Yasmine, Kings Road 1984.


The photograph above (detail) is one of the images of mine which is included in the V&A show 'Club To Catwalk'.

Since the show started I've been asked, mainly by fashion students, to answer a few questions about how I came to photograph street and club kids in the ‘80s.  I'm always happy to help and, although I never mind answering those sorts of questions, they do tend to be the same ones, repeatedly.

In order to save a bit of time, I'm reproducing below a recent interview I gave a on the subject of 'Club Kids and The '80s'.

So, you’re one of the photographers who took photographs of the London club kids scene in the 80’s?

That's correct. I started at the end of '76 and my project finally came to an end in 2012.

How did you start photographing these kids?

I'm an only child and my parents weren't particularly sociable people.  The result was that I grew up fairly shy, and when I was younger, I was an introvert.  I’m pretty much the last kind of person that would have made a good punk or New Romantic and I'd never have joined any gang or social group.  I was always a loner, content to watch events from the margins.

So, I think the real answer was that photography gave me the chance to intrude on, and gaze into, other more interesting lives.

With a camera, one can stare at people without it being perceived as rude or intrusive and having a camera gives one the legitimacy to approach people in the first place.

And I started photographing young people at the precise moment - aged around 25/26 - when I felt I was no longer young myself.

Which were the cool clubs at the time to find eccentric kids? The most famous parties?

I don't think this question is exactly right, the kids weren't really eccentric, they were just young and they wanted to express themselves through their dress and style. You may categorise that as eccentric but I don't.  Some may have taken things a little too far and some, at the height of the New Romantic craze, may well have made themselves look a bit ridiculous .  But, when one is young, one is entitled to do that, in my view.

I think most people who were around at the time would agree that the best London club of the '80s was Leigh Bowery's Taboo.  There were so many fashion students, models, stylists, fashion photographers and fashionistas in that club that if they'd dropped a bomb on the place it would have decimated the London fashion scene for a generation.

Blitz was a great club too but it was too small and, besides, it started in early '79.  Bowie Night at Billy's was even better but that was quite short lived and was in 1978.

The club that was my personal preference from the early '80s was Le Beat-Route because there were less tourists and arrivistes there than at either the Blitz or the Camden Palace and it stayed open much later.

The Batcave was very good too and it spawned the look which would later become known as 'goth'.  Before The Batcave, I don't think I'd ever heard that word (in the context of young people).  The Batcave moved locations several times but it was always in Soho and it was always really cool.

Party wise, Andrew Logan's Alternative Miss World events always drew a lot of club kids, art students and fashionistas.  Things usually got quickly out of hand and the AMW's were a lot of fun.

Since I was never one of the insiders on the scene (and never pretended to be), I didn't get to go to many private parties.

Not that that was much of a loss.  A lot of the club kids looked fabulous when they were out but some of the more famous of them lived in absolute squalor in squats.

My wife and I went to a party at Boy George's squat in Carburton Street about 1982.  There was nothing to drink there and no music and it was so crowded that we literally could not move.  Everyone in London had been invited and they all turned up at the same time.  It was the most disastrous party I've ever been to in my life.  My wife and I were stuck in a corner talking to Sigue Sigue Sputnik's Martin Degville all night.  He's a nice enough bloke but after twenty minutes we'd run out of stuff to say to one another but we couldn't move away or circulate.   I suppose we were fortunate that there was no drink there because we couldn't even have thought about getting to use the bathroom.  There were so many people on every floor that the ceiling above us started to bulge downwards dangerously.  Some idiots started to try to get it to break with a broom handle. If it had, people would almost certainly have been killed.  Then all the lights went out when the electricity failed.  It took ages just for everyone to file out.  I counted eleven police cars in the street outside.  Evidently the party had been raided by the cops but it was so crowded where I was that neither my wife or I knew a police raid had occurred.  That's crowded.

How would you describe the club kid style at the time?

This is an impossibility because there was just so much variety.  The best outfits were almost always home-made or, at least, created by the fashion students themselves.  In my photographs you'll see people dressed like the Pope or a Bishop, like a mummy from a tomb or, in the case of Leigh Bowery, God only knows what.  Really one could wear anything or sometimes nothing.  No one care as long as people were not boring.

Is the club kid style and the new romantic style the same thing, or is it 2 different styles?

The term "club kid style" as a category is not one I'm familiar with so I may not be the correct person to answer this one.  If you simply mean what young people were wearing in night clubs in the '80s then definitely not.  The New Romantics were a very specific crowd and they sometimes tended towards the overly theatrical.  Some would actually hire their outfits from theatrical costumiers but I always thought that was cheating a bit. And I very seldom chose to photograph people who simply bought their outfits off the peg.

The New Romantics were named as such in the latter part of 1980 or early 1981.  To begin with, at Billy's, it would have numbered no more than about 100 people.  Even by the time they got to the Blitz wine bar, it wasn't all that many more.  In the article about this group in The Face in November 1980 they were still unnamed and the article was entitled "The Cult With No Name."

Naming them either as the 'New Romantics' or 'The Blitz Kids' may have been the beginning of the end - no one really likes fitting into an easy category dreamt up for them by the popular media.  But whatever they were called, the New Romantic style went global and Rusty Egan and Steve Strange moved their club from a tiny wine bar to first, the Club For Heroes and then, the huge Camden Palace. I'm sure Rusty and Steve would be happy if it was still going on today but really, as a creative fashion movement it had largely run out of steam by about by about 1983.  The Taboo/Sacrosanct crowd evolved out of the New Romantics but I guess by then it would have been very, very unfashionable for one to call oneself a New Romantic.

Who were the most famous club kids/nightlife characters?

Boy George, Steve Strange and Leigh Bowery.  There were many others but those were really the main faces at the time.

Also there was George Michael, Spandau Ballet, the three girls from Bananarama, Haysi Fantayzee, Chris Sullivan and Christos from Blue Rondo a la Turk, Martin Degville, Theresa Thurmer aka Pinkietessa and the DJ Princess Julia.  They were all there, most of the time.

My favourite people to photograph but who weren't really famous at the time I shot them were Steven Linnard, Scarlett, Myra Falconer, Michele Clapton, Magenta Devine, Peter Robinson aka Marilyn, Kim Bowen, Leslie Chilks, Melissa Caplan, Matthew Glamorre and Stephen Jones.  As you may know, many of these went on to become famous.

What was the music playing in clubs?

I'm really not the kind of person that should answer this question.  When I'm in a club, I'm so focussed on what I'm doing that I rarely chat to anyone and I don't really hear the music.  I do know this though, Rusty Egan the DJ at Bowie Night and the Blitz was the first one in this country to play two of the same records at the same time and segue them together.  And he was the first DJ that I'd ever heard play two different records at the same time.  I'm told people in the US were doing those sort of tricks earlier than '78 but I'm pretty sure he was the first in the UK.  (I'm no expert, so you may want to check this.)  You can probably get his Blitz club set list from his website.

How would you describe the atmosphere?

The atmosphere on a good night at Billy's or Taboo was a little like a Hieronymous Bosch nightmare.  But darker and with more alcohol and more bad behavior :-)

Was it exciting?

If one was young and had an open mind, most certainly.

What did you like about photographing these people?

The best thing about photographing those people, once I'd become accepted by them (which took a while), was that they really, really wanted to be seen, so it became very easy.  They were the look-at-me generation.

Any special memories?

My special memories are my photographs.

When did you start to feel that the club kid scene was disappearing?

Things changed very quickly after Taboo closed, Shoom started and the rave scene arrived.  And the biggest single thing that effected the change was probably the drug ecstasy.  I'm not a drug taker (never have been), so I can't say exactly when ecstasy first arrived in London.  Grace Jones first told me about how wonderful ecstasy was when I shot her in London in 1985.  I don't think it arrived in the UK clubs much before '87/'88.

I didn't want to photograph a lot of sweaty, loved up dancers.  I couldn't really communicate with them at the raves anyway.  It was too loud, too dark and they were mostly off their heads.  Sometimes the raves were in muddy fields.  And it was always more a case of dressing down for the rave rather than dressing up.

Either way, by 87/88 I was jetting around the world a lot, as a rock photographer, and I had less available time and I did far less club photography after 1989.

What came just after?

See above.  Shoom, the rave scene, acid house music, warehouse parties, huge outdoor raves and the arrival in the UK of the 'superclubs'.  A lot more gay clubs and bars opened, so a lot of the business went there.  The arrival of the rubber and fetish scene took a lot of the exhibitionists too.

How do you explain the 80’s club kid phenomenon?

I think there was two main factors.

First - the cultural explosion that was 'punk' in 76/77 showed young people that anything was possible and their destiny was in their own hands.

Second - the election on Margaret Thatcher's Tory government in May 1979.  This government was very right wing and reactionary.  Many teenagers and young people couldn't see much of a future for themselves in Thatcher's Britain.  It seemed to me therefore that they were determined to express themselves and have fun whilst they were still able to.  This led to a fantastic flowering of the various tribes and style groups of British youth culture, both in the clubs and on the street.

There were two other, somewhat lesser factors but which ought not to be forgotten.

The influence of Central Saint Martins college, which was so close to ground zero of the London club scene in the '70s/'80s.  A great number of the prime movers in the club scene at that time were, or had been, students at Central Saint Martins.

The other factor would be the gay club scene.  A lot of those prime movers were also gay and if it wasn't for the flowering influence of the London gay scene, things would never have been half as lively as they were.

How did the club kids influence the mainstream?

The most obvious way was through fashion. One kid would have an idea, make something and wear it to a club.  A couple of other people might see it, be suitably impressed and copy it.  Or it might be a hairstyle of type of make up.  Because all of London's best young designers and fashion students, models, stylists, fashion photographers and writers were likely to be in the club as well, the idea would be seen and used by many.  And good ideas could go global in weeks.

You really would have to have been there to see it and believe it.

For instance, at Le Beat-Route there was a guy who came along one night wearing some ridiculously distressed jeans.  This would be about 1980 or 1981.  I'm not talking about a few holes as a fashion statement (that one can be put down to the Ramones), I'm talking about jeans completely in rags from top to bottom.

Just one solitary guy.

A week later, a couple of other people turned up in the club wearing something similar.

But still no more than three maybe four men, no women at that point.

The young Face journalist Robert Elms used to go to Le Beat-Route and he wrote about this look and even gave it a title 'Hard Times Chic'.  His article became a cover story (I could probably find out which one it was if you are interested?).  Within days of that issue hitting the news stands people were walking up and down the Kings Road in Chelsea wearing 'hard times chic' too.  I know, I was there taking photos.

It really did happen that quickly and you should talk to Robert Elms and get his take on it (he now works for BBC Radio London).

I saw how one person in one club could have an idea which would go global and which you will still see a lot today.  I don't know who it was (I never knew the guys name but Robert would).  There might be a good story right there?  I doubt whether he ever made a cent from the idea.

Oggy Yordanov published a book about the “new club kids” a few years ago. Did you see it? How do you think this new generation of club kids is different?

I don't think I saw that book but I'm not desperate to do so.  I have no idea whatsoever how this generation of club kids is different to the one from the '80s and I'm not the right person to ask.  My generation are the grand parents of today's club kids.  I rarely shoot in clubs now and any observations I might have would be largely guesswork.  I'd have very little genuine insight into the motivations of young people today.

Anything you’d like to add about club kid culture?

The only other thing I can think of is that it's interesting that, although many people have tried, including Steve Strange and Matthew Glamorre (with Kashpoint), once New Romanticism went out of fashion, it could never quite be revived.  It didn't hang around or occasionally go through reinventions like one gets with teddy boys, mods and even skinheads.  One doesn't really see middle aged New Romantics all clustered together at the seaside on Bank Holidays.  I don't really know why this is.

The late '70s and early '80s were very, very strange times in the UK.  In every respect other than being young, dressing up and going out, things were a lot worse then.  Even though no one, other than the banksters, has any money these days, things are so, so much better now in almost every way IMHO.