British photographer Steve Rapport returned to London in 1980 and played “catch up” on the exploding rock ‘n’ roll scene in the wake of the punk explosion. From that time until the mid-1990s, he was everywhere with his camera, earning a steady living by capturing the likes of the Clash, Ramones, Style Council, Springsteen, Annie Lennox. PKM’s Amy Haben caught up with Rapport at his home in California, to ask him about some remarkable photographs he took of Joe Strummer running the London Marathon in 1983.
I recently stumbled upon an arresting photograph of Joe Strummer running in the London marathon. It was so intimate, catching a glimpse of what Joe did in his spare time. No massive audience was watching, no spotlight was shining on him in that moment. On that day in 1983, months after the release of The Clash’s Combat Rock album, he was just one of hundreds pounding the pavement for 26.2 miles.
I soon tracked down the person who took that photograph, Steve Rapport, and, during a recent Zoom meeting from his home in Pacifica, California, I learned about not only a dynamic career behind the camera, but of a rich family history of survivors and justice seekers.
British photographer Steve Rapport shot musicians all over the world as a freelancer for Rolling Stone, Sounds, Smash Hits, the Guardian, among other publications. During the years 1980-1994, Steve caught everything from the Ramones and the Clash to Bruce Springsteen and Annie Lennox while earning a living. Never a punk himself, Steve has passionately lived by the ethos represented in Joe Strummer’s lyrics. Among many fond memories, lies a night bar hopping with Strummer after meeting him while on a gig shooting Bow Wow Wow.
In 1992, Steve left the U.K. for his current home in Pacifica, California,where he owns a photo gallery. In 2017, a friend of his unearthed his archives in Oxfordshire, England. Within the stack, were brilliant color photos of Joe Strummer running the London Marathon in 1982. Steve put them online where they went viral. Steve has an extensive list of accomplishments including shooting David Bowie for the cover of his single, “Loving the Alien,” and creating the album cover of The Two Tone Story. Steve has also published over 140 of his photographs in a two-volume edition called (Mostly) Rock ‘n” Roll Photographs Vol. 1 & 2.
Rapport was raised in a Jewish family in the Coventry area of central England. Coventry was heavily bombed and damaged by a German Luftwaffe attack in 1940, part of an assault called Operation Moonlight Sonata. It was a brutal act of genocide which, unfortunately, is forever associated with the stunning beauty that is Beethoven’s composition. Hundreds of people died or were injured in that bombing, and Coventry Cathedral was left a shell of its original glory; only a few stained glass window-encased walls still stand today.
The ska song by the Specials, “Ghost Town,” was written about the bomb-ridden mess that eventually closed many of Coventry’s clubs and factories. Today, the city is considered the most dangerous in the U.K. and the seventh most dangerous area in all of Europe.
“This town, is coming like a ghost town/ All the clubs have been closed down/ This place is coming like a ghost town/ Bands won’t play no more/ Too much fighting on the dance floor.” -The Specials
Steve’s grandmother was originally from Belarus before moving to Lodz, Poland with her husband. One snowy evening, the Nazis were rounding up the Jewish people when a pregnant woman fell to the freezing ground. His empathetic grandfather leaned down to help pick up the poor woman. When the Nazis noticed this, they stomped over and kicked him to death in front of everyone. His distraught mother and grandmother were taken to Auschwitz concentration camp. In one of many depressing nights in the encampment, his mum was reminded by her mother that they didn’t have enough food. The next morning, she found her mother’s elderly, frail body dead in bed. The poor woman lost everything and everyone in her family, yet never gave up, eventually rebuilding with a family of her own.
His mother eventually married and settled down with a man who also had strong convictions. At the Battle of Cable Street in the East End of London, Steve’s father held hands with several other protesters while yelling, “They shall not pass,” as police cleared a path for the leader of the British Union of Fascists, Oswald Mosely.
Much like his father, Steve Rapport is outspoken against fascism in any form it appears today. He has lately been revisiting the Clash’s music and identifying the same feelings first written about in 1979 as relevant today. He even snapped a few photographs of Kamala Harris while she campaigned near his home in California and was thrilled when she was elected Vice President.
In the summer of 1977, Steve was disenchanted by the overwhelming presence of the Queen’s Jubilee in London. Deciding to get out of Dodge, he caught a plane to New York, where he found himself in a sweltering city fraught with panic over the notorious serial killer David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz. The city’s tabloids named that hellish time, “The Summer of Sam.” Walking around the block on 42nd Street and 7th Avenue he passed people smoking dope on the street while trying to avoid tripping on the many potholes that lined the street. He spent many hard days working on an ice cream truck for cash.
During the summer of 1978, Steve traveled to San Francisco. He spent most days buying 99-cent cutout records from Tower Records. This is where he found the first Ramones album, which he says changed his life. The simple yet brilliant cover featuring the four toughs in leather jackets and torn jeans leaning against a brick wall made an imprint in Steve’s brain. Roberta Bayley’s photo has gone on to be one of the most imitated by rock ‘n’ roll bands. Steve thrived on aggressive music, yet didn’t quite fit in to the scene. “I was never a punk, but I had all the records,” he says. “I never wore pins in my clothes or had the hair.”
By the time he returned to London, the Damned and the Clash had exploded and were gracing the covers of the NME. Steve felt he must play catch up with the movement. “White Riot,” by the Clash was making fun of white people, who would never throw a brick in protest, where the black community would.” Steve went on to explain that Joe Strummer wrote the song, “White Man in Hammersmith Palais,” to poke fun at the Jam in their suits. A bloke named Gary from the Specials turned him on to the hot New York group Blondie in 1977 and while watching them play that same year in Coventry, guitarist Chris Stein leaned down into the crowd and pulled off Steve’s oversized Ramones button from his shirt. To be fair, he replaced it with his smaller Ramones badge which had been living on the lapel of his suit jacket.
Many of his old photos of punk musicians like Becky Bondage of Vice Squad, Watty of the Exploited, and Pete Shelley of the Buzzcocks didn’t mean very much to him at the time, but now he cherishes them.
Paul Weller may be best known for his work in the Jam, but when he formed The Style Council, he felt inspired to spread his wings politically. He regularly dismissed his royalties from certain songs in lieu of supporting activists. His song “Blood Sports,” was a statement against hunting. The sales helped two hunting saboteurs who were jailed for their actions of protest. Another track’s profits went to the hard-working miners who went on strike in 1984, protesting colliery closures. The conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was using her iron fist to deplete the power of the trade unions.
“The Style Council was one of the most subversive bands I had ever heard. They combined lyrics about overthrowing the government with a trumpet or piano,” Steve recalled. Within his film arsenal are some lovely photos of Weller onstage with the Jam, his brilliant mod cut silhouetted iconically by the backlight. “The Jam had a mod sensibility mixed with punk urgency,” Steve recounted. “They developed fast, just like the Clash did.”
Steve’s former fiancé, Rebecca, handled the lights and set up for his photoshoots in the mid-1980s. In a particularly unusual gig with Little Richard at the Stuart Coleman Studio in Surrey, the eccentric “Tutti Frutti” singer offered to marry the two of them, as he was an ordained minister. They declined his offer, which in my opinion was an insane move. What a story that would have made! The results of the shoot produced one of my favorite images in his collection. The wide smiling Architect of Rock n’ Roll caught perfectly focused in an energetic key pounding.
These days, Steve spends his time teaching martial arts and selling his photos online. A few years ago, he received a box of negatives by way of his old agency in Oxfordshire. Ninety percent of the old photos were junk in his eyes, but a treasure was unearthed among them. Color photos of a mohawked Joe Strummer wearing his own “White Riot” shirt while running in the 1983 marathon. He cried. Then he posted a photo on Twitter, where it received one million views, going viral.
Steve had met Joe once in 1982 while he was in Los Angeles shooting Bow Wow Wow. The band was staying at the Sunset Marquis hotel where the Clash happened to be as well. During a night of bar hopping, Steve and Joe bonded over a drinking game which involved confessing the first album you had ever purchased. They shared the same answer: Every Picture Tells A Story, by Rod Stewart. I love that Joe admitted that.
You can find a plethora of cool shots on Steve Rapport’s Instagram page as well as his website including but not limited to: The Cure, Prince, Lemmy, Siouxsie Sioux, John Lee Hooker, The Fall, Black Flag, Dead Kennedys, Joan Jett, James Brown, Nick Cave, Peter Murphy, and Sisters Of Mercy.