Proud Gallery’s End Of Generation X exhibition captures punk from the front line

Johnny Rotten. Picture: Andy Rosen

Johnny Rotten. Picture: Andy Rosen - Credit: Archant

Having photographed the likes of John Lydon, Joe Strummer and Paul Weller at their prime, Andy Rosen tells Alex Bellotti why it’s hard to stay a punk from the back of a limosine.

Paul Weller. Picture: Andy Rosen

Paul Weller. Picture: Andy Rosen - Credit: Archant

That has to be the end of punk doesn’t it?” says Andy Rosen, musing on Virgin Money’s new range of Sex Pistols-themed credit cards. Having made his name as a photographer by documenting the scene, the 54-year-old is well placed to judge. But as his new exhibition shows, the glory days of punk left as quickly as they arrived.

The End Of Generation X runs at Camden’s Proud Gallery until July 19 and features a collection of images Rosen only just re-discovered while visiting his parents at his childhood home in Camden Square, where the negatives had stayed in storage since the ‘80s.

Depicting a young Boy George working the cloakroom at Soho’s Blitz Club, outtakes from the cover shoot for The Jam’s Setting Sons album, early live shots of The Clash and intimate portraits of Johnny Rotten, the pictures capture the brief moment before punk’s counter-cultural charm became commercialised in mainstream fashion, art and music.

“Punk to me didn’t last that long,” says Rosen. “The media picked up on it in the way they do and it snowballed into something which wasn’t the original movement I remembered.

“There are a lot of problems when you start off as a punk band – which is nothing to do with commercial gain – and then suddenly you’re selling a million albums and money’s coming in. You’re singing songs like White Riot or Down in the Tube Station at Midnight, and really you’re now in a limo at midnight.”

Nonetheless, as a photographer still learning the ropes after finishing school in the late ‘70s, Rosen -– who now lives in LA – was struck by the professionalism even punk’s most notorious figures showed. In contrast to many bands who’d mess around, he explains how, for instance, Sex Pistols front man John Lydon “was very reserved, very professional. He didn’t say a lot, but would say, ‘I’ve got 45 minutes, do whatever you want.’”

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The most important shots Rosen found in his bag of negatives however depicted Lydon’s contemporaries, The Clash. Arguably the most successful band of the punk era, the two pictures in the exhibition frame a secret gig at Manchester’s Acklam Hall on Christmas Day 1979, where – even at the height of their power, following London Calling – the band were able to play to around 50 people.

“There’s a couple of shots in the exhibition where I’m very close – there’s no light and it looks like there’d been some sort of office Christmas party the night before because there’s all these cheap decorations, and there’s people standing at the front of the stage with their back to the band.

“I remember standing at the lab thinking, ‘Wow.’ In my mind when I think of punk, the three bands that were iconic have to be The Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Jam. Each one of them was different: The Clash were the mini-rock stars in my mind, they played it to the hilt even though they didn’t want to; Paul Weller was the poet, with serious song writing capabilities; and the Sex Pistols were some sort of circus – a Fellini circus.”

By the end of 1980, punk had begun to fade. The Sex Pistols had broken up, The Clash had released their world music ‘triple album’ Sandinista and The Jam had become the face of Mod culture.

For Rosen, the sad truth was that for the bands that did stick around, it was very hard to remain both true to punk’s anti-establishment spirit and financially afloat.

“I think ultimately everyone gets bought really; there are very few people in my experience that really are legitimate in terms of holding out for their philosophy.

“The entertainment business is very difficult to stay outside of. I don’t think you and me could really understand what it’s like to stand in front of 30,000 people in an arena screaming for you, then coming back and selling a platinum album and finding yourself on every cover all over the world. It’s very difficult to keep it together.”

The End Of Generation X by Andy Rosen runs at Proud Camden until July 19. Visit