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Cross the Road with Beatles Art Director Kosh (Interview)
Part I: LET IT BE TOLD
Since designing his first album cover in 1969 — a little something you might have heard of called Abbey Road — London-born John Kosh is the rock ’n’ roll art director’s art director.
In addition to the Beatles he has designed albums for the Rolling Stones, The Who, the Eagles, James Taylor, ELO and many other rock superstars, including winning three Grammy Awards for his Linda Ronstadt covers.
Rock Cellar Magazine interviewed the art director — who prefers to be known simply as “Kosh” — in his funky L.A. inner sanctum, which was formerly used by his fellow Englishman, director Alfred Hitchcock.
Today the office — lined with music and movie memorabilia, a vintage camera and jukebox plus African art — presumably has a different vibe than when the suite was occupied by the Master of Suspense.
In Part I of this exclusive interview Kosh gets back in time, embarking on a stroll down to if not Penny Lane, to Abbey Road, with an insider’s look at the final years of the Fab Four’s collaboration, as both musicians and record executives. In person, Kosh is affable, lighthearted, energetic, eloquent, talkative and generous with his time.
He describes the cloak and dagger way he met Lennon, a behind-the-scenes day in the life of the Beatles at their Abbey Road Studio, the faction fighting, the battles with record producers, the Beatles’ women, the “Apple Scruffs,” the famous roof concert, Phil Spector, the identity of the sweetest man on Earth, Kosh’s colleagues “Paulie” and “Lenny,” and reveals what was really behind those rumors of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. Kosh also discusses “serendipity,” his personal aesthetic and creative process as he visualized in graphic terms the music — and images — that rocked listeners across the universe.
Rock Cellar Magazine: What is there about the visual sensibility of the African art decorating your office that appeals to you?
John Kosh: Look at it — it’s just stunning. As an artist you draw from every influence at all times. Shamelessly, I’m afraid. This is amazing — there’s a naïveté about it, but some of it is very sophisticated… All of this stuff is 200, 300 years old. It’s a direct method of communication, and I appreciate that.
RCM: You came out of the worlds of opera and ballet. How is the art directing sensibility for opera and ballet different from that of rock?
JK: At this time it was Nureyev and Fontaine and they were doing modern dance. You had to get the “workingman” to come into the holy portals of the Royal Opera House, and that’s the same with rock ’n’ roll. [The Art Director] is selling the music, describing the music… You’re telling people what’s in the music, what’s in the grooves… We were all young. It all was very fresh and appealing — and in some respects overwhelming…
When I was art directing for the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera everyone had their eye on the popular music of the time. You’ve got to remember that Mick Jagger or John Lennon would arrive at the opera to make notes.
RCM: They went to the opera? Why?
JK: Absolutely. Because it’s music, man! …When I was working for the Royal Ballet and Royal Opera it was very fashionable for rock stars to pop up in the gallery to make notes, to listen… to Wagner and Mozart. How did they make those chord changes, how did they do this? I was designing for a magazine called Art & Artists and that’s why I got introduced to John Lennon through the Royal Opera House connection.
The music scene in London — I don’t want to use the word “eclectic” and I actually wasn’t in rock ’n’ roll at that point — all of a sudden, because of my connections… I get the phone call and it’s John Lennon, which I didn’t believe — I thought it was a joke, someone was putting me on. But I thought, “okay, I’ll go meet whoever it is” — but it was John Lennon. And that’s how I moved from opera to rock ’n’ roll.
But I didn’t realize it until that point that rock ’n’ roll was just as serious as opera. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. You’ve got to think: Mick Jagger. Who was he? The Mozart of the age.
I was very impressed with the hard work that went into it. People think, rock ’n’ roll, you stand in front of a microphone and scream. No.
RCM: So you went to meet Lennon at a hospital and he used the code name “Mr. Winston” — which was his middle name. Was there anything Churchillian about Lennon?
JK: About Lenny? No… Within the Apple group, Ringo was always Ringo, George was always George, Paul was always “Paulie” and Lennon was always “Lenny”… Apple Records was a powerhouse… There was Derek Taylor, the king of publicity; I think he worked for the Daily Express. He was the one who introduced England to the Beatles before the Fab Four became the Fab Four… Peter Asher was the head of Apple publishing; he was on the fifth floor… He must have heard the concert on the roof.
I was up there — the danger was, of course — we didn’t realize it at the time — was that roof was not fabricated strong enough to hold all of the equipment, including Billy Preston’s organ. We could’ve [fallen] all the way down, but luckily nothing happened. [Laughs.]
…You could walk into Apple Corps and there’d be Beatles running and up and down the stairs; it would start at nine, ten in the morning.
They’ve got singles to go out — Mary Hopkin, James Taylor, Badfinger, Jackie Lomax. In that small time, between 1969 and ’71, there was so much stuff going on. It was so much work — and it was hard work. Despite the rumors of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll… The music that came out of that building was phenomenal, in however many months they were involved in that…
George Harrison would arrive in his Rolls Royce. He’d throw his keys to the “Apple Scruffs” — the groupies that hung around outside the door. They’d go park his car — can you imagine that happening today? Then we’d go in and all this stuff was happening — there are deadlines. Because the parent company, EMI, they needed an album cover, and they needed it tomorrow. So it was hard work — but fun. Big fun.
This is one of my hobbyhorses: It was not all fun and games. There was a lot of hard work. If you’re sitting in a studio at 4:00 in the morning listening to take 37 while someone’s still worried about singing flat, and let’s do another take, this is not — this is real, hard work. That’s the connection to the Mozarts. These guys were perfectionists.
RCM: This is toward the end of the Beatles. Was there a lot of competition?
JK: There was a disparate thing going on. There was the Paul McCartney camp, and there was the John Lennon camp — which I was in, more or less… Because I was working with John and we got on so well. We were doing the “War Is Over” campaign and all that “peace — if you want it.” What happened was, Paul very much started Apple, and somewhere or other he kind of left, and all of a sudden John Lennon’s involved, running Apple. George is like George — the sweetest man in the world you’d ever meet. And Ringo is like — I did for our five albums with him, so he was cool. It was definitely more like John — although I’ve worked with Paul since.
I’ve got to tell you the press was trying to make more of it than really existed. Paul had John Eastman and that legal stuff going on, by this time Lenny had signed with Allen Klein — there was definitely a separation thing going on. But the big news is for me… they were cutting The Ballad of John and Yoko… I walked into Abbey Road Studio B and there’s Paul, on drums; there’s John on rhythm, and they’re recording The Ballad of John and Yoko — and they’re getting along famously! These guys are not supposed to be talking to each other anymore — you know? But it was like great. Then John does lead, Paul does bass and it becomes The Ballad of John and Yoko… Being naïve and young — I thought, “my god, these guys aren’t even supposed to be in the same room together!” [Laughs.]
RCM: What was Yoko Ono like?
JK: Oh dear. Are you going to print this? She was sitting under the piano. [Laughs.] She was chilly.
RCM: What role did the Beatles’ women play in this factional dispute?
JK: Ah yes, it’s a difficult thing to get into, I must admit. Linda Eastman was involved and she was in the control room at the time. She was very, very frosty… The dichotomy between the two, I don’t know. Either one is blamed for the breakup of the Beatles — I’ve got no comment…
Apple still exists. They’ve gone digital… and done a deal with Apple computers.
RCM: Yoko is still active. She and Sean are taking out ads for various issues, she just awarded WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange a big prize. She’s pushing 80 now.
John Kosh: She is 80; she recently turned 80.
RCM: Tell us about the War Is Over campaign and how they tried to use — among other things — mass advertising to end the Vietnam War?
JK: All that stuff, which I was very much involved in… The War Is Over If You Want It, Happy Christmas started out as a Christmas card. Then it was John who suddenly said, “Well wait a minute, we’ve got something here, we should develop it.” And so it turned out to be like the largest billboard in Times Square– at the time. It’s been eclipsed many times since then. [Laughs.] We had the Grey Line boat going around Manhattan with the “War Is Over” sign on it and it went to Toronto.
It just spread out. Because we were planting acorns at this time, right, for peace. I worked on the graphics for it — I didn’t plant any acorns. [Laughs.] But it was all that thing going on. There was a picture of John and Yoko holding up their acorn bag and whatever else, right? And then they were in Toronto– uh, that’s right, because John couldn’t get into the States because of his drug conviction. So we all had to convene at Toronto at the time.
RCM: That’s where he did Give Peace a Chance?
JK: Give Peace a Chance? No — that was in Quebec. Yeah, because I suddenly found myself in Quebec, and they only speak French. Yeah, so that was that.
RCM: How effective do you think that War Is Over campaign was?
JK: I would hope very. Because it’s still — it’s all over the place. They’re still making buttons saying “War Is Over”. There’s two buttons I was very pleased with that I did. One was “War Is Over If You Want It” and the other one was Phil Spector’s “Back To Mono,” because Phil Spector is sort of persona non grata now.
RCM: You did one album for Phil Spector. What do you think of him then and now?
JK: What can I say? You’re going to print this, right? He was a little crazy. I’ll go off record and tell you but I won’t tell you on mike. [Laughs.]
RCM: Al Pacino is portraying him in a new HBO movie.
JK: Yes. I just saw the billboard today and thought: “Why didn’t they think of this earlier?”
RCM: How did your first album cover, Abbey Road, come about?
JK: Serendipity. [Photographer] Iain Macmillan — we lost him, too — it was really a publicity photograph. It was a desperate time for EMI. Let It Be was supposed to come out… and was put back. Abbey Road all of a sudden was slotted in and they wanted an album cover on Wednesday — and it’s Tuesday. Iain Macmillan had his light box, and we had the loop and transparencies and we just chose one. Then I had to go, I had to really rush.
The point was, I had no clue what I was doing at the time.
But somehow or other the printer, which was Garrodd & Lofthouse — which George Harrison called “Garage and Shithouse” — [laughs] really helped me put this thing together. I worked for the opera, I don’t have a clue what I’m doing. Talk about dumped into the deep end.
RCM: You say you didn’t know what you were doing, yet all these phenomenal “Paul- is-dead” rumors started after the album was released.
JK: Yeah, Paul with his bare feet — totally serendipity… Lenny was wearing a white suit… The “28IF” license plate… Murray the K, who claimed to be the “Fifth Beatle,” they were all propagating this stuff. And it was my job not to confirm or deny Paul’s death.
[Whispers:] “It looks like Paul to me” — that’s all we were allowed to say. And that was Derek Taylor — another one who’s left us — but nonetheless he was a great publicist, the publicist in the sky… It grew. And Derek, who was brilliant as a promotional artist, said: “Let it roll. Don’t deny it!” It sold 26 million albums.
…I decided not to put the name “the Beatles” on the cover — or “Abbey Road.” Because I thought, “Well, this is the biggest band in the world — why would you need to do that?”
It was anticipated something coming out of the Beatles. So I decided not to put “the Beatles” on the cover. They’re walking across the — if you don’t recognize them you obviously live in a cave. Then of course I get the 3:00 phone call from Sir Joseph Lockwood, the chairman of EMI, who [speaks in an ultra-English accent] spoke terribly, terribly like this. When he says the word “fuck” you better sit up.
So I get a phone call at 3:00 in the morning saying, “You’ve fucked this up. We’re never going to sell an album. You’re a prick.” With a terribly, terribly good English accent — because he’s a blueblood, and I’m not.
I’m like really scared, I’m about 23 years old. So I go into Apple the next morning and George is there, and he said: “Hey man, we’re the Beatles — don’t worry about it.” [Laughs.] Sure enough, it came out, and 26 million in a week — or whatever. Because everyone was anticipating something.
What it did for me was to open up all the doors for coming to America. Because all of a sudden, just by choosing that picture, “Oh, you work for the Beatles.” You’ve got to admit, Abbey Road is — I think it’s their best album.
People argue and say maybe it’s Revolver, maybe it’s Sgt. Pepper. In my opinion, and I’m totally biased, I think Abbey Road is stunning.
…My Let It Be cover was supposed to be the antithesis of The White Album, because it was black. That was the funereal one…
In Part Two of this interview Kosh describes Linda Ronstadt’s sessions, The Who’s bladder control issues, the Rolling Stones’ ketchup, the Eagles’ mystery man at Hotel California, designing ELO’s logo, how the tremendous changes in the music industry have affected the art director’s craft, his documentaries and much more.