THE MAN WHO SHOT THE ’70s
Meet the mystery man who’s been one of rock music’s most prolific photographers — and has captured rock’s most famous faces from David Bowie to The Dead Boys
by Sean Clifford
Yes, his real name is Mick Rock. Well, to be precise, he was born Michael David Rock. But “Mick” fits the man and suits the mythology that surrounds his prolific career as one of the world’s most accomplished rock photographers.
Mick honed his eye and developed his unique aesthetic in the golden age of rock — an era when the quality of the music, and music photography, was at its peak. Commonly referred to as “the man who shot the ‘70s,” Mick’s portfolio is in fact much more extensive than those famous early shots of David Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop. Though his intimate images of those performers helped define them in the public mind, Mick’s body of work is vast, and he continues to shoot new artists with all the energy and insanity he brought to photo shoots with these iconic subjects. And if you manage to pry him from away from the camera, you’ll find an intense, insightful man who has had plenty of time to reflect on his decades spent corralling debauched rock stars.
I met Mick Rock for the first time in New York City, over a cup of coffee in the summer of 2013. It was one of those humid days when rainstorms erupt without warning, and as usual, I’d left my umbrella at home. I was soaked — wet enough to worry about being thought unprofessional.
But Mick was indifferent to my condition, and we got right down to the business of the meeting: a discussion about the notion of creating a TV show focused on his long career in music and photography. Behind his dark sunglasses, I could see Mick was casually intrigued, and upon finishing his latte, he accepted my proposal in a way that is quintessentially Mick: “I’ve decided you’re not a cunt. Let’s do it.”
In the months and years after our initial meeting, we found our footing as we made On the Record with Mick Rock, a documentary series for the cable network, Ovation. Producing five episodes to date, we’ve traveled to Los Angeles to hear Josh Groban sing with passion and poise; bumbled through the Music City with three-quarters of Kings of Leon (“The Nashville Beach Boys,” as Mick calls them); wondered what goes on amidst the Oklahoma City dust while profiling The Flaming Lips; seen the soulful side of Philadelphia with Patti LaBelle, one of the most professional and impressive artists I’ve known; and most recently, we toured Manhattan with Mark Ronson, a producer and performer who brings a unique intelligence and sense of history to his work.
Mick and I talk regularly, but the conversation too often revolves around scheduling, logistics and the politics of making a TV show. Still, even during those mundane chats, my mind drifts to the photographs of his that mean the most to me — that intimate cover shot for Rory Gallagher’s first album, for example, or the moment Mick captured as he spilled out of a London party, only to catch the police questioning Ronnie Wood, Rod Stewart and Mick Jagger in an image that has come to define the dissolution and Faces and the birth of the next incarnation of The Rolling Stones.
I want to know more than a guy can reasonably ask in the context of the chatter between shooting scenes and, so I thought it right to set about asking questions and getting answers in the pages of Record Collector News — a magazine for people who care about music, and who understand the undeniable influence of great albums and the art that graces their covers.
Sean Clifford: Most people’s first acid trip was spent listening to Pink Floyd. Yours was spent with Syd Barrett from Pink Floyd. Can you tell me a bit about those early years and how that experience took you down the path to becoming a photographer?
Mick Rock: Well, I had gotten to know Syd in my first year at Cambridge — in fact in the local arts school Christmas party of ‘66. We had mutual friends. That’s how that came about.
[Pink] Floyd was not known then, I mean they were very subterranean. Then, I saw him perform, which was like nothing … I mean Syd was Pink Floyd in those early days. He looked beautiful, he sang, he played guitar, he wrote 90 percent of the music. And that was a revelation.
The sound. The visuals. I think the guy, Peter Wynne Wilson, that did the visuals had been to San Francisco and had seen what they were up to — what Ken Kesey and company were up to at their acid festivals. It was basically putting splotches of paint in between two little bits of glass, sticking them in a projector — I mean it was all very primitive. But it was wildly effective, especially to a teen-aged student at that moment in time.
And then [after the Christmas party] a bunch of us went back to Syd’s mother’s house and spliffed out — of course in those days, that was hashish and tobacco. And we all felt very naughty because it was very illegal. I got to know Syd that night and we stayed in touch.
By the time we took an acid trip, he had actually left Pink Floyd. This was in ‘69. He had recorded his first album and we just hung out and it was… well… people used to say to me “Wow! Syd Barret! That must have been weird.” But actually it wasn’t weird at all. Syd was very playful. We listened to records. We played “Go,” which was a Japanese board game. And then two weeks later, I shot The Madcap Laughs album cover.
When you were a young photographer, my impression anyway, is that the music industry seems to have placed less value on what photographs like yours could do for an artist’s career. Can you share any interesting stories from those times about breaking through after you took the Madcap pictures?
You gotta remember these were hippie times. There was a fluidity, you might say. The main thing was the record companies didn’t want to pay much money for the photographs. No, they certainly did not — but then, as we all know, time changes everything. I mean what I got paid back in those days for an album cover…
How much were you paid for The Madcap Laughs and those other early records?
I don’t know — 50 pounds. 50 English pounds! The pound was probably worth two dollars in those days, so you’re talking about $100. There was not much money around. I got $100 for [the cover] of [Lou Reed’s] Transformer. No, 100 pounds! I tell a lie! I got $200 for [Iggy & The Stooge’s] Raw Power. I didn’t know anything about business. And I didn’t know anything about the business of the music business, that’s for sure.
When I did Queen 2, I did the whole package. I conceived of the famous picture on the front [cover] that was then copied for [the video for] “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I did all the layouts for it. I art directed it. And I got 300 pounds! I thought I’d hit pay dirt!
So it was a way to make a living then?
Well, it was better than getting what my parents used to call a “proper job” or a “real job”, yes (laughs). I mean you didn’t need a lot of money in those days. Where artists stay is always about real estate prices. Back in those days, some people I knew squatted — find an empty house, just move in. You can’t imagine that being allowed to happen nowadays.
Some of my favorite photographs of yours are the Rory Gallagher covers for Deuce, Live! In Europe and his self-titled record, which is such an intimate picture. I don’t know if people knew him then, or thought—
Well they knew him in Europe. In Europe, I think he was always appreciated.
How did those photo shoots come together?
I was freelancing. He came straight to me for Deuce. We got on well. I liked Rory. I like the way he looked too. He looked like some poet from some previous century.
That’s what I studied at Cambridge: Modern languages and Literature. I was especially interested in the French Symbolist poets, the English Romantics and the Beat poets. So I tended to look at these rock n’ rollers through that prism. And I think you could probably see it in those pictures. I’m not sure you could see it in my early David Bowie pictures because he was something else altogether, but you can certainly see it in the Lou Reed pictures.
Everyone knows Transformer and Queen 2 and the Bowie shots.
And Raw Power!
And Raw Power. But can you tell me about a few early records that people don’t know about or that you didn’t get credit for that have been lost to time?
I can remember … I can even see in my mind … There was a guy called Michael Garrick. I did about three album covers for him.
I shot a lot of album covers back in those days. I can’t even remember the names of the people. I suppose, because over the years, a lot of the questions I’ve been bombarded with are about the people who are very successful.
People obviously know me for the “glammy” or moodier stuff, but I was very flexible. I wasn’t imposing my vision on anyone. I was extrapolating the vision from the record or from the personalities of the musicians.
I mean if I were to go through … I did an album cover for a band called St. Paradise. I did Nelson Slater, The Straps, The Silly Sisters. There were so many.
The way that people enjoy and consume music has obviously changed a lot over the years. There’s a lot less emphasis on that tactile experience, pouring over the jacket for information, and appreciating the album as a piece of art unto itself. How did you adapt as the industry changed?
Well, you adapt. There was still promotion and publicity. I did a lot of CD covers. I never thought too hard about it, I just rolled with the punches, as it were.
I [still] did some cool pictures of David [Bowie], Lou Reed, Iggy [Pop], Debbie Harry and Blondie, The Ramones, The Dead Boys — I did two albums [for them]. They were actually set up to be like the U.S. version of The Sex Pistols, although of course they never achieved that same kind of notoriety.
One thing about being young is you don’t have to think too deeply about things. You have to make a living, and you want to have some fun. That’s mostly what it was about. If the business changed, well, you adapted.
When did you relocate from London to New York City? Was that move informed by the way the business was changing and do you think it had an impact on the way you approached taking pictures?
Now you’re talking sensibly! You’re talking about sensible reasons.
[In] the winter of ‘76 Lou Reed got me to come over and shoot his Rock n’ Roll Heart album cover and work on the tour [in support of that album]. We had all these … like 60 TV sets we had to program with all kinds of crazy stuff, like a lot of feedback. That experience really got to me. I met a lot of characters.
And of course … how shall we put it without interfering with the delicacy of your readers’ palates? It was … umm … well, I was a young Englishman in New York. And I had worked with David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. The doors of sin were all open to me. And I became addicted to New York and associated it a lot with certain chemicals — one in particular — and young ladies. There was a certain amount of freedom I had in New York.
“I didn’t really have a style.
I had an attitude. And I shot in
a lot of different ways.”
I had an attitude. And I shot in
a lot of different ways.”
Everyone I knew [at that time] was “like that,” but especially in the music business. It was way out of order — including the presidents [of record labels], including the accountants, including the lawyers, including the A&R people. I mean everybody was at it. I’m sure I don’t have to mention exactly what I’m talking about, although everybody else does these days.
It’s the temptations. It was the sexual revolution and it was rock n’ roll and it was little old Mick Rock, in New York, being taken advantage of, shall we say (laughs).
I couldn’t stay away. It was too much bloody fun. That was the problem. I mean responsibility was not that high on the agenda.
So moving to the present day, let’s get a plug in. I’m going to ask you to say something very nice and very “quotable” about On the Record with Mick Rock, which airs on Ovation. Let’s instruct people to check their local listings for information on show times and so on…
Oh! Well, I’ve been having fun with On the Record, I have to say. And of course I got to work with some people I’ve never worked with before.
I had shot Patti LaBelle, it’s true. I shot her in performance in the ‘70s. But Josh Groban, I mean I probably wouldn’t have met him or worked with him, and it turns out he has a great sense of humor, as you know. And I had shot Wayne Coyne [of The Flaming Lips], and I knew he was a lot of fun. And then Kings of Leon. And of course Mark Ronson. I had shot Mark and did know him, but we had a great, great time, which I think the program reflects.
Lastly, I’m sure you’ve been inundated with people asking you to comment about David Bowie lately, so I’ll try to ask the question in a different way. I wonder if there’s anything you gleaned from his creativity or playfulness that you applied to your photography? I’m not asking about your personal relationship necessarily, but is there something you took from working with him that’s helped you in your art?
Like David — although let’s not pretend my achievement is anywhere near what his achievement has been — I didn’t really have a style. I had an attitude. And I shot in a lot of different ways. I think you could say that was partly my instinct and partly because of my need to keep adapting in the music business.
But also watching his example — he kept moving, kept changing and kept opening up different doors and experimenting. Certainly I was always playing around.
I can’t help it. I’ve been around it since I was 19 or 20 years old. I think my name might have also had something to do with it. And maybe the way I looked, you know? I looked the part. Or I looked like a musician.
People who didn’t know me at the time would often ask if I was a musician. Of course, I had to say, “I’m not a musician, but I’ve certainly been fucked by rock n’ roll!” In the best sense of the word. Without rock n’ roll, what the hell would I have done? Gotten a real job?