The Man Who Shot the 70s: Mick Rock on his Life in Rock ‘n’ Roll

Legendary rock n' roll photographer Mick Rock is the subject of an excellent new documentary and he told us some stories of his own.

For much of the ’70s, the pictures and images created by the camera of photographer Mick Rock were an iconic part of the visual lexicon that defined that era’s rock music. The covers to Lou Reed’s Transformer, The Stooges’ Raw Power, The Ramones’ early records, and Queen II were all based on Rock’s unmistakable photos.

Much of Rock’s early acclaim came from being David Bowie’s personal photographer during the Ziggy Stardust era of his career, which made him an in-demand photographer for the glam rock movement that took over England shortly after. It was a smooth transition into taking pictures of the burgeoning punk scene of the Sex Pistols, the Ramones, and Blondie—the photogenic Debbie Harry being one of Rock’s personal favorites.

These are a few of the things you learn in a new documentary about Rock called Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock, directed by Barnaby Clay. It’s far more than your typical talking heads stroll down memory lane, mainly because most of the talking is done by Rock himself.

“People have been talking to me about doing a documentary since 2002,” Rock told Den of Geek when we had a chance to sit down with him last year when the film had a special presentation at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. It was only a few short months after the death of Rock’s good friend David Bowie, whose early career was so intertwined with Rock’s. (Oddly, our interview also took place on the day Prince had died suddenly.)

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It was Rock’s idea to hire Clay to make the movie, mainly because he was under 40 at the time. “Chrysalis, they were talking about a TV thing, but in more recent times, the people who did that Man on Wire thing (were interested). The problem with that was I’ve seen that film and–not that I don’t think it’s extraordinary–but even now when I think of it, it freaks me out because I’m agoraphobic. I couldn’t talk to them because I think of that film and I can’t handle it, so I had to pass. I think Barney was the connection to Vice and they came on board and put more money in.”

“It’s taken a while,” he said of the process of being involved in a movie where he’s basically telling his own story while showing pictures from his archives. “The actual start of filming was probably four years ago this summer. A bunch of the interviews with me were done, while I was waiting to get a kidney transplant, because I was getting hemoglobin shots.” More on that later…

Back in his days at the University of Cambridge, Rock worked with the art design group Hipgnosis, using Rock’s photos of Syd Barrett for the former Pink Floyd frontman’s first solo album The Madcap Laughs.

Rock’s relationship with Barrett continued long after the enigmatic musician vanished in the early ‘70s, after doing one last interview and photo session with Rock. “I actually did the very last interview with Syd Barrett, but I can’t find that tape unfortunately, but I do have some footage that no one’s ever seen before that Syd has done. People are fascinated by Syd Barrett, possibly because there’s not much out there on him.”

Oddly, Barrett reappeared a few years before his death to sign some of Rock’s books that had photographs of him. Curious, we asked Rock whether he’d heard anything about someone making a Syd Barrett movie, and he said some people have expressed interest in doing a movie about Rock and Barrett when they were at Cambridge doing acid together.

Rock also has some little seen, relatively recent photos of Bowie. “I did a great session in 2002 when we were going to do our first limited edition book, and this session hasn’t seen too much of the light of day, although there’s three shots that I’ve released which I sell as well. I’m probably going to do a book of this session, because I have tons of material. I also have video of the session. Anything of David Bowie is going to get some interest going.”

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Probably some of the more fascinating elements of Clay’s movie are the taped private conversations Rock had with Lou Reed and Bowie. “I recorded a lot of them, because I would do interviews back then,” he explained. “They were all based on interviews. I had two tapes in particular that they’ve used little bits of: one of David from ’72, just after the release of ‘Starman’ and just before the release of the album, Ziggy Stardust, and one of Lou in ’76 when he flew me over to work with him on the Rock ‘n’ Roll Heart imagery. We did all those crazy TV sets and I stayed up for days with him. There’s a great session where Lou talks about the song ‘Heroin’ and of course, Vice flipped out over that. Barney had to ease them off a bit, so not too much of it is used. There is some more of the modern stuff, which I have reams of the stuff, probably from 2000 to now, I’ve shot a lot of stuff over the years.”

“Money started in the late nineties, the much more serious interest in photography,” he tells us about a major turning point in the second part of his career. “I took a lot of the pictures that people do want to see because they’re from the seventies or early eighties at exhibitions, and they’re the ones that generate a lot of exhibition money and books. I’ve also spent a lot of time in Japan doing kabuki theater books.”

Wisely, Rock never gave up the rights to any of those legendary photos he took, allowing him to assemble a number of books. “Back in those days, the record companies didn’t give a shit—they just wanted cheap photos,” he told us. “But they didn’t have a lot of oversight. Nobody thought photographs were worth that much. What was a rock ‘n’ roll photographer? That was not regarded as being a serious gig by fashion or advertising photographers, and most people didn’t know the names. Even compared to cooks, there are not as many well-known photographers as there are cooks.”

”Considering the amount of the usage they got out of them, compared to advertising, where people get the rights for a year or two, they got great deals,” Rock says. “The thing is that I’ve never heard the word ‘copyright’ applied to a photo before, to be honest with you, and certainly no one ever called it intellectual property. It was a lady that I met in the late ‘80s that started to say, ‘You’ve got to put copyright notices on your pictures. That will slow down people nicking your pictures, and I do it consistently nowadays. ‘What do you mean intellectual property? They’re photographs.’ Of course now I realize they are, because one photograph can sell for a lot of money nowadays.”

“There’s a lot of room for abuse, as there is with music, as there is with all art, but I’m very on top of it,” he admits. “You want to use my pictures, I want that fucking copyright. Not always if I’m promoting something of my own, I might give them out, but otherwise, I want money. Otherwise, go away.”

(note: all photos in this article are copyright Mick Rock and many are available for sale here)

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It might surprise some that Rock never actually studied photography, though he had a friend who studied acting and turned him onto Konstantin Stanislavski’s acting book from the twenties, The Actor Prepares. “He would talk about bringing actors into a raw space and building the circle of concentration,” he says. “When that happened, other things took over and things happened spontaneously. At that point, maybe I’m talking a lot but I’m more of an absorber, more of an instrument. I just process the images through me, but I’ll see very clearly.”

“I approach it a little loosely,” he continues. “You have to decide where to shoot for whatever the circumstances are. You have to be like a cook. You gotta get all the ingredients in the room, but it’s really about stirring. I play around with different lights and set-ups. I don’t do anything that’s complicated. Mostly I work with one assistant, sometimes I work with two. Rarely have I worked with three, but I have a make-up artist, sometimes a stylist. That’s about it. I have my videographer, he records everything, but I don’t need a lot of people around. In fact, they get in the fucking way.”

In the early days, Rock would work by himself, but these days, such a big deal is made about photo shoots by publicists, record companies, etc. “I think it’s unnecessary. I think it constricts the session if you have too many people around. Makes it too self-conscious. I like to loosen things up a bit.”

These days, Rock tends to shoot the artists that intrigue him or that he thinks are worth capturing with his camera. “I pick somebody that I want to shoot. I go in and love them. I don’t think about it like that. If I shoot them, it could be for money—often is. I don’t shoot that much for magazines. They’re messy to deal with and they don’t want to pay for anything. It’s a different world today, totally different, plus there’s all that digital stuff.  I spend a lot of time dealing with exhibitions and licensing, and I’ve done a ton of books.” (In case you were wondering, even Mick Rock doesn’t shoot his pictures using film anymore.)

Rock gave up shooting any sort of concert photos four years ago, mainly because now, everyone in the audience has a camera in their phone and deems themselves a photographer. “There’s no point and there are so many people shooting and so many pictures. It’s a different time for pictures. Sometimes I slip more recent pictures into shows like Janelle Monae and Snoop Dogg, maybe Mark Ronson or some of the modern acts, but that’s not what people will pay a lot of money to acquire. Bowie as Ziggy Stardust is a goldmine.”

Shot! also gets into Rock’s health issues that came about from chronic drug use and chain smoking during the ’70s and ’80s. It led to him having three heart attacks, and eventually, a quadruple bypass that saved his life. This hovers over the entire movie as Clay recreates Rock’s most harrowing experience. Three or four years ago, when Rock received that kidney transplant he mentioned, he was surprised by how many people came forward to offer him their spare kidney.

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These days, Rock gets massages, does a lot of yoga, and chants mantras before a photo session, rather than partaking in his nearly fatal combination of drugs. “People say, ‘Was it difficult for you (to stop)?’” he tells us. “No, it wasn’t difficult for me to stop. I got the message. You learn about pain, and you learn that one thing can clear your brain out of a lot of fucking rubbish. It certainly cleared my head out, and I got much better about business.”

“I’m mostly in love with my latest projects,” he says about revisiting his past so much, although one of his more recent photo shoots harked back to one he did in the seventies. “At the moment, I’ve been on tour from Toronto to shoot the special set-ups for the new TV version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show with Laverne Cox. Also, Tim Curry is in it. He had a stroke, so he’s a bit paralyzed but he’s going to play the Criminologist, so I’ll shoot him on Monday. Learning to juggle the past and the present has been interesting in recent years.”

“I don’t want to be a victim of the fucking seventies,” he says slyly before we wrapped the interview. “Being ‘The Man Who Shot the Seventies,’ it has its upside when it comes to books and museums and galleries and print sales, but then it’s a bit like, ‘What am I?  Some old fucking burn-out, who is just hanging out, drooling and jibbering?’ Not likely…”

Shot! The Psycho-Spiritual Mantra of Rock opens in New York at the Metrograph and in L.A. at the Beverly Hills Music Hall on Friday, April 7, and it will also be available on VOD.