‘We had the same brain’ – how Pennie Smith turned the Clash into icons

She photographed the biggest stars. But it was the Clash she clicked with. Pennie Smith relives their first explosive US tour – and reveals how she took ‘rock’s greatest photo’

Pennie Smith was standing less than six feet away when Paul Simonon, bass-player with the Clash, smashed his guitar to pieces on stage at the Palladium in New York. She’d been on the road with the band for two weeks, photographing their first US tour, but she’d always stayed on the other side of the stage, next to lead guitarist Mick Jones.

That night, to mix it up, she switched sides and remembers Simonon suddenly spinning toward her. “He was in a really bad mood,” she says, “and that wasn’t like him.” She took a step back to get a better focus with her 35mm Pentax – and then all hell broke loose. Simonon, seething, raised his Fender Precision like an axe, turned his back to singer Joe Strummer, and brought it crashing down. “It wasn’t a choice to take the shot,” Smith says. “My finger just went off.”

The photograph immortalised Simonon’s rage in grainy black and white. It was an emotional response, he later said, to a stiff New York audience that sat all night in their seats and didn’t move. “You can’t really tell it’s Paul,” says Smith. “But I guess that’s the point.”

On the tour bus the next day, Strummer chose the image for the cover of London Calling, the 1979 album that was to prove the Clash’s masterpiece – an exuberant outcry that is still regarded as one of the greatest, most influential albums of all time. Its slick mix of punk, reggae, blues and rockabilly – with lyrics Strummer rarely bettered – has been cited by everyone from U2 to Springsteen, Nirvana to the Beastie Boys, as a seminal moment. “They’re the band that changed everything,” Chuck D recently said, revealing that Public Enemy set out to be a rap equivalent of the Clash.

‘It’s a bit of a weight around my neck’ … the album cover with Smith’s shot.
‘It’s a bit of a weight around my neck’ … the album cover with Pennie Smith’s shot. Photograph: Sony Music/Pennie Smith

Smith’s image became an iconic snapshot of the era – and of something larger. In 2002, Q magazine named it the greatest rock’n’roll photo of all time, capturing the ultimate moment: total loss of control. Yet at the time, Smith had railed against it. “I said, ‘It’s completely out of focus, it won’t work!’ But Joe wouldn’t have it. He said, ‘That one is the photo.’ So I thought, ‘OK, I’m not going to argue. It’s your bloody album, get on with it.”

Smith thinks its enduring appeal is down to the feeling of “adolescent angst” it captured. “It could be anybody when they lose their rag,” she says. “I’m pleased I took it, but it’s a bit of a weight around my neck. It keeps coming back to whack me on the back of the head – nicely in some instances, but aggravatingly in others.”

Smith is in her London office, which doubles as a secondhand bookstore. It’s part of an old converted railway station, the now defunct Osterley and Spring Grove tube stop on the Piccadilly line. Downstairs, you can still see the deserted platform. “I’ve been here for ever,” she says. “It’s just really nice and quiet.”

Smith isn’t a fan of interviews but she’s speaking because it is now 40 years since the Clash released London Calling, and the Museum of London is hosting an exhibition, centred on Smith’s photos. One of the most prolific rock photographers of the past half-century, Smith has shot everyone from Bowie to Blondie, the Rolling Stones to the Stone Roses, but she rarely exhibits her work. She doesn’t see the point. “They’re a faff to do,” she says, “and there’s too much ego involved.”

‘Just a quiet day’ … guitarist Mick Jones in New York, 1979.
‘Just a quiet day’ … guitarist Mick Jones in New York, 1979. Photograph: Pennie Smith

But she made an exception for the Clash. “Paul, Mick, Tops and me are all big history nuts,” she says. Tops is drummer Topper Headon, who was given that first name by the band due to his resemblance to Mickey the Monkey in the Topper comic. In fact, Smith talks about the Clash as if they’re her brothers: for a rollercoaster seven years, that’s how it felt. “We had the same brain set,” she says. When Strummer died suddenly in 2002, Smith was one of the first people to be called. “It was just horrible,” she recalls.

Smith doesn’t want to talk about that and discussing her work isn’t something she feels comfortable with either. One of the reasons she’s got on so well with bands, she says, is because she doesn’t talk much. She doesn’t tell tales. But she does take me back to the beginning: the Clash playing the Royal College of Art in London.

It was November 1976 and Smith was 27. As a freelance photographer working for the NME, she’d been asked to cover the gig. She remembers having flu and not feeling up to it. Something made her change her mind, she says – instinct perhaps. So she turned up – snivelling – at the band’s dressing room, took photos for 10 minutes, then beat it. She didn’t bother with the gig.

Flu or no flu, that was Smith’s trademark. She was never particularly into rock music, still isn’t. What she liked to capture – ironically, when you think of her most famous shot – were “the quiet moments away from the stage”. Her first job at the NME was a photoshoot of Alice Cooper. Not only did she know nothing about “the godfather of shock rock”, she had never even opened a music paper. “I didn’t know that bands did formal lineups like football teams,” she says.

Backstage moment … drummer Topper Headon on the US tour.
Backstage moment … drummer Topper Headon on the US tour. Photograph: Pennie Smith

Instead, she shot Cooper drinking a cup of tea and the NME loved it, printing the pictures in full, uncropped. It chimed with a new era in the paper’s history and Smith was at its heart. “Everyone was told to go out on the streets, hunt down what moved them, and write about it, take pictures of it. It didn’t pay very well, but we loved it. Everybody was getting a buzz off everything.” She was soon doing the cover shots almost every week.

Smith had a similar problem with U2, who also asked her to be their permanent photographer. “I walked into the room, did one shoot, and it felt like there was a glass wall between us. It just didn’t work out. They stood against a wall. I took pictures and they looked like people standing against a wall. I couldn’t get anything going mentally or physically with them.”

As for Morrissey, she recalls a disagreement they had over a magazine shoot. Smith always used black and white but, at the singer’s request, shot a roll of colour. Morrissey complained he didn’t like the images because “it looked like he was wearing too much make up”. The photos were never published in the magazine, but they later appeared on the cover of his new single.

‘A bit pissed off’ … Simonon on the US tour.
‘A bit pissed off’ … Simonon on the US tour. Photograph: Pennie Smith

She recalls a fall-out with Debbie Harry, too. The Blondie singer was furious when Smith turned up unexpected at a video shoot in London. The situation eased later that night, however, when Smith shot the singer lying on her bed, arms around guitarist and then boyfriend Chris Stein. “Those worked out a treat,” she says.

The Clash wanted to meet her: she thinks the Royal College of Art gig was a sort of test. Straight after it, Strummer rang and asked if she’d take more pictures. “I’d passed,” she says. Smith photographed the band regularly after that, and they gelled in a way she had never experienced with other groups.

The right profile … Smith on a bullet train in Japan, photographed by Strummer.
The right profile … Smith on a bullet train in Japan, photographed by Strummer.

She was also working with the Jam and, at one point, they asked her to go full-time. But Smith found Paul Weller and his band too self-conscious in front of a camera. They were like stiff cardboard cutouts posing at a wedding. “They stood like Englishmen,” she says, “shoulder to shoulder in every photo.” The Clash, by contrast, were “tactile”. They seemed more at ease and had “better shapes”. They’d hug each other, grab each other’s shoulders, fool around. She still prefers to shoot bands like that. “They’re usually slightly artsy, definitely non-conformers. I just need some emotion.”

There were never any bad times with the Clash, though. The band made her laugh constantly – and when she raised her camera they trusted her completely. “That’s why it worked.” So when Strummer asked her to go to America, she didn’t think twice. By then she was established as a star photographer at the NME and needed a new challenge.

Reams have since been written about her London Calling shot (“Jackson Pollock and Willem De Kooning live again in this cover,” said one critic), but it is other photos from that trip that rank among Smith’s favourites. There are the ones she took of Simonon: smoking in a scrapyard, and sitting in a car looking “a bit pissed off”. She also mentions capturing Jones standing by a lamppost in a wet New York. “Just a quiet day,” she recalls. “It was amazing sitting on that bus and watching America uncurl before you.”

Clampdown … Strummer stopped at customs.
Clampdown … Strummer stopped at customs. Photograph: Pennie Smith

Simonon had put together tapes of tracks tailored for the approach to each new city, ranging from rock and reggae to rockabilly and ska, music that would feed into London CallingThe first port of call was always a thrift store, where the band would pick up hats, clothes and stuff for shows. They didn’t have stylists, like today’s bands, says Smith. They did everything themselves. “It’s all so manicured and safe now,” she says. “There’s no spontaneity or danger. I think people should be grubbier, get a few more germs, get out and explore.”

Our conversation drifts back to that night in New York 40 years ago. After the show, Simonon gave Smith his watch, its glass face now shattered. He knew the strap on her own watch was broken and he thought she could replace it with his. She still has the watch today, its hands frozen at 10 to 11. The museum asked if they could have it for the exhibition, but Smith said no. She’s not sure why – something to do with it being too personal, more poignant than the photo even, which doesn’t feel like hers any more.

Maybe save it for the 50th anniversary, I suggest, 10 years from now? “We’ll all be dead by then,” she says. “Why do you think they’re doing all this now?”

• The Clash: London Calling is at the Museum of London, from 15 November.

Source: ‘We had the same brain’ – how Pennie Smith turned the Clash into icons | Photography | The Guardian

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