Pennie Smith was not a fan. Maybe that’s what made her the perfect photographer for The Clash. “She was never particularly into rock music,” writes Rob Walker at The Guardian; she wasn’t starstruck or overawed by her subjects; and she also wasn’t even particularly in love with the most famous shot of her career — the iconic photo of bassist Paul Simonon raising his Fender Precision at New York’s Palladium, seconds before smashing it to bits. “I said, ‘it’s completely out of focus,’” Smith remembers of the image when Joe Strummer insisted on using it for the cover of legendary double-LP London Calling. “But Joe wouldn’t have it. He said, ‘That one is the photo.’”
He was obviously correct, though Smith still doesn’t sound convinced. “I’m pleased I took it,” she says, “but it’s a bit of a weight around my neck. It keeps coming back to whack me on the back of the head — nicely in some instances, but aggravatingly in others.” Hitting one in the head — front or back — is the aim of the best album covers in punk, and “punk rock’s rage and dissent have always been easy to represent visually,” says Noah Lefevre in the Polyphonic video above. Taking the perfect punk photograph, however, depended on a number of variables all coming together perfectly for a once-in-a-lifetime shot.
For one thing, Smith had to have made the gig. She nearly accepted an offer to go out with friends instead. She also decided to change it up that night and stand on Simonon’s side of the stage instead of next to guitarist Mick Jones. And then, as Lefevre explains, there was the show itself. “In London, the Clash would play raucous punk bars and dancehalls full of standing room crowds. In the U.S.,” during their first tour in 1979, “they often found themselves playing in theaters with fixed seating.” The Palladium was such a venue. “Bouncers would hold crowds back, make sure they stayed stapled to their seats.”
The sedentary crowd killed the vibe. By the end of the show, “Paul’s frustration turned to anger,” notes Snap Galleries, “and then he lost it completely. His watch stopped at 9:50pm.” Smith remembers seeing him suddenly spin toward her. “He was in a really bad mood, and that wasn’t like him.” She was so startled, she got the photograph. “It wasn’t a choice to take the shot. My finger just went off.” That chance moment gave the band an ideal image for the London Calling cover.
It was illustrator Ray Lowry’s idea to crib the typography of Elvis’ first record, and the font “called back to the roots of punk rock,” born out of the ‘50s rockabilly tradition of simple songs and bare-bones instrumentation and arrangements. “Punk and rock and roll held the same cultural significance,” Lefevre says, but The Clash announced themselves on the album cover as purifiers of the tradition, stripping out the “phony Beatlemania” Strummer decried in the title track and replacing it with righteous, if barely-in-focus, rage. Hear the full gig just above, including the bass-smashing at the end at 1:08:10.