September 18, 2008

Legendary rock photographer reveals the truth about Kiss Alive

BY Roy Hilmar Svendsen of Norwayís

One of your most famous pictures of all time, is the one that ended up being the album cover for KISSí breakthrough-album, KISS ALIVE, from 1975. Unlike anything from their three first album covers, it captures the show, the music and their attitude perfectly.

How did you end up working for KISS?

COSTELLO: I went to live in USA in 1973 with Deep Purple, who I was an art director and photographer for, and a graphic designer I knew was working on an album cover for KISS, called Dressed To Kill. He was very unhappy with it, because the picture was funny but not right. He told me to come and see them play, because they were playing at the Beacon Theatre in New York. That day I had been working with the Brecker Brothers, which is a jazz thing. So I went up there, with my camera and everything. And it was like Danteís Inferno. As I walked in, I realized I had never seen nothing like it in my life. And this was just the first song.

By this time, they were completely broke. They had no money. I stayed in New York that night, processed the film in an overnight lab, and rang their manager Bill Aucoin in the morning. I told him who I was, mentioned some of my work, like Deep Purpleís Made In Japan, and said that Iíd like to him show the pictures I took at the show the night before. He said: ęSureĽ.

So I went up there, and their office was about half the size of this studio.

Really? ĎCause this is a very small studio.

COSTELLO: Yeah, but that was the KISS Empire. Joyce Biawitz (co-manager) and Bill Aucoin had desks standing against each other. Well, I showed them the photos, and I was smart enough to bring with me a projector from the graphic design place. I asked Aucoin where the projection room was, and he just laughed. Lovely man, by the way. He just laughed and said project them against the wallĽ. I got about 4 pictures projected, and then he said: Donít show me any more. Then he rang Gene (Simmons) and said: Come on down here, I want you to meet this guy.

So the four of them came down to Aucoinís office. Ace (Frehley) arrived late and didnít know what he was there for. But Paul (Stanley) and Gene were very sharp, Gene in particularly. The minute he saw how Iíd captured the show, he said: Right, weíre doing a live album. Itís a last chance-thing. If it works, weíre in business. If it doesnít work, weíre dead. Then we went to Detroit and we shot the live album in rehearsal. Itís not a live photograph.

And it wasnít shot in Cobo Hall in Detroit, even though some of the album was recorded there?

COSTELLO: Thatís right. It wasnít Cobo Hall. It was shot in the Michigan Palace, which is a car park now, sadly. That was where Iggy, MC5 and all those guys got it together. It was a fabulous place, a very nice Victorian music hall.

Gene got really annoyed in the end. Everybody got very tired, so it became the same pose over and over again. We couldnít think of a new pose. What we were doing was something Gene called The Status Quo-pose. They love Status Quo and that simple, straight-ahead poppy rock. And they did this classic pose, which they had incorporated into their show.

So I said: Do the Status Quo-pose again. And Gene said: For fuckís sake, enough of this Status Quo-thing. Weíre KISS, not Status QuoĽ. We were that tired, we started getting irritable.

The next day we went to Cobo Hall. And they were amazed that so many people showed up. The place was almost full. What they didnít realize, was that the word had already gone out. They were taking a huge risk by playing there. Agents werenít booking them into big halls. I donít know if they had to pay for the hall themselves, and were risking getting deep into debt.

Before I went in and did the photo for ALIVE, Bill Aucoin said: We got no money, we canít pay you Ė but we can cover your expenses. But that was no good for me, as I had just moved there, I had two kids and had just bought a house. I needed to work, I needed to get paid. So he said: Weíll give you a deal. I wonít get into details, but it was depending on the success of the album. If the album did well, I did well. It was the only deal of my career thatís been like that.

Judging from the phenomenal sales of the album, itís safe to assume that the deal turned out pretty good?

COSTELLO: Oh yes, absolutely. Looking back, it was a fabulous deal. But what was interesting, was that they took a chance on me. Because I had just arrived in America, and had never worked on a big project like that.

Were the members of KISS familiar with your work?

COSTELLO: Gene and Peter (Criss) were. The cover is actually influenced by Uriah Heep Live, a cover with a gatefold and a four page booklet of photographs. That was what they wanted Ė lot of pictures of the live show.

The interesting thing is, if you look at the back cover on ALIVE, on the seats right besides the two guys holding the banner, there are two young teenage guys with long hair. Theyíre on the right side of the picture as you look at it. One is Chad Smith from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the other one is his brother. I just found out a few years ago.

The feedback I get on that album is phenomenal. Not only because of the cover, but because itís an iconic album. It turned American music around.

I worked for an American pop band a seven or eight years ago. I canít remember their name, they had just one big hit. Anyway, the press lady told me to live in a different hotel than the band, but I said: Thatís not how it works. I need to meet the band. And the tour manager came down, and told me: Weíll do the photos at the gig. I told him we needed to figure out what to do first. He said: The band doesnít do it like that. Before he went back up, he asked me what my name was. Within two minutes, the entire band was down in the lobby, shaking my hand and everything. I could have asked them to stand on their heads in the bay, and they would have done it. All because of KISS ALIVE.

Are you happy with the picture in photographic terms?

COSTELLO: Yes. I have always been. Technically, itís all wrong. Itís out of focus, itís grainy, rough and ready. Thereís all sorts of things wrong with that picture. But in atmosphere terms, itís absolutely perfect. Itís the same thing with Deep Purpleís ęBurnĽ. Everything about that says itís a bad idea, but it works!

Thereís been rumours that the back cover photograph on KISS ALIVE was actually taken at another bandís concert, and that the text and images on the banner held up by the two guys was airbrushed. Any truth to that?

COSTELLO: No. This is a very strange story, that involves Rush and Rainbow, it doesnít involve KISS at all. And itís been attributed to Sean Delaney (long term KISS-associate), which is again strange, because I had stopped working with him long time ago by that point. By the way, some KISS-fans are really odd. I once met a fan who was really abusive to me because he didnít believe my story. He said Sean Delaney said it, it must be true. I said: I donít care who said it. I was there, I did it. This is the truth.