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Marley, Lydon & me: Shooting the punky reggae party

11 March 2016

Photographer Dennis Morris's images of the Sex Pistols and Bob Marley are now part of rock iconography. As a "method artist" who "gets into the world" of his subject, Morris was perfectly placed to capture the mixing of punk and reggae in the late Seventies. Now the subject of a BBC Four What Do Artists Do All Day? documentary and with an exhibition of his work with Public Image Limited at the ICA in London, Morris discusses his career with ALASTAIR McKAY. And we feature exclusive films about his photographs of Bob Marley, Marianne Faithfull and John Lydon.

Bob Marley in a sports shop, London, 1973 © Dennis Morris

Dennis Morris likes to say that he always wanted to be a war photographer. He was fascinated by the work of Don McCullin and Robert Capa. Tim Page was his hero: “He was the photographer for The Doors and when Jim Morrison died he said he had to find another war, so he went to Vietnam.” Morris’ wars were reggae music and punk, and the unlikely crossover between the two.

His photographs of Bob Marley and the Sex Pistols have defined our memories of those times, and he was instrumental in the career of John Lydon’s post-Pistols project Public Image Ltd. It wasn't exactly mortal combat, but it had its moments of drama.

With Sid Vicious everything he ever did was going to lead to something

“With Sid [Vicious] everything he ever did was going to lead to something. You had to just be aware of that, and get it. The night after the Sex Pistols gig in Coventry, my room was next door to Sid’s. All through the night I just kept hearing this almighty racket. It was just like hell was going on there.

"When it stopped, I got up, pushed the door, it wasn’t locked. He had completely destroyed his room. It was like a war zone where there had been a direct hit. Anything that could be smashed was smashed, he had set his bed alight, the whole thing. I just got these amazing pictures. And there he was lying in the middle of it, passed out.”

Sid Vicious' smashed up room in Coventry, 1977 © Dennis Morris
Dennis Morris © Dennis Morris
Bob Marley during the Wailers' first UK tour, November 1973 © Dennis Morris
Bob Marley relaxing on the tour bus, November 1973 © Dennis Morris

“The tour was supposed to be over a couple of weeks,” recalls Morris. “It was in winter. One morning they woke up and it was snowing. Bob opened the curtains, and he said: ‘Wha’ dat?’ I said, ‘It’s snow, Bob.’ He said, ‘What you mean snow?’

So Peter (Tosh) and Bunny (Wailer) were determined - they said it was a sign from Jah that they should leave Babylon. There was a massive argument. Bob was saying ‘We have to continue delivering the message.’ They refused, so the tour collapsed, and they went back to Jamaica.”

Dennis Morris on BBC Four

Wha' you mean, snow?

Why the Wailers suddenly cancelled their 1973 UK tour and returned to Jamaica

Photograph © Dennis Morris

When Marley returned two years later to play the Lyceum Ballroom in London, Morris was in the photographers’ pit.

John Lydon at the Marquee Club, London, 1977 © Dennis Morris
The reality is, if it hadn’t been for Malcolm or Vivienne there would have been no image. John is a dynamic performer, but the imagery of the Pistols did not come from him
Dennis Morris

“It was so hot inside that all the body-heat went up and hit the ceiling and when it came down it was like it was raining.

All the Rastas went ‘JAAAAAH!’ It was madness really - an incredible gig. I got the front cover of NME, Melody Maker and Time Out and that threw me into the music industry.”

Stylistically, Morris viewed his photography as reportage. His image-defining shots of the Pistols were, he says “about moments”, and they have the same intimacy that Alfred Wertheimer achieved with Elvis in 1956.

“None of it was ever taken in a studio,” Morris says.

“Even when I started working in a studio, one of my big influences was Irving Penn… like when I did a famous shot of Marianne Faithfull for the Broken English album cover, we were together in the studio, we just got blind drunk.

"The way I work is, if I was an actor, you’d call me a method actor, as an artist, I’m a method artist. I get into the world of my subject. So with Marianne, to get that; she was a great drinker, and other things, so that shot was her going [drags, exhales], and there it was.”

With the Pistols, Morris argues that manager Malcolm McLaren and his then-partner, designer Vivienne Westwood were vital. “John is, sadly, forever slagging off Malcolm and Vivienne.

The reality is, if it hadn’t been for Malcolm or Vivienne there would have been no image. John is a dynamic performer, but the imagery of the Pistols did not come from him.”

Photographing Marianne Faithfull

Photographing Marianne Faithfull

Dennis Morris on working with Marianne Faithfull on the cover shot for her album

Photograph © Dennis Morris

Sex Pistols on stage, London, 1977 © Dennis Morris

John Lydon in U-Roy's back yard, Jamaica, 1978

PiL: Lydon, Morris & Branson in Jamaica, 1978

Dennis Morris's trip to Jamaica with John Lydon & the development of Public Image Limited

Photograph © Dennis Morris

Morris’s influence on Lydon’s musical direction after the Pistols spilt went further than merely taking photographs. He suggested that Lydon should accompany him and Virgin boss Richard Branson on a talent-spotting trip to Jamaica.

I knew U-Roy really well, I knew Big Youth really well, Lee Perry - so John was going from studio to studio hearing the music at source

“When we arrived in Kingston, came out of the airport, there was this group of Rastas and they went “Johnny Rotten, maaan!” and I knew from that moment we were going to be cool.

I knew U-Roy really well, I knew Big Youth really well, Lee Perry - so John was going from studio to studio hearing the music at source. That was an influence, realistically, on the sound of Public Image.”

Working with i-D magazine founder Terry Jones, Morris was instrumental in the design of PiL’s first two album sleeves, which led to a job with Island Records, combining A&R and art direction.

Morris signed dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson and the punk-reggae group The Slits. For Johnson’s first album, Forces of Victory, he amended an old BBC microphone (changing the letters to LKJ):

“The concept was, whenever there’s a revolution, the two things they’d try and seize were the TV station and the radio station.”

For LKJ's second LP, Bass Culture, Morris flew to Berlin to photograph a subway sign, then flew straight back again, amending it graphically to suggest Johnson was descending into a basement blues party.

The Slits were a less successful collaboration, due to a personality clash between Morris and guitarist Viv Albertine.

Big Youth and John Lydon, Jamaica, 1978 © Dennis Morris

Looking back, Morris is aware that in bearing witness to the crossover between reggae and punk he learned some useful life lessons.

“What I learned from Bob Marley and reggae was a sense of spirituality, a sense of being, a sense of holding things together. What I learned from punk was how to kick the door down to get what you want. So I had both - when I kicked the door down, I kept myself together, which is why I’m still here.”

Dennis Morris: PiL - First Issue to Metal Box is at the ICA, London 23 March - 15 May 2016.

Marley: Capturing an icon

Capturing an icon

Dennis Morris's legendary Bob Marley photo that looks out from bedroom walls worldwide

Photograph © Dennis Morris

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