Last weekend I watched a couple of documentaries on telly about David Bailey. One was a docudrama about one of his early shoots for Vogue in New York with Jean Shrimpton. This was followed by an interview with Bailey himself, and his contemporaries about his early career. A good evening in front of the box with a glass of wine or two and I found myself yearning for my old photography days.
Back in my photography life, I didn’t really do fashion. Mostly I did editorial stuff – general shots of places and events. I guess the closest I got to the glamorous life was the stuff I did for music magazines. I did mostly live shots of bands, from sweaty little clubs in Edinburgh, to big names in big venues and the obligatory summer festivals. Even in the ’90’s most of the music press still liked black and white pics for live reviews for some reason.
I was never really a portrait photographer either, but the other day I managed to dig out a series of pics I did in the mid-’90’s. During a particularly liquid interview with singer Julianne Regan in London, we got chatting about what happens to pop stars when they disappear from view. This was in the days before Never Mind the Buzzcocks and years before any kind of 80’s revival and reforming nostalgia bands.
This got me looking through my trusty record collection at the time – I got my first CD player in 1987, so vinyl represented everything before that point. I went through all kinds of random singles and albums and whittled a list down to those who had top 20 singles, which removed all those obscure bands no-one ever remembers anyway, and took away anyone who had at least attempted a come-back of some sort. I think my initial list was still 50 or so missing in the line of duty. I pitched the idea of a series to a local music magazine in Glasgow who agreed to run the series for a few months to see how it worked out. That also gave me some legitimacy when tracking down these lost heroes of mine.
Over a period of six months or so, I hooked up with around 20 pop stars from the ’80’s, along with some who just made it to the 90’s and one-hit wonders. The list was a very personal one. Only people in my existing record collection qualified, so it’s more than a little tainted by my own taste – mostly synth-pop it seems. The project was also a very simple one – track down onetime pop stars, meet up for n informal chat and document it. As I’ve mentioned before, my photography has always been influenced by french photojournalism. I was more interested in capturing a moment in time and place than anything else. I wasn’t interested in creating sleek, or deep portraits. The series was about meeting these people – mostly down the pub, and just having a chat about the present and future. I was a crap journalist anyway. I never thought about probing questions, or even preparing for interviews. I was quite happy just to have a chat about anything really. The only restriction I put on myself was that the chats were not about the past. It wasn’t a nostalgia thing, or fan worship, but more like catching up with old friends – only I’d never met them before… bit creepy…
I dug some of the first batch of prints out the other day. For those who care about these things, everything was shot on Ilford HP5, printed on Agfa Record Rapid and selenium toned. My scanner is a bit crap these days and there’s too much dust in the shadows so excuse the quality. The stuff I did back then doesn’t really fit with what I’m doing at the moment, so it won’t go on my website. But it was fun to do at the time so here’s a small selection from the series:
I think JJ was one of the first people I met for this project. We had coffee outside a pub near Bayswater in London. We mostly talked about technology and the tendency to exploit its capabilities, just because it can, rather than its ability to do stuff better necessarily. The Art of Noise were always an anonymous band – more about the music than the people behind it, so I thought it would be good to keep his identity hidden. As such, this was the only constructed image in the series.
Gary Langan was still involved in the music industry and ran one of London’s top recording studios. I’d been to quite a few studios in the past, both through music mags and recording with my own band, but this was the first time I’d been in one of the top gaffs. It even had a lift up the middle. It was HUGE! Gary, on the other hand, was one of the most down to earth and ordinary people I met in the series. It turned out he lived round the corner from where I went to school too. Small world. We did the photos through the mesh around the industrial lift in the converted power station.
The magazine in Glasgow was only a small affair with no money but an amazing ability to blag anything. They managed to blag me my train tickets to Liverpool so I could hook up with a few people in the city. The first meeting in the Adelphi Hotel went well, and as my last meeting got cancelled at the last-minute, I ended up spending most of the day with the Flock of Seagull‘s bassist. It was my first visit to Liverpool, so Frank was keen to show me all the Beatles’ sights – Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane and all that. However, we ended up back at his fairly ordinary suburban house drinking earl grey tea in the conservatory. As soon as we’d done the pictures though, we went back into town to his brothers’ bar where we got absolutely hammered and I just made it to my last train back to Glasgow.
A couple of meetings happened in record company offices. from red-wedge band Red Box was head of A&R at EMI at the time – about as far from socialism as you could get. Mostly I ended up sitting there while he handled an endless stream of calls, the content of some I could not possibly divulge here, but was certainly an eye-opener into the world of chart hits. On another shot you can make out the names on some of the demo tapes on the desk – a real moment in time.
By contrast, I met Ian Mc Nabb in the offices of a much smaller label. He’d just recorded an album with Crazy Horse – better known for working with Neil Young. To be really honest, I only had one single by the Icicle Works and had no idea about what else they did, so it was a bit of a bluffing session for me. Also in the office that day were the Tindersticks, who I had no idea about either. I met Ian again a few years later in a bar in Glasgow. Turned out he was going out with one of the bar staff. Random.
Despite not knowing anything about Ian McNabb, what we did agree on was what an amazing, and surprisingly good album Zoe had recorded. I had a promo tape (still got it) of an album she made with the Chieftains and produced by Youth, from Killing Joke. It was kind of like a Sandy Denny signing with Led Zeppelin thing – very folky and quite rocky in a classic 70’s kind of retro way (told you I was a crap journo). However, she was a troubled creature at the time and sacked her manager. This made the record label nervous and the album was never released. We met in a pub on Portobello Road in London. She had this wonderful henna’d pattern on her hands, but I was using available light and she had a bit of the shakes, so I think this was the only shot you could see them in.
Also in Portobello Road I met up with Steve Luscombe and from Blancmange.
That was another tea drinking chat. All very civilised. We sat in the kitchen and talked about Bollywood string orchestras.
The last meet-up was with Claudia Brucken
We met for breakfast in Camden. I remember that much. Propaganda were, and still are, one of my favourite bands from the 80’s, so I was probably more star-struck with her than any of the others. I probably talked nonsense over my coffee and croisant. But still, there were plenty of people who understood that. i mean having breakfast with Claudia Brucken! It was a sunny day so I should have got better pictures, but hey…
There were 26 people in the final series from all over the UK. The magazine ran four or five of them before it folded. So I put together an exhibition of prints with short interview extracts. I blagged some paper off Ilford Photographic (call it sponsorship if you like) and hooked up with the independent record chain Fopp to tour it around their shops in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Sheffield. The images were printed 12′ square and displayed in clear record sleeves in the windows. All done on a zero budget.
However, one day I was walking past the shop on Byres Road in Glasgow and saw a small crowd looking at the exhibition in the window. There was a bloke who used to sell flowers outside the shop who I got to know, and he told me it was like this most of the day every day. And as the window was lit at night, continued until late most nights too. That was a lot of people! far more than I ever saw in, say the Collins Gallery. That was a pivotal moment for me. It made me realise that not only did more people go to record shops than contemporary art galleries, but that taking work out to your audience is a far more rewarding thing than hoping your audience will come to you. It’s something I’ve done ever since and it’s why I do what I do now.
I make no claim the pictures are classics in any way. I don’t think any come close to being my best work. Some are even embarrassingly bad. But for me, they represent a turning point in my career – a eureka moment.
I’ve never met David Bailey. In fact I’ve only ever met one fashion photographer – the late great Norman Parkinson, and we had a really good chat about sausages.
since posting this I have learnt that Glasgow City Council, in its infinite wisdom, have decided to licence all events and exhibitions in the city from April 2012. THis would mean any exhibition, regardless of where, by who and how many people see it, will need to apply for an entertainment licence. Fees, even for non-profit making ventures, start at £124 and rise to over £7,000. More than this, the application process is another bit of unnecessary paperwork and means you will no longer just be able to put on a show at short notice. If that had been in place in 1996, I’d never had done the exhibitions in shop windows. Besides the cost of the licence, even the process of applying would put me off. Even had I got the knowledge to apply, it would probably make me want to do something less raw and intuitive. Projects like this and 1997’s ‘Kiss My Ass’ exhibition in the toilets of the 13th Note Club put me on the road to what I’m doing now. Without them I’d probably be doing something far less exciting, as would thousands of other artists, musicians, performers doing experimental stuff in odd places all over the city.
There’s a petition to get the council to think twice – please sign it here.