legendary Photographer Derek Ridgers toast’s the 40th anniversary of punk; chats about his new book and what it was like being in the heart of london’s raucous scene
“1977 will happen again. 1977 is happening somewhere, for someone, right now.”
1977, most people blinked and they missed it. Many spent a decade trying to catch up it. Derek Ridgers stumbled across it by accident, where it was, in the beating filthy heart of The Roxy club in the derelict slum that used to be Covent Garden. Pushed back and forth like hell in the depths of a mosh pit trying to keep hold of a borrowed camera.
Throughout the 25 years that would follow 1977, Ridgers would go on to shoot everyone from Grace Jones, James Brown, Debbie Harry, and Viv Westwood, to a shitload of skinheads, Tony Blair, Tiger Woods and even infamous Brit gangster ‘Mad” Frankie Fraser. But I’m not here to talk about that today.
While gobbing punks pogoed and threw pints toward the Pistols with the likes of Sheila Rock, Ray Stevenson, Mick Rock and Jill Furmanovsky… Ridgers turned around and pointed his lens toward the crowd. Into the eye of the storm, the face of that wild snippet. Pulsating, oozing and dripping down from low sweat covered ceilings.
A chaotic masterpiece of razor sharp hairstyles, lightening bolt eyeliner, studs, leather and lingerie. Capturing never before seen shot’s and most of all the characters and raw, visceral style of photo’s that would make-up Ridgers most original, talked about and notable work.
Work you can check out for yourself this weekend, as The Photographers Gallery swing open the doors on their Punk Weekender. Exhibiting a selection of Ridgers shots alongside fellow photographer Anita Corbin, live gigs from Punk legends The Raincoats, and much more!
I caught up with Derek to chat about his most hedonistic gigs, favourite shots over the years and everything else Punk in between.
Your new book really brings Punk to life! What was your initial introduction, or first experience with the Punk Scene?
DEREK RIDGERS: The first punk band I saw was the Vibrators at Kingston Polytechnic in 1976.
By day, I was an art director at an advertising agency and I’d had a 35mm camera account, with easy access to cameras and I started pretending to be a photographer at gigs, simply to get up close to the bands.
When punk came along, it was mainly being played in small clubs rather than arenas, so everyone was close. But you’d have had to be blind not to see the photogenic potential of the audience. So I swung my camera away from the stage and started to photograph the punks as well.
Did you have a favourite punk band?
Are you asking me for my favourite band or the one I thought was the best? I think the best punk band was definitely The Clash. I liked Blondie too but they were more New Wave were’t they?
I suppose my personal favourites would be a toss up between Siouxsie and The Banshees and The Slits. I saw both bands about a dozen times during ’77/’78.
The gigs were messy to say the least. How difficult was it to actually get a shot?
Messy certainly. I was often spat at and sometimes worse. And some of the clubs were so hot and sweaty that one often came out drenched to the skin anyway.
But I was a lot younger then, plus I was tall and quite fit. If anyone pushed me or tried to pogo on top of me I was perfectly capable of pushing back. I loved the music and got caught up in the moment and really quite enjoyed the excitement of it all.
Of course you didnt have the luxury of knowing what shots you got at that time either, so was there a particular shot that you were surprised with the outcome of?
If I’m honest, I would have to say that I was often surprised by some of the decent shots I got. But I was also very disappointed when I processed my film and found that I’d made some sort of awful balls up. My mistakes were plenty back then.
That was the year I was learning how to take photographs. I probably have in total not much more than about 200 decent photographs out of about 2000 exposures. Not a very good hit rate! Nowadays, with digital, one can shoot 2000 shots in an afternoon.
What was the wildest gig you photographed or attended?
That’s an easy one! It would be Penetration at Brunel University in either ’79 or ‘80 when a big skinhead gang turned up.
I was friendly with the band and my wife and I took along two teenage tearaways from our estate. Both jack-the-lad types but basically nice enough. I was right at the front of the stage and the place was packed. Almost as soon as the band started some of the skinheads started to try to rush the stage and the rest of the crowd surged forward. Because the stage was knee height, when the crowd surged forward, I couldn’t get out of the way or turn my legs around and I thought they were going to snap at the knees. It was unbelievably painful but only for a few seconds. After which the skinheads jumped on the stage, attacked the band and trashed all their equipment….That was the end of that gig.
When the dust settled, we found the two lads we’d taken to the gig cowering in a corner. It turned out they weren’t quite the hard cases they made out locally. They never wanted to come to another gig with us after that.
As you propelled thru the scene did you find that you became more inspired photographing the audience over the acts on stage?
Yes, certainly. This was really my calling. Although eventually I spent 25 years as a professional rock photographer, no one other than the fans of the individual bands I shot is ever much interested in that stuff nowadays. Most of the interest I receive now is towards my documentary portraiture and most of that I did as an amateur.
What excited you the most photographing the punk scene?
This is a very good question and one that I’ve never been asked before.
I suppose the music was the first thing. Hearing a great punk band (or really any great band) playing really loud in a small club can be very exciting when you are young. And some of the female punks were sexually assertive in their dress and manner that was quite unusual back then. Maybe the same could be said for the male punks too but in a less obvious way. Many of them were overtly quite aggressive but it was all an act. They were almost always friendly enough.
Is there a band or musician that you didn’t get the chance to photograph that you would have liked too?
Yes, far too many to name but none of them punks. Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell when they were younger. Bob Marley or Elvis Presley if they were still alive and most of the people I have already photographed because I’m always sure I could do better.
But… they do say one should never meet ones heroes. I photographed Frank Zappa once and he was a real hero of mine but he wasn’t very nice and not at all friendly. Same goes for Tom Verlaine.
On the other hand, the friendly ones vastly outstrip the others. Keith Richards, Grace Jones, Debbie Harry, Tom Waits. All charming. I could go on…
The book opens with a quote which reads “1977 will happen again.1977 is happening somewhere, for someone, right now.” It’s a cliche question but being in the centre of the scene do you think it’s possible in some way for the punk spirit to still exist today?
Yes, very much so. Although everything has changed now. Punk isn’t like it was. It doesn’t belong to the punks who started it all back in 1976. It’s global now, it belongs to the World.
There are probably punks living more of a punk lifestyle in Japan or Mexico or East LA than there ever were in London in 1976. Most probably half of those new punks have never heard of the Sex Pistols and why should they have? Punk has moved on.
A lot of people get on their high horse and say “this is punk” and “this isn’t punk” but everything evolves.
Words by Tracy Kawalik and Derek Ridgers