Punk started for Denis O’Regan with a borrowed camera flash and an inevitable shower of spit.
It was 1976, and by day he was working in the City of London for an insurance broker, a job he started straight from school.
By night, he started going to see bands to try to photograph them, but it was always difficult to get a pass. “You needed accreditation from a magazine, which was very difficult if you didn’t have a portfolio – and then, along came punk and suddenly access completely changed.”
“I went to see The Damned at Hertfordshire school of art and design, supported by Slaughter and the Dogs and Eater. It was only their second or third show, they had supported the Sex Pistols at the 100 Club two or three nights before.
“So they were still in their formative state. I went with a camera and no flash I said to another photographer there I had left my flash at home could I borrow his. He said: ‘Why don’t you shoot it and send the pictures in to NME, because it’s not really my kind of thing’. So that’s really how it all began for me. I started shooting punk, and by 1978, most of the pictures in NME that year were mine.”
Of that Damned show, he says: “I remember they stopped the show because of the spitting – which became de rigeur later on at punk gigs. The Damned were slightly different, they weren’t punk as such. Dave Vanian wore his DJ and had that vampire look.”
O’Regan went on to take some of the most celebrated live rock photographs – as official photographer on David Bowie’s 1983 Serious Moonlight tour, with Queen at their peak, Duran Duran at the height of the New Romantic era and at festivals from Glastonbury to Coachella.
But before rock royalty there were the punk upstarts.
“I would go to the Roundhouse on a Sunday night, see someone like Devo, come out at 10.30 or 11 at night, take the films home, process them in my bedroom, do all the prints under the enlarger, dry them with a hair dryer, take them in to the music papers the next day. They would pay me, £7.25 I think it was, if they used the picture. But the great thing was I got the byline.”
Later, he specialised in going on tour with huge bands, but the punk era set him on his way. “You could pay 50p and go and photograph the bands, you didn’t even need a pass. The bands were on stage learning how to play guitar and I was at the front learning how to take photographs.”
“It was a movement and an era, you could feel that, the Kiss fans are called the Kiss Army, but there was a punk army…and it was a load of fans a load of journalists and a load of bands who you would see in all the same places turning up to everything. Go to see The Jam at the 100 Club and Joe Strummer’s in the audience, there was a real camaraderie about it because everyone knew they were breaking new ground, they were at the cutting edge of a cultural movement.”
Did he ever get spat on? “I was right in front of the band and they were the targets of the saliva, so obviously, I was slightly between one and the other sometimes – and also they were chucking beer glasses at the band, so I got hit by a few. We were right there in the front line. No-one was ever aggressive towards photographers – everyone felt aggressive but actually they weren’t. And early on, very few dressed as punks – there were a few fashionista punks, but I look back at my pictures and half the people in the audience are in tweed jackets and flared jeans!”
By the time he was shooting The Ramones at the Roundhouse in 1977, everyone knew it was big, the bands were making news and everyone was coming to see them, he said.
But by 1978 when Sid Vicious had left the Sex Pistols and gone solo, the movement felt like it was coming to an end. He was there for the last Sid Vicious show at the Electric Ballroom in Camden – shooting backstage where Vicious demanded a fee of £5 for everyone in the picture – and on stage too.
O’Regan’s shot of Vicious and his girlfriend Nancy Spungen backstage at the Electric with Glen Matlock and Steve New, was taken in August 1978, the night before the couple flew off to the United States. They would both be dead within months – she was fatally stabbed at the Chelsea Hotel, he was charged with her murder, and less than six months after the picture was taken, he died of a heroin overdose.
O’Regan said a shot of Vicious is his most memorable of the era: “He’s actually onstage but there’s a melancholy about it, he is holding a beer glass, he’s topless, you can see the marks on his body and he’s just looking down.
“It was the next day he went to America, and obviously he died there. After the show I was there next to him in the venue, some people were still hanging around and he was talking to a fan who was asking him for advice about being in a band and making it. That was an interesting evening, punk was ending – it was almost as though when Sid left England it was all over anyway.”
The photographer has brought his entire rock archive together with the opening of the Denis O’Regan Gallery at 271 King Street, Hammersmith, London.