Few musicians transcend generational boundaries but Jimi Hendrix, hailed as the greatest guitarist of all time, is right up there with the best of them.
So when Brian Cooke mentioned in passing that he and the Sixties icon once shared a dressing room, his grown-up children were obviously a bit “put out”, and who wouldn’t be? “My dad and Jimi” would have been a very handy anecdote for any teenager.
Mindful of lost opportunities and of the obvious gaps in the family history, they groaned: “You never told us.”
“It’s something they often said and it made me think about writing it all down but there are so many stories from so long ago that it is sometimes difficult to remember,” says Brian, a former music business photographer and album sleeve designer, who has finally begun to chronicle his rock ’n’ roll adventures with the help of an extensive archive of photographs kept at his home in York.
He now has a blog www.younevertoldus.com and a photo sales site www.briancooke.com, where his reminiscences and images bring fresh insights into the eras that brought us rock, prog rock, reggae punk and the New Romantics
While some of the pictures are familiar thanks to a deal with the picture agency Getty Images, many have never been seen before. They include the snaps he took while on board the boat that ferried the Sex Pistols while they played “God Save the Queen” on the Thames on the day of the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in June, 1977. He was party to this seminal moment in punk’s history after he and business partner, Trevor Key, made the Pistols a day-glo banner to hang over the side of the boat.
“The captain of the boat thought it had been hired for a social function. When he found out what was going to happen, he wanted out. The cue for him to get the police in was when Johnny kicked a Japanese photographer at the front of the stage but that only created more media interest,” says Brian, 68, who is slowly scanning and retouching the old negatives and transparencies, which are triggering memories.
He has no problem remembering where it all began. As a boy growing up in Scarborough, his passions were photography, music and trainspotting, and they still are. A Saturday job at Croft’s Photo Services, a stint at Hull College of Art and a job as a photography lecturer helped enhance his camera skills.
He began photographing bands with his second-hand Rolleicord and in 1965 he took pictures of Robert Palmer’s first band, The Mandrakes, at the Condor Club in Scarborough, which led to a job as part-time roadie, photographer and, later, manager.
”That’s how I met Jimi Hendrix,” he says. “The Mandrakes were one of the support acts for his gig at the Skyline Ballroom in Hull. It was used as a restaurant during the day and the bands used the kitchens as a communal dressing room. Usually, different bands took up different parts of the kitchen, but Jimi mixed in with us while waiting to go on stage. When our guitarist Rob Southwick broke a string while tuning up, Jimi re-strung and tuned Rob’s guitar with a string of his own. He was a really lovely bloke.”
Brian’s pictures came to the attention of Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, who asked the then 24-year-old and his wife Marylin, a graphic designer, to work with the label. The couple launched London-based Visualeyes and captured a fledgling Roxy Music at the Royal College of Art while they were shooting their first-ever music video, which Brian also produced. Two months later in July 1972, he took some of their first press pictures at the Cooke studio/home on Portobello Road.
“Marylin still tells of the time Bryan Ferry and Brian Eno put their make-up on in her bathroom,” he says.
He knew just the spot for the cover shot of Mott The Hoople’s Wildlife LP and photographed them in his native Yorkshire on the Cleveland Hills. He captured his old friend Robert Palmer with Elkie Brooks, performing as Vinegar Joe, during a recording of The Old Grey Whistle Test in 1973. In the same year he was on tour with Steve Winwood’s Traffic. His image of them on stage in Rome was used on their On the Road album.
In the late 1970s, Brian teamed up with fellow Yorkshire photographer Trevor Key to form Cooke Key Associates, which was the go-to design agency for every record label, apart from EMI. They included the influential Chrysalis and Virgin Records, which involved working with everyone from Mike Oldfield to Jethro Tull and the Sex Pistols.
They created 150 album sleeves for Virgin alone and, informed by Jamie Reid, they did the artwork for the Pistols album covers and promotional material. They also came up with Virgin’s famous “scrawl” logo, which was modelled on their own.
“I sent a bill for £2,000 to Virgin Records without any specified usage. Whoops,” says Brian.
While it wasn’t the money spinner it could’ve been, it is something to be proud of, along with one of his favourite pieces of work, the image for the Front Line reggae record label, a Virgin subsidiary.
In the studio, looking for inspiration, Virgin’s John Varnom found a strip of barbed wire, which he held up in his clenched fist. Inspired by this, Brian found some fake blood and the now iconic picture was complete.
Another memorable moment was with Spandau Ballet in 1979. He was charged with taking production stills for the video to their first single To Cut A Long Story Short. The shoot was in the arches below London Bridge Station in the London Dungeon.
“I liked to get to jobs early and I was sitting waiting when the band arrived. I overheard one of them say, ‘Who’s that old geezer over there’, which came as a bit of a shock as I was 33 at the time. I figured they would rather have had one of their trendy New Romantic mates do the photography, so I kept a pretty low profile. Thankfully, my pictures turned out very well and I got a front cover for Melody Maker, which might explain why the old geezer did quite a lot of photography with Spandau after that,” says Brian.
The “what are they really like?” question is an obvious one for someone who worked with rock and pop royalty, although he is diplomatic.
Among the nicest were Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull, Dave Pegg of Fairport Convention, Midge Ure and John Martyn. He worked with Martyn a lot and first met him at Island Records during the recording of Inside Out. Brian designed the album cover using his experimental multiple images.
“John Martyn was a great guy and a genius, although the thing that struck me most at the time was how much he spent on taxis. He’d get one from Worthing to London and back to go on a bender,” says Brian.
Other artists were not so nice. Topping that list is Blondie’s Debbie Harry, who he describes as “not pleasant” and a “diva”.
As the album and its artistic sleeve was replaced by CD and downloads, Brian diversified into digital photography and now runs Digital Asset Solutions from his home in York, where he moved 27 years ago.
He still takes pictures of trains and, refuelled by memories of the past, he has also started photographing bands again, including York’s The Pauper Kings. “I’m really enjoying it,” he says. “I love music and I love taking pictures. It’s made me feel young again.”
• Brian’s pictures are available to buy from www.briancooke.com and his picture-filled memories are on his blog, www.younevertoldus.com