Ever wonder what it would have been like to hang out with Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, and the rest of the Sex Pistols in the prime of their London anarchy? Ask Joe Stevens; he’ll tell you all about it.
Practically from the Pistols’ inception in the mid 1970s, Stevens was there, capturing iconic images of the seminal punk band. He shot many of their earliest gigs in England and some of their final dates in the United States.
After Rotten (a.k.a. John Lydon) left the band in 1978, he temporarily moved in with Stevens in New York.
“Rotten you could speak to,” Stevens says. “He was a guest at my house and we never ran out of things to talk about.”
And Mr. Vicious, the band’s ill-fated bassist?
“He was a moron, and he stunk,” Stevens says.
By the time Stevens connected with the Sex Pistols, he was already a renowned rock photographer. A native New Yorker who has long lived on the Seacoast and now resides in Exeter, Stevens has been photographing rock royalty since the 1960s. He’s shot the Stones, Zeppelin, Bowie, Springsteen, Carly Simon and James Taylor, all the way up through modern sensations like Lady Gaga.
But the Sex Pistols, in all their spiky, bedraggled glory, were perhaps his favorite subject. Stevens will show and discuss some of his Sex Pistols photos at The Press Room in Portsmouth on Friday, Dec. 19 at 7 p.m., prior to a performance by Portland-based rock band Whale Oil. He’s sure to regale those in attendance with stories of riotous punk debauchery.
I was the richest punk rocker in the crowd. But I wasn’t a punk rocker at all; I was just a photographer.
Stevens’ first encounter with the Pistols in 1976 has been related often enough to qualify as local lore. He was in London working for New Musical Express magazine (known popularly as NME), living near Malcolm McLaren’s now infamous shop, SEX. One day, McLaren brought Stevens a stack of flyers promoting a party with the Sex Pistols.
“I didn’t know anything about the band, so I figured ‘Sex Pistols’ meant some kind of demonstration of dildos or vibrators,” Stevens says. “I figured, ‘I’m gonna go.’”
He went with a group that included his then girlfriend, rock photographer Kate Simon, and future Pretenders front woman Chrissie Hynde. Stevens was not particularly impressed with the music, but that didn’t matter. He was there to take pictures, and the images he got were “unbelievable,” he says.
He shot the Pistols’ next show, too. And the one after that, which also featured The Clash and the Buzzcocks. At each gig, he amassed more incredible photos.
What made the Pistols so photogenic?
“Chaos. Beer cans in the air. Spit. And, in the case of the punk rock scene, what they were wearing,” Stevens says. “It was all hand-me-downs. It was all thrift shop.”
Still, Stevens had a hard time convincing the writers and editors at NME to take the band seriously.
“Even at that early point, the NME were kind of reluctant. They said, ‘What did they sound like?’ I said, ‘Oh, they sounded awful. But they’re unbelievably exciting, and the audience was great,’” he says.
Stevens became the go-to photographer for London’s budding punk scene. But, while he got paid for his photos of the Sex Pistols, the young band members were still broke and slumming in the streets. They’d approach Stevens in pubs and churlishly demand beers.
“So I’d buy all of them lagers and give them cigarettes and stuff,” he says. “I was the richest punk rocker in the crowd. But I wasn’t a punk rocker at all; I was just a photographer.”
The Sex Pistols’ rise to fame came largely after the short-lived band had dissolved. “They didn’t last long, but the memory did,” Stevens says.
That may be partly due to the photos Stevens took, capturing a brief moment in rock history that spawned an entire culture and style.
Stevens regularly shows and discusses his photography around the Seacoast. This year, he’s brought his photos and stories to Sonny’s Tavern in Dover and The Music Hall Loft and Prescott Park in Portsmouth.
He still keeps in touch with Lydon, who recently mailed him a copy of his new autobiography, “Anger is an Energy,” which includes several of Stevens’ photos. Inside the front cover is Lydon’s signature, along with a note: “Hello Joe, I know, so do you.” Still a juvenile punk at heart, Lydon drew dots in the rounded curves of the “w,” making it look like a pair of breasts.
Perhaps, Stevens muses, Lydon will come to the U.S. for a book tour and Stevens can show some of his Sex Pistols photos before a signing. Until then, you can catch him at The Press Room, where he’ll “show some pictures and yak for a while” — two of his favorite things to do.
Joe Stevens will discuss his Sex Pistols photography on Friday, Dec. 19 at 7 p.m., upstairs at The Press Room, 77 Daniel St., Portsmouth, 603-431-5186.