Monday, June 17, 2013

Another Man magazine, 2012

by Simon Reynolds

“I was at the forefront of a new black British generation who had a double identity, a double culture,” says Dennis Morris, the legendary photographer whose 1970s camerawork gave equal time to reggae and punk. “One minute I’d be hanging with the Sex Pistols, the next I’d be on a plane to Jamaica. Bob Marley would ask me, ‘what you think about these punks, mon?’ and I’d go, ‘they cool’. He’d say, ‘but the swastikas?’ and I’d be, ‘nah worry, mon. It’s just for the shock value.’

Sixteen years old, armed with a Leica, Morris first met Marley and the Wailers in 1973 and was invited by the then barely-known group to accompany them on the Catch A Fire U.K. tour.  A few years later Morris made his professional breakthrough when his shots of the Wailers appeared on the front of several music papers in the wake of their epochal July 1975 show at London’s Lyceum.  Reggae fan John Lydon noticed Morris’s gritty reportage-style work and when the Sex Pistols signed to Virgin Records the singer asked for him to handle their first photo session. 

Morris and Lydon immediately clicked: not just because of the shared passion for Jamaican musics but because of an affinity between Irish and Caribbean immigrants as victims of discrimination in the U.K. Lydon would go on to title his memoir Rotten: No Irish, No Black, No Dogs after the sign that racially prejudiced landlords put in windows. Dennis and Johnny also frequented the same parts of East London: Morris grew up in Dalston, Lydon attended the nearby Hackney Technical College, and unbeknownst to each other they’d gone to many of the same clubs. Morris spent much of 1977 following the Pistols around, at a time when “God Save the Queen” made the group lightning rods for rage from the great British public. “For me it was a dream scenario, the equivalent of photographer heroes of mine like Larry Burrows documenting the Vietnam War, or Don McCullin’s work in Northern Ireland.”

At the end of a chaotic American tour in early 1978, the Pistols split in bitter disarray and Lydon returned to London with no idea what he was going to next. “He was pretty distraught, the Pistols meant a lot to him,” recalls Morris.  Around that time Morris was asked by Virgin Records supremo Richard Branson to come on a trip to Jamaica. Reggae was at the peak of its creativity and spiritual militancy and Branson planned to scoop up the cream of roots’n’dub talent for a new Virgin imprint, The Front Line. Morris would photograph the signings for album covers and promotional shots. “I said to Branson, ‘why don’t you take John too? He loves reggae and knows a lot about it. And he’s looking for something to do’.”

Within days, Branson, Morris, and Lydon, plus DJ/film-maker Don Letts and music journalist Vivien Goldman, arrived in Kingston, Jamaica. “First thing that happened at the airport was this group of Rastas saw us and they were, like ’hey Johnny Rotten mon! God save the Queen!’. And we looked at each other and smiled and were like, ‘we gonna be cool here’.”

Life in JA slipped into a luxurious and leisurely rhythm: Branson had booked an entire floor at the Sheraton, Kingston’s flashest hotel, and Lydon and his companions lounged by the pool, where they chatted with visiting reggae royalty while gorging on lobster. (Much to the distaste of the devout Rastafarian musicians, for whom shellfish—“anything that crawls or creeps”—was forbidden by ital, Rasta’s dietary laws).  The reggae greats—U Roy, The Mighty Diamonds, The Heptones, The Abyssininans–trooped to the Sheraton because word got out that there was a crazy Englishman offering big money for their music, cash in hand.   “I think it was Big Youth first. He comes to the hotel with a cassette player and we’re all sitting around the pool listening to his tape. Richard Branson says, ‘Yeah, l like it... but what do you think, John?’ And Lydon goes, ‘yeah, yeah, it’s great’. So Richard says, ‘okay, what do you want for it?’ Big Youth says, ’20 grand’. And Branson, says ‘Fine... Come back tomorrow and I’ll have it for you’. Off he’d go to the bank. After that we had people coming to see us every day.”

Jamaica in the 1970s was a land of crazy mixed-up contradictions: deep mystical vibrations coexisted with fast-money hustling, sun-kissed upfulness clashed with life-is-cheap bloodshed.  The island was “under heavy manners”, the state of emergency declared by Prime Minister Michael Manley to suppress violence between the ghetto gangs that supported the country’s rival political parties. “One time we went up to this mansion in the hills at night. Then coming down the hill we hit a roadblock. This was a time when it was like martial law in Jamaica, with curfews. Up in the mansion, we’d all been acting like bad boy Jamaicans, smoking spliffs. But when these soldiers started poking guns in our faces, demanding ‘what you doing in these streets?’, we were like [Morris puts on a posh, super-polite, tremulous voice] ‘we’re English, we’re English, we’re just going back to our hotel’. We were terrified. Saw our lives going down the pan. They searched the car and then said ‘get out of here’.” 

Another occasion when Morris and Lydon were made painfully aware they weren’t in Blighty anymore was at a big sound system in Trenchtown. “All the reggae dances in Jamaica are open air, unlike in the U.K. where the clubs and ‘blues’ parties were indoors.  And in Jamaica, when the selector drops a good tune, all the gun men point their weapons up and fire into the air. But we didn’t know that, so first time that happened—BANG BANG BANG--we were on the floor, cowering! Scared shitless, we were.”

That wasn’t Morris’s only up-close encounter with fire-arms during the trip.  After a photo session with The Gladiators, the band quizzed him about the record industry and told him about their management contract. “I said, ‘that doesn’t sound too good, you should really be getting this, and that...’  Few days later there’s a knock on my hotel suite door and two guys burst in: one holds me down, the other puts a gun to my head and snarls ‘don’t come down here telling my group what to do’.  I remember telling him ‘Go on then, pull it, pull it’.  The two guys look at each other and I can tell they’re thinking, ‘this guy’s got some balls’. So then I say, ‘Listen man, I wasn’t trying to take your group away from you..... ‘. We worked it out in the end. But that was what it was like those days in Jamaica—dodgy contracts and dirty deals left right and centre, between bands and their managers and the labels, just like in The Harder They Come.”

Meanwhile Johnny Rotten was having his own problems with a conniving and unscrupulous manager.  Former manager, to be precise: Malcolm McLaren was trying to piece together his movie project The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle and sent a minion, John “Boogie” Tiberi, to Kingston to film the ex-Pistol being confronted with the cryptic question “Who killed Bambi?” When Lydon refused to cooperate, Boogie was reduced to snooping around the Sheraton poolside area and trying to shoot footage of the singer surreptitiously. “We saw the bushes moving and realized we were being watched,” laughs Morris. “So we pushed him in the pool.”

The Jamaica trip wasn’t all stoned shenanigans, though. During the three week stay, Lydon began to formulate a sound-and-vision for his future. “John was picking up a lot of information, a lot of vibes,” says Morris, pointing in particular to times spent hanging out at Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s famous studio The Black Ark, where legend has it that Lydon recorded a vocal for a track that never saw the light of day. “Scratch was the most charismatic figure we met in Jamaica, a total genius.  And I think it was at the Black Ark, and going to sound systems, and just hanging out in Jamaica, that led John to conceive the idea for Public Image Ltd.”  Immediately on his return to London, Lydon hooked up with his reggae-fiend pal Jah Wobble, who taught himself to play bass. He also recruited ex-Clash guitarist Keith Levene, who has said that “the whole reason PiL worked at all was that were all just total dub fanatics.”

Morris was virtually a member of the group, serving as its unofficial in-house art director. He designed the PiL logo, punningly intended to resemble an aspirin. He did the photos and cover art for the debut album, which saw Lydon jettison the stereotypical punk look for zoot-suit sharpness. And he came up with the radical packaging of Metal Box: three 45 rpm discs encased in a matt-grey tin canister.  During this period Morris also worked as an Art Director at Island Records, where he oversaw the careers of The Slits and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Then he got signed to Island himself as the guitarist in Basement 5,  often described as the black PiL.

Throughout this period Morris was the court photographer at King John’s house in Gunter Grove, Chelsea. Here Lydon entertained a rotating retinue of guest luminaries--ranging from punk chanteuse Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex to reggae stars like Gregory Isaacs--with Guinness from kegs stowed in the living room and the bass-thunder of the latest Jamaican imports played through his  massive hi-fi system. Documentation of this golden period for postpunk music can be found, along with shots of Lydon’s working holiday in JA, in the photographer’s new book A Bitta Pil. “Gunter Grove was this massively creative hub, just buzzing,” Morris recalls. “And I was there, taking pictures.” 

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