New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Culture
16 October 2014

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. 

By James Medd

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.

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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. 

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