Fin Costello has taken iconic pictures of more rock stars than you can think of. Later this month he takes his classic work out on the road in Norway. NRK Hordaland sat down for a 30 minute chat with the legendary rock photographer who has taken iconic pictures of Kiss, Ozzy Osbourne, Aerosmith, The Rolling Stones – and who was declared persona non grata by the members of Rush in the late 70s.
But, more about that later on.
Tell me about the exhibition you’re bringing to Norway, «Pictures In Rock», with Norwegian artist Tom Roger.
COSTELLO: I returned to live in Ireland four years ago, after living in USA and England, doing the rock photography-thing. I thought that was enough of that, I’ll do something else. Then there’s a gig near where I live, a very famous gig, and the guy who runs it rang me up and said: «Come down and listen to this guy, Tom Roger. He’s got some great songs.» At that time he was rehearsing for his album. So I went there, sat upstairs and listened. And it was great.
We got talking and then Tom realized who I was and that he’d seen my pictures when he was young. So he asked if I wanted to come and take some pictures in the recording studio in Dublin. About 2 weeks later I did. I stayed around for a few days and did what turned out to be the pictures for the album.
Then about 18 months ago, Tom called me and asked if I had ever thought about taking my pictures on the road with a band. I thought it could never work, and that it was just not going to happen. But here we are now, with the whole thing going.
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You’ve done several exhibitions of your pictures before. What makes this different?
COSTELLO: I’ve never done it like this. Most people don’t really know what we’re trying to do, and we don’t know either. But the idea is to create an atmosphere in the theatre, so it’s not just a regular gig. People can walk around and see these pictures that Tom grew up with. That will set a mindset, a frame, and then Tom comes on and does his set.
You’ve both been travelling around in Norway to find suitable venues for this. Why?
COSTELLO: About three weeks ago I came over. Tom had gone around and checked out a lot of venues, sent me pictures and everything. But we wanted to check out the main ones together, and there were also a few that we were not sure about. The first one, the Logen theatre here in Bergen, is important, because it’s the first one. We want to get it right at the first show, for our own confidence as much as anything else.
By the way, if I was trying to do this in England, people would say: «This would never work, come back tomorrow», or something like that. Everything in England is «no» until you can persuade them. You really have to climb up a hill to make something happen.
One of your most famous pictures of all time, is the one that ended up being the album cover for Kiss’ 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 Dante’s 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 Purple’s «Made In Japan», and said that I’d like to him show the pictures I took at the show the night before. He said: «Sure».
So I went up there, and their office was about half the size of this studio.
Really? ‘Cause 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 wall». I got about 4 pictures projected, and then he said: «Don’t 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 Aucoin’s office. Ace (Frehley) arrived late and didn’t know what he was there for. But Paul (Stanley) and Gene were very sharp, Gene in particularly. The minute he saw how I’d captured the show, he said: «Right, we’re doing a live album. It’s a last chance-thing. If it works, we’re in business. If it doesn’t work, we’re dead». Then we went to Detroit and we shot the live album in rehearsal. It’s not a live photograph.
And it wasn’t shot in Cobo Hall in Detroit, even though some of the album was recorded there?
COSTELLO: That’s right. It wasn’t 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 couldn’t 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 fuck’s sake, enough of this Status Quo-thing. We’re Kiss, not Status Quo». 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 didn’t realize, was that the word had already gone out. They were taking a huge risk by playing there. Agents weren’t booking them into big halls. I don’t 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 can’t pay you – 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: «We’ll give you a deal». I won’t 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 that’s been like that.
Judging from the phenomenal sales of the album, it’s 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.
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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 – 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. They’re 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 it’s an iconic album. It turned American music around.
I worked for an American pop band a seven or eight years ago. I can’t 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: «That’s not how it works. I need to meet the band». And the tour manager came down, and told me: «We’ll do the photos at the gig». I told him we needed to figure out what to do first. He said: «The band doesn’t 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, it’s all wrong. It’s out of focus, it’s grainy, rough and ready. There’s all sorts of things wrong with that picture. But in atmosphere terms, it’s absolutely perfect. It’s the same thing with Deep Purple’s «Burn». Everything about that says it’s a bad idea, but it works!
There’s been rumours that the back cover photograph on «Kiss Alive» was actually taken at another band’s 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 doesn’t involve Kiss at all. And it’s 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. I was on a Rush tour, they had a gig up by the lakes, in Port Huron, a small gig. And a lot of the fans had black t-shirts, with the Rush-logo on.
At the time I was also putting together «Long Live Rock & Roll» for Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow. It was originally called «Kill The King», a title taken from one of the songs on the album. We shot a photo in California on a hill, with a skeleton in a suit of armor, as if a king had been killed in a old medieval war, with grass growing up through the skeleton, and a sword sticking in it which went around the fold of the cover. The shield of the fallen had the cover of the previous album, «Rainbow Rising», on it. A concept cover, and all that. My sister even found some rattlesnakes in the grass, and we put one around the sword. We thought it was a great idea, it looked really good. And we took it to Polydor, the record company – and they said: «Forget it! No snakes!».
But we were up against time, so the album ended up with a sketch that somebody had done for a publicity-photograph. I had a made a dummy cover with the skeleton, and on the inside I just put a live picture there. I had the idea of making a banner with «Long Live Rock & Roll» on it, then go to a Rainbow-concert and give it to the kids and make them hold it up for me.
Anyway, I went to this concert with Rush and some kids had made a banner, that said «Rush – Welcome To Port Huron». Just before the band came on, I walked down to the front of the stage, asked the kids to stick it up in the air, and they did. Snap, that’s it. So that’s what I put on the inside of the dummy cover, unretouched, complete with the Rush-shirts, the banner and everything. Rainbow’s manager gave the dummy cover to Polydor.
Next thing I know, I get a call from Geddy Lee (vocalist and bass player of Rush). He was furious, shouting: «What are you doing?!» Polydor had airbrushed everything, removed the logos from the t-shirts and the text from the banner. That’s the real story. And I’ve got the film to prove it!
By the way, some Kiss-fans are really odd. I once met a fan who was really abusive to me because he didn’t believe my story. He said «Sean Delaney said it, it must be true». I said: «I don’t care who said it. I was there, I did it. This is the truth».
Thanks for sharing that with us. Finally, do you have any advice to rock fans who get a chance to take pictures of their heroes? How do you get a really good live picture?
COSTELLO: The thing is, always shoot wide. Leave in some details. That’s what a fan sees, he doesn’t only see the artist’s face. That one (points at interviewer’s picture of Metallica’s Rob Trujillo, taken at Koengen, Bergen, earlier this year), you can get away with that because the expression on his face is good. But wide works, it shows the environment. That’s the best thing with live photography. There’s so many props. Don’t cut it down to just the guy, then he’s out of his environment, like here (points at picture of James Hetfield). They didn’t put all the stuff on stage together for fun. Get monitors, wires, microphone stands in the frame. That’s how I do it.