"I Toured With Bob Dylan" - An Interview With Music Photographer Danny Clifford

Music photographer Danny Clifford has spent 40 years amassing a unique archive of iconic images of the world’s biggest rock stars. Here he sheds light on the early years of his fascinating career, his most memorable shoots and why printing is his secret weapon…

How did you first get into photographing famous musicians?
I first got my hands on a Kodak Instamatic camera when my grandmother gave me one when I was about 8. Very quickly photography became my passion. I photographed everything that moved. In fact, I photographed anything that didn’t move as well. I spent almost every day taking photos and every night processing my films and printing them. A few years later, when I was about 13 or 14, one of my best friends said he had bought tickets to go to a gig in London. The band in question were called Yes. I swiftly bought a ticket as well and we all headed into London on a bus.

I had my current camera with me - it was a Pentax SP500. We arrived at The Rainbow Theatre, Finsbury Park and I actually hid the body under my shirt and a lens down my trousers. In we went and as soon as the band came on and the lights went down I snuck down to the front and shot as many pictures as I could. That was the start for me. I must say, the photos were pretty awful, but I mastered the exposure beautifully. So, my first attempt was pretty lousy, but well exposed! I then knew what I had to do next time to get better shots.

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We hear you were known to sneak backstage - have you ever been asked to leave a venue?
In those early days I couldn’t ever get a photo pass. One problem was that I was a child and still at school. Others being that I wasn’t actually shooting for anyone in particular, no magazines or newspapers. So, each time I would buy a ticket, or in some cases without a ticket and just smuggle myself in with my camera. I often found myself sneaking in backstage and wandering around areas that I really shouldn’t have been.

So, it became quite a common occurrence for me being rather forcibly ejected from backstage areas and front of house areas and literally being thrown out into the street. In my very early days this was a challenge for me each time I went to a gig. I did find it very funny at the time. After some success photographing some rather huge artists, I started to be allowed photo passes and was actually invited to shoot concerts and ended up on tour with many of them.

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Who’s your favourite rock star to work with?
It’s so hard for me to figure out which of the artists were my favourites to work with. There were and are so many. For lots of different reasons I can’t pinpoint just one. For example, I had such great times when, in 1978, I became Bob Dylan’s official photographer and toured with him. I also had great times with Queen and The Who, especially Keith Moon who was a great friend of mine. I loved working with Amy Winehouse. I suppose the most fun consistently would have to be Status Quo. It’s all been great fun, barring a few little situations. Favourite rock star to work with? Nearly all of them!

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And what’s been your least favourite experience?
I suppose one of my least favourite experiences would have been a moment in a villa, somewhere in Ibiza in the early hours of the morning, with Pete Doherty. It’s a long story, but briefly, I flew to meet up with Pete and his band Babyshambles in Ibiza.

It was all very tense as Kate Moss had got herself into a little bit of trouble with the press a few days before in London. I was with the band at their gig in San Antonio, Ibiza. Then we all left in a minibus and headed off to the exotic Manumission Villa, somewhere on the island. Once we arrived, I was alone with Pete in a lounge area. I knew Pete very well as I had been touring with them for about a year by then. Pete was putting on CDs and getting a little more manic and hyper all of the time.

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Then I spotted a CD, Never Mind The Bollocks by the Sex Pistols. Suddenly Pete thought he was Sid Vicious. He turned to me and said, “Put your camera down”. I said “Why?” and he suddenly squared up to me. I carefully put my cameras down, without taking my eyes off him. I said, “Okay, you want a fight then?” He said, “Yes”. I stood and waited, while Pete looked at me.

To be honest, I wouldn’t have been very receptive if he had made a move to start the fight. I suspect he might have well regretted it. Anyway, I lifted the mood a bit and then persuaded Pete to pose for me while we did some portraits. We spent about half an hour taking photos. Suddenly, I could see through the window that the sun was starting to come up. So, I carried on taking photos then decided to get out of the Villa. I walked out and managed to get a lift out of the villa down to the nearest town, where I got a taxi to the airport and caught a flight back to London. 

Your most memorable photoshoot?
Now this is a difficult one to answer. There have been so many memorable photo shoots. It could be the first photo shoot with Madness back in 1979 or portrait shoots with Bob Dylan. Shoots with Shane MacGowan and Liam Gallagher in Tokyo were pretty interesting, too. I suppose one of the most memorable would have to be the first time I met and photographed Freddie Mercury in 1976. We had a lovely chat and great photo shoot.

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Who do you wish you could’ve photographed but never got the chance to?
There were a few people that I would have loved to have photographed. One would have been Elvis Presley and another would have been John Lennon. I missed John Lennon by about a week. I was living in New York in 1980 and we flew back to London in the beginning of December.

I was going back to NY in the middle of December and among other things, I was going to meet up with John and Yoko for a shoot at their home. I was asleep in the UK on December 8th 1980 when my girlfriend, Lyn (now my wife), called me and said that John Lennon had been murdered in NYC. Like most of the rest of the world, I was stunned and very upset, and after all these years I’m still very upset about it.  

Why did you leave it so long to promote/publish your work?
I left it for a very long time to actually start to publish and exhibit my work, mainly because I‘ve just been far too busy. I’m shooting on a daily basis and haven’t had a chance to actually think about it. But, after plenty of pressure from my wife and children, I actually thought now might be the time. Nobody outside of the music business really knows me. I joked recently with a journalist that I feel like the most famous photographer that nobody has heard of.

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Do you print your own work?
Yes, we print all of our own images. We like to keep control of the images and we like to make sure that they’re printed in the best possible way.

What’s the secret to a good print?
Well, at last, an easy question to answer! I think it’s reasonably important to have a good quality printer. But, what you print onto is critically important. I use, what I consider to be, the world’s best paper. PermaJet is without doubt the finest I have found and believe me I’ve looked around. I’ve tried and tested most of the paper out there, but the range and quality of PermaJet paper is amazing and that’s the reason why I’ve used their paper for over 15 years.

It’s one thing looking at a photo on a computer screen, online or on a phone, and another looking at a print. We sell lots of photographs worldwide online at www.dannyclifford.com. Photos of Bob Dylan, Pink Floyd, Queen, Eric Clapton, Rolling Stones, Frank Sinatra, Amy Winehouse, Oasis, George Michael, Elton John, Leonard Cohen, James Brown, Status Quo and many more. The print prices range from £200 to £20,000. So, the image and print have to be perfect with no if’s and but’s. When it comes to achieving a stunning print, PermaJet paper is my secret weapon.

Danny Clifford is a world-renowned music photographer and PermaJet ambassador who’s been shooting iconic ‘fly on the wall’ images for over 40 years. Clients include Bob Dylan, The Who, Status Quo, Queen and Eric Clapton. See more of his amazing images here.