Like it or not, the stadium gig has become its own art form. At its worst, it can be a frustrating exercise – trying to identify ant-sized musicians with binoculars on a stage a mile away, while straining to decipher music filtered through so many layers of smoky atmosphere that it hardly even matches the sound of your car radio. But then there are the few bands that can truly turn the stadium experience into a spectacle, a mind-blowing adventure, even for the people in the nosebleed seats.
None has done it better than KISS. Since the ’70s, these four New Yorkers have boosted the sheer scale of the stadium gig to its grandest potential, raising the bar for all other rock bands to follow. By combining theatrics with hard rock, they throw almost everything into the pot, juxtaposing state-of-the-art lighting, pyrotechnics, smoking guitars, risers, and extravagant set designs with the now-legendary costumes and makeup, blood-spewing and fire-breathing. When KISS hits the stage it was as if Clive Barker choreographed the Fourth of July.
But amidst all the sequins and eye-black, there were four guys underneath the masks who understood what they were doing musically. Often this gets lost in all the talk about the band’s shows, but in a recent conversation with original KISS drummer Peter Criss, we find ourselves talking not about the shade of eyeliner or the groupies, but about a love for big band swing.
“Gene Krupa is my main idol,” the 53-year-old Criss ebulliently professes, with childlike reverence, “This is the man. My dad would always be playing Gene Krupa records. I remember my buddy, Gerry Nolan (New York Dolls), we grew up together as kids, went to high school, went through everything together. We’d go stand outside clubs and watch Gene, and I was just in awe.”
Then there was the night when a very young Criss got to meet his idol. “One night I got to go into this club, got some phony ID, dressed up – we looked a little older with suits and ties and Beatle haircuts – and I got to meet the man. And you know, he took some time out to show me this and that, how you do the drum boogie, ’Sing, Sing, Sing’ and all that stuff. I wish he would have lived longer to see me play and make it, because the guy really was a sweet man and he did take time out to explain stuff to me.”
Criss first got his start as a drummer in perhaps the most typical way. “My mom said I went right for the pots and pans under the sink and drove her up the wall,” he laughs. “I wanted to play drums, I think, from the day I was born.” Weaned on stickball in a rough neighborhood, poor but getting by, Criss found solace in music, which was abundantly prevalent in his childhood. “What really got me going was that my mom had a radio going 24 hours a day. She loved music, and she had a great voice. She’d sing a lot, loved Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday.”
Adolescence embraced Criss with his first real drums, and some pretty ingenious engineering. “My first drum was a snare drum, an old Slingerland Radio King. It was old, the snares didn’t work on the bottom. I had to put it on a box. Got a set of brushes, started messing with those things. Got a little basement doo wop band that let me sit behind them with brushes.”
The drummer of KISS was using brushes with a doo wop band? Wait, it gets better. “I used two garbage-can covers for cymbals. My dad helped me out. He put a stick in the middle with a big nail and put it in a bucket of cement. And we put little nails through one of the covers for rivets, so I had a sizzle. So I had a garbage can, I had a little wooden box, and we put glitter stars along the box – the guys called themselves The Stars. There I was, this 13-year-old kid sitting back there with brushes with these guys with Elvis Presley hairdos, playing a beat for them. Amazing.”
Toiling as a delivery boy at a butcher shop, Criss saved $200 and bought himself his first real kit – a set of white Slingerland Radio Kings with a 26" bass drum. He carried them home, set them up in his parents’ bedroom, and began practicing. Yet things didn’t come easy. “I didn’t know where to go, I got frustrated,” Criss confesses. “I didn’t have any independence going yet. I was really furious. I’d put the radio on, and I was louder than the radio. It was a battle there, but I just kept it up and eventually I worked to get some more money and managed to get a floor tom. The original kit just had a big old 15" [mounted] tom. It was huge. I looked so tiny behind them.”
Fortunately, Criss grew up fast. His first professional break came at the tender age of 18, when Criss, sporting another fake ID, got to sit in with Joey Greco and his seven-piece band. His fate was sealed as Greco offered the drummer a six-night-a-week gig on the spot, and despite protests from his mother, he quit high school with one year left to finish and took the gig. It was the ’60s, and while the gig was an eye-opener, even more important was the opportunity to immerse himself in the bohemian Greenwich Village and the emerging hurricane of the New York music scene.
“Greenwich Village at that time was the place to be,” Criss says, “The Lovin’ Spoonful was playing, Jimi Hendrix. So I just got into the cliques and started making the rounds, group to group to group, playing with a couple of guys here, a couple others there. I had bands of my own going: The Sounds of Soul, The Barracudas, we were really out there. Every Sunday everybody was jamming in the park. People let you sit in, it was really an incredible time for music. I remember sitting in with the Lovin’ Spoonful once. I was freaked out.”