Joan Jett, 1980. Photo by Mark Weiss
New photo retrospective out June 2 is a collection of some of the most iconic photos of rock and roll ever taken.
Anyone armed with a cell phone or camera can shoot a photograph. Gone are the days of dark rooms and expensive developing equipment. Few photographers, however, have the talent to freeze true moments in time. Fewer still are able to capture images that tell stories worth more than the proverbial 1,000 words. That is what sets New Jersey’s Mark Weiss apart. Since the mid-1970s, he has elevated rock music photography to an artform. Not only does he have an eye for capturing special moments, but he is also a gonzo photographer. Instead of becoming a fly on the wall, he inserts himself into each moment. This has enabled him to gain the trust of his subjects, getting them to relax, drop any facades, break any public character and just be themselves. The result: some of the most famous photographs of the rock era. Many of Weiss’ photos have lived on well beyond the life span of the magazines in which they originally appeared, which includes OUI, Circus, Hit Parader, Faces and Rock Scene.
And now Weiss has collected his most famous photographs from arguably rock’s last great decade, the ‘80s, in a beautiful, over-sized coffee-table book aptly titled The Decade That Rocked. Written with Richard Bienstock and including a foreword by Rob Halford and an afterword by Eddie Trunk, the book includes remembrances by Ozzy Osbourne, Dee Snider, Peter Frampton, and numerous others. And like a classic rock album that offer new things after repeated listens, this “must have” will offer new, fresh things after repeated readings.
It must be difficult promoting a book during this pandemic.
I was planning on following bands on tour, crossing the country in a Winnebago and doing gallery shows and book signings the day before the concerts. Perhaps I would do a charitable thing or an appearance on classic rock radio to promote both my book and the concert happening in a given city. Whitesnake, Alice Cooper and the heavily anticipated Motley Crue, Def Leppard and Poison stadium tour would have been on the road. It would have been a blast.
How did The Decade That Rocked come together?
At first, we were just going to do a simple book, a hair metal band book. It was going to included artists with the highest hair. It would have been an easy book [to put together]. But I decided that that I didn’t want that to be my first book. I realized I wanted my first book to be about me and my life. After that, I would do my Van Halen book, my Motley Crue Book, my Ozzy book and then a hair metal book.
After a year working on the hair metal book, we scratched the idea. But the writer [I was working with], who is this great guy and a good friend of mine, started turning the book into a rock encyclopedia. I was not ready to write it myself. I did not think I would be able to do it. So, I let him go with it and after a couple of years the publisher said, “This is not what we want.” They wanted more of a narrative from me. He didn’t work, so we got a new writer, Richard Bienstock, and changed it. We used some quotes from the interviews from the first writer. Then I started jotting down my experiences and had Richard fix it up.
Why did the focus of the book become the ‘80s?
Why the ‘80s?. That was the decade where I came into my own.
You did shoot Led Zeppelin and others during the ‘70s.
That was the beginning. That was when I first got my feet wet. The ‘80s was the decade when I conquered. I shot album covers. I toured with the bands. I have great shots of Zeppelin, Queen and The Eagles during the ‘70s, but I never toured with them. I came into my own [as a photographer] in 1979 when I did my first backstage shoot with Van Halen and an at home shoot with Peter Frampton. That was for his publicity photos.
What inspired you to become a photographer?
I was 14 when I went to see Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young at Roosevelt Stadium. It was the day President Nixon resigned. I was at the concert with my brother and a couple of friends. There was a crowd of 50,000—a sea of people—and the smell of pot in the air. It was my Woodstock experience. I ran into a friend of the family, Kenny, who used to sneak into concerts to take pictures. He had two hot girls with him. We asked him where he was going and he said, “To the front of the stage to take pictures.” A month later, when I saw him again, he showed me the pictures and it blew my mind. So, I started sneaking my camera into concerts.
There is a difference between taking pictures and having an artistic eye for shooting photographs.
I am passionate about what I do. And I have a feel for what the rock stars should look like and what they want to look like. I feel like I am able to communicate that through my photographs. I see the way the light hits their faces and how to angle their faces and bodies to make them look as good as they can.
Motley Crue, 1987. Photo by Mark Weiss
There are working photographers who do nothing more than take a picture. Your photographs tell detailed stories.
I connected with [those artists]. Many of the musicians were influenced by the bands I loved during the ‘70s, so we had a musical bond. I was living with the bands on the road. The bands trusted me and welcomed me to take photos as I saw fit. Many never made it out of my filing cabinet—for obvious reasons. It was always “a day in the life” true photojournalism and they let me do my thing.
During the ‘80s, rock ‘n’ roll still had a sense of danger. It had its share of anti-heroes. Music has lost that personality.
The ‘80s bands were dangerous. They were exciting. When I toured with bands, we went from town to town like rock ‘n’ roll gypsies. I really do not know what is going on with today’s music. I’m sure there are elements like that as well.
There are no emerging rock stars with that special charisma.
There are people like Post Malone and Machine Gun Kelly who have Rock ‘n’ Roll attitude. There are people out there who have it. It is just harder to get [the artists through to] the mainstream. [Nowadays,] it takes longer for these artists to tour and get bigger and bigger to where they reach arena status. During the ‘80s, there was a formula. You did a photoshoot with me, a music video with Wayne Isham, you got into the magazines, you got onto MTV and then you got a gold record.There were countless bands. Each record company had a handful of bands that they would push. That does not happen anymore. These days, bands have to push themselves.
Rob Halford (Judas Priest), 1985. Photo by Mark Weiss
You also have a talent for connecting with your subjects; getting them to drop facades.
It was trust. I also started out at the same time some of the bands were starting out and I grew with them. I also knew it was important to have a magazine behind you. That is when I started shooting for Circus. That helped me a lot. That helped me earn respect [throughout the industry] and got me into places where I normally would not [have been permitted].
Metallica, 1986. Photo by Mark Weiss.
Circus was your main outlet?
It was in the beginning. Then there was Faces for which I did different types of photoshoots. We came up with stories and did conceptual photo shoots. I was also getting [my work] in Hit Parader, Rock Scene, Metal Edge and, later, Rip magazine.
Which subject gave you the most? Who was willing to go the extra mile for a memorable photoshoot?
I’d have to say Ozzy Osbourne. The first shoot I did with him he wore a pink tutu. That ended up on the cover of Circus. I received a lot of exposure from that. From there, we started doing all of this dress-up stuff that helped show Ozzy for the character he was. I was in the right place at the right time and I had some ideas. He was easy to work with and he would always go along with things. We always had a good laugh afterwards.
The photos of housewife Ozzy Osbourne holding baby Aimee in his arms is infamous.
That was ‘84. We got a lot of heat for that, because it looked like Ozzy was going to take a hot iron to his baby.
Was it through Ozzy that you met Motley Crue?
No. I met Motley Crue in 1982 when I shot them for OUI Magazine. We were looking for bands to shoot with naked women and the Elektra Records publicist told me about this band the label had just signed.
When interviewed for the book, Nikki Sixx said, “Bring the motorcycles, bring the girls, bring the blood, bring everything! For me it was, ‘How far can we push it?’ There was a nice synergy between the artist and photographer, because Mark seemed to be one of us. At the time—and, actually, still—we had a problem with ‘non-artists.’ If a real conservative cat came in, a professional photographer with his four assistants and that whole thing, it felt like you were shooting a box of soap. And we’re not a box of soap— we’re a fucking caged animal! But with Mark, we felt like, ‘Here’s a kindred spirit.’ In fact, I know that afterwards we went to a Mexican restaurant and got so drunk—the band, all the models, Mark, the whole entourage—that we all got thrown out of the restaurant.”
Nikki—to this day—says the OUI shoot defined the band. It was their first appearance in a national publication. I also shot them during the US festival in 1983 and, when Ozzy took them on the road—They were supporting Shout At The Devil—that is when I got to know them well.
With the Internet, cell phones and digital cameras, rock photography has become a lost art.
It has been lost for a while. A lot of photographers will go on the road with bands, because the artists need imagery, but there is no money in it. The photographers work their asses off. They work social media and shoot video clips. Some even do wardrobe. I could never imagine doing all of that.
I think me, Neil [Zlozower] and Ross [Halfin] are the last real rock photographers that captured a decade [the ‘80s]. There are still great photographers out there, but we had fanbases. I have a section on my Web site (thedecadethatrocked.com) titled “Fanatics” where I feature photos I had taken of fans and mail I received during the ‘80s.
Album covers have also lost their luster. How many classic covers were you responsible for? Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry quickly comes to mind.
I was happy getting my work on the covers of magazines, but I really wanted to shoot album covers, because they would be around forever. Although the other formats emerged like CD and now digital, when you go on SiriusXM Radio, that image is still there. My album cover images will last forever, whereas magazine covers come and go. I am proud that I am responsible for a handful of album covers that people know and love.
You are also responsible for Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, whose original cover was banned.
The PMRC hearings were going on and Walmart was among the stores refusing to carry [the original cover] because of the sexual connotations. The label decided to pull it, because they knew they had a great record and they didn’t want the album cover to jeopardize it. The original title was “Wanted.” In the book, there is a long story about it and the five covers that were considered. The photo of the girl was printed up, before everyone decided to go with Jon writing “Slippery When Wet” on a wet garbage bag. You need to read the book to get the full story. It’s a good one.
I was unaware you directed music videos.
I did the music video for Overkill’s “Fast Junkie.” I did Skid Row’s “In a Darkened Room” and I also did a video for Yngwie J Malmsteen. It was just an opportunity that came up. I heard bands talking about it and I said, “Give me a shot.” Then we started talking about ideas.
I enjoyed doing them. But it was so much work for little money that it became too much, so I didn’t pursue it [any further].
Sebastian Bach is another great personality that you’ve worked with.
He is a rock star. Axl Rose is another one. Their personalities make them so attractive to their audiences. People are born with a certain [charisma]. It’s why they end up where they end up.
Axl Rose, 1987. Photo by Mark Weiss
You were instrumental in Sebastian joining Skid Row.
When Sebastian joined Madame X, I was asked to shoot the band. Even though we had just met that one time, I liked them, so I invited them to my wedding a few months later. I didn’t expect them to show up, but they did. Sebastian, Zakk Wylde and Kevin Dubrow used the wedding band’s gear to play “Bang Your Head (Metal Health).” I sang back up. It was a blast. My best man, Dave “Face” Feld put Sebastian in touch with Dave “Snake” Sabo. The two exchanged tapes and Sebastian ended up joining Skid Row.
You also had a hand in Zakk Wylde joining Ozzy’s band.
I was with Sharon and Ozzy in New York and they told me they were looking at guitar players. They asked me if I was aware of anyone they should audition and I said, “I’ll keep an eye out.” We went with Sharon and Ozzy to checked out this one guy, but he wasn’t the right fit. Then Dave Feld told me about Zakk. He said, “this is the guy.” So, I contacted Sharon who set up an audition. The only problem: that night, Ozzy went out drinking with Andre The Giant! Zakk and I waited for seven hours. Sharon kept calling saying, “Don’t worry, we are going to be there.” Finally, around midnight, she called to apologize and say they were not coming. Worse yet, they were flying back to England the next day. She said send me a tape and some polaroids. I did. Soon after they got home, Sharon called and said, “Get him over here for an audition.” Of course, he eventually got the gig.
I was unaware you shot the Hear‘n Aid “We’re Stars” session.
I was there for the duration [of the recording session]. I shot the recording and I shot the group photo used for the album cover. [The 1986 all-star heavy metal charity single for African famine relief] was certainly a historic moment.
The Decade That Rocked is full of historic moments.
And now I have this piece of history than I am proud to present to the world. One of the last dedications in the book is to my grandson Jax, who is only four years old. I did the book for new generations.
Recently, you’ve been working with New York nightly news anchor Steve Lacy.
Steve takes my photos and turns them into silk-screen art. It is something I always wanted to do but did not have the time nor patience for. Steve is an ‘80s metal head and loves to create art with his Rock ‘n’ Roll heroes. I love them and I love working with Steve. We’ve done some exhibits together and when the pandemic is over, we’ll do more.
Are you doing any more work with Troy Burbank, who directed your short role in the film Gone for the Weekend?
Yes. We took my part in the film and cut into a short. It includes Chip Znuff and Telsa’s Brian Wheat, but instead of being a romantic comedy, it will be about guys obsessed with ‘80s music who stalk me. It’s going to be called “The Weissguy” and we’re [developing] episodes. I’d love to do it for Netflix. We are also going to film a flashback of when the characters were in the ‘80s. We’ve started working on ideas. I’m very excited about it.