IMMORTAL AXES – Lisa S. Johnson’s Amazing Tour Behind the Music

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Lisa S. Johnson

There is no shortage of books on rock music photography, as one will quickly find by searching for the subject on Amazon. A glance will yield countless examples to choose from, with the vast majority being books filled with shots of artists onstage or studio portraits. It’s a natural, as rock ’n’ roll is a dynamic medium populated with colorful artists wearing striking clothing and jewelry that’s made to order for a coffee table-type book. 

Lisa S. Johnson’s new book Immortal Axes: Guitars That Rock is different in that the photos not of the recording artists but of their instruments, up close and in exquisite, amazing detail. The table of contents reads like a rock ’n’ roll hall of fame roster: Guitars and basses of The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Beatles, Queen, Iron Maiden, Metallica, Jimi Hendrix and many, many more; in fact, a total of 150 examples. There are factory-fresh, pristine guitars and beat-to-hell guitars that show many years and hundreds of gigs worth of road wear. There are guitars that are bone stock and guitars that have been heavily modified by the musician or their guitar tech. And with each set of photographs is a backstory, explaining both the history of the instrument and the kind of hurdles Johnson had to jump over to obtain access to it. 

The cliche “labor of love” most definitely applies to this book, as Johnson clearly has deep affinity for these wonderful instruments as well as the process from concept to publication which was clearly both time consuming and a struggle. Her previous book, 108 Rock Star Guitars, served as a calling card of sorts, but she still had to pound on a lot of doors to get access to the instruments she wanted to shoot. 

“This book took eight years from start to finish,” says Johnson. “The first book took 17 years, because I was just starting out, so this was half the amount of time. It’s a huge, long, arduous process. It’s exhausting, but it’s also exhilarating. It’s the best feeling in the world when you get access to these guitars. When I’m with them I’m wowed…like ‘I’m standing here in front of Jimmy Page’s guitar. I’m inside Metallica HQ.’ It’s mind-blowing, it’s a trip, it’s surreal.”

One would think that after the success of Johnson’s first book, her name recognition and industry contacts would be so solid that getting access to the guitars would be fairly easy, but that wasn’t always the case, as she explains. “I’ve had to be tenacious, because you don’t get responses, you have to email multiple times, or they’ll say ‘reach out to us again.’ So it’s a constant circle back. Circle back. In the early days there was no email, it was fax or phone. I remember trying to get to ZZ Top and just couldn’t get through so I started faxing. Still no response until finally I met Billy Gibbons underneath the stage at a Rolling Stones concert where I was there shooting Keith Richards and Ron Wood’s guitars. I said ‘I’ve been trying to get through to you. I’m here right now photographing Keith and Ronnie’s guitars and I really love yours and he said ‘Of course you can photograph my guitar.’ So the next time I sent a request, I got a yes. It’s just having to constantly follow up and do a good job and be able to send cool pictures of a guitar that they respect or a peer and say ‘look, I photographed so-and-so’s guitar, here’s an image of it, and what do you think?’ I’ve been very fortunate in the number of ‘yes’s’ I’ve had, and even after getting lots of ‘no’s’ I would continue following up and eventually I’d get an approval. A lot of times it’s about timing. It’s not that they don’t want to do it, it’s the timing that didn’t work out. This last year, 2020, the push was on because I wanted to finish the book. I wanted the book to come out. I didn’t want to wait another year, and I was nearly done. I had approvals from several artists, but then COVID hit. So the traveling requirements got all messed up. I’m like ‘I gotta get this done before the borders are shut.’”

Pete Townshend’s 1975 Custom Gibson Les Paul Deluxe #9 Cherry Sunburst

The forward to Immortal Axes was written by Peter Frampton; the afterward by Suzi Quatro. 

How Johnson got the two musicians onboard is as interesting and complicated a story as getting permission to photograph the hundreds of guitars that are in the book. 

For Frampton, it centers around his black Les Paul that was on the cover of his blockbuster album Frampton Comes Alive! In 1980, while he was on tour in South America, the guitar was put on a cargo plane in Venezuela, en route to Panama. The plane crashed right after takeoff, and tragically the flight crew perished. For three decades Frampton thought the guitar had been destroyed in the crash. What he didn’t know was that the guitar had survived, albeit with some bumps and bruises. It was salvaged by locals immediately after the crash and eventually fell into the hands of a musician on the Caribbean island of Curacao, who owned it for many years before a local guitar collector spotted it and contacted Frampton. After extended and complicated negotiations, the guitar was eventually returned to him.

Zakk Wylde’s Wylde Audio Vertigo Warhammer Prototype #1

“It was towards the end of the shooting for the book I got access to Peter’s Phenix guitar,” says Johnson. (“Phenix” is the nickname Frampton gave to the guitar as it literally rose from the ashes). “His signature three-pickup black Strat was in my first book. The year that book came out was when he got the Phenix back. I actually wrote in the first book that I hoped to be able to photograph the real deal. This last eight years of shooting I tried to align with Peter but just couldn’t, so finally towards the end I said ‘I’m nearly done and I really need that guitar, is there any way we can make it happen?’ Finally we were able to, and I’m in there shooting the guitar and this guitar is so beat up; it was in a freaking plane crash! It was missing for 33 years and the guitar is just talking to me and telling me its story and the separation from its master and what it went through and the rejoicing of the return. I mean, this guitar is the ultimate immortal axe. When Peter had the guitar restored he left the burn marks, he left things like the damaged headstock, missing pieces, he left that wear and tear, that’s the story of what happened to it. I just thought to myself when I left, ‘he needs to write the forward to this book.’ When I got back home,  I sent the pictures and wrote to him what I felt. ‘Your guitar was in the first book, Les Paul wrote the forward for that book, I think it would be appropriate that you write the forward for this one’ and he agreed. He felt it, he knew.”

The Rolling Stones

How Quatro came to write the afterward is especially interesting in that she and Frampton are linked in music history. 

“What was so cool was that I was in Europe shooting Suzi Quatro’s bass and the shoot I had scheduled right after leaving her house was Steve Marriott, Peter’s bandmate from Humble Pie. Just when I was leaving, I mentioned to her that Peter was writing the forward to the book and she said that was great, and went on to explain that when she came over to England to record her first album, Peter was hired as a session guitarist. She really liked him and thought it would be great to have him in the band, but her producer said ‘Suzi, Peter’s fantastic, he would be amazing, but there can only be one star in the band, and it’s gotta be you.’”

Jeff Beck

Johnson continues the story: “So I’m driving down the road to shoot Steve Marriott’s guitar and I’m thinking ‘Suzi needs to write the afterward.’ She’s a channel and I am too. We’re both very spiritual and connected to the cosmos. I got home, sent her the picture and told her what happened and she said ‘Absolutely. I feel it. I’m the one who should write your afterward.’ It was not a struggle at all, it just flowed. I think that’s important, you have to let it go and just be in the moment. Then the stars align and something magical happens.”

With two books published totaling over 250 famous guitars between them, would there ever be a volume three? Johnson doesn’t even want to entertain that thought at the moment. “Right now, I’m taking a break and enjoying this launch of the book and then we’ll see what happens, because I can’t travel like I’ve been traveling. I am tired and it feels like I have not stopped in years. I just keep going and going and going, so it’s time to just relax and enjoy the images.”

On the flip side, it doesn’t take too much persuasion to get Johnson to talk about unfinished business. “I’m frustrated that I can’t get Angus Young. I’ve met Brian Johnson and Cliff Williams. I gotta have Angus Young’s SG, the Back in Black SG. Mark Knopfler is another one. One of my all-time favorite guitar players. He’s just not seeing the vision. His management is ‘Not for Mark. No. Not gonna happen.’ But I’m not giving up. I’m tenacious. I still have hopes for Mark’s red Sultans of Swing Strat. Eddie Van Halen, the Frankenstrat, I haven’t been able to get access to either.”

The gates to those guitars may currently be closed, but given Lisa S. Johnson’s determination and drive, don’t bet against her to swing them wide open.  

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