Mick Rock: Stories And Outtakes From Classic Album Covers

by Greg Prato

Without question, one of the all-time greatest rock photographers is Mick Rock. All you have to do is take a gander at the legendary artists he has worked with over the years; he's snapped truly iconic images for Queen (Queen II and Sheer Heart Attack), Iggy & the Stooges (Raw Power), Lou Reed (Transformer), and many others.

Having steadily photographed musicians since the early '70s, Rock's work has also been collected in quite a few books, including The Rise of David Bowie: 1972-1973, Debbie Harry and Blondie: Picture This, Classic Queen, Transformer, and Mick Rock Exposed: The Faces of Rock 'n' Roll.

Rock was kind enough not only to chat about his memories behind several classic album cover images he shot back in the day, but also to provide an outtake from each photo session! All photos are copyright Mick Rock.

Iggy & the Stooges: Raw Power (1973) and Lou Reed: Transformer (1972)

I always see Raw Power and Transformer as a pair because interestingly enough, they were both shot at the same location, but in 24 hours of each other. It was at a cinema that converted on Friday and Saturday nights into a rock and roll venue. It was called the Kings Cross Cinema [in London] back then.

I didn't know Lou and Iggy that well then. I was actually introduced to them by David Bowie. Even though they're both actually performance shots, in both cases, they're quite static and they're looking away. And of course, they were two Americans.

<i>Or are you just happy to see me?</i> Back cover of the <i>Transformer</i> album showing model Gala Mitchell and Reed's friend Ernie Thormahlen.Or are you just happy to see me? Back cover of the Transformer album showing model Gala Mitchell and Reed's friend Ernie Thormahlen.
It was in the summer of '72, when all of the shenanigans really started to get going. David Bowie was at the epicenter – God bless him. He had produced Mott The Hoople's All the Young Dudes and written a song for them, and then he and Mick Ronson produced Transformer, and then around that time Ziggy Stardust came out. As you can imagine, there was a lot of lunacy going on! And Roxy Music came along that summer and they supported David for three nights at the Rainbow Theatre.

In the case of Lou, I remember David and I going backstage just to see him before he went on. He was sitting in a corner like a bat – very quiet. He mumbled something at us, and David did a bit of his charm thing, and then he went on.

The back of the album cover was originally going to be the front – the guy on the back with the big bulge, which was in fact a banana down his trousers! I didn't take that picture – it was Karl Stoecker who took that, the guy who had done the first few Roxy Music albums.

I made a couple prints of the film and showed them to Lou. One shot was out of focus in the printing, so I showed Lou both versions – the sharp version and the one that is out of focus. I liked the one that had fallen out of focus, and Lou did too, so that became the cover.

Lou, to this day, it's still his biggest-selling album. Of course, it had "Walk On The Wild Side," "Perfect Day," and "Satellite of Love." It's an amazing album.

The Iggy one, Raw Power, was released a few months after Transformer. That was released in the spring of '73. But as Iggy has pointed out, Raw Power was in the 50-cent bin after three or four months – they couldn't give it away. That also applied to the first two Stooges albums, the Velvet Underground albums, and the first Lou Reed album. So, Iggy was resurrected, but it took him a bit longer to dig himself out of the sandbox.

But with Iggy, that photo selection was made and he didn't really have any say in it, the poor bugger! Many years later he said, "At the time I hated it. I hated the photography. But now, I love it."

Queen: Queen II (1974) and Sheer Heart Attack (1974)

I had been in France at the Château d'Hérouville with David for Pin-Ups. That was an album where I didn't shoot the front cover but I did shoot the photos on the back of the cover and the inner sleeve. And after that, I did Mott The Hoople's All the Young Dudes, so I was all over that scene at that moment in time and became "the glam photographer," as I also shot Roxy Music. And Queen.

There was a guy [Ken Scott] who was David's engineer and had co-produced Ziggy Stardust and Hunky Dory, and he worked for a company called Trident Audio Productions. They had a studio in the middle of London, in Soho. I had built a little notoriety because of my work with David, Lou, and Iggy. And Queen – and very much Freddie [Mercury] – wanted to get a slice of that glam stuff. I remember going and they played me Queen II, and I said, "Wow... that's kind of like Ziggy Stardust meets Led Zeppelin." They loved that, and that probably clinched the deal.

I remember coming across a photo of Marlene Dietrich on the set of Shanghai Express. I showed it to Freddie and said, "Freddie, you could be Marlene Dietrich! How do you fancy that?" And he loved it.

They hadn't had any success particularly – this was only their second album – but they were very confident that they were going to do well - certainly Freddie was. Anyway, I sold him on the idea.

The theme was black and white, so I shot two set-ups: There was the black set-up and the white set-up, and they weren't sure what the front cover should be. In the end, the white photo ended up on the inside of the gatefold spread. But that shot, the rest of the band was a little bit timid about it because they thought it looked very pretentious. Freddie said, "Pretentious? Yes, of course we're pretentious... because we are that good!"

Freddie was kind of the "visual guru" of the band because he'd been to art college, whereas Roger [Taylor] was a dentist, Brian [May] was some kind of astrophysicist, and John [Deacon] was very quiet. Anyway, that became the cover, and of course they copied it for the "Bohemian Rhapsody" video. Like the Transformer shot for Lou and the Raw Power shot for Iggy, it stayed around and became their definitive image.

There was a ladder involved to get the right angle. When I shot it, I shot it in black and white, I shot it in color, I shot it with their hands in different positions. Mostly I shot them with the hands as you see them, but there were little variations, and Brian and Roger changed sides. Some images just stay around, and that one definitely stayed around.

Now, Sheer Heart Attack, I think it was actually Roger who had the broad idea. He said, "I want us to look like we're thrown up from a shipwreck on some distant shore," so that's what I shot. Of course, they were soaking wet and there was a lot of spraying going on.

When Brian wrote the intro to my limited edition book, Killer Queen, he commented on that. He said, "Laying there for hours getting water thrown on us... that was not my favorite experience. But the picture came out great."

As Mick discussed, he also worked with David Bowie over the years, but not just photography, as he worked on several videos, including a striking clip for "Life on Mars?"

"There are three versions of that. The original version, and there's a version from the '80s when I went in and bleached it all out so it looked like a painting, and then also in 2016, Parlophone – which is a division of EMI – came to ask me if I would do a new edit for it, which I did. The new version is my favorite, because there are all kinds of things you can do technically, including playing around with the colors and lots things. I also did 'Jean Genie,' 'Space Oddity,' and 'John, I'm Only Dancing,' and there are a few that have been rarely seen: 'Moonage Daydream' and 'Rock n' Roll Suicide,' which is kind of like a collage."

Lou Reed: Coney Island Baby (1975)

We did that in '75, and Lou loved it. We did two sessions: one with the hat looking like a carnival barker, and another of him wearing a plastic jacket. A few months later, he said, "Mick, send me some photos from that session. I think that's going to be the right thing for my new album." So, I sent him stuff and he picked that particular shot. That was one of my Grammy nominations.

And then we also did Growing Up In Public and Rock And Roll Heart. For Rock And Roll Heart, he flew me to America to work on this TV idea that he had. For that, we had to buy TV sets.

The Ramones: End of the Century (1980)

I knew the art director from the record label. I had already shot a band called the Dead Boys, who were going to be America's answer to the Sex Pistols. But in the end, they recorded two albums [before breaking up]. I shot that for the same label and art director, and I also shot the first Talking Heads album. He called me up and said, "I want you to do me a favor: the Ramones. The Ramones really don't like photographers. If they don't like what's going on, they'll probably just stop and walk out."

And of course, it was produced by Phil Spector, so it sounded like a Mick Rock challenge.

They did stay for the session. I shot it two ways, first just with the T-shirts. They told me they wanted to wear these colorful T-shirts because it was produced by Phil Spector and they wanted to have a bit of an upbeat feel. I also shot them in the leather jackets, which is normally the shot I put into exhibitions because that was really part of their image.

It only took about an hour. They came, I did some Polaroids. They didn't really comment much, but at least they liked them enough for one to appear on the album cover.

Yes, they were an interesting bunch. That was the second lineup – they had Marky on drums. Marky was a better fit as far as the look was from Tommy, the original drummer. And Marky still does Ramones songs, and still does pretty well.

Later, I worked on a [Phil Spector] box set called Back To Mono. He was an interesting character. There was a Hall Of Fame dinner I went to and Phil was there. I talked to Phil a bit and Phil was trying to get me to go to a hip uptown bar/restaurant. His handler said to me, "Mick, Phil may love you at midnight, but he'll hate you at 4 a.m." Because that was when his blood sugar dropped, and he was a drinker.

Joan Jett & the Blackhearts: I Love Rock n' Roll (1981)

Their lawyer was a friend of mine, and I'd been to see Joan Jett and the Blackhearts play one time when they had just surfaced. He called me and said, "Mick, we haven't got a lot of time, we haven't got a lot of money, and they can't get there until midnight... and they need it done immediately!" Two days later, they came to my studio around midnight and we worked for two to three hours. When I shot that, I remember seeing her somehow as a female Elvis Presley with that slightly rockabilly outfit on. I brought together the lettering on the cover, and there it was.

The follow-up album [1983's Album], I didn't do the front cover, but I did shoot the back cover and the inside pictures.

March 26, 2020
For more Mick and further info on his books, visit mickrock.com.

Further reading:
The Punk Photography Of Chris Stein
Rock Photos From The Golden Age Of Concert Photography
Danny Clinch - The Art Of Rock Photography
Long Live Queen - An Excerpt
Legends Of Songwriting: Lou Reed

More Song Writing

Comments: 1

  • Mark Webnutrients Effinger from Phoenix, OregonWhat an incredible addition to these archives. Mick Rock is truly a legend. Seeing the subtle (or not) differences between the photos that made it to press, and the second string - awesome insights for those of us still looking to make the art of album thumbnails worth viewing. Many thanks, Greg.
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Dar Williams

Dar WilliamsSongwriter Interviews

A popular contemporary folk singer, Williams still remembers the sticky note that changed her life in college.

Mark Arm of Mudhoney

Mark Arm of MudhoneySongwriter Interviews

When he was asked to write a song for the Singles soundtrack, Mark thought the Seattle grunge scene was already overblown, so that's what he wrote about.

Rosanne Cash

Rosanne CashSongwriter Interviews

Rosanne talks about the journey that inspired her songs on her album The River & the Thread, including a stop at the Tallahatchie Bridge.

American Hits With Foreign Titles

American Hits With Foreign TitlesSong Writing

What are the biggest US hits with French, Spanish (not "Rico Suave"), Italian, Scottish, Greek, and Japanese titles?

Neal Smith - "I'm Eighteen"

Neal Smith - "I'm Eighteen"They're Playing My Song

With the band in danger of being dropped from their label, Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith co-wrote the song that started their trek from horror show curiosity to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

The Evolution of "Ophelia"

The Evolution of "Ophelia"Song Writing

How four songs portray Shakespeare's character Ophelia.