EVERYONE knows the score, right?
Someone whose work you’ve admired for three decades is appearing in town – except you’re broke and worse, broken-hearted, because your girlfriend’s just walked out on you, it’s all still very raw and you don’t really know what day it is.
So you walk all the way to the Whitworth in the rain, and then when you get there, you’re soaked to the skin, you’ve no fags left, everything’s a bit surreal and you suddenly feel utterly disconnected from whatever the fuck ‘normal’ is.
You can’t find the insightful, carefully-researched questions in your pad, so you just end up asking questions about stuff that’s not very interesting, and forget all the stuff you really wanted to know about.
Everybody has been there, right? No? Yeah, me neither.
Dennis Morris, a kid from Clapton with a camera who made his name photographing Bob Marley and the Sex Pistols, and designing the packaging for PiL’s seminal Metal Box album – before joining Don Letts’ Basement 5 project, forming his own band Urban Shakedown, and inadvertently inventing drum and bass – is telling an audience about his time in Basement 5, signed to Island Records. We’re at the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, in 2011. Or 2012.
“U2 were also signed to Island Records. U2 used to support us. There’s a saying in the music industry, beware the support act. The guitarist in Basement 5, JR, used to wear a cowboy hat and play a flying V guitar. Remember that period when the Edge wore a cowboy hat and played a flying V? I used to climb all over the PA at gigs, y’know, like Bono does now.
“But they had better management. Our manager used to go into the press and marketing department at Island every Friday, and give everyone in there a proper bollocking, like what the fuck have you done to get Basement 5 on the radio this week? And other bands’ management used to come in every Friday and everyone got sorted out with a nice little package, whatever it was they that they were into.”
The rest of the audience (who are there to hear Morris talk about his work as a photographer of some note) is looking pretty nonplussed by all this. I’m thrilled to bits. But to be fair, didn’t U2 rip off everyone they supported? Either way, Morris has no regrets.
“I travel a lot and, to this day, people come up to me and say, oh can you sign this and I’m like, you got the album? I never knew we sold that many. I get royalties off it, I can’t live off it, but it’s nice. “
Despite his groundbreaking work as a photographer, it’s a sad fact that, for many people of a certain age, Morris will probably always be best known for designing both the PiL logo and the hugely-distinctive packaging for the band’s Metal Box album (he also designed the equally-seminal packaging for LKJ in Dub – and the sleeve for Simply Red’s Money’s Too Tight to Mention, but we’ll not dwell on that).
I’m not sure Morris would necessarily agree with all this but, either way, he seems pretty relaxed about the whole thing.
“For me, I’m proud of the fact that Metal Box stands the test of time, in that sense, that I was involved in something so influential. The music is timeless, like the logo, like the sleeve, like everything else that went along with it.
“Across the road from my secondary school was a company called the Metal Box company. So when John and I were talking about PiL’s next album, he turned round to me and said, I want to call it the Metal Box. And it just came back to me, I said, it’s funny you should say that. I used to see it every day, you know? The Metal Box. So I went and saw the company and they said, yeah, we make them for films.
“I persuaded Virgin to bulk buy a load and then embossed the logo on the canister and that’s how it all came out. It was a very simple idea.”
What do you get out of photography that you don’t get out of making music?
“The main thing with music, for me, was not making a living, really. Anything you do, you’ve got to be able to survive out of it. I believe I created some very influential music, but I always thought it was too ahead of its time, and unfortunately when it’s so far ahead of its time, it’s very difficult to make a living out of it. Photography was always something I was a master of, and I think it’s best to stick with what you’re good at.
“I always saw music as an extension of what I did but never something that would ever replace photography. Even when I was doing it at the time, to be honest.”
That’s crazy man. That Basement 5 album blew my mind. I’d never heard anything like it. And Martin Hannett’s production …
“Yeah, but there weren’t enough people connecting like yourself. It did well, don’t get me wrong, but it was so early. We just split. We were under so much pressure. We were touring all the time. The album was selling but it wasn’t selling enough to sustain the outfit. Basically, it just came to an end. Now, I get people saying we should reform or do this or do that, but I just don’t have that same passion for it.”
At this point, I probably should’ve asked about Urban Shakedown, what with them making such an impression on me all those years ago, but no. Why would I do that? I’ve only been obsessed with the band for 30-odd years. Why would I talk about this stuff to the main man of Urban Shakedown when I finally get the chance. I mean, really?
Luckily, someone did a proper interview with Morris here.
Meanwhile, some marvellous and fantastic person has posted the footage from that late night C4 programme that so captured my imagination as a teenager. Fill your boots.