John Ingham talks to us about photographing Billy Idol, Johnny Rotten, Joe Strummer and Siouxsie Sioux when they were fledgling musicians
A dark cloud swept across England in the mid-1970s, washing away the buoyant optimism of Swinging London. The bright promise turned bleak, as the recession pushed more and more people into unemployment. Couple this with strikes, power cuts, and IRA bombs, and the only fitting response was to burn the whole thing down.
More than music and style, punk was an attitude. It gave no fucks as it seized the moment and made its way out of the art schools and on to the world stage in 1976. Journalist John Ingham, who was writing for Sounds, conducted the first interview with the Sex Pistols and got hooked on the raw energy, soul, and nerve. He began covering the scene, which accelerated rapidly as punk ignited a movement across the U.K.
New bands like the Clash, the Damned, and Subway Sect began to appear – but no one was photographing them until Ingham picked up a camera. His photographs, which include the very first color pictures of punk, have been collected for the very first time in Spirit of 76: London Punk Eyewitness (Anthology Editions). Ingham reflects on what it was like to be in the front row of a wildfire.
What made you take notice of the burgeoning punk scene?
John Ingham: By 1975 the music scene felt really stagnant. Bowie had moved to New York, Roxy Music had become the Bryan Ferry Supper Club, and all the big stars were limp imitations of their former greatness. I decided to go looking for fresh artists who could properly pull rock and roll into the 1970s. When I saw the name “Sex Pistols” in the press I was electrified – it was the best band name in ages. When I saw them I was convinced. They were new, they had good songs, and they had Johnny Rotten. He was an A-bomb; I’d never seen anyone who barely knew how to be a frontman be so charismatic. I kept going back to see them and it just kept getting better.
Could you describe the moment you realised you had to photograph the scene?
John Ingham: For the first few months there was only the Pistols and they had their own photographer. Then it started exploding. When The Clash appeared I was an immediate fan. They were so electric on stage and I loved all the colour with their Jackson Pollock style. No one was taking photos and in the middle of one of their gigs I just decided to get a camera and start documenting it. Someone needed to.
“No one was taking photos and in the middle of one of their gigs I just decided to get a camera and start documenting it. Someone needed to” – John Ingham
Did you discover any connection between your work taking photographs, and how you later wrote about the artists and their music?
John Ingham: The words always came first. But taking photos forced me to get close to the stage and that made me see details that get lost if you’re standing 20 feet back. In that sense, it definitely influenced how I thought about what I was seeing.
Looking at your photographs is like paging through someone’s family album and going back to their early years. This is like punk’s baby photos: everyone looks so fresh, so clean – even innocent. How would you describe the “Spirit of 76”?
John Ingham: It’s exactly what the title says: London Punk Eyewitness. I wanted to document the moment. I was thrilled to be watching these bands at the very beginning of their careers, especially as they were so good. It was also very specific to London. I kept imagining that it must have been the same watching the very early Who in Shepherds Bush or Kinks and Yardbirds at the Marquee.
How would you describe the evolution of the scene during its first year?
John Ingham: When bands go from good to great it happens very rapidly. Often in just two or three gigs. Watching the Pistols move to “great” across three gigs and seeing the 100 Club getting more and more crowded each time they played, it felt very strongly that we were at the beginning of something big. People spoke very clearly about starting a new movement and a new force in music, separate from the past. That sense of being on a mission got stronger and stronger as the year progressed and more and more people kept showing up.
The first year was very “art school” – dressing “punk” was a matter of style. There was no one look but you knew if someone was a punk the second you saw them – I clearly remember the first time I saw a punk I didn’t know. It was very exciting! Women were treated as equals and it felt entirely normal that Siouxsie Sioux or The Slits should get up on stage and look as they did and make music that was their own instead of a man’s idea of what it should be. And being art school there was also quite a gay element, and that also fit well with the sense of being on a mission to somewhere new.
What do you think it was about 1976 that made punk take hold in London?
John Ingham: It was music to fit the times. Britain was in a quite terrible state in the mid-70s, politically and economically. The IRA was conducting a bombing campaign in England. Censorship still existed and you could easily feel the dead hand of the government – for example, (the film) Texas Chainsaw Massacre was banned for several years. (Which is why the Pistols are wearing those ‘I Survived’ stickers – it had just been released and they had gone to see it.)
Young people didn’t have jobs and if they did it was menial. Most people lived on unemployment benefit, which gave the musicians invaluable practise time! It was Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren who first articulated it and fed it to the group, and Clash manager Bernard Rhodes was even stronger in helping to shape The Clash’s worldview.
There are times I look back and think punks were the true hippies in that they called out the establishment and never sold out. What do you think it is about the punk ethos (or just the nature of true punks) that keeps them stay true to their roots?
John Ingham: Have you ever worked in a large corporation??! Punk was started by misfits who created an opportunity to carve out the future they wanted to have and by sheer force of will made it happen. Its success gave us the confidence to do what we wanted and be successful at it. I’m not sure it’s about staying true to our roots; it’s that we can’t imagine doing it any other way.
Looking back on 1976, what would you say is the most telling moment about the future of punk?
John Ingham: For me, there are two moments. “Anarchy In The UK” took a sharp look at the bleak world around young people and gave them a voice – surrounded by a really fabulous racket. The Clash took that idea and ran with it – both metaphorically and literally. I still think they were the best rock band I’ve ever seen.
Spirit of 76: London Punk Eyewitness is available from May 17, 2017 in bookstores and online from Anthology Editions