Punk, grunge, rave – all youth subcultures with aesthetics that have been endlessly discussed, reimagined and flogged for sale on your average British high street. A Scene In Between, first published in 2013 and newly released as an expanded second edition, captures a lesser-explored age in British cultural history: the sprawling post-punk indie scene that spanned 1980 to 1988, spawning groups like Primal Scream, The Fall, The Pastels and The Jesus and Mary Chain, and it’s influential yet hard to define look.
Designer and curator Sam Knee, who grew up in 80s Southend-on-Sea watching the bands that came to define the era, deliberately shuns “staid” professional photography in the book. Instead, he draws on amateur images taken by fans, insiders and band members. The intimacy of these images renders the scene tangible, capturing the inclusivity that first attracted Knee to the indie world.
A Scene In Between distils the charity shop ensembles and bowl-cuts of one of Britain’s under-championed musical movements through hundreds of unearthed photos of the likes of My Bloody Valentine, The Vaselines, Primal Scream, Spacemen 3 and others. VICE spoke to Knee about the influence of 80s indie stylings and the joy of obscurity when it comes to a scene you love.
Bobby Gillespie of Primal Scream, 1985. Photo: David Evans
VICE: How did the book first come about and what was the motivation behind it?
Sam Knee: The concept for this book had been mulling in my imagination for years, decades even. Pre-A Scene In Between there were a few style tribe or scene history books circulating that I found infuriating. They all skipped through the 80s, only touching on the obvious, painting an inaccurate, simplistic, dumbed down picture. You know, the usual: Punk rock, then 2-Tone, then tip-toeing through mentioning The Smiths, then “Phew it’s ‘88 and the safe terrain of E and baggy!” They were just so depressingly ordinary.
What did that 80s indie scene mean to you at the time?
It’s ironic really… I always hated the word “indie” and a lot of the music that became known as indie. The independent music scene that emerged from strands of post-punk felt in its oddness like the only place I could belong. The other scenes were far too regimented and rock leaning in attitude and style, I loved the inclusivity of the indie scene.
Stephen Pastel of The Pastels in 1981. Photo: John McCorkindale, courtesy of A Scene In Between
In aesthetic terms, what attracted you to it? And what do you think of as typical features of the scene’s look?
I loved the early 60s British art school CND protestor look, which some people (Stephen Pastel [of The Pastels] in particular) managed to convey. It's quite anarchic yet understated: lots of pin badges on a duffle coat over a cable knit cardigan, paired with desert boots, corduroy slacks or jeans and a nondescript schoolboy haircut. You’d be surprised how some people would react to it during the 80s. They couldn't comprehend the unflashy normalness. It made some people – normally football casual thicko, yobbo, lager types – actually quite violent!
It's a hard look to pin down because originally most people on the scene bought clothes from charity shops and flea markets. There was always an element of one-offness. Charity shops then were busting with 50s and 60s castoffs, so it was easy and cheap to dress virtually head to toe in authentic period gear, but without consciously planning or projecting it too militantly like the suffocatingly uptight mod scene. The indie kids were far more ramshackle. Wearing old clothes then was a rejection of, or a withdrawal from, contemporary dross society and all of its gaudy trappings.
The Smiths in 1983 At the Moles Club, Bath. Photo: Martin Whitehead
You have spoken before about suburbia’s role in the scene. How exciting was the un-London-ness of the movement?
The 80s saw the rise of the provincial punk. Crass forged the path forward away from the metropolitan mindset. London in particular played a far lesser role for the 80s indie guitar scene. It had heaps of great indie record shops and small venues, but very few of those bands were actually from there. Central London became a gated community for smug suckers only.
How crucial to the various UK scenes of the 80s were their accompanying fashion cultures?
They were paramount, completely intertwined [with the music]. One couldn't exist without the other. Some subcultures would deny this, saying that style was trivial or that they were “anti-fashion”, for example anarcho-punks and a lot of indie student types. I always found that absurd when they clearly projected almost uniform looks synonymous within their movements.
Do you revel in seeing hints of the scene's influences around today?
I do see elements of the “Ye Olde indie look” around adorning the youth of today, but it’s a normally more of a mix-up of post-punk, indie, college rock and slacker, squeezed through a keyhole together. I don’t ever see youths wearing 60s children’s anoraks with black leather trousers and mop hairdos, that look is terminally 1985-88 and is probably too neurotic and subversively elitist to really take off nowadays.
Is it annoying to you that the scene remains comparatively obscure next to some 80s contemporaries?
No, I'm glad it's never transcended into mainstream culture. I doubt it ever will. It's not nearly macho or laddy enough to appeal to the average mundane meathead on the street.
Rose McDowell and Jill Bryson of Strawberry Switchblade, 1982. Photo: Peter McArthur
The Vaselines in 1987. Photo: Stephen McRobbie
Stephen Pastel, Alasdair (driver), The Legend (Everett True) and David Keegan in 1985, outside Rough Trade on Talbot Road, Notting Hill. Photo: Courtesy Stephen McRobbie
The Clouds in 1987. Photo: Martin Whitehead
1981 Pop Art acid mods, the Onlookers, playing in Windsor on the day of the royal wedding of Charles and Diana. Photo: Debra Leech
Johnny Marr of the Smiths, 1985. Live at Portsmouth Guildhall. Photo: Mitsue Kakuta