Rock Stars Don’t Smile, photographs by Danny Clifford at Heath Street Baptist Church, Hampstead
PUBLISHED: 17:04 14 March 2019 | UPDATED: 17:26 14 March 2019
The self confessed ‘chancer’ tells how he blagged his way onto a Bob Dylan tour and had a career photographing rock stars
It all began with being thrown out of a Lou Reed gig at Finsbury Park’s Rainbow Theatre for taking photographs.
Danny Clifford woud go on to snap everyone from Bob Dylan to Queen and the Rolling Stones, but it was those snatched shots of Reed in 1974 that sealed his fate as a rock’n’roll photographer.
“I’ve still got the negs, the focus was horrible but the exposure was right,” he says.
“I went along with friends and smuggled in my camera. I saw the stage door open and snuck backstage, walking down the corridor, Lou Reed opened his dressing room door and threw a beer bottle at someone. He was really out of it, so I went back and waited for the moment. I got five pictures before I was picked up, and thrown out on the street. I rolled up Seven Sisters Road with my camera banging around my head thinking ‘this is good.”
Clifford’s grandmother bought him his first instamatic aged eight, but by 13 he had upgraded to a 35mm camera and was delivering milk to buy film, and tickets to see Yes and Gary Glitter.
“It wasn’t my love for bands, some of them have made my ears bleed over the years! I just loved photography. Going to music events, sneaking in with a lens down my trousers and a film in my sock, I always wanted to get that picture and be where it was happening, in the firing line.”
“I was thrown out of the Rainbow frequently and remember hiding from security in the boxes at the Albert Hall, but after Dylan all of a sudden doors were open for me, I remember coming back to the Rainbow with a pass to do The Boomtown Rats and (owner) Harvey Goldsmith said ‘well done’.”
Clifford is showing 70 images - all on sale - including Mercury, and Gallagher at Heath Street Baptist Church in Hampstead for four weeks from March 15 in Rock Stars Don’t Smile.
“In all my years of taking pictures, I’ve kept my head down, remained anonymous and not exhibited my work,” says Clifford, who had a hard time sifting through 4million images.
Some, including one of Mercury have never seen the light of day.
“Some are well known album covers or front pages, but a lot have never been seen. I found some negatives of Freddie Mercury I hadn’t looked at since I took them in 1976. Luckily I kept diaries so it’s been quite easy to write up the stories behind the photographs which makes it more interesting.”
At first Clifford blagged his way into gigs by the likes of Pink Floyd, Dire Straits, or Status Quo then tried to get his photos into Melody Maker or NME.
But he always held onto the negatives. “I would roll up at a venue without a pass, saying ‘I am the band’s photographer’. No-one checked with anyone else. The band would ask ‘who are you?’ I’d say ‘I am your photographer.’
“I didn’t have any bloody money. I just took them hoping I’d get a few quid. But more through luck than judgement I never gave away my copywright because I couldn’t bear to process a film and hand over the negs for £20.”
By 20 he was friendly with Queen, The Who, had hung out at Paul McCartney’s St John’s Wood home, and joined Bob Dylan’s 1978 US tour - even though he had barely listened to an album. Snatching shots of Dylan’s first UK gig for 10 years at Earl’s Court - he pretended to be taking a round of beer to Paul McCartney to get closer to the stage - earned him £150 and a spread in the Evening Standard.
Dylan liked them, which led to a brief meeting, and Clifford speculatively flying out to LA in 1978 to photograph the tour.
“It was a rock and roll jet and I used to spend every morning with him. He was becoming a born-again Christian and he was a lovely fellow but quite deep. But there was also an element I recognised from the cavalier attitude I had when I was younger. Talking to him about getting into situations, blagging my way into things he said he’d done the same in his Greenwich Village days. There was a gentle parallel that we were both kind of chancers.”
Later working for Rolling Stone or Fox Photos press agency he had an official pass.
“With Queen the whole band were superb to be around,” says Clifford who is still friendly with Brian May and Roger Taylor and fondly recalls the wild parties and parade of supermodels.
“Freddie was just a very nice guy, quiet off stage, he was a little more flamboyant than in the film (Bohemian Rhapsondy), they didn’t show the really funny side of it all. Freddie and Kenny Everett lots of hilarious gay gatherings. Fun times.”
Although he photographed rock stars “pie eyed,” he never did drugs, and drank in moderation. He later worked with Oasis and Amy Winehouse and recalls “fun times” with Peter Doherty and Kate Moss.
Once trying to take some smiling photographs of a room full of celebrities, Liam Gallagher pointed a finger in his face and snarled: “You told me to smile. Rockstars dont f***ing smile”.
“Lucky for him it didn’t go any further. I was going to lump him.”
Rock Stars Don’t Smile is at Heath Street Baptist Church from March 15. All the images will be on sale ranging from £300 to £20,000 for limited edition prints.