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Back In The Solo Album Groove With David Edward Byrd

Renowned graphic artist/illustrator details the "hellacious" experience of creating the interlocking solo album murals, plus other assorted KISS odds and ends

Interview by Tim McPhate

KissFAQ: David, before we get into the solo album murals, you've mentioned that you were asked to design a logo for Neil Bogart for his new company at the time, Casablanca Records. And you also went to an early KISS photo shoot. Can you recount these stories for us?
David Edward Byrd: Yeah, let's see. At the time, I was a poster artist of the Fillmore East in New York. We opened in '68 and we didn't do a lot of posters in New York, unlike San Francisco. It's not that kind of theater situation. New Yorkers is sit down and listen. So we didn't do a lot of posters because it wasn't like a poster scene. I think that's how Neil knew about me. He called me to his office, which was Buddah Records in the Brill Building as I recall. The Brill Building is very famous for songwriters as you know.

KF: Yes indeed.
DEB: So he had this little office and I can see it now, [it had] kind of a cream-colored door. It was like just a room. I don't know if there was any more, but it didn't seem like it was very big. So we talked and I was aware of Buddah Records and I think we called it "bubble-gum." It was like bubble-gum music, like [1910 Fruitgum Company's] "Simon Says."

KF: Yes, that was Neil's specialty.
DEB: Right. Teeny-bopper dance tunes that not-so sophisticated adults also liked. Let's see, I had been on a commune and we had done a lot of light shows and we also had sort of a high-class disco and I did the light show at the disco. I also alternated as DJ so I was used to playing a lot of those Buddah songs cause it got the jet-setters up off their butts, for those silly songs. Anyway, he told me he was starting a new record company called Casablanca and he wanted him on the record as Humphrey Bogart. So it's not exactly a portrait, but it's kind of him as Humphrey Bogart and I did this neon lettering. We had talked about like Rick's [Cafe Americain in the film "Casablanca"], it would be neon lettering. And I did a little color version of that. And that's the last I heard of him for a while. I got involved with Broadway and he called to tell me that he was doing a photo shoot for his first new group on Casablanca Records, called KISS, and could I come to the photo shoot. And I said, "Sure." So I went to the photo shoot in this big photographer's loft. I can't remember where, I think it was like Chelsea, you know the photo district around 17th Street to 23rd Street. It was a big studio so it could have been uptown more but that was a long time ago. Then I was sort of shocked because they were doing all this make-up. And I said, "Neil, what is this?" Because at the time, it was all about the return to chic and this was not -- you know, the big Robert Redford movie of the F. Scott Fitzgerald novel was coming out [Ed: 1974's "The Great Gatsby] and so everything was about "the new elegance." And these guys were truly contrary to that. So I thought, "Well, Neil knows what he's doing. I guess this will do what it does."

KF: David, that sounds like it might have been the first album photo session with Joel Brodsky.
DEB: Oh lord, I have no idea. We were all drunk. I mean, they had like a case of champagne and these little tootsies running around with hors d'oeuvres.

KF: One of those type of deals. (laughs)
DEB: Yeah, as I recall. And I had already had a hangover -- I had been somewhere the night before. That was rock and roll at the time. But the mural thing was just hellacious. I think they called me on Friday and they had to have all four murals done by Monday.

KF: No kidding. Wow.
DEB: Oh, it was horrendous. And fortunately, I had two assistants. One of them is a very famous artist now, Arthur K. Miller. And Rita [was the other]. And they both were students of mine at the School of Visual Arts. So we did this crash thing -- I mean, I can't tell you how fast we had to do these big paintings. We did them in acrylic and you know, and we had to do these montages of everybody. And then they had to interlock. And, Oy gevalt! It was like three days to do it. You know, they always call the artist, like, "Oh, he can do it."


Pencil sketchs of the solo album mural posters
Courtesy of David Edward Byrd

KF: Well, hopefully you got paid a rush fee on top of this project.
DEB: They must have, yeah. You know, I paid Arthur and Rita too. They got $10 an hour, but they were students. And they were good. Arthur could actually imitate me so I could do more work because he could do phony me and I would trick it up, which is an illustrator's secret, by the way. (laughs)

KF: What were you given in terms of the band members' likenesses to base the murals on?
DEB: They sent over a bunch of shit with a messenger, as I recall. Yeah, there was sort of a band press kit and I had to get poses -- you know, I couldn't have them posing for me. They were nowhere in sight. You just had to do what you had to do with what you had.

KF: Was there a definitive concept explained to you in terms of what was required for this job?
DEB: Well, they said it was like a mural for the kiddies. You know, that would encourage them to buy all four albums. It was really a [thing].

KF: The first thing that comes to my mind is there is a very cartoonish flavor to them.
DEB: Yeah, oh yeah. I had no time to be arty. I mean I was amazed we got it fucking done!

KF: I'm surprised to learn you only had a weekend to do these.
DEB: Oh, it was impossible. But I said, "Well, we've got to do it." And Arthur said, "Oh Dave, we'll do it." But he was much younger than I was. I was in my 30s and he was like 20. And Rita was 20. So they could do it. And they were good. Thank God for them, I just don't know what I would I have done.

KF: So was it a situation where you took the lead on one mural and they would have taken the lead on some of the others?
DEB: Well, what we did was Arthur and I did pencils real fast. And then we ran out and blew them up and then we transferred them to boards. Rita was doing a lot of transferring. Then we all did painting and then we decided we got like, I don't know, 10 colors. And we did lots of stars. Rita would just cut out stars and we'd glue them on.

KF: Ace Frehley was the lead guitarist and his persona was the Spaceman. So his mural contains the space theme with what looks like Saturn, and of course the stars.
DEB: Yeah, right.


Ace Frehley solo album mural poster

KF: So it would seem there was some direction in terms of capturing the personas of the band members?
DEB: Let me look at this. I have a file called "Murals" here. Yeah, Ace Frehley was officially Space Ace. They each had a name. Gene Simmons was the Demon. Paul Stanley was the Starchild. And Peter Criss was the Catman.

KF: That's right. Gene's mural contains the fire and some blood, which are references to two of his stage routines.
DEB: That was part of his -- you know, they did this incredible show. Grand Guignol is what I would call it.


Gene Simmons solo album mural poster

KF: The KISS show was certainly unique for the time.
DEB: Oh yeah. You know at the turn of the century, you could go and see people executed. It was all phony, but they were shows. So KISS was like doing that. They were recreating that whole European Grand Guignol Theatre.

KF: In looking at Paul's mural, there's a lot of purple, which was his theme color.
DEB: Well, I had to sort of differentiate each one from the other. We had to do this really fast and we kept it really flat because we couldn't spend a lot of time rendering or anything. It was, as you say, very cartoonish.


Paul Stanley solo album mural poster

KF: And given the interlocking component, some of the components run into each other. Like in Peter's mural, there are stars on his.
DEB: Yeah, the stars leap over there.

KEF: Peter, since he's a Catman, there's a jungle motif.
DEB: Right, we put him in the jungle.


Peter Criss solo album mural poster

KF: And when Peter performed the ballad "Beth" live, there were roses that he would hand out.
DEB: Right, roses were his big thing. I didn't remember that point but yes he did. You're right, he gave out roses.

KF: It seemed like a tough time crunch, but were there any other concepts that you came up with and ultimately discarded?
DEB: Well, we didn't have time to make many changes. When I look at [them], I forget how it was just so wacky how we were not even -- you know, I used to stop and think about stuff and spend a lot of time. But I couldn't do that here. We just had to go for it. Actually, a collector bought all the original pencils.

KF: When was that?
DEB: You know I have an art gallery in South Hampton. A friend Jim Ceravolo, he was the art director at the Beacon Theatre. So we knew each other and now he has the gallery and he sells my originals and sketches and stuff. And I think about 10 years ago we sold those to a bond trader on Wall Street, who was a KISS fan. You know, he grew up on KISS.

KF: There's all sorts of us out there, David. We just can't shake KISS. (laughs)
DEB: (laughs) Well, that's good. I think that's a good thing.

KF: David, would you have worked through Dennis Woloch on this job? Dennis oversaw the art direction on KISS' albums.
DEB: Yeah, that sounds familiar. Dennis.

KF: In a perfect world, how long would you have liked to have for this type of project?
DEB: Oh, two weeks. Two weeks at least. But holy shit, and I think we were late. I think we didn't absolutely get it there on Monday.

KF: But you got it finished. Under the circumstances, were you content with what you produced?
DEB: Well, at the time I was kind of embarrassed because I wasn't given the time I like to give to a project. But looking back it's kind of amazing that I got it done. I surely couldn't do that today. And they are kind of historical.

KF: Sure, the KISS solo albums are a milestone in the band's history.
DEB: So now, I'm not embarrassed. I'm very glad I did it. You know, I was a perfectionist and I wanted them to be perfect and they weren't perfect. But you know, we were just smoking grass and laughing. I mean...

KF: (laughs)
DEB: I think we were drinking beer. What else could you do?

KF: And the portrait of Gene Simmons you sent to me, I don't believe those were ever used?
DEB: Yes, I did four, one of each. No, I don't know if they were ever used.


An unused solo album idea by David Edward Byrd
Courtesy of David Edward Byrd

KF: They do look pretty similar in spirit to the KISS solo album covers. So maybe they were an initial concept or something else to accompany the project?
DEB: I think that may be the case, because those drawings were done fast. Those were just ink drawings and in those days we didn't have computers or anything.

KF: That's a whole conversation unto itself. You did all this in 1978 before the days of all the tools and technology that are available today.
DEB: Oh yeah, this was all handwork.

KF: Which makes it even more of a marvel considering the deadline involved.
DEB: Yeah, we had to cut all those fucking stars out. We painted paper yellow and then we spree-mounted them down. You know, we did all sorts of shortcuts. But still...

KF: David, looking at your other music-related work, you've designed some remarkable posters for artists such as Elvis Presley, the Who, Jimi Hendrix, Iron Butterfly, Grateful Dead, and the commemorative poster for Woodstock. What are some of your favorite music-related pieces of art that you've done?
DEB: Well, my sort of Mt. Rushmore is my Jimi Hendrix poster, which I did for the Fillmore East. It was only the second poster I ever did. But it was chosen as one of the 125 icons of the 20th century, along with Lindbergh's plane and things like that. Also, "Billboard" named it No. 8 in the Top 10 rock posters of all time. So No. 8's not bad.

KF: Definitely.
DEB: That's enough for me. You know, I didn't save any of those things. I just moved on and gave everything away all the time. Who knew? I didn't know this would become like a business.

KF: The Hendrix poster was done in 1968?
DEB: Yeah, that was 1968. That was the second poster I ever did. I was a painter. I said, "Oh fuck, these things are so small. I can't do this." But I did. And I hand-inked the whole thing. Well, how else are you going to do it? So I hand-inked it and filled it in with water color. I'm also very known for my follies poster for the Sundance Follies in 1971, which is in the Louvre [in Paris]. And the Jimi Hendrix is in about 20 museums, it's in the Museum of Modern Art, it's in the Museum of Rock, the Hendrix Museum, the Victorian Albert, it's all over the place. So I didn't do bad for not being famous.

KF: In looking at your work, I'd say you've done quite well.
DEB: Well, thank you. It's always good to hear that.

KF: Are you still active today in terms of creating art?
DEB: Oh yeah. Actually, right now I'm doing a poster for Prince. Yeah, the old hippie is still doing posters. (laughs)

KF: It seems poster art has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance in recent years. Would you agree?
DEB: Oh absolutely. It's very big. Fortunately I started using on the computer in 1990. I was at Warner Bros. for 11 years. I actually started their art department. And when I left, there were like 50 people, but there was just four of us when it started. I immediately said, "Well, we all have to get on the computer. This is the new thing." So I've been able to transition to the computer. You really appreciate it because it does a lot of work for you that we used to do tediously by hand. I mean, just to make a flat yellow you'd have to do five or six layers of paint to get it to be a flat yellow. Now you just fill with PMS 123 and you're done. It's a dream. (laughs)

(KissFAQ thanks David Edward Byrd for his time and contribution to Back In The Solo Album Groove, our 35th anniversary retrospective dedicated to the 1978 KISS solo albums. Learn more about David's work at his official website, http://www.david-edward-byrd.com.)



About David Edward Byrd
In early 1968, Tennessee native David Edward Byrd signed on as the exclusive poster and program designer for Bill Graham's new Fillmore East. Between 1968 and 1973, he created posters for artists such as Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane, the Who, Traffic, and the Grateful Dead. In 1969 Byrd created the commemorative poster for the legendary Woodstock festival. That same year he designed the graphic for the legendary Rolling Stones 1969 tour that tragically ended at Altamont. In 1970 he began his career as a Broadway poster designer and over the next 20 years would do many Broadway & Off-Broadway shows, including Sondheim's "Follies," "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar." In 1978 Byrd was commissioned by Howard Marks Advertising to create the interlocking murals that were included in each of the four KISS solo albums. From 1970 to 1979 Byrd taught at both Pratt Institute and the School of Visual Arts. In 1991 Byrd took the position of senior illustrator at Warner Bros. Creative Services, which he held for exactly 11 years. Besides creating illustrations, backgrounds and style guides for all the Looney Tunes and Hanna-Barbera characters, Byrd created commemorative plates for the Franklin Mint, souvenir posters for the "Batman" franchise of films, and style guides for feature films such as "Space Jam" and "The Wizard of Oz," television shows such as "Friends" and "Scooby Doo," and the Cartoon Network. Today, Byrd resides in Silver Lake, a suburb of Los Angeles.