Mistress of image: Debbie Harry, photographed on a trip to Britain by Chris Stein, c.1982
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Picture this: the love affair between rockers and the lens

From Deborah Harry to Ed Sheeran, four visual journeys through the lives of pop stars. 

Jimmy Page 
Jimmy Page
Genesis, 512pp, £40

Marianne Faithfull: a Life on Record 
Marianne Faithfull
Rizzoli, 300pp, £45

Negative: Me, Blondie and the Advent of Punk 
Chris Stein
Rizzoli, 208pp, £35

A Visual Journey 
Ed Sheeran and Phillip Butah
Cassell Illustrated, 208pp, £18.99

In 1957, at the age of 13, Jimmy Page appeared on the BBC1 talent show All Your Own with his skiffle group. Three years later he was a professional guitarist and by his mid-twenties he was leading the biggest band in the world, Led Zeppelin. In Jimmy Page, his “photographic autobiography”, you can trace the history of British rock from junior to veterans’ circuit through his hair: the schoolboy quiff giving way to rocker sideburns, the decade of looking shaggy in front of country houses, the long years of dyed black ponytails and finally (to his credit, and the shame of every other rocker his age) shoulder-length grey. His clothes tell the same tale, from the regulation Carnaby Street ruffles and velvet of the Sixties and the garishly embroidered flared silk suits of the Seventies, through the awkward “Man at C&A” Eighties of slacks and jackets, up to the discovery of forgiving long coats, with a white silk scarf for a raffish touch.

Most revealing, though, is his body language. In his first flush of Sixties fame with the Yardbirds, on or offstage, he is stiff and expressionless, not so much self-conscious as unconscious. He smiles for the first time in 1968 when lining up with the newly formed Led Zeppelin but immediately thinks better of it. Within two years, he is gazing imperiously into the lens or wielding his guitar like a ritual object, fully aware of his effect. Long lists of tour dates alongside the photographs suggest how he acquired this knowledge.

Still, it is only around the time of the Led Zeppelin reunion shows in 2007, which finally put his legacy beyond doubt, that he starts smiling with any regularity. Similarly, Marianne Faithfull, in her own photo book, looks lost for the 30 years after her Sixties pop stardom, relaxing only after her transformation in the Noughties into a Weimar-style chanteuse. Marianne Faithfull: a Life on Record is more of a scrapbook than Page’s tome – irritatingly not-quite-chronological but attractively annotated in her own hand (spirited misspellings and “Ugh!”s included) where his text is scant and guarded.

Faithfull’s story, from aristocratic starlet on Mick Jagger’s arm to homeless junkie to triumphant return as the voice of hard-won experience, is well known, not least from her 1994 autobiography. All the same, the wide-eyed hunger of the radiantly beautiful teenager makes you catch your breath, as does the guileless enthusiasm with which she takes on everything from singing to acting to hanging out. If she could see this when compiling the book, she doesn’t let on. Ditto her equally obvious relief when she moves into an eccentric grande dame-hood her family might have approved of, or the surprising joylessness of her celebrated comeback in the late Seventies, captured in endless drab pictures of her looking miserable behind a cigarette. But no amount of her brisk, luvvie cheerfulness can take the chill off a caption such as “Cecil Beaton photograph of me very smacked out”.

Like Page, Faithfull was the first to tread her particular path, though the result became a cautionary tale rather than a legend. You get no lingering sense of victimhood from Debbie Harry, the chief subject of Negative by Chris Stein, her partner both in the band Blondie and in much of their life. Managers, producers and fans all used Faithfull as a blank canvas for their desires and ambitions, but in Harry’s case it was her and Stein who conducted the first half of their career like a giant game of pretend (or, as this was Seventies New York, a long art project). Stein, who takes good pictures and writes even better captions, notes: “Debbie was constantly asked, ‘How does it feel to be a sex symbol?’ Literally exactly that question, over and over again.” He is amazed that no one understood they were playing with the idea from the start, taking on Marilyn Monroe’s glamour and Andy Warhol’s trash culture and producing images – Harry in leather
knickers or a pillowcase or a burnt dress – that were in equal parts sexual and comical.

Pictured in a series of grubby halls and diners, Harry often looks like a visitor from the world of fashion, like Kate Moss or Alexa Chung backstage with Arctic Monkeys, which suggests few women have followed her lead. Her male contemporaries, rather than ransacking fashion like she did, are focused on recycling rock’s past. In redolent, intimate shots of post-hippie, pre-punk acts such as Jayne County and the New York Dolls, you can see a scene coalescing out of glitter, rock’n’roll nostalgia, paramilitary chic and, in the case of the Blondie drummer Clem Burke, full-on mod.

The only person in Negative who looks like they’re trying too hard is Television’s Richard Hell, in the ripped shirt often said to have invented punk. Otherwise, everyone seems to be having loads of fun, which is not something you could say about Ed Sheeran in A Visual Journey. The 23-year-old singer-songwriter, who mixes hummable tunes with lovelorn lyrics and traces of hip-hop and R’n’B, is a modern-day sales phenomenon to rank with Adele. He is also, he says, proof that “record sales don’t have to rely on image”, which makes his choice of a pictorial record puzzling, even if, as he insists, the photorealist drawings by his boyhood friend Phillip Butah “[tie] together the music and visual perfectly”.

As a “really geeky ginger kid”, Sheeran rejected rock’s offer of reinvention, outlined in the three other books here, and chose instead an anti-style of black T-shirts, hoodies and jeans that would advertise his authenticity and sincerity, his “soul and heart and emotion”. It’s a strange, mangled ethos descended from British punk, a delusional double standard that allows him to copy the tattoos and messy hair of his childhood heroes Green Day but still dismiss Beyoncé (and no doubt Debbie Harry, too) because she dresses up. It’s also deeply, deeply dull. Sheeran proudly declares, “I’ve never tried to be something I’m not,” and entreats readers to “Just be you. That’s the best advice I can give.” (“Ugh!” as someone might say.) In reality, his is every bit as much an image as Marianne Faithfull’s minidresses, Jimmy Page’s bell-bottoms or Debbie Harry’s jumpsuits, just not one worth recording. 

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.


Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.


May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.


Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.


Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor

John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump