Let It Be Told: Cross the Road with Beatles Art Director Kosh (Part 2)

Let It Be Told: Cross the Road with Beatles Art Director Kosh (Part 2)


“If you’re going to make sparks you better make sure they don’t burn the artist.”

Last month, Rock Cellar Magazine unveiled Part 1 of our exclusive interview with Kosh, art director extraordinaire.

In Part II, he goes deeper, recollecting stories about cultural icons and landmarks such as the Who, Linda Rondstadt, Hotel California, Jeff Lynne, Rod Stewart, Spinal Tap, Bob Dylan, Jimmy Buffett, Carole King, Dan Fogelberg, Bob Seger, Mick Jagger, and, once again, Ringo Starr and John Lennon.

Rock Cellar Magazine: What is your creative process?

Kosh: Oh, right from the start. First of all, I have to listen to the music. Even if there’s just rough cuts coming out of the studio, I like to sit down with the artist because I consider myself a bridge between the artist and the record company. Because record companies don’t trust the artists; the artists don’t trust the record companies. So what I like to do is get test pressings, whatever it is, and listen. I prefer to be in the studio and listen to the music. And make sure that there’s some chemistry going on between myself and the artist. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.

It always worked with Linda Ronstadt — it was just like amazing, magic.

That’s where you start. Then you have to decide: Who’s going to photograph this? And who’s going to have the right temperament? And who’s going to have the finesse and the patience? Who’d be the right person for the job? You Know? David Alexander was perfect [for Hotel California]. Aaron Rapoport with Linda Ronstadt had a bedside manner. Jim Shea, who was a fantastic photographer, also had a great bedside manner [with Ronstadt, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Buffett, etc].

Because, you know, you’re going to have to make the artist feel very comfortable. You know, they’re going to go through makeup [and so on], they have to feel like they’re being [catered] to, pampered. They have to feel totally at ease, so they’re not frightened. Because it’s fast light; strobe lights going bang! bang! bang! bang!      


RCM: Do you actually do the photography yourself?

K: Sometimes; but not always. Mostly I’d rely on someone who had more technical expertise. But I’m directing, I’m saying [mock serious voice] “wait a minute, we need more light here, we need the kick light here, all that sort of stuff — we can’t see your hair” — you know, stuff like this.

RCM: What role does serendipity play in your creative process?

K: It’s a very interesting question. If you’re planning something like Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams, everything is drawn. I don’t want you to get the impression that we just wing it all the time. But what you do most of the time, as I explain, you sit down, listen to the work, listen to the music, talk with the artist and you start to draw things out so you know what’s going on. At this point, you’re also talking to the photographer, you’re working out the lighting, all that stuff has all been worked out.

There are other times when it just happens. Like Who’s Next — it happened; it wasn’t planned. But what I did do with the Who’s Next cover, the English grey sky looked awful and I pasted in a new sky. And if you look very closely it looks like I did it with a toothbrush. [Laughs.]

who whos next
Who’s Next

The serendipity is that the band needed to pee, and that was it. It was actually a pylon for a motorway. ’Cause 2001 [: A Space Odyssey] had come out, with the monkeys [and monoliths]. It was a joke — the whole thing was a joke. And it just happened. That’s serendipity.

…In terms of serendipity, we were in the middle of one of those 11 year droughts. And Melissa Manchester is great. We suddenly decided we were going to do Singin’ in the Rain, because her album is called Singin’. And I wanted to use the very same studio set Singin’ in the Rain came from — it was still there then. But it required half a million gallons of water and we’re in a drought — which was delivered, because it’s Hollywood: You can get anything. This is what I love about this town: You can get anything at 4:00 in the morning, if you want it really badly you’ll get it.

So it all came together and we started rehearsing and Melissa started doing her stuff dry, before our artificial rain, and just as we finished the rehearsal and were about to shoot the real thing the heavens opened up. It was the most amazing deluge — it was just like wham! So all that money we spent on water but apart from that all of our Balcars, which are the strobes, started exploding, because they’re in the rain because we didn’t think to cover them because we didn’t think it would rain.

RCM: How about the controversy surrounding Linda Ronstadt’s photograph on the cover of Hasten Down the Wind? Was that serendipitous?

K: Oh Christ. Well in a way… No, it was planned, we needed to photograph her and correctly expose the night sky, which required the camera lens to remain open.  So there’s two photographs in one on one image. We had a problem with the horse going by so we planned on the fact that we were going to take a night shot but at a certain point we were going to flash; the strobe’s going to go off and freeze her.

hasten down the wind

That was rehearsed. On the chosen shot I didn’t like her hand — it was kind of claw-like. That had to be fixed by re-photographing — I photographed my wife’s hand, actually.

I missed retouching the nipples, because I’m concentrating on the hand. And then all of a sudden it’s ohhh — because she’d just done that spread in Rolling Stone with Annie Leibovitz and it’s not good news. She’s reaching across the bed, nearly showing stuff she shouldn’t have shown. Of course I got letters from the National Organization for Women because of that cover. It’s tame by today’s standards but it’s still a great cover.

RCM: Tell us about working with the Rolling Stones?

K: [Get Your Ya-Yas Out] was a design disaster, that whole album cover. The album was fine — the cover was a disaster.

RCM: Why? Did they try to cover [the picture of exposed] nipples on Charlie Watts’ shirt?

K: Yes, funnily enough. I had designed a totally different cover. So you’ve got to imagine the back cover is totally intact, nothing’s changed. I had Mick’s Uncle Sam hat with the stripes, and there was a hamburger on it — because it was very fashionable in London at the time to eat American hamburgers. We’d been eating these dreadful Wimpy’s overcooked things. In Chelsea in King’s Row there was all of a sudden this spring of great American hamburgers. So I put a hamburger on top of his hat and it had ketchup running out of it and down the hat.

The final cut
The final cut

It was just about the same time as the Altamont disaster. So Decca Records shitcanned it.

RCM: Did they say it looked like blood?

K: Yes. Yes. But I’d gone on vacation at the time. Either Mallorca or Minorca — I can’t remember.

RCM: If you can’t remember it means it was Ibiza.

K: [Laughs.] Yes, Ibiza. So anyway I came back and found out that Mick had given Decca a new photograph, which was Charlie on the donkey. Okay? So now I’m pissed off — it’s horrible. The typography is the same — everything’s the same, the borders — and the picture in the middle is gone. And the new picture is by David Bailey — a very famous fashion photographer at the time — and he’s pissed off because he just took that as a snap for Charlie. And so he’s angry; I’m angry — but it’s 40 million pressed. That’s the end of that story.

RCM: You did Through the Past, Darkly?      

K: Yes. That was done here in L.A… They’re leaning up against the glass with their noses pressed… looking ugly and horrible. Was it done here or in London? I can’t remember. It was probably done in London because you could never get five Rolling Stones in the same room at the same time. Charlie would arrive on time; Bill Wyman would arrive on time. Mick, you have no clue when he was going to show up — it was the same thing with the Beatles.

You can’t get four Beatles or Stones in the same room at the same time — it was a miracle if you could. You have to cut and paste and pop people in. Anyway, we got the Stones together and then they smashed the glass… We had trouble smashing the glass; it wouldn’t break.

Through the Past Darkly
Through the Past, Darkly

…[For Honky Tonk Woman] we had to go find a strip joint in Soho, London, where the Stones could get dressed up in their bits and pieces, strange costumes. I had to go around interviewing strip joint owners, who were very suspicious. “When’s a good time to photograph?” “Well, like, 10:00 in the morning, because they don’t come in until mid-day.” They were very suspicious, I said, “We’re going to shoot the Rolling Stones,” and they’re like, “Yeah, right.” Soho, London, Soho, thugs, grubby, with the houselights on you go, “Oh my god!” Anyway, we got it together. The Stones actually arrived on time. They’re in drag.

RCM: What were they like?

K: They’re okay. Charlie was great, Charlie was a sweetheart. Charlie was so intense on his craft, as a drummer — he took Ringo to task for saying he only practiced an hour a day, but Charlie practiced 12 hours a day. They were okay. Jagger was distant, but friendly. He was all right; you can’t get warm to Jagger. You could certainly get warm to Charlie; he was just an amazing person. He’d arrive on time, raid the fridge, get things going.

Keith was charming, late but charming. Bill was serious. They were a very professional band. Cool blokes really.

RCM: Let’s go through many of the other artists you’ve art designed for and tell us about working with them. Bob Dylan?

K: That actually wasn’t an album cover, this was a film poster for Renaldo and Clara — four hours of it.

renaldo and clara

RCM: Wasn’t Joan Baez in that 1978 movie [co-written by Dylan and playwright Sam Shepard]?

K: Yeah. My whole point is that I have to communicate with them and they have to trust me. Bob was a little cold and distant at first, but we got there, eventually. Because he didn’t know who the hell I was — some uppity English art director, what the fuck. By the time we got down to it actually, I really wish the film had been a hit. [Laughs.]

RCM: It seems that most of Dylan’s movies haven’t been as successful as his —

K: No, no, no. But as an artist, of course, I respect him greatly. In fact, at the very bottom there is the tour book I did for him. [Points to a stack of books on a coffee table.] Annie Leibovitz took the picture.

RCM: What about Jimmy Buffett?

K: Oh, Buffett is a sweetheart. What can I say about Buffett? I’ve been working with Buffett since ’76… Yeah, he’s a very, very nice man, and we’ve had lots of fun. He’s got an incredibly wicked sense of humor. He takes great delight in telling people that I’m older than he is — by like three months. [Laughs.]… I started out with Son of a Son of a Sailor… I’ve done at least 10 Buffett album covers.

RCM: What was it like working with the Eagles?

K: It was Hotel California where I got called in, by [personal manager] Irving Azoff himself. I had to arrive at their office when they were somewhere way up there on Sunset. And I was told that I had to show up and see Irving. So I get there, and of course there was Glenn Frey — my god, how many Eagles were there at the time? — there was Don Henley, maybe Don Felder was  there. I think that was it. They were trying to be cocky, just as I was trying to be. They put on the title track, Hotel California, and I’m floored, because I’m listening to an acetate, I mean it’s clean as a whistle, it’s clean as a whistle. And I thought, “Wow! This is pretty good.” And then that was it.

The brief was: “What are you going to do?” So I listened to the lyrics, I got the lyrics down, and David Alexander was the photographer, because I thought he’d be perfect for this job. We went ’round and we photographed three hotels, one being the Beverly Hills Hotel, one being the Hotel Green in Pasadena — it was bit sinister. You’ve got to remember, we didn’t have computers at this time. So whatever engineering you’re gonna do is gonna be done in processing film and whatever else.

Hotel California album cover
The world’s most famous Hotel.

It was pretty obvious to me when we got all the prints out, and they’re big, these are huge picture — we’re not talking about looking at frames now. We’re printing Cibachromes — they don’t exist anymore, but they’re really gorgeous. And this is Hotel California — there’s the Beverly Hills Hotel in sunset.

…We hired a cherry picker because we had to get up above the hedges around the Beverly Hills Hotel. I’m scared out of my wits — as soon as you go up in a cherry picker, no matter how high it is, but it’s high enough that your bladder starts to go [high pitched voice]: “Wait, I want to pee, I’ve got to do this.” So we’re up there, David and I, shooting crazily on the Ektachrome. I really believe Hotel California should have been nominated for a Grammy.

…[Since Abbey Road] I’ve pulled that trick now twice, of not putting the name of the band on the album cover…

RCM: Inside of Hotel California of course —

K: Here it comes!

RCM: — there was this sinister figure in the closet or the background.

K: First of all, let’s get this straight: Nobody ever spotted this sinister figure in the closet, all right? And it wasn’t until the Canadians made this documentary about me that I looked — I’ve never seen that before. What I did see was the Rastafarian up in the window at the top. Who I consider to as a sort of blithe spirit, because there he is. We couldn’t get him to release anything; he didn’t sue us, so… But we knew he was there when we saw the prints — in one frame, one frame only. The sinister guy in the closet — [I only found out] like a few months ago. I go, “Look at that!” [Laughs.] Somebody’s really pulling things out with Photoshop!

…[The interior is] the Lido, which was then — before it was gentrified — a flophouse on Wilcox.

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