Rockpool Publishing

Rock of ages

Tony Mott has photographed some of the biggest names in music. He tells Amanda Keenan it may only be rock ’n’ roll but he loves it.

Some people horde teapots; others accumulate rare coins or first-edition books. Tony Mott has a rather more ambitious pursuit. “I collect musicians,” the veteran photographer admits. You can almost imagine him painstakingly tending to his menagerie: fetching Marlboros for a late-model Keith Richards, dusting a mintcondition Freddie Mercury and fawning over his beloved Carole King. Of course, Mott doesn’t keep his prizes in a glass case or on a shelf — he displays them on the
glossy pages of his long-awaited picture book with its cumbersome but quaint name: Rock ’n’ Roll Photography is the New Trainspotting.

As the likeable, English-born Mott explains, it’s far cooler but not so far removed from his youth misspent roaming the railways. “I’d travel the length and breadth of Britain gathering locomotive numbers. There was a proper book and you used to underline when you’d seen them, so you collected locomotives,” he recalls. “So if someone said today, you can shoot Madonna or (Swedish folk duo) First Aid Kit, I’d go with First Aid Kit because I’ve never shot them before; I’m always wanting to shoot someone new to add to my collection. So rock ’n’ roll photography is the new trainspotting. When you’re doing a title for a book you’ve got no idea, and nothing better than that came along, so that was the title. I kinda like it — it’s so wrong it’s right (laughs).” Mott has had to scurry out of earshot to conduct this interview — he’s not in the moshpit but on a sound stage photographing Olivia Newton-John and her co-stars on the set of Stephan Elliott’s A Few Best Men at Sydney’s Fox Studios.
I tell him how I grew up looking at his photos of the likes of AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses. “So did I,” he says with a hearty  laugh. He came to Australia as a young chef in 1976 and began taking photos of the Divinyls every Monday night during the band’s residency at the Piccadilly Hotel in Kings Cross. Mott was captivated by sassy, charismatic frontwoman Christina Amphlett. “I would say I was quietly, photographically infatuated with Chrissy for some time. I practised my art on her,” he explains. “And I got lucky because in that six months I practised on her, no one saw the photographs except me, and they were pretty crap. By the time someone asked to see them I had got a little bit better and they bought one and that was really the beginning of the journey.” He says he cut his teeth on a razor-sharp subject “She was driven, she was wild, she was unpredictable. I was sometimes in fear of my safety, her safety and certainly the audience’s safety: no two nights were
the same.” Mott says he’s become friends with the tempestuous Amphlett only in more recent years. “She thinks we’ve always been friends, I’ve never quite seen it the same way but in the last few years we’ve become a bit closer. When she was writing her bio (Pleasure and Pain: My Life) I saw quite a bit of her. She has mellowed a bit . . . but she’s still got that edge and she can still intimidate not only me but anybody.” Mott’s portfolio features undeniably some of the biggest and greatest names in music: the photographs are remarkable but it’s the fact he’s able to capture such candid shots of the contrived, and the rapport he establishes with these guarded stars, that’s truly impressive. His live shots of bands, including Nirvana and the Living End, require extraordinary access.

He’s been invited on three Rolling Stones tours, shot 450 album covers and captured one of the most recognisable shots of renowned snapper-hater Bjork. He even convinced singer Sarah McLachlan to pose in a toilet and captured a magical Backstage shot of Nick Cave with an “enamoured” Kylie Minogue. But not all stars respond to his affable charm: Bob Dylan, who is soon to play Perth as part of the annual West Coast Blues ‘n’ Roots festival, didn’t enjoy being under the gaze of Mott’s lens. “I was hired by his manager, so I was working for him,” Mott recalls. “The manager chalkmarked the
area (in front of the stage) where I could go and where I couldn’t. I ventured a little bit too far forward and in front of 12,000 people, mid-song, he just told me to go forth and multiply. So I did. And that was my introduction to Bob Dylan.” Despite the calibre of his subjects, Mott claims he’s never been starstruck — apart from the time he almost met Carole King. “I’m a huge fan and I ended up backstage after her show at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. She walked in and it just dawned on me that I was about to be one of those people who go, ‘Oh my God! I think you’re wonderful! Oh my God!’ So I turned around and walked out. I didn’t meet her. John Lennon once said never meet your heroes, and in this case he was right.” Mott has shot so many musicians over his 30-year career that only a selection could be included in his book. A magazine shoot with Ozzy Osbourne back before he was a reality television star didn’t make the cut — but it sticks in Mott’s mind. “He was
staying at the Park Hyatt, and we did the shoot in the room. Right at the end I said to him, ‘Ozzy, it would be really good if I could just get some natural light, do you mind if I open the curtains?’ He said, ‘Yeah, yeah mate.’ I opened the curtains and he went, ‘F. . . ing hell! Sharon! Come and look at the bloody view! There’s the bloody Opera House! And the f. . .ing Harbour Bridge!’ He’d been there for two days and never opened the curtains. Very rock ’n’ roll.”

Amanda Keenan – 12 April, 2012