

This "different side" would turn out to be autobiographical in many ways. The Brooklyn-born drummer was known for not only wearing his heart on his sleeve, but also a volatile temperamental side. In hindsight, the songs and performances comprising "Peter Criss" mirror a tumultuous period in his life -- whether it was feelings of discontent with his standing in KISS, experiencing the disintegration of his first marriage to Lydia Criss, beginning a steamy love affair with a "Playboy" bombshell, or living out a care-free, fast-and-loose lifestyle in L.A. If anything, "Peter Criss" is certainly a close-to-the-bone journey, and one containing arguably some of the Catman's finest vocals of his career.

"Don't you tear my heart out/And lie it on your shelf," howls Criss in "I'm Gonna Love You," a tune that kicks off the album with some '70s-era Stones swagger. One of the few Penridge-co-written Lips-era remakes on the album, "I'm Gonna Love You" surely benefitted from a full-band arrangement compared to its original flatlining folk-based form. Criss' unmistakable drum groove is complemented by a creative, bouncy bass line from Bodine. Horns arranged by Saviano add R&B/soul texture, while the lead guitar lines primarily consisting of double-stops bring some bluesy rock flare.

Though Criss delivers an energetic vocal and the arrangement is sturdy, "You Matter To Me" feels like the one song that is perhaps out of place. Brought to the table by Poncia, the tune's synthesized disco undertones clash with the album's more rootsy flavors. Interestingly, "You Matter..." is the first song on an album with a KISS logo to dabble in disco, pre-dating "I Was Made For Lovin' You" by one year. It also bears the lesser-known distinction of being recorded by John Travolta's little brother, Joey Travolta.

The lone cover song on the album, "Tossin And Turnin'" was originally recorded by Bobby Lewis and spent seven weeks at No. 1 in 1961. "I always liked it because I have insomnia ... I related to it," said Criss regarding the decision to cover the song. (Aside from Criss, other artists who have covered the tune include Joan Jett and polka star Jimmy Sturr.)

The combination of Criss' vocal and Poncia's updated arrangement equates to one of the album's high points. Adding a slight personal touch, Criss altered the line "the clock downstairs is striking four" to "three" -- his lucky number. While staying faithful to the original recording, Poncia adds enough of a unique spin -- most notably, the tempo is brought down to let the song breathe a bit more. Background vocals are provided courtesy of Maxine Willard, Maxine Dixon and Julia Tillman, one of several instances on the album that finds Criss' gravelly growl complemented by female vocals. The horns are again tastefully arranged by Saviano, with some slightly different accents compared to the original recording. The eight-bar sax solo is played by Michael Carnahan, who also takes some slight liberties with the original solo. "Tossin' And Turnin'" would be Criss' solo album representative in the set list on KISS' 1979 tour in support of "Dynasty."

Another song with Lips ties, "Don't You Let Me Down" could easily be mistaken for a Ben E. King outtake. With a strong harmony throughout -- the verse particularly features a I-vi-ii-V cadence -- Poncia had a good framework upon which to build his sterling arrangement. Firstly, the song's steady rhythm is formed by a subtle Bodine bass line and a sparse drum beat by Criss. Faint wah-wah guitar scratches, acoustic guitar strums and a breezy synthesizer patch fill the mix, providing the perfect atmosphere for Criss' sedate vocal. (The lush R&B-ish background vocal blend is courtesy of Criss, Penridge and Poncia, adding an effective element.) Compared to the original demo, the key of the song was raised one whole step from G major to A major to better suit Criss' range. Criss has identified the song as a love letter to Debra Jensen, the "Playboy" model whom he had met prior to the recording of the album and would latter marry.

The title for the closer on side one, "That's The Kind Of Sugar Papa Likes," was borrowed from a line by Humphrey Bogart in the 1948 film The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. Yet another Lips-era song, the Catman propels this sexually charged number with not only his spirited vocal, but his groovy drumming. Listen to how Criss rocks a simple straight-edged beat during the verse and proceeds to mix in some swing in the chorus. Criss erupts with a few "Baby Driver"-esque ad-libs as the chorus rides the song out, while upping the percussive energy accordingly with a pounding triplet cymbal pattern. The in-the-pocket guitar solo comes courtesy of Toto axeman Steve Lukather.

Speaking of Lukather, the pool of musical talent assembled on "Peter Criss" is impressive. Also adding six-string textures throughout the album are the likes of seasoned jazzer John Tropea, Munson, Starz' Brendan Harkin, and the versatile Elliott Randall. Bodine and Neil Jason lay down the bottom end and drummer extraordinaire Allan Schwartzberg subs for Criss on three cuts. Bill Cuomo and Richard Gerstein (aka Richard T. Bear) add keyboards, while the aforementioned Saviano manages the horns. In 1978 many, if not all, of these musicians were not only top players on the session scene, but seasoned pros who understood how to effectively play for the song.

Moving on to side two, the momentum slides a bit with the presence of three ballads. (In hindsight, perhaps the track listing could have been altered to balance the album's dynamics.) "Easy Thing," a song in the key of D major, seems like a lyrical sentiment that hit Criss close to home. "Love is such an easy thing to lose," the Catman croons, as if he was pondering his own relationship troubles at the time. The song transforms into full-fledged "power ballad" territory, convening electric guitar, the rhythm section combo of Jason and Schwartzberg, and a saccharine-laced string arrangement by Cuomo.

With its Bob Seger-inspired stomp, "Rock Me Baby" is one of two songs penned by Sean Delaney and one of a handful of tracks with basics cut in New York at Electric Lady Studios prior to Poncia's involvement. "Baby, who you been lovin' since your man's gone?" ponders Criss. Saviano contributes another winning horn arrangement on top of Gerstein's rock and roll-flavored piano. Meanwhile, background vocals from Annie Sutton and Gordon Gordy answer Criss' rasp. The simple, melodic solo comes courtesy of Tropea.

The all-acoustic "KISS The Girl Goodbye" is the album's streamlined answer to "Beth." A quiet campfire-style tune in the key of A, Criss' vocal is supported by a simple chord structure and plaintive lead lines. With another set of lyrics that tugged at his heart strings, Criss has stated that the song doubled as a bittersweet love letter to his first wife Lydia. Of musical note, "KISS The Girl..." is the rare KISS-related song to contain a diminished chord within its harmonic framework. And how about the Catman's falsetto?

The last of the Lips-era remakes, the infectious "Hooked On Rock 'N' Roll" drops in one last attempt at a rock and roll/R&B hybrid, mixing in enough contributions from Poncia to earn him a songwriting credit. "Mama told me long ago/'Ain't no future in that rock and roll'/And I said, "Hey mama, it's burnin' hot inside my soul," shouts Criss against a Stax-inspired cocktail of guitar, piano and horns. In a subtle arrangement twist, for the restatement of the bridge, Poncia, Penridge and Criss pepper in some cool doo-wop-style background vocals. Lukather makes his second guitar solo cameo, navigating the I-IV-V-based progression flawlessly.

Criss saves his best for the album's final track, the stunning "I Can't Stop The Rain." An eloquent ballad in the key of F, Gerstein's piano, Tropea and Randall's guitars and a picture-perfect string arrangement from Cuomo help set the perfect mood for Criss, whose vocal positively drips with emotion. "It takes a witch to curse that goddamn sky," condemns Criss, succumbing to the flood. A proper tip of the cap to the late Delaney for penning this tremendous song. And kudos to Criss for turning in one of the best recorded performances of his career.

Within the context of this summary, it's only appropriate to note that Criss required the most assistance of the four KISS members with his solo album. Not only was he aided by Poncia, Delaney and an A-list group of musicians as mentioned, the album consists of a cover song, a song brought in by Poncia, Delaney's contributions, the leftover material from Lips, and a couple of other Criss/Penridge co-writes. Of course, as with all Criss/Penridge collaborations, it's not exactly clear as to the degree the Catman actually contributed.

On a related note, there seem to be a couple of lingering misconceptions about "Peter Criss." Some misinformed reviews of the album -- by fans, critics or otherwise -- have described it as containing jazz nuances. There are absolutely no jazz elements to be found anywhere on this album. R&B, soul and rock and roll elements, yes. Jazz? No. Second, Peter Criss did, in fact, play drums on six tracks. As has been documented, Criss was involved in a car accident on May 27, 1978, which badly injured not only himself but tour manager Fritz Postlethwaite. According to Criss, when sessions resumed in June he played drums with little casts on each finger. Truthfully, it's pretty easy to hear that it's Criss playing on the majority of the album, as reflected in the album's credits. And besides, even if he didn't play drums on any of the tracks, as some are still apt to incorrectly claim, would it really matter? As Poncia stated, the goal of this album was to showcase Peter Criss "the singer."

Unfortunately, Peter Criss "the singer" failed to catch on, peaking at only No. 43 on the Billboard 200, the lowest peak position of the solo albums. Along with Simmons' eclectic LP, "Peter Criss" proved to be a bit of a head-scratcher. And given the band's abrasive effect on the mainstream media, there was little hope of a single crossing over to a potential willing audience. (Ironically, Criss' album is the only KISS solo album to be backed by two singles -- "Don't You Let Me Down" and "You Matter To Me.")

As for why this album didn't resonate with actual KISS fans in 1978, I believe the music confused them. Asking 8-16 year olds -- an age group that made up the majority of KISS' fan base at the time -- to get onboard with an album full of songs that had next to nothing to do with "Love Gun," "Deuce" and "Strutter" was, to borrow someone else's words, highly improbable.

"The sad thing is I don't think [some of the songs] really go their just dues," said Criss. "Like 'I Can't Stop The Rain' and a few other songs that are my all-time favorites. They have so much meaning, you know, to me."

Discussing the four KISS solo albums has emerged as one of the favorite pastimes for KISS fans of all eras. And I've seen enough discussion and debates to know that If there is one KISS solo album that gets torn down the most, it's "Peter Criss." In the end, music -- including songs performed by Criss -- is purely subjective. However, regardless of your take or mine, "Peter Criss" is a snapshot of the Catman in 1978 and a window into his musical soul. But maybe KISS fans didn't really care to get to know Peter Criss on that level.



See also:
(For further reading material, be sure to peruse Julian Gill's dedicated KISS Album Focus chapter on "Peter Criss.")