Throughout the 1970s, John Ingham was heralded as one of the most important music journalists in England. The first person to ever interview the Sex Pistols in 1976, Ingham (who wrote under the name "Jonh" Ingham) helped to bring a nascent scene of just a handful of bands and maybe 50 audience members to readers across the UK. His new book of photography, Spirit of 76: London Punk Eyewitness, out Tuesday from Anthology Editions, is an electrifying snapshot of punk's halcyon days in London. It collects Ingham's personal photos of bands like the Damned, the Clash, and the youngsters of the fabled Bromley Contingent.
In the book's foreword, punk historian Jon Savage points out that the bulk of the photos were taken in the span of only ten days. During that brief November in 1976, beginning with sparsely attended performances by the Sex Pistols in art schools and seedy bars before they were even calling themselves punk, the ferocious sentiment of the music and culture—raw, fast, in your face—spread as a much-needed shot in the arm for Britain's youth, who were graduating from school with bleak job prospects and a general atmosphere of doom and malaise. Through word of mouth and pivotal gigs like the Sex Pistols' legendary performance in Manchester, which was responsible for forging bands like Joy Division, the Buzzcocks, and the Smiths, the scene exploded into the musical rite of passage it is now for young people everywhere. This massive and seminal leap is beautifully captured through Ingham's photographs and lovingly pieced together in this hardcover edition.
Just before the book's release, I spoke to Ingham about the earliest days of the London scene, transforming punk into propaganda, and feeling everything's over and terrible in your 20s.
VICE: What was going on in your life when you started taking these photos?
John Ingham: I was 25 in 1976. My teenage years were spent in the US, in California, so I kind of got the whole psychedelic band thing, but I felt too young for it. Then later, when punk showed up and I had moved to England, I felt too old for it. I moved to London in 1972 and was writing regularly for the NME and then Sounds. In 1975, I started getting very upset with what was going on musically. The big bands were not very good, and they weren't producing any new records. I was looking around, seeing a lot of new bands and not seeing anybody who was very interesting. Then I read a review of the Sex Pistols and I thought the name was the best name I had seen for a band in ages.
Was seeing the Sex Pistols play your entry into what was going on? How did you end up being the first person to interview them?
When I first saw the Sex Pistols in early April of 1976, it was in a strip club in Soho. It was immediately apparent—I mean, John Rotten was just amazing. There was no denying he had just an incredible amount of charisma. It was fairly primitive, but you could tell there was something there. I talked to Malcolm McLaren, who was their manager, first. He didn't call it punk, but he gave a whole manifesto about breaking free from the 60s. He was pretty much telling me what I was already thinking, so I was converted really early on in the conversation. Then he gave this big flourish like he was giving me some rare audience, and he said, "OK, you can interview them." We did it about two weeks later, and that was the first interview the band had ever done.
What was going on in England at the time that allowed the youth to easily identify with the frustration and sentiment of punk? Economically, the country was not doing well. People were graduating from school and not having jobs to go to. The IRA were on a bombing campaign in the UK, so they blew up some restaurants and social places. They were delivering a lot of letter bombs. You were almost in a civil war. So, people were kind of graduating, they had no job, and if they got a job, it was something like opening letter bombs. I mean, for Mick Jones, during "Career Opportunities," he says, "I won't open letter bombs for you," because that was his job. He got hired at a company as the kind of intern, and his job was to open any letter that looked suspicious. People were fed up and there was a kind of grayness to the country. There was just a ton of frustration, and the Clash articulated it very clearly.
You had been doing a lot of writing before, but what felt so mobilizing about punk at the time? Well, for one, it was a new generation of people. There was about a group of 50 or 60 people at this point, and everyone was somewhere between 18 and 22 at best. It was like any of those things where it starts out really small and secret, but grows into something really big. When the Clash showed up, that was just like another whole level. That was when I sort of started thinking I wanted to contribute to the movement, rather than just being an observer. I was talking to Mick Jones about that feeling fairly early on, and he made the point that people do what they can. Some people manage, some people play the music, some people make the clothes, and some people write about it. I consciously decided to write propaganda and try and write in the way that somebody that was 15 or 16 would think, This is the most exciting thing I've ever read about, I must go and see it.
What motivated you to start taking these photos and documenting the scene?
For the longest period, it was just the Sex Pistols and no one else. A professional photographer named Ray Stevenson, who was McLaren's friend, was photographing them all the time. When the Clash started up—they were just amazing onstage. They were dressed in a way that looked like Jackson Pollock had poured paint all over their clothes. And that's why I picked up a camera, and that's why I shot in colour as well. The professional photographers only shot black-and-white because if you took colour photos, no one would have published it and printed it. So I was only shooting to record it, I had no thought of getting it published or trying to sell it. I've been told by someone who looked through the book, "I've seen every collection that there is, and yours is effectively the only colour around of the Clash."
What were those couple of months of early shows like? Did it seem as though everyone was trying to get everything together before the scene fell apart?
I felt like it was starting to take off when I went up to Manchester to see the Pistols. It was in a small hole on top of the main auditorium of Manchester called the Lesser Trade Hall. It held about 300 people or something, and it was about half full. You find out later that the people who then turned into the Smiths and Joy Division and everything else were all in the audience. That was the first time they played "Anarchy [in the UK]," and the place went absolutely nuts. That's what Malcolm was sort of working toward. He wanted to sort of build this big movement.
We were always down there when bands were sound-checking and that. But at one show the owner of the venue, Ron Watts, said, "You know, there's gonna be about 300 people here tonight." Everyone was sort of like, "You're kidding! No, impossible! You must be joking." And he said, "The phone's been ringing constantly for three days about tonight." I thought it was kind of gonna probably take all of 1977 and it would have this kind of slow growth. Now, overnight everybody knows about punk rock.
I love that the book sort of finally ends with shots of a giant crowd watching the Sex Pistols. It really shows the contrast in scale, from the beginning to where it ended up by the end of the year.
What fascinated me about that night was, it was an invite-only because they were shooting it for a TV show—like, a current-affairs show. And yet half the people there you'd never seen for a current-affairs show, like ever. There's a guy with a long hair and an overcoat, and the guy that's on the cover of the book—never saw them before. The two girls who are handcuffed together in the black leather and plastic—never seen them before, never saw them again. All these people had kind of come out of somewhere, and that's what prompted how the book ends. Because a lot of the original people were going, "Oh, look at these guys! I mean, who are these people? It's terrible now!" I was kind of shocked that people who were 20, 21, were so kind of pessimistic and cynical. It's a very young age to kind of think the world is finished.
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Spirit of 76: London Punk Eyewitness is available in bookstores and online from Anthology Editions.