Photographer Ray Stevenson captured the heyday of rock ‘n’ roll in the 60s and 70s, including many all-time musician-demigods. We spoke to him about his beginnings in rock photography, the images he holds close to his heart, and the state of the industry today.
Ray Stevenson remembers his relationship with musicians starting in the 1960s at clubs like legendary folk and blues joint Les Cousins, 49 Greek Street in the Soho District of London. He was introduced to the place by Sandy Denny, one of Britain’s most illustrious folk singers. “Les Cousins was the holy grail of folk clubs. I was meeting everyone and taking as many pictures as possible in tight spaces and almost no light,” recalls Stevenson. Les Cousins, a small, dark basement that could fit no more than 100 people sitting on benches, chairs, and a hardwood floor, saw the likes of Paul Simon, Rory Harper, Bert Jansch, Cat Stevens, Al Stewart, and Van Morrison hone their craft.
Ray frequented other London venues, such as the Marquee, where he developed a relationship with the management. One afternoon in 1967, as he dropped in for tea, he was grabbed by venue manager Jack Barry at the front door. “He told me, ‘If you’ve got your camera, get in there right now.’”
On stage, Ray found a young American band setting up for sound check. They called themselves The Jimi Hendrix Experience. “It took me less than two minutes to realize ‘Ah, you can be a “real musician” with an electric guitar.’” By then, word had spread about the psychedelic sounds coming from the 24-year-old Hendrix’s guitar, his flamboyant outfits, and his tendency to play with his teeth. Ray caught it all and sent some prints to Hendrix’s manager, who used three of his images on the back of the Are You Experienced record (UK edition).
From there, the gates of rock ‘n’ roll opened up to Ray. He shot Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton at Royal Albert Hall and spent time with Elton John in the recording studio. He was friends with David Bowie, who at the time was performing live mime acts and opening for bands like Tyrannosaurus Rex. Ray remembers hanging out with Bowie at his apartment on Foxgrove Road, the morning after the first moon landing. “I didn’t know he’d amount to so much, he was such a lightweight. I enjoyed his company as a friend very much.” Bowie had just recorded his first hit single, “Space Oddity,” when he moved into that apartment.
In January 1976, Ray was working at the BBC when his brother, Nils, asked him to take some pictures of a band he was co-managing, Sex Pistols. They were playing at a college in St. Alban’s. “I thought they were awful,” he recalls, “but I wanted to help my brother and it was a night out doing what I loved.” Little did he know this one-night favor would soon became the focus of his work for years to come.
Two months later and Ray’s opinion of the Sex Pistols had taken a leather boot to the head. He photographed many of their concerts, including the 1976 Anarchy Tour, bumping shoulders with the jean-ripped, pinned-up punks who came to define a culture that still influences music, art, and fashion today. These years brought Ray many of his most cherished memories as a photographer: the on-stage antics of The Clash, getting spat on with pool water by a fully clothed and soaked Billy Idol, Johnny Rotten stomping out of high afternoon tea at Fortnum’s (“This is a sick joke!”). His involvement with the punk movement went beyond just music, as Ray also documented the women who brought punk to life through clothes, makeup, and art, including Vivienne Westwood, Jordan, and Soo Catwoman.
Another experience Ray remembers vividly was touring the U.S. in 1981 with Siouxsie and the Banshees. He recalls traveling the country in a big coach and staying in nice hotels. “It was great fun, but…” The band’s agent had asked Ray beforehand to get a lineup shot of the four members looking good and facing the camera. “After five weeks I didn’t get it,” he laughs. “Someone was always drunk, had runny eyes, or wouldn’t take their mask off!”
Despite the fondness with which Ray remembers those times, there is a nostalgia that goes with it and a resigned understanding that things will never be the same. At the heart of many music photographers’ disenchantment is the modern saturation of content – to the point where artistic appreciation has evaporated. “Everyone thinks they can do it themselves nowadays,” Ray says, “Everyone has a phone and more pictures are being taken now than ever before.” The days when Ray would walk into a dingy basement with his beer-and-spit covered Fujica camera and a couple roles of film to frame organic, unposed music stars are now gone.
It’s been decades since most of these images were taken, and in today’s mobile-obsessed and made-for-social world, it’s almost impossible to capture moments without reaffirming the chronic self-awareness that’s come to define newer generations. Luckily, we have images like Ray’s, which we treasure for sharing something endangered in photography today: an intimate, candid glimpse into the lives of artists.
Ray Stevenson still shows his work in exhibitions around the UK and has published the photo books Sex Pistols File, Photo Past 1966-1986, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Regeneration, and Vacant.