Dennis Morris is the Forrest Gump of British pop culture.
Gump moved through the world uncannily connecting with the cultural moment: teaching Elvis how to pelvis, phoning in Watergate, inventing jogging. Morris was 11 years old when a chance photo he took of a PLO leader ended up in the Daily Mirror. As a 16-years-old, he was in the right place to take a photo of Bob Marley with a spliff that now adorns a million bedroom walls. Through that, he became court photographer to the Sex Pistols, then the A&R man who signed the Slits and Lynton Kwesi Johnson. He designed Public Image Limited's iconic Metal Box album, shot the cover for Marianne Faithfull's Broken English, put on the Stone Roses' first ever London gig, and his own band, Basement 5, were some of the first black faces in a white-dominated British punk scene. All this from a Hackney boy with no dad who was told by his school career counselor that there was "no such thing as a black photographer."
When we heard a retrospective of his PiL shots were being shown at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts at the end of March, it seemed like a good time to load up the dictaphone, go down to his London studio, point it in his general direction, and come back groaning under the weight of culturally-important anecdotes.
VICE: Hi Dennis. In 1978, you went on holiday to Jamaica with Richard Branson and John Lydon, just after he'd broken up the Sex Pistols. Was that a sitcom in the making?
Dennis Morris: That was such a great, great vibe. We landed at Kingston Airport, and this group of rastas saw John and said: "Johnny Rotten, mon! God Save the Queen, mon!", and I knew it was going to be a great time.
Why were you there?
Virgin Records decided to get involved in reggae, and they wanted me to go out there with Richard. So I then turned to them in the meeting and said, "Why don't we take John? He's a big reggae fan. And he just left the Pistols..." So the three of us went out there.
So you were you there shopping for new artists?
It was amazing. We'd sit in the Sheraton Hotel, and the big local music producers would come and visit us. We'd say, "How much do you want?" And they'd name a figure. Then Richard would say, "OK, come back tomorrow." And then he'd have the money ready for them, in cash. One of the big things they loved about Richard and Virgin was that they'd get cash in hand. Word spread. So soon every reggae artist in Jamaica was queueing outside the Sheraton.
Partly as a result of that trip, when you got back to England, your friend Johnny went full-bore into his new thing: Public Image Limited, climaxing in its debut show on Christmas Day at the Rainbow Theater. You were producing the show. What was the weight of expectation like?
That gig was absolute chaos. It was all self-financed, which was unheard of, and of course playing on Christmas Day was completely unheard of. Even when it came down to the gig itself, it was shaky. Jah Wobble couldn't play his bass standing up because he was still learning it. And everyone thought, Wow, that's so radical, sitting down. Lydon had the lyrics written out on sheets on a lectern. And again everyone thought, Wow, cool, this is the new thing...
Is it true that your career counselor at school told you that there was "no such thing" as a black photographer?
The counselor asked me, "What do you want to do?" and I said I wanna be a photographer. And the counselor said, "Don't be stupid boy, there's no such thing as a black photographer." So I started listing black photographers who'd inspired me. And the counselor said, "Do you wanna be like a wedding photographer?" I said, "No, I don't wanna do weddings. I wanna be a photographer." It was a kinda struggle for me. I wasn't getting anywhere for a while and that's when the family starts putting on pressure to get a proper job.
When did you finally work past that "pressure to get a proper job"?
Probably when I started working with Bob Marley.
But you started that when you were 16?
Yes. You know, I remember Jah Wobble saying to me, when he was in PiL, the wages were $28 a week. When he went home, his dad was so pissed off that he was earning more than him.
You released a book of photographs from your own early years in the 60s and 70s called Growing Up Black. What was it like growing up black?
The title comes from the fact that when I was growing up, we were called "colored people." And then, the black power movement came from America, and we all wanted to be black, not "colored" like our parents' generation.
You grew up in Hackney. What do you think of its makeover?
Hackney's one of those places now where the real inhabitants don't really have a say.
Do you mourn that?
It's not that I mourn it. It's just something that happens. Bill Clinton has his office in Brooklyn now. Years ago, no white people would go there.
You took that legendary photo series of Bob Marley smoking a massive spliff—the one that's on a million students' dorm walls. It's a pretty big spliff. Was there any visual trickery involved in the making of it?
Haha. It was completely natural. One day he said to me, "Dennis, let me show you how to smoke a spliff." I shot one, two, three frames. By the fourth frame, I was gone. I was completely high.
Is it very financially rewarding to own a piece of history like that? The reprint rights must be stratospheric.
That picture has now become like the Che Guevara picture. So it's almost like in public domain. I can't control it.
You mean you don't make anything off it?
I can't control it. It's in the public domain.
You were also there at the historic moment when Bob Marley saw snow for the first time.
That happened again on that first tour in 1973. They opened the curtains in a hotel one day, and it was snowing. Peter Tosh said, "What's that?" And I said, "Well, it's snow." They weren't very happy with that, and Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer said it was a sign from Jah that they should leave the tour. So they went home.
They went home?
Yeah, they hated it here. They were miserable.
Why did they hate England?
Lots of things. One was that they hated the cold. They wanted their home food, which was vegan and you definitely couldn't get that here back then. But Bob was determined, because he felt that he had a message to deliver. So he came back two years later to tour with a different band and that's when he did Live! at the Lyceum and everything took off for him.
Even back in those Bob Marley shots, your style has always felt like more like reportage than music photography. I read a quote from you saying you wanted to be a war photographer. That casual, unposed, style is obviously very common now, but I guess no one was really doing that at the time.
Yeah my reportage style wasn't the thing in music photography then. But I was obsessed with people like Don McCullin and Robert Capa. They were my heroes. I took that influence, that style. I used a Leica. No one used a Leica then.
What's a Leica?
It's a German camera brand. The original 35mm camera was a Leica. Very difficult to use in rock photography when you've got something moving, but very small so you can take it anywhere, and no one takes it seriously. So you get them to open up.
Is there an art to being that kind of sneak?
You find a way of being invisible. Fitting in so people are not aware of you. Ninety-nine percent of those pictures I took from Marley to the Pistols, I didn't use flash.
Would you say you're good at fitting in, making yourself inconspicuous?
I'm very good at fitting in. My wife says to me, "You don't speak Japanese, but you do speak Japanese." Because I've found a way to fit in over there when I'm working where words don't matter.
You just have a plausible manner.
For instance, I did a body of work in Southall, documenting the Sikh community there. And when it came to the exhibition, this old Sikh man said to me, "These are very good. Who is the photographer?" And I said it's me. And he paused and said, "But you know, we have a problem. How did you get through the doors?" I said, "Well you know, I just knocked on the doors." I've been in some very strange places. Because people look at me, and they think, he's harmless.
Does that sort of sneaking around ever backfire?
Well, I've been shot at a few times.
One time in Jamaica, a manager came in and put a gun in my face and threatened me. And I just said, "Do it. Pull the trigger."
Did he really need that kind of provocation?
Well, he put the gun down.
That was lucky.
Because it confused him. He didn't know what to do then. He was really expecting me to crumble and beg. But it was a chance—I took that gamble.
Speaking of unhinged men with guns, your Basement 5 albums were produced by Martin Hannett, who of course famously tried to shoot Tony Wilson...
Oh my God, what an absolute genius. One day he said to me, "You know, Dennis, one day they will give away magazines and newspapers!" I mean, his biggest problem was the drugs.
When you were in the Basement 5, what was the reaction of the black audiences who went to see you?
They hated us. They kept expecting us to be a reggae band! I used to have a mohican, and when black people saw me, they'd cross the street because they just thought I was an absolute lunatic.
Basement 5 also signed to Island Records at the same time as U2.
Yeah. They used to support us. They used to watch us from side of stage. Now, our guitarist, we called him JR. He used to wear a cowboy hat. Played a Gibson Flying V. I used to climb up on the PA and do all of that stuff that Bono did. Beware of the support band!
Your next project, drum 'n' bass group Urban Shakedown, was signed to Paul Weller's label. Then, by the late 80s, you were doing a rap thing. Are you good at spotting a gap in the market?
I was just exploring the avenues of a certain amount of success. The first Sex Pistols photo book, for instance, Bollocks, I published myself. Because I went to Virgin, and the guy who was the head of books said: "Oh, punk's finished." So I did it myself. I made it square, the same size as an album, so you could rack it with your records. I printed 2000. And for the first week, I had 2,000 books stacked in my house. Then, boom, they all went. It just flew. So all these things, I had to find a way to market myself.
You've been shooting the band Skinny Girl Diet today. Why did you want to work with them?
I've worked with a lot of female bands. L7. The Slits. I love that look. I love that energy.
What other things are you up to at the moment?
I've revived my music again. I've been working with Billy Morrison, who is Billy Idol's guitarist, and one of the Queens of the Stone Age, and Twiggy Ramirez from Marilyn Manson's band, and we've just done a track, working under the banner of D5.
Within the breadth of what you've done, what one bit do you consider your legacy? What single thread do you want to leave the planet with?
It's very difficult to say. I have certain people totally in love with my music. For some people, it's the reggae side. Others, it's the punk side. The reportage stuff. In Japan, they call me "Living Legend."
Sorry, why do they call you that?
Oh man, in Japan, it's like Beatlemania when I step off the plane...
But a polite, respectful Beatlemania.
So, um, to get back to the question, what's your legacy?
It's very difficult for me. Someone asked me the other day what do I do—I said "I shoot people. You know American Sniper? I'm Jamaican Sniper. I shoot people. The phone rings. I pick it up. I pack my bags. I shoot people. I come back."
Dennis Morris: PiL—First Issue to Metal Box is showing at the ICA in London from March 22 to May 15.
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