DENIS O’REGAN | INTERVIEW
In Zillah Minx’s 2010 documentary film She’s A Punk Rocker UK, Julie Burchill points out a fundamental irony: in God Save The Queen, the signature song of the most prominent band of the punk era, Johnny Rotten repeatedly proclaimed that there was “no future”, but in fact punk created futures for countless people. It made stars not only of musicians like Rotten, but of svengalis like Malcolm McLaren, fashion designers like Vivienne Westwood, film-makers like Julien Temple, DJs like Don Letts, journalists like Burchill herself – and photographers like Denis O’Regan and Chalkie Davies.
Talking to Buzz on the evening that the duo’s touring exhibition The Art Of Punk And New Wave calls in in Cardiff, O’Regan explains that, as an aspiring photographer, “punk appealed because it was visual, but also accessible. Before punk, you had to get a photo pass to shoot bands. It was simpler to get a photo pass if you had a portfolio, and it was difficult to build a portfolio if you couldn’t shoot anyone, so there was this vicious circle. And then punk came along and suddenly you could pay 75p to go into the Marquee on Wardour Street and shoot the bands that the press was most interested in.”
Just as being unable to play an instrument was no impediment to joining a punk band, so being an amateur photographer was no barrier to covering punk shows. “I didn’t really know how to take pictures”, laughs O’Regan. “I knew at the time that they were learning while they were playing, while I was learning while I was photographing them.” As is so often the case, necessity proved the mother of invention: black-and-white images like those in the exhibition are now often seen as being “artier” than colour, but at the time O’Regan and Davies shot in black and white “because you could process it yourself at home and get the prints in the music paper the next day”.
It was at a punk gig – The Damned’s second ever show, at St Albans Art College on 8th July 1976, two days after the band’s live debut at the famed 100 Club in London – that the pair first met. Having naively assumed that there would be some kind of stage lighting set-up, O’Regan discovered that he would have to work in the dark, only to be bailed out by the more experienced Davies, who was there to cover the show for the NME and who kindly lent him his spare flash. Their friendship has endured ever since.
At that time, that now defunct publication was in its heyday, a vital lifeline for those in the provinces desperate to read about a scene that O’Regan admits was “London-centric in many ways”. As punk was a very visual phenomenon, deriving much of its power from imagery and style, the pair’s prints arguably did more to convey the excitement and capture the period than the words of Burchill or fellow scribe Tony Parsons. During the public Q&A session that takes place prior to our interview, one attendee thanks them both profusely for the role that they and their pictures played in bringing punk to South Wales. O’Regan is visibly touched.
How, I ask, did he choose his selection of photos for the exhibition? “Some of them were images that I had picked a while back, and they stood the test of time. But a few of them I wanted to get the next-frame-along images, the ones that weren’t as well known. You don’t look at them for thirty years and when you go back, then you think ‘Well, that wasn’t the best shot at the time, and now that everyone knows those people so well, maybe that [other] picture is more interesting’.” Pleasingly, alongside images of The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Damned, there are stunning photos of Iggy Pop, The Ramones, Debbie Harry and Patti Smith – a tacit acknowledgement that punk wasn’t an exclusively British phenomenon and perhaps even that our transatlantic cousins were the real pioneers.
Given the choice, O’Regan’s preference is always for shooting bands in the live environment rather than in a studio. “Some of those live pictures I took, I get that feeling sometimes that it’s summed them up. Because they are themselves on stage, whereas in the studio they very rarely are. They’re just posing. Or they’re trying to be the image of what people have of them. Whereas on stage they do what they really do.” For O’Regan, there’s nowhere better to experience a show than in the photographer’s pit, sandwiched in the space between performer and audience. “You’ve got this circular motion going on, where they’re inspiring each other. And some of those shows, they’re inspiring people to get up and do it themselves.”
The punk period may have only been “an 18-month brightly burning flame” but it certainly did prove inspirational and enormously liberating. “We sort of knew that something had happened, that something had broken through and changed the order. It wasn’t the new order, because it didn’t last too long. But it broke down the old order. And from then on, it was open to whoever wanted to step in.”
Punk opened doors for O’Regan too. He swiftly made a name for himself, before talking his way into travelling with Davies’ flatmate Phil Lynott and his band Thin Lizzy on a Scandinavian tour. There followed numerous transcontinental jaunts with some of the biggest names in music (The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Kiss, Duran Duran) as well as high-profile roles as official photographer for Live Aid and Glastonbury.
For someone whose choice of profession was inspired by attending a Ziggy Stardust show at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1973, though, there seems to be no doubt that spending time with David Bowie has been the highlight of his career. “I documented years of his life, of him as he really was. You get to know someone after a few weeks. It’s when you’re there for months and months and months that you get to know them really well. And so you take genuine photographs of the true person.” Candid pictures that O’Regan took while accompanying Bowie on the 1983 Serious Moonlight tour, which saw him become a global megastar, are set to be published (with their subject’s blessing) in May in a limited edition book called Ricochet. Such projects are however, he suggests, a thing of the past. “No one had ever seen him the way I photographed him offstage before. But, if that was now, he’d be tweeting stuff – everybody would have seen him. There are very few enigmas now.”
In the present day, when audiences are all armed with camera phones and most artists are “already tweeting and Instagramming their life away”, the role of the rock photographer seems sadly diminished. But did O’Regan get any sense that the pictures he took during the punk era might still be celebrated forty years later? “I didn’t think that any of it was going to be significant in any shape or form. I probably didn’t think anybody was going to be interested in it after the very day the picture was printed. To me, that was the end of it. But I held on to everything, as you do. Not going to throw out my bloody work.”
words BEN WOOLHEAD
photos MORGAN DEVINE