He’s often described as the man who shot the 70s – but photographer Mick Rock’s influence and work still resonates to this day. By Reyhaan Day
Hotel Café Royal’s new bar, Ziggy’s, is a celebration of David Bowie’s most iconic alter ego, with prints by the infamous rock photographer decorating the chic space.
The Piccadilly hotel is well placed to introduce such a space to London, with an historic association with the androgynous, alien-like figure that forever changed the lives of countless kids.
In 1973, Bowie ‘retired’ his Ziggy Stardust creation at a party at the Café Royal famously dubbed ‘The Last Supper’ – an event that saw the rock and roll elite, fashionistas and dilettantes rub shoulders and cause mischief.
Mick Rock, who by this time had begun to develop a close relationship with Bowie, was there to capture it – and in turn, help create a piece of rock and roll history. “That was a fun night, that’s for sure,” begins Rock in his cigarette-stained drawl. “There are certain things that I won’t talk about – and of course, they are often the first things that come to mind… but it was a very special night and there were a lot of shenanigans going on…
“It went on until about 4am. I remember the moment I caught David, Lou Reed and Mick Jagger. I don’t remember who was sitting there first; but you get a heightened sense of awareness at times as a photographer, and my brain was working overtime. I was going to get that shot come hell or high water. Of course, I got that shot of them cuddling among several others, and the one of David and Lou kissing.” Rock says that the party represented the height of hedonism in those heady days of rock and roll. “Sex, drugs and rock and roll had roared out of the closet by then; this was a pre-Aids era. Everybody was so young, and it was highly experimental.
“We wanted to know about everything – all the wickedness that was going on: we wanted to know about it. We plunged into it very eagerly.”
Born in London but growing up in Cambridge, Rock’s career began to kick off after taking the cover shot for former Pink Floyd star Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs in the late 60s. But it wasn’t until the start of the next decade brought with it “the winds of change” represented by artists like Bowie, Lou Reed, Mott the Hoople, Iggy Pop and Roxy Music, that Rock became the photographer everyone wanted to work with.
“Back in those days, I was winging it a lot of the time. But somehow, it always worked out. When you’re young, you get lucky a lot – and I got lucky lots of times. But I was always on my toes and I was very alert to situations.” He also puts his appeal with artists down to the time he would spend with these stars. “David and Lou were the two I spent most time with, and I have several thousand pictures of both of them. I had the time in those days; before the internet, what would I do? I took pictures; got a little stoned; chased young ladies; and hung out with a lot of interesting characters.” While his images are now seen as iconic, Rock argues that that was never his intention. “That wasn’t what it was all about back then. We were very much working on being very naughty boys and figuring out how much mischief we could get in.”
Incredibly, this was towards the front end of Rock’s illustrious career. Images that would greatly impact music and the wider pop culture followed – including album covers for The Stooges (Raw Power), Lou Reed (Transformer) and Queen (Queen II) – with the photographer consistently capturing the biggest artists of the 20th century and beyond.
Rock still shoots today – he recently photographed Lana del Rey and shot a campaign for Gucci. He says that times have changed and he has knocked some of the more extreme habits on the head. “Now I couldn’t go a week without sleeping or eating. Not eating and not sleeping will put you into an interesting frame of perception before the chemicals even show up. Nowadays if I do a shoot, I’m not going home with you, I’m not going to hang out and get high… I’m already high!” He says with a sly grin. “These days I’ll have a cup of coffee and a couple of puffs on one of those marijuana pens – but that’s about it…”
When it comes to preparing for shoots, however, his approach is largely unchanged.
“I always do my yoga workout and my meditation; so the combination means I’m in a state of heightened awareness anyway. I do go through a similar inner process in preparation because I’ve done yoga since the early 70s – including 10-minute headstands every day. Even today, sir! I’m addicted.”
His ultimate goal when shooting subjects hasn’t changed either, says the 70-year-old photographer. “I’m not looking for a truth; I’m not looking for their soul; I’m not looking for reality. I’m looking to get that energy these performers emote – and distil it down to a moment.”
After decades of hedonism and a “dance with the other side” as he puts it (Rock suffered a major heart attack in 1996 and six years ago underwent a kidney transplant), Rock is glad to be alive – a fact that takes on more poignant meaning given how many of his friends are no longer here. Both David Bowie and Lou Reed died in the last few years.
“What can I tell you? I’m still standing and there’s something to be said for that. I’m happy I’m still around,” he says matter-of-factly.
“It’s been an interesting ride.”
Prints of Mick Rock’s photographs can be purchased at www.beautifulcrime.gallery.
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