Veteran photographer Steve Rapport shares his gallery of music gods, with original shots of Prince, Springsteen, Bowie and more.
By Clay Lambert/HMB Review
Steve Rapport has captured the gods. He keeps them, frozen in time, in a gallery in Pacifica.
David Bowie. Bruce Springsteen. Joe Strummer. Van Morrison. Annie Lennox. There is a veritable rock ’n’ roll hall of fame hanging in his Mostly Rock ’n’ Roll Gallery in Pacifica’s Rockaway Beach. Each print comes with a story, and if you have the time, the former Londoner is more than happy to share both.
Perhaps most amazing of all, photography was simply one act in the ongoing passion play that is the life of Steve Rapport. We sat down with the photographer (and web designer and martial arts teacher) in his sunny gallery to hear about his work, how he came to Pacifica and why Boy George is still mad at him.
Take a look…
Where did you grow up, Steve? How did this start?
Well, I’m from London, East London. I was always into music as long as I can remember. We bought the Beatles singles as soon as they came out — “She Loves You,” “Please, Please Me,” — as singles. When I was older, I used to read the NME — the New Music Express. We had three weekly broadsheet music newspapers and then other magazines that came out every week or every two weeks. … My English teacher in high school use to call me “Melody Maker Steve.” I think she did that just to piss me off because I never read Melody Maker. It was a bit of an insult.
My dad was a bit of what we call a wide boy (a wheeler-dealer). He knew people. He used to sell carpet door to door and collect the money. Then he branched out to do money lending and collections and stuff. I really, really hated it as a kid. But he would come home on Fridays and open the boot of his car and there would be stuff in there. “Do you want some records?” he might say. That’s how I first heard (Van Morrison’s) “Astral Weeks.”
There would be cameras there that “fell off the back of a lorry,” or people couldn’t pay so they would give him gear. He actually got nicked once for dealing in stolen goods. I’m pretty sure he said, “Do you want a camera?” I was around 15 or 16 years old in 1970 or ’71. It was probably a knocked off Pentax.
How did you start shooting musical acts?
Fast forward and I was at university in the midlands, the University of Warwick. I did undergrad law and post-grad in law and public order. While I was doing that, punk happened.
In 1977, I spent a summer in exchange in America. When I came back, my sister had saved all the NMEs and I read all about the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Jam… I had to catch up on all the music.
So, I was doing photography and working in the dark room at Warwick and taking pictures for National Student Magazine and for the student newspaper, the “Warwick Boar,” but music was always the thing. It was the time of the Specials and I got to know some of the Coventry bands.
Now, how does that happen? How did you meet the bands?
My roommate, Clive Sullivan was also a bit of a villainous music person. He was working on a book called, “Record Hits,” which is one of those books that lists every hit record. He was doing that the whole time. But we kind of fell out because he was too dishonest for my taste.
Me and Sully had a second-hand record store in the student union. We would do that once or twice a week at lunch time. And there was an actual record shop in there. We would go in there and Gary McManus ran it and he would say, “You have to listen to this record by Blondie. You have to listen to this album called “77” by this band called Talking Heads.” Up to then it was all Eagles and Springsteen.
Gary was in a band called, “School Meals.” We would go and see his band. Selector was around town and the Specials were around town. Back then it wasn’t hard to hang out with them. I have pictures of the Clash in Coventry in ’78. Smuggled in camera in the crowd. Echo and the Bunnymen played in 1980 and I somehow got my way back stage twice. I probably told someone I was working for the “Warwick Boar.”
So, I was taking these photos around town and Gary McManus ended up being the bass player in the Specials. I got to know Jerry Dammers. … He was very closely connected with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Artists Against Apartheid had a lot of heft. I worked on the Free Nelson Mandela video, so the politics and the music was always intertwined.
When did you start doing this professionally?
It was 1981. Third year of my post-grad. I’m supposed to be doing a Ph.D in law. “How the state controls dissent in a democracy” is my subject. My friends are coming to my place to hear music and then Robert Plant played in the student union. I took pictures, not great pictures. It was the student union and the lighting wasn’t great. But I got some pictures. Must have got them processed overnight. Made some prints. Just like a Springsteen song, I took the bus from Coventry to Victoria Station the next day. Got there, bemoaned the fact that no one had invented the cellphone yet, found a payphone. Went through the big Yellow Pages and thought, would NME be interested in this? Probably not. Would Melody Maker? Probably not. But “Sounds,” the bottom of the three, was more interested in metal and heavy rock. So, I cold called them. The pictures editor said, “Yeah, come on over.” He also asked if I could write 50 words on this as well. So, I did. The pictures editor says if anything is happening in Coventry, we’ll get in touch with you.
Anyway, a month or two later, somehow he got in touch with me and I honestly don’t know how. How do you get in touch with someone back then? But the Specials were playing at Butts Stadium in Coventry. And he says, can you take pictures? I went and I took pictures and I had no idea how many pictures you send a magazine. I sent them a huge box of pictures.
By then, I’m in my third year of Ph.D and nowhere near finishing it. He says, if you were to move back to London, which was my home, we could probably give you a ton of work. I thought, let’s do it. I moved back to London and started going to gigs five or six days a week.
There is a picture over there of Joey Ramone and right next to it, Joe Strummer. The same week in 1981. The Ramones and the Clash. It was an amazing time to be a photographer in London. By then I had a dark room in my flat. Paid $35,000 for a two-bedroom flat in London. Started getting feature work as well.
A lot of your shots that really catch my eye are black and white. That is obviously an aesthetic decision. Do you prefer to work in black and white?
I think there is a fairly simple explanation. №1, we couldn’t process color. It was too complex. And it was transparency film. The magazines I was working for was nearly all black and white and the black and white aesthetic is kind of a classic portrait aesthetic anyway.
It really creates a mood, the dark stage and the star under the lights.
Yeah, it’s kind of my style as well. By 1982, I went with two cameras, one with black and white and one color. So maybe the music paper would get this and the magazine would get that. By then I was working for an agency so my pictures were being syndicated through London Features International so they could appear in Rolling Stone or Musician magazine and often I wouldn’t know. They were syndicated all over the world. It turns out that a lot of people all over the world knew my name and I wasn’t aware.
A lot of those punk guys gave the impression they weren’t terribly approachable. How were they with you?
The opposite really. I went on the road for a couple of days with the Damned. The nicest guys. Rat Scabies — the crazy drummer, right? Just as nice as pie. I really don’t have a negative thing to say about anyone.
Why did you move to the United States?
After reading “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac, I really wanted to move to San Francisco. I spent a week in Berkeley in ’77. Traveled all over the U.S. in the summer of ’78 and then spent 14 years trying to figure out how to move here. I met Rebecca in ’84, we got married in ’89 and she hated the idea of America until she came over here then she loved it. We managed to move here in ’92.
It’s partly we wanted to get away from the Tories, the conservatives. There was an optimism here and we were depressed in England. I got my work visa, but couldn’t work for American companies until I got my green card a couple years later.
And how did you get to Pacifica?
Well, I’ve lived in San Francisco since ’92. In ’99 I was looking to buy somewhere. I’d been working for some dot-coms by then. I always thought Pacifica was really cool, especially when you come down from the city over the hill and see the twinkly lights. I thought it was kind of magical.
When my mom was sick in 2008, I decided I wanted to build a prefab house and there was a piece of land for sale up in Sharp Park I had my eye on. My mom passed away. Sold the house in London. Bought that piece of land and of course the world economy collapsed. Took me two years to get a loan, but I built a house up in Sharp Park. Moved in in 2011.
So, why did you stop shooting shows?
By ’95, I get sent to Shoreline to take pictures of REM again. But it’s just a gig. And, you know what it’s like. I drove down from the city on a work night. Like a Thursday night. So probably two hours to get there. Then get in. Get the backstage pass sorted out. They let us shoot one number only and then they walked us out. There was no ticket to see the show. Then drive back. That was really the finale of my career.
Did you ever take photos of someone who just really didn’t like the images?
Boy George got pissed off at me once. That is unresolved.
Steve Rapport’s Mostly Rock ’n’ Roll Gallery is located at 205 Rockaway Beach Ave., №4, in Pacifica. Learn more and buy custom prints at mostlyrocknroll.com.
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