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Dennis Morris: Photographing Post-punk and Multicultural London

‘The photographer was born in Jamaica in 1960 and grew up in Dalston, east London; he was given a Leica camera and taught darkroom techniques by a patron of his local church’

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Dennis Morris, John Lydon photographed for proposed Public Image Ltd Metal Box cover, 1979. Courtesy: Dennis Morris

Dennis Morris, John Lydon photographed for proposed Public Image Ltd Metal Box cover, 1979. Courtesy: Dennis Morris

There is hardly a stare like it in the history of photographed performance, let alone pop music. A certain mordant look about the eyes was essential, accidentally or not, to the taunting, exasperated (and, in the end, self-limiting) persona that John Lydon projected in the late 1970s. The photographer Dennis Morris captured that stare many times: in the intimate shots he took as the Sex Pistols’ preferred photographer; in the Vogue-slick, facetious imagery he contrived for the first album by Lydon’s post-punk enterprise, Public Image Ltd (PiL). But, as the current exhibition of Morris’s work with PiL at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts shows, he and the singer were keen to stamp a new mood when it came to the second album, Metal Box (1979). In a series of portraits never used for the album or attendant marketing, the Lydon gaze is obscured by sunglasses, the wan planes of his face sink into surrounding dark, and he’s haloed by rings of rainbow lens flare. It all amounts to an apt visual counterpart to the sonic vortex of the album.

Morris had been photographing Lydon and his milieu since the Sex Pistols signed to Virgin Records in May 1977. The photographer was born in Jamaica in 1960 and grew up in Dalston, east London; he was given a Leica camera and taught darkroom techniques by a patron of his local church. He swiftly earned a reputation as a wedding photographer, but he also documented the sound systems that provided the music for Hackney ‘blues’ dances: outfits like Admiral Ken, Count Shelly and Chicken the Thunderstorm. The multicultural London out of which Morris’s work (and the music he loved) emerged was then under violent threat. Inspired by the history of reportage that he read about in the pages of Amateur Photographer magazine, Morris began photographing the Sikh community in Southall: the site in the mid- and late 1970s of many racist attacks by far-right groups. Inadvertently, Morris later realized, he photographed the local council’s practice of bussing Asian pupils to schools remote from their neighbourhoods.

In his mid teens, Morris hung around the venue of one of Bob Marley’s first London concerts until Marley invited him on tour; the pictures he took later convinced Lydon (a reggae fan of long standing) that here was a young photographer he could trust. When the Pistols collapsed as a creative concern in 1978, Morris convinced Virgin boss Richard Branson to take Lydon with them on an A&R jaunt to Jamaica. And when Lydon subsequently holed up in his house at Gunter Grove in Chelsea, plotting his next move, Morris was there to document the speeding, boozy, dub-soaked atmosphere out of which PiL would issue.

The modest ICA show is a reminder of how much of the visual texture and graphic ethos of early PiL was Morris’s doing. He was responsible for abbreviating the band’s name and inventing the logo that Lydon still uses for PiL today, countless personnel changes and sub-par releases later. Morris set-designed the group’s first promo film, for the single ‘Public Image’: Lydon mimes to his muezzin wail and performs his Bryan-Ferry-drinks-Red-Stripe dance against a black plastic backdrop inspired by a fake seascape in Federico Fellini’s Casanova (1976). When the band played their first UK concerts – at London’s Rainbow Theatre, Christmas 1978 – Morris designed armbands and backstage passes, saturating every aspect of the PiL image with mock-corporate identity.

Morris’s best-known contribution, though, is to the packaging, and most of the surrounding ephemera, for Metal Box. The band’s sound had by then coalesced – but briefly – into a stentorian groove of darkling intensity, with Lydon’s anxious whine getting lost among caverns of bass and sharp mineral deposits of guitar and synth. (For an indication of how far PiL could strain this sound, beyond even the album’s ambitions, seek out their renditions of ‘Poptones’ and ‘Careering’ for the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test on the 5 February 1980.) Morris’s photographs of Lydon, sunglassed and implacable in the dark, were made for an initial vision of the album cover. It was the photographer who suggested instead housing the album – actually three 12-inch 45s, which better served the band’s bass-heavy sound – in a metal film canister stamped with the PiL logo: an austere affront to the hectic visual style of punk, by now degraded and tiresome to all concerned.

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Public Image Ltd, Metal Box, 1979. Courtesy Dennis Morris

Public Image Ltd, Metal Box, 1979. Courtesy Dennis Morris

The grim promise of Metal Box was quickly traduced: bass player Jah Wobble quit the group, guitarist Keith Levene gave in to coarsening addiction and, within a few years, Lydon had squandered everything hard won on his greatest record. Morris, meanwhile, had essayed his own sort of musical futurism, joining and steering a dub-inflected band called Basement 5: sometimes crassly referred to as ‘the black PiL’. As frontman, Morris exercised something of the same artistic control over Basement 5 as he had with PiL: with their white overalls and ski goggles they looked like the missing link between A Clockwork Orange and Afrika Bambaataa. Their one album, 1965–1980 (1980), and its ancillary dub remixes were produced by Martin Hannett and put out by Island Records, where Morris was now art director. On the dub versions especially, Basement 5 sound extraordinarily prescient, surveying a territory – triangulated by rock, electro and reggae – that would be excavated later by artists as diverse as Bad Brains, AR Kane and Tricky.

By the mid 1980s, Morris’s vision of the rock group as thoroughly designed entity, as art project and corporation in one, had become the norm – an idea rehearsed ad nauseam by New Pop entryists (Heaven 17) and endearing chancers (Sigue Sigue Sputnik) alike. But Morris, whose photographic career has flourished under all manner of later musical dispensations, had done something with PiL that could not be repeated. Reviewing Metal Box for the NME in 1978, Angus MacKinnon wrote: ‘Lydon is still the crustacean, all pink and squiggling beneath the outer shell.’ That shell had been fashioned, in some part at least, by Morris, whose images, designs and general attitude to the band’s self-presentation allowed them briefly and brilliantly to turn in on themselves, long enough to frame the howling void of Metal Box.

Brian Dillon’s latest book is Essayism (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017). He teaches critical writing at the Royal College of Art, London, UK.

Issue 179

First published in Issue 179

May 2016
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