Interview: Bob Gruen (John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, The Clash, Sex Pistols photographer)

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HIT CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: May 2014. We had the tremendous honour to talk with a legendary rock and roll photographer: Bob Gruen. Shortly after John Lennon moved to New York in 1971, Bob became John and Yoko’s personal photographer and friend and took the iconic photo of John Lennon wearing a New York City t-shirt. Some notable celebrities and rock bands photographed by Gruen include The Clash, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, Ike & Tina Turner, David Bowie, Andy Warhol, the Sex Pistols, Elton John, New York Dolls and Bob Dylan. He recently released his book “Rock Seen”, a fantastic collection of photographs of some of the great stars of rock. Read below the very interesting things he told us:


How difficult was to choose your favourite photos for your book “Rock Seen”?

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Well, it’s hard to say how difficult it was but over the years I have made a large collection of my photos and I had to choose which ones are the best. So, the book had to be large enough to have as many as it fitted. And in 4 or 5 pages we had to include 40 or more photos in order to get more pictures into the book. So we had about 500 pictures into the book.


What are your projects for the near future?

My photos are going to be included in an exhibition of photos of the Rolling Stones which is going to open in Spain in June. I will have an exhibition here in upstate New York in September and I’ll have a big exhibition planned for London in October. Also, I am working on a couple of books: There is a book of my photos of Yoko Ono that I ‘m working with a publisher to finish and I am working with a writer to make an autobiography.


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In 2010, you appeared in “LennoNYC”, a documentary about the life of John Lennon in New York City. Are you satisfied with its final result?

I think the “LennoNYC” is one of the best video records of John’s life. Certainly about his time here is New York. That film includes myself and many of John’s close friends and people who really knew him. And more than that, includes a lot of footage that Yoko Ono gave them of intimate scenes of John Lennon. I think that the “LennoNYC” is one of the best films made about John Lennon.


How did it happen to become John Lennon’s personal photographer?

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I met John Lennon and Yoko Ono shortly after they came to New York through a photo assignment. They were doing an interview and they liked the photos that I took and they invited me to come back and take more and over the next couple of years, we became friends. They lived around the corner from me and they liked my photos but we also liked each other. We had a similar kind of cynical sense of humour -a New York sense of humour- and we were into the same kind of foods and music and we just became friends the way people become friends.


What is the story behind the iconic image of John Lennon wearing a New York City t-shirt in 1974?

In the summer of 1974 John asked me to come to his apartment to take photos of him for an album cover. An album cover photos require just a series of photos close up of his face. And after we took those photos, he just wanted to take some more pictures in order to have some publicity texts which were ready. We were on the roof of the penthouse apartment that he had here in New York City and we were taking pictures on the roof and because the whole skyline was there, I asked John if he still had the shirt that I had given him a year earlier. I used to wear the New York City t-shirt, that kind of shirt, all the time and I had a dozen of them and I had given one to John Lennon in 1973 as a gift. And in the summer of 1974 when we were taking the pictures I asked him if he still had it and he said he did and then he put it on and we took the iconic photo.


Did you expect that this particular photo would be so important in music history?

No. At the time we took it, it was just one of many photos that we took that day. We had no idea that that photo would become so important.


When was the last time you saw John Lennon?

I met John on December 5th and 6th (ed: 1980) at the Record Plant Studio and we spent the whole night talking about his plans for the future.


You took some photos of Andy Warhol along with John Lennon at Record Plant studio in 1972. Were you impressed by Andy Warhol’s personality?

Well, Andy in public seemed very shy and he didn’t really talk very much. So, I don’t know too much about his personality.


How spontaneous was your famous photo of Led Zeppelin in front of their plane?

I actually took it the first day that I met Led Zeppelin. I think we were flying to Pittsburgh on their airplane and as were getting on the plane, someone suggested that we take a picture of them with the plane. Again, we had no idea that that photo was going to become so important.


Did you get on well with Led Zeppelin’s manager, Peter Grant?

I tried not to talk ever to Peter Grant. He was a very dangerous man.


Did you have any problems with the punk rock bands because of your past collaborations with John Lennon and Ike & Tina Turner?

No, I think in fact one of the reasons that I got along with the punk bands so well, was because they respected John Lennon. And while they didn’t very much respect other people in the past, they did respect John Lennon. And I think that my relationship with him helped the punks to respect me.


How difficult was for you as a professional to work around the chaos that the Sex Pistols created?

I enjoyed working with chaos. I didn’t find it that difficult but I found it exciting.


You knew Malcolm McLaren (manager of the Sex Pistols) quite well. Did Malcolm McLaren really care about music or he just was an expert in marketing?

Yes, I think Malcolm cared very much about music, it was important to him and that’s why he worked with music. But he was also a genius at marketing. I think Malcolm was definitely a fan of good music.


I know that you went to the Woodstock Festival to watch The Who. What do you remember the most of their performance?

I remember Roger Daltrey soaring around the stage in a fringe jacket looking like an eagle, a fine bird and I remember Pete Townshend with his trademark windmill guitar playing. I just remember their performance as being fantastic. They played very late at night, like 3 o’clock in the morning. But they were really fantastic.


Do you prefer taking photos in huge stadiums or in small venues?

I like the small venues better but nowadays there are so many restrictions on people taking photos and there is so much competition with other people taking photos, that I don’t really take a lot of photos of live music anymore.


You knew New York Dolls, Ramones and Debbie Harry (Blondie) since their early days in music. How easy was to become famous in New York City during the ‘70s?

Not really. There were a few bands that became famous but were a hundred of bands that were playing. CBGB’s is famous because of Blondie, Talking Heads, Patti Smith, the Ramones and a few other bands, maybe two or three other bands were famous but CBGB’s had seven bands a night, seven days a week for more than 35 years. So, you might have heard of seven famous bands, but there were more than 30.000 that you haven’t heard of. They didn’t become famous. I don’t think it was easy to become famous in New York in the ‘70s. Certainly, nobody at CBGB’s had any idea that they would become famous.


You were a big New York Dolls fan. Do you think they should have become more popular?

It’s too bad that New York Dolls didn’t become more popular but I think they were ahead of their time. People were very shocked by the way they looked and didn’t understand what their attitude was and their music was basically R’n’B but just done a little bit faster. I think they were ahead of their time. They should have been more famous.


Can you tell us a few things about your good friend Joe Strummer (The Clash)?

Joe was a leader. You know, a man among men. And he was always very good at, not just talking to people, but listening to people. Many pop stars just talk to people about themselves. Joe was always interested in finding out about other people, and how other people lived and how they felt. He was also a great person to go out and party with. My wife and I, used to have to remind each other if we were going to dinner with Joe Strummer, we had to make sure that will bring our sunglasses. Because after you went to dinner, you would go out drinking and you walked out of the bar at 9 or 10 o’clock in the morning, you really needed your sunglasses.


You went to see The Clash live at Leeds when Joe Strummer started a chant with the audience where he was yelling “No more Queen Elizabeth” “Yeah!” etc. Would you like to repeat this story for our readers?

Well, this is very interesting because I was on the balcony with Lester Bangs, a rock ’n’ roll critic, when The Clash were playing live at Leeds and we were both aware of the historic meaning because we loved The Who album “Live at Leeds”. And during a concert Joe Strummer at one point along with many other punks would say “No more Led Zeppelin” and everybody cheered and he said “No more Beatles” and everybody cheered and he said “No more Rolling Stones” and they all cheered and he said “No more Queen Elizabeth” and they all cheered. Then he said: “John Lennon rules, ok!” and they all cheered. And Lester and I, were wondering like: “Why he said that John Lennon is ok?” but we thought that John Lennon actually was a punk. The true originals.


Have you even turned down an interesting professional offer because you were busy or for any other reason?

But sometimes you get too busy you have to make a choice. But generally, I find it very hard to turn down any kind of offer because I was always making so little money. I was always hoping to get more and more work and I try to do as many jobs as I possibly could.


Are you frustrated with the collapse of the music press?

No, I’m not frustrated with that. I think that things change and life changes with it. And I’m too glad to be alive and living at a time to see the changes. I don’t expect things to stay the same.


Which is the greatest concert you have even been?

I’ve been to a lot of really great concerts. I can’t really put a #1 or #2. Every show I ever saw Tina Turner was the best. Every show I ever saw The Clash was one of the best. Seeing John Lennon at Madison Square Garden was one of the best. Seeing the Rolling Stones at Madison Square Garden was one of the best. Seeing The Who at Woodstock was fantastic. So, I can’t really make a #1 or #2 or #3.


Do you feel lucky that you have met all these great people?

I feel very lucky but I think the luck is also a part of what you create. You wake up every day and you have to take advantage of whatever opportunities you can.


Who is the coolest person in rock ’n’ roll business?

Me (laughs). I don’t know. Again, it’s hard to make a list.


Do you have any professional ambition left?

Yes, of course. I would like to continue to keep working. I would like to keep getting my pictures out in the public and I hope to inspire people.


Would you suggest me to move to New York?

I think New York is a real cool place but I think Greece is a lot of fun. Last summer, I went to Crete. I know a band called the Barb Wire Dolls who come from Crete. They invited us to visit and we had a wonderful time. If you live in Crete, I don’t know if you should come to New York. Greece is a very nice place to live. New York is very expensive too. You would get a better deal, it’s pretty hard to find a job nowadays in New York. If anybody wants to have an exhibit of my photos in Greece, tell them to contact me because I would love to come back.


All artist photos by Bob Gruen.

A huge “THANK YOU” to Mr Bob Gruen for his time and to Carol Klenfner for her valuable help.

Bob Gruen official website:

Buy Bob Gruen’s latest book “Rock Seen” here 

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