From Punk Rock to Hip-Hop: Janette Beckman ANTI

COVER Joe-Strummer-Milan-1981

Photography by : Janette Beckman

Text by : Ken Caruso

February 18, 2014

Janette Beckman was born in London in…never mind when she was born she’s a lady damn it and that has nothing to do with this article. She grew up in the poorest time of Britain’s history when unemployment was rampant but out of this poor economic turmoil emerged the punk movement. So this is not going to be your typical interview. As a matter of fact none of my interviews are going to be typical that’s why I’m writing for ANTI Society. This one is coming purely from a fan’s point of view. No rhyme or reason. No coherence, just adoration of the images presented and a yearning to want to know how the stars aligned to make them celluloid heroes. Janette Beckman photographed and archived not one but two eras that I grew up in. Trust me, there were many more images I could have asked her about but I had to narrow it down to fit this blog. I hope you enjoy seeing them as much as I did hearing about them.

How did you get to be hired by Melody Maker? (which was London’s equivalent of our Rolling Stone Magazine)

I was in college in art school and I loved photography and taking portrait’s, I did three years of that and when I finally got out the one thing they didn’t teach you back then was how to get a job. I just went around taking pictures and one day I walked into Sounds, a rival newspaper with my portfolio and I met a writer there named Vivien Goldman. She was the feature editor at the time. She says “oh what are you doing tonight, I like your work how would you like to go shoot Siouxsie and the Banshees tonight?” Well I never photographed a band in my life so I went to the Roundhouse on her request and photographed the band. She kept giving me jobs and eventually she moved to Melody Maker and brought me with her….The rest is History…or Her-story. I ended up photographing 3 or 4 bands a week from 1977 to 1982.

And I have to tell the readers the list is incredible especially for a punk enthusiast like me. When I first met you, you handed me your business card and on it is your most iconic picture of Pete Townshend with this other man. You said I was one of the few people who actually knew the name of the other man, which is Paul Weller, and I knew his name because I was a bigger fan of his growing up than Towshend. I loved the Jam and the Style Council and Paul Weller’s solo career. That picture to use a Who song title is to me “The Punk meets the Godfather”. How did that shot come about? 

I was working for Melody Maker and my friend Paolo Hewitt who was a writer for the Mag asked me if I wanted to come and take pictures. Paulo grew up with Paul Weller and they actually went to the same school. Paulo grew up in foster care in Paul’s neighborhood so they were best friends. And actually Paulo wrote a couple books about the Jam. So he arranged for Paul Weller to meet his hero Pete Townshend. Paul Weller loved him so we decided for them to meet in front of the Marquee club, which was the greatest venue for every band ever playing in London. It would be like your Madison Square Garden. So I come down the street and they had already just met seconds before and I walk up to them with my camera in hand. I’m looking at Paul Weller and he’s just sharp as a tack wearing a pinstripe suit and smoking a cigarette and Pete Townsend looking a little disheveled and what not. So they asked me “how do you want us to pose?” I just said “why it’s perfect just the way you are” “CLICK” It was a great moment so I took like 20 shots and got the picture just how you see it. It’s probably my best selling print ever, it’s almost sold out actually.

Weller Townshend London 1981

Yeah I love that shot. You actually should ring them up and take the same shot as that one but 35 years later.

That’s actually a brilliant idea.

Well make that happen BIOTCH…(both laughing). What was the coolest photo shoot that you can remember you ever did? 

Wow the coolest, I got to say what’s up there is probably when I went to photograph The Clash in Milan.

OK stop the fucking presses…Now this wasn’t rehearsed. But for anybody who ever knew me or knows me now The Clash are my all time favorite Punk, Funk, Reggae, Rock mother fucking badass band to ever grace the face of this God fearing black dot BIOTCH…Proceed.

I shot them before in London and followed them all over taking pictures of their concerts. I was a massive Clash fan.

As I.

So Melody Maker said do you want to go to Milan to photograph The Clash? “Yes please,” (she sings with delight) so I went with my friend the writer Paolo Hewitt who was also a big Clash fan and they were playing in this big bicycle stadium. They were downstairs in the dressing rooms and we got there late and had to go find them. Finally we came upon them in their basement dressing rooms and they were completely blasted. So basically I had to go up to every single one of them and ask them if I could take a portrait. So Paulo started doing interviews with each one and it was about 20 minutes before the show so we started smoking pot with them. “CLICK.”

Joe Strummer Milan 1981

It was right then that I got that famous photo of Joe making a muscle. When it was time to go onstage I kind of got invited to go up with them and they would let me shoot them from the side. So I was completely stoned at this time and I’m looking through my 35 mm Nikon and I was kind of mesmerized with them but thinking back I guess I was completely just stoned. So I just started walking on stage apparently towards Joe and I was like only 2 or 3 feet away from Joes face in front of this massive crowd during their first song when somebody yelled “get that woman off the stage” so the bouncers came over and bloody threw me off…So yeah, I would say that was a pretty memorable shoot. The Clash in Milan.

How did you come about photographing the Sex Pistols?

A friend of mine knew the artist Jamie Reid who actually did the first album cover for The Sex Pistols (who collaborated with Shepard Fairey years later) and he said the Pistols need somebody to take photographs for press pictures. So I went out and spent the day with them and they were really funny and acting just like these little punks. They would be spitting all the time and making crude jokes to passers-by. They wanted to know what they should do for a cool picture. So we pass this garbage dumpster and told them to “jump in there.” CLICK” It was as easy as that.

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I grew up loving The Police so when I found out that you shot their first album cover It just was amazing to me how many pictures you took that I love. How did that session come about?

I’ve been working for Melody Maker a little bit and obviously go around to record companies and show my portfolio so I did some work at A&M and the art director called me up and she said “oh there’s this three-piece punk band that just got signed. They have a record coming out would you like to shoot their album cover? The first thing I did for them was a single for squeeze but this is my first album cover shoot. So I knew I had to buy a square format lens for the album cover.  I took every red cent that I had and I bought this lens for the camera. So off we went to Waterloo and I just got back from America and I bought a parachute suit, which was in at the time. So we decided that they were going to wear these parachute suits and Andy didn’t have one because he’s a small guy so it turns out he ended up wearing mine, which was pretty cool. So we shot that picture in a tunnel at Waterloo station. No hair or makeup on the boys. Just au naturel. “CLICK.”

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It’s amazing that you were involved with the beginning of the punk scene in London and then fast-forward you wind up in New York City in 1982 at the begging of hip-hop and you wind up in the middle of that scene shooting some amazing portraits. Any photographer would be overjoyed at just one of those careers. How do you make sense of what happened to you?

Well you’re right I don’t even think an American photographer made that transition from early punk rock to hip-hop but for me they were both kind of the same thing. They both came out of the street, out of poverty lack of jobs, like antiestablishment revolutionaries. England in the late 70s was just a total mess. There were no jobs, the economy was in bad shape and people were just getting pissed off. So there became like a whole Renaissance movement out of that. People started rhyming their own songs like “Anarchy in the UK” to making their own style of clothing to new dances. Jump forward to NYC and with hip-hop it was the same exact thing. New beats, rhythms, clothes, styles and dances. All out of poverty and oppression and I loved that. So I came to NYC in ‘82 for Christmas and Melody Maker would ring me up wanting me to take pictures of this new style. “There’s this group called Run DMC and we want you to take pictures of them. Here’s Jam master Jay’s number,” they said. I’d jump on the train or subway and head up to Hollis and the next thing I know “CLICK” I’m taking pictures of this whole new sub culture.

Run DMC Hollis Queens 1984

So just like that this woman, a Britt no less starts capturing some of the greatest moments of the beginning of the American hip-hop phenomenon. I remember back then I was a DJ. If you were lucky enough to work in the clubs you would belong to this music club called “Rock Pool” you would pay a small monthly fee and go to this apt in NYC. There you would pick up all the newest 12″ dance tunes that the record companies would send. I remember getting the first Run DMC vinyl, The Beastie Boys, Grandmaster Flash, Parliament Funkadelic from my hometown of Plainfield, New Jeresey and so on. This woman would end up taking the pictures of my youth and not even knowing it, through both spans to boot. And now I am interviewing her and hanging out with her. Life is fucking funny, isn’t it?

Now tell me love how did you come about photographing one of my all time art heroes, Keith Haring?

Okay I was working for the Daily News and they had a Sunday magazine that I used to work for and they asked me if I wanted to go photograph this new artist Keith Haring and I got super excited. (Of course Keith was new to the Daily News but he was already years in the making before the mass media caught wind of him) I already knew his work from being on the subways and I had some great art friends who knew of him and I was super excited. I got invited over to his studio to shoot him.

What year was that?

1985, And he was on LaGuardia Place so I went there and we just hung out the whole afternoon. He was showing me all his pictures and paintings, I remember his little Micky Mouse phone and he had paint everywhere it was just like this kind of artist heaven to me. So I took a lot of shots of him in front of his paintings because I knew it was going to be a cover shot for the mag. So in the end I found this pile of rubbish and his paints all strewn about so I said “would you mind just crouching in that corner” He then goes and squats in the corner and he pulled out these big brushes, artist brushes and just holds them in this cross fashion, almost like a African warrior. “CLICK.” I remember saying to myself “now this is a great photograph”. Funny thing is they didn’t even use this picture—

OMG it’s fucking such a great shot!

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Yeah but you know magazines being what they are, well you know.

If you could be any artist alive or dead who would it be?

Jim Marshall.

What artist would you love to meet, alive or dead?

Aretha Franklin.

What’s the first question you would ask her?

Do I have to sing gospel to have a voice like that?

What’s the one question that you never get asked in the interview that you always wish they would?

Um, I guess what I would want them to ask me is what am I doing now? Usually I just get asked about the punk movement or the hip-hop but rarely about what I’m actually doing at the moment.

Okay then let me ask you that because I was going to do it anyway…So what are you doing now?

I took a job with a new publication called Jocks & Nerds. They made me the New York editor and I get to shoot a lot more interesting subjects to me. Like an obscure Jazz musicians or the Harlem Bike Club.

What kind of music did you actually listen to growing up?

I was actually a Motown fan I grew up listening to Motown and I just loved it, I still do. I also listened to a lot of classic rock like Cream, Pink Floyd, et cetera.

What kind of music do you listen to now?

Listen to a lot of old soul and House music, old hip-hop, Pharrell Williams, Daft Punk. Stuff like that.

Do you ever listen to music when you’re doing photo shoots?

Oh yeah definitely as a matter fact sometimes I let the people bring their own music and play it. It kind of inspires them to pose and work the camera.

Ok Janette, I thought it would be fitting to end this interview with my final question about the Beastie Boys (RIP Adam Yauch). Now speaking of playing music to inspire ones self. I always play these guys when I’m being “creative” and the coolest thing is my daughter who will be 16 loves these guys also. How did you hook up with the Beastie Boys? 

Rolling Stone commissioned me to take a picture of the Beastie Boys. So they came to my studio on Franklin Street with Rick Rubin. I put up this red background behind them and thought it looked pretty cool. Rick Rubin came in and he was wearing this pale blue puffy jacket and holding a cup of Blimpie coffee. Sorta looked like a bum, he was never a sharp dresser anyway. For some reason he had a gun with him. I don’t know what the gun was for but I told him to use it as a prop and Rick posed himself. I then just took the picture of him just like that…I think it came out pretty damn cool.

That is damn cool. Rick rules. Where did the hats come in?

Actually they were all their own except Adam Horovitz noticed my “big ass” white wooly hat and decided that would be a cool look in the shoot.

Rick Rubin NYC 1985jpg

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Beastie Boys NYC 1985-1

I would like to thank Janette for her time, stories and warm soul. I could have let this interview go on and on and on and on because you know what Rod says, “every picture tells a story don’t it?” She had a lifetime of great pictures and I’m happy to say she’s not hanging up her camera any time soon. Janette has a couple great books out, most notable Made in the UK : The Music of Attitude and The Breaks : Stylin’ and Profilin. I recommend them for any music lover, they can be found on Amazon here. You can also purchase prints of hers from Morrison Hotel Gallery and directly by email at janette.beckman@gmail.com. Please support the arts….it’s what makes a nation great.

Ken Caruso is the ANTI Society’s in-house street art and photography expert. He is a decorative artist and owner and operator of Alternative Interiors in New Jersey as well as an avid collector and graffiti hunter. He also has his own radio show on Friday nights “Live…Without a net” on chestnutradio.com. Follow him on Instagram  @djkcaruso.