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Back In The Day: Ewen Spencer

The release of the recent ‘Brandy & Coke’ short documentary was the touch paper that helped light the fires of nostalgia in countless former Garage ravers, whilst simultaneously stirring up envy in just as many (like this writer) who weren’t lucky enough to experience it first hand. A brilliant blur of Moschino, Versace and big basslines, the doc was the first foray into directing from Ewen Spencer, a photographer who’d spent much of the late 90’s and early 2000’s capturing the scene in all its glory-the fruits of which can be seen in his recent photo book UKG. His photos of Garage raves are just one facet of his socially focused photography-with previous subjects including Drum n’ Bass raves, Northern Soul parties, boozy Mediterranean teenagers and now defunct sibling Rock n’ Roll duo The White Stripes. The common thread found by Spencer in these seemingly disparate subjects was there relation to the wider theme of subculture – with his photography deriving spectacular insight into groups of individuals existing outside the mainstream.

Speaking to Hyponik from his studio down in Brighton a while back, Spencer was full of interesting anecdotes on what influenced him to be the photographer he is today. From his adolescence in the North East and his experience with Mod culture there, to a seminal Hip-Hop gig, through to his work with publications such as i-D and Sleazenation during the mid to late 90’s, Spencer has always retained a strong interest in sub culture, which is eminently apparent throughout his work.

His ‘Mod’ past

“It came from me dad bringing some albums home-he went away to work in London once and he’d been to a record shop. We’re talking about early 80’s. He brought me brother a couple of albums back-things like Stiff Little Fingers and The Dammed, and he brought me back The Jam’s ‘Sound Affects’ and Madness, ‘Absolutely’. I guess I liked the Madness album ‘cos it was fun and everyone was dancing to them in the school discos at the time. ‘Sound Affects’ really interested me ‘cos you were talking about social and political stuff with these great, beautiful songs and it was almost like-I hate this sort of idea, but a ‘concept album’. Living in Newcastle in  the early 80’s it was easy to identify with what they were talking about.

Seeing all the mods around at school it looked great you know? All the older kids around in my area were just knocking around the park on scooters looking great. I found ‘Quadrophenia’ by The Who, the original album from the 70’s, and that had a little photographic booklet in it. This had stills in it that looked as if they were from a film-bearing in mind this is ’73 long before they released the film, and those stills were of a young mod in London. I just liked the whole aesthetic and idea of it.

I think my dad sussed out from my character what I’d be into. He kind’ve got the idea that I’d be into something cheeky and silly like Madness but then something slightly more poetic like Weller and The Jam.”

Record Buying

I would go and buy records all the time. That’s what I did with my pocket money or money from paper rounds or whatever..and it hasn’t stopped. I went to Martin’s – the newsagents that was the equivalent of Smith’s or Woolies at that time. Martins was just through the park and I’d walk there on Saturday morning and buy a single for 99p. I’d be buying 7” singles that were either in the charts, new releases or not in the charts-just kind of unusual stuff. They had a little box for independent stuff,  Mod and Punk things, and that was just in the local newsagent on the high street.

30 years later and I’m still buying records. I’ve been buying Soul records for 25 years now and since I know certain dealers it’s more direct in that kind of way. They might put a list out and I’ll see there’s something I after or they’ll email me and I’ll find something and I’ll pick it up. The ones I’m after are generally obscenely expensive these days – so I’ve usually got them on tick and I’ll pay them off by the month. So I paid a deposit on one last month, then I’ll make a payment this month and he’ll send it us.  It’s all kind of really rare Northern Soul which makes me slightly ashamed, but I just love them (laughs).

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Nights out 

“The mod thing was more about youth clubs and school discos. I remember going to Central Bar when I was very very young in Gateshead-and I wasn’t allowed there I was very lucky to get in. They were playing 60’s Soul music and Motown. Elsewhere you’d get Mod revival type stuff like Secret Affair and The Beat. All this you could hear out and about at school discos and parties.

When we started going out to clubs and discos when I was like 16, it was Soul and Funk. House music was just coming in and Hip-Hop and kind of arrived, so you’d get more dancey stuff in the clubs. You’d have to go out midweek to clubs in Newcastle to find that kind of stuff so it was away from the kind of weekend, mainstream, what they call ‘carpet clubs’.”

Schooly D

“That was a concert at The Mayfair in Newcastle. He was touring with Big Audio Dynamite-who was Mick Jones from The Clash and Don Letts and other people. That was quite a moment because Big Audio Dynamite were a hang on of the sort of Punk scene from the late 70’s and early 80’s. If a band like that came into town lots of people would want to go see them because he’d been in The Clash. So my brother got tickets.

I was about 16 and got in early so I wouldn’t get turned away. Schooly D came on early-there was another support after him called. Schooly D came on, it was just a DJ and they filled the stage with smoke. There wasn’t that many people in there, and he just came on and started MC’ing. I hadn’t seen anything like that, that was 1986! 1986 in Newcastle, a guy like Schooly D comes on stage with a Kangol hat, some tracksuit bottoms and a pair of shell toes. We were all standing there wearing god knows what…football casual stuff, and he rocked up like that with DJ scratching. We’d never heard anything like that.

That changed a lot because we started taking more of an interest in the sort of Hip-Hop American sound, and then all of the sounds that had influenced them like Funk and Disco sounds that were they dabbling with. We were like, ‘ah we know that Funk sound’, because we were already starting to listen to some of the Funk and the Jazzy stuff. It all started to make a bit more sense. That’s when I really started collecting Soul records, Funk records and slightly rare kind of records. I still love that sound.”

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His thoughts on the ‘Rave’ era

“Wankers and loads of nutters. You see I was hanging around with the football lot-some pretty dicey characters. Moving away from them  and going into sort of Soul, Disco, Hip-Hop and House music stuff that we were interested in, you then started seeing all these nutters that I knew from school or football and wherever and they were all of a sudden into House music, or this Acid House, ‘Rave’ thing. Of course they thought they were really cutting edge, but we’d already been listening to Detroit and Chicago House and going to these nights for a year or something. All of a sudden you’d start seeing the same idiots and what would happen is you’d give these idiots some amphetamines and they’d start punching the shit out of each other.

I just wanted to get out of that again, but all those clubs started becoming ‘Rave’ clubs’. Literally over a weekend you’d see people turning up with bandannas wrapped around their heads, smiley face tees and  waist coats and it was like uniform. As soon as that happens its over. So what we did is thought, ‘this is shit’ and found something else. So we started going to Soul nights and listening to Northern Soul and modern Soul-proper Soul music. It was just trying to keep away from anything that was mainstream or overground at that age. Why wouldn’t you?”

Which photographers did he look up to? 

“My course was quite theoretical. There was a lot of art history involved, which I loved. I went back to university quite later on- in my sort of early to mid 20’s, so I really embraced the idea of ‘learning’, whereas I wouldn’t have if I’d been sort of 18, 19.  I took a great interest in a lot of very good American photographers from the 50’s and 60’s and some photographers who were a bit more recent-a guy called Larry Fink was a big influence for me. He was photographing boxing and the fashion industry but it was kind of the underbelly of it all.

Some British photographers were photographing quite social situations-I was very interested in those kinds of photographers. Sometimes they’d be photographing the sort of people I’d be interested in or the sort of people I’d think I could relate to or would be able to understand. I kind of just took that on and the first serious project I took on was one on the Northern Soul scene-which was something I was already involved in. So my degree show was the Northern Soul scene.

Graduating from university with a book of pictures from the Northern Soul scene led me straight to  magazines like Sleazenation and i-D. They started commissioning me or publishing my pictures and I kind of just took it from there really. I guess because I was photographing subculture and youth culture, those kind of magazines were specialising in that, so it just made sense for me to gravitate towards there. What they did was send me out to places like Twice As Nice in the Garage scene, or Happy Hardcore-which was great fun, or I’d just start photographing Heavy Metal kids in Nottingham, that kind of thing. I was always drawn to these kinds of British sub cultures.”

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Do subcultures still exist in Britain? 

“There aren’t really any kind of tribes anymore. I’m always looking and I’m always searching though and although I’m older that doesn’t really affect it too much. I’ve just been to Italy and photographed in Naples and found their kind of youth, street culture very inspiring and very active. There’s just loads of people out in the street in these Mediterranean cities, so what I’m doing at the moment is I’m photographing in these places like Marseilles and Naples and I’m making pictures of all these kids on the street and out and about. I’m looking at their style, their behavior, their sexuality, their technology, how they get around. So that whole idea again is that Mod idea of being mobile, having a disposable income of some sorts, being in a group, listening to music, being quite sort of concerned about your appearance (laughs). All those things for me kind of sum up youth culture and sub culture.

If I’m photographing a group in the UK now-which I still do sometimes, they’ll be like photographing me with their smartphones and putting me on Instagram and hashtagging me. For me I may as well give up then in a way. It just feels less interesting in that way, they’ve got it too sussed you know?”

Was there a common thread between photographing The White Stripes and people from the Garage scene?

“He (Jack White) has a distaste for House music doesn’t he? He’s from Detroit and he used to say, ‘you should come to Detroit’. I’d been to Detroit and I’d met Derrick May and photographed for Sleazenation and all that, and when I was there I remember going to the places he (Jack White) was hanging out in-I like MC5, I like The Stooges I like all that. He called it ‘duff, duff’ music’ (laughs)! Obviously for him being a teenager in Detroit he must have just been faced with stuff like that all the time.

There’s no parallels really, just in that I got into The White Stripes world and their lives quite early on-in terms of Britain anyway. It was their first tour of their UK when I met them, then I toured around with them for about four or five gigs. That went into the NME, they loved the pictures and they invited me to go on tour to Australia with them for the FACE magazine. That’s the only similarity, in that I got in there quite quickly and saw something was going on with them. Pals of mine were passing the cassette of the album around and I thought I’ve got find out more about these lot. They played Bristol and we piled down and I introduced myself and started taking pictures.

The interesting thing about the Stripes possibly that appealed to me in the way some other sub cultures might is that there was a kind of make believe going on, there was an escapism there which I liked. It was theatrical and that was missing in music and that’s obviously what kids in Garage raves were doing. Wearing Moschino and Versace, drinking Champagne and dancing all night, but then during the week they were delivering pizza. I guess the parallel was there in that Jack and Meg were living on peanuts, but when they went on stage they were had this dress code and they were pretty impressive live. The illusion, the escapism, that’s what youth culture is-the idea of it. The escape from the dreariness of your life selling mobile phones or whatever to go and party like a king.”

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Does he still listen to Garage? 

“No never. I quite liked Garage, because I’d been listening to House and Soul music for such a long time before. I hated Jungle and Drum n’ Bass, I wasn’t interested in that, it was for idiots. When I heard Garage I was probably at a Drum n’ Bass night, making pictures for Sleazenation and just couldn’t wait to get home. I remember hearing someone playing a couple of (Garage) tracks and just thinking, ‘that is different, that is totally unique’. That was the beginnings of Garage really. Then I got sent to Twice As Nice, but I wasn’t really listening to it. It’s party music isn’t it? It’s music for going out and having a good time and that was a great time- back then, but not now really-not for me. It’s not my scene really, but it’s funny because it was in a way back then.

Grime? Nah I would never listen to Grime. But it’s not for me is it Grime? If my boy is 15, 16, he listens to stuff like that and I probably would if I was his age. But it’s not for me. Even when I turn up to sort of Grime scenarios to take photos, everyone just thinks, ‘who’s this copper?, or ‘who’s this fed?’. Which is quite funny.

I was on the Grime scene for about two and a half to three years and I was just obsessed by it. Not the music, but just the goings on, the shenanigans and the different characters. That’s the thing about it  you see, there’s big characters involved here. The guys creating this music and artists really are these dead creative, interesting people and they’re great fun. It’s just really nice being around them and taking pictures and all sorts of really funny people turn up who are all quite eccentric.”

UKG’ by Ewen Spencer is out now. Buy it here

Christian Murphy