Gary James' Interview With Rock Photographer
Mick Rock knows his way around the Rock world! He's photographed Rock legends such as Queen, David Bowie, Motley Crue, The Ramones and Lou Reed. His photographs have been featured in museums around the world, including London, New York, Los Angeles, Tokyo, San Francisco and Las Vegas. Mick Rock talked with us about life on the other side of the camera.
Q - Mick, you've got the perfect name! For a photographer, Mick Rock says it all! I'm sure other people have commented on it as well.
A - Yeah, most people think it's made up. Of course, it's not.
Q - Is it your real name?
A - Michael David Rock. Yes.
Q - You were born in London and came up during the time the whole British Invasion thing was just exploding.
A - A little bit later. The tail end of it you might say, the beginning of the new Rock. I suppose I was 19 when I took these pictures of Syd Barrett, the "Madcap" pictures, but it was probably meeting David Bowie in early '72 that the train really started to rumble.
Q - For your career, but back up for just a minute. When you were a teenager in 1963, 1964, did you see any of the British Invasion bands? I realize you were too young to see them in a club. Did you see anybody in a concert hall?
A - Yeah. I remember seeing The Stones really early on. Somebody sneaked me into some club. I can't even remember where it was, to be honest with you. I do remember, God, what year would that have been? I do remember somebody taking me to see Bob Dylan at the Albert Hall, I suppose it was in '65 when he brought The Band on for the second half. Maybe it was '66. When the audience booed him for some reason or another. It was Rock 'n' Roll and all they wanted was bloody Folk, which was not anything that inspired me that much.
Q - Did you have a feeling growing up that, "Hey, something is going on here!"?
A - Well, you couldn't really miss it. (laughs)
Q - But, did you personally feel it, or did you think it was all nonsense?
A - I think older people might have thought it was nonsense, but when you're 13, 14, 15... I didn't think it was nonsense, that's for sure. I was listening to a lot of it. Everyone was very aware of The Beatles. Obviously it was a universal thing, but I was pretty tuned in. So were my mates. I think most teenagers got caught up in it really, at least most of the the ones I knew did anyway. Of course, your parents were a bit different. That was that generation. Today parents are hip. Back in those days parents weren't. It was a different universe.
Q - Now Rock 'n' Roll is acceptable.
A - I'm in museums, cultural centers, galleries all over the world. How did that happen? It's supposed to be an outsider thing. It's supposed to be rebellious, but it all got sucked in because there was money to be made. So, the culture just sucked it up. The Rolling Stones are 70 and they're still out there doing it. God bless 'em. Charlie (Watts) must be 75, 76. It's amazing.
Q - Did you ever meet Brian Jones?
A - Very briefly. My first year at Cambridge, I knew Mick Jagger's younger brother, Chris, 'cause he had a friend at Cambridge. We went to this thing, it must have been '67. We were all on acid. Up all night. In the morning we walked outside to hang out on the grounds surrounding the venue. A Rolls Royce showed up and out popped Brian Jones in a pearly suit. There were pearly kings and pearly queens. They used to dress in these jackets. They weren't really smothered in pearls, but they looked like pearls. Anyway, out stepped Brian Jones and Chris obviously knew him. He introduced us. Of course we were all pretty luminous because of the LSD, albeit we were on the downside. It was probably about 8 in the morning. So, that was the only time I met Brian Jones.
Q - I consider Brian Jones to be The Rolling Stones.
A - Well, image-wise I think that may be true, especially in the early going, but of course he didn't write any of the music. So it's hard to designate him as the Rolling Stone. As I recall, image-wise, he was the most prominent one.
Q - And he named the group The Rolling Stones and really started the group.
A - Apparently he did, yeah. Initially they were called The Rollin' Stones, not The Rolling Stones. He was a little bit older than Mick and Keith, although he was younger than Bill and Charlie. Musically he was the most sophisticated.
Q - And the best dressed!
A - Yeah. Images-wise he was ahead of the game.
Q - How did you get started as a photographer? Is this something you studied in school?
A - Oh, no. I never studied photography. I was studying Modern Languages and Literature at Cambridge University. I was on an acid trip and picked up a friend's camera and started to play around with it. I found out a few days later that there hadn't been any film in the camera. I thought, the next time I take acid... I made my friend load the camera and then a couple of weeks later I actually did take a few pictures of this very pretty blonde lady that I was hangin' around with. Some local Rock band offered me a fiver, which is five pounds, which at today's exchange rate is a bit south of $8.00, then it was probably a few dollars more, to take a few pictures of them. I'm into thinking, well, this is interesting. You mean people actually get paid to do this? Then, I just knew some people and of course Syd Barrett was already a friend of mine. That was probably the key session in '69, the "Madcap" session. I left Cambridge and started to write little things as well. I actually did album covers for Rory Gallegher in the early '70s, believe it or not. I remember doing a couple of other things, Jazz musicians. I used to write articles to make a bit of extra money. I certainly didn't want to get a real job, not that you needed much money back in those days in London. You could live in the middle of a big city like London and obviously New York without much money. Then I met David (Bowie) in March of '72 I think. There were 400 people at the show. Somehow I was at the right place at the right time with the right instincts. Through him I met Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Mott The Hoople and shot album covers for all of 'em. Not that I was making much money. I think I got a hundred pounds for the "Transformer" cover. Of course I've made a lot more money since off it because I own the copyright. I can sell one print and make tons more money than I got paid back in those days. Anyway, it just kept rollin'. It kind of got a life of its own. I wasn't sure if I was going to be a writer or a photographer really. I still do a bit of both, even for Rolling Stone. I do some pieces and some English music papers. Then the photography just started to swamp me and my reputation got built around the photography and then I didn't have time to write anymore. It just kept rollin' on. Who knew why? I just got caught up in the times and I was havin' fun. And I was enjoyin' the people I was hangin' out with. They became friends of mine.
Q - Did that first group you photographed go on to do anything?
A - I can't even remember what they were called. No, they didn't. I just happened to hit a particular streak 'cause after Bowie, Lou, (Reed) and Iggy, came Queen and Roxy Music and a whole slew of other English acts who maybe had hits in England but didn't "break" America. I shot all kinds of stuff. I shot Bay City Rollers, ELO, John Mayall, the first line-up of Motorhead. The drummer didn't last long. It just kept goin' on and on. It was Rock Photography. How seriously could you take it? It was so disposable. Even an album cover. A lot of bands would make two albums a year back in those days. The record labels wanted to spend as little money as possible, so that's why all the photographers from that era, most of the freelancers, owned the copyright to all their pictures. I don't even remember the word copyright being used about a photograph back in those days. Intellectual Property would have seemed completely alien to me. How can a photograph be intellectual property? Well, it turns out they are. I know people have offered me an enormous amount of money for mine, my collection of photographs. I'm sure it's been true of friends of mine like
Bob Gruen and Henry Dilitz.
Q - Have you ever taken anyone up on their offers?
A - No. Fortunately I don't need the money. Although that amount of money would be nice. I've got some company at the moment, we're just down to the final contracts. They want to do a big Rock brand out of England. Part of what they're saying is they would like to, if all goes well with the brand, they would like to buy into my collection, but keep me as a 30% partner. The key thing about keeping me around is that I promote it. The value of the collection is much greater if I'm involved, plus of course I sign stuff.
Q - So, would you say your first big break was your friendship with Syd Barrett?
A - I think so, yeah. Those are the pictures to this day that people still talk to me about, whether they're the ones with the striped floorboards that Syd painted or some with a naked girl in the background or the ones on the street with the car. Of course my friend John Varvatos used one of the Syd on the street photos for the cover of his new book, Rock In Fashion. So, Syd never went away in my life 'cause of the photograph. Everything really started to change, I suppose, in the '90s. I did a couple of smaller exhibitions in the '90s in clubs or restaurants. My first gallery one was a little bit later in the '90s. It's probably due to the rise of the internet and the durability of what they call Classic Rock. Suddenly, people want a print with my signature on it that brings you a decent amount of money. And that's just kept rolling and rolling and rolling and became a bigger and bigger deal. So many people are digging out their old photographs now. (laughs) It's an interesting universe. I still shoot. I refuse to be some bloody relic of the past. I used to be a bit ticked off about all the attention paid to that early stuff, but I got over it because people kept crossing my palm with silver, so I thought, don't complain Mick. Consider yourself lucky. I still shoot. I like to shoot.
Q - When you go on a photo shoot, does the artist tell you what they are looking for you to do or do you come with your own ideas?
A - Mostly they want me to do it. Occasionally you might get somebody who has certain specific ideas and I will shoot that and I'll free form it and then shoot some other stuff. And it depends on how long I've got. It depends on if it's for an album cover. I shoot for the W Hotel sometimes. Sometimes I'll shoot for a magazine. All circumstances are different. I just shot this big Internet campaign for Nikon Europe for their new camera. Of course, that pays a lot of money. In a way, they wanted me to come up with the ideas because what they really wanted was images of me using the camera. So, it's got a certain retro look to it even though it's an entirely sophisticated digital camera. Somehow they wanted that '70s association. I never shot The Carpenters. I'm not sure I shot the '70s. Obviously I think people mean I shot all that Glam and Punk stuff. I shot the stuff that still has cultural resonance. I just shot an album cover for a band called The Black Lips. Basically, I just shot a lot of different stuff. They just wanted me to get on with it and then for them to pick 'em over afterwards. So, there is no divine rule. You gotta be very flexible and of course you learn that very quickly on in the music game. I remember my mother saying this quite early on: "I know you're only doing this so you don't have to get a real job!" I remember that, there is a lot of truth to that, mother. (Laughs). Also the fact that I don't have to get up before noon. Times have changed and it's become much more of a big deal. You get critic's talk about photographs. I always think that's a bit amusing. What can I say? It's been an interesting ride. I'm in the middle of a documentary they are making about me. This branding company in England is doing a new book with David Bowie for Taschem. We just did this beautiful book about Lou Reed, who unfortunately died. Again, a limited edition. A high-end expensive book, signed. They have re-issued my Glam book, which has been around for over a decade now, in a smaller version. I think in the Autumn (2014) they are going to republish my book, Exposed, again in a smaller version with a different picture on the cover. So it keeps on swimming. Then I've got a big hotel here in New York that wants me to go to London in January (2014). I haven't quite signed the contracts. We haven't talked about the name of the hotel yet, but it will be involved with the supervising of the interior design and use some of my photographs. And maybe I'll do a music video again, which I do occasionally. That's under discussion. It's interesting these days I have to say.
Q - Do you live in New York because that's where all the action is?
A - You have to understand, I've lived here for 30 years. It's not just happened right now. I fell in love with New York a long time ago. In the late '70s and early '80s I was spending an increasing amount of time here and even got an apartment while I still had my house in London. It was enough for my first wife to divorce me. New York in the late '70s and early '80s was like Sodom and Gomorrah gone berserk. So, it was a nice place for a young Englishman, that's for sure.
Q - In the beginning I'm sure all musicians want their picture taken. As time passes, do they dread having a guy like you come around and start snapping pictures?
A - Well, it's hard to make a general statement. I get my picture taken a lot nowadays. I can't look like some ugly frog. You have to think about things like that. I certainly think the younger musicians who look good, there's nothing like a bit of youth looking good. Plus, they need the promotion. Somebody more established doesn't need the promotion. If they are successful, they've got a lot of things on their plate.
Q - You are known as "David Bowie's Official Photographer."
A - I've done much more than that. In many ways I did more pictures of Lou Reed, over a longer period in fact. I know that gets caught up in people's line of thinking. Of course we are doing a new book for Taschen on David.
Q - When they say "Official", does that mean you followed him around backstage, in hotel rooms and on planes?
A - Yeah, that was a long time ago. I did that. You can't get me to do things like that today. I don't have the time. Back in those days, back in the "Ziggy" days, I was the "official" early on because there wasn't anyone else interested. (Laughs). It was part of the hype you know. Then I did shoot him throughout the whole "Ziggy" period. It coincided with the rise. I became part of the myth of the whole thing. David Bowie's Official Photographer. I certainly got access that nobody else had at the time and nobody else has had since in truth. After that, he was a star and things got more restricted and meanwhile I was off to the races. I had so much else going on I wouldn't have had the time to spend that kind of time with one individual.
Q - When you're Mick Rock you have to spread yourself around with all these Rock acts.
A - I sometimes think it was a curse placed upon me. I think I was quoted in Spin magazine a while back saying "For my sins in a former life, I've been forced to spend an inordinate amount of time with musicians in this life." How's that?
Q - You could've taken photos along the way of say politicians. But somehow, I don't think it would have been as rewarding.
A - Or as much fun. There's a lot of fun involved in this whole thing, I have to say.