Legendary artist Ken Kelly has passed away. Our condolences to his friends and family.
Ken's legendary skills were constantly displayed on Warren horror comic mags Creepy and Eerie all through their runs, but the public at large would most recognize his work for KISS on their iconic Destroyer and Love Gun album covers. We were huge fans of Ken as a person and as an artist. Here is our interview with Ken that ran in our Official Ace Frehley Magazine:
FANTASM: Can you tell me how did you first got hooked up to do DESTROYER and then of course, LOVE GUN for KISS?
KEN KELLY: My initial contact with KISS came in '75 and it was a phone call. I was working for a horror company magazine and they called them saying they wanted to speak to me. I went to their offices, and so it was a cover they saw of mine on the street corner newsstand that the art director went down, picked a bunch off the racks, took them upstairs, and from what I understand, Gene picked me as the artist he wanted to try out and I wasn't about to let that go easy. So, that's how we initially started.
FANTASM: Sure. Now as far as the initial design of DESTROYER, was that your concept, was that Dennis Woloch's concept, or was that the band's concept?
KELLY: It wasn't mine and I don't know—I'll refer to Dennis's wisdom on that because I was the little man on the tree. I was just a sponge. I don't know where Dennis got his information, but he told me what to do.
FANTASM: When you came back and did LOVE GUN, was it the same thing, or did you have more input, or did they just tell you, “Hey, draw this?”
KELLY: (laughs) I had input, but it wasn't...true story about that, a fast one. It was two years between the two covers. When I first met KISS for DESTROYER, they were not very rich people and a lifestyle of the rich and famous. They were like me. They were just normal guys hoping that whatever they had here was going to work. I remember that's what I left. When I finished with DESTROYER and went about my artistic way, not to hear from KISS for two years, when I came back and they asked me to do a rough, I did one, but my mental picture of KISS was still a small, back alley band that hit the big time but they were still...and Gene promptly, when I brought the rough into the office, and this is a new office, now, and this is a really fancy office, not like the first office, which was painted black by the fellows, I think. Anyway, they had a lot of money now and I didn't know it. I showed them the cover in a rough form of oil paint and it looked like the guys standing up against a brick wall with a single light above the doorway and it said, “Stage Door” and the light was shining down on the guys and they were leaning up against the wall with their arms crossed and at their feet was a bunch of teenie boppers, scantily clad, loving every minute of it.
FANTASM: I have seen that.
KELLY: I was so prepared to do that painting that I had done many roughs, little girls and things like that. I have stuff for that painting up the kazoo. But Gene stepped in, and as soon as he saw it, he said, “Ken, we are much bigger than that. We have to have a much more substantial stage, surroundings, coloring, everything has to be just on a much grander scale. And so I went home and I think Gene even mentioned pillars. So I go home and put all that together and I said, “You know something? This has got to be like a Broadway show. These guys are big stuff now. It was an educational learning curve to me because I had no idea these guys had gone and raped the world in a good way. They had taken on a double platinum. DESTROYER went double platinum. I had no idea.
FANTASM: It's funny, if you look at the DESTROYER art and you look at the LOVE GUN art, almost the story it tells is you've got this new rock band dancing around in the rubble and on the second one, they're basically on Mt. Olympus.
KELLY: There you go.
FANTASM: It sort of parallels how they really were doesn't it?
KELLY: Yes it does and it happened right in my face. You can't do wrong with KISS with me because I'm just on their side. God bless them for making it. God bless them for all this hard work for 40 freaking years. The public doesn't realize how much hard work it is to put this show on all the time for 40 years. I'm only an artist that paints and draws different things of KISS that the fans want, and I know how hard it is on ME to keep up with it, so I can only imagine the multitudes that they have to put up with. God bless them.
FANTASM: Let's fast-forward a little bit to the SPACE INVADER piece. It was funny, I was at a horror convention and was back talking to Ace, and he was like, “Brian, look at this!” He shows me his cell phone and says, “You're gonna shit.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” He was like, “Look at the new cover for my album. I got Ken to do it.” And I'm flipping through his phone and he's showing me these work in progress photos of SPACE INVADER. I was like, “Holy shit!” He's like, “Yeah I know. I haven't told anybody yet.” You know that Ace cackle. He was so excited that you were doing that SPACE INVADER art, man.
KEN KELLY: And so was I! It was the same deal.
FANTASM: He was over the moon with it.
KELLY: I loved doing it, I'm glad it worked out for him. And he's doing fantastic now.
FANTASM: Oh, man. You can't stop him now! Suddenly he got in whatever position in life it needed to be for him to become this just output machine and it's like he's putting out album after album and show after show. He's on the road all the time. He's putting out albums constantly. It's awesome!
KELLY: I know! I know! God bless him. And it's like you say, the man needed a certain combination of things to put him where he needed to be. He's got them now and you can't stop him, God bless him. I'm all for it. I'm glad I was there to play a little role. Ace is Ace and God bless him. I was happy to help him and he's a very, very capable, tremendously talented musician and I'm glad he's back with us.
FANTASM: It's great to have him out there. As far as the SPACE INVADER cover, was that your concept, his concept, a joint thing? How did that come together?
KELLY: Joint, I think. No, I don't even think joint. I think it was more him. He and his people knew what they wanted – a spaceship, him coming out of it as a silhouette and there was a lot of reference to how fast he played and that's what produced the smoke and all that, so I played that up, and then there was a question about color and do we want to subliminally say anything about KISS. At first I was going to put his makeup, his facial makeup, in the clouds behind the space invader. Then I thought that might be infringing a little too much. I don't know what the stipulations of anybody's contracts are, so I don't want to get in that world. So I shot that idea down just in case it was a no-no.
KELLY: Then I said, “You know, they can't really nail you for color. That's too vague.” So I tried to make it the colors of LOVE GUN. I deliberately tried to make it the colors of LOVE GUN and so long as my buddy Ace is happy, then God bless, that's it. That's all I'm after.
FANTASM: Yeah. And the nice thing is, that makeup or not, it still in its own way, feels like the KISS mythology, but it doesn't seem like it requires the KISS mythology to stand on its own and really be an amazing piece, but at the same time, you know it's the Space Man, you know it's Ace. If you know the history it fits right into the puzzle, but you don't have to have the entire puzzle for this to be a perfect piece on its own.
KELLY: Absolutely true. You said that perfectly. You don't need the makeup. You don't need the makeup; the man is a talent. It's that combination of talent that those guys required that created that functioning, beautiful band. Now, if things came different in later years and they split, they are still the four elements that anyone will ever remember. So even if you take them away, you're never going to pull that away from anybody, that he IS—KISS.
FANTASM: You're absolutely right. There are certain things you just can't take away from people and a legacy is one of them.
KELLY: And they've earned it.
FANTASM: Absolutely. It wasn't just right place right time or just talent. It was a perfect storm of everything in that moment. They just were exactly what they needed to be at that time. You know it's like four solo albums by four individual people, and Colorforms and sleeping bags and lollipops and Christmas dinners and trains; it's like everything you could put the name on, people would buy it. It was insane.
KELLY: That's what they intended originally. That was part of the concept, so they told everyone who wanted to sign contracts with them—they had to be very careful that they kept the rights to use that on all these different things because everybody wanted to climb on board. That's what the costuming was about—living heroes, comic book heroes—and that naturally just led it right into...they got more work in those years, those early years, with bedding companies, toy companies that are related to KISS products and all kinds of things, so God bless them, but you know, it was mostly hard work. Hard work, not quitting, not giving up, going back, doing it again, getting it right. That's the hardest thing to do, I find after 40 years, is just to get up and to keep going. God bless Paul, Gene, Ace, Peter and I will do whatever it takes to keep up with them. But those guys are very hard to keep up with.
FANTASM: Yeah, they are. Hopefully in the future we'll get to see another Ken Kelly Ace album cover. That'd be amazing.
KEN: I would love to be part of his successful emergence here. I love it. I'm just proud of him, proud of everything he's doing. If it's meant to be it'll happen. (laughs) I hope it does.