Kiss and Tell: Artist Ken Kelly

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Fantasy artist Ken Kelly was just five years into his professional career when he received the assignment of a lifetime—painting the cover for Kiss’s Destroyer album. It was a project that would give Kelly a tremendous professional boost, and make Kiss one of the most popular rock bands in history.

Kelly’s career started in 1970 with sales to Warren Publications, whose magazines included Famous Monsters of Filmland, Eerie and Creepy. Publisher James Warren and the magazines’ fans liked what Kelly was producing, and he soon became one of Warren’s busiest artists. “I was the most prolific artist Warren had,” Kelly confirms. “I did more covers than any other artist on staff.”

Ken Kelly

According to Kelly, it was Kiss drummer Peter Criss who brought the artist to the band’s attention after seeing one of Kelly’s Warren covers on the stands. “I had always thought it was Gene Simmons, but Criss’s wife said it was he who was reading Eerie and Creepy while Gene and Paul Stanley were reading Marvel comics,” Kelly reports. “ So I would say Peter Criss was fundamentally responsible for me ending up being the cover guy.”

Interestingly, Kelly wasn’t the band’s first choice as cover artist. They first approached fantasy master Frank Frazetta, whose ascending star was white hot at the time, but were unable to reach a financial agreement. Their search for someone who could paint in a Frazetta style led them to Kelly—who was related to Frazetta by marriage. “Frank Frazetta has always been in my family,” Kelly observes. “It was my need to make a dollar that turned me toward him because the only thing I had on earth was my talent as an artist. I didn’t know how much he would help me, but I knew he would give me some kind of direction, which he did.”

Ken Kelly

Upon getting the Destroyer assignment, Kelly met with Kiss and Casablanca Records art director Dennis Wollock. The band and the record company were very specific about what the image should be: the four band members abreast, leaping at the viewer with fire behind them. Kelly was asked to provide a rough, and was given 30 days to deliver the final painting.

“Warren was publishing magazines every couple of weeks, so the turnaround [for covers] had to be very fast,” Kelly notes. “You had to come up with a concept, paint it, deliver it, and then you were on to the next one. So when Kiss came along, I was ready.”

Ken Kelly

Though Kiss had by then become a musical juggernaut, thanks in part to the huge success of the Alive! album, Kelly had never heard of the band when he was approached to paint Destroyer. At the time, he says, his musical tastes were more along the lines of The Eagles, Elton John and the Rolling Stones. “I honestly didn’t think they had a prayer,” Kelly says with a laugh. “I had just gotten out of the Marine Corps, and here were these guys in red lipstick, spandex and high heels. That was not my wheelhouse at all.”

Kelly’s opinion changed dramatically when he saw Kiss in full costume during a meet-and-greet event in New York. When the four musicians came out before the 100 or so people in the audience, the response was tremendous. “They were–and are–larger than life,” Kelly says. “Seeing them in costume, I knew right there that no matter what these guys did, they were going places.”

Ken Kelly

Kelly painted Destroyer in oil, using photographic slides of the band for reference, and delivered the work on deadline. But a few weeks later, he was notified that Casablanca Records had rejected the painting because it looked as if the band had caused the fire behind them. “They thought it was too violent,” Kelly explains. “It was 1975, and they didn’t want to launch such a large project with such a negative cover. I thought my career was over. That was one of the heaviest blows I’ve ever received.”

But Kelly was quickly reassured that everything was fine. He was asked to paint a second cover with a slightly different background, for which he was additionally compensated. The new cover also provided an opportunity for Kelly to paint the band in their new costumes. “It was a changing point in my career,” Kelly says of Destroyer, which was released on March 15, 1976 and certified gold a week later.

Kelly was approached two years later to paint the cover for Love Gun, Kiss’s sixth studio album. He provided a rough that showed the band in an alley, illuminated by a single lightbulb and surrounded by women, but the concept was rejected by Gene Simmons because he felt it didn’t portray the band as big as it truly was. Kelly returned to the drawing board and came back with another rough, which is the cover as it is known today. The album was released on June 30, 1977, and immediately certified platinum.

Ken Kelly

Destroyer and Love Gun led many other bands to Kelly’s door, including Manowar, Fathom, Rainbow, Four Year Strong and Coheed & Cambria. Each project provided a unique opportunity, as well as unique challenges. “Sometimes a band doesn’t give you enough input about what they want, and that’s hard,” Kelly says. “Kiss gave me everything.”

The covers Kelly painted for Kiss were work for hire, so he does not receive royalties on album sales. As for the paintings themselves, Kelly believes the controversial first painting for Destroyer is owned by Gene Simmons, and the second version was destroyed in a fire. He recalls that the painting for Love Gun was sold at auction about ten years ago, but has no idea who owns it.

More than four decades after receiving the assignment to paint Destroyer, Kelly continues to create album covers for musical bands. When interviewed for this profile, he was working on covers for albums by Volumizer and Synchronicity. “I feel for these new groups and am very happy to help them move forward,” Kelly concludes. “I guess I just have a soft touch for musicians.”

See more Ken Kelly artwork at kenkellyfantasyart.com.

Ken Kelly

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