MEETING DENNIS MORRIS
From favouring a shutter to shin pads as a kid, to capturing some of the coolest cult-icons of recent history, Dennis Morris is one of the most celebrated figures in music photography. Though, beyond his incredible ability to document rock’s most prominent, pioneering and punk people with a staggering ease of intimacy, Dennis has long flexed his multifaceted skill-set across in-numerous artistic realms. With an ear as good as his eye- Dennis boasts a curious ability to be several steps ahead- a catalyst or discoverer of whats good, what works and what makes the history books. Bob Marley liked him so much, he took him on tour. Johnny Rotten liked the Bob Marley photos so much, he asked him to be the first to officially photograph the Sex Pistols. Richard Branson trusted him so much that he took him and Johnny talent scouting in Jamaica. Then Chris Blackwell trusted his eye and ear so much he made him Artistic Director of Island Records. Dennis’ career is a prime example of a cosmic domino effect- from one fortuitous day bunking from school, where he made it to exactly the right place, at the exactly the right time. What separates Dennis from any other seemingly ‘lucky’ person- is his work to share the fortune down the next who needs it, helping the careers from the Slits to the Stone Roses.
Though known for his portraits of punks- Dennis is a particularly Punk prophet himself. We had the absolute pleasure to meet Dennis at our store in Soho, where we discuss his illustrious career.
Photography by Millie Radakovich.
L: Hello Dennis.
You were known as ‘Mad Dennis’ when you were younger, why was that name given to you?
D: [Laughs} The name was given to me because I had to be mad to be doing something. Growing up in Hackney, it was like: ‘Oh do you play golf?’ and I would say ‘No, we use the golf club for something else’ [laughs].
Everything was a weapon for us. It was a rough time, round Dalston and Hackney, pretty heavy. You couldn’t even get a cab, so if you went into the West End you couldn’t get back home. No cab would go that way. And I suppose that my infatuation with photography, rather than football, made me, in their eyes, mad.
L: Does it still apply to you?
D: Yeah, I’m a little bit crazy still. I may not look it, but you know [smiles]. Again, for me I’ve always been that way, I’ve always been pretty flamboyant.
But at the same time I am really quite shy, funnily enough. I think I hide that by my flamboyancy. Sounds weird I know…
L: How do you feel about Hackney now?
D: Well Hackney, gentrified as they call it- the community is not as it was. The people there are there for economic reasons, as it’s cheaper than west. But a few people I know living there in squats and some of the warehouses around there, said what was really weird about it was that every bank holiday or major holiday, it was basically empty. Because everyone went back to their parents house [laughs]. Whereas when I grew up, no matter what holiday it was, we were still there.
L: I can’t even imagine what it must have been like.
D: It was rough. Dark. Literally, in terms of streetlights. It was dirty. But one thing about it, there was always this sense of unity, camaraderie. If you lived on an estate, you were part of that estate group your life. It’s kind of weird sometimes; people are quite shocked when I tell them about black skinheads. Skinheads were not about racism. Skinheads were about music and fashion. And of course we bought the music, we bought the fashion, so Skinheads were everybody. It was almost a natural thing for us. It wasn’t a natural thing for a white person, to be honest with you.
You know it’s like the guy Cass [Pennant], who was head of a firm at West Ham. You know, he’d go up North and they’d say: “Why did you bring that n****** with you” and of course it would all kick off. They never saw him as a black man. They just saw him as a West Ham supporter from their estate, and that was it.
L: You started photographing at really significant time for black people. For example, you documented from inside the walls of the Black House in the seventies, and photographed the music at the Four Aces club, which was one of the first venues to play black music in Britain- did you feel like, or did you realise, that you were part of something special?
D: It’s not so long ago that someone said to me: “What makes you think that you are so special?”
The reality is that if you don’t know you’re special, no one else will think you’re special. You have to know that you are special. I’ve always felt different, amongst my black friends, amongst my white friends, they always look at me like I am different. No matter what I do, I always stick out. So I just accepted it.
So realistically, in all of these things that I did, a lot of it from reading magazines and books, a lot of those images really were inspired by books I was reading. I was sort of mimicking in some ways, but approaching it in my way. So through all of it, I knew that I was doing something special, and I knew what was going on around me was special.
L: In your book, ‘Growing up Black’ there is one particularly poignant photo of the kid with the balaclava on, scalding eyes and holding a gun. What’s the story behind that photograph and what do you think is the lasting impression that has?
D: The story behind that picture is, like many of my images I’ve taken, they’re timeless, and that image in particular scares a lot of people. It was taken back in the seventies, around the time of the Black House. I just came across this kid, in this balaclava with this gun and I just did some pictures. It wasn’t even half a roll of film, like eight frames. But if you look at it now, there are a lot of kids in England with guns; a lot of boy soldiers, child soldiers, a lot of gun blame in America. It was almost premeditating what was to come, and the balaclava is what would be seen somewhere like Palestine, it’s quite a scary picture. A lot of people are like “Shit – is it real?” and there is a lot of debate about it.
L: I can believe that. You were waiting outside of a Bob Marley concert to see if you could take some photographs. When he eventually asked to go on tour with him to take photos, did you ever consider saying no?
D: [grins] No way. At that point in time in the West Indian community, Bob Marley was king. He was the new voice of Jamaica.
You have to understand that the blues dances were very important within the community- on a Friday night after a hard weeks work people would let off steam at the dance. They would come together, and they would swap stories about what was going on in the community. So this new voice was coming out of Jamaica, and people were latching on to it. I was always into music- reading a lot of the music magazines, and I’d read that he was coming over to do his first tour of England.
So I bunked off school, like a fan, just waiting for him. Eventually he and the Wailers came out, and I walked up to him and said “Can I take your picture?”
And he just took to me. It was really weird because the only person who didn’t take to me was Bunny Wailer. Peter Tosh really liked me. Family Man liked me, Bob really liked me. Just something about Bunny- I don’t know what it was. But Bob really took to me and asked me if I’d like to come along.
So the next morning, I packed my school sports bag, went to the hotel. In those days there was no tour bus, only a transit van. So there is a very famous picture where he is looking back, and he is saying “Are you ready Dennis?” Click.
Island Records were trying to break him onto the rock circuit. They put him into venues like Leeds, Brighton, Bournemouth, but it was winter. And they didn’t like it; I don’t think they came prepared for winter here either. They hated the food. Everything had to be Ital, and the only thing close to that was Indian food, and they didn’t take to that too much.
And then one morning they woke up, and they wanted to go out and play football. They opened the curtain and it was snowing. And they said:
And I said: “That’s snow- you know snow?”
And they had never seen it before. Bunny Wailer and Peter Tosh were convinced that it was a sign from Jah they should leave Babylon, and they had an argument. Bob wanted to continue to spread his message, but the tour broke down.
L: Is there one thing that Bob Marley ever did or said that stuck with you?
D: Confidence, believe in yourself. And don’t take any shit.
D: Not really. At that time, Bob represented the youth of Jamaica, and the youth of black kids in England. Punk represented England- the white youth of England. I grew up listening to a lot of Rock music, and a lot of Reggae music. I listened to all kinds of music. So when I got involved with the Pistols, for me it was a natural progression.
Going back, I wanted to be a war photographer, I actually wanted to go to Vietnam. I was influenced by people like Robert Capa, Don McCullin– all the great war photographers. And there was always one particular photographer Tim Page, and he did a lot of pictures of the Doors. And he always said, when Jim Morrison died he had to find another war- and that was when he went to Vietnam. So working with Bob and the Sex Pistols, I had found my war. Because that was exactly what it was. With Bob in Jamaica, there was a really heavy political situation. In England, because the punks came out against the Royal Family, with all the Royalists, it was very dangerous to be a punk.
They were true revolutions, parallel. And growing up in England, I could identify with them both. There weren’t many black punks at that time; I was probably one of the only ones really. But it didn’t faze me. There was no racism. Only once punk became very big, and the political factions tried to get hold of this youth culture. That’s what always happens. Politics get in involved. Personally, I never witnessed any of that towards me, from the band or anybody around them.
One of the things that I took from Bob was a sense of spiritually, a sense of belonging, consciousness, and pride.
What I gained from Punk was learning how to kick the door down.
L: So what was Johnny Rotten like? Is he how I would imagine him to be?
D: John at the time was very controversial, very outspoken. But unfortunately, I think that John has become a parody of himself- he’s become exactly like all the things he hated.
D: And everything else. It’s not me saying it; it’s how everyone else sees him. I would say, in some ways, I would have more respect for him if he stuck to what he preached, stuck to his guns.
L: Have you met him in recent years?
D: From time to time, but we really don’t have much to say. No one really talks to him anymore, his band don’t talk to him anymore. [Chuckles] Glenn hates him. Paul. Steve lives in LA.
L: But what do you think made him like that? Money? Or was he maybe even masquerading to be punk but was actually quite conservative deep down?
D: I don’t know what it is, really. Nobody knows. He married very well. The woman he was married to was, I dunno, 20 years older than him- very, very wealthy. I think he got spoilt by that. LA does- well it, can do it to you.
But Billy Idol- he was the only one who actually went and made it in America. And made it big. And I will tell you one thing about it- he is a really, really cool guy. Compared to John. Honestly. That guy- I have so much respect for him.
But there is this stigma about him, because he turned his back on Gen X and went to America. And within certain circles, he sold out. But John sold out!
The way that Billy achieved it, he was the only one from the punk era, as a musician, who made it globally. Everywhere- he made it globally. He can still kick it. John- John is just a sneering… I mean come on, we did that when we were 17. Come up with something else. It’s that one trick pony scenario.
L: Even with PiL?
D: Even with PiL. PiL had a lot to say, and were very influential. But then John has got this nasty habit, giving shit to everyone. So everyone just turned their backs on him in the end. People can see through it.
The kind of people who cling to that sort of hardcore punk…. Sometimes L, when I see the Punk guys from that era, I think to myself: “Well, that was then, this now. You really need to grow up- you don’t fit into that jacket anymore!’”
[laughs] No one is going to think of you any less if you wore a suit. One of the things for me that is very important in punk is that its not a way of dress, it’s a state of mind.
Like the story about the guy who saw Bob Marley. He was worried about being an accountant, and what kind of accountant he would be. But when he saw Bob, he went: “Fuck! I can be accountant! And I can be really cool.” And in the same way- you could’ve come from the punk period, and you could of ended up being a bank manager, or a CEO of a major company. Without having to wear [all that]. It’s a way of thinking.
We all as teenagers go through whatever we have to go through. When you get to the next stage – you grow up, you have kids, you got responsibilities. But a lot of people don’t feel to do that. It’s quite sad. Surely you must feel that way loads? You must of seen some grown men wearing something that just makes you think “Oh fuck- you really look quite sad in that!”
L: But I still quite admire their dedication at the same time! But do try to do something different with it, surely?
D: [Laughing] That’s it!
L: So, of all the pictures you took of the Sex Pistols- do you have a personal favorite of yours?
D: For me, all my pictures are my babies. I love all my babies. I can remember every single scenario where every picture was taken. If you want to pull out a picture and say to me: “Can you tell me where this was taken?”
I could tell you exactly what was going on.
L: Well I love the one where they are eating the Chinese food on the bus.
D: Chinese food! If you look at the picture, John doesn’t look too happy.
L: No, not really.
D: But Sid loved Chinese. He said it made a pretty picture when he throws it up. Because of his drug habit. [laughs]
L: Well, make the most of every situation I guess! You joined Basement 5 – what reactions did the band get the punk scene, and similarly, black people?
D: Okay- [Sits forward] so tell me what you know about Basement 5.
L: So this was actually always confusing to me. DJ Don Letts. Did you replace him, join him or start the band with him? There are conflicting sources.
D: You know what it really is? The reality is that Don was never really in the band. Don Letts is…pffft.
So the guys in Basement 5 had an idea to start a band. They were friends, all his friends, all my friends. They had a singer, who left. And they were playing bad reggae really. Really bad reggae. Somehow, they got some gigs in Portugal. So they all went to Portugal. They ran into some problems. They got all their equipment nicked or something like that. Don fucked off and left them out there.
Don thinks of Don. He left them out there, so they got in touch with me and said- ‘Can you help us out?’ I sent them some money, they came back. I sat them down and said what they’re doing is a complete waste of time. I was Art Director for Island Records at that time- but I wanted to get into my music. So I said to them ‘Look- I’ll write the songs, I got ideas for imagery and everything.’ It was all in my head. And basically that was how the band came about.
L: That’s good to know!
D: Well, like there’s this other story. Don- again. The one about Richard Branson in Jamaica.
L: Yes! Let’s hear it your way.
D: The truth of that is, is that it’s ’78- John had left the Sex Pistols. Completely distraught and didn’t know what to do with himself. Within weeks of him coming back, I get a call from Virgin- Richard Branson and Simon Draper. Now, Simon Draper was actually the brains of the music side of Virgin, Richard was the business guy. Real visionary. But Simon was the guy with the musical ear. At the time, the biggest thing Virgin had was Tubular Bells by Mike Oldfield. So then Virgin was becoming a hippy label- and but they wanted to ditch that image.
So when no one would go near the Sex Pistols- that was it [he clicks]. And by signing them, the Human League and everyone else went to Virgin. There came a time when they wanted to get into Reggae music, but they didn’t have any connections. I had connections in Jamaica through Bob. So they called me saying that they wanted me to go to Jamaica, and when Richard would sign acts, you take their pictures. And because you’ve got good connections. And I turned round and said: “Why don’t we take John? He not up to much these days” And they said that that was a great idea.
We arrive in Jamaica. There were a group of Rasta’s outside the airport, and when the see John they shout: “Johnny mon! God save the Queen mon!” And from there… we knew we’d be cool.
So, there we are, a week or so into the trip. And lo and behold- look who turns up? Don.
Richard turns to him and says “I don’t know where you are gonna stay. I’m not paying for a hotel room for you.”
So? He was kipping on the sofa! So when you read: “Oh Richard asked me to go to Jamaica”- why would he ask someone who’s never been to go with him? Well, now you know.
I mean- where is the footage? He did something for that punk thing on Sky Arts, and there is two seconds of footage. What was his contribution? He just knew he had to be there; he’s that kind of a character. And there is a knack to that; I’ll give him that.
Besides, he’s a shit DJ.
L: I’m glad someone said it.
D: You call that DJing? You know, he puts a needle to the thing – there’s no mixing going on, no nothing.
We basically ended up in Jamaica for quite a long time actually, nearly a couple of months And that’s where John more or less formulated PiL. Because I knew Lee Perry really well and I did the pictures of him and Big Youth… that’s when it all came together. By the time he came back to England, he had this whole kind of ‘dub’ thing in his head.
L: The First Issue album – the image of Johnny is a slight diversion from his image as the seditious front man of the Pistols – can you tell me some more about that?
D: Well, it all came around when we came back from Jamaica. He had the idea of the band in his head, musically. He was really fed up of the punk vision and he wanted to do something completely different.
I was doing some work with this band called Rose Royce and ‘Car Wash’ – the big ‘Car Wash’. They were over in England touring and I always remember it as my first exposure to the American music machine- which had wardrobe, makeup– full on. And I was just fascinated by it. So John and I began talking about ideas and I came up with one to ditch the punk look and take it to another level.
There were quite a few people involved. One of them was a guy that nobody ever talks about, a guy called Ken MacDonald. Kenny… he had a shop on the Kings Road, selling zoot suits and John was really into that. That’s where the clothes came from.
I had an idea for the images and John wanted to call the album ‘First Issue’. What it was… I got this idea. There was a makeup artist who was working for Rolls Royce and I turned to her and said: “Look, I’ve got this album coming out.”
She said: “Who’s it for?”
“It’s for a band called Public Ltd.”
She said: “I’ve never heard of them.”
I said “It’s with this guy who used to be in the Sex Pistols” and she said:
“Oh yeah I know. I’d love to do it!”
So then she came with all the makeup. What we tried to do – and I think we achieved it – was to create John on the cover of Vogue magazine. It’s the same typeface. Italian Vogue. And then the reverse of the album is Jah Wobble – the typeface is TIME magazine, shot to look like the cover. Then there was Keith Levene and that was shot like Mad Magazine, the same typeface. The drummer was sprayed with water. The typeface is For Him– the gay magazine. He wasn’t gay but he actually hated the fact that that was the concept. So if you look at the covers – it’s got all the track listings, like it would be like in a magazine.
Before that was a single. Which, again, came with this idea and it was printed like a newspaper and can you remember that?
L: No, I haven’t seen it.
D: It was actually printed on newspaper. Which is a great idea- but it was terrible because once you put a single in it just cut through. So very few of them actually lasted. So it went from the single in newspaper, and then the album came in the magazine as the ‘First Issue’, in a metal box.
L: How did that come about?
D: Very simple, because a lot of design I deal with comes from subliminal things where – for instance – I did the PiL logo. Well, that’s based on an aspirin pill. That’s why everyone likes it- because they’ve seen it before.
John actually wanted to call the band ‘Public Image Ltd’, but I said: “Break it down to PiL”. And that’s how it came about. So then of course the aspirin… that’s how that came about.
When it came to the metal box, again we met and he said: “I want to call the album “’Metal Box’”. And it was really weird because at my Secondary school- every morning on my way there I’d cross the road… there was this factory called the Metal Box Factory and I never knew what they did. So as he said that, I thought “Ah, okay”…
Next day, I went down to the Metal Box Factory, walked in, and it turned out they made film canisters, which actually turned out to be the exact size of a vinyl.
So I sat down and said to him “How much would it cost to buy ‘X’ amount?” and they told me, and I said: “And how much would it cost to emboss them with a logo?” and they told me.
So when I went to see Virgin and told them and they said “No, are you crazy?!”
And then I said to them: “No, it’s only gonna cost X”- they said: “Oh, well that’s different… ok so what we’ll do is we’ll do limited edition…”and that’s how that came about.
L: I can’t imagine it being exactly the right size – that’s crazy!
D: Except it was a perfect perfect fit. So a lot of people had a problem getting it out. Another thing is if anyone ever says to you that they have the original metal box? First thing you have got to look at is to see if it’s all rusty, it’s an original. Because that they oxidize – anything which is shiny, is a fake!
L: It’s good to know, I’ll remember that for the future.
So I’ve got a question from our founder. He’s saying that your book is his favourite no doubt and he’s asking for the copy of the secret tape of you on vocals for the Sex Pistols. He’s sure there’s one that exists…
D: Who told you that?
L: He’s sure there’s one that exists…
D: Tell you what happened. It was when we came back, and John was trying to put together the band for PiL. We went to this rehearsal studio in Elephant and Castle and I actually kind of fancied myself playing bass. But me and Jah Wobble had a bit of a barney about it and that’s how he ended up being a bass player.
L: Also you mention football a lot- and what football team do you support?
D: Man Utd. Everybody supports Man Utd. But I wouldn’t call myself a fan.
L: Football’s a big deal to our founder – Man City!
D: He’s a Man City man?
D: So he’s into Oasis then obviously?
L: Well with Oasis actually we’ve got a video coming out soon where you’ve got Noel and Ian Brown talking about him and the shop in Manchester when it first opened – it’s where they used to get their Adidas and stuff from when they were kids.
Our music intern she wants to say she’s a personal fan of Linton Kwesi Johnson and she would like to ask what was he like in person?
D: Linton? Well, a true poet. Again, a man of his time. Basically he took his poetry to another level to deliver a message of what the voice and what the people at the time wanted to hear. Really cool guy. Very, very cool.
L: I’m sure she’ll be happy with that.
So you must have quite a collection of all the art and the album artworks that you did…
D: I did a thing last year or the year before at the ICA. Which was showing all the album artwork and stuff like that.
L: Is there one that’s your personal favourite?
D: Again, all of them really.
L: I love the Marianne Faithful. That’s beautiful…
D: yeah that’s another story…
L: You seem to capture some iconic people before they explode on to their respective scenes. Linton, the Slits, the Stone Roses, Sex Pistols. What do you look for and what instinct is it that draws you to these iconic people who become famous?
D: It’s a combination of different things. Some like the Roses were drawn to me and I was drawn to them.
L: You put on their first gig, right?
D: Yeah basically I got a call from Martin Hannett…
L: How was he by the way? Was he a loon?
D: Yeah, but genius! I say he’s like rock’s equivalent to Lee Perry. He was way out there. Genius! And he rang me up and said – because he produced a Basement 5 album – “I’ve got this band called the Stone Roses and they’re really big fans of your music and your photography- they really wanted to meet up with you.”
So I went up to Manchester and met them – they were in a rehearsal room and I just… Ian’s charisma was unbelievable. I could just see that.
I said: “Do you wanna do a gig in London?” and they said yeah!
So they came down to London, and I used to do a one nighter on Bond Street. They came and they played with Chief of Relief, who existed of Paul Cook from the Sex Pistols, Matthew Ashman from Bow Wow Wow – it was kind of like a super group.
The Stone Roses came in… everyone just walked out. Everybody said to me:
“Why have you got this fucking band on? They’re shit!” and I said: “No, no they’re going to be big!” And the rest is history.
L: And the Slits… that’s a personal favourite for me.
D: Slits was a bit of a funny one. I got this gig at the Island Records as Art Director and I didn’t want the job. I had a meeting with Chris Blackwell and what he actually said is “one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made” is that he didn’t get involved with Punk. Island Records was the record label at the time – as in the independent record label. But he said he never figured punk would ever evolve.
L: … he just thought it would pass…?
D: Yeah, and that’s where Branson was smart and he realized that it wouldn’t…
So Chris, he saw that Public Image Ltd stuff I’d done and he offered me the Art Director job.
And I was like: “There’s nothing on the label that I like.” There wasn’t anything on their label.
He said: “Yeah but we really think that you can be great for the company, and I want you to give the company a new image. What’s out there at the moment?”
“Well, there’s this guy called Linton Kwesi Johnson, and a band called the Slits.”
And he said “I’ve never heard of them! I tell you what. Here’s the deal. I want you to be Art Director but I’ll give you A&R capacity. You’ll sign them. And you oversee everything.”
I said “Ah, that sounds good!” So, I went for it. And that’s how that came about.
So Linton was easy. Not easy but you know… but the Slits… hmmmm…
When you work with a band and you’ll know that, as a photographer: when you’ve got four guys in a band, and there’s always one that really doesn’t quite work. And you have to spend your time trying to make it work.
With the Slits, it was the guitarist Viv. I don’t know what it was between me and her. There was nothing wrong with her, but once they signed the contract it was like: “Oh well, we don’t fucking need you anymore”.
The thing that they didn’t know was that Chris didn’t want them. The deal was, as he said: “I’ll only keep them on the label as long as you oversee it”. And as soon as they signed the deal they went into the studio. The budget was like ten grand to record the album – and it just then went ten, fifteen… and Island was like [that’s enough]. All Island wanted eventually was just to finish the album. I also put them with Dennis Bovell who was a reggae producer- he was way ahead of his time. Anyway, as soon as Island got the album they just got rid of them.
I think she just had visions of being a rock star. I never had a problem with her. And her memoir- where she just calls me a c***. It’s a sad little book, of all her sordid sex stories.
L: But you worked with Skinny Girl Diet recently- how was that?
D: They’re great- I think they could be potentially very big. I have a lot of time for them- they could really take off.
L: Are there any other bands that you are into at the moment?
D: Hmmm… [pauses] The Few. Skinny Girl Diet… Ghostpoet.
D: Yeah, they’re great! They came to London, and sought me out. That’s when I had a studio… they were pretty rowdy.
L: Yeah, I’ve heard a lot of stories!
D: [Laughs] They’re all true!
L: So what’s next for you?
D: Ah well… all kinds of stuff. I’m recording again.
L: Oh really!
D: Not with the same guys. But it’s going to move on from where Basement 5 left off. But I have a different sound, vision in my head.
And I am supposed to be doing an exhibition in June, with the ‘Growing Up Black’ images. And another thing on the table is that I am working on a film, and I am negotiating with the BBC on a documentary. And a lot of collaborative clothing lines, using my images. A lot of things on. Plus a collaboration print with Obey [Shepard Fairey] coming out this December.
A lot of things come to me. You know, what I mean is that you have to go and put yourself in the place to receive it. Like if I had never of skipped school I would never of have met Bob, and you and I wouldn’t be sitting here. There is no such thing as a bad experience; every experience is something to gain in life. As I say to my daughter, before you can walk- there is a lot of falling over. Failure is the thing that is going to make you, once you’ve made it. And it never ends- it doesn’t stop.
SIGNED COPIES OF DENNIS’ BOOK ‘THE BOLLOCKS’ ARE AVAILABLE HERE AND IN OUR SOHO STORE.