My Musical Journey
“If music be the food of love, play on!”
My father was never really a fan of ‘pop’ music, but could often be heard in our ‘posh’ sitting room (the one with the piano) listening to Beethoven or Brahms, or even classical guitar performances by Julian Bream, or John Williams, while the rest of the family were in the TV sitting room watching Top of The Pops.
It was not then a surprise to find myself aged nine in a concert hall on the south coast of England awaiting a performance of Edvard Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite (1875), and looking forward to the 4th part, In the hall of the mountain king, better known to school children around the world as ‘Peter & the Wolf’. My mother preferred Cliff Richard, the English Elvis, who was handsome, could sing, but had slightly less dangerous hips.
The night watchman at the pharmaceutical factory where my father was a chemist often popped over on the weekend to smash some Rachmaninoff off on our normally sedate upright piano. This I found to be very invigorating!
My love of classical music at this time led to me learning to play the violin and piano and spending my pocket money on my first ever vinyl record, Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 14 in C♯ minor, popularly known as the Moonlight Sonata. However, my love of classical music ground to an abrupt halt the moment I discovered the Beatles. My piano teacher was quite disturbed when I turned up with a copy of The Beatles song book and told her I now wanted to learn ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ and ‘When I’m Sixty Four’, I’m not sure she ever recovered.
The musical landscape changed with the advent of Rock N Roll. While others like Bill Haley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry were pioneers, it was Elvis who dominated the hearts and minds (and pockets) of the newly minted teenager. Little Richard once said, “The blues had an illegitimate baby and we named it rock ‘n’ roll.” In fact, it was disc jockey Alan Freed who popularized the phrase “rock and roll,” which was apparently black slang for having sex. “Oh la la!”
The Beatles profited from the realization that writing your own songs meant more money for the group, or more specifically John and Paul. Eventually, George and Ringo cottoned on and managed to get a few tracks of their own onto later albums. George wrote twenty-two & Ringo only two. Lennon & McCartney wrote over 200 songs between them. To put that into context, Paul McCartney’s fortune was estimated at $1.2 billion in 2018 and Ringo’s at $350 million.
The Rolling Stones were influenced by the British Blues Boom of the late fifties and early sixties that also spawned Fleetwood Mac, The Kinks, The Animals and Led Zeppelin. The culture of guitar heroes led to ‘Clapton is God’ spray painted on brick walls and school bags across the country. While I appreciated his guitar ‘chops’ I was more influenced by Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac when I eventually swopped my violin for an acoustic steel string guitar. My collection of electric guitars didn’t arrive until I had my mid-life crisis. In NYC there is nowhere to safely park a Porsche.
My college years also saw a growing collection of Sinatra albums snuggling up against The Undertones. For most of these lovesick years, Frank at three O’ clock in the morning was the only way to go. Later, I discovered Tom Waits, a more fashionable alternative for late night listening, but I still have about 20 Sinatra albums cherished by all except a friend’s cat who used their cardboard spines to sharpen his claws. Frank had style and my dad’s 1962 black suit ‘borrowed’ from his wardrobe gave me confidence that I had some too. Especially when I found a pair of patent leather dance shoes in a charity shop and a small brimmed Trilby. This led me into my Ska and Reggae years. The late seventies and early eighties saw a rise in popularity of this music in England and around the world.
My older brother Stevie B joined an Art School Ska band called The Akrylykz in the late 1970s and I visited him for their regular gigs in Hull at The Wellington Club where they supported Madness, The Specials, The Clash and The Beat and joined the Rock against Racism movement. My brother played Keyboards & Saxophone, wrote lyrics and was one of the three singers in the band. They signed to Polydor for the release of their first two singles, and recorded the Black & Dekker album (1980) with the original Ska ‘Rude boy’ Desmond Dekker (who had earlier discovered Bob Marley, a fellow welder in Jamaica). Desmond went on Top of the Pops to perform his newly recorded version of The Israelites, but the Akrylykz were not invited. They broke up soon after due to musical differences within the band, and one of the other singers, Roland Gift, left to form Fine Young Cannibals with former The Beat bassist David Steele & guitarist Andy Cox.
Like most teenagers in England in the 1970s and 80s, Radio One DJ John Peel was our musical Messiah. We listened to the message and the music. It was through him that I first heard ‘Teenage Kicks’ by The Undertones, probably the best 2.28 minutes of musical angst ever written. It was such a great song Peel once played it twice in a row on his radio show, and the opening line ‘Teenage dreams, so hard to beat’ is engraved on his tombstone.
By the time that I became a professional photographer, my interest in music had moved on, and although I did photograph a few pop stars in London like Jason Donovan and Leee Johns’ Imagination, by the time I arrived in NYC in 1993, I had discovered Hip Hop and Rap. My first shoot for VIBE magazine ‘Hey there’s some white guy out here says he’s shooting for VIBE magazine’ was of KRS-One, followed by Salt N Pepa, Faith Evans and then Eve & Mobb Deep for The Source Magazine.
For the Faith Evans shoot, I taxied out to Fort Green, Brooklyn, to hang out at the crib of the Notorious B.I.G. Their daughter Chyna bounced on my knee and played with my crew while we waited four hours for Faith to have her hair and nails done. Me’Shell Ndegéocello was another favourite artist from this timeframe. Her 1993 album: Plantation Lullabies & 1999: Bitter are often on my playlist, especially in my car, and it was my portrait of her that made it into Rolling Stone magazine and garnered a phone call from Madonna’s people to my people to shoot her Bedtime Stories cover. Although, Patrick Demarchelier eventually got the job.
In 1997, I travelled down to Charlotte, North Carolina to photograph Pat Dinizio from The Smithereens who was working on an interesting jazz influenced solo album. He had brought together some of his favorite musicians for this shoot, so I was happy to find myself that warm spring morning in the presence of greatness. A stretch Limo picked me up from the airport and traveling in with the record Label executive, she was surprised to discover that I had never been to Krispy Kreme (which had not made it to New York at that time). The Limo driver on hearing this insisted that we go to the drive in Krispy Kreme and I bought two dozen on the way to the studio. I made myself very popular with the band when I arrived. Although, I think Pat was a bit upset that I was dressed almost identically to him on the day. Black sixties suit and pork pie hat. He went and changed his hat to a cap. First up in the studio was Sonny Fortune, who had played saxophone with Miles Davis before forming his own group on the Blue Note record label. I was so mesmerized by his playing that I didn’t want to disturb him with my camera. That hasn’t happened often in my career. Pat came up behind me and just whispered “Wow!” I nodded in agreement. Next arriving at the studio was Tony ‘Thunder’ Smith, who is best known for playing drums for Lou Reed, but also played for Jeff Beck and Serge Gainsbourg. Finally, one of my boyhood heroes, Jean-Jacques “JJ” Burnel, the bassist from The Stranglers strode in with his customary swagger,
dressed head to toe in black except for the TRIUMPH motorcycle logo emblazoned across his chest. It was the day of the UK elections when Tony Blair was elected. I never suspected that I would one day get to talk politics with a Strangler!
Working for the short-lived Blender magazine in 2001, I photographed The Neptunes (aka NERD) and their charismatic leader Pharrell Williams. They were producing Justin Timberlake, Brandy and Mystikal all at the same time at the Varick Street Studios, if memory serves. After the shoot, I managed to get Brandy to serenade me by the Coke machine with Justin singing harmonies, ‘This boy is mine’. Clive Davis dropped by to say ‘hello’ to them, and someone important called Pharrell while I was doing the shoot ‘Sorry, I have to take this – it’s Michael Jackson!’ Now that was a memorable day. Pharrell later sent me a copy of the Lap dance video (uncut). I will say no more about that.
On my return to Europe, I found myself in Paris photographing the enigmatic Soko. Her CD ‘I thought I was an alien’ is still one of my favorite listening pleasures. She came to fame in 2007 when she released ‘I’ll kill her’ on her myspace page (remember that?). I had been trying to photograph her for a while, but she was proving very elusive. Eventually, I booked another French singer for the shoot, the delightful Tamara Kaboutchek. She turned out to be one of Soko’s best friends and got her to come right over; two birds, one stoned. Soko called me a few weeks later and asked me to do another shoot, this time for Variety magazine, which I shot in a very Gothic park in the Marais.
It is always interesting to see how the way we consume music has changed. The earliest known recording in 1860 was of a French girl singing “Au Clair de la lune” made by a Frenchman called Edouard-Leon Scott de Martinville.
Edison’s phonograph in 1877 made music a commercially profitable commodity, and after brittle cylinders and shellac discs eventually the vinyl record was introduced in the 1930s, but became commonplace by the 1950s, just in time for the Rock n Roll explosion. Since then we have been offered music in a variety of formats. My father had a reel-to-reel ¼ inch tape player, and in the car an 8 track cassette. This was soon followed by the smaller Digital Audio Tape (DAT) cassettes with Dolby sound in the early 1970s. Personally, I have never liked the sound quality of the CD, which I found thin and tinny, and I hated the skipping of the Sony Walkman. Because of the poor quality of the compressed digital download, I never took to this either, but I see the advantages of a streaming service like Spotify, which my girlfriend loves, but if I am listening to music at home then I have favorite Radio DJs whose shows are available as podcasts. Iggy Pop has a show on BBC Radio 6, which I listen to on a Friday evening if I am home, or during the weekend.
I am happy to see Vinyl making such a huge comeback, and even the DAT is having a revival. Vinyl sales in 2019 finally passed those of CDs and a huge number of those sales was for classical music, although the biggest selling Vinyl of 2018 was Artic Monkeys’ Tranquility Base Hotel & Casino. Millennials are discovering Vinyl in much the same way they are enjoying Polaroid or film cameras, Old is the new ‘New!’