Local Heroes - Dennis Morris
No heroes come more local than Dennis Morris. His photographic legacy is iconic, shooting world famous musicians including Bob Marley, The Sex Pistols and The Stone Roses, but his graphic work and creative direction for Public Image Limited was years ahead of its time and far less documented. As we continue our focus on London, and with the 50th Anniversary of Notting Hill carnival this weekend, we caught up with Dennis to talk growing up in the East End, befriending Bob Marley and that Jamaica trip.
GH: You were born in Jamaica but moved to London, when did you move? Were you part of the windrush generation?
DM: No that was before me, I was like the second generation I think. I moved to London in the early 60s.
GH: How did you end up moving?
DM: I came over with my mother. I never actually knew my father so we came over and stayed with my uncle in Hackney when we first came over. It wasn’t really a matter of choice it was literally where we were, kind of, placed! But Dalston, Hackney and all of that area was completely different to what it is now, it was almost like a no go land. If you were out in the West End and you wanted a taxi to go into Hackney, you know, there was no way they would take you. It was always a long walk back!
GH: The history of ethnic diversity in London is fascinating. You’re currently out in LA, racial tensions in the US seem quite different to the UK, what is you’re perception of that in the UK now?
DM: When I was growing up in London’s East End, I mean, the racial scenario was pretty heavy. Realistically though, I tried to explain to somebody once that, back in the day when I was growing up, it wouldn’t have been rare to have a black skinhead gang. It was all about the music as such; because what you have to remember is that the whole skinhead movement when it originally started was a love of Ska music. It was never really a NF thing or a racial scenario in that sense. So if you grew up in an area like I did in Hackney, where there was a really big, strong West Indian community as well as a white community, if you had a love of music and fashion and style, you know, you’d have black guys with white guys with skinheads.
Realistically when you grew up in the East End whether you’re black or white, you’re all in the shit! It was pretty tough, but the one thing I always remember was that everybody was always smiling. There was always a feeling of optimism, a sense of you know, couldn’t wait for the weekend! Not just to get drunk, I think that’s a generational thing, but we couldn’t wait to celebrate. Now it’s about getting wasted because no one wants to be aware of the shit that they’re living in.
GH: If you think about your involvement with the music scene, with Basement 5, and Post Punk, a lot of the songs were about a dystopian future and these sorts of topics. Do you think it’s panned out how you imagined it back then?
DM: Erm, I mean realistically now it’s like luxury squalor, if you know what I mean! All these high-rise buildings and whatever. Traditionally the east end was markets, selling fruit and vegetables, and you had all the sweat shops and there was always lots of rats. So if you build these new high rise flats etc. then that’s not going to change anything. The foundations are still there if you see what I’m saying. So the people coming into the area, have nothing to do with the area, and unfortunately a lot of people that were in the area are gone. To be honest, to some extent we lost the plot and never did enough with the area when we had it, as ‘our area’. But I would say that everything was working against us, and we got pushed out, so in the end we are not representative of the area anymore.
People always say to me oh, do you still live in the East End? When you live in the shit, all you wanna do is get out of it! You don’t wanna go back to it. It was an area that really was very depressed and deprived, but we were a very very tight community amongst ourselves, black and white. When you’re growing up, what you’re doing is striving to get out of the area. People tell me I don’t sound like I’m from the East End, that I don’t have a cockney accent. Let me put it this way, growing up, the one thing you tried to do if you wanted to get yourself a good job, is to not speak with a motherfucking cockney accent! I grew up in that area in a time when it was really heavy, but you get people now coming from Chelsea, Kensington, and putting on a cockney accent because it’s trendy!
GH: What was it like when you first got that break with Bob Marley?
DM: The thing with Bob was something that was, for me, inevitable in some ways. Not because I was looking for Bob or anything like that, but it was what I always used to do. I was committed to being a photographer, and I was committed from an early age. When I was nine I saw a photograph being printed and I knew from that moment on that was it. For me that was such a magical process. I think one of the problems now with people going into photography is that they’ve never actually developed a film or printed a photograph. A lot of people start digitally, but unless you do that process you don’t really fully understand it and realize just how magical it is.
I would forever be walking around with a camera, trying to find good pictures and trying to emulate photographers who I have been influenced by like [Henri] Cartier-Bresson, who is a master of reportage. He was one of my influences, so I would just walk around with my camera looking for pictures, because that’s what he did. He looked for those moments, so I was always doing that.
I would always read magazines and I read that Bob was coming over, so I went down to the club, the Speak Easy club, and waited. When he turned up I asked if I could take his picture, and he said ‘yeah mon, come in!’. So I went in, took pictures and he started telling me about the tour and asked if I would like to come along. The very next day I met them at the hotel and jumped in the van. In those days they only had like a Transit van, and there’s a very famous picture of him where he’s looking round and I’m sitting in one of the seats behind and he says to me ‘are you ready Dennis’, and I went ‘click, yep!’
A lot of people ask me whether it was strange but it wasn’t really, we built up a friendship over the years. I think once he saw those pictures of mine he also realized that I saw what he was trying to portray. Because, for me, looking back on it now I realize that he was one of the first Jamaican musicians to really understand the power of imagery. When he saw those images of mine, he knew I got it. None of my images of him were ever taken in a photo studio, they were all natural, and in a room together, talking, smoking.
GH: Moving onto PIL, Punk had quite a definitive image, whereas Post Punk seems to be this unknown thing that is quite hard to define for a lot of people. What were you looking to in terms of reference points at that time?
DM: I think it was hard to define because it never really had any sort of leadership in that sense. It didn’t have a clear-cut figurehead such as Blur and Oasis with Britpop or the Pistols with punk. One of the problems with the punk movement for me was that it was very fractured and there was no unity. We all hated each other, you know! If you were in the Pistols camp, you didn’t want to be seen talking to someone from the Clash camp for example. Although saying that, the true masters of the two movements, Bernie Rhodes and Malcolm McLaren, they were very good friends and in some ways they were just playing us all off against each other, you know.
I think what happened with PIL was that after I left it lost direction. Purely because, a lot of it was artistic and creative, from the music itself through to the visuals, I did the logo and the album covers. I’m not just saying that to blow my own trumpet, even [Jah] Wobble has said that himself. The Sex Pistols was Malcolm’s brainchild, literally. It was Steve Jones and Paul Cook’s band, John got involved with the band but the creative input for the band was really coming from Malcolm and Vivienne [Westwood]. They were the creative force, and I think what happened with PIL was once me and Jah Wobble left, that was it really. By that happening, I think the movement probably never got to where it could’ve got to. The Spandau Ballet’s and Duran Duran’s took a lot from the ideology of Public Image Limited, the glossiness of it.
GH: Were you involved in the styling at all at that time?
DM: Well no there was this guy called Kenny McDonald, who had a shop down the King’s Road and he was really pioneering the zoot suits and all that, he was really cool. What I did was the visual identities, so the album covers and concepts, the logo of course and all the creative things.
GH: How did the famous 1978 trip to Jamaica with Johnny Rotten and Richard Branson come about?
DM: Virgin were looking to get into Reggae music and I got a phone call from Richard to meet up with him and Simon Draper, the head of A&R at Virgin at the time. The idea was that I would go to Jamaica with Richard and when he signed musicians I would take pictures for album covers and promo material etc. I said it would be great if we took John [Lydon], he’d just left the Sex Pistols, just got back to London and didn’t really know what to do with himself. A few weeks later the three of us were on a plane to Kingston. One of the things I will always remember is when we first arrived and stepped out of the airport, there were a group of Rasta’s and they looked up and saw John and shouted ‘Johnny Rotten, god save the Queen Mon!’. We knew we were going to be cool, you know. I had a very good connection in Jamaica through knowing Bob and from previous trips, and that’s one of the reasons why Richard asked me, because I knew all of the musicians out there. There’s a very famous shot of John and Big Youth in Big Youth’s place.
People say to me all the time, ‘have you got a shot of you and Bob Marley? ‘. I don’t have one because I don’t need one, because I took the shots of Bob Marley! I don’t do that shit, you know? But some people make a career out of that. My pictures speak for themselves; it’s as simple as that.
GH: Is it true that Malcolm McLaren sent people to watch on John Lydon, because they had a notoriously big fall out at that point didn’t they?
DM: Yeah a guy called Boogie was out there and was filming. We caught him and threw him in a swimming pool with a camera! That was the end of the footage. That trip was brilliant, a real adventure, and that trip is where John literally put together Public Image Limited.
GH: So obviously this weekend is Notting Hill Carnival’s 50th anniversary, how involved were you in the Carnival?
DM: The carnival was something that every West Indian, any black person as far away as Birmingham, Hull, you know, descended on. When Carnival was on, everybody descended on there, it was a way for us all to reconnect; relatives, friends that were far flung across the British Isles. For me, every carnival was a way for me to hook up with people from Brixton and across London that I hadn’t seen for a while. I don’t go to the carnival anymore, because now it’s a corporate thing. Back then, it was pretty difficult to get the carnival up and running, and then we had all the troubles that went along with it, you know.
GH: Am I right in thinking that back then every area had sound systems? I guess now the only place you really find these sound systems is at Notting Hill rather than all over London…
DM: It doesn’t anymore because of the way London is now. What the sound system represented was a way for we as West Indians to gather and communicate. House parties in that sense! Now you couldn’t have that kind of scenario because all of the noise violations etc. When the sound system was really kicking off when I was growing up, every Friday and Saturday you’d have the sound system out but when the police came you would always just say it was somebodys birthday or somebodys wedding, you know! We did have a lot of weddings, a lot of christenings [laughs]. We got away with it but they started wising up, and that was the clamp down. It was the noise thing, because back in those days, buildings would shake man. You would hear it from miles away.
GH: Your pictures have become so iconic and almost mythical, do you ever feel that they’ve become something that doesn’t represent how you remember it?
DM: Being honest with you, every single shot that I’ve ever taken of Bob I can remember the moments. Literally the conversation, I can remember the vibe, the excitement to go back and develop the film, look at the negatives and see that I’d got it! They were such exciting moments to be around him. A lot of the shots I took of him, some of the most iconic shots, are either one frame or no more than six. It was a very fast moving situation and Bob was like that. I got to understand him and he understood me, so he was very relaxed with me if I was ever in a room because I would never turn to him and say ‘oh Bob could you do this or do that’ or ‘sorry Bob I missed that can you do it again’. For me it was about reading the situation and when the moment came, take the shot and put the camera down. I was never intrusive. The camera I used was very important too, a Leica, it was virtually silent.
GH: Well it still exists today in exactly the same way because it’s easier to get access to an iPhone etc.
DM: Well one of the things I have a big problem with in that way is also to do with the copyright of my work. So many people seem to think they can just take my photographs and make t-shirts, posters and literally put their name to it. It’s like eh? Actually no!
GH: Where does that line end, where or when does it become public domain so to speak?
DM: People say to me all the time that it’s flattering, because it shows how successful the work is and how successful you are. But it’s not flattering at all because obviously I’m not making a penny out of it, you know, I’d be flattered if I was making a lot of money out of it! I think it was Joe Strummer or Mick Jones that said ‘I’ll tell you what a sell out is, a sell out is when all the tickets for the concert have sold, that’s a sell out!’.
GH: Malcolm McLaren would often talk about counter culture having a legacy, and a lineage. What do you think your legacy is or the legacy of your work?
DM: Well, there’s the things that I’ve done that people think they know, but then if you dig deeper there’s a hell of a lot of things I’ve done that you don’t know anything about. My legacy is a continual journey of discovery if you spend time and look deeply into my work and my creative process.
GH: Thinking of all these amazing people you’ve photographed, The Sex Pistols, L7, The Stone Roses…do you have a favourite photo?
DM: They’re all my babies, honestly I can remember every single moment. The Stone Roses book was such a great movement, such a great moment doing all those things together. The thing about that was that I never did anything with the pictures, I just loved what they were about. When you see the photos in the book of Spike Island, it was an absolute disaster in terms of a gig. The sound was diabolical, but it was a success in terms of it was the first Woodstock of that generation. It was the first time a band had really pulled off doing anything on that scale on their own without big promoters. The Pistols, it was chaotic and people thought they couldn’t play but they really could. Again it was part of the scheme of Malcolm. Bob Marley was a god send, we were all ready to kick off until Bob came along, you know, and there’s many other bands I’ve worked with that were far more under the radar that I will never forget and provide some of by best pictures too. For me, it’s not just about the music side of things, it’s about the social side, not just in England but in Africa, China, Australia, because that is the stuff that’s really really important to me.
Follow Dennis on Instagram @dennismcevoymorris / All images Copyright Dennis Morris