The catalog of original 1970s-era punk rock coffee table photography books is starting to rival the Kennedy clan in sheer number of titles. So what makes Sheila Rock’s new book, Punk+, different? Well first off, most of these photos have never been published; Rock herself had barely looked at them in near 30 years. And they are incredible images, intimate B&W and color portraits and goofing around snapshots that capture the excitement of the era in the way that a then non-professional scenester fan had access to. And what a scenester Rock was!
The then-wife of famed rock photographer Mick Rock, Sheila is one of the few who experienced a firsthand hang with both the burgeoning American and British punk scenes, though this book focuses on the British punk movement. And the book itself is a beauty, in photo reproduction and tactile quality. It’s an interesting, completely unconnected companion to the recent Playground: Growing Up in the New York Underground, Paul Zone’s loving look into the early days of the New York scene of the same exact time. But that’s for another day. For now, Sheila Rock explains her amazing photo tome, Punk+.
You were born in America, so how did you end up in the original British punk scene?
I was born in Chicago, but I ended up going to University of Boston, then went on to study film at the London Film School. And when I arrived in London, I ended up with Mick Rock. And in the early ‘70s, I knew some people from the Rolling Stone editorial team, and I got Mick an introduction to them. One of the very early interviews he did was with David Bowie, and this is just about the time Hunky Dorey came out, before Ziggy Stardust. David and Mick got on very well. So we ended up getting invited on the first Bowie tour in America, when he was Ziggy.
Towards the end of that tour, I spent a bit of time in New York City, and that was at the beginning of the CBGB thing, and Max’s Kansas City, and punk, and the Ramones, Blondie, all of that. So I was suddenly exposed to this whole rock’n’roll world through that tour, and David and people like Leee Black Childers who was the press officer, who then introduced me to Debbie Harry, Cherry Vanilla, etc.—that whole new world in New York. But then when I came back to England, I had come into a new camera. In those days, I wasn’t a “photographer,” but I went down to King’s Road, and met Don Letts, who was my first introduction to that world. He worked at Acme, which was a magnet for anyone cool, young, good looking, into music they would go there and buy clothes. Don was already a larger than life figure, and now he’s a respected filmmaker, DJ, etc. We became friends, and I’d visit him. And while I was down there, the Bromley Contingent would come in, so that’s where I met Siouxsie Sioux and Billy before he became Billy Idol.
And it was all moving so fast, things were changing month-to-month. Suddenly, Acme Attractions became a punk shop. All the merchandise there, which had been retro clothes, was swapped out for punk stuff. In those days, there was no money. England was incredibly poverty-stricken. No one around had any money, but there were a lot of ideas and creativity.
Were you still with Mick at this point?
Yeah, but he’d gone to New York to work with Lou Reed. So I didn’t stop living my life, and I just discovered this scene. And I guess I was a visually-oriented person, but I wasn’t a photographer per se, I’d never done a paid job or whatever. I just started to photograph what I was seeing. It was totally organic. One thing would lead to another. Then I’d meet Chrissie Hynde (Pretenders), she was a shop girl on Saturdays at SEX (Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren’s bondage/punk store), and was also writing for the NME. In the first few months of this, there was no place to go see a punk gig. I’d met Lennny Kaye in New York, and he called me and invited me to the Patti Smith Group show when they came to town to play the Roundhouse; and afterwards they were all going to see this new band called The Clash at the ICA, the Institute of Contemporary Art. And that’s not a normal place where you have bands play. And at that gig, there were all these extraordinary people dressed in the most amazing way.
This was 1976?
Yeah, but the beginning of ‘75 is when I started to meet people, so this book is from that early time.
Why did you title the book Punk+?
Because it was down to the evolution of punk and where it was going. And also I eventually had the opportunity of photographing John Lydon [Johnny Rotten] later, and I had some very good pictures of him from like 1980. Punk was so short-lived that it was interesting to see the way it moved from punk, the clothes that Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm had started at SEX, then it went into something sort of New Romantic. I have pictures in there, where Siouxsie is wearing some punky t-shirt, then later a collared shirt, cleaner, New Romantic. It was almost like everyone started in punk, but everyone quickly moved in creative directions within the music industry. So that’s the “+”—what soon came after. Also, I wanted the book, Punk+, to be something positive.
Because punk quickly started accumulating negative connotations?
Yes, very much so. Glen Matlock, the Sex Pistols first bass player, he says he sees it as two waves. The first wave was creative, young, etc. And that’s vital energy. Every week something different was happening, people were making it up as they went along. Then there was a second wave, which was largely to do with Johnny Rotten, and all the spitting, more aggression. Johnny is quite a controversial figure, and he enjoys everything having an edge. He’s always been very nice to me, but he can be not very nice. That’s largely to do with wanting attention. But he’s always been very good at looking incredibly good, being very photogenic. For my money, he’s one of the best people to photograph. From a photographic point of view, he was a dream. But he created that other level.
And because there was no money, people were out of work, and, well there has always been this underbelly of violence in England. For all its conservative, polite superstructure, you see this violence underneath, in football fans, etc. And that attracts young boys. I do want to say that punk was never about sex, gender, about being “sexy.” Not that punk girls weren’t attractive, but Debbie Harry brought in that American sense of attraction. There was androgeny, S&M stuff.
So you’d say you wanted, with this book, to show more of the first phase, before things got a little violent?
Yes, that was my experience, I can only show my experience. And pretty much everyone I met from that scene have done extroardinarily well for themselves. Chrissie has become this icon of woman singers, Jon Savage has written many books, and also, I’ve become a professional photographer.
Yeah, about 1980 is when you started to work for The Face, which was the magazine that kind of set that New Romantic and early ‘80s new wave style.
So suddenly you’re being paid by a kind of big magazine.
Well, The Face wasn’t really a big magazine at the time. Nick Logan, who’d been the editor of NME and started the magazine Smash Hits that was a success. I would say he’s an visionary. He was just someone who wanted to do something different, and recognizes talent. He gave many people a break, many writers a first shot at writing. He gave me a break. As long as you had the energy and an idea, you’d bring it to him and he’d go with it. There wasn’t much money involved. It was all about ideas, and creativity, and youth.
So your experience seems quite unique in that, the original punk explosion is usually framed as the early American stuff—New York Dolls, Ramones, CBGB, etc., and then there’s the more violent British response—the Pistols, Clash, etc., and a little more about fashion. And you seem to be one of the very few individuals who got a firsthand account of both strains forming. Did you ever form those kind of “U.S. vs. U.K.” stance?
No, I think I was just a fly on the wall. If I did any punk fashion myself, it was black jeans and a black leather jacket, that’s about it. I wasn’t a punk fashionista, and I guess in that way I’m more American, more into the black Beatnik look. But visually, I’m completely drawn to the flamboyance and theater of punk. And the people that were hanging out were interesting to me.
You mention early in the book that “It’s amazing what you can find in a shed,” something like that. Can you explain a bit about finding the photos, what condition they were in, and deciding which direction you wanted to go once you edited through them?
Over the years I have collected a large archive of photos. I kept those early punk photos and images related to the time, but kind of forgot about them because they were not technically perfect or related to a specific job. Actually, I somewhat disregarded their value. I put everything into a box marked “ROUGH.” The box lived at the end of my garden in a shed all this time. Some of the color images weren’t in great shape, but technology and a wonderful Paris lab fixed everything.
It was only when I met Fabrice Couillerot, the designer and publisher of First Third Books that I took a second look. He encouraged me to reappraise the work. He introduced me to Sarah Simonon, sister of (Clash bassist) Paul Simonon, and she also loved the images. Subsequently, Fabrice did a design layout, Sarah drew up chapter headings, Nick Logan wrote the intro, and Sarah, Fabrice and I collaborated and interviewed some of the important people of that time. I didn’t want the words to dominate, so the idea of a “conversation” came about, which is how we positioned it in the beginning of the book. A perfect compliment to the photography, I think.
Looking through your book, it does seem like you were not really a live concert photographer.
Well, I wasn’t a photographer. And there weren’t that many gigs actually. And then some of these punk pub bands emerged a little later on, like the Stranglers, who started playing more usual [live venues]. Jon Savage did not want me to put the Stranglers in my book; my publisher didn’t want me to either. But I felt that even though I’m not a Stranglers fan, they were hugely big in the U.K. That was one small aspect of punk, you know, some of them were school teachers, a little bit older, but they still fit into that scene. And I also put Paul Weller and The Jam in my book, and again there was this “Are you sure you want to put Weller in, he’s not really ‘punk.'” But he was from that time. Glen Matlock was invited to join the Jam, but Paul Weller said you have to wear suits.
And again, that falls into the “Punk+” idea, where things were changing fast.
Yes, exactly, it was very quick. There was a very small, short route from Vivienne Westwood’s shop to the top end of King’s Road to an area called World’s End. And walking down to Acme, which was near the Town Hall. So what’s that, a half-hour walk, max. People would gravitate there. It wasn’t a club or coffee bar, people were hanging out at these clothing shops. And I definitely wanted to include Johnson’s for the “+” bit.
You’ll have to tell me about that place. I’ve always heard of SEX, Let It Rock, Acme, but I don’t know Johnson’s.
Oh, well they probably clothed more rock’n’roll bands than any other shop. As you walked out of SEX, on your way towards Acme, there was Johnson’s. Lloyd Johnson started selling retro, second hand clothes. And he explained to me that in the ‘70s, Britain was on a three-day work week. So manufacturers couldn’t design, manufacture and deliver on time, and so that drove a lot of merchants to deal in secondhand clothes. Also, people didn’t have money to buy nice new fashion clothes. And of course the punk thing was very DIY. Because there was no money, because it was very much a youth culture living moment to moment, people would borrow their dad’s old white shirts and stick pins in them, they would customize clothes.
And then that eventually became a now standard youth thing to do, buying used clothing more as a style or attitude choice than always economic necessity, though it still often is. Not unlike when Johnny Ramone played a used Mosrite guitar, which were considered kind of crappy “first” guitars back then, and he made it cool to play cheap old guitars.
Yes, I agree. I met Jon Savage early on. You know, he went to Cambridge, and he became a lawyer. He’s very smart, but he was always very much drawn to music, youth culture, and fashion. He’s quite dapper. And we’d always talk about this incredible tribe of people, and as an American, I suddenly noticed these tribes of punks, and tribes of mods, and tribes of skinheads. And it was like a club, in a way. A lot of it was to do with how you looked, and it was incredibly detailed. And we both found it very fascinating. Jon eventually wrote about it, and I photographed it. But it was never my intention to publish these things. It was only by chance because Fabrice had come to me, as he’d seen these pictures I did of Marianne Faithful. And we got on, and he said I know you have these pictures of John Lydon, and did I shoot the Sex Pistols, etc. But oddly, that was one band I didn’t shoot.
I guess because I think there were two punk camps in the mid-70s: the Pistols and the Clash. I think if you liked one band, you were not so keen on the other. A bit like the Beatles vs. the Stones. Nothing dark or mysterious really, just a question of taste and aesthetics. Of course the Sex Pistols were around, but I just never saw them play as the band. In subsequent years, I did photograph all the band in their different manifestations. Glen Matlock in Rich Kids, John Lydon in Public Image, and even Paul (Cook) and Steve (Jones).
Who were some of your favorite people to shoot?
Well, the Clash were a gift. They had such an innate style. Maybe because they were from art college or something, but they had a look and an inner presence about them. Most of the time, you shoot a lot of pictures and end up with maybe one really good one. But with them, you didn’t have to shoot much to get a good image. Just by chance I did Subway Sect. Bernard Rhodes was trying to sort of manage them too. I got to the rehearsal studios thinking I was going to shoot the Clash, but they weren’t there, and Subway Sect was. I’d only brought one light, set it up quick, thinking it might not be much. But I look at them now, and there’s something kind of Diane Arbus about them. Again, it wasn’t something that I conjured or manufactured—they just were that way. There’s a tremendous honesty in the photos I took. Maybe because I wasn’t professional. No one was professional. There’s a purity in spirit, and if that comes across to anyone that picks up Punk+, that’s a good thing and my message has come across.
And now everyone’s a professional, right? Everyone takes pictures constantly.
(Laughs) Yeah, and that kind of damaged this whole thing. Just because you can take photos, it doesn’t mean they’re really looking at things. What I was experiencing was a certain time in history, and without any intention to do that at first, I think I captured this small window. And when Fabrice saw what I had, he was surprised, he thought it was going to be more band-centric, gigs, etc, instead of these more fashion-oriented shots. Well to me that was a huge part of the movement. The groups showing off, and all the fans that followed them.
And music and fashion in England, much more than in America, has been a marriage. Can you honestly say that anything that’s come out since that time that has been as visually powerful enough to change people’s attitude? I’m amazed by how many, like 55-year-old guys are calling me up—these men who are businessmen or settled professionals—and they want to buy prints. One man, this banker, he told me that punk had radically changed his life. He saw an opportunity. He came from a working class family, and he saw that if he was a little creative and chose a different path, that there was an opportunity to change, to make a difference. And he wanted to buy a photograph to remind him of that moment.