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The warrior and the owl

Rainbow Rising cover art

Ken Kelly, the artist responsible for the iconic Rainbow Rising cover, has passed away at the age of 76. He also had created many other album covers, most notably for Kiss and Manowar, as well as artworks depicting fantasy, and sword and sorcery heroes.

A number of musicians responded to the news, including His Blackness (as delivered to Twitter by courier pigeons):

In 2016 Metal Shock Finland interviewed Ken on the occasion of Rising 40th anniversary:

I have to preface it with what happened before I came to Rainbow. Rainbow itself was a very simple cover to do but I don’t want to misrepresent that. It was a difficult cover, it was a unique cover, but I have to give Ritchie Blackmore the credit for it. He knew exactly what he wanted.

So, when I came into his office and after we greeted each other and sat down and started talking about the cover, I believe it comes from one of the songs – the actual reaching of the hand out to the rainbow. I had just been completely overwhelmed with KISS and what I did for them, so I was very prepared when Rainbow called and then I went into their office and they dictated the cover.

So I left the office with a complete painting in my head, I simply had to go home and use the disciplines that we’re taught as artists and do what Ritchie said and that’s what I did.

I didn’t think about it much at the time, but it’s stayed alive for forty years, it’s amazing, it’s incredible and it was a masterpiece because that’s what Ritchie asked for. He still knows what he’s doing to this day and he did back then. I would love to say I created everything and it’s all mine, but that’s simply not true.

Listen to the rest of the interview:

[Updated June 7]: In 2007 MOJO magazine Greatest Album Covers issue had this to say about the artwork and its creator (click on the image to enlarge):

Mojo 2007 Rainbow Rising album cover

Thanks to BraveWords for the heads up, to Metal Shock Finland for the interview, and to our reader DeeperPurps for the MOJO scan.

24 Comments to “The warrior and the owl”:

  1. 1
    Gary Halverson says:

    Back in 2007 I wrote to Ken Kelly and ordered a Rainbow Rising poster from him. At that time I inquired of Mr. Kelly, the back story of the cover of the Rising album. Here is what he said….

    “Gary, There isn’t much of a story, I had recently finished KISS and they,”Raibow” wanted a cover also. They told me exactly what they wanted and it worked out very well. Takecare Ken”

    RIP Ken Kelly.

  2. 2
    MacGregor says:

    It is a iconic cover for an iconic album. The cover represents what is inside, well done indeed. Not much more needs to said. RIP Ken Kelly.

  3. 3
    James Steven Gemmell says:

    That was a great album cover, to be sure. It would be great if The Highway Star would round up an interview Shepard Sherbell, who designed the iconic Deep Purple ‘Machine Head’ cover.

  4. 4
    Fernando Mattedi says:

    There are a lot of great art on LP covers, from all music styles. Confortante this was lost when CD took place, never to come back. Thoughts and prayers to Mr. Kelly’s family.

  5. 5
    Thorsun says:

    This picture is a masterpiece. It’s the most stunning and thrilling sleeve art amongst all done for Deep Purple Family. Just like McGregor says – it perfectly previews the strength of the music on the record, captures the eyes, just as the music wraps the ears – and hits you with a fist straight in your face, such is the power of the symbolics. Hypnotising. Catch the Rainbow, done, dusted. It’s easily in line for me with my other all-time favourites – “Dark Side Of The Moon” and “Queen II”. They do look immensely great together on the walls of the living room, just three striking images.

  6. 6
    DeeperPurps says:

    Lavish in its praise, here is what Mojo magazine wrote about the Rainbow Rising cover in its 2007 MOJO Greatest Album Covers issue:

    RAINBOW RISING, POLYDOR 1976, Design: Ken Kelly.

    Rainbow’s second album was an epic in the truest sense. Rich in Tolkienesque sword-and-sorcery imagery, its centrepiece was Stargazer, a song so overblown it made Kashmir sound like it was by the Ramones.

    Clearly this music – later waggishly dubbed “castle rock” – required artwork of equal grandeur. The task fell to an American artist Ken Kelly, a former Vietnam veteran who had illustrated various comic-books and fantasy novels, including Robert Adam’s Horseclan series. Kelly delivered a masterpiece, a mythical vision inspired by the legend of Neptune, the Roman god of the sea.

    1976 was a big year for Kelly: his work also featured on Kiss’s Destroyer. More recently, his heroic, Conan-style figures have adorned albums by Manowar, the self-styled “true-metal” warriors. But Rainbow’s Rising remains his crowning glory. No other rock album cover comes close to matching its dramatic power. It’s what those big patches on the back of denim jackets were made for.

    What it sounds like: Heavy progressive rock, neo-classical flourishes and the best metal vocalist of them all.

    RIP Ken Kelly and my condolences to his family.

  7. 7
    Uwe Hornung says:

    And didn’t that “fist out of heaven” make a reappearance of sorts 12 years later?!


    It sure was an iconic cover. I’m not the greatest Rising fan on earth (the bass-ooomph-less production, some songs still underdeveloped, even with Stargazer they could have done more), liking both the preceding and the following album better, but the packaging was superb, no two ways about it, as was the portrait of the band in the inner gatefold, very suggestive.

  8. 8
    Uwe Hornung says:

    I forgot: It also functions often as the background image and/or lock screen of my office lap top or as my Microsoft Teams background setting! As do the In Rock and Burn covers. And the Kiss – Destroyer one of course.

  9. 9
    MacGregor says:

    DeeperPurps @ 6 – thanks for that Mojo review, a classic if ever there was one.
    “its centrepiece was Stargazer, a song so overblown it made Kashmir sound like it was by the Ramones”. Ha Ha Ha, oh my that is wonderful humour indeed! Hats off to the writer for that one. Cheers.

  10. 10
    MacGregor says:

    Regarding the Rising album, it was inevitable that following the first Rainbow album Blackmore was going to do a similar thing that he did after DP MK1. Get some different musicians in & go hard & heavy & then hit the road. The debut Rainbow album is wonderful, just like a lot of MK 1 DP is. However in a serious rock music world that was still yearning for some power & glory, Rising nailed it big time just like In Rock did in 1970. However like DP MK2 it didn’t last long, but long enough to give us some classic music as the calm before the storm became a reality. Sorry that should be the storm before the calm. Three Blackmore & Dio inspired Rainbow albums is enough, we are ever grateful for those three. It would be nice though for the 2nd & 3rd albums to be remixed etc, they both sound dated because of that dry & flat sound. Hopefully a remix would beef them up little. Cheers.

  11. 11
    sidroman says:

    I love the cover also. Roger Dean’s album covers are great as well and I would have liked to see him do one for Purple. I love his art for YES, Uriah Heep, etc.

  12. 12
    Andrew Jackson says:

    Always liked that cover. Ray Fenwick of the Ian Gillan Band also died at 76 on April 30th. Great player.

  13. 13
    Uwe Hornung says:

    That’s too bad a news about Ray Fenwick! I loved his playing and songwriting with IGB. Not a classic axe hero, his work was similarly pivotal to IGB’s overall sound as Andy Summers’ was to Police.

  14. 14
    MacGregor says:

    @ 11 -yes Roger Dean & his album covers are unique in many ways. I regret missing his exhibition in Sydney in 2003 when I was there for the Yes concert. Original paintings apparently & including a larger than life Tales From Topographic Oceans amongst others.
    I really regret not seeing that display of his iconic work. Cheers.

  15. 15
    DeeperPurps says:

    Yes MacGregor @9….I thought you would get a kick out of that one! It is indeed a provocative statement by that scribe! I remember reading it way back in 2007 and it has stuck with me ever since. I still have that magazine issue in fact. Would post it here if I could, but I don’t think we can add attachments on this site.

  16. 16
    Mark says:

    @14. I went to Roger Dean’s exhibition in Sydney prior to the Yes show that night. As much as his artwork is great on LP covers, it’s even better appreciated as original paintings when displayed in an exhibition setting. There were plenty of Yes flavoured works – Tales, Relayer etc, and other non musical related works.
    People are shocked to find that I’m an art collector when I tell them I’ve got a 1000 pieces of artwork in my mancave – but that’s what a thousand LP’s are! So your Kelly’s, Dean’s and Hipnosis’s play their part in us head bangers enjoying art.

  17. 17
    MacGregor says:

    @ 16 – thank you for the Roger Dean story & lucky you getting to see that. I have heard that there was a mini grand piano there & Wakeman was there at one stage playing it. Not sure how correct that is though. I cannot remember where I read that, possibly after that weekend somewhere on a music site from another Yes fan. It is a huge regret for me missing that as I was aware it was on & I wanted to go. However the lady friend who I was with wasn’t interested in travelling on the train etc to see it. Although she is a Yes fan & went to the gig. I should have thrown all caution to the wind & went to the exhibition, but I played it safe, so to speak. Grrrrrr! Cheers.

  18. 18
    Nick Soveiko says:

    i know it’s of no consequence in the grand scheme of things, but my rainbow rising t-shirt gets more compliments than all of my other music related t-shirts combined. and they are a-many.

  19. 19
    MacGregor says:

    @ 18 – that would be a grand t shirt indeed & I am not surprised by the reaction of people to that. I have Jethro Tull’s Broadsword t shirt & it raises many queries & compliments also. I guess it is that imagery & fantasy & folklore thing that many people like. The Yes Roger Dean t shirts get noticed also & many people don’t even know of the band or Dean the artist. Cheers.

  20. 20
    Mark says:

    @17 – can’t confirm the RW story at the art exhibition. But brings back a memory of seeing RW on a solo tour at Bankstown Sports Club about 1985 (or 86?). My mate and I thought we’d get one in at the bar prior to the show. Lo and behold who had the same idea but none other than RW himself. There he is with long platinum hair knocking back a schooner or two with other band/crew members. I like those moments when you R&R “heroes” become real people.
    By the way my favourite Roger Dean cover (of any band): Close to the Edge – the outside gatefold with it’s green textured colour changing in shades and the original logo is so simple but so captivating.
    Enjoy you music.

  21. 21
    GAVIN MOFFAT says:

    Yes a great cover indeed. What, was the Deep Purple cover that was never fully realised? 1973 and “Who Do We Think We Are” (The biggest selling act on the planet … as it turned out, when sales of this were included in 1974)
    The cover doesn’t quite work because it wasn’t intended to be one printed layer. The high flying bubbles, which hold an image of each band member, were intended to be printed separately on a separate acetate layer, to give a 3D effect.
    How do I know? I remember Roger, who designed it, saying so in a contemporary interview. I really felt for Rog’ … You design covers, play great bass for them, write music and lyrics and produce … and they still fire you, just when your pal, the singer … has worked his notice to quit.
    That was how frayed Purple were after 6 U.S. tours in one year. As they have now said … “If only we had had some time off”

  22. 22
    Thorsun says:

    @6 Quote: “Stargazer, a song so overblown it made Kashmir sound like it was by the Ramones.” Ei molten gold, t’is. :))))

  23. 23
    Uwe Hornung says:

    I actually thought Stargazer a little underdeveloped even at the time, it sounds a bit demo’ish to me. They didn’t really bring out the orchestra towards the end, it’s very much buried in the mix and the orchestral part could have been executed better. Rising was recorded quickly which gave it immediacy, but a song like Stargazer would have come out even stronger had they devoted as much time to it as they did to Gates of Babylon or Rainbow Eyes on the following studio album. As it is, I do not think it ‘out-kashmirs’ Kashmir, a track on which Zep worked for ages.

    Roger being ousted by the other three in 1973 was a really cheap move at the time – even for the not very high standards of DP’s general dismissal culture.*** All the issues they had in the following with Glenn’s not quite as easy to handle ego were well-deserved.

    ***No one from the band spoke to Nick and Rod when they were fired; Glenn and Tommy didn’t hear about the other three’s post Liverpool Empire disaster gig informal decision to wind the band down for several weeks after the fact in 1976; Ian Gillan in 1989 and Joe Lynn Turner in 1992 had the news of their imminent departure from the fold broken to them by Bruce Payne too.

  24. 24
    MacGregor says:

    There is no doubt about it that Simper & Glover were both treated poorly & I loathe that still to this day. I always thought Rod Evans was leaving the band or had intentions to resign. Same with Gillan in 1989, I thought he resigned again as in 1973. As for Hughes & Bolin they get what comes around to them. Karma for their disdain & selfishness in regards to their contempt and attitude towards Deep Purple & audiences who pay money to watch a decent live concert. No sympathy there from me towards those two, ‘what goes around comes around’ is one saying. In regards to Stargazer, yes indeed a remix would bring out the orchestra more & also Bain’s bass guitar. They could even drop the drums a little in the new mix. I don’t believe I just said that, must be growing more mellow in my middle years & my hearing isn’t what it used to be. Cheers.

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