Kiss Album Focus - Peter Criss pre-KISS
Peter George John Criscuola, the oldest member of the band, was born December 20, 1945 in Brooklyn, New York. He was the eldest of the five children of Joseph and Loretta Criscuola. Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s, Peter was part of the lifestyle made famous in the film On the Waterfront. Suffering through Catholic school, Peter was soon hanging out in gangs. According to Peter, “We called ourselves outlaws... It was the macho thing to do. We got dressed up and hung out together. The chicks really dug us. They thought we were groovy” (Groupie Rock Special #5, 1979). However, the seedier side of 1950s gang life would result in scars and visits to the hospitals after rumbles. Music would provide an escape from reality for Peter and gave him a chance to aspire to be something.
Peter had the most musical experience, in terms of how long he had actively been playing, prior to joining Gene and Paul in what could be considered to be a final version of Wicked Lester during late 1972. According to Chris Lendt, in his book “KISS & Sell,” Peter’s true first name is George and even Peter had seemingly forgotten this fact when he attempted to have his name legally changed during the 1970s. The court documents he filed would be returned to him as invalid because the name he had listed as his then “true” name did not match the name that was listed on his birth certificate! There is also some audio evidence of this with Gene and Paul hollering at “George,” perhaps to annoy him, to pick up the beat on some later KISS rehearsal tapes for the “Rock And Roll Over” Tour in 1976! Regardless, Peter’s influences were the strangest to many of the “rock crowd” who would later follow the band. This was partially the result of those few extra years in age he had over the other members of the band, but also a result of his environment.
Peter had been working in bands since the late 1950s. Very few of these bands had anything to do with the rock ‘n roll style with which he later enjoyed worldwide stardom. The most notable of Peter’s early bands was the Joey Greco Band. Peter became involved with this band after filling in for their then drummer, who had broken his leg and was unable to play. The band was led by guitarist Joe Greco and played at the legendary Metropole Club, Peppermint Lounge, and Trudi Heller Club. Peter frequented the scene and was familiar with the Metropole. As such it was more of a jazz joint that legend suggests that Peter and some friends had simply been passing by when they decided to go in and get a drink. While little is known about the band’s line-up when Peter was involved, he wasn’t involved with Joey for a substantial period.
The Metropole was one of the central homes to the New York jazz movement throughout the 1960s. The dating of Joey’s work in New York is quite easy to pinpoint. Starting out in the Jet-tones, Joey’s first professional band was the Firelighters. During 1962 the band did a tour of Brazil and Argentina before returning to the States in the middle of the year. Having started gigging in Florida, the band initially only played the New York club scene. Both Joey and bassist Ralph Di Pietro joined Johnny Hallyday’s band in November 1963. Johnny was known as the “French Elvis!”
At the time Joey was offered a spot in Johnny’s band, he had problems with the membership of his own group, which helped make the decision to jump to another band appealing. Both the pianist and drummer were going to be drafted for America’s adventure in Vietnam. As a backing group for Hallyday the band became “Joey Greco and the Showmen” with the line-up completed with Jean Tosan (Sax), Marc Hemmler (Piano), Claude Djaoui (Rhythm Guitar), and former Vince Taylor band drummer Bobbie Clarke.
Joey returned to the United States in 1965 and formed a band while he waited to continue working with Johnny who had to take time out from the music scene (like Elvis) to do French military service. Another member of Joey’s 1960s band, Steve O’Connor, later briefly played with Richie Scarlet in his band the Seducers and demoed material with Richie and Ace Frehley singing backing vocals. Joey never rejoined Johnny, but later played with greats including Tony Orlando and Bette Midler. In terms of the bigger KISS-related picture he also played with Tommy James.
A result of a bit of good-luck, Peter had found his first real break. The Metropole was also where one of his idols, the famed jazz drummer Gene Krupa, was playing during the early 1960s. The great master of jazz drumming, Krupa had been a major influence on the young Peter. After getting the gig with Joey Greco Peter was soon able to get some lessons, or at least some stylistic pointers and/or guidance, from the master. Krupa’s contributions to drumming range from style to the technical apparatus of the modern drummer. He had been one of the first artists to record using a bass drum and had requested technical improvements to both the tom-tom and high-hat cymbal. Krupa apparently persuaded drum manufacturer Slingerland to make a separate tension tunable tom-tom instead of the then-standard non-tunable tacked head tom. The changes to cymbal resulted in it being played with the stick rather than foot, as had been common. For his showmanship and technical endeavors Krupa is often considered the father of modern drumming.
Peter recalled the sort of input he got from Krupa, “I used to hang out at the stage door, and he’d come out and I’d say, ‘Hi,’ and he’d say, ‘Hi,’ and I’d ask him if he had any time to show me this or that. A lot of times, he’d stop and really take the time to show me stuff. I just thought he was incredible” (Rhythm Magazine, 1997). This education was informal and could hardly able to be described as being “lessons.” Regardless, any input was useful to the Peter whose skills were built more on enthusiasm than technical training. This early schooling in the foundations of jazz, and the general style of drumming at the time, helps explain Peter’s somewhat strange and convoluted style. It was closer to the music of Peter’s choice, which was rather noticeable on his 1978 solo album, much to the derision of his KISS fans. This style was also closer to the sort of music that Peter had heard while growing up, and provided a more basic training in the techniques of drumming however rudimentary this might be considered by some.
The early 1960s saw an older Gene Krupa, decades away from his 1930s heyday, with some serious health problems and in physical and technical decline. Yet the input was invaluable to Peter and had some effect on his choice of drumming equipment: he used the same set of Radial King Slingerlands that Krupa used. Peter obtained these for $200 while working as a delivery boy in a butcher shop. Peter had fond memories of the master and feels that Gene would have enjoyed what he did later, though he died in 1973.
Krupa’s contributions to music go further than the technical changes and equipment: He brought the drummer out from behind the drum kit and made them a more noticeable individual in a band, not simply a person in the background. This made the drummer much more than a time-keeper and allowed him to interact with the other members of a band while performing the necessary role. He also introduced the extended drum solo into jazz.
Combined, these contributions were essentially laying the groundwork for the great rock drummers who followed such as John Bonham and Keith Moon. They were certainly more than time-keepers such as Charlie Watts, who would quietly provide the backbone for a band’s material. He also expanded the scope of the drum sound and what it could add to the music while not being against some of the drummer showmanship and flair that became standard in the 1970s and 1980s. It is important to remember that Peter was not formally schooled in “Drumming 101” (at least until the 1980s) and was seldom able to play the same thing identically twice.
Krupa was not Peter’s only influence; like anyone else, there were numerous musicians who motivated a young musician with aspirations to escape from the streets and mundane work life. Some like Buddy Rich were also from a different era, but John Bonham, Charlie Watts, Keith Moon, Ginger Baker, and Mitch Mitchell were the highly visible power drummers of the 1960s. They were those most likely to be seen based on the influence their bands had on the public music media!
According to Peter, his first band, called The Stars, had been formed around 1958. As a youngster the importance of this band can probably be limited to it simply being his first band, and the level of seriousness is probably the opposite of what one could really consider being a band. This “band” performed the variety of doo-wop that was popular at the time, and seems to be more of a bunch of friends getting together on street corners to entertain themselves with music when not fighting. It is also around this time that “his father gave him an old Army marching band snare drum” (Bob Roderick).
Peter’s short tenure with Joey Greco occurred in 1966 while he was a member of The Barracudas, which might be considered the first of Peter’s real bands. Lead by guitarist/vocalist Carlos Cancel the band also included Angelo Opper on bass and Allen Rosen on rhythm guitar. The band were very much starting at the bottom of the club scene playing Top-40 material at clubs such as The Highway Lounge (now the Black Betty on Metropolitan Avenue) in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. The band also recorded two original songs, “It’s Been So Long” and “Affection,” that were released in January 1967 on a local vanity pressing label. Both songs were written by Carlos Cancel with “It’s Been So Long” being a light-weight ballad, more from the school of Frankie Avalon and the crooners of the late 1950s. “Affection,” on the other hand, was more garage band in style, with a slight Beach Boys vibe.
The band would release one other single (De-lite 502), in late 1967 or early 1968, “Chicken” b/w “No Use,” though even by the time the first single was being pressed both Peter and Angelo had departed the band. It is unknown, but unlikely that Peter had anything to do with this second single, but it certainly was a second release from a band that he’d been a member of. Peter departed The Barracudas with something else: A steady girlfriend. He’d met Lydia Di Leonardo, a friend of Angelo Opper’s girlfriend in July 1966.
Peter’s next band was Sounds of Soul which included Angelo, Joey Lucenti (guitar/vocals), Joe Genneralli (keyboards), and Tom Ventimiglia (horns). While this band only lasted a year Peter has fond memories of the experience. This band covered a spectrum of music from pop covers to R&B soul. They played the New York club circuit even working with Billy Joel’s early band, The Hassles. They also started working further away from the city getting a week-long engagement at Villa Capri in Albany, NY in October 1967. Another venue the band played (four dates in November 1967) was Caesar’s Pad in Mount Freedom, NJ.
The band managed to record some covers at Gotham Records in New York including “Since I Fell For You,” “My Girl,” and “Respect.” Peter sang lead on the last of these tracks. It should also be noted that gig contracts from this period invariably list Peter as being the leader of the band. This certainly makes it appear that Peter was playing an active role in his bands, rather than “just being the drummer.” Being more than a drummer also meant that Peter wanted to sing, and this lead to him moving from one band to another. According to Peter, “The society band was fun, but it was the same old story. I wasn’t permitted to sing. And nobody wanted to hear my originals” (Groupie Rock Special #5, 1979). However, playing his originals wasn’t as important as making a living. Peter also played in a Latin band at some point during the late 1960s.
In the Spring of 1968 the Sounds of Soul became The Brotherhood with the departure of Tommy Ventimiglia. Throughout 1968 Peter would be playing in a band called The Brotherhood at venues such as the Thunderbird Inn in Saugerties, NY. However, by the fall the band had become The Vintage. The band’s lineup included stalwart Pepi Genneralli, guitarist Joey Lucenti, plus bassist John Balsamo. The band took part in New Groove ‘69 young talent show held at the Academy of Music on January 10, 1969, performing an original song, “The Gypsy.” According to the band’s bio in the New Groove program, “The Vintage play acid rock, but with feeling, making this a very good year for acid rock. The difference is four good musicians... The Vintage is serious about joining the ranks of the professional musical groups, and are working on it full time.”
The band would win their category and be awarded studio time at Associate Recording Studios, where they would record a demo, “What Is A Man.” Both of these songs were written by Pepi Genneralli. By early late 1969 Peter was playing in a band with Pepi called Nautilus. The band included Peter Shadis on bass and Kevin Reese on guitar. The band played one particularly notable gig: Peter’s wedding on January 31, 1970. Jamming with the band was saxophonist Buddy Bowzer, a member of Peter’s best man Jerry Nolan’s band Maximillion. Jerry, of course, was later drummer with the New York Dolls, a band that Peter also auditioned for following the death of Billy Murcia in 1972. By late 1970 it was time to move on again, and Peter joined Chelsea, the band for which he would be best known by fans prior to joining KISS. Peter had placed an ad in Rolling Stone Magazine that resulted in him being recruited for a band that became known as Chelsea.
Chelsea was a folk-tinged band very representative of the era in which they existed. Flower power, though without the power, building somewhat on the post-Newport Dylan. Several of Peter’s pre-KISS bands would be described as being “acid rock,” so perhaps this term could be used to describe Chelsea as well. Comprised of Michael Benvenga (bass/vocals), Chris Aridas (guitar), Mike Brand (guitar), and Peter Shepley (vocals), the combo had problems balancing the folk and electric aspects of their sound, usually resulting in an eclectic sound and numerous fights between the members.
Chelsea were formed in the period immediately following the demise of another band, The Van Goghs, a primarily cover band playing the club/college scene of Rhode Island and Massachusetts. The band included Peter Shepley and Bill Gannon on vocals, Greg Morrison on guitar, Steve Fales on bass, Randy Smith on drums, and Roy Nelson on rhythm guitar. The Van Goghs had been active during the period 1965-9, though Peter Shepley only joined the band as an additional vocalist in the spring of 1968. According to original vocalist Bill Gannon, “Peter joined the band I was singer in the spring of 1968 and stayed ‘til the bands demise. We were mostly a college mixer/club band doing covers (Beatles, Doors, Cream). I had been having vocal problems, and he came to reinforce us as The Others had split up.” The band recorded one track in New York City, “Bubble Gum Tree,” with Peter in the lineup. This song was not written by the band and they didn’t hear the song for the first time until they reached the studio! According to Bill, “As far as the genre goes, it was a good track, but the genre sucked.”
Prior to joining The Van Goghs, Peter Shepley had been in a band called The Others while studying at the University of Rhode Island. One of the most popular bands in the area at the time, the band was comprised of Peter, Mike Brand, John Costa on bass, Mike Patalano on drums, and Jim DeStout on guitar. Jim’s father was also involved in the band acting as their unofficial press agent. They released three singles during their brief career: “I Can’t Stand This Love (Goodbye),” released in September 1965; “Lonely Street,” released in December 1965; and “My Friend The Wizard,” released in April 1967.
A description of the sound of these recordings seems rather different to the sort of material with which the two were later involved. Musically the releases sounded more like the Everly Brothers meet Bob Dylan, being on the lighter end of pop with notable harmonies. The exception in the group of recordings is “I Can’t Stand This Love (Goodbye)” which is more of a standard 1960s garage band rocker. It was later covered by The Damned for their “Naz Nomad and The Nightmares” side project in 1984.
Regardless of the sort of material they were writing and performing the early core partnership of Mike Brand and Peter Shepley was evident. They provided the basis for Chelsea as the formed in late 1970. The band was completed with the addition of bassist Michael Benvenga, guitarist Chris Aridas, and Peter. The youngest member of the band, Michael had not released material prior to joining the band, but he had been a member of the popular Brooklyn band The Wall. Of Chris Aridas very little is known though presumably he was in bands playing the New York music scene and had some musical experience. Due to Mike and Shepley’s connections the band quickly had started rehearsing and recording their album in the Autumn of 1970.
In some ways Chelsea was a band that seemed more interested in having extended folksy jam sessions that could disappear off on eternal tangents rather than suffer the “constraints” of strict musical structure, namely songs with fixed length and lyrics! This would work well with Peter’s lack of technical schooling, which also knew few rules. Personality seems to have provided a certain amount of stress between the members as well, with there being too many members who wanted to lead the band. Yet, the band’s sound was in synch with the musical movements of the late 1960s, and they were able to swing a deal with Decca Records in 1970. While this deal would be for two albums, the band would only complete one before breaking up and being dropped by the label for the miserable performance, lack of performance in general, of their debut record.
Much of the material Chelsea did is available to collectors today, and it is striking that Peter was more of a conga player, or percussionist, than a drummer. It would have been reminiscent to his days in The Stars in the late 1950s where he was more of a simple “time-keeper” than a drummer by the definition most would understand. Chelsea’s success was non-existent. While they had a recording contract, their visibility was regionally limited even though their album later turned up in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, and Japan. It is one thing to be popular locally, which Chelsea certainly was not because they seldom played, and a whole different proposition to gain broad cross-market popularity.
Some of the clubs that Chelsea are suggested to have played include Ungano’s, a basement rock club on West 70th Street in Manhattan, which later became The Electric Circus. This club was a central player in the local music scene and had also seen the likes of Captain Beefheart, Badfinger, Van Morrison, The Velvet Underground, and many other then-known acts, which as a result connects the venue with some of producer Lewis Merenstein’s other bands. Lewis also brought in John Cale, who performed viola on two songs on the Chelsea album. However, it has also been suggested that the only times the band performed live were when they were doing showcases. According to Lydia Criss, “Chelsea never played clubs. They played the Village Gate for their press party. But I don’t remember them ever in clubs... They didn’t do live appearances. It’s really strange” (Firehouse #60, 1993). While they may have played an extended series of showcases around the release of their album on February 5, 1971 (or possibly the following week), they certainly managed to get a few gigs in the period following. Though, very few!
With the vibe of the 1960s dying out and the music scene changing, it is not surprising that the band didn’t make any lasting impression. The lack of any singular musical direction and tension in the band was not conducive to a lasting relationship and the album lacked any sort of unity. The album failed miserably even with the inclusion of a track, “Hard Rock Music” on MCA’s (Decca’s parent company) sampler album “The MCA Sound Conspiracy” (MCA Records 734837). This sampler even saw release in Australia (Decca COP/S 4524) and Canada with a slightly altered cover, though nothing could help sell product that simply didn’t stand out. It was at this time that bands like Black Sabbath were taking off being “different” and Led Zeppelin ruled the “hard rock” airwaves.
The back cover of the MCA sampler details a brief bio on the band, which states: “Lewis Merenstein, who produces Van Morrison, Bill Rose, and Turley Richards, among others, produced this first album by the New York based group. The LP was recorded in part at the late Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Lady Studios. Backing the group on the album is John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground and now out on his own.” Cale appeared on two tracks on the album: “Long River” and “Good Company.” The album also featured strings arranged by Larry Fallon. Larry is a well-known producer and orchestrator who worked with the likes of Glass Harp (also signed to Chelsea’s label), The Rolling Stones, and Van Morrison. Unfortunately even the involvement of John Cale and Steve Loeb (a session pianist and later producer for the band Riot), added nothing to the album’s prospects and its nondescript nature and sound. There appear to have been no singles issued of material from the album either, though it is unlikely that this would have assisted the promotion of the record.
Of the ten tracks on the album, Peter had not yet cut his teeth as a songwriter, only providing minimal input into the arrangement of the traditional “Polly Von.” This song is an Anglo (with a suggested Celtic past) folk song about love, pain, murder, and betrayal. It has been recorded by numerous other artists, including famed folk band Peter, Paul and Mary on their third, and landmark, “In The Wind” album. The arrangement used on the Chelsea album does not vary much from the folk arrangement used by Peter, Paul and Mary. However, the Chelsea arrangement does change the song from third to first person, moves the chorus in parts, and skips a final verse.
Other material on the album included “Ophelia.” As far as Chelsea’s song goes, it would be too easy to read Shakespearian “Hamlet” overtones from the lyrics: “I thought I had you in the palm of my hand” and “how could you leave me I don’t understand.” In “Hamlet” Ophelia spurns the love of Hamlet on the request of her father. Hamlet then goes mad and Ophelia is asked to reconcile with him in hopes of restoring his sanity. Instead, Hamlet kills Ophelia’s father. As a brief précis of Ophelia’s character in “Hamlet,” it really does not attempt do the work justice. The only other notable track on the album was “Silver Lining,” the only song not written by Mike Brand and Peter Shepley. In this case, the song was written by guitarist Chris Aridas and bassist Michael Benvenga.
It is somewhat surprising that the Chelsea album did get wide distribution. It would be released, at least in promotional format, in Japan (MCA-5072), and was distributed in Australia/New Zealand and some European markets. Yet, none of this helped the band take off, and the Chris Aridas quit the band in mid-1971. It was a damaging situation for the young band. On the heels of a failed record the band members appeared to be jumping ship. More importantly, divisions about the direction of the band were starting to become more apparent. Regardless, the primary concern for the band, following the departure of Aridas, was to find a replacement guitarist.
In May 1971 the search for a new guitarist began in earnest with the band placing an ad in the Village Voice, the local Greenwich Village newspaper. Responding to the ad was one Stan Penridge, who was offered the position following an audition at Pete Shepley’s apartment at which Peter Criss was not present. It was on this occasion that Pete Shepley, Mike Brand, and Stan recorded their first song together, “A tune that Peter Shepley and Mike Brand had been working on, but had reached a snag” (Stan Penridge KISSFAQ Interview, Aug. 2000; SP-82KJCG) which new boy Stan was able to help them work out. While the other band members decided that Stan could indeed replace the departed Aridas, Peter was initially furious that a new band member had been picked. Part of this was a result of the decision being made behind his back without him being involved in the decision-making process, regardless of whether he agreed with the choice or not.
As a result he threw a temper tantrum and quit the band. According to Stan it wasn’t too difficult to get Peter back in the band: “He didn’t want to quit. His pride was hurt and Peter was never one for a confrontation. His survival instinct and personality, in most cases, was more the flight than the fight” (SP-82KJCG). With the situation resolved Stan and Peter formed a musical relationship that lasted some 15 years.
Just days after joining the band, Stan and Chelsea played their first gig together, a “Dayline Cruise for a fund-raiser held by the Young Republicans of New York City” (SP-82KJCG). Unfortunately Peter missed the gig when the boat on which they were to play left without him, leaving him stranded on the dock. Stan recalled, “I’ll never forget him on shore yelling for the boat to come back,” (SP-82KJCG) which it didn’t. It was an inauspicious start for a refreshed band that saw its first concert played with a fill-in Young Republican drummer! Stan’s background in the Greenwich Village folk scene made him a perfect fit for the band. He had studied music at the New York School of Music and had started playing for pay in 1964.
In addition to playing in a variety of bands he’d teach to supplement his income as a folk artist. One notable early gig he played was opening for Jimmy James & the Blue Flames at Café Wha. Jimmy James is better known by his later billing: Jimi Hendrix. Stan recalled auditioning for Chelsea: “As far as running across the ad for ‘guitarist needed’ in The Village Voice there was nothing magical about it. It was a routine that all of us (musicians) went through whether or not we had gigs. Just always looking for something bigger and/or better. The audition was held at Peter Shepley’s apartment and set up for 2PM, if I recall correctly. When I arrived Mike Brand was already there... For some reason Peter was supposed to be there also - to vote on whether or not I was capable to fill Chris’ shoes. An hour passed without Peter showing. At that point I had listened to their first album. My track record was enough along with my playing to land me the gig. We actually even recorded a tune that Peter Shepley & Mike Brand had been working on but had reached a snag” (Stan Penridge KISSFAQ Interview, Aug. 2000; SP-82KJCG).
It wasn’t long before the band started rehearsing and recording demo material for the planned second Chelsea album, with the skilled input of Stan who provided more than a fresh perspective. Yet the musical tensions that had always been apparent in the band broke Chelsea up before they got very far into material for the album. According to Penridge, “It was all pre-production and didn’t involve any studio work or input from Lewis Merenstein... The meeting with Merenstein to discuss album # 2 was short and curt. His involvement with Van Morrison had blossomed and I’m sure the division in musical styles was more than apparent. I recall a live audition for Lew, but the overwhelming memory was that of confusion. There never was a second meeting” (SP-82KJCG). However, it should be noted that Lew only produced one Van Morrison album, “Astral Weeks” in 1968 and no others.
The fragmentation of the band was essentially a split into electric versus acoustic factions. Again, according to Stan, “The material was decidedly split. It was either pure acoustic – excellent lyrics by Shepley. Very poetic, indeed... The same couldn’t be said of the electric half of the act. Although the ideas were set in place during our get-togethers the only time we were able to implement the arranging was during our gigs. Obviously, once – maybe twice an evening wasn’t sufficient time to work out what the electric Peter & Mike were looking for... Rarely, Mike Benvenga would show to play bass and keep up on what was happening... Peter Shepley, Mike Brand and I cut a very unique 4 song demo. We were still Chelsea at the time but Peter Criss and Mike Benvenga were not on it” (SP-82KJCG).
Some material does circulate attributed as demos for this prospective second album. These songs include “Darling,” which is more of a jam and capturing the band warts ‘n all. According to Stan, “Listen close and you can hear Nell and Lydia talking in the background, on Darling” (SP). The recording does start with the playful announcement, “Let’s do the oldie, but goodie,” suggesting that the song may have been a cover, or at least a song written some time previous to the period in which it was recorded. The song does have a very 1950s feel that is almost doo-wop in style; “Red Greene” is a complete song, though it too may be an arrangement of an older piece and thus a non-original composition. It’s often referred to as “Run Mr. Greene,” though the subject matter is fun with the first verse going: “Well now, I’ve been (I’ve been) sitting here / Planning my escape / My wife’s (my wife) comin’ with a file in a cake (yeah) / And I’ve been (I’ve been) very thorough / I won’t make no mistake / Well I’ve even got my Eldorado parked outside the gate.” The track amusingly tells the story of a prison escape and the escapee’s attempts to avoid recapture. Both of these demos were recorded at Stan’s Manhattan apartment on an old tape recorder.
Another song, “You Make Me Feel,” is also more of a jam piece, though the song is generally dark, depressing, and moody. Peter and Stan used to play this song live following the demise of Lips in 1972/3. By the late summer of 1971 the end came, according to Stan, when the fragmentation of the band reached totality. Stan had continued to work with the acoustic faction of the band; being newly added to the band’s lineup, he probably had more latitude to work with everyone and he’d not been in the band long enough to develop some of the personal issues that were developing between the other members. He was also a serious musician who was interested in different styles of music. While there had been splintering of the group, it also meant that the band had two distinctive and varied sounds, resulting in an odd situation where the band would perform half a show with loud electric rock music and then follow with a set of acoustic folk music. This factional mix is best illustrated in Chelsea’s song “Rollin’ Along” which is nearly split into two distinctive styles: the first acoustic and mellow, and the second electric and somewhat aggressive.
As Bob Dylan discovered at the infamous Newport Folk Festival, electricity and folkies don’t always mix! With the loss of cohesion and common ground, personnel problems started developing that were more serious than the previous arguments and bickering. Mike Brand started being habitually late for the band’s gigs and rehearsals. This resulted in one situation at the Yellow Front Saloon where the electric faction simply got tired of waiting, after canceling their first set, and decided to go on as a trio (Criss/Penridge/Benvenga) and play their music wholly without the acoustic members. Stan recalled, “When we finally did get the opportunity to play live together it marked the beginning of the end for Chelsea. It wasn’t more than a few gigs between The Young Republicans and the Yellow Front Saloon. I don’t recall the gigs in between. What I do remember was Peter’s enthusiasm and total abandon to have a strong rhythm guitarist to latch onto. Benvenga, although more than a competent player, tended to play melody rather than create movement. This may have stemmed from Chris’ [Ed. Aridas] playing. I never heard him live so I can’t say. What I can say is that when Chelsea played (with me as part of the band) Brand and Shepley were at a loss” (SP-82KJCG).
Naturally, when Shepley and Brand did show up, their reaction was not positive and the result was quite obvious: Chelsea was finally put out of its misery. The factions went their own directions, with Mike Brand and Peter Shepley moving north (upstate) to pursue their folk style and Benvenga, Criss, and Penridge staying in New York to do their thing. The band would be called “Lips,” and while they still performed covers, the artists they covered at least included Cream and Jimi Hendrix and more of the then-current rock scene.
Stan recalled the final break-up of the band: “Chelsea died the night Lips was born. It was August 1971, the Yellow Front Saloon in Fort Lee, NJ. Shepley and Brand were habitually late. But this particular night there was a large audience – packed – and getting a bit restless and quite boisterous. After missing the first set I suggested doing the second set as a trio. I think it was meant to be. We thought a second, I said ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ and that was it. Everything that didn’t work in Chelsea made Lips great. The strong rhythm that Peter complimented freed Mike to fly. It fell together so naturally. Peter would roll off his toms into a crash and I’d solo, somewhere in the heavens, and I’d open my eyes just as Pete would come around to reel me in for the next verse. It was a magical group – and things like that just don’t last long. Unfortunately” (SP-82KJCG).
Lips would not have a long run. What started out in a satisfying manner soon became a downward spiral for the members. The clean break and rejuvenated motivation resulted in the band starting out positively, and there was a transformation with the primary song-writer now being Stan rather than the partnership of Peter Shepley and Mike Brand. While making the rounds gigging, the band found the time to record some demos at RCA Studios in early 1972 with sometimes additional guitarist John Amato. According to Stan, “The session date was 2/22/72. The 5 songs on the demo – in order are: 1) Baby Driver 2) Dirty Living 3) Baby, Don’t You Let Me Down <shorter radio mix> 4) You’re My Woman 5) Baby, Don’t You Let Me Down <original length>. The sessions at Bell Sound were done for Kama Sutra Records” (SP-82KJCG). Stan has, in other interviews, attributed the session to early 1971, so there has been some confusion about the dating of this material, but the songs were copy-written in March 1972.
While nothing came of these demos, the band was able to persuade Kama Sutra Records for some more studio time at Bell Sound Studios, where the band recorded a further five demos, most of which turned up on Peter’s 1978 solo album. Around this time Lips auditioned for Bob Reno, the vice president at Kama Sutra Records, which was at the time headed by one Neil Bogart before he formed the Casablanca Records label. Contrary to popular rumor Lips did not audition for Neil Bogart directly or play “Beck,” the prototype of a song that would become KISS’ hit “Beth,” at their audition. Stan recalls, “We never performed at Kama Sutra for Neil. That’s one of Peter’s stories. Bob Reno, VP at Kama Sutra is the guy I contacted and the person we auditioned for. He’s the guy that paid for both 5 song sessions. He also gave me the masters after Neil passed on Lips later that month. Actually, ‘Beck’ is one of the only songs we didn’t perform for Bob Reno – or record during either session’ (SP-82KJCG).
Lips soon became a duo when Michael Benvenga quit the band after it became apparent to him that the band was going nowhere. Initially, Michael would do some session work (apparently including John Lennon) before getting married in 1975, though he would pass away in 1977; resulting in the dedication on Peter’s 1978 solo album. For some time Stan and Peter continued in hopes of building a career, but by this point it must have been somewhat half-hearted even though they’d continue to work together occasionally even after Peter met Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley. Peter recalled that after all the negativity of Chelsea and trials endured during Lips that he wanted to get back to a band that performed original material.
Regardless of artistic hope, Peter still had to try and make a living. During the summer of 1972 he started gigging with old band-mate Joey Lucenti and bassist Tommy Dimitri. The band was called Infinity and they played venues such as The Kings Lounge. In August 1972 Peter placed an ad in the East Coast edition of Rolling Stone magazine. It has long been rumored that the ad read: “Drummer with eleven years experience willing to do anything to make it!” Sadly, the real ad was more mundane, reading, “Experienced rock and roll drummer looking for original group doing soft and hard music” (Rolling Stone Magazine #116).
Before placing the ad, Peter and Lydia went to Europe for a belated honeymoon. While in England Peter has suggested that he tried to get the gig as Elton John’s touring drummer. According to Peter, “I’d been hoping to play with Elton John, but that never happened” (Kerrang #226). Elton was already using Nigel Olsson, a regular studio and tour drummer, so how Peter got the idea that Elton was looking for a drummer is unclear. Stan Penridge adds some clarity to the “Elton” story stating, “Lydia did mention that they had seen Elton play at a club in London during their honeymoon” (SP-82KJCG). By the time he returned to the States, Peter was desperate for a response to his ad, and a continuation of his attempts to make it in the music industry.
He certainly got a response. The ad had been spotted by another young man who was tired of being in bands that did covers: Gene Simmons. Gene called Peter and, after introducing himself, asked Peter a few seemingly inane questions about Peter’s weight, hair length, looks, and such. The straight-shooting Italian in Peter didn’t appreciate this sort of questioning and suggested that they meet. Lydia recalled, “We were in our second apartment we had just moved in and we were decorating. I think Peter’s parents were over helping us put some wall paper up. There were other people too. It was a decorating party. A fix the apartment up party” (Firehouse #60).
The meeting took place at Electric Lady Studios, where Gene and Paul were doing some recording work on the Lyn Christopher album. Gene and Paul showed up wearing hippie-styled Salvation Army (a charity shop similar to Oxfam or Goodwill!) clothing and Peter (along with his brother Joey) didn’t even notice them sitting in a car outside the studios. Peter dressed up for the occasion to make the best possible impression and he went into the studio and asked for Gene and Paul only to be directed to look out the window at the two guys sitting in the car.
On seeing them, Peter flipped out after the line of questioning about style he’d been subjected to during the initial telephone call. However, this didn’t stop him from going down and introducing himself to the two aspiring musicians. It has been suggested that Peter ended up in that Lyn Christopher session clapping, while Gene and Paul sang backing vocals on two songs, “Weddin’” and “Celebrate.” The latter of these being split into two parts to fit properly on the album (Paramount PAS-6051). Lyn was a former backing singer for Laura Nyro whose album was being recorded at Electric Lady with Ron Johnsen producing. Amusingly, Ron Johnsen had also served as the engineer on the Chelsea. The notable result of Gene and Paul’s participation on the album would be their first released professional recording and appearance of their adopted names on the album’s credits.
On the dating of Peter joining Gene and Paul, Lydia Criss has commented, “As far as the band with Gene, Paul, and Peter, that was for about 3 to 4 months. And then they got Ace” (Firehouse #60). This would indicate that Peter had met Gene and Paul in August, but he was certainly working with the two by October while continuing his outside work with other bands. According to Peter, Gene and Paul didn’t require too much thought after seeing him, and simply hired him on the spot without hearing him play a thing, indicating that his look was right for their conceived plan.
This is not actually totally correct. Peter was playing a club that week with Stan and suggested that Gene and Paul come down to see the show. Stan recalled, “After Peter had Gene and Paul come to the King’s Lounge in Queens it was the end of short lived duet days - all for the best. I’d been dying to get out and tour and was offered a job with Saint Elmo’s Fire” (SP-82KJCG). Eventually Peter did a proper audition with Gene and Paul, but forced to use Tony Zarella’s drum kit, he was uncomfortable, resulting in a substandard performance. When he played again using his own kit Gene and Paul were sure they had the right man for their new plan. Gene, Paul, and Peter became a trio, still nominally called Wicked Lester. It should not be too surprising that Gene and Paul hired Peter because he looked “cool”; after all, they had earlier hired Tony Zarella for Wicked Lester simply on the grounds that he looked similar to Bill Ward from Black Sabbath! For a while, as Gene and Paul developed their next musical plan, there were two versions of Wicked Lester coexisting and jam sessions with other prospective musicians throughout the summer and autumn. Numerous musicians came and went, some staying around longer than others until Gene and Paul figured out what they wanted to do.