Public Image:
A conversation
with veteran
Dennis Morris

Morris' recent exhibition at the ICA by Mark Blower

Words by:

Some photographs boast the capacity to capture more than just a moment in time. Some even yield an infinite power to encapsulate an entire culture in a single frame. Photographer Dennis Morris owns an uncanny knack in capturing a sense of reality in his subjects; finding the ‘person behind the persona’. His portfolio includes epochal images of the likes of Bob Marley, The Sex Pistols, the Stone Roses and Marianne Faithful.

Over four decades, Morris’ contribution to concept design and album artwork has influenced the music industry’s approach to artistic branding and the creative direction of music distribution. As Virgin Records’ go-to photo journalist, he also conspired alongside John Lydon in designing the abrasive aesthetic of Public Image Ltd.’s Metal Box album sleeve and the PiL logo. Morris recently opened his retrospective at London’s ICA, which exhibits images documenting PiL’s early stages, including the legendary trip to Jamaica he made with Lydon and Virgin boss Richard Branson.

It’s early morning when Morris answers the phone. He’s ineffably welcoming yet exasperated when addressing his spiky relationship with Lydon. Between these bristly segments, Morris also touches on the exhibition, PiL and his malaise over today’s artist being stifled of creative freedom.

Morning Dennis, how’s the exhibition going?

The exhibition is going extremely well. I think a lot of people have been taken aback by the exhibit’s content. Over time, those images became iconic. But I think people are only starting to realise that now. I started collating PIL’s archival shots over the period of a year. The general idea came from looking back over pictures taken during a trip to Jamaica in 1978 with John [Lydon] and Richard [Branson]. I’d say this trip was one of the biggest influences for what would later be Public Image Ltd. It was a huge influence for John in terms of incorporating dub aspects in to the group’s sound.

Do you find yourself in a curious state of nostalgia when collating these retrospectives?

Retrospectives always bring back memories. It’s a bit of a journey. I think when people review my work they get more of an insight into how the music was formed and the mind of the subject being photographed. For this collection, I realised that I didn’t just create pieces that were visually striking. I created something that has a deeper meaning than just an image to observe. And people seem to be getting that connection.

With Public Image Limited’s inception, was there any challenge in establishing the group’s identity considering John’s public image lingering from his time in the Sex Pistols?

Throughout my career, I’ve been left to my own devices. I’ve always been able to work directly with the artists and hone their visual output. Just before PiL formed, I knew that John wanted to bury the image of punk. That was how he was perceived by everyone. I wouldn’t say it was an easy feat but he gave me an open license to experiment with his persona. He made himself a blank canvas. No restrictions. No ‘it can only be this or that’. I was the architect of John’s persona. So I built it.

Don Letts said ‘Jamaicans love a bad man and they saw that in Lydon’ – what do you think Don was referring to?

When we arrived in Jamaica, there was a group of Rastas that noticed John and started shouting out “John mon, God Save the Queen mon.” Jamaica was going through a very rebellious period. Youth culture was being defined through Bob Marley and protest music. Obviously, the worldwide press of The Sex Pistols went international. The Rastas knew Johnny Rotten and identified with that rebellious side of him. But John could never be a ‘bad man’ in Jamaican terms. In Jamaica, it’s the real deal. Kids from a very young age are free armed. They’ve got nothing to lose. But he loved that they could identify with his rebellious nature.

Morris' recent exhibition at the ICA by Mark Blower

Did you ever get to hear the unreleased Lee “Scratch” Perry version of Submission?

No, no one ever did. I was even in the studio at the time. If my memory serves me, Scratch didn’t take particularly to John. Not that he disliked him but it takes more than just your reputation for Lee Perry to agree to work with you. There was no animosity between them but it wasn’t the right vibe. He’s a very cosmic person.

How did you find producing PiL’s infamous 1978 show at the Rainbow Theatre? You mentioned it was chaotic.

It was on Christmas Day. We were basically changing history and forging the way for what was to come. The practice of self-promotion, for example, was the forerunner for Stone Roses doing Spike Island. To be totally honest, the only people who knew what they were doing was the road crew. There we were running around like kids and in charge of one of the most hallowed gig venues. In the same way that Spike Island was an amazing event but an absolute disaster musically, the Rainbow gig was not that great but as an event it was groundbreaking.

But hardly anyone ever got paid during this time. How did you manage to sustain your career?

Quite simply, when you’re an artist you create without being paid. No one forced me to be anywhere. I was with The Sex Pistols 24/7 because I knew it was an opportunity. No one was showing me how to take pictures or when to take pictures. That was Malcolm McLaren’s attitude too. If you were smart you knew there was something in it for you. He was an incredible person… John is forever bickering that he got ripped off by Malcolm. But Malcolm never spent a penny on himself. Instead, he used the money to design punk artwork and posters, which John is still peddling today. It all came from Malcolm. There would be nothing to sell without him. And without me, there would be no photographs. So I wish John would just get on with it. He did the same thing to Vivienne (Westwood). She’s gone from strength to strength. John says she’s talentless. Come on. She’s gone on to make multi-fucking-millions. What the hell has he done? Stop bitching and come up with another album we can all rave about.

I take it that recent communication between the two of you is minimal in that case?

John’s biggest problem is that he’s a very talented individual with great potential but is incapable of working with other people. As soon as he gets a chance, he screws everybody over. He did it with Ginger Baker. He did it with Afrika Bambaataa. And he did it with Leftfield. He’s just one of those kind of people. I really have a lot of respect for him, but he’s a very selfish individual.

Moving on, there was a brutal physicality to Metal Box’s packaging, one that helped in defining PiL’s abrasive identity. Is the strength of ‘branding’ in art today neglected?

Artists today have no control and are too afraid to have any say over their art. record companies seem to dictate what their roster can and can’t do. But the big business mindset of a record company cannot make an artist. The only thing a record company can do is sell a product. Once an artist starts to believe that their art is indebted to their label, that’s their death toll. And ‘Joe Public’ isn’t that stupid either. They know if they’ve bought it once they’re not going to buy the same old shit again. They crave originality. It’s sad. A lot of artists have zero control over their own destinies.

So are we returning to the sort of social and political apathy felt during PiL’s short lived career?

We’re living in a nanny state. Creativity is gone. I believe in the very basic instinct which is before we learned how to speak and write, everything was about gut feeling. If you look through the history of creation, everything came through a gut feeling. Every invention, piece of art or whatever it may be happened through gut feeling. Once you lose that feeling of your inner senses and inner feelings, you become cold and then there will be no innovation left in the world. It’s as simple as that.

Dennis Morris: PiL – First Issue to Metal Box runs at the ICA until 15 May

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