Punk Bands In 1970s London: Rescued And Never-Before-Seen-Photos

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 6 months ago

Looks like this article is a bit old. Be aware that information may have changed since it was published.

Last Updated 17 November 2023

Punk Bands In 1970s London: Rescued And Never-Before-Seen-Photos
Young men in suits playing their instruments on the street
The Jam. Paul Weller (guitar), Rick Buckler (drums) and Bruce Foxton (bass) performing a pop- up gig on a Soho street, 1976. © Caroline Coon

Images of Johnny Rotten resting against a chimney stack, and Toyah Wilcox springing from a coffin feature in a new exhibition of photos taken at the height of the punk craze in 1970s London.

Photographer Caroline Coon snapped most of the big British punk pioneers back in the day — behind the scenes, staged, and with more candid off-the-cuff shots too. Now, she has worked with The Centre for British Photography in St James's to dig into her back catalogue, dust off old negatives and recall this anarchic era with her show, Nothing to Lose.

A young band posing with the lead singer springing out of a coffin, wearing a ruff
Toyah Wilcox with her band Toyah, London, 1977. © Caroline Coon

Says Coon: "In 1976, I saw the Sex Pistols perform their second gig and immediately I recognised a galvanising new expression of sub-cultural revolt. Urgently I upgraded the Kodak Instamatic I used for my painting to a Nikon F2 SLR. As the early days of the dramatic punk scene evolved — created by bands like the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and The Slits — I photographed and interviewed musicians and fans."

Most of the photos here eschew showing the bands on stage; instead we get glimpses of Mick Jones from The Clash and Mykaell Riley of Steel Pulse protesting with plaques outside the National Front's headquarters, and film director and DJ Don Letts (a constant on the punk scene at the time), filming during the Rock Against Racism concert of 1978 in Hackney's Victoria Park.

A young woman staring at the camera - she is wearing a swastika armband
Siouxsie Sioux outside the 100 Club Oxford Street, preparing for the 100 Club Punk Rock Festival, 1976. © Caroline Coon

Not all photos have aged well, with the exhibition including reminders of the fascination with fascist ideologies harboured by some of the punk scene. Siouxsie Sioux is photographed loitering outside Oxford Street's 100 Club wearing a swastika armband; described by the singer as an alignment with Nazism as an act of rebellion, and garnished with The Banshees' antisemitic song lyrics.

A man in a big hat, behind a handheld camera
Don Letts filming at the Rock Against Racism concert, 1978. © Caroline Coon
A young man in a waistcoat sitting on a roof and staring into the camera lens
Johnny Rotten on the roof of his home, taking a break from recording tracks for his post-Sex Pistols band, Public Image Ltd (PIL). Warwick Road, London, 1978. © Caroline Coon

"It was not until the early 1990s, when people began reconsidering and recognising the significance of punk," says Coon, "that there was a new demand for my photographs. Unfortunately, the darkroom where my films were developed had moved and many of my negatives were lost. The photographs in this exhibition, some from negatives and others restored and printed from scratched contact sheets, are a glimpse of what has survived from this revolution moment."

A band stand with placards about uniting black and white people. Two elderly ladies turn their heads as they pass
Mick Jones (The Clash) and Mykaell Riley (Steel Pulse) demonstrate outside leader of the neo-fascist National Front headquarters on Connaught Road, Teddington, 1978. © Caroline Coon

The images have been organised by Coon into three exclusive box sets (there will be just 10 made of each for sale), but those who don't have £5,000 to spend on one of these can go and see around half of the entire collection on display at The Centre for British Photography, for free. Be quick though — like the punk movement itself, this show doesn't last long.

Nothing to Lose: The Punk photographs of Caroline Coon, The Centre for British Photography, 17 November-17 December 2023, free.