Pennie Smith

The veteran rock 'n' roll photographer and Secret 7" contributor talks through her interest in mental health, how she first fell into the music biz, and why she almost missed taking her most famous photograph.

British music would look quite different without Pennie Smith.

The London photographer has been shooting some of the most important groups and figures in recorded music for the past five decades.

Beginning as contributor to the underground press, Smith has gone on to work for such titles as the NME and the Face, developing close relationships with many of the world’s most influential bands, including Led Zeppelin, Primal Scream, the Stone Roses and the Clash.

She spoke to us from her studio as she prepared her Secret 7” cover. Read on to hear how she began her career, why she feels mental health problems and rock’n’roll go hand in hand, and what lead her to take a picture of the Clash’s Paul Simonon smashing up his bass – an image that ended up on the cover of the band’s 1979 album, London Calling.

Hi Pennie. How did you come to be involved with Secret 7”?

I get asked to do a lot of charity things, and I chose this one because I really care about mental health. In the music business, a lot of people fall temporarily by the wayside.

Do you think there’s something about musicians that makes them especially vulnerable?

The music biz is stressful; it’s very long hours. Some people also make it big and don’t realise what fame might mean. All of a sudden, they’re public property, and they just can’t handle it – temporarily or permanently.

How did you end photographing bands?

It was through a chap named Barney Bubbles [prolific graphic designer and illustrator, who created the Motörhead's “warpig” insignia, and NME’s masthead]. Barney was working on an underground magazine called Friends. Through him, I met [leading British music journalist] Nick Kent. Nick asked me what I liked doing, and I said roving around with a camera. Then we were off interviewing Lou Reed, Mick Jagger, whoever. The national papers weren’t on to rock music at the time, so it was a lot looser.

Then Nick said, “OK, now we go to the NME and they take us on,” which they did. One of their photographers had had a nervous breakdown, another had got an ulcer, so I got dumped in the deep end.

Why do you think you've done so well over the years?

I’ve always worked in parallel with bands. I do the art bit, and they make the racket. It’s just sensibilities: when they gel, it works. It’s been like that with the Stone Roses, who I’ve done since the year dot, or Primal Scream, or the Clash, or whatever. You know why they’re there, they know why you’re there.

Your pictures are so well loved, yet people might not be so familiar with you as a photographer. Do you ever feel undervalued?

Sometimes, yes. I know the magazines appreciate me, because they always ask me back, and the bands appreciate me, because they call me out the next day, though it often goes unsaid.

I still shoot film, so I’m back into the grubby hole of the darkroom after I’ve taken my shots, and I don’t do that many public forays. Still, the few times I have talked about my work in public, it actually surprises me that kids know what I’m up to; they actually had me down as the person who took those pictures.

There’s one picture that a lot of people know you for: your 1979 shot of the Clash’s Paul Simonon smashing his bass on stage in New York. It ended up on the cover of London Calling. Did you know it was a special image when you took it?

Of course I didn’t know. I’d done something like a two-month tour of America with the band, and I was going to bunk off and have dinner with some friends. Then I decided against it, and I watched the band, round Paul’s side of the stage for a change. I noticed he looked extremely pissed off, and the next thing I knew the bass was the wrong position. I took the shot, but you don’t know at the time – it's done in 1/125th of a second.

Later, we were on the back of the tour bus, somewhere in America, and Joe [Strummer, the Clash's lead singer], was looking through my shots, and he said, “That’s the cover.” I tried to argue him out of it, because it was so totally out of focus, but he said, “No, you're wrong”, and it turns out I was.

Do people mistake Paul for Joe in that picture?

Yeah, they do. They assume the lead singer does everything, but the thing about the Clash – and this is true of most of the bands I work with – they’re four legs of a table. Four entities that make the finished product. You can’t just swap one out, it’s all part of the process.

This article originally appeared in The Peninsulist in June 2018. All images courtesy of Pennie Smith.