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Behind The Lens

'The Bag I'm In' Charts the Underground Music and Fashion In Britain from 1960-1990

We talk to Sam Knee about his latest book—made up of entirely unseen photos—covering 40 years of British music and the style tribes the scenes inspired.

Orange Juice by Peter McArthur. The Postcard look 1979-1981.

Nearly two years ago, I spoke with Sam Knee, author of A Scene In Between, a photography book which chronicles the UK’s 80s indie scene featuring everyone from The Smiths to The Pastels to Orange Juice and beyond. Since then, Knee's been busy working on a similar albeit totally new project, called The Bag I’m In which zeroes in on the so-called “tribes” that took over the British music scene from the 60s through to the 90s. Beginning with a forward by Primal Scream's Bobby Gillespie the singer kicks The Bag I'm In by mentioning a punk rock poster that once caught his eye in the late 70s. Gillespie makes it clear: “Before the music, there was the image.” Gillespie is 100 percent right. It often happens that before you hear a note, a band's photo or the album cover reels you in: David Bowie, Marc Bolan, The Stones, Siouxsie Sioux, Johnny Rotten, all knew the importance of a compelling image. Visuals can only serve to amplify the musical message. The Bag I’m In starts with a foray into the Leatherboy/Rocker movement, and swiftly moves through 30 years of unadulterated fashion and its partnership with music. There’s the true mods, with their fringe cuts, shift dresses for the girls, and lots of stripes and plaid. The art school bohemians, with a style reminiscent of a certain Bob Dylan wearing “zip-up suede Chelsea boots and slouchy Jersey/Fair Isle jumpers.” Next you’ll find a pull quote from The Yardbirds and an image of Brian Jones in Knee’s chronicling of the R&B scene.


The dandy / hippy scene is next, which you could say is having quite the style resurgence today. The public’s fascination with this era hasn’t ever quite gone away. Clothes during that time were as groundbreaking as the music, crazy delicate and unique. You could see Jimi Hendrix and his counterparts wearing embroidered vests, jackets, and loads of crushed velvet.

Along the way Knee covers greasers, space rock, and eventually the Bowie kids, where yes, Knee includes the now very famous image of Sid Vicious with a feathered Ziggy Stardust haircut. Knee explains how Bowie managed to “break stereotypes” and move the world in the direction of the “hairy-flarey early-70s.” Things were certainly ch-ch-changing, with Bowie at the forefront of music and fashion, not to mention sexual fluidity. Unsurprisingly one of the most compelling sections centers around punk and how it changed British culture forever. “Hippies and all other subcultures were left for dead as the punks claimed the scorched earth.” Here they were, and here they were to make their bloody mark. Vicious, Rotten, Strummer, and Simonon are just a few names that made the scene what it is known as today. They weren’t wearing flares, they were wearing ripped everything, creepers, ill-fitting plaid suits, peg pants, metal everywhere, and yet it worked.

Next were the groups that were “waiting in the shadows for the all-accepting embrace of post-punk’s broad church.” Post-punk had a glum look to it, rather different than what came before it. The UK was a bit all over the place after post-punk fizzled and there new things happening everywhere, like Skinhead Oi, 2 Tone, and the Mod Revival. Afterwards, Postcard Records came about, with bands like Orange Juice and Josef K on the scene. Style, much like today, became a blend of what had come before, yet Orange Juice leader Edwyn Collins made their “hodgepodge” seem so fresh. From here on in Knee tracks Smiths-mania to shoegaze and the baggy-era as defined by any snap of The Stone Roses. I talked to Knee to find out about these particular style tribes and all the previously unpublished, unstaged photos that make up The Bag I'm In.


Bobbie Gillespie shot in 1985 by Chris Davidson Noisey: Since we last talked, what have you been up to? Tell me a little bit about how TBII came together.

Sam Knee: I’d been considering approaching a broader UK youth music scenes history reference book for a couple of years, in my head at least. I had to conquer Scene… first though, which paved the way. Apart from that I’ve been hanging around with my kids, brainwashing them with my record collection and eating pizza.

There are 36 "tribes" described in your book. How did you decide on these?
Initially there were 45 planned but due to space / page restrictions I honed it down to 36. Some that were excluded were micro sub scenes that existed for a matter of months, or in a couple of instances images came through too late for the deadline so had to be shelved. I’m planning a future volume of some description possibly even more intrinsic.

Tell me a little bit about how you sourced the content for this new book.
The photos featured were selected from around 2000 I amassed over seven or eight months of photo research. One person led to another, I quizzed every contributor about other pics beyond their own, other scenes, other bands, basically full scale harassment til the deadline was up. Every photo included is previously unpublished and non-pro, all raw and real from within the scenes.

Beatniks by Leigh Darnton—part of the CND / Beatnik sceneShot by Olly Pearson—part of the Suedehead scene—an evolution on the skinhead template


Carnaby Street couple 1976 shot by Martin Hewitt—part of the Dandy / Hippy scene

Would you call this a sequel to A Scene In Between or an entire new "excavation" of the UK music scene?
It’s a sequel in many respects, stylistically they’re clearly related. Scene is very focused, almost tunnel vision. Bag is a broad church, an adventure into the chaotically entwined youth scenery of the past. The illustrations add an almost text book fashion history angle

Bobby Gillespie again contributes a forward to your book. How did you choose Bobby to write for this book as well as your previous book? What is your relationship like with him?
I met Bobby at the Scene launch and we chatted a bit about 60s punk records and long gone shoe shops such as Robot, he seemed really nice and easy to get along with. He’s a genuine music fashion icon who’s still relevant today, which is actually quite rare, as most iconic figures ended up being pigeonholed into a specific era. I contacted him about possibly writing a fashion focused forward for the book, he totally embraced the idea, so it all worked out pretty cool.

Are there any fashion scenes or movements in the book that stand out to you the most? Maybe your favorites?
There’s a few. I love the early 60s CND, student, Beatnik look. It’s uniquely British, quite droll and understated, probably a bit like me in many ways. The early Medway scene always fascinated me as it appeared so proudly self-contained and out of time with everything else. I dug the Milkshakes and Prisoners a lot at the time, no other UK bands got even close to what they were conjuring up out in industrial northern Kent. Dr Feelgood 1975 shot by Cindy Stern—pub rock scene.


Shot by Stephen Jacko Jackson. Soulboy scene 1974-1977
Shot by Ming de Nasty—Anarcho punk scene—1979-1984
Shot by Alan Fairnie—Smithsmania 1983-1987 You have a few sections in the book focusing on specific musicians, bands, or labels, like the "Bowie Kids / Glam," "The Postcard Look," and "Smithsmania." Do you feel any bands today, labels, or single musicians have that kind of power over the way people dress like say, Morrissey did?
I don’t know, I don’t pay much notice to what’s happening these days, I’m a relic of the 20th century.

Which trends do you feel have had staying power and continue to influence people today whether it be through what music they listen to or the way they dress?
Some looks seems to continually rotate In popularity. Various guises of the mod look never go out of fashion. Seems like the whole 80s indie / shoegaze look / scene is becoming a contemporary reference for designers. Can’t help but think A Scene In Between has aided it’s current renaissance though possibly, without sounding arrogant.

I asked you this last time, but is there any few photos in the book that are your favorites? Say, you'd love to see hanging on a wall in your place?
Probably the one of the Downliners Sect on page 54, such a stylish seminal group, it would make a fab poster!

The Bag I'm In is out on 12.29 via Cicada.

Madeline Sensible is on Twitter.