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Making Sights for Sounds: The Art of Kosh : It all started with 'Abbey Road.' In 20 years since, John Kosh has become a living legend with innovative album covers for pop superstars.

March 18, 1990|DAVID WHARTON

No, Paul McCartney wasn't dead. Yes, Pete Townshend did urinate in public.

Recollections of a lifetime in rock 'n' roll. . . . John Kosh sits in his Hollywood studio on a warm Tuesday morning, speaking in a working-class English accent, reminiscing.

Back in the late '60s, Kosh was a young Londoner fresh out of art studies at Hornsey College. He was working for the Royal Opera, designing advertisements and looking for something better.

"I got this phone call one afternoon and the voice said, 'Hello, this is John Lennon,' " Kosh said. "I thought, 'Oh yeah, sure.' I figured it was one of my friends talking with a Liverpool accent."

But it really was Lennon, and Kosh found himself enlisted to design a cover for the Beatles' "Abbey Road" album. The resulting artwork--a simple photograph of John, Paul, George and Ringo walking across the street--has survived as one of pop music's most memorable images.

In the 20 years since, Kosh has designed covers for Rod Stewart, the Eagles, Jimmy Buffett and 10,000 Maniacs. He made The Who look infamously mischievous. He made Randy Newman look young again. Linda Ronstadt uses him for all her albums, three of which have won Grammys for their artwork.

"He's amazing," Ronstadt said. "An album is real personal and so the cover has to be real personal. He understands that. Whatever my fantasy is, he's good at making it fit into a design."

At 44, with graying hair and beard, Kosh talks about his job as if it were play, as if he'd crashed some party that won't seem to end. He never intended to do this sort of work but he's still at it, having moved from England in 1973 to set up shop amid Los Angeles' record companies. Kosh talks about his career like a man who won the lottery.

"It's been a whirlwind," he said. "I don't really know how it started or how it happened."

It started with "Abbey Road" and the rumor that Paul McCartney was dead.

Lennon called on Kosh because he had seen the young artist's work at the opera. The two men met several times. Yoko Ono was keeping Lennon on a macrobiotic diet and Kosh used to sneak him cookies. Kosh was soon hired by the Beatles.

Meanwhile, reports of McCartney's demise--which dated to 1966--were continuing to circulate. People said he was killed in a car accident and replaced by a look-alike. The band, reportedly guilty over concealing the death, offered clues on subsequent albums. When the song "I'm So Tired" is played at slow speed, Lennon can be heard mumbling "Paul is dead, miss him, miss him." At the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever" come words that sound like "I buried Paul."

The "Abbey Road" cover fueled more rumors. The band was pictured in a funeral-like procession. McCartney was out of step, dressed in black and barefoot. A nearby car bore the license plate "28 IF," supposedly meaning that he would have been 28 had he survived the 1966 crash.

"It was just a series of coincidences," Kosh said. "The photo session didn't take more than an hour or two. We paraded them back and forth across the street and the photographer kept shooting. At what stage Paul lost his shoes, I don't know. He just took them off at some point."

Such coincidences may have been staged by the band as part of a running gag. Kosh pleads ignorance to any such plot, though he admits that Apple Records was deliberately vague on the matter and instructed him not to deny any McCartney death rumors.

Fact or fiction, the album sold millions of copies and the commotion brought particular attention to its cover.

By 1971, Kosh followed up with "Let It Be" and The Who's infamous "Who's Next." Again he produced a simple picture--the band standing around a giant concrete block they appeared to have urinated on.

"I'm afraid they did," Kosh said. "You know how Englishmen drink beer. We were all drinking a lot that day so there was constant urination going on.

"The joke was that the movie '2001' had just come out with that obelisk and we found an obelisk out in the middle of nowhere. It was a piling for a freeway overpass they were building. What better thing to do than go and (urinate) on it?"

Such images linger. They elevated Kosh to lofty status among rock 'n' roll musicians and artists.

"He's a legend, a living legend," said Tommy Steele, art director for Capitol Records. "He's one of the guys that, well, we all saw his work as we were coming up."

Kosh demurs. He says his early photo sessions were guided by whimsy, his technique no more than "wonderful naivete, trying anything and everything." It was a time, he recalls, when the unpredictable likes of Lennon, Jagger and Moon ruled London's music scene.

"We were just being outrageous. Everything was going so fast that you didn't have time to sit back and take notice of what you were doing."

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