In Depth

Bowie, Blondie and Lou Reed: Mick Rock on his seminal photos

The legendary photographer on why the 1970s was an exceptional time for music – as proved by his iconic images of the decade’s talent

I first met Bowie on 18 March 1972, before his Birmingham Town Hall gig. He was a few months into his Ziggy Stardust tour, but the album wasn’t out until June that year. I was taken to his dressing room just before he was due on stage, so he was very quiet but utterly charming. I took a few photos of him in his early Ziggy outfit – he looked incredible. 

I had no idea that those photographs were going to be iconic. I don’t think I ever applied the word ‘iconic’ to a photo back then; after all, I was only in my early twenties and pretty much just going with the flow. You have to remember how young the stars were in the early Seventies. It’s amazing so many of them are still around; Mick and Keith still hop out of their wheelchairs on a regular basis to do a bit of a dance on stage and Pete Townshend sang about wanting to die before he got old – well, Pete, you got old and you’re still fabulous.

Rock photography is a different world now. In the 1970s, it was completely disposable. Those early images of mine – of David Bowie, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Debbie Harry et al – were irrelevant six months after they were taken. The words ‘classic’ and ‘rock’ did not go together. Music was supposed to move on to the next thing with barely a glance backwards.

Lou Reed. London, 1972. From the book EXPOSED, © Mick Rock 2014.

David, Lou and Iggy had time to marinate. They all had to struggle through early careers that were not that successful. Even Raw Power wasn’t a hit album for Iggy on its release – and I remember that very clearly because I shot the cover image. There was time back then for musicians to build some mystique because people didn’t care about them until a certain point. But how can Justin Bieber do the same? I suppose he can spit at a photographer or pretend he’s a bit of a yobbo, but he’s probably just a nice boy trying to be rock’n’roll.

It’s significant, too, that David, Lou and Iggy were culturally and musically important; look at the phenomenal success of the V&A’s Bowie exhibition. Elton John and the Eagles sold massive amounts of records in the 1970s, too, but they had a different kind of cultural impact. That doesn’t make them lesser artists – it’s just the way it was.

I was lucky to be around in the 1970s. I stayed on in New York at the end of the Ziggy Stardust tour to take some photos of Lou Reed and he took me to the kind of underground places that didn’t even exist in London. He was a sweetie, but you had to know what you were talking about. He could be really naughty with journalists, sometimes just for the hell of it, but if you passed the early tests, he was fantastic. There was nobody like Lou. He was an extraordinary man and I miss him terribly.

I miss Syd Barrett, too. We became friends while I was studying modern languages at Cambridge University; he wasn’t at college, but he lived in the town. My pictures of Syd were the first anyone really gave a damn about. We laughed a lot – but then if you smoke a lot of hash, you do tend to laugh. I also took an acid trip with him a few weeks before shooting the cover of The Madcap Laughs; these days, however, I prefer to meditate and have a massage before a shoot.

David Bowie. Beckenham, 1972. From the book EXPOSED, © Mick Rock 2014.

I’m not one for nostalgia or regrets, but I do envy my late friend Al Wertheimer, who took all those early photos of Elvis before he became a big star. And I wish that I could have photographed Bob Dylan in the mid-1960s, around the time of Blonde on Blonde. I love the wild hair, the shades, the skinny trousers, the hunched shoulders. And Keith Richards in 1969, when the Stones appeared at Altamont – by this time, he wasn’t a kid with big ears, but an archetypal rock’n’roller. Sadly, I’d only just picked up a camera at that point and had never been to America.

I used to be prickly about being called ‘the man who shot the 1970s’ because I didn’t stop working in 1980 and I still shoot modern stars such as Pharrell, Daft Punk and Kate Moss. But I’m a lot more mellow these days – and there’s not much that a massage and some meditation won’t sort out. 

Mick Rock (his real name) was born in London, but has lived in New York for the past 30 years. His book, EXPOSED (with a foreword by Tom Stoppard), features photographs of stars such as Lou Reed, Lady Gaga and Paul McCartney. Taschen recently published a book of  Ziggy Stardust photos, half of which have never been seen before; mickrock.com

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