Shooting Stardust

by Grant Smithies / Sunday Star Times

25th September 2005

Mick Rock, the man who shot the seventies, talks to Grant Smithies about the Ziggy Stardust years.

Thirty-five years ago London-born photographer Mick Rock found himself in the right place at the right time. Young and single, loose and free, his artistic ambitions began to unfurl at the same moment rock ‘n’roll was undergoing an extreme makeover. What better time to accidentally start a career.

Hardly eating or sleeping, strung-out and hyped-up, Rock spent an entire decade chopping pop culture into frozen slivers two hundredths of a second thick.

He captured the clothes, the sneers, the hairstyles, the stage poses of British and American punk, glam, and new wave stars on their rise upwards towards household names.

Consequently Rock is now known as “the man who shot the seventies”. But he didn’t just shoot the seventies. He was an insider, framing and freezing, cropping and tinting a culture in which he was intimately entrenched.

His deep voice, booming laugh, and willingness to entertain the notion that his body was more of a laboratory than a temple meant he was rapidly clasped to the sweaty, spandex-sheathed bosom of the substance-addled 70s rock aristocracy.

It’s mostly photos of musicians who became close friends David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Freddie Mercury that formed the basis of Rock’s many books and exhibitions. His Bowie book, Moonage Daydream is the latest.

AdvertisementAdvertisementThe Moonage Daydream book features more than 600 shots taken during this era, culled down from 6000. The text is written by Bowie, who turns out to be a surprisingly down-to-earth and funny writer. “He’s a riot, isn’t he?” says Rock.

What was so special about the Ziggy Stardust years? “The potency of the Ziggy persona is down to the breadth of references that were in there,” he says. “David was one of the first rock’n’roll post-modernists.”

Bowie took ideas from his old mime teacher Lindsay Kemp, bits of Japanese Kabuki theatre and Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, wrestling outfits, space aliens, andandrogyny.

“People didn’t know what to make of it. In early photos the audience just looks confused, but in later photos they’re reaching out their hands to grab him, like, you belong to me.”

Rock never intended to be a photographer; he wanted to be a writer and studied modern languages at Cambridge.

“It was there that I first picked up a friend’s camera. I was high, and I found that looking through a camera intensified reality. I was taking a lot of psychedelic drugs at the time, and I loved just staring at people’s faces, though a lot of people found it unnerving that I wanted to sit there, breathing heavily, staring at their face for hours. The camera legitimised my proclivities, you might say.”

Rock may have become a photographer by accident, but he remained one by choice, and, in his 40-year career, has taken some of the century’s most iconic rock photographs.

The covers of Lou Reed’s Transformer and Coney Island Baby, Iggy Pop’s Raw Power, The Ramones’ End Of The Century and Queen’s Queen II are all his work, as are defining images of Blondie, Talking Heads, Roxy Music, Sex Pistols, and Pink Floyd founder Syd Barrett.

Partying with these rock monsters took its toll, and in 1996 Rock needed quadruple bypass heart surgery. What was he singing to himself as he slipped under the anaesthetic? David Bowie’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide”. And who sent him flowers after he regained consciousness? Grumpy old rock curmudgeon Lou Reed.

“Oh, he just plays at being grumpy, really,” says Rock, still sounding a bit like an East End cabbie though he’s lived in New York for more than twenty years.

“Lou’s a sweetheart. He puts you through your paces, but once he decides you’re OK, he’s very loyal. But you’re right about those early days being over-indulgent. Hanging out with people like Iggy and Lou, it’s easy to feel your own drug-taking is moderate, but these people are very bad yardsticks to use. What amazes me about David, Lou and Iggy is, firstly, that they’re still alive, and secondly, that they still have valid careers, and still produce interesting records.”

Rock’s most enduring collaboration is with David Bowie. Rock first met the then little-known Bowie at a gig in Birmingham early in 1972 and suggested an interview. Bowie agreed. The two men took the train back to Bowie’s flat in Beckenham after the gig and talked through the night.

A month later, Rock had become Bowie’s “authorised” photographer, and during Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust period in 1972-73, Rock was at his side, documenting behind-the-scenes, as well as the on-stage performances, shooting album sleeves, early music videos, and documenting Bowie’s first American tour.

NOW READING Moonage Daydream, Bowie seems to belong to us in a way he never has before. We are party to his anxiety and joy, boredom and lust, his numerous bad hair days and occasional outbursts of petulant anger, either via Rock’s photos or in Bowie’s own words.

The book has some astonishing shots, several of which have not been seen before. Bowie sits backstage next to an ironing board, smoking a fag and wearing a knitted body suit. Bowie struggles into tight snakeskin pants, in the most unbecoming pair of undies.

Iggy Pop sits on a sofa in a crowded hotel room, oblivious to his wild-man image, intently reading a mag and drinking a cup of tea.

Lou Reed, Iggy and Bowie embrace each other in a Dorchester hotel room, Iggy looking severely medicated, with a packet of Lucky Strike fags jammed in his mouth.

Apart from Rock’s photos and Bowie’s text, there are set lists from shows, tour itineraries, music mag covers, and, my favourite, a memo put out to all band members and crew by Bowie’s management company on the first American tour: “We are attracting too many followers and carrying them with us. Every extra person who stays with us at hotels is an extra room service charge. Groupies should be sent home without breakfast!”

A bit harsh, but the 70s were not just a different time but a different planet. Rock’s lucky to have survived it, but he has, still excited, still laughing, still obsessed with music, art and “creative lunatics”.

A well-lived life is art in itself, he seems to suggest; all it needs is the right eye to frame it, crop away the distractions and make the remaining details sing.

These days Rock is as busy as a five-dollar hooker. He travels the world shooting fashion campaigns, erotic photos, photos of cats (“What can I say? I love them”). He makes collage photo-art, and still takes a lot of band photos, most recently of terminally hip noiseniks The Killers, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Kaiser Chiefs and the 22-20s, among others.

“There’s a surprising lack of degenerates. They’re all pretty clean-living kids compared to people in my young days.”

But we live in nostalgic times, and it is Rock’s 70s work that still generates the most interest. People have been hounding him for his more scandalous early images for decades. During the 80s, one publisher tried to get Rock to commit to a book called Diary Of A Rock’n’Roll Photographer, full of gratuitous groupie-shagging, with syringes stuck into famous arms, zonked-out glam rock orgies.

“They offered me $US30 000, and I was broke at the time, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, though I have a lot of the kinds of shots they were after. That kind of thing is so tacky, and I’m no paparazzi. Every photographic invitation I’ve ever been in has been by invitation, and many of these people are still my friends. I couldn’t bear for them all to suddenly hate me.

“I couldn’t deal with my dear old mum hating me either, for even being in the room while these things were happening. She’s 80 now, and she’s already had to forgive a lot of my sins.”

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