By Rod Hunt
Unbelievably Bad Photo Editor
The Punkulture Exhibition comprises 62 images by British photographer extraordinaire Adrian Boot, who has previously had his ReggaeXplosion and Bob Marley exhibitions shown off Down Under.
Punkulture Exhibition is free and it runs until May 13 at Sun Studios, Alexandria.
UB got a peak at some of the iconic shots on show and had a yack to Adrian about how he was Johnny on the spot to capture all of this gold.
You’ve had previous exhibitions in Australia like the ReggaeXplosion and the Bob Marley exhibitions…
It’s an anniversary, if you can talk about an anniversary, of punk rock this year. Though that date is fairly arbitrary; I’m not quite sure when punk started and when it ended.
People tend to call 1976 because some of the most well-known English punk bands emerged then.
It was quite depressing in London in those days (1976). It was grey and the economy was in a bit of a state and there was a lot of disenfranchised youth out there. And I guess rather than form political parties they decided, to become a sort of Anarchy, really, to become musicians and form bands. You could either become a football star or play in a rock band.
In Don Letts’s documentary, Punk Attitude, he questions as to when punk actually began.
Don comes right from the middle of it. At the same time there was a sort of ska and reggae movement. There was lots of musical movements emerging at the time; everyone was bored with mainstream rock ’n’ roll and they were looking for something else. Ska, reggae, that started to creep in. In fact, I missed the very early part of it, I spent most of my time in Jamaica from 1971 to ’74. In fact, punk came to me via reggae. It was the same housing estates in West London – there’d be someone playing reggae and then there’d be a punk thing and then the punks would come to the reggae shows; it was all mixed up.
Letts loves to mention how he used to DJ at punk clubs and play reggae, which helped indoctrinate people like John Lydon and Joe Strummer to reggae.
The same thing wasn’t going on in America, though there were punk bands like the Ramones and Blondie, they were very much in the mainstream rock thing. That was their main influence; they weren’t terribly influenced by reggae or ska, it was separate. But a lot of them came over to the UK because they couldn’t really break in America, they broke in the UK first…to be quite honest, people were using the word punk, but nobody was claiming to be one thing or another, it was always a bit mixed up. And there were drugs flying around and nobody was really taking it seriously. A lot the bands I know were quite surprised that they had any success at all. People like The Damned, for example; I know Rat Scabies [drummer] from The Damned quite well and these days, he still looks like Rat Scabies, but he drives a people carrier backwards and forwards to a girl’s school to pick up the children. It’s kind of ironic that they became successful, that they became mainstream, in a way.
At the time, did you think that punk would last? Or that it was going to be a short-lived thing?
Nobody expected it to last. I know that Joe Strummer thought that it was going to be great while it lasted and then we’d all have to go out and get proper jobs. I thought I’d have to go out and get a get proper job one day. I started out as a school teacher, in Jamaica, teaching physics. I did quite a lot photography but it was essentially a hobby, it was rare for me to do anything professional. And then I came back to London and reggae started to take off and it was a hotbed. So I decided to have a sabbatical, I had a year off and I’m still having the same year off. Bob Marley, who I knew quite well, nobody at all expected the level of success that they had. The music business itself was quite young. In a way, it was at its height, commercially. There was an appetite for new records and there was a new generation of kids who were prepared to buy them. It’s not true anymore, of course; it’s much more homogeneous. I’m not sure that the punk movement could arise now, necessarily. It’s a social thing, as well. The reason people dressed up was to impress their friends when they went down to the club. You don’t have to dress up if you’re not going to go down to the club. What is surprising is that it’s still popular, that it’s still around. You can still buy Clash records and The Undertones and whatever. And that’s part of the reason for doing this exhibition, because there’s still a demand for punk culture.
The only countries where you’ll now find that punk is considered to be relatively new and provocative by the state are places like Indonesia and China.
It might be the future market, look at the Rolling Stones and Cuba. Maybe The Damned will be playing Indonesia in 10 years. And in Russia, too, you have Pussy Riot, who are essentially a punk band, anti-establishment. The Sex Pistols and The Clash were political, but they just hated all political parties. When I say that they were political, I mean that they didn’t follow any particular creed – socialist, communist, they just hated it all. Everything had let them down. And some of them were quite bright, certainly The Clash were all ex-University art college [students], they weren’t stupid. With a few exceptions maybe, Sid Vicious…
Did you have much interaction with him?
Not really. But I know John Lydon really well and he was very bright and he still is – just read his autobiography. Apparently he’s going blind though; he’s got an eye condition and is slowly going blind. And we’ve lost a few of them – Joe Strummer’s not here anymore.
He was only fifty when he died.
He smoked a lot and drank a lot.
And apparently he had a heart condition that he wasn’t aware of. Speaking of Lydon, there’s a photo in the exhibition that you took of him where he has bright red hair and is wearing a lurid blue jacket. It’s interesting to see that you were shooting colour film at a time when black and white was more commonly used.
Most of these shots, my whole style was very fast. When I did a photo session it’d last two or three minutes. Only because when I started out I had to get in and out of the situation [quickly]. I’d knock on the dressing room door and I’d be there for a short time; I’d have to get as much as I could, before the room changed. There might be a vibe there that you want to catch very quickly before it changes – oh, there’s a photographer here, there’s a journalist. And there was no [studio or flash] lights. Most of the time, it’s just what you’ve got and you have to think quickly. The consequence of that is that a lot of the pictures are quite grainy, because you’d be shooting on 400 ASA film and you’d often have to push it to 800 or even 1600 ASA, to get anything on it at all. Really, it was a darkroom exercise in many ways. Every day I’d shoot, certainly in the Melody Maker and NME days; very often a concert. I’d come back about midnight and then I’d process the film. And then in the morning I’d try to print it all. I’d make about 10, 12 prints and then decide which are the best two or three. And then get into your car and drive into London and hand over the pictures. Most of the good stuff was black and white, because everything was shot for black and white, because the magazines were black and white. The colour crept in later with the advent of GQ-style magazines.
What made you decide to shoot that photo of Lydon in colour when it probably wouldn’t have been printed in colour at the time?
Certainly shooting live stuff I tried to shoot colour as well and I’d often have two [camera] bodies and one would have colour in it. And I’d know that the magazines I was shooting for wanted black and white, but I’d shoot some colour frames as well. And the fact that he had a blue jacket and red hair meant that you’ve got to take a colour photo.
Some things work well in black and white, but some subjects that like one call to be shot in colour.
These days, of course, everything’s in colour and black and white is an effect. I think most photographers would have preferred to, in a funny kind of way, to shoot in colour in those days because everyone was struggling all the time with quality, which is something that everyone takes for granted [now]. I just started working with the World Photography Organisation and they do lots of research on trends in photography and stuff like that and these days an iPhone will take technically better photographs than I could have taken on any camera back in 1976. Certainly photographic students go back to film and it’s all very retro, but quite honestly, if you’re trying to catch an image, as a documentary photographer, digital photography pisses all over film. Now I shoot everything on digital. For me, changing over to digital was a very slow process. I started off buying scanning equipment and scanning stuff; it’s far easier to email an image than have to drive into town or post it. It was a convenience, though it took a long time for photographic printing to be replaced. It’s only in the last 10 or 15 years that printers are good enough to stand up against a good black and white photograph.
Punkulture Exhibition is free and runs until May 13 at Sun Studios, 42 Maddox Street, Alexandria. Open weekdays 9am to 5pm and weekends 9am to 4pm.