THERE were so many nightmares,” Brian Griffin tells me. “People who cared about their hair too much. People who were totally uninterested in being photographed.
“There would have always been a member of the band who was a pain in the arse. There would have been a member of the band who looked awful, who was not very photogenic …” He thinks about that a moment and then adds, “It would generally be the drummer.”
Back in the day Griffin took pictures of pop stars. You will have seen them. You might even own some of them. His work appeared in music magazines (the Face, i-D, NME) and on single bags and album covers. If you were buying records at the end of the 1970s or at the start of the 80s it’s more than likely you will know Griffin’s images.
Elvis Costello on a diving board (a picture that features in the inner sleeve of Armed Forces), Echo and the Bunnymen snowed in in Iceland (the cover of their album Porcupine) or on a beach in Porthcawl (Heaven Up Here), a topless Billy Idol (for the cover of his album Rebel Yell). All of them bear Griffin’s signature.
Nearly every pop star who was a pop star 30 years ago (a partial list would include Bryan Ferry, Kate Bush, Depeche Mode and, um, Jim Diamond) were all dispatched to Griffin’s studio in Rotherhithe where they worried about their hair or were a pain in the arse or, as in Iggy Pop’s case, decided to urinate in the nearest bin.
And Griffin would take their picture, create a look for them that would make them look beautiful or interesting or mysterious, a look that would make them look like pop stars.
“I didn’t need to listen to the music, which I didn’t for most of the time to be honest. I didn’t like most of it, but I was interested in taking good pictures of the people I was photographing. I didn’t succeed all the time, I know, but I tried really hard.”
It shows. A new book of Griffin’s music work (called, with Warholian simplicity, Pop) is proof of that. But its publication some 30 years after the photographs were taken also maybe begs a question. Why isn’t Griffin’s name as well-known as his work?
It is breakfast time when I call him to find out. But he’s been up since 6am. “I always get up early because I have so much to do,” he says, the ghost of a Black Country accent haunting his words.
Today he is editing a project about the centenary of the end of the First World War that will become a book and an exhibition in France next year. But he is happy enough to step back in time for me.
Griffin is now 69 years old and still based in Rotherhithe. “I’m not in the same building. It was knocked down. It’s flats now. I’m in the same street. I’ve been here since 1980.”
Even in 1980 music photography was never the only thing he did. In that decade he also shot advertising campaigns and the previous decade he had made his name with an original approach to shooting businessmen for the magazine Management Today.


The Specials, Coventry, 1980

In fact it was when he noticed new wave bands such as the Jam and Elvis Costello and the Attractions wearing suits just like the businessmen he shot every day that the idea of shooting pop bands first occurred to him.
He went off to see Dave Robinson, then head of Stiff Records, who gave him a Graham Parker album cover (Parkerilla) to shoot and he was off and running.

Born and raised in Lye, near Dudley, Griffin had actually left school to work in a factory as a trainee draughtsman. His mum and dad and everyone he knew worked in a factory so it felt fated, he admits. It was heartbreak that prompted him to change direction.

“A girlfriend fell out with me. She was on the seventh floor and I was on the eighth floor at the British Steel Corporation offices in Birmingham. I was really madly in love with her and then she left me for somebody else. I thought, ‘I can’t stand living around here doing this job. I’m going to do something else.’”

That something else was photography. What made his work stand out from the start was his ambition. An ambition to go his own way, to be different from everyone else. “I wanted to use painting and cinema as my inspiration, not photography, and that helped me go on a different track.”

You wonder how editors reacted to such wilfulness. “I got a lot of flak. Back in the early days I’d see what my favourite image was and then I would put that on the picture editor’s desk and scarper. And I just wouldn’t answer the phone. I didn’t have that many clients then so I knew who would be phoning up. I left them with no choice.

“I always directed myself or did what I thought was right. It’s served me well in the end. I don’t have a walk-in fridge. I haven’t got a double garage but people do buy my work, even now.”

His work with Stiff became a way into the music industry and soon he was shooting album covers for, among many others, Joe Jackson (Look Sharp; Jackson wasn’t happy that it was his shoes not his face that made the cover), Ultravox, the Teardrop Explodes, Depeche Mode and Echo and the Bunnymen. Indeed, Griffin’s covers for those last two bands helped define their image. For the Mode his constructivist-inspired images gave the band a heft that it took their music a while to catch up with (by which time Anton Corbijn had taken over the imagemaking), while Griffin’s covers for the Bunnymen’s first four albums cemented their image of wide-screen indie romanticism.

“Yeah, if you talk about Depeche Mode or Echo and the Bunnymen, I helped to create a look for them, especially the Bunnymen; the small figures in the landscape.


Griffin's striking image for the cover of the Depeche Mode album A Broken Frame

“With Depeche Mode it was fabulous because I could just create a photograph. I’d have meetings with them and Daniel Miller at Mute Records and we’d decide on a basic idea. A peasant in a cornfield. A worker up the top of a Swiss mountain. And I could just go and do what I wanted as long as it was strong and good.

“I also did really good stuff for people who didn’t do anything in the music industry, like a Scottish guy called Jim Diamond. I did two of my favourite pieces of work for him. And I did a few good covers for people who were one-hit wonders or didn’t even get a hit or were tax losses or whatever. Everyone got the same treatment from me.

“It didn’t matter that some of them were more famous than others. I was just interested in getting really good photographs of whoever it was.

“That’s why I really did it. The fees were all right, but it wasn’t the money. It was the fact that, hopefully, you could take a good photograph that everyone would see.

“It was great if the band weren’t in the shot. Then you could actually take some of the best photographs.”

It’s worth remembering how central the single and album – and their cover images – were to the culture of music in the 1970s and 80s, being the vehicle for a band’s look. And they would be on show in everywhere from HMV and Virgin to Woolworth’s.

Everyone saw them, Griffin reminds me, “whether you were the queen or a labourer in a factory. It was wonderful”. Hmm. I wonder how many Brian Griffin album covers the queen has in her collection?

“I did Cliff Richard,” he volunteers. “It was taken out of the book. I wanted that to be in. It’s a good picture of Cliff as well, actually. But never mind.”

As far as I know he didn’t have any problems with Cliff. Other bands weren’t quite so obliging. I throw some names at him. Frankie Goes to Hollywood? “Frankie. Oh my god. That was really difficult, really, really, really difficult. It wasn’t pleasurable. You’d want double money to shoot Frankie.”

But at least he didn’t throw them out of his studio. In fact Griffin only did that once. Which rock and roll reprobates suffered that fate, you may ask? Umm, Talk Talk, believe it or not.

“Now I think they’re one of the best bands of the 1980s. Goodness knows what was going on inside their heads. The picture is not bad to be honest for a band photograph, but they made my life such a misery.

“Telling them to leave the studio meant I was not going to get paid so it was costing me in those days hundreds and hundreds of pounds to tell them to clear off. But they were so impossible.”

Given that he was something of a perfectionist you wonder if Griffin himself could be a challenge to work with himself? He was – still is – something of a workaholic. And that has a price.

“Yeah,” Griffin concedes. “If you can think of all the cliched costs, I suffered all of them. I didn’t take heroin or anything like that. I didn’t go there. But I drank a lot, I smoked a lot. I took magic mushrooms.

“I worked extremely hard and it created both fractures within my personal life, my marriage and everything. And also it cost me money at times by taking my eye off my income. I suffered tremendously from anxiety attacks, I had a mental breakdown. I’ve been through the whole thing. I’ve done the whole journey.”

The question then is was the journey worth it? Did the rewards balance the losses? He weighs that up in his head for a moment.

“Yes,” he finally says. “That’s a horrible thing to say.” He tots up the plus column of his life. “I’m still very close to my children. I’m a grandad now. I have had a new partner for the last 10 or 12 years. My life is not too bad actually. Also I’ve gained a bit more fame over the last 15 years as well on top of it all.”

And yet Pop – which he initially funded via Kickstarter – may come as a welcome reminder of the man, his work and his place in pop history. Griffin has been reluctant to embrace that until now, but he’s aware of his own worth.

“Barney Bubbles, Peter Saville, Hipgnosis – they’re the great album cover designers. And I felt I was up there in album covers as a photographer. I didn’t lose that confidence but I think I needed a bit of encouragement to come out of the dark.”

Let there be light.

Pop by Brian Griffin, with texts by Terry Rawlings and Paul Gorman, is published by GOST Books, priced £40. All photographs copyright Brian Griffin.