#StoneRoses – An Interview with Pennie Smith
Q1 So when did you first meet The Stone Roses and what stood out about them at the time?
P – I’m a bit hazy on that, I know when I first met them I shot them for a Japanese magazine called: ‘Rocking On’ that I was working for quite a lot of the time. They had originally spotted me because John and Ian were fans of The Clash, so they had seen my stuff in N.M.E, the work I had done with The Clash, so they sort of knew of me. Then the magazine asked me to cover them.
I believe I had wind of them before that, but I don’t think the English press were quite on their case at that point, they seemed to join-up a bit later. So how they crossed to Japan possibly in tandem with England or slightly ahead of England, certainly as a cover item I’m not quite sure, but I was first introduced to them through the Japanese magazine.
Q2In one of their songs, they refer to a ‘Pennie’ and the lyrics say with her record ‘set playing Jimi Hendrixy’s tune’. I’ve always wondered, is that you they are referring too?
P – I’m pretty sure that isn’t me. Oddly, at one of the last gigs I shot them at Etihad or Wembley, I think it was during a sound-check, Ian said that isn’t about you, but I wasn’t paying attention at the time and I wondered what he was talking about. They had just played that because you can’t really listen and shoot at the same time.
Q3 I believe you took some reunion pictures of The Stone Roses when they were recording following their comeback. There’s a great pic where they all look genuinely in stitches laughing. What was the joke? And who is the joker/most funny member of The Stone Roses. (picture: https://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/the-stone-roses-anatomy-of-all-for-one-761734)
P – It’s in the ‘Bermuda Triangle’ which was their come-back rehearsal area. It looks, because they are looking at me, that it was me, but they all chucked in-lines I’m able too when provoked, because Ian and John have eye contact at me, I can only think I must have said something.
Q4 Have to ask this, do you have a favourite Stone Roses song and why?
P – Not really. All there very early stuff was great because it was so innocent, and you can be quite arrogant when you’re innocent and I quite like the arrogance of it. On favourite songs, ‘no’, to be honest. I have worked with bands who have a similar brain-set. I do the art and they make a racket. So yes obviously, I like some of their songs, otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to hang around for the gigs. I haven’t got pet songs nor have I a favourite colour.
Q5 Do you have a story to tell about The Stone Roses that their fans may not already heard?
P – Not really, because I’m sure fans have probably done far more swotting than I have. I quite like shooting thing’s ‘cold,’ so I don’t really know what’s happening and I sure fans have swotted up to what millimetre John’s pick is, I couldn’t say.
I think it was at the rehearsals or a sound-check, John had this bloody great kit of knobs and twiddles at his feet, I don’t why I asked because usually I don’t interfere, but I said: ‘what’s that lot for?’ and he more or less said, and it was probably a joke, but he said: ‘to get back to the original sound.’ You know the thoughts of going through hundreds of knobs and twiddles to get back to a basic sound is exactly the same as ‘film’.
Q6 Do you have any tips for anyone wanting to get into photography and band photography?
P – I would quite honestly say: ‘avoid it like the plague.’ Everybody wants your copyright now, I thankfully started before then. When I started for N.M.E. they said: ‘you know what you’re up so go and do it and we’ll print it’. It was a formula that worked a treat at the time. I was freelance so I retained all copyrights. Having said that, if was any ‘advertising’ or ‘commercial’ I would never do anything without the artists o.k., but in every other context they are my photographs, so I get re-run fees.
Whereas now you’re so bought out from the word ‘go.’ I mean, I still shoot film, but you’re so digitally watched as you shoot. I’ve been snapping alongside real modern photographers; they are watched by the art directors, whoever has commissioned it and they watch over you and direct the photo more or less. I don’t know what the photographer is there for anymore.
I was lucky starting in the days when there was only Sounds; Melody Maker and the N.M.E. All the nationals weren’t on the case, so luckily for me all the old stuff, which I hate going back too because I just like current work, isn’t covered in the same quantities as it is now in the agencies worldwide. I mean the grown-up media didn’t have an interest at that point when I started, so you had a lot more scope for time with bands shooting on more than the regular three shoots and just selling on. Basically there’s more ways to make money if you are commercially minded.
Us – Sounds like there is a lot more romance in how it should be, when there was a whole career there it must be terrible you go somewhere and somebody there thinks they have a better idea how to…..
P – how to shoot it, yes, there’s so much other input everything is so based around the money factor. I mean what I have tended to do is focus on the documentary photos alongside the band rather than the shoot. You know, I had to produce the shoots for an album cover or whatever on time and accurately, the days where you could sort of take your time and wonder around with the band for no money, but at least then you were working under your own rules. Following the shoots, bands would then pull out photos that, well I’d pull out my choice first, then the band usually goes through those and then would choose theirs and that just isn’t possible anymore. Now it’s sort of turn up have 3 people tweak hair, make up, watching over you telling you when to click the shutter. There’s not a lot of art in it and there’s an awful lot of people wanting to do it also.
Also, photos aren’t being used like they used too. You don’t just get, well there are a few resurgences in vinyl, but you know the picture the size of your little finger on the internet is not very soul-satisfying.
Q7 Do you think camera technology has worsened over the decades? (I ask because I look at pictures from 30 years ago and they have much more character and romance than those taken with top SLRs today).
Some people still shoot ‘film’, me being one of the last survivors I think, but even the film I use is the same films I used to use. They used to have sort of ball-bearing sized grain, you could regulate your greys to tight sharp crispy greys where the light hit or whatever, now Tri-x which is the film I use has softened that grain. Ilford don’t make the same grade paper, they only go up to grade 4 which I used to use. I used it in that manner because papers like N.M.E. were like blotting paper, it just absorbed photos and made them look matt. So, for very hard images; everything has been smoothed out somewhat, somewhere along the line and so you see a lot of pictures that were shot in colour digitally and then made black and white, which don’t work either because they’re just got con-tone as opposed to your differentiation between blacks and whites.
Us – So you’d have a specific camera for black and white back then?
P – I just use a boxed standard old Pentax, which having said that people are buying the old camera lenses because they are better than the ones on digital cameras. I mean the lenses still go for a premium if you try buy one second-hand. The old digital cameras, some of them might seem to be going up, but are only scrap-metal in the main. It’s partly down to the lenses and partly the fact it’s film. It is almost when you look at the film on TV, you can tell if it’s shot on film or digital, film just got a more of a 3D feeling to it.
Us – That’s quite interesting, because I find with the music these days everything is MP3 and that it is only 75% of CD quality and CD quality is 16-bit. But when you go in the studio its 24-bit and that’s how the artists heard it, so no wonder they all get lost for so many months when they go there because when they listen to The Beatles how it sounded to The Beatles at 24-bit.
P – Also everything was so much simpler. One of the tracks I was in on when The Clash were recording, Topps played his drums with a lemonade bottle filled and he got the right sound. Now you would go through God knows how many processes to sound like a lemonade bottle being banged on a drum. It’s somehow all filtered and it is the same with photography, you have to go through so many stages through a computer that somehow it gets muddy in the middle.
Q8 Which Stone Roses picture are you most proud of (perhaps that’s the wrong term, I should say which stood out most for you)?
P – There was several really, but basically I’d say I’m more of a documentary photographer. There are very few of The Roses or The Roses definite shoots that haven’t gone pear-shaped in various ways. To be totally, ‘politically-none-correct,’ I like the idea of wild game shooting the picture that has happened accidentally. I always quite liked the one with the plane in the background, because that was John wanting to go and look at a plane which was positioned in the middle of a roundabout in Belgium somewhere on the way between the hotel and a sound check.
Us – Is that where one of them had those big circular glasses?
P – Yes, I think it’s when he’s lifting one of the glasses frames up. John’s crouched down at the bottom and I’m at the same eye level as John and the three other ones are slightly above him then there is a tail of the plane sticking up if you look at the background.
Us – Yes I know that one, I was looking at some of the pictures the other day and that one was there and a couple of pictures around that I always been amazed as to how many pictures re-surface that were taken of them around that time. They always look like a gang that still had that relationship between them.
P – That was one of the reasons I liked them. They were tactile, a lot of English bands aren’t. There was a time when I started shooting The Jam I had a choice, sort of, cause I was getting pissed-off with the N.M.E. I just felt they were repeating my photos week-after-week. I was doing the main cover photos and the secondary feature photos and I was boring myself really. I thought I was doing the same composition and had the choice of going with The Jam or The Clash. I chose The Clash because they were tactile and The Jam weren’t. Much as I like both bands The Roses used to touch each other and make good shapes. So yes I can’t say it was my favourite photo, but it was the last ditched attempt to get a photo. I had ‘X’ amount of days on the road with The Roses, it kept putting it off. It was only because John said I want to go look at the plane on the roundabout that the photo just worked a treat, that’s why I like the photo. I mean, yes it’s a good shape; yes it works; they are nice and tight they are all interesting but it’s more the point that I got the shot in no seconds at all.
Us – That’s great, even back then that John had got something to specific to see from an artistic point of view.
P – Well I don’t know if John was a plane spotter actually.
Us – Him and Mani brought a tractor recently when they reformed I don’t what they are going to do with those tractor races together.
P – I mean John is a bit of a car nut, but yes I don’t know.
Q9 Did you always think they were going to be successful?
P – You cant really tell. Basically I’d go see someone I’d find interesting. You don’t look it from a backward point of view, you know how big was the fish that got away. For me, it was just whether the photos were working for me. They felt fresh, they felt new, but who knows what makes someone successful.
Q10 Were you surprised when they announced they were reforming? How was it when you caught up with them again?
P – I thought there was probably unfinished business, I thought it had gone on too long for them not to reform. I was and wasn’t surprised. I think I was surprised when I actually got the call in the morning, but up to that point I wouldn’t have been surprised if they reformed if that makes any sense.
I received a call from their manager, he rang and said: ‘are you free on Thursday?’. I said: ‘why?’ He said: ‘The Roses are reforming’. My next question was: ‘is it the original four?’; and when he said: ‘yes,’ I said: ‘yes.’Their manager is who I dealt with; he was the one that phoned up and told me about the reunion and it was it him that was doing the hard work. Because a lot of them I like working with are difficult bands to be honest only because I can walk out the door clutching my passport and leave them to it if they get up my nose, but I mean I can see their manager suffering; you know trying to make four people who disagree agree about things day-to-day, even to what pie do you want today.
Q11 How have the stone roses influenced you and your work and what do they mean to you?
P – Just similar minds I think. I tend to work with bands for long periods of time. I know roughly (although some shoots don’t work out), but you know from the first five photos whether this is going to be easy, not as in easy, but whether you have got a similar brain-set really and so I don’t whether John and I, or any of the others, have got similar influences. I don’t know, we might have exterior influences that are very similar and does that give us equal influences on each other, no, who knows, it’s just similar brain-sets all round.
Q12 What would you like to see The Stone Roses do next?
P – I haven’t got a clue. Sadly life gets in the way of these sort of things, you get a bit of money you take it easy for six months, then it goes to a year, then you have kids or whatever and life moves on and you find yourself spiralling away from your original workmates or friends or whatever. I hope they are all individually prolific.
Q13 Did you ever use ‘Symbolism’, ’shapes’ or other artworks to influence the pictures you took with them? I only ask as I found an interesting piece on the concept here( https://protect-eu.mimecast.com/s/qn01ClR1tG7gpfqT3yL)
P – Several years ago, somebody told me to check out a website which was in Italy and someone was doing an art thesis on me and The Stone Roses, believe or not. They had paralleled illustrations of all the old masters and put them beside my pictures of The Stone Roses. It was a totally comprehensive synopsis of how I had formed these photos around these old masters, which were pulled from every genre under the sun. Although I went to art school there was no way I could have managed to pull in the amount painters that they had, so when I checked out the This is the Daybreak link:(http://www.pdmcauley.co.uk/Analysis/Pennie.htm),that again made me laugh. Basically, there is no symbolism, it is like music which I know nothing about, when you make shapes in photos only certain shapes are appealing to the eye. To an artist or a photographer there is something called a ‘golden section’ where you take a diagonal across a picture, you have certain points on it that draw your eye into the picture, of which I learned something about at art school. Presumably, most artists work on this. I put the camera up to my eye and I click whenever I see a picture makes a good shape, or gets-over whatever I’m trying to interpret, whatever I’ve got in front of me, so there is no swotting up before-hand or after-hand on forming a photograph, no.
In terms of shape, if you look at various pictures, some have a pointy centre bit in the middle; some have a diagonal-line up to the right or left which leads your eye up to the right or the left. If I had have been a studio photographer I’m sure I’d be working on that. I seem to gut react to it. I’m currently working on a big project and the first couple of dozen I pulled out all had the same composition and I wasn’t happy about it, so yes I do shape photos in particular ways as no doubt do artists and musicians if ‘caigence is cause’ but it’s not conscious.
Q14 With John Squire also being an artist, did he ever make any suggestions or have input during the photoshoots?
P – They always chose the locations because obviously they knew what they were up to more than I did. They know Manchester and it’s surroundings, whenever they would say: ‘we’ll do it at ‘x’ or ‘y’,’ I’d sort of join in. The nice thing about bands breaking-up is I get all four members as solos, so I get four bands for the price of one. When The Roses broke-up, I did a bit stuff with John, Mani with Primal Scream. Basically, John had a few of his own ideas. One particular bonkers one involved a great-hole and a plastic daffodil in his button hole which I couldn’t get my brain around at all. Most of the bands I work with know what I do and leave me to do it, then hopefully I have something that appeals to both. They wouldn’t be using me if we didn’t have similar brain-sets to them. John never came to me and said we want this shape, we want Mani on the outside, I’ve got to be in the middle.
Q15 What were the reunion rehearsals like? Did they play any songs that weren’t in the set list?
P – I went to where they were rehearsing, I don’t where it was to this day as I got picked up in a car and driven there and it was in the back of beyond. Basically, they were twiddling around a bit. I was dropped in and they left me to it. I went in to do my job and they carried on with theirs.
Q16 In the reunion programme for Heaton Park there’s a shot of Reni sat on a hotel bed, where was that picture taken, what’s it like to work with Reni?
P – All the pictures were taken in Spain after the Barcelona gig, not quite sure why everything was left so late, but that was in Reni’s hotel room. I get on really well with him. He reads a lot and I have actually got a book shop. We used to occasionally swap books, so he’s easy to get on with.
The picture which showed the bands eyes that I shot through a battleship that was moored of the site of somewhere in Manchester. The band wanted to see the battleship and I believe at some point they wondered whether to do a gig on it. I can’t remember where its moored now. Anyway, because everybody have nagged them and nagged them to reform, we thought it would be quite funny for that to be there first press shot after they came back because it gave the press nothing. It was a case of winding everybody up, in fact it gave their press-officer a nervous breakdown, bless her. Again another spontaneous thing, it was just quite funny.
They didn’t give a monkey’s really, they just wanted to do what they wanted to do, which is great. It’s quite difficult to do that nowadays; it’s by prescription really, it’s a nightmare.
Us – No I think you’re right, the difficulty is the bands and the millennials coming through now haven’t got a reference point to see how things were done previously, they just assume you tell me how high to jump and I’ll jump. Whereas, that was the whole point of ‘rock n roll’ and punk, it’s anti-establishment saying we won’t do what you tell us to.
P – Sorry to use the ‘innocence’ word again, but you did it in your bedroom with your mates or whatever; you came out and shock horror in two years or so’s time, you became famous and then couldn’t do another album.
Us – I think you’re right, it’s that elusive second album, whereby, and in their case that third album, whereby you come out with everything you got to say and it’s built-up its really those first albums is really twenty years in the making, with all your youthful life experiences that you have. But then you have to do it on demand within a year for album two or three.
P – And you’ve taken your ‘feet off the street,’ particularly if you got some money, you sort of aren’t getting the experience. You might be getting a different one, you might be getting married, having family or whatever. There’s only so much you can write about.
Q17 What’s it like to work with the band?
P – I never know what the bands feel like working with me. I presume they like it because I keep getting called back. It’s just in my mind it’s like a parallel universe, I do the art bit and they make the noise.
I’ve now decided to never do a stadium gig again, A sound-check at a stadium is fine and back-stage is fine (not when the celebs come in, or whilst there is angst during the post-mortem afterwards, that was it terrible). I haven’t seen the Roses since that gig, I don’t think I even processed the film. I just can’t work where I can’t see the bands eye-contact with each other or glancing at me. I haven’t really spoken to them since whatever it was ‘Wembley’ or ‘Etihad’ or wherever it was.
Us – It’s funny you should say that because a lot of the ‘die-hards’ haven’t gone to those gigs because a lot of people are trying to re-live there youth or they sounded much better when there was a 200 capacity local gig.
P – The digital backdrops drive me bonkers, they take any art away from the photos in my opinion; just giant dots and blobs atmosphere. I suppose the audience go along for the sing-along really.
Us – I think that’s it there was one intimate gig they did whereby it was sponsored by Adidas, because I think Ian and Mani have been sponsored by Adidas for many years.
P – Was that that funny one just after the Olympics.
Us – I think it was yes, it was at the Village Underground.
P – In East London yes, I went to that.
Us – Jimmy Page was there and a few others.
P – I think Jimmy Page really likes John’s guitar.
Us – He does.
P – I bumped into him becasue I shot a fair bit with Zeppelin as well at Finsbury Park.
Us – He’s an interesting character, I met him at the bar before he went to that gig and started talking to him, and he was a little disinterested as any rock star would be, until I started talking to him about guitars and then he focused.
P – He’s a lovely bloke I have always really got on with him. In fact, I got invited to a book launch a Zeppelin on Zeppelin thing. There was only about five people invited and to my shock horror I was invited, he was sweet and had all the time in the world to talk; lovely bloke.
Us – There was a great example whereby you had a tribute band for Pink Floyd and when Pink Floyd re-formed they had to speak to the tribute band to say how do they get this sound for a part of the song. They tried to re-do it and they couldn’t remember how they got the sound. I have done a few blogs to say how they got that sound and John only had 5 or 6 pedals back then and it was a Gretch guitar it was what George Harrison had and that’s why sounded more Beatlesy than The Beatles. But then when the second album came out he turned into Zeppy via a Gibson.
P – I saw someone the other day, they said one of the big blues people used to go into a derelict water-container to get the echo sound, climb-down the ladder and play in there.
Us – I’ve heard Jimi Hendrix used a recording studio below the pavement, sometimes he would have room full of amplifiers taller than him and some of the producers would be scared and have to leave and not work with him. Some people would say you go near the studio on the pavement upstairs and the pavement would be shaking. That was one way he could get his feedback; the sound he was after.