Interview / Mark Weiss, legendary rock and Heavy Metal photographer

For 40 years, the name of Mark “Weissguy” Weiss has been synonymous with Heavy Metal. Since being arrested and thrown in jail in the late ’70s for selling his images outside a Kiss concert, Mark has gone on to create some of the most iconic photographic images in rock and Metal history.

Mark has released his book The Decade That Rocked: The Music and Mayhem of ’80s Rock and Metal, a bible for music fans of that era. The book is a 378-page treasure trove of history, split year by year, which shows the flood of sex, spandex, music, makeup, and mayhem that hit the 80’s Metal scene like a hurricane. MetalTalk editor Steve Ritchie spoke with the legendary photographer.

Photo of Mark Weiss
Mark Weiss, legendary photographer.

Gardening was Marks route into photography. “Yes, mowing lawns,” Mark told MetalTalk. “I was 12 years old, and I used to mow lawns in my neighbourhood for $5 a cut. This one guy brought out a Bell and Howell Canon camera. To me, it looked like a million dollars, and he said if I mow for the season, he would give me this camera.”

Trial and error and an eighth-grade teacher formed Marks early learning. “I was too late to sign up for the class, but he helped me after school,” Mark says. “In the summer, he taught me how to develop film, which intrigued me. I loved it. It was like a magic scene, a blank piece of paper adding some chemicals that look like clear water and all of a sudden, it comes to life.”

Mark was 14 when he went to his first concert. “Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young at the Roosevelt Stadium in Jersey City, and it was just a memorable day,” Weiss says. “50-100,000 people were there, pot in the air, girls, bikinis. It was an awesome moment.”

The concert was held on the day that U.S. President Richard Nixon resigned. “David Crosby came out at the middle of the show and told the audience. That was news.” Mark met Kenny Ref, a family friend, at the concert. “He had this camera dangling around his neck, and these two hot girls and I said, where are you going? ‘We’re going to the front to take some pictures,’ he said, and he and the girls walked into the sunset.”

Mark decided this was his calling. “I wanted to do this, and then I started sneaking into concerts at Madison Square Gardens,” Mark says. “Peter Frampton, Elton John was one of my first concerts, Aerosmith, Jethro Tull, Led Zeppelin and Kiss.”

Can Mark remember that first shot that he developed and thought he could do this? “Yeah, it was probably the shot of Ace from Kiss.” That photo proved to be the sliding door moment. Mark was arrested in 1977 for selling the photo (“a dollar apiece”) outside venues where Kiss were playing.

“It was a game-changer for sure,” Mark says, “because I didn’t know where it was going to go, but I knew I had to do something.” Mark sat in the offices at Circus magazine. “Circus magazine was my bible,” Mark says. “I went there and with my portfolio.” The secretary introduced Mark, after a couple of hours, to Gerry Rothberg, but they did not take Mark on straight away. “They took to me, said we like what you do, but you got to do this and that and use this film.”

A few months later, the secretary called Mark, asking if he had some photos of Aerosmith. “I said actually I do,” Mark remembers, “and I dropped them off. The first picture they ran was a centrefold of Steven Tyler in the ’78 issue.”

Circus magazine was a colour publication, so they pointed Mark to Kodachrome film and told him to use flash. “They said we want the sweat dripping down their faces. We want that sharp, flesh tone.” By dragging the shot, Mark developed his style and, by ’79, was covering Van Halen on one of their first U.S. tours.

Photo of Ozzy Osbourne taken by Mark Weiss
Ozzy. © Mark Weiss / The Decade That Rocked

Mark completed a Ritchie Blackmore cover for Circus, and then Ozzy came calling. “They had a New York photographer, who was not available,” Mark says. “I was second in line, so I raised my hand and went to the hotel, having brought a bunch of lights and some backgrounds, and that’s where we did my first shoot with Ozzy. That really gave me the confidence to be the photographer I became because of that relationship with Ozzy and his respect for me.

“I was only 21. For him to say, ‘is that okay, Mark? Did you get enough?’ It kind of gave me this thing. Here’s the Prince of Darkness, the rock star that I adored as a teenager in Black sabbath. I felt this little bit of power, and I felt that I knew how to make him look good. That was my job as a photographer, to make them look good.”

The shoot promoting the Blizzard Of Oz album was the beginning of a long relationship. “They took me on. Sharon likes people that she likes. People in the business and people in bands want people that they like around them. You don’t have to be the best photographer or the best hairdresser, but you know that you have something, that they like being around you, and if you’re good at what you do, it brings something out of the artist, and Sharon felt that way about me and how I got along with Ozzy.

“I had a way of keeping in there, getting the job done and getting the job done well, and then it kept getting better and better. I watched their children grow up, and I’ve been around them and taken pictures of them, and you can tell it’s a very special relationship because you’ve got to be in that particular kind of friendship zone.”

Mark talks about filling a bath with bubbles and having Ozzy jump in for a shoot. There are the famous shots of Ozzy in a bunny suit or ironing a baby, as well as the shot at the top of the Asbury Park theatre.

“I got to the theatre early, looked around and went upstairs to the roof,” Mark says. “I saw this very English looking environment, and I said, this is it. I took a Polaroid and showed Sharon. I had lit it all up. My assistant was posed where Ozzy would be. I took a chance on making this big setup, and they went for it. So we shot him in five minutes up there before he went onstage.”

Having shot Ozzy with Randy Rhoads live, one used in Rolling Stone magazine, Mark managed only one shoot with both Ozzy and Randy. “I was so close to doing a really big shoot, and I kind of screwed up,” Mark remembers. “I’ll never be late again for a shoot.”

Mark had the New York shoot booked, but traffic delays made him 30 minutes late. The band were asleep, and Mark was sent on his way. “They were kind of mad at me for a while, but everything was forgiven, and I started shooting them again. They were really upset that I didn’t [make the shoot], and I’m upset with myself because I would have had these incredible photos of Randy and the Blizzard of Ozz. It was limited to that one photoshoot.”

Photo of Randy Rhodes, taken by Mark Weiss
Randy. © Mark Weiss / The Decade That Rocked

Mark completed the “mad housewife” shoot in ’84 with Ozzy and would go on to introduce Ozzy to Zakk Wylde in ’97. “That was kind of a fluke, really,” Mark says. “I was with Sharon and Ozzy. We had done a photo shoot, and she asked if I wanted to come to Long Island, as they were going to check out this guitar player. He was not the guy, though.”

Mark went back to New Jersey a couple of days later and declined a drink with his friend Dave Feld. “Dave ended up going to this club, and the next thing I know it, he calls me up the next day, and he says, ‘I found Ozzy’s new guitar player’.”

Mark told Dave to get a tape and bring Zakk to Mark’s New York studio, “if you think he is that good. At the least he will get an autograph.”

Zakk brought his guitar and his practice amp to New York. “I was working during the day,” Mark remembers, “and he would just sit in the room practising. A few hours went by and Ozzy and Sharon were supposed to come over. Every hour Sharon kept calling, ‘we’re hanging out with Andre the giant’, and I said, okay, well keep me posted, I’ve got Zakk here too. I would love for you to meet him. He’s the real deal. I think you’re gonna like him.”

The session with Andre continued until after midnight, and Sharon called asking Mark to send the tape instead, as they were then going to England. Mark took some polaroids of Zakk and sent them with the tape. “As soon as Sharon got back to England, she said, let’s bring Zakk to auditions in a few weeks, and the rest is history.”

The Metal scene was really blossoming in the mid-’80s. MTV was big, and by 1985 the PMRC. was making waves. “I was Twisted Sister’s photographer,” Mark says. “I did the Stay Hungry album cover, and on the success of that, me and Dee became very close. Whenever he had a special event or did something, we would do it together. We were working on Come Out And Play. I was doing the album cover artwork art direction. He just called me up one day said there’s this PMRC thing going on trying to put labels on the albums. Twisted Sister had an album coming out and didn’t want any label on it – they didn’t know it would actually help sell records.”

Twisted Sister - Stay Hungry - Mark Weiss
The Decade That Rocked. Photo: © Mark ‘Weissguy’ Weiss Used with permission

Mark and Dee travelled to the Senate hearings. “Dee spoke on freedom of speech and really shocked a lot of people, being so articulate and well-spoken.”

Was the Metal industry worried about the effect of the PMRC, or did they see it as free press?

“It was always free press,” Mark says. “The one thing that happened was, by putting the labels on albums, [they thought] it would have hindered records being in Walmarts and all those stores. The record companies were spending a lot of money on the production of this album, and they wanted to make sure it would hit the mainstream and be on the shelves. Something with a label on, it would be put to the back.

“We didn’t know that, because there was a label on it, it would be a good thing because what happened was the kids would get it. Maybe the parents might not have bought it for the kids for Christmas, but the kids would go out of their way to find it and it kind of backfired on them [PMRC].”

Come Out And Play was released, crediting on the liner notes both the PMRC, for additional publicity and the Amarillo Police Department. The front cover included an ‘H’ sticker label. “Lyrically, there was nothing crazy or anything negative,” Mark says. “It’s your interpretation of it. They actually put a label on it. The [PMRC.] labels didn’t happen for another couple of years, but Dee made his own label called ‘H’ and said it stands for humour. If you don’t have a sense of humour, don’t buy this record.”

Twisted Sisters’ previous album, Stay Hungry, was the first cover Mark photographed. “I had established myself as a rock photographer, being in Circus and having a lot of coverage of portraits. I believe they just wanted a rock photographer. They kind of took a chance on me. The record companies always had their pet photographers. Usually, a commercial guy or a portrait guy, someone with a track record, and I had none, really, at that time. The band put their foot down, and they wanted me. They told me their vision, and at that point, I had not done a real concept-built set kind of thing.

“But when they asked if I could do it, I said of course. My father was in home construction. He helped me because it was a built set. The room that I created was a built set. It changed me and what I wanted to do. It was exciting, especially when it sold however many millions.”

Was the bone a piece of roadkill? “A week before the shoot,” Mark says, “when I was testing everything, I went to the butcher down the street, got the bone and just let it rot out.”

Quiet Riot, photo by Mark Weiss.
The Decade That Rocked. Photo: © Mark ‘Weissguy’ Weiss Used with permission

The photo selected for the front cover was taken at the end of a 22 hour day and, while Mark did not choose the image used on the album, some members of the band were said not to be happy. “Mark Mendoza, the bass player, his vision was to have the five of them in makeup, and five without makeup gathering around this dingy room with rats crawling around and things like that. I didn’t build the set big enough to hold ten people. I only built it for five people. It wasn’t a big budget.

“I had to make it work, and I thought we could make it work and, probably today, we could have with Photoshop, but back then, it was just retouching. There was a light bulb in the middle, and I had them gather around. But really, besides that, I didn’t get the energy that I needed for the shoot that Dee gave me on that last frame.

“A couple of the guys were kidding around. They were giving me the finger. They were goofing. It’s hard enough to shoot one person, two people. It gets harder as the numbers go up. So they have five guys, for whatever reason, whether they’re having fun, they give me a hard time, or they’re not comfortable in front of the camera.

“Dee Snider, Bret Michaels, Vince Neil and David lee Roth, they love the camera. They’re musicians, they know they have to do it, and they do their best. But it’s a great cover and a successful album.”

WASP - Last Command
W.A.S.P – Last Command

Mark would go on to create the front cover of the W.A.S.P. Last Command album. “Yellow and orange gels and a lot of bones and a ton of dirt we put into a recording studio.”

Vinyl albums were an important part of shopping, and so many rock and Metal albums of the ’80s had Mark Weiss photography as part of the package. I chose the Cinderella album Night Songs based on the look of the band, plus the purple gelled, smoky background. If you liked one song and saw that cover, it felt like you had to buy the album.

“I got hired because once Stay Hungry came out, the record companies would want to use me because of its success. They hired me for Night Songs, and I shot it during the day. When we got there, Tom [Keifer] and the band couldn’t understand why we were doing it during the day. I remember telling Tom at the shoot, just trust me, I shoot day for night.”

Mark would shoot Mötley Crüe, Guns N’ Roses and Bon Jovi before they were famous. Mark met Bon Jovi after the 7800° Fahrenheit album had been pressed for some publicity photos.

“That was my time. I met them, and they came to my studio in New York. That was through an introduction by Doc McGhee, who was managing them. I was in L.A. shooting Mötley Crüe, and he said, ‘I have this band from Jersey. They live not too far from you.’ We set up the shoot, and we just hit it off right away. The Jersey guys always like to stick together.”

Then Slippery When Wet comes along, which Mark shot the cover of. “That’s how it works. A lot of these bands were opening bands, Cinderella opened up for Bon Jovi, and Mötley opened up for Ozzy. It was just this camaraderie, they all want to help each other, and the fans just totally grab it. And next thing you know, they’re headlining their arenas and then bringing in a new band with them.”

Mark Weiss - The Decade That Rocked
Mark Weiss – The Decade That Rocked

All this and much more is covered in Mark’s book, The Decade That Rocked. “I thought it was important to start with the early years. So the first 10,15 pages, I have some of my favourite photographs of the genre that I thought were important to include, telling a little bit of a story of where I got to and how I got there.

“From 1980, I start each chapter with some laminates, a photo of me, a photo of the bands and me. A lot of photos I put in slides, so it’s like a collage. I have a fan photo in each of the chapters, which I love because I love taking fan photos.”

Mark has probably had one of the best jobs in the business. Hanging out with Guns N’ Roses, taking the photo of Axl laid against the phone booth with this massive mobile phone, and this book is an unbelievable account of that era of Metal, with the promise of more to come.

“It was really important to me to have the first book to be about the narrative about my life,” Mark says. “After this, I’ve always wanted to get the artists involved, and I would love to do it with Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi, Ozzy or Van Halen.”

And Mark does have an exciting treasure trove. “I shot a lot of black and white photographs, and some are in the book, but I like the black and whites I shot back in the ’80s. I took them and threw them in the files. I didn’t even look at them, you know, because the magazines only paid $25. A lot of times, I took black and white when we were just hanging out or partying on the bus and knew I was not going to use them. Instead of wasting the colour film, I would shoot black and white.”

Does Mark have advice for aspiring photographers?

“You’re only a photographer if you make it your craft, your passion,” Mark says. “If you love it, it shows in your photographs. It shows that you connect with people. Even if it’s backstage, even if it’s on stage, I say if you love it, you’ll find a way to make money from it.

“Start your own blog, your own website. That’s the way the bands are making money now is by bringing fans there. So, if you have good content, if you have good stories, if you show that you’re passionate about what you do, it will come off in your photographs, and you’ll be successful.”

The Decade That Rocked: The Music and Mayhem of ’80s Rock and Metal, is available from good bookshops. To buy direct, including some awesome packages, visit thedecadethatrocked.com.

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