I managed to snatch some phone time with Sheila Rock, the legendary American photographer, who has been London based since 1970, and became a highly influential photographer during the punk and post punk scene, and beyond. Since then her work has been published in most of the high profile magazines with her portraits from the world of fashion, music, TV and everything in-between.
She is also the author of a lavish new book ‘PUNK+’ (which chronicles the music scene and its participants during 1976 -80). These photos have only just resurfaced, after being stored in her garden shed for years, realising she has something quite unique she decided to publish.
Sheila’s career was kick started when she was invited by New York friend Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith guitarist) to see the band play the Roundhouse in May 1976. He then persuaded her to see another band making waves in London, and a few months later she was snapping away with her Nikon camera at a Clash gig, and this is when she decided to become a ‘photographer’. She realised that something creative was evolving on the streets, a new and exciting scene and one which captured her imagination, encapsulating youth, culture, music and fashion. Sheila claims modestly that she was “simply in the right place, at the right time”.
Having confessed to Sheila that this was the first time I’d ever interviewed anyone, she rather kindly broke the ice by saying “its all in the very spirit of punk!” I opened with the rather obvious but necessary deal-breaker question.
MURRAY: How did the book come about?
SHEILA: Almost by accident really. I was looking through some of the photos and put them together almost like a collage it was clear there was something interesting about them. Once it got to a point where we started rejecting pictures and moving them around, the book idea kind of evolved out of that. We decided initially that it would be just captioned photos but then people like Don Letts, Glen Matlock, Paul Simonon, and Lloyd Johnson all had some wonderful tales to tell. So I decided to put in the section called ‘Conversation’, having shown these people the book just to canvas their opinions, really. Everyone was saying what a positive time it was and I wanted that to come across; that the whole punk thing has this legacy of being anarchic and aggressive, with a real negative, almost nihilistic view of things and it wasn’t really like that – there were elements of that sure – but creativity and people having the chance to be themselves and do what they wanted to do was the name of the game for me. We were all young, we all wanted to do ‘something’… and everyone was trying to do their own thing, with no money, no one had any money…. She tails off in thought .. It’s kind of like today’s times except… well peoples perception of things, of the world is totally different these days… the internet has changed everything.
MURRAY: I must confess that initial reaction to the news of ‘PUNK +’ release amongst the old punk fraternity was yet ANOTHER book?? So many re-hashes of the same old photos and stories seem to come out year after year, but I was pleasantly surprised by the fresh perspective the book has. The fabulous shots of the clothes shop ‘BOY’ and Beaufort Market for example, really capture that early magic…
SHEILA: Well ‘BOY’ was largely dismissed because they were overshadowed by the brilliance of Vivienne and Malcolm, and they were brilliant… but ‘BOY’ kind of brought it to the High Street in a more affordable way, I guess and there were a lot of people hanging around the scene who connected with ‘BOY’. John Krevine went on to licence the ‘Seditionaries’’ clothing later, so Vivienne ended up making money from ‘BOY’, her closest rival! What I found really interesting about ‘BOY’ was the way the shop was all burnt-out.. and the body parts in cases, that was all the work of Peter Christofessen and John Harwood and also, involved in the concept design was Genesis P. Orridge, not in the physical production but he was certainly there at the ideas stage, having gone to University with John Krevine… again it emphasises the kind of creativity that was intertwined around the scene. Orridge its also said, was the person who brought the charismatic figure of Billy Idol to Krevine’s attention, when he was looking to for a band to manage. Creativity was the key to the time and people, inspired by the clothes appearing down the Kings Road, started to do interesting things themselves, customising their clothes and doing their make up in a way no one had ever really seen before.
MURRAY: It was such a secret world to us young teens in the North at the time, we knew something was unravelling, but we didn’t quite know what… little bits in the press and even the music press wasn’t that taken by punk for a long time and that’s what made the next section my favourite part of the book, not just people head to toe in Seditionaries but some fascinating people-watching, the gig goers in their DIY outfits etc
SHEILA: Yes, that to me is very special too because its before it really became… a uniform, people were really just being individual. Another great aspect of punk, individuality!
MURRAY: Not only could we find that kind of stuff in the sticks, not many people could afford the prices in ‘Sex’ at the time, we dyed and painted old stuff from jumble sales and created our own look…
SHEILA: Rob Symmonds (Subway Sect) and the band used to shop at the likes of Oxfam. He only ever went in ‘Sex’ the one time and found it so intimidating that he never went back! It was great gear but the place had a kind of elitist air to it.
MURRAY: That particular section is what sets PUNK+ out from the many books out there, it shows a lot of the real DIY kids, whose ruffled hair and skinny ties worn with tee shirts look tame by comparison but would invoke outrage when you walked down the street looking that way!
SHEILA: It was the raw… the real… those candid pictures. Had the book been ALL like that it would’ve been boring… but Jordan, The Clash, the kind of glamorous side of punk, I think the inclusion of those pictures tells the whole story… adds to the whole cocktail of the times. I’m really proud of the book as a whole, down to the effort put into the production, the feel of it, everything. When I first thought about it I didn’t think anyone would care for another book on the subject but as we went through the photographs, more and more it seemed like I had documented a really important period of British cultural history, one which had a massive impact on the country at the time, on other countries and continues to do so! Did I know that at the time?? No!! laughs)..
MURRAY: That was on my list of questions, did you know how important it was when you were in the moment! (I was about to ask Sheila the next question, which was how did you get a foothold into the world of photography, when she once again pre-empted me with yet another fascinating tale…)
SHEILA: …when you’re in the ‘soup’ you’re just living the life. And also, I had the fantastic opportunity to go on the Ziggy Stardust tour of America… and because of the people you were around at the time and the fact that we ended up in New York city and it was like ’74, ’75. So I saw the Ramones and I met Debbie Harry and Leee Black Childers and Lenny Kaye… so I got to be there at the germination of what was happening in the USA also! Then when Lenny Kaye came over with Patti Smith for the legendary Roundhouse shows, they said ‘oh we’re off to see this new band tonight The Clash at the ICA, so that was my introduction to British punk bands. I was introduced to the band but I had a big conversation with Bernie Rhodes and somehow said ‘I’m a photographer, I’d love to take some pictures of the band’… a few days later they were in ‘Sniffin’ Glue’, and then he used my photo for the poster on the opening night of The Roxy, which led to other bands asking me to do shots. It just kind of rolled on from there… lots of happy accidents!!
MURRAY: Amazing! So how did you get involved with the Ziggy Stardust tour?
SHEILA: Well again, happy accidents… …it started out that my boyfriend of the time, Mick Rock (later to become a legend in Rock photography) had been to Cambridge, where all of Pink Floyd had been and was still friends with Syd Barrett (who by this time had left Floyd and become something of a reclusive enigma…). I knew one of the writers at Rolling Stone, who I had been at University with so I called him up and said that Mick would be interested in doing this exclusive piece and some photographs. That went down very well, so the magazine asked him if he had any more interesting ideas. I was listening to ‘Hunky Dory’ non stop at the time, so I said, ‘oh you HAVE to do something on Bowie, he looks amazing, he dresses in drag, he does such interesting things…’ and before we know it, we’re off to David Bowie’s house on the edge of London! Mick is very smart and well read, so he and David got on like a house on fire. He was just at the point of breaking big in the UK at the time and before we knew what had hit us, Tony DeVries, Bowies manager invited us to America for the Ziggy Stardust tour as Bowie’s personal photographer and he’s like ‘you’ll be the only photographer on the tour’, which they did to bump up the mystique so we went all over the States, meeting so many people! Oh the stories I could tell…. (though sadly she tails off in her own memory for a second and then gets back on track)… I was quite innocent at the time; to me it was like ‘wow all this is amazing stuff happening around me’! So by the time we got back to the UK, punk was just starting to happen… the germinations weren’t as full on… it was quite innocent and sweet and fascinating to me, I just thought, ‘this is SO visual, I’m gonna take some pictures of this’… it wasn’t freaky, or heavy, or scary… having gone through the whole Bowie thing and meeting people in New York, it sort of.. again, happy accidents, being in the right place at the right time… and always being attracted to…things that were a little more cutting edge. Jah Wobble hit on the perfect word in the book, maverick. I’m attracted to people who think out of the box, the mavericks of this world. And that’s why everyone gravitates together, the mavericks, the people who think outside the box seem to find each other…but to be honest… (she pauses again and I half expect her to say ‘you’re talking to the cleaning lady, I’m making this up’ for a second, before confessing…) I was never ‘A’ punk
MURRAY: Well it was still early days…(She cuts in…)
SHEILA: It wasn’t really defined… it was more… arty?
MURRAY: Some of the early band photos are fascinating too, very early portraits of bands that probably only you captured. The early Clash photos for instance in their Pollock chic and the picture of Paul Weller taken from the back of the stage with the heaving audience behind really capture the time…
SHEILA: I approached Paul Weller to contribute some quotes to the book. I wanted to interview him by phone but couldn’t work out how to record it. I wanted it to be in his own words, so I mailed him the questions but it didn’t happen in the end, which is a shame as there are so many photos in the Bands section.
MURRAY: Another little gem in the book is the legendary ‘lost’ photos of ‘The Moors Murderers’ rehearsals, with a young Steve Strange and Chrissie Hynde looking every bit the noisy practice room novices they would’ve been at the time…
SHEILA: They’ve NEVER been seen!
MURRAY: Oh I know, they’ve been talked about for years. Do they/don’t they even exist? They capture the moment perfectly, a frustrated mixture of bored but capable and over-enthusiastic but incapable musicians annoying each other to death in a cold rehearsal room! So with the outro of the book hinting at the early days of post-punk, the bands, the later fashion shops etc… is there another book in the offing?
SHEILA: Well it was when I really started getting seriously into photography, so I have a lot to work with. The only thing with that is it was the point where everything started to splinter into sub-groups… and creating new styles and scenes.
MURRAY: You just get the feeling that the closing chapter isn’t so much the end but a new beginning?
SHEILA: The new scenes manifested themselves in different visual ways, so I actually captured a lot of that… various overlaps… someone did suggest we could do another book called ‘Tribes’ but I don’t know… I feel like the end of the book shows how bands had kind of…. Siouxsie was looking very pre-New Romantic, Johnny Rotten was now Lydon, everyone had kind of…..grown up… and I specifically chose The Cure shots by the Thames because you could see them wearing the classic kinda New York leather jackets but then the Johnsons pointy boots, you know, taking it somewhere else again. Johnsons was an important shop but it wasn’t purely punk, it was that very rock and roll music meets fashion! So yeah, I do have a lot of pictures – but I feel if I were to do the ‘Tribes’ things there would be holes in it. But you never know… watch this space!!
MURRAY: (At this point, I stop badgering Sheila to do a follow up and congratulate her on the excellent PUNK+) What is next in the pipeline for Sheila Rock?
SHEILA: I have been working on a new project which is something that is close to my heart, which is just photographing the British along the coast. It started in one way, but has taken a different direction, but its like a whole series of portraits. London and the big cities have all become more cosmopolitan and changed over the years but the coast has stayed the same, and that is where you find the character of the British these days, at these fabulous little seaside towns which look like they’re from the 1950s and 60s. It’s a continuing project, an ongoing one, but I’m hoping that the Arts Council will pick up on it and I might have a show of these pictures… I’d love to do a book. It’s in the same vein in a way, capturing something about the imagination of the British. The coast is important to many people, you’re never really far from the coast and every British young person has been to the coast on holiday! All of these things that are going on and all of these places that are still quintessentially English, its fascinating.
I’d like to exhibit, maybe as a touring exhibit and finish off in London, I just need a few more days of decent weather before I can finish it… or maybe it will be an ongoing thing for the rest of my life here, who knows? As an ‘outsider’ who has lived here a long time, this is a fabulous country, so much heritage, character, not just Queens and castles but the very people who live here, its still so vibrant, so creative and there we are, we’re back to punk again! (laughs)
Interview by Murray Fenton
Photos by Sheila Rock (Photo of Sheila, Don letts and Chrissie Hynde, taken by Rhiannon Ifans at the PUNK + launch)