Set against a backdrop of social and political upheaval during the economically depressed 1970s, photographer Dennis Morris captured some of the most significant cultural changes of that era. Owing to the depressed state of the period and London’s downtrodden, marginalised souls, Britain’s music, style and fashion were transformed forever – and Morris was there to shoot it all.
The Jamaican born, Hackney reared lens man, a part of the first generation of West Indians to be called black as opposed to coloured, captured London’s most creative zeitgeist. Morris documented the city’s sound system subculture, the punk movement, Bob Marley’s early visits to the capital before his rise to fame, and the working people of Hackney providing an emotive snapshot into the ordinary lives of East London’s black community.
Morris was also the only official photographer of the Sex Pistols – recruited by his pal Johnny rotten – and chronicled the band in all its anarchic glory for the 12-months that preceded their burnout. Trained as a war photographer, which is closely associated with a study of the human psyche, the themes of class struggle, race, oppression, joy and celebration permeate the artist’s work.
The creator of a comprehensive body of work, Morris’ photographs have been showcased internationally in galleries in London, Tokyo, New York, Los Angeles, Seoul and Beijing shining a global light on London’s historic counterculture.
We caught up with Morris ahead of his forthcoming exhibition, Dennis Morris: PiL – First Issue to metal Box which opens next month at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London. The exhibition focuses on the work he did with Public Image Limited. From shooting their first album cover; designing the band’s logo and creating their innovative Metal Box album packaging to their inspiring research trip to Jamaica in 1978, Morris’ creative input pervaded the very fabric of the band.
When did you first get in to photography?
I was about 9 or 10. I was in a choir at St Marks Church in Dalston and the church had a benefactor by the name of Donald Patterson. He was a multi-millionaire and had a manufacturing programme. He got involved in the church and one of the things he did was start a programme for the choirboys. Donald took me under his wing and basically taught me everything. He taught me about cameras and took me to museums and galleries. It’s because of him I’m where I am today.
You have a collection of photographs called Growing up Black, which is a part of Hackney Museum’s permanent collection. Can you tell us a bit about what life was like for you growing up in London in the 1960s and 1970s?
The title of that collection, Growing up Black, was focused on the fact that when I was growing up my parents’ generation was called ‘coloured.’ And then my generation from the 1970s – inspired by the Black Power movements in America – was called ‘black’. That’s where the title comes from. I grew up being called black, but my parents grew up being called coloured. From when I was a boy and getting into photography right up to the time I shot that collection of images, I was more or less photographing my surroundings. The collection gives an insight into the streets and black lives of Hackney. It’s a really unique collection, and I’ve also got a similar collection of photos of the East End’s West Indian community in the V&A, as well.
Those photos are great. One of my favourites is the charismatic image of the Admiral Ken Sound System. How important was sound system culture in London’s black communities back then?
Sound System culture was very important to the black community because after a hard week’s work, come Saturday, everybody was going to the Blues dances. If the black family was lucky enough to scrape up enough money to buy a house, or to pay the mortgage, they always left the basement empty where they would have parties. It was a way for the people to gather and to swap noise about the week’s work, and also to hear about what was going on in Jamaica. So Sound System was a vital, vital connection – in a similar way to what Rap music is today – in communicating what was going on in the streets. Every area had its own sound system. In Hackney you had Admiral Ken, Count Shelley, and loads of others. Then in south London and Brixton you had Sir Coxone Sound and Saxon Studio International. The only rules in those dances were you never stood on a man’s shoes. The atmosphere was usually great, but very tense.
Yes. I went to a couple of Saxon dances. The vibe was intense, but I loved it. You’ve worked with some of the most influential cultural icons of the 20th century. In particular, Bob Marley. How did you meet him?
I was obsessed with taking pictures, and always had a camera with me. But at the same time I was very much into music – reggae and rock music – and I used to read the music papers – NME and Melody Maker. I remember reading that Bob was coming over to do his first tour. At that point, within the Jamaican community, Bob Marley was like the new shining light – the new sound. I decided I wanted to meet him so I bunked off school and went down to a place called the Speakeasy Club, which is where he did his first gig. I waited outside, and waited and waited, and eventually he turned up with the other Wailers. Then I walked up to him and asked him if I could take his picture and he said, “yeah man, come in.” So I went inside and, while they were doing their sound check, Bunny asked me what it was like being a young black kid in England. I was infatuated because I didn’t know many people from Jamaica. Then Bob talked to me. And eventually he told me about their tour and asked me if I wanted to come along. I said yeah, and the next morning I packed my sports bag and went to their hotel. In those days they never had a tour bus. They had a Transit van. What I really remember about that tour was we went to places like Blackpool and Brighton, and to venues with a capacity of a couple of thousand. But only a couple of hundred turned up. What I always remember about Bob was he would walk on stage and play as if the gig was sold out. And eventually that two hundred people would become four, then six, then eight. I remember Bunny Wailer and the rest of them didn’t really like it. It was winter and it was cold and they couldn’t get the vegetarian food they were used to back home, so they were really pissed off. One morning they woke up and wanted to play football, so I pulled the curtain and it was snowing. And I remember Bob saying, “wha’ that?’ And I told him it was snow. He said, “wha’ ya mean, snow?’ Then Peter Tosh and the rest of the Wailers said, “yeah, we in Babylon now.”
That’s funny. Did they finish the tour?
No. The tour collapsed and they went home. Then a couple of years later they came back and played in the famous Lyceum Theater. I then got in touch with them and went down there – the atmosphere was incredible. Again, going back to that two hundred becoming four hundred becoming six hundred, by the time they came back the place was packed. The body heat was so warm that sweat hit the ceiling and came down as if it was raining and the whole place shouted, “Jah.” I got some great shots and one of them ended up being on the cover at Live at the Lyceum. And then suddenly, I had the cover of the NME and Melody Maker and that launched me into Rock music. I never actually planned to be a rock photographer; I wanted to be a war photographer. I took my particular style, which is like a study of the human psyche, into rock photography. If you look at my pictures of Bob they’re very intimate – a very personal scenario. I’d walk around backstage then take a shot while he was sitting down chilling out. Then I’d put the camera down, choose my moment then pick up it up again and take my photo. The personal feel of those shots is what made them so unique.
Did he give you any wise tips on life?
Yes. Bob showed me how to be a man – and how to be a black man. He showed me how to be helpful, and how to be rightful, and how to believe in myself. He always instilled in me that people will tell me, “you can’t do this, and you can’t do that,” but he taught me that I could. I always remembered those things. What people really got from Bob and his music was that he never stood for black people and he never stood for white people – Bob stood for people. Wherever you go in the world, whether it’s China, America, Japan or anywhere, people know that Bob is singing for them. He’s talking about struggle, and he’s talking about survival. But he also talks about the joy of life itself.
That’s really moving.
Can you tell us about your forthcoming exhibition, Dennis Morris: PiL – First Issue to Metal Box, at ICA?
It’s basically looking at the work I did with Public Image – I also did all the work with the Sex Pistols. We came up with the name Public Image after a trip to Jamaica. What happened was Virgin, around the same time, decided they wanted to get involved with reggae music. I got a phone call from Richard Branson saying he wanted to meet up with me. So I met up with him and Simon Draper and we sat down and they told me what they wanted to do. And basically how it was going to work was Richard and I was going to go to Jamaica. Richard would sign the bands and when the bands were signed, I would design the record sleeves. So I said, ‘yeah, I’d love to do it. Why don’t you take John (Lydon)?’ I spoke to John, who was really into reggae music, then the three of set off for Jamaica. When we arrived in Jamaica we came out of the airport and there was a bunch of Rasta’s nearby. They noticed us and one of them looked at us and shouted, “Johhny Rotten, god save the queen, man.” It was a great adventure really. I took John around and introduced him to U-Roy, Lee Perry and those guys, and we was just walked around, hung out smoking and having a great time. Because John was such a big reggae fan he was at the source of reggae now and was looking for direction, and while he was there Public Image was formulated in his mind. So by the time we came back to England he turned round and said, “I want to form a band and call it Public Image Limited.” He brought in (Jah) Wobble, (Keith) Levene and (Jim) Walker the drummer and that’s how it was all created, really. My part in it, as such, was listening to what was going on. For instance, when he told me he wanted to call the band Public Image Limited, I was into abbreviations at that time and recommended he break it down to PiL.
The Jamaica trip sounds like a great experience. What’s the story behind PiL’s logo and First Issue album cover?
I came up with the idea for the logo through basing it on the Aspirin pil. So Pil – Aspirin, that’s how it came about. I was doing some work with another band at that time, Rose Royce, who had that hit Carwash. For me, that was a huge insight into the American music system. They had a wardrobe unit, they had a makeup unit – the whole shebang – and I was fascinated. I said to John: “What I want to do is get you all dressed up, in makeup, and basically make you look like a movie star.” So I told Rose Royce’s makeup artist I was going to do an album cover for Public Image Ltd, and she said: “I’ve never heard of them,” and I explained, “It’s Johnny Rotten, the singer from Sex Pistols,” and she jumped at the chance. So we set the date, went into the studio, we got the clothes together, and John was almost unrecognisable. That image was the dawn of the New Romantic and New Wave movement.
The album packaging for Metal Box was innovative and ahead of its time. How did it come about?
Every morning I used to pass a factory in Hackney called the Metal Box Factory. One day I went down there and bought a job lot of metal canisters – which were the same size as the vinyl, and then embossed the logo on the top. That’s how the packaging came about. It’s as simple as that.
What inspires you most in life?
Life itself. Every morning that I get up and open the curtains I realize I have another day. It’s as simple as that, man. Because then I know exactly what the struggle is going to be. In life it doesn’t matter how much money you have, whatever it may be, the whole thing is about waking up the next day. If you can achieve that, for as long as you can, you’ve done pretty well.