You may not know the name, but you almost certainly know Roberta Bayley’s work, especially if you’re a fan of punk rock. The NYC photographer's iconic pictures grace the Ramones debut album, and Johnny Thunders and The Heartbreakers legendary L.A.M.F., among others. Her portfolios of Deborah Harry of Blondie are simply stunning.
As one of the major visual documentarians of the New York City and CBGB’s scene (where Bayley also worked the door!), she shot Richard Hell, Joe Strummer, The Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Dead Boys and practically everyone else you can think of. Her books include the classic Blank Generation Revisited: The Early Days of Punk Rock,(out-of-print) Blondie: Unseen 1976-1980 (available on Plexus Publishing) and the current Japanese "booklet" I Survived: First American Tour 1978. Most recently, Bayley contributed her work to The Best of Punk Magazine, available on It! Books. We spoke with Roberta and asked her “Five Questions” about some of our favorite photographs that she’s taken.
We have to start with the Ramones cover shot, which might just be the single most iconic photograph and album cover of not only the punk movement, but in music history. It’s so simple, but packs so much attitude, resetting the course and style of music. I know it’s been asked, but what can you tell us about that shot and how much you directed that versus the band just being The Ramones?
The most important thing to understand about the album cover image, is that it did not come from an album cover session, it was not an assignment. The record company, Sire, had hired a professional photographer and paid him $2000 or whatever was standard at the time. But the Ramones and their manager Danny Fields did not like those photos, so they had to come up with something else — quick!
Likewise the cover of The Heartbreakers’ “L.A.M.F.” simply IS the Heartbreakers, or at least their reputation: dark, dirty, surly, a little bit dangerous. How did that come about and what was it like working with *that* crew? That was shot in London, wasn’t it?
No, it was shot in downtown New York City, on Crosby Street. I believe they had a rehearsal studio down there. I’d known Johnny since 1974 when he was still with the Dolls, and then I’d taken some of the first photos of the original Heartbreakers with Richard Hell. I think Bob Gruen took the first, before they got Walter. Anyway, my dear friend Leee Black Childers, who was then the Heartbreakers manager, was in London dealing with the record company. So he set up a photo session for me to shoot them in New York ASAP and send the chosen image to London. I took the film, about 4-5 rolls to a lab who processed them in 4 hours and we all met someplace with a slide projector and looked at everything till they wittled it down to 4 or 5. Then Walter Lure drove the slides out to the airport and mailed them overnight to Leee. The band soon left Track Records and I never got paid. One day in 1978 I was walking down Oxford Highstreet in London and ran into Leee Childers! He opens his wallet and hands me $300 - twice what I got for the Ramones cover!
Your pictures of Deborah Harry of Blondie are definitive. She has star quality written all over her and it shows in so many of your photographs. I’m thinking of the classic “Coney Island” shot, but also the candid of her making a funny face at the Punk magazine party. And your color shot of her kissing Chris Stein at the subway stop is just beautiful. It’s one of my favorites; so romantic and timeless. And sort of anonymous for Debbie…
Yes, people really love the subway kiss image of Debbie and Chris from 1976. I think it is mainly because of the real passion that is captured in the image — Debbie and Chris were kissing for the camera, yes, but they were also actually in love!
The shots you mention came about partly because of the Punk magazine “fumetti’s” but also because Debbie was such a regular person. She didn’t have any attitude or star ego (then or now), plus she has a great sense of humor and was always generous with her time and energy. It is so wonderful to see Blondie’s success today — it couldn’t happen to nicer people!
Lester Bangs? Boy, that portrait is pure Lester….what was that like?
Are you talking about the one of him in his undershirt and a bottle of Martell? That was when we (Punk magazine) first met Lester. He was staying at the fancy St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South on Creem magazine's expense account. Lester was a very sweet guy, especially when he was sober. He was very passionate about the music he liked (or didn’t like). Lester had been in Detroit where he was an editor at the rock magazine Creem. He picked up on the New York bands of the punk scene quickly, became friendly with many musicians and writers, and soon left Creem behind, and moved to New York. It is a shame he died so young, it really left a void for his type of “gonzo” rock journalism. I would love to know what he would think of today’s music!
It appears there was a lot of trust in you on the artists’ part, and you were able to capture some great unexpected images in your portfolio. Joey Ramone with a surfboard at Coney Island, or in bed with Debbie and the “Son of Sam” NY Post at their feet. Joe Strummer as a kind of midnight cowboy in NYC, even your pictures of a snarling Sid Vicious betray a softer, goofier side. How did these come about?
The “trust” aspect was because I knew all these people as friends, not as a photographer. Plus nobody was “famous” then! And while in truth I was awed by some of the punk “stars” I guess it didn’t show! A lot of the images you mention, like Joey with the surfboard or Debbie sitting on the beach were done for the Punk magazine fumetti “Mutant Monster Beach Party”. We had John Cale and Peter Wolf of the J. Geils Band as bikers, and even Andy Warhol played a mad scientist! Everybody got into the spirit of it and we all had fun.
With Joe Strummer, he was kind of in a “midnight cowboy” mode then (1980). The Clash spent a lot of time in New York recording and Joe called me just before he had to leave for London to do a photo session. We had fun walking around my neighborhood, the East Village. With Blondie, most of my pictures weren’t posed, I was just shooting whatever they were doing on tour in 1978 -1979, and because they knew me, no one really paid me much attention. That’s the best situation, being a fly on the wall. That’s partly why I stopped shooting, because in the 80s, artists began to really control their image — you couldn’t just “hang out” with Prince!
To see more of Roberta's work, please visit her website at: www.robertabayley.com
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