Like a lot of kids, Julian David Stone wanted to be a rock star. Currently living in Los Angeles and having recently releasing his rock photography book, No Cameras Allowed, he still remembers being in school in the Bay Area and wanting to play the French horn like John Lennon on the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. As Stone explains, though, that dream “lasted about five minutes after I…realized I had no musical talent.” However, he did discover an affinity for photography. “I thought, ‘Oh, here it is,’ ” he says of his revelation after first photographing bands. “ ‘Here’s the way into this world. I can’t play, but I can photograph it. I’ll photograph concerts.’ ”
On April 28, 1983, when Stone was just about to start college, he went to see the Ramones in Palo Alto. The bouncer just shook his head at Stone’s 35 mm camera bag before pointing to a sign reading “No Cameras Allowed.” Stone took the rule as a challenge and hid the lens and camera body in his socks. “I hid a couple of rolls of film too, and I won’t say where, but it was in a place he wasn’t going to look,” Stone says. He then sailed past security and into a new hobby that bordered on obsession: capturing clandestine photos of some of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest acts and the lesser-known bands of the early 1980s that he loved.
For three years Stone snuck his camera into concerts in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and Europe. He photographed Billy Joel, Huey Lewis and the News, Spinal Tap, U2, the Grateful Dead, R.E.M., Bruce Springsteen, and many more. If that already sounds like a diverse collection, there are plenty of lesser-known gems, too—Chequered Past, Haven, and Ratt. But no matter who the artist is, there is something decidedly different about the way that Stone has captured them compared with photos usually seen from back in the day. “I was in the heart of the audience, shooting,” Stone explains. “I was really capturing the show the way the artist intended it.”
Kirkus Reviews calls the impressive photos “surprisingly intimate,” noting that Stone “lets his powerful images speak for themselves.” While Stone did manage to capture plenty of raucous energy, there is something fascinating and slightly subtle to his images. Compared to the big spectacles of Coachella now easily found on today’s social media, Stone presents striking visions of rock gods like David Bowie or Talking Heads’ frontman, David Byrne, wearing suits and standing alone against a sea of black. For Stone, these moments capture something essential about the time. “Even though there were people doing things on a grand scale, like Pink Floyd, it was a much more stripped-down sort of thing,” he says of the era’s concerts.
Stone carried the archive of negatives with him from dorm room to dorm room before putting them away for nearly 35 years. But after Prince’s death in 2016, he revisited film from the musician’s concert at the Forum in Los Angeles in 1985. “You know, just seeing him in his prime….It was unbelievable,” Stone says of the moments he captured. After sharing those photos on the internet and getting flooded with questions about their origins and the stories behind them, he decided to review the entire collection. Beyond the novelty of seeing the big performers in their formative years—Stone’s younger wife didn’t recognize Bono from U2 without his now-signature glasses, for example—Stone also realized that he had plenty of stories to tell.
He started writing short essays explaining how he got his cameras in and how he ended up at a particular concert, hoping the combination would give the book something truly unique. Accompanying the U2 photos taken in Dublin, for example, are recollections of Stone’s adventures around London with other Americans he met on a train. They’re snapshots of being young and uninhibited that perfectly match the spirit of his photos:
I bummed around London, being a tourist in the morning and music fanatic in the afternoon. London had a seemingly never-ending supply of used records shops, and I made it my mission to find each and every one of them. Rare pressings, bootlegs, and what were impossible-to-find imports back home filled every bin. I ended up buying so many records that I checked a bag at Victoria Station, and at the end of each day’s search, I would retrieve the bag, fill it with the day’s haul, and then return it to the baggage claim.
The other narrative thread running alongside the images is Stone’s early and complicated success. He had moved to LA to study film, but photos commissioned by magazines in the Bay Area quickly followed. “I’m literally in film school getting calls all the time to start shooting shows all over Los Angeles,” he says. “My [rock ’n’ roll] photography career was exploding at the age of 21!” As he explains in the book, Stone did some of this professional work but quickly found that taking official photos from the pit could never give him the same perspective—literally or figuratively. He missed being in the heart of the audience, the thrill of getting away with something, and the ability to choose the bands himself. “So I chose film,” Stone says. “And to this day, I’m not sure if I made the right choice.”
Stone did go on to work on screenplays for big studios like Disney and Paramount, and he has since written several novels, including The Strange Birth, Short Life, and Sudden Death of Justice Girl. But he hopes that people who look through these photos will see and appreciate how much he loved capturing these artists and the spirit of those brief years when he was breaking the rules to bring the concerts home with him. “So much of rock ’n’ roll was about rebellion,” Stone says. “And to me, this was my form of rebellion.”
Rhett Morgan is a writer and translator based in Paris.