Ronnie Wood, Classic Roll of Honour Awards, Park Lane Hotel 2 November 2009
The Incomparable Ronnie Wood. Ronnie had just left his wife to set-up home with the Russian waitress Ekaterina. These are just a few of his designs.
Working for the Melody Maker
Piers may not have had a photography qualification, but his portfolio had been enough to get him started in the industry. Nevertheless, after starting doing work for Melody Maker he did attempt to formalize his education by taking a course at the London College of Printing, but only stayed for a few months, finding it to be poorly staffed, over subscribed and under facilitated. “We were all sort of grabbing at equipment,” adds Piers. “That would have been ’88 to ’89, I would have thought.”
Fortunately, completing the course proved to be unnecessary. Piers already had the professional experience of working in the darkrooms of South London Guardian Group, the Melody Maker commissions continued and he gradually established himself as one of London’s top live music photographers. Piers recalls what the Melody Maker expected of him in the days before digital photography.
“It was pretty extraordinary really. Sometimes I would go to an all-day festival for Melody Maker and would have to produce all these prints. I had a very perfectionist nature, which meant that, instead of taking three or four hours to do something, it was taking me the whole night sometimes. I remember playing lots of music, occasionally sitting down on a bar stool under the enlarger, otherwise standing up and pacing backwards and forwards, waiting, with the smell of chemicals burring in my nostrils.
“Once I’d produced the prints, I would hose them down in a bath and hang them up to dry, sometimes using a hair dryer to speed things up. I’d then label them and picture reference them sometimes, and then I’d deliver them.
“I’d take the train from Brixton to Waterloo, which in those days was pretty run down, I seem to remember. Actually the whole of London felt very run down at that time. I would go to King’s Reach Tower with a kind of spring in my step. I was always very excited because I wanted to surpass myself and produce better work each time. But the funny thing was, no one was particularly interested in what I was producing, just as long as I came up with the goods. It was very rare that there was any kind of praise. It wasn’t that kind of environment or atmosphere. People were too cool to praise one another.
“I remember feeling pretty intimidated back in the day. I was 26 when I started out at Melody Maker but I felt like a 16-year-old walking into that office. There weren’t any particular legends when I was there, but don’t forget there had been quite a few quite renowned journalists who had passed through Melody Maker in the past. Admittedly, most of the big names worked for the NME – they had all these amazing people like Julie Burchill, Danny Baker, Tony Parsons, Nick Kent, John Savage – but we had a few people at Melody Maker too.
“Caitlin Moran was at Melody Maker. That was very interesting because she, like Julie Burchill, turned up when she was only 16. And I remember she was very passionate about what she was doing. She was young and precocious, and I remember one time, when the reviews editor had done something to upset her, she stood her ground and basically shouted him down. I don’t think he knew which way to look, really. He was so surprised that this kind of spunky 16-year-old girl was talking to him like an equal. I witnessed it with my own eyes – it was pretty interesting.
“Caroline Sullivan, who went on to The Guardian, also worked for Melody Maker. I think she’s still writing for The Guardian. Other notable people who passed through Melody Maker include Andrew Mueller, who has done quite a lot for The Guardian, and quite a few others journalists who went on to write books quite successfully.
“John Harris writes for The Guardian. John and I were the first people to interview and photograph Radiohead. I think it was in about ’91, possibly ’92. No one had ever photographed them before, that’s official! I remember meeting some of the guys later on and spoke to one of the Greenwood brothers about it and he said ‘You were the first; we’d never been photographed by anyone before.’ It was for something called Sidelines in Melody Maker. It then became Advance and then something else, but basically it was an introductory feature on new bands or artists that were about to break through. And the same thing happened to Suede who were dubbed ’best new band’.
“But I very much felt out of my depth and that I was an imposter. Just to put it into some kind of perspective, I hadn’t come from a particularly financially comfortable background, but I had grown up in Hampstead, so I wasn’t from one of the dormitory towns that many of the bands and writers had come from. I wasn’t living in a social backwater so I didn’t have anything particularly to fight against, although I had my own issues and angers and so on. I wasn’t driven by a desire to get out of my home or town or anything like that because I was London born and bred. But many of the journalists and photographers I was working with just wanted to change things fundamentally.
“They were kind of – I hate the expression – lower-middleclass, upper-working class; the kind of writers that were going to forge a career for themselves and show their family and friends where they were going to prove a point.
“I don’t know why I felt out of place, it’s odd, but I didn’t have an anoraks’ opinion of music. I knew my music but I didn’t know my music nearly as intimately as they did. I think a lot of the journalists deliberately aligned themselves to really obscure bands, and quite rarefied types of music. My music wasn’t necessarily mainstream but I’d grown up with Ska, Reggae and a kind of Modish music before I got into synth music. Not the New Romantic thing particularly but I was interested in Ian Dury, Gary Numan and people like that.
“But from being commissioned to photograph live gigs, I was then told to photograph bands for low-key features, so I was kind of building it up. But it was a real slow burner because, although I was mildly ambitious, I wasn’t thrusting or putting my name forward as much as I should have done. I think it was because I had other sources of income. Many of the journalists were struggling financially and living in bedsits. Some might even have been living at home.” TF
Part 2 of our interview with Piers can be found here: Part 2
In Part 2 Piers talks about the equipment he uses, explaining his working methods and his views on the art of photographing people.