Book Review //80’s Sound & Vision – Sheila Rock

Francis Lincoln Publishers – Out Now

Away from the cut and thrust of the “3 songs no flash” world of live music photography, exists a more sedate, more creative side to image making. Capturing the movers and shakers or whoever the scene holds aloft, as trendsetters and influencers. Social Media did not invent influencers, but back in the latter part of the 20th century, we called them something else. They had substance and the cult of being famous for its own sake had yet to really take hold, despite Warhol’s assertion that everyone would indeed have their own 15 minutes in the spotlight. We were in a world where Love Island hadn’t even been thought of. In fact, the very people taking your photograph, could actually make you a “face” for your allotted quarter of an hour. Where, previously Photographers “documented” history, they were starting to make their own as celebrities in their own right. Being snapped by Bailey or Snowdon exuded a certain gravitas, which could elevate the subject’s standing in society. Mapplethorpe redefined the boundaries of erotica, documenting the world of BDSM with his study of gay men in 60s and 70s New York.

Rock music photography was still finding it’s place in the media spectrum. The pioneers were like the late 1800s gold miners heading for the Klondike. Uncharted territory, open to all comers, each trying to find their own nuggets from which to carve out a career. Their names stand out – Bob Gruen, Barry Schulz, Gered Mankowitz, Jill Furmanovsky, Martyn Goddard and perhaps the most aptly monikered of all, Mick Rock. Each of these operated in a time where the stars had started to rival Hollywood actors for fame and it’s associated debauchery. Today, their iconic subjects are held in high esteem by fans young and old. Classic images adorn t-shirts, posters and front covers of glossy specialist monthlies. In this day of smartphone devaluation, it’s unlikely that today’s stars will enjoy the same longevity. Who’s going to be buying prints of Ed Sheeran in 50 years’ time?

And so, to the latest release by Sheila Rock, her 4th book 80s Sound & Vision, which captures the energy and passion of perhaps the most divisive decade in music history. Often in conversation about music, somebody 20-30 years my junior will tell me how much they love 80s music. As we trade artists, I realise my 80s is very different to their perception. Mine’s a real time album experience, theirs relived track by track from endless 80s compilations and Spotify playlists. Each as valid as the other, but equally unrepresentative of the time.

Rock came to London from the US, in 1970 and was one of the leading players in documenting the Punk and Post Punk eras. Her second book Punk+, is a record of the 70’s London punk scene. Despite being in the right place at the right time, indeed she was to meet her husband, the aforementioned legend, Mick Rock as a result, she managed to keep from being pigeon-holed as just a music photographer. She attributes the publishing of the ground-breaking The Face magazine as launching her career in earnest, after a successful spell as a commercial photographer after her punk days.

Working under the auspices of Nick Logan, who she credits as vital to her calling, she was magnetically attracted by the vitality bubbling around London at the time. Rock was compelled by the scenes she witnessed, seduced by the personalities and blown away by the make-up, outfits and quiffs. ‘It was like riding a wave, one person introduced me to another, and I guess my low-key personality and demeanour helped me infiltrate. I wasn’t imposing or demanding, I’m not loud or aggressive and could persuade people to cooperate and collaborate’, she recalls.

This was a decade about self-invention and individuality. A time to explore, push back the boundaries further than our parents had done in the 60s. Develop a style no longer restricted by post-war austerity and fashion rule books. In fact, those post-war fashions were reinterpreted by a new generation of blitz kids, this time from the club of the same name and not the Luftwaffe’s indiscriminate carpet bombing of the East End. As if to illustrate my earlier point about different shared realities, the early 80s also saw bands like Blitz, who were part of the vanguard of street punk in the UK, the so called “Second Wave”. As the punks before them had chosen to shock their elders, with their threatening look and down at heel style, the 80s kids chose an altogether more sexual route , challenging social acceptance and experimenting with gender fluidity. More Bowie and Roxy Music than Buzzcocks or Covent Garden’s legendary Roxy club. The capitals streets themselves became the cat walks, and bedroom fashionistas the new generation of designers. The possibilities were endless it seemed. These were not High Street fashions!

Rock, usually clad in black to blend in, was enthused to be more creative in her shoots, spurred on by record labels, who insisted she captured the zeitgeist and gave her artistic license to experiment. And experiment she did.

The book adopts a holistic approach to the subject matter, with each 80s youth movement covered, be it Mod, New Romantic, Goth or Indie, from the clubs that gave birth to it, the fashion oulets that clothed it and the hairdressers who coiffed it. Every level of the evolution represented. From pictures of the fans themselves to their very own idols, it’s a sumptuous walk through my youth and I suspect that of many others like me. Some of the photographs have never been seen before, taken from her personal archives. There are some absolutely jaw dropping images included, where the fragile emotion of the subject almost leaps off the page – Billy McKenzie and Sinead O’Connor especially. Morrissey with a kitten, Paul Weller looking like a proto-type Eminem, Siouxsie Sioux in Japanese garb and the androgenous beauty of Marilyn, all included each worthy of a print on your wall.

Over 300 pages packed with fantastic photographs, this book deserves a place on your coffee table. Visitors will not be able to keep their hands off, assuming you stop long enough to put it down yourself.

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