Pennie Smith Interview - 30th October 2006

PENNIE SMITH is one of the UK's best known music photographers. Working freelance for the NME during the late 1970s, she captured era-defining images of The Clash, The Jam and Led Zeppelin, and in the late 1980s, The Stone Roses. Here she tells This Is The Daybreak about how she got started and her memories of working with The Stone Roses.

How did you become a photographer ?

I went to art school, studied graphics, left art school, didn't know what to do. I had a friend who was laying out Friendz - an underground magazine. His name was Barney Bubbles, he laid out a lot of stuff for Stiff Records. He said, "What did you enjoy doing at college ?" and I said, "Photography" - that is, walking about with a camera shooting black and white and reportage.

He said, "Do you want to do some for us ?" Nick Kent then tottered in the door and he had access - god only knows how - to people like Iggy, Lou Reed and the Stones. He could actually somehow walk in from an underground magazine and get them to grant interviews, I think because he was savvy and knew what was happening. I pottered along with him - I'd never looked at a music magazine in my life - and didn't realise you didn't take pictures of people sitting on sofas with cups of tea and you had to arrange them like football teams like they do again today. Then Nick said, "What we'll do is walk up to NME and they'll take us on" - and they did ! We both stayed freelance and because one of their photographers was having a nervous breakdown and another had retired injured with an ulcer, I ended up doing all the covers for about 8 years - at one point I was doing all the main feature stories as well as the covers.

Through that I got to know lots of bands and because I was so, I think, uninterfering, a lot of them took me on to be their photographers and seemingly every time a band split up I got the various dimensions and a exponential series of other bands - I'm still doing half my old lot. Paul (Simonon) I've done, the Primals.. (indicates towards 'Give Out' era print of Bobby Gillespie on the wall)

It seems like the NME was quite an informal set-up compared to today ?

Basically it was 'you know what you're doing, you know how you work, just get on and do it'- and it worked because everybody was enthusiastic.

Who were the first band you photographed ?

Led Zeppelin. They were the first I was commissioned to do by the NME. OK, I thought, not knowing what the deal was with them ! But they were perfect gentlemen. Basically I had no preconceptions, so I think they were fairly staggered by a female photographer - women weren't very prevailing in the music industry - so they were a bit aghast and agape. But they didn't like journalists at the time, so I think it was a bit of a novelty. I did a lot of backstage stuff which apparently they didn't normally allow, but it was done in innocence really.

How did you come to focus on The Clash so much during the late '70s ?

I was doing NME covers and features, and also The Jam and The Clash in tandem, but then realised how much time The Clash were taking because they were never off the road. I dropped the Jam because they were wandering off at that time anyway. The Clash had me on the tour for all but the first year I think, and then I carried on with each of them after they finished. But it wasn't like a commission - every time they wanted me out there, they rang me and asked, "Can you do it ?", but they had no editorial control - I went, I snapped, and then we made the pictures fit afterwards - we didn't know where the pictures were going to be used. It was the same with The Stone Roses, it's the same with everybody.

It's a case of 'we like what you do', and my return is 'I like your company'. I'm not musically biased, of course I can't choose somebody whose music I don't like, it's a case of 'I like your attitude, and I think it would work'.

It sounds like quite a hard life, were you driven by a desire to get a better picture, or take 'the perfect picture' ?

No, I didn't ever really want to be a photographer ! I might be a train driver next. I just quite like not being... I don't feel very attached to society. I mean I don't dislike society, but I've never been particularly attached and it's quite a good method of not being attached.

Have you got a personal favourite image ? There's the famous bass-smashing image of Paul Simonon ? [from London Calling]

Paul calls that 'our bastard child' ! It's come back to haunt us really. I don't really have a particular favourite. I like shots which haven't been seen particularly, shots where someone is really tired or it sums up a situation. To put things into context, I'm not overtly musically led and I didn't particularly want to be a photographer so often it's an essence of a time rather than an actual photograph.

That image [from London Calling] is on thousands of t-shirts - do you get any royalties from that ?

It was on Newsnight the other day. Because the method I work and that I'm usually allowed total access to bands, we have a gentleman's handshake agreement that I won't merchandise (photos) because they know that I don't. But any you see on t-shirts are bootlegs without a doubt. If it's used in the background of a film or on TV or anything, it's usually been run through me.

Do you prefer shooting bands 'live' or in the studio ?

I hate the studio. I had a studio for about a nanosecond, but it felt like I was running a passport office. I'm rubbish at lighting. I prefer reportage, get the right light and situation and just pop it off. I like live stuff, but not 'bloke at microphone', 'somebody on keyboards', but if it's slightly tricky I do enjoy it.

Have you got any tips - you seem to work in such difficult conditions of bad light ?

1600 film and wait for the lights ! It does help to get the hang of how someone's going to move. If you watch someone on stage you get their centre of balance, and you can work out where they're going next and hopefully the light will pick him out.

Have you got lots of stuff that's never been seen ?


How did you get to work with The Stone Roses ?

What happened - and there's a curious link with The Clash - was Rockin' On magazine [Japanese magazine] asked me to photograph them. They'd done one session with Ian Tilton for the first album. Then the band asked me to do some press shots for them. John then mentioned to me that he'd arrived backstage at a Clash gig looking like a drowned rat and I'd got him in, which I actually remembered because I never ever get people into gigs. But these two school kids were looking absolutely sodden, and I remember thinking 'poor sods, OK, I'll slip you in and don't say I did' - so there's this curious link up there.

Did they come to use you because of The Clash connection ?

Well they liked the stuff I did with The Clash, but it's like if someone likes your writing. It's a reference point that maybe bands can tell - and maybe I can tell from my first impression 'OK, it's going to work.'

Can you remember the first session you did with them ?

I think it might have been only Ian and John, which was the Rockin' On thing, which was done straight over an interview. But I found them quite funny. They were talking to the Japanese journalist who perhaps didn't get the double meanings of some of what they were saying and I was able, I think, to banter back or something - and they quite liked the pictures. They then got back to me through their management to get me to do some stuff for them.

How did you find them when you did a full-band session ?

From my point of view, I liked them because they didn't need to talk. Most of the bands I work with have got that curious empathy where they're definitely a bloc. They were either very funny or weren't saying a word to each other. In a way, they went from not saying a word to each other because they got on to not saying a word to each other because they didn't get on ! Basically, photographically they made such great shapes together you knew they were a bonded unit.

The first session was the corrugated iron fence one, in Reading.

Did they need much direction in terms of posing ?

Well they made good shapes ! I just snapped. They needed no leading whatsoever, they were very tactile. A lot of bands - The Jam for one, Franz Ferdinand another - tend to stand very rigidly, or do silly moves, but they were instantly arms round shoulders and locked. Obviously it makes a lovely shape for the camera.

Did they just turn up in their own gear ? The Roses always seemed very natural, there didn't seem to be any stylists involved ?

Yes. I don't know what went on outside my shoots, which were mainly black and white. Obviously occasionally they had to have a colour shoot, I don't know if they were styled then, I get the feeling they wouldn't be touched. I can't imagine it.

There's that one they did for Smash Hits which looks like they've been put through a pretty heavy salon session…

Well that often happens - I mean now it's unbelievable, everyone heads down the beauty parlour then it's all rearranged on the computer afterwards, I don't know why they even turn up.

Did any single band member seem to be 'in charge' ?


How many sessions did you do with them ?

I can't remember ! I just went along, all the rest of their career really, including to the very last. I was in America when they signed to Geffen. There's uncatalogued stuff because it was never pulled out and used for anything.

Were you actually in the room when they signed the deal with Geffen ?

No - I stayed out of the room - but I was in the office at the time.

What do you remember about the 'big gigs' - Ally Pally and Spike Island ?

Spike Island - I remember the day went on for about five weeks. I think the punters probably had a pretty bad time of it because I don't think there was enough going on. Perhaps - that's what I heard in retrospect. I was backstage - there, it felt like six weeks !

Did you feel like you were capturing something special ?

That's more a musical question. The only basis I've got is if people leave me alone. Yes, at certain gigs it happens all of a sudden. You're behind the camera - you can't hear if you're watching so intensely - you're waiting for the next move. Then, all of a sudden you'll look down and you just know it's an amazing gig, it's just gelling, you can feel the audience are behind the band, it's just working. Yes it happened on a lot of occasions - I can't say Alexandra Palace was one of them !

I liked them a lot, but not necessarily musically. I do happen to see inadvertently a lot of bands through time, but they were a genuine entity.

What did you make of Gareth Evans ?

He was hysterically funny. His first words to me were, "I want a helicopter out of this, what do you want out of them ?" He was really funny, really annoying. He was ducking and diving - he was selling beanie hats apparently at Spike Island. He managed to lose one of my negs - I never ever let people have my negs - but because it was very urgent and it was them, I let him have it for once, but he lost it. But then he started bootlegging posters from it, so ! I don't know really - I try to stay out of the politicking. Of course you see what's going on, of course he seemed really dodgy from the word go, but it's not my business to say to them: "You've got a dodgy manager" at the first meeting.

How did you see the band change over time ?

Probably during the second album. It just felt slightly more strained. You don't know, looking at something if it's 'today'. I get days when it's an off day and with all the goodwill in the world I just can't take a decent picture. Bands when they come to be photographed or whatever, sometimes it's just an off day, it just hasn't gelled. I wasn't on the road very much with them on the second album. I suppose when they were in the States though it started feeling a bit odd.

What did you make of the band's hiatus ?

I was vaguely in touch with them, so it didn't really feel like a disappearance.

Did you know what was going on in the band at this time ?

I didn't ask. I know it sounds stupid. Paul (Simonon) on a current shoot has just turned up with two black eyes and a big plaster across his nose so... I don't want to ask, that's how he's turned up ! It's not my business, ok if I'm told about it I know about it, but I don't know. Weren't they all having girlfriends at the time or something probably ? I presume perhaps they were bunkered up with girlfriends rather than each other - I actually can't remember.

Were you surprised by how short-lived the band turned out to be ?

I think I was disappointed, but only because I suspected they had quite a lot more there. But on the other hand, they were so good, so quick, so young, they probably had some growing up to do. I think that's the healthy reason why a lot of young bands split, that what they've done together is not necessarily where their brains are going next.

Have you followed any of the solo careers ? The two most musically talented members of the band - John and Reni - have perhaps been the least successful ?

Well Mani, I got him his job in the Primals. Basically (Andrew) Innes said to me "Now Mani's not got a job, give him my number - we're looking for him" - and I did. He slotted in like nobody's business. Reni I haven't seen since. Ian, I went to a gig about six months ago. John I speak to reasonably regularly, we send each other odd postcards and Christmas cards.

Odd as in strange, or on the odd occasion ?

Both ! Once in a blue moon, and peculiar.

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