The Perfect Rock 'n Roll Photo
January 23, 2002 6:23 PM   Subscribe

The Perfect Rock 'n Roll Photo A photo of The Clash bassist Paul Simonon smashing his guitar on stage has been picked as the perfect rock 'n' roll photo of all time. It's a great picture, summing up violence, anger, frustration and an adandonment of common-sense. But do you agree?
posted by skinsuit (46 comments total)

posted by skwm at 6:25 PM on January 23, 2002

No. Almost every picture of Pete Townsend is a googleplex cooler and more intense.
posted by tcobretti at 6:32 PM on January 23, 2002

Here he is in his 50s flying thru the air.

posted by tcobretti at 6:35 PM on January 23, 2002

I don't even know how you would begin to decide how to pick the "perfect photo." Its like the world's funniest joke. I really don't like this one too much, if guitar-smashing is the topic there are tons of great Pete Townshend photos that put this to shame. Really now, it even looks like there's a big fat David Crosby-like thing in the background.

Now that I think about it, even picking the top 100 rock photos would be just as futile. Rock and photography have had a happy marriage, its just impossible to pick a favorite son.
posted by skallas at 6:35 PM on January 23, 2002

Is it the #1, all-time greatest rock picture ever? It's hard to say. But it certainly is one of the best - it's just filled with so much tension, an instant later the guitar was in pieces, with the shrill feedback making everyones ears bleed... Of course, it doesn't hurt that it graces the cover of one of the greatest albums of all time.
posted by skwm at 6:40 PM on January 23, 2002

I've seen guitars smashed; it's just not cool. It's not hard to smash a guitar. To abuse your body beyond any rational point is what impresses me. I tried to find the pic of Pete resting his head on his bloody right hand after ripping the flesh off of it onstage. I'm a performer and something about the willingness to sacrifice your body for your art appeals to me.
posted by tcobretti at 6:43 PM on January 23, 2002

I always loved that London Calling cover, but, as far as live shots go, this one is better and this one at a soundcheck is too cool for words.

Also, you could go to the orginal version of the London Calling cover.
posted by BarneyFifesBullet at 6:55 PM on January 23, 2002

Also, pretty much any picture of Pete Townsend onstage is cool, no matter his age.

The only two people that ever looked cool smashing guitars were Pete and Jimi Hendrix.It should have been outlawed after that.I remember laughing at Nirvana when they did it.
posted by BarneyFifesBullet at 7:00 PM on January 23, 2002

Having been a fotog for a couple of LA indie punk zines back in '77 and '78, I always strove to capture some distinct attribute of the bands that I photographed...a look, an act, an attitude...the Clash photo does that admirably. However, I can think of a dozen other shots that're equally powerful though more subtle.

And realize what you *aren't* seeing here....the hundreds of blurry, dark, and downright boring pictures on the photographer's rolls that were taken before that one great moment of Paul smashing his gee-tar was frozen in time.

And Barney, thanks for that Johnny Cash pic. I'd never seen it before. Brilliance!
posted by MrBaliHai at 7:13 PM on January 23, 2002

And realize what you *aren't* seeing here....the hundreds of blurry, dark, and downright boring pictures on the photographer's rolls...

That's kind of silly - you could say the same about anything, really: "Thats a great drawing, but think of all that poorly executed sketches which might have preceded it." "Gosh, I love this song, but I bet it took them like 40 takes to get it right." "This book is really good, until you realize that it went through 4 or 5 rewrites before it was published."
posted by skwm at 7:17 PM on January 23, 2002

There's got to be a pre-Army photo of Elvis!
posted by Carol Anne at 7:20 PM on January 23, 2002

Assuming the cool picture has to be of cool bands, the Who and Clash have to be near perfect (Thin Lizzy?! Ha!). It's a pretty good choice for a stupid category.

Ah, the Clash at the Palladium. Didn't get to see them, but remember the live concert on WNEW-fm while in high school.
WTF is the Palladium gone : (
posted by ParisParamus at 7:21 PM on January 23, 2002

Elvis wasn't angry, so he's not in the running.

Barney: I had no idea the Clash were paying hommage to an Elvis cover. Or parodying one. Thanks!
posted by ParisParamus at 7:22 PM on January 23, 2002

I don't disagree with the Clash photo being great, but I prefer this Jim Marshall photo of Bob Dylan.
posted by chrismc at 7:31 PM on January 23, 2002

That's kind of silly

I think you missed the point that I was trying to make. Live concert photography is about capturing a serendipitous moment. If you take a really great photo during a stage performance, it's usually because you positioned yourself well, set your aperture correctly, focused, and took hundreds of photos over the course of the's not because you planned the shot in advance, so your comparisons with sketching and writing books aren't really valid.
posted by MrBaliHai at 8:01 PM on January 23, 2002

In 1993, Mark Seliger shot a great photo of the Spin Doctors for Rolling Stone. He got down on the floor between the stage and the first row of seats and shot upward as the lead singer (I forget his name) and the fans in the front row were reaching toward each other. You see the singer through this sea of silhouetted arms. It's a great image, and it includes a bunch of people (fans) who are important to rock and roll but who are left out of a lot of the great photos. I couldn't find the Spin Doctors photo online, but some of Seliger's other pics are here.

And yeah, tcobretti, Annie Leibowitz's post-show close-up of an exhausted, bleeding Pete Townsend is a classic. That windmill of his was a killer.
posted by diddlegnome at 8:08 PM on January 23, 2002

Myabe not rock n' roll, but how can you beat Johnny Cash?
posted by Hackworth at 8:24 PM on January 23, 2002

BarneyFifesBullet linked to a larger version of the hilarious Cash photo. BTW, a year or two ago Cash's daughter Roseanne paid about $300 for a print of that photo. She thought it was the coolest thing ever (except, evidently, for dear old Dad).
posted by diddlegnome at 8:39 PM on January 23, 2002

ah yes, the "this one" link didn't give it away, I guess.
posted by Hackworth at 9:17 PM on January 23, 2002

That Johnny Cash photo is rock 'n roll. It's everything it represents, and will always be tops on my list of best rock photo ever.
posted by mathowie at 9:35 PM on January 23, 2002

The Clash photo doesn't really impress me. It doesn't really say "rock and roll." Looks more like a grainy screenshot from an episode of "Cops."
posted by braun_richard at 9:49 PM on January 23, 2002

Nah, if it was from "Cops," the guy would weigh about 350 pounds and be running around with no shirt.
posted by diddlegnome at 10:03 PM on January 23, 2002

To me--and this is just me--rock and roll is synonymous with youth and sponteneity. Being 50 and jumping in the air is about as fake (to me) as the Rolling Stones kicking off a Coors-Papa John's-Wells Fargo sponsored "farewell" tour for the 58th time.

Good rock photos capture a moment as close as possible to the frenzied, hypnotic, sometimes violent energy of a show. To capture a spontanous guitar smashing at a time when a new sound is emerging is worth 150 old men jumping up in the air.

Pete Townsend *always* jumps in the air like that. He always does the windmill thing with his arm. The talent it takes to compose a shot like that is basically wait around until he jumps, because you know he's going to.

This is not to say Pete Townsend wasn't an important figure in rock, I think he and Jimi are the two molds by which flamboyant, guitar greats are styled. All I'm saying is losing yourself in a moment and letting whatever aggression or expression take control is what rock is about, and Penny Smith caught it.
posted by perplexed at 10:56 PM on January 23, 2002

One aspect of the Clash photo that never seems to get mentioned is the hunched back. This is no rock-jock he-man flexing his muscles: this is the skinny outcast venting his frustrations at the world through his music and, for one intense moment, his instrument; rock star as Quasimodo. And that, it seems to me, is closer to the spirit of rock and roll - the driving force that keeps it reinventing itself, generation after disaffected generation - than any image of long hair and leathers.
posted by rory at 2:15 AM on January 24, 2002

Just chiming in to vote for the Cash photo. I just read his autobiography this week, and...goddamn if he ain't the coolest mofo that ever picked up a guitar.
posted by Optamystic at 2:43 AM on January 24, 2002

For me, this is IT.
It just seethes.
posted by dong_resin at 4:55 AM on January 24, 2002

it? i don't know who that is, but it seems a tad boring. make-up and moody pose? that's processed through a thousand photolabs every second.
posted by Frasermoo at 5:26 AM on January 24, 2002

Frasermoo: Iggy Pop? Boring? Raw Power is one of the finest albums ever recorded!
posted by brand-gnu at 5:39 AM on January 24, 2002

we're not talking albums, we're talking photo's

(i have heard of iggy pop, just wouldn't know him if i passed him on the street)
posted by Frasermoo at 5:44 AM on January 24, 2002

I guess it helps if you recognize it [the iggy photo] as the brief pause between climbing over fans, slashing open his chest, writhing frantically in borken glass and peanut butter and have fits while naked.

A moment to size up the audience before annihilating it.
posted by dong_resin at 6:16 AM on January 24, 2002

Wow. No typos in that one.
Good job, me.
posted by dong_resin at 6:17 AM on January 24, 2002

really, what is borken glass then?
posted by Frasermoo at 6:19 AM on January 24, 2002

What about Jimi Hendrix, writhing over a flaming guitar?
posted by uftheory at 7:03 AM on January 24, 2002

Borken glass ?
Ask this dude.
posted by dong_resin at 7:06 AM on January 24, 2002

Keith Richards live, candid, and, er, post-mortem?
posted by luser at 7:43 AM on January 24, 2002

Whoops, that first shot is definitely not keith. I meant this one.
posted by luser at 7:47 AM on January 24, 2002

Guitar smashing was already an incredibly tired gesture when I saw Jimi Hendrix smash his guitar at a concert in 1968. Three quarters of the way through the concert, obviously at a pre-arranged moment (he practically looked at his watch), he switched from the good guitar he used for most of the concert, and took up an old junker, then he walked over to a pile of Marshall amps. A roadie had taken up a position support the pile of amps from behind, and Jimi smashed the guitar up against them a few times, then thew it on the floor. Wooooo! What the Clash shot represents is the persistence of an old and moldy tradition, and has nothing to do with rock and roll. Any shot of Elvis or Johnny Cash or Jerry Lee Lewis, would be cooler.
posted by Faze at 8:03 AM on January 24, 2002

How about this Clash Pic?

Scroll down to see Bob Gruen's description. I've always loved this picture as the epitome of rock n' roll and its kinda cool to get his perspective.
posted by KevinSkomsvold at 9:04 AM on January 24, 2002

I totally disagree that this is the best shot of all time.

As a photog for a punk 'zine that's just getting itself off of the ground, I try to capture shots of the band performing their art or interacting with the audience. Those are usually the best shots.

Not to sound biased or overly proud of my own work, but my shot of Slayer at Rockfest2000 in Portland, OR is a good shot, IMHO. It captures the intensity of a performance, coupled with the ear-numbing bass and wild attitudes of a Slayer performance. (Not a fan, but I can appreciate it just the same.) It stopped a moment in time.

The shot of Paul Simonon smashing his guitar doesn't show him really performing, or even doing anything of interest. Yes, this is my opinon. It's a well-composed photo shot under tough conditions, and it balances pools of light with areas of shadow well. the background's a bit distracting, but we'll chalk that up to bad conditions. It stops motion at a vital time, which in this case required split second coordination and gobs of luck, because there were no such thing as 12 frame per second motor drives back then.

Basically, it's an Ok photo, but it isn't the best rock and roll photo of all time.
posted by SpecialK at 9:21 AM on January 24, 2002

This is very weird — I walked past a poster of that photo in a record store window two nights ago and thought "God damn, that's gotta be the best rock and roll picture ever taken." No, really, I did.

Faze: yeah, so Jimi was full of shit already in '68 — that's why he isn't in the picture. The Clash picture shows a man driven to smash what's in his hands by the intensity of the music he's made and the shared emotion of the band and the crowd — that's rock and roll, not a fucking "gesture".
posted by nicwolff at 9:30 AM on January 24, 2002

I'm very happy to see that Johnny Cash is being represented so well, I guess I should have read the comments first and searched for the picture second. That has long been the definative rock and roll photo for me...
posted by RevGreg at 9:57 AM on January 24, 2002

Q Magazine lists London Calling as "one of the 100 best record covers of all time," as documented in their special issue with the same name from sometime in 2001. The whole issue is awesome, and the write-up for london calling is particularly good. I can't find it online anywhere, but here's the last 3 paragraphs:

The shot itself is especially lucky because, despite their devotion to most aspects of rock'n'roll tradition, The Clash rarely went in for the kind of cathartic instrument busting The Who made into an artform.

"That's why it looks so good," Strummer reckons. "It's in the heat of the moment and he's smashing his favorite guitar. Years later, I remember when we'd had some brandy, Paul would have a lament.

Simonon, who never smashed a bass before or since, kept the pieces and has them to this day.

So say what you like about guitar-smashing, but I think it's pretty silly to write off such a striking photo just because you think smashing a guitar is a cliche; especially when it wasn't the cheezy set-up "i do this at every show because it's part of my routine" kind of guitar smashing.
posted by chrisege at 11:13 AM on January 24, 2002

if i recall correctly, wasn't London Calling also voted by rolling stone as album or rock album of the decade for the 1980s? from a review:

Merry and tough, passionate and large-spirited, London Calling celebrates the romance of rock & roll rebellion in grand, epic terms. It doesn't merely reaffirm the Clash's own commitment to rock-as-revolution. Instead, the record ranges across the whole of rock & roll's past for its sound, and digs deeply into rock legend, history, politics and myth for its images and themes. Everything has been brought together into a single, vast, stirring story – one that, as the Clash tell it, seems not only theirs but ours. For all its first-take scrappiness and guerrilla production, this two-LP set–which, at the group's insistence, sells for not much more than the price of one–is music that means to endure. It's so rich and far-reaching that it leaves you not just exhilarated but exalted and triumphantly alive.

while i'm not sure that photo is the Best of all times...London Calling has been on my top list since it came out. And you punk rock kids listening to music i'd call Power Pop at best, remember, in the land before everybody was pierced and tattooed, before Hot Topic, before Sublime, Before Op Ivy, before 7th wave Ska and punk with horn sections, there was the Clash. And techno/dance/hiphop fans need to take a listen to Big Audio Dynamite, Mick Jones post-clash project.

the two bands of my youth i regret missing the most live, The Clash and the Police.
posted by th3ph17 at 11:29 AM on January 24, 2002

I think your missing the point if your only looking at the guitar smashing. It may not be the best rock n' roll picture of all time, but it is a really great shot none-the-less.
posted by ddmmyyyy at 11:52 AM on January 24, 2002

Frasermoo: If you pass a dead guy walking normally then he's Iggy Pop.
posted by vbfg at 12:24 PM on January 24, 2002

I vote for the Cash pic too.

I have the T-Shirt, and wear it with pride.
posted by Kafkaesque at 11:28 PM on January 24, 2002

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