The man responsible for the classic, larger-than-life look of 1970s rock has died.
If you think of epic fantasy artwork from the 1970s, you probably think of Frank Frazetta – but the images you see in your mind might well actually be the work of Ken Kelly. Kelly is the man who took Frazetta’s epic style and gave it a rock ‘n’ roll makeover, producing some of the most iconic album covers of the era.
Kelly was actually the nephew of Frazetta’s wife Ellie and he seems to have been a protege of sorts, watching the great man working and absorbing his techniques and styles – a grand epic swoop that nevertheless was darker and more realistic than many other artists working in the field. Critics might have seen Kelly as a copycat – with some validity, it must be said – but just as Frazetta would become forever linked to Conan the Barbarian, so Kelly found his own niche in the pop culture of the new decade.
At first, it was working as a cover artist for Castle of Frankenstein magazine and then becoming a regular for Warren’s Creepy and Eerie as well as the assorted Skywald adult horror comics. he also illustrated Conan and Tarzan in a series of new editions that were arguably just as iconic and rather more dramatic than Frazetta’s own work (the Berkeley Medallion editions of Robert E. Howard novels that he illustrated even came with fold-out poster versions of the cover art) and became a regular cover artist for just about every American book publisher – if you’ve bought 1970s editions of science fiction and fantasy novels, you’ve probably seen his work. In 1979, he also provided brilliant packaging artwork for the Micronauts action figures and would later provide the poster art for the Masters of the Universe film.
But his most iconic work would be in the rock world. Over a two month period in 1976, his work appeared on a pair of the most important heavy rock albums of the era. His cover art for Kiss‘ Destroyer and Rainbow’s Rising seemed to capture the mood of the time – not exactly prog-rock but definitely larger than life, these covers were immediately striking and made the albums seem bigger, heavier, more important somehow. He followed in 1977 with an equally iconic Kiss album cover, Love Gun, and had the times not been shifting towards punk, new wave and disco – none of which would have much time for such grandiose cover art – that it’s likely that he would’ve produced more significant work.
It was, in fact, the late 1980s when Kelly perhaps met the band who wanted to be the living incarnation of his artwork. Manowar, with their furry loin-cloths, swords, oiled-up muscles and cries of “death to false metal” might have seemed like a bit of a novelty metal band to many but their commitment to a classic sound long-since abandoned and their ludicrous image made them an oddly perfect match for Kelly’s art. He would provide the cover art for six of their albums between 1987 and 2012, making the band look like the barbarian warriors that they so desperately wanted to be. Kelly’s art was always the best thing about the albums, but you knew that, right?
He would also provide artwork for more critically approved bands like Coheed and Cambria, Alabama Thunderpussy and Electric Magma, but he would forever remain identified with Kiss more than anyone else. He tweaked his original artwork for the 2012 remix album Destroyer Resurrected, did the artwork for an Ace Frehley album and a tribute album by the Kiss Army of Norway – as well as providing the artwork for the Gene Simmons guitar range. Kiss was, more than Manowar, the perfect match for him – a band that was already like something from a science fiction novel and who could become the sort of comic book figures that his work so perfectly captured.
Ken Kelly died on June 3rd 2022, aged 76.
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In recent years, he supplied covers to Warrant Publishing, the Warren ‘tribute band’.
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