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.