Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Catman: My First Drumming Hero

I remember the moment like it was yesterday...

My parents were visiting some friends and my older sister and I came along. The family whose house we were visiting had some kids that were a bit older than us and we were invited to hang out with them in their oldest son's room. He was a big KISS fan and was spinning one of their records while he ate a popsicle. As I listened to the music I was looking at all of the pictures on the wall and was fascinated by the makeup as well as the stage costumes. Even though I was a little kid I had already fallen in love with the drums so right away I wanted to know who the drummer was and that was when I saw the man in the cat make up... Peter Criss!

Before I knew it I was hounding my parents to buy me KISS records and that was when the love affair with their music really started for me. Many people speak of gimmicks and such but the bottom line is this: when you're sitting in your room spinning their records or rocking out their songs in the car there is no stage show. There is no make up. There is no image because all you hear is their music. Love them or hate them, they really don't care and I am not ashamed to say that I love KISS' music and still listen to them. No apologies.

Why the strong words, you ask? Because not only was it their music that helped get me started on my musical journey but it was also the drumming of Criss that helped shape me into the drummer that I am today. Here I will share some of my insights on his great drumming to show why he had such an impact on me and so many drummers today.

The Early Records 

Criss was a veteran of the local New York music scene and he really paid some serious dues before hooking up with KISS. In fact, he has said on many occasions that he was close to quitting all together and that if things with KISS didn't work out that he was probably done.  So when you hear his drumming on the first KISS album you can hear how hungry he was to push the band to the top. Many people talk about the feel he had as a drummer and that is definitely something to think about. On the first three albums there are so many classic songs but if you want to get to the highlights then let's get to what I think are his best performances.

1) "Deuce:" Original Lead guitarist Ace Frehley has said on many occasions that this is his favorite song because it has attitude. The Spaceman is spot on and part of that attitude it the Catman's groove. This song demonstrates the 'tude that someone would have growing up on the streets of New York where they have a no nonsense way of life. No one plays this song like Criss and no one ever will. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGE_1MqrAKQ

2) "Black Diamond:" This song is always a highlight of a KISS show and part of what makes this song great is Criss' drumming and lead vocals. The drumming on this song is both powerful and smooth. Aside from that Criss' fills are placed perfectly within the guitar riffs with just enough space to give it a dramatic effect. This is another song that no other drummer has been able to duplicate, which is why it was smart for Criss' first replacement, Eric Carr to take it in another direction. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y0nNZ5wAWZE

3) "Parasite:" This is such a unique song for the early 1970's as it is both heavy and kind of sexy. The sexiness comes from Criss' groove as once again, that jazz background of his allows him to layer the song with a rhythmic presence that is not common for most rock drummers as they are much heavier handed with their ghost notes.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gw5-pGKpRHk

4) "Goin' Blind:" It might seem odd to praise a drummer's performance on a ballad but this song features a tasteful groove and some beautiful melodic fills that help fill in the spaces. The musicality of Criss' performance is why I never get tired of listening to this song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZa6tpq6Wzo

5) "She:" The album Dressed to Kill is one of my favorites because I think it is where Criss shines the most. He gets to employ many of the techniques he used in his jazz upbringing and he's playing that beautiful Ludwig kit that has that beautiful open sound. This song allows his to both pound those drums and to throw in those sexy ghost notes and ride cymbal work. It's the perfect compliment to the song's story line about a dangerous woman. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wAo-LAZlkc

6) "Love Her All I Can:" This is my favorite studio recording featuring the Catman. I love the way he drives the cowbell beat with those carefully placed ghost notes. Then there is the drum break where he gets to throw down some powerful fills before he works the snare and toms together, which I think is the highlight of the song. Go Catman! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6WYUyRIMrA

The Stage is Mine!

The Catman performed one of the greatest drum solos in rock history on KISS Alive!  The tribal drums are the perfect thing to get the crowd going and Criss' jazz background affords him the ability to play 12/8 rhythmic figures with ease and with that great feel he is known for. He really nails it when he drops the dynamics down before doing his famous tribal beat with the cowbell pounding between the toms. Of course he also helps Paul Stanley get the crowd going by continuing the groove under the Starchild's diatribe. It is truly a beautiful display of drumming. (see 2:48-5:48) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PxNtRX7qI-Y

When the Catman returned to KISS he incorporated much of what he did from both Alive! and Alive II while adding some new ideas to many of the familiar beats we have come to know and love. One of my favorite solos was the one he did on the opening night of the Psycho Circus tour at Dodger Stadium (by the way, I was there!). My favorite parts are when he does some kicks and then develops some nice fills within those kicks. Of course he still has his signature tribal grooves along with some showmanship that was fun for the crowd because they got to take part in his solo: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5jBeKPeoSkk

Phase Two 

KISS' next three studio albums have many gems as well and the Catman continued to work his magic on those drums. Again, it's very hard to choose which songs to highlight because there are so many but here are some of my favorites along with my reasons:

1) "Detroit, Rock City:" This is possibly Criss' most famous groove as it is an amazing shuffle with a great feel. This really helped KISS come out of the success of Alive! with a strong song that also had a slightly different feel. Criss' shuffles on songs like "100,000 Years" were a bit more traditional but if there was ever a rock shuffle it's the one on "Detroit, Rock City." His fills are also tasteful and the feel is just so smooth. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0R5J6dvpujs

2) "God of Thunder:" Sometimes it's more about setting the mood and Criss does a great job during this performance. This song is very dramatic and Criss really anchors the whole thing brilliantly. The snare hits are just right when it comes to announcing the presence of the deity that is the character singing the song. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mmHZ9vrcgxA

3) "Calling Dr. Love:" A rocking classic and a total rock star song when it comes to the lyrics. This is another song with attitude and to paraphrase Gene Simmons who once said about Criss' playing: It is in fact deceiving as the rhythms are harder than people realize. Criss' grooves are smooth and sexy on the verses and he just rocks out o the choruses. Aside from that his fills are very melodic as they help tell the story of the song. It's a fabulous performance: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IDTE8DpkKE4

4) "Makin' Love:" If there is such thing as a song that is harder than it appears it's this song. Criss plays simple beats but such beats are not easy to maintain because the energy that KISS brings can tempt a drummer to speed up more than they should. He does a great job anchoring things down before that beautiful fill of him going around his drum set. Thank God for the engineering of the great Eddie Kramer because those concert toms are gorgeous: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSMc0UAxgyo

5) "I Stole Your Love:" This is a great opener to the album Love Gun and features some amazing drumming by the Catman. His tom work through it so unique to a rock song and really adds to the drama of the song. His snare sound is amazing so when he goes from a tom driven groove to a regular back beat it just kicks the band into overdrive. This was the first studio album my parents ever bought me and I will never forget the mark it left on me when I first heard it because it still gets to me to this day: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N3MZnxJ-lYM

6) "Shock Me:" This song is both Frehley's lead vocal debut and has what many consider to be his best recorded guitar solo. I won't argue against any of that but I will insist that people must also cite the fact that it is also one of Criss' finest recorded performances. Frehley's riff is very unique and has a nice flow to it thanks to Criss' groove. Aside from the smooth grooves that feature a nice hi-hat feel and occasional ghost notes he also offers some pounding drum fills with his drums again having a heavenly sound thanks to the great Eddie Kramer. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iauaDVVPGW8 

7) "Rocket Ride:" Here is a track that was one of the studio cuts on Alive II and it's awesome. It's one of Frehley's most exciting songs as it features some cool riffs and solos but such a song could not exist without Criss' powerful drums supporting the ride. You also have to love that drum break at the end where the Catman lets out what is probably the most amazing drum roar that he ever recorded. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AQ9nQoNuAZs

Don't Overlook This

Criss' raspy almost Rod Stewart type voice is so sweet to listen to. However, don't let the reference fool you because the Catman can rock with the best of them. Yes, we all know about his beautiful lead vocals on classics like "Beth" and "Hard Luck Woman" and like many people I love those songs. But, let's not forget songs like "Getaway" and "Baby Driver" where the Catman holds his own with any great rock singer out there. I still love rocking those songs in my car.

Finally, even when I was a kid who loved KISS and other rock bands I still listened to other types of music with one of those genres being R & B. With that being said I am not ashamed to say that I love a lot of Peter's KISS solo album. It has so much soul and most importantly, we get to hear him sing a lot more than usual. I never get tired of "I'm Gonna Love You," "You Matter to Me, "Don't You Let Me Down," and my favorite song off of the album, "Easy Thing." The Catman deserves a lot more love than he gets for what I think is a great album.

Finally, I have to give a nod to Criss' adaptability when it comes to his approach in the studio and his approach onstage. The studio allows the artist a little more room to do what they think is best in terms of their performance but the energy that comes from an arena filled with rowdy rock and rollers will dictate how a song should be performed live . To see Criss' adaptability in such situations I would suggest you listen to recorded versions of "She" and "Calling Dr. Love" on their respective albums and then check out the live versions on Alive! and Alive II. It's is truly night and day and kudos to Criss for being able to drive both ships.

Beyond KISS 

One if the things that never made sense to me was that so many KISS fans speak of their wish for Peter to have remained in KISS due to the musical contributions he made to the band. With that in mind, how many of these fans even know what Peter did away from KISS as his musical talents were still without question. 

It is understandable that many KISS fans may not care for much of Peter's solo work because that was when he returned to a lot of his jazz and soul roots. We saw hints of this on his KISS solo album in 1978 and to me that's a true sign of an artist making a true solo effort. In other words, you go in a direction that you are not able to go into in the band you are known to work with. the Let's check out some tracks that many KISS fans may not be aware of.

1) "By Myself:" An obvious ode to leaving KISS and starting a solo career. This is a beautiful song with a beautiful vocal performance. You can see in Peter's performance how determined he was to the best of his solo career. It's just too bad that the label and fans were not there to make it happen. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WuKKF3hi6uw&list=PLkK4ovn_8Er2E6bXc_yypt2_RT1Zl11P_

2) "Out of Control:" The title track from Peter's first post-KISS solo album and while this song sounds a bit dated it is pretty cool when you're in a nostalgic mood. The drumming has the expected solid feel that we have come to know from the Catman while delivering a great lead vocal performance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C-4z7e2Jzzg

3) "Destiny:" This has a nice moving groove with a great chorus. There is also a lot going on with the background instruments with the Peter's voice doing a great job adding the final piece to the song. A very underrated song for that time period. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xzSsQSN0mFw&list=PLQUVYGgOvzcp5WeSJOMYL6G_aldXt6Li7&index=5

 4) "Tears:" Ironically, this song was co-written by future lead guitarist of KISS Vinnie Vincent under his real surname of Cusano. It has a nice groove with a nice lead vocal performance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVU3XnJ0P9o

5) "Bad People Burn in Hell:" This is a cool track. Peter's vocals are spot on as is his drumming as they round out and support some nice guitar riffs. There is always something about the way the Catman grooves with that cowbell, a la "Black Diamond" and we see in again on this track. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PNK9TDq1T5g&list=PLA2-nXsHvm3Kjea6NBlIop_A4yff_OzL3&index=4 

6) "Strike:" This is a very interesting track as it has a nice dynamic opening with some jazz hi hat work, a nice number of groove changes while allowing Peter to display some nice snare drum work on the chorus and outro of the song. This is definitely not something we are accustomed to hearing from the Catman as his drumming and vocals are definitely stretched on this track. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5A4waqEme6I

7) "What a Difference a Day Makes:" Talk about Peter being in his element. This is the kind of stuff he grew up on and his soulful musicianship is all over this song. Here he gets to display his abilities as a crooner along with some nice brush work on the snare drum, which I'm sure he loved doing since he is a band fan of jazz drumming.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zsQm7sw9wTs&list=PLB60DB51EB022FC2A&index=9

8) "Falling All Over Again:" One listen to this song and it's more than obvious that the same lead vocalist who recorded "Beth" had to be the one to perform on this track. His vocals are so beautiful while his drumming is smooth and sweet, which offer support and a rhythmic reflection of his vocal performance. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ck5tc7rm5bs&list=PLB60DB51EB022FC2A&index=11


Saying Goodbye 

On June 17, 2017 Criss performed for the last time at the Cutting Room in New York. Each song that is posted on You Tube is a party in itself. It was so good to see him get the accolades he deserves because we all know that he has fought so many demons in his life. Aside from that, he performed as a professional musician for over five decades and we know that many of those performances were not always on the biggest stages with all the amenities. That is a real trooper who obviously did it for the love of the art. I also know is that he always loved and appreciated his fans and you could really see that in his farewell speech. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8oDv6KCFT8

I also know this from first hand experience.

On May 2, 1990 I attended one of his drum clinics at Guitar Center in Hawthorne, CA. I was a young seventeen year old drummer and brought a ton of stuff for him to sign. Our first connection was when he looked in my direction and I offered him a fist pump, which he returned as he had just done a great drum solo. Later on I brought my stuff for him to sign, which included some KISS records & pictures as well as his post KISS solo albums. He was stunned to see me with these albums because they were only released over seas. He asked me where I got them and I just smiled and said that I am a true fan. He was really touched by that. When he finished signing my stuff I gave him a mask I made for my high school art class, which was a Plaster of Paris of my face with his KISS make up on it. He really liked it and then put it on his face, which took my breath away. As he did that a bunch of fans complimented my work. Then the Catman almost brought me to my knees when he said that he was going to put it in his trophy room with all of his gold and platinum records.WOW!!!! Finally, when it was time to leave so I wished him well and he said, "God bless you man!"

Thanks Catman but I must return the favor: "God bless you!"

 Even though it's been a few years since that special night at the Cutting Room I still have a hard time believing that the Catman has called it a career. That's one of the reasons why it has took me a long time to write the first version of the this blog before I took some time to update it.  All I can say is thank you Peter. Thank you for being my first drumming hero and for giving me the inspiration to pursue my dream of being a great drummer. Thank you for those amazing performances when this man who was too young to go to a KISS concert during your first run with the band got a second chance to see you with the band during your second run with the group. Thank you for being an inspiration from your farewell speech to your openness about your breast cancer. Your courage inspires me to be the man I should be. Thank you for being you because you are still a hero to me and always will be.

Carlos Solorzano

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