On May 18, 1980, Kiss released a statement saying that drummer Peter Criss was no longer in the band. The news came as a blow to fans who’d followed the same lineup since its formation in 1973 – but it was more of a relief to at least two remaining members, and also Criss himself.
The situation had been out of control for some time. The drummer’s alcohol and drug intake had reached a point where he just couldn’t be relied upon; and by his own admission he’d sabotaged what he believed to be his last show in 1979. The band had given up on recording him for their upcoming album Unmasked, hiring session man Anton Fig instead. While Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons decided it was time for Criss to go, guitarist Ace Frehley wanted him to stay, and so manager Bill Aucoin arranged for an audition session at SIR studios in New York.
“The day of the audition or rehearsal or whatever you wanted to call it, Peter walked in carrying a music stand and sheet music,” Stanley wrote in his memoir Face the Music: A Life Exposed. “The first thing he said was, ‘I’ll have to have all your songs on sheet music because I read music now.’ I whispered to Gene, ‘Are we on Candid Camera?’” The frontman continued: “Peter sat down, put his sheet music on the stand, and studied it for a while. Mind you, this rehearsal was of old material, not the new stuff we had written and recorded for Unmasked. We wanted to see whether he could even play the songs he already knew.”
In his book Kiss and Make-Up, Simmons recalled that Criss “looked very serious and intense,” adding: “Peter couldn’t read or write music, not then and not now. None of us could. … But by that time he was so delusional that he thought if he had a music stand, he could convince us that he head changed. I’m surprised he didn’t bring a baton.” The situation didn’t improve once the playing started. “[H]e was worse than ever,” the bassist recalled. “So we had a meeting afterward, and we said, ‘Peter is unhealthy. He’s going to kill himself. He’s got to leave the band and get some help.’”
Criss admitted that his addiction issues had left him in a mess. In his own book, Makeup to Breakup: My Life In and Out of Kiss, he wrote: “With each sip and each snort, I felt my world collapsing around me. Then I just started crying again.” He wanted out of Kiss – but Frehley felt differently and pushed for the audition, even though the drummer had told him: “Ace, I don’t want to play with the band no more,’ I said. ‘I’m going to get my own band. You should do the same, you’re miserable.”
Criss admitted that he’d sabotaged the rehearsal session to make sure he didn’t have to rejoin. “I really wanted to get back at them for all the times that they’d put me and my music down,” he explained. “I was going to play this out to the max. Instead of the fun-loving, clothes-shedding Catman, they were going to see a new, improved, serious Peter Criss. … I had never been so serious in my whole life, and it really freaked them out. I was extremely locked into myself from the blow. They didn’t know what to make of me.”
Criss confirmed that, although he’d been training with jazz drummer Jim Chapin, he couldn’t read music “that well yet.” He did have a few new licks that he’d learned, however. “Can’t you follow me, you assholes?” he remembered asking, adding: “I’m surprised that they played with me as long as they did… but they stayed there for an hour or so, until they were finally fed up and left. At the time I felt like I was throwing my life out the window, but who’s kidding who? It really had been over for a long time already.”
His last appointment as a Kiss member was the video shoot for “Shandi,” an experience he recalled as hurtful even though he’d brought it about by his own actions. His departure was made official later. “To the press we used the traditional rock-band excuses: creative differences, desire to begin a solo career, and so on,” Simmons said. “We never said that Peter was thrown out of the band because he was a drug addict. We wouldn’t have done that to him, to the fans or to ourselves.”
By way of a last laugh, Criss said, he was delighted to leave while retaining a quarter interest in the band’s finances. “It was a great deal for me, and I imagine it must have driven Gene and Paul crazy to have to share that money with me,” he recalled. But he reflected: “I really think that they were sincere about giving me another chance. If I would have played well, I’m sure they would have said, ‘Let’s go for it again.’ … Maybe they thought by firing me, they were scaring me straight. I don’t know. But I did know that I hated them even more after they fired me.”