The purest, most authentic moment a music fan can experience is to be present at the inception of a sound. If you’re lucky enough to be the right age, in the right proximity and in the proper mindset when a genre of music first makes its mark, you may not initially recognize the magic unfolding. You feel the burst of energy, you hear the flow of creativity, you see the people, the style and the scene taking shape. Sometime later — when the sound explodes beyond its cocoon, reaching other ears in far-away places— you realize you were there when it all started.
Janette Beckman — an accomplished British photographer with a particular focus on music and youth culture — was a witness to more than one seminal musical evolution during her career. The first chapter begins in her home country in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when the nihilistic chaos of punk crossed paths with the soulful, West Indian flavors of two-tone and ska. Against a backdrop of economic hardship — essentially, in spite of it — several inspired musical movements blossomed in England. Thankfully Janette was there with her Hasselblad, preserving these unrehearsed, uncensored moments for posterity. (She later did the same with the nascent New York hip-hop scene, but that’s a story for another day).
I asked my friend Dante Ross — a renowned music producer, talent executive and cultural connoisseur — to sit with Janette at her Manhattan studio and capture the story behind some of her most iconic photographs. Janette and Dante share a passion for music and a penchant for the unexpected beauty that can rise from bona fide urban/youth rebellion. These seditious tastes shine thru in a wide-ranging conversation covering an essential period in music history, a volatile and exciting intersection of art, fashion and culture.
Public Image Ltd
Dante Ross: Look how young John Lydon is.
Janette Beckman: Look how funny Sid looks. I mean, just the whole thing. I remember the day, it was like typical London, slightly gray day. We were walking around by Hyde Park and they were like, “Oh, let’s jump in this dumpster!” So they jump in the dumpster and I take a picture, go to the next one and then they were like, “Oh, look at that old lady on the bicycle, we’ll push her off her bike! Ha, ha, ha, wouldn’t that be funny?” I mean, they were just goofing around. They were like 17, 18, 19-year-old guys, just out to have a good time. And then we spent the day wandering around London with them, taking silly pictures. And then we went and they were rehearsing obviously in this what we call Tin Pan Alley, it was this little tiny street at the back of Charring Cross. It was obvious that they weren’t really trained musicians… They just were kind of pretty crap, but it was punk so it didn’t really matter.
That was the point, kind of. Did you remain friends with them? Because I know you shot John Lydon a bunch of times. Explain this John Lydon photo [top image above] to me because he looks like a genius. What’s going on?
Sex Pistols were broken up, he’s got this new band now, PiL with Jah Wobble and Martin [Atkins] and I go around to his house. Actually, Vivien Goldman and I were working a story for Melody Maker and I remember all the ashtrays were full with cigarettes and joints. Everybody was drinking and it was a mess, so I figured I wasn’t going be be able to take a group shot. So I’d just go around, hanging out and I took a picture of Johnny with a gun. There were stuff all over the place and stuff written all over posters, there’s piles of shit everywhere and it was just crazy chaos and Vivien was trying to do her interview. Janet Lee was there trying to organize everybody and we decided to go to a pub. I remember Johnny pissing in a big pint of glass and that was just such a punk moment and foolishly, I didn’t have my camera and I probably wouldn’t have done it anyway because I’m too polite, but it was a punk moment like, “I don’t give a fuck, I’m drunk!” He’s got that fuck you look about him, doesn’t he? He had it, from the very beginning.
His eyes are always a little crazy.
PiL was just a fucking incredible band.
Sometimes I think they were cooler than the Sex Pistols.
I think they were. I don’t think the Sex Pistols were cool.
They sounded like Black Sabbath on glue.
I mean, they started something and they were kind of like the headliners with that whole kind of fuck you, fuck the Queen, fuck everybody and no future and all of that stuff, which was really…
It was important.
It was very important. That’s how London was, there was no future. There was no job for anybody, it was a dark and dreary country.
Being an American and being in the punk rock thing, probably 1979, 1980, I was waiting for something. I was like, “Led Zeppelin sucks, fuck Pink Floyd. What the fuck is going to happen?” There was Black music and not much else.
I mean, I was listening to my old Who records and I like Jimi Hendrix, but I remember seeing The Song Remains The Same with my pothead friends and going like, “This sucks, please save us!”
Something! We need a bit of a revolution. England was very dreary back in the ‘70s. The economy was terrible, people couldn’t get jobs, kids couldn’t get jobs.
New York was similar. It was lawless.
Well, that’s what’s so weird because when I came here in 1982, it was exactly the same thing — bad economy, kids rebelling, and it just had to happen. I mean, these guys, not solely, but they were there when the whole thing turned tits up and before that England has this whole class system thing going on where if you were born, and your father is wealthy, and you own a big fat house, and you go to Harrow, you’ll probably going to be prime minister at some point.
Yeah, and these guys aren’t probably going to get their…
Janette: They’re not going to get anywhere, their dad might be a cab driver. Nothing wrong with being a cab driver, but you know what I mean, it’s class system in England. And these guys, The Clash and all of those bands, they turned all that over and it was really a slap in the face for the whole of the English society, in my view.
So this might be your most iconic picture.
Yeah, however hard I try to escape this picture it just follows me everywhere and everybody goes, “You shot that?” and I have to admit I did.
Well, you know why because it doesn’t look as raw as some of the other photos. What album cover is that.
That is the cover for Outlandos d’Amour, it’s the first Police album cover. I’d been doing stuff for A&M Records, I shot Squeeze for them and I’d done a couple of other bands and the art director and he was like, “Oh, there’s this new punk band, do you want to do an album cover?” and it was going to be my first album cover so I was super excited and I went and I spent every single last penny I had on buying a Hasselblad because the album cover was square and I didn’t have a square format camera, I had the basic Hasselblad, and it was what I used for the next 25 years. I didn’t really know how to use it, but I just thought I’d figure it out. I went with the art director and we met these guys in Waterloo and we were going to shoot them in this tunnel and we wanted them to wear these American parachute suits, and I had bought a flying suit on my first visit to New York. Andy was a small guy who ended up with my flying suit. So it was just me, the art director and these guys and I had a flashgun and that was it. It was my first album cover. We ended up doing a whole load of publicity pictures outside and one of them posing against walls, one of them turned out to be the cover for the “Roxanne” single and I think they used the other ones for a bunch of 12-inch, 7-inch singles and those pictures were used everywhere. When I came to America later, I see them on posters and T-shirts and bubblegum wrappers and I’m like, “I guess I’m famous” thinking little about how Miles Copeland was taking advantage of me, I didn’t know. He just used my pictures on all the merchandising. That was okay, it was all great. And I was happy. That was my first album cover and they were just three punks.
Did you like their music?
I love “Roxanne” actually, still to this day. It’s a brilliant song.
First three albums are great.
“Message in a Bottle,” great track. I think I did, I really liked the music and they really weren’t punk at all.
They weren’t punk at all.
I don’t know what they were. They had a definite reggae vibe. Sting has a great voice, no doubt. That photo wasn’t even photoshopped.
And it looks photoshopped.
That’s the on camera flash thing, basically.
It looks like they’ve got makeup on.
They don’t, they really don’t. They do look a little post-punk.
And let’s keep it 100. Sting is a good looking guy.
That’s printed directly from the negative, I tell you.
It’s an iconic shot. You have a lot of iconic shots, but that might be the one.
These guys, this is The Specials. Tell me about this photo.
I was sent by Melody Maker to cover The Specials and they were on this thing called The Seaside Tour. Where was this? Southampton, I think. Anyway, we were all staying in this B and B and I was a massive fan of two-tone.
Two-tones were great, it was like dance music, it had soul, it had reggae…. It had punk, positive, it was fun, it was party music, the styles were great.
Yes, social message and these guys…
Kids looked cool. It was kind of tough too.
Yeah, it was tough. Doc Martens, the roadies were tough. I mean, I loved all those, I loved Madness, I loved all those bands. It’s like black and white mixing, always good.
Especially in England I think the racial dynamic is different than America.
Yeah, and I’ve been thinking about this recently. It’s probably because a lot of them came there because of the colonies. So they came to London from Jamaica, West Indies, India because they were colonies and they were allowed to come, whereas Black people in the US came as slaves. They were brought here, they didn’t want to be here and I think that’s probably why the dynamic really differs.
The blessing of growing up in New York is that we, because of it being a vertical city, it’s very hard to grow up in New York and remain a racist, because you are subjected to all kinds of people all the time. I think it’s one of the beauties of living in New York.
It’s really true.
So tell me about this. Terry Hall looks mad.
Terry was probably mad because it was early in the morning and raining, he didn’t want to be out there . Yeah, that’s Jerry in the check trousers and he’s got a Harrington jacket on. And the thing is, also, it mixed skinhead music and style too.
It really mixed all of the youth cultures at the time. I got my picture of Jerry, the day before, it made the cover of Melody Maker, there was an organ in this B and B in the so called ballroom, which was just some crappy room with some tables and chairs. So I got a picture of him playing the organ. He was just practicing and I snuck in there and got a picture of him. And then I had to get a group picture. Of course, we wake up in the morning and it’s raining because it’s England, it’s always raining even though it’s summer. So, “Guys, we have to go out and get this picture and I want to do it on the pier.” So I make them walk across the street and it’s not that far, but they were pissed off. It was the morning, they probably just had breakfast, they probably wished they weren’t up and I’m trying to line them up to take a picture and it’s raining, of course it’s raining, but I have to do it. So I got this picture as quickly as possible but it’s such as English picture to me.
Funny too, because a lot of punk stuff and two-tone music and music of that era didn’t age so well, but they aged great. They’re like a fine wine, their music gets better with time.
Well, I took this picture in Soho in London, where it was prostitute and sex shop neighborhood and I can’t remember why we chose that spot, but we were there and I had them lined up in front of this sex shop for some reason and this is what they did. They all jumped up in the air, fucking around and it’s a great shot. I actually never printed this until recently and I think it’s a hilarious shot, but I’d been on tour with UB40 before and it was kind of great because they would travel with their whole family wives, girlfriends, kids… It was a massive group, the roadies, and this and that and the other… I mean, I guess they were more reggae in a way than The Specials.
They were more like roots reggae. But they had their own thing, kind of soul too. Their first album Signing Off, that’s like incredible.
Yeah, they were amazing. Firmly working class and all the clothing.
You know, English bands had great style.
Yeah, and the thing is, it wasn’t like you needed money to dress like that.
You still don’t. I think style comes from within. You can wear the most expensive thing in the world and look like shit.
Exactly and these guys, they knew they had to take a photo and he’s wearing a Harrington jacket.
Harrington was big. It was the classic English thing. Harrington and like a Fred Perry you’re like in there.
Exactly. It was the skinhead look; it was the original skinhead look.
And a pair of Docs, which it looks like he has on.
Yeah, most people wore Docs. I wore Docs. I was probably wearing Levis and Docs when I took that picture.
So these guys, everyone knows who that is.
Tell me about this photo.
I was working for Melody Maker with the writer, Paolo Hewitt. We were really good friends and we got sent to Milan and we’re meeting The Clash.
What year is this?
This is 1980 or ’81 so Paolo, whose mother is from Italy was very excited. It was the first time he went to Italy because he was brought up in a foster home. We were supposed to meet them where they were playing in this bicycle stadium. And underneath this bicycle stadium was a cave serving as a dressing room.
Were they big yet?
Yeah, they were massive. Most people loved The Clash. So we walked into this cave and they were all there and they were all out of their fucking minds smoking hash. Like crazy smoking hash and I walked up and I’ve got to get individual pictures while Paolo is interviewing everybody. I take a picture of Mick Jones, he looks like he’s hanging off a meat hook. They were just out of it, and the roadie, Rat and they were giving me joints and I was smoking them and they’d been drinking and the atmosphere was just thick because of everybody being all out of it.
What’s that over his head?
It’s just a pot there in the back, we don’t even know. It’s just a weird thing. Paul’s holding a beer.
Paul looks like a model or something.
He does, he was unbelievably handsome. I was such a massive Clash fan. They were just about to get ready on stage and Rat comes up to me and says, “If you fuck me, I’ll get you any one of them you want.” And I’m like completely stunned and out of it and they go on stage. I’m following them, up the stairs and everybody in the audience had these Bic cigarette lighters lit and they were screaming. Joe goes to the mic and starts singing and I’ve got my Nikon camera and it’s not digital so I’ve got it pressed to my face. I was stoned, I started wandering into the middle of the stage to try and get closer to him and I hear this roadie going, “Get that woman off the stage!” So they came and dragged me back and I was halfway across the stage. It was embarrassing.
Don’t smoke with the band. Being on the road with a band, that’s a lesson I learned. You fuck everything up.
I got some of my favorite punk pictures that night.
It’s an amazing shot. What the hell is Mick Jones wearing?
A suit, because he’s an individual and a genius.
Always the dude who went the other way.
He knew what he wanted, he knew who he was and that was that.
They were like the stoniest punk band.
So, this is The Jam. So if anyone would be like, “Fuck off to stylists and hair and makeup and we’re just going to be the way we are and if we looked pissed off that’s going to be the case” — this is The Jam. I was doing a story with Paolo who actually went to school with Weller and they were good friends. They were recording somewhere in West London and I dragged them outside to get a cover shot for Melody Maker, obviously I had a thing for the metal siding stuff and I just quickly got the shot, Hasselblad. Weller is always looking elegant.
He’s got like a varsity jacket.
I love this, Rick is smoking.
And Bruce looks like he’s got a mullet and his pants are too tight. He doesn’t look cool.
They were one of the coolest bands around.
They never broke America. They were too English.
I think they didn’t want to come to America at all. They were like, “Fuck America” and also it was kind of an anti-money thing. They wanted to stay and be true to their roots.
So this is The English Beat…
…or what we’d just call The Beat. I love this picture and I was on tour with them somewhere in the wilds of the UK, they are using a shopping cart to carry their instruments into the Civic Center. They were such an iconic group…
What year? How old do you think they are?
’78, probably 19, 20.
The Beat lasted longer than anyone else and they had big success in America. That song “I Confess” was a huge hit. Pop record, they were an MTV band and probably sold the most records because of that song, it was kind of like a club record.
Boy George is a trip. I always heard he was one of the early punks in London. I feel with people like Sam Smith being popular nowadays that Boy Geroge really paved the way for the gay, blue-eyed soul singer. It’s funny how relevant he is right now ya know?
I knew Boy George and had heard his music — he was always around where I had my darkroom in Covent Garden. We had suggested him for a cover story for Melody Maker, the editors were a bit homophobic… umm did not want him on the cover. But Pye the writer and I insisted. I took the photo of him in the classic Vivienne Westwood squiggle T sitting on the ground in Notting Hill outside his record company. It made the cover and that week his first single went to #1 in the charts. For once MM was top of the charts too. There was always competition between us and the other three music papers.
So this is famous, iconic Deborah Harry.
I really love this picture The band was staying in Covent Garden Hotel. I went up to their room and Debbie was sitting in the window and I took this picture, daylight, no flash. I loved the fact that she looks so natural, a lot of her pictures she is wearing so much makeup, I guess it was 80s style.
I always liked the fact that she was pretty, but not too pretty.
Exactly and she looks delicate, beautiful.
What year you think?
I’ll take a look. He keeps asking me what year, I could kill him.
I like guessing, I’m going to say, ’80.
So she was famous already. “Heart of Glass” was featured in American Gigolo. They had “Call Me,” they were great. New York in the 80s.
Yeah, exactly, New York in the 80s. I hate to be corny, but when I first came here getting out of the train station at West 4th street, and I had that Stevie Wonder song “Living For The City” running through my head, when he says, “New York, just like I pictured it” and you hear the police sirens. It was hot, the street smelled like popcorn and piss, the guys playing basketball across the street... And after I had been here for a couple of months living down in Tribeca, on Franklin Street, right by the Mudd Club, dark alleys, there was nobody down there, the song changed to “The Message.” And friends would get mugged the whole time by “junkies in an alley, with a baseball bat.” It happens.
It’s funny you say that because I said this to a friend the other day. I said, “More people should get mugged so they know what New York is really fucking about!” Because these guys are walking around like it’s all sweet and like maybe they’d have some gratitude and humility if someone just worked them one day on Avenue C, instead of they went to a fucking fabulous cafe.
You know when I got here it really wasn’t like that.
No, and I try not to be bitter about it. Things change and you have to be adaptable, but you talked about getting off at West 4th street and smelling piss and popcorn.
Yeah, and there’s a homeless guy lying down. Now it’s head shops and gyros.
Right. Hey! You’ve got to smell it. I always say that. Great art, whether it’s literature or film or music, it has this visceral smell attached and New York doesn’t have that the way it once had. Stench is underrated.
There’s a dude walking down the street in a wild haircut. When I first came here, kids were walking around with beatboxes and…
Right, that’s the New York that doesn’t exist anymore, that’s the New York that I miss.
Me too, I hate to say it, but you know…
Yes, they do.