Looking Back on 30 Years of Subculture in the UK
Talking to Sam Knee about his new book 'The Bag I'm In', which charts the last three decades of British music and fashion.
Joy Division, 1979 (Photo by Chris Cook)
Sam Knee – author of the indie style history A Scene In Between – has just released a new book documenting and stratifying the many music-led fashion subsets of Britain's youth, from 1960 to 1990. The Bag I'm In's imagery is largely sourced from personal photo collections, with reams of previously unseen images covering everything from CND beatniks to art school boho and baggie.
We reviewed the book in VICE magazine's monthly literary round-up, but given the chance of a quick chat with Sam, alongside the offer of some exclusive photos, we thought we would expand on our earlier adulation.
VICE: How did the book come to be? Is it an area you have a longstanding interest in?
Sam Knee: Well yeah, I've spent my entire life immersed in vintage clothing, old records and a deep fascination with UK youth-scene history. I grew up through a lot of these scenes, from post punk and '79 mod onwards, and what scene you were in or where you were at, [the] clothes you wore and what you listened to was all that mattered; everything else was boring bullshit.
Through the 80s I worked in second-hand record shops and spent my spare time scouring charity shops for 60s clothes and records. In the evenings I'd go and see indie or neo-mod garage bands. I was a 24/7 indie kid scenester. In 1990 I moved to San-Francisco for four years, where I worked in vintage stores during the boom years, and since then I've worked in vintage clothing and design. So I guess I'm pretty one-dimensional, but an ideal candidate for taking on a book like The Bag I'm In. Also, I figured it would be cool to share some of the sartorial tidbits I've gathered over the last 30 or so years for the next generation of "yoof culture" historians, and before my brain evaporates into jelly.
How long have you been working on it?
I'd been thinking about Bag for a few years, but had to get A Scene In Between out of my system first. Scene had a terrific reaction from people, so I figured the time was now, not later.
And what were your sources in terms of research? You must have talked to a lot of interesting people covering all these scenes.
I reached out to lots of folk I've encountered over the years and began bugging them for old photos and their friends' photos and so on, basically full scale bombardment. Once the word was out, the material started rolling in, and within a year or so I had amassed over 2,000 pictures, all previously unpublished. Warts 'n' all youth scene snaps from within the scenes, not pro-photographer, slick, posed slush. The book had to convey reality.
I met up with all kinds of youth scene veterans, some of whom are now in their mid seventies and all hugely generous and forthcoming with archive material. Once they met me it was quite apparent that I'm genuinely into all this stuff, and they opened up, lending me their crumpled old snaps to scan, and in a couple of cases their entire photo albums.
(Photo by Ming DeNasty, 1981)
Were you in any way slightly awed by people's tendencies to be extremely picky and fussy about the sorts of "classifications" and stratifications that a book like this requires? Did you have people moaning about your "start dates" for a scene, for example? And how did you overcome those issues?
Extreme fussiness, miniscule obsessional detailing and strict timeframes were paramount in creating an authenticity, so I welcomed any opinions on fashion codes – the more militantly microscopic, the better. Obviously they varied regionally, but as a historian you draw parallels, creating a uniform truth.
There have been plenty of books about past tribes, trends and the cross over of music and fashion, but yours seems more all-encompassing. Did you feel there was a gap that you wanted to fill?
Yes. There have been some fantastic books on individual scenes over the years – for example, Richard Barnes' Mods! from '79, Rockers by Johnny Stuart, Teds by Perkins and Smith, and so on – but nothing collating the multifarious entangled youth scenery, in particular focusing on micro sub-indie scenes like the transitional and short lived "hard mod" or the "southern soulboy", first wave shoegaze, CND beatniks, etc. Until now, that is.
The illustrations [The Bag I'm In features numerous annotated illustrations setting out respective subcultures' uniforms and telltale sartorial trappings] are there to add an almost textbook fashion focus, which I think readers will appreciate more over time. The inspiration was the excellent Ivy Illustrated volumes from Japan and the [Jim] Ferguson skinhead chronicles sketches in the Nick Knight book [Skinhead].
How did you select the cut-off dates for the trends covered? Is 1960-90 just the period that interests you most? Or do you think things changed after 1990 in a way that maybe made it sensible to stop there?
1960-90 is tight and action-packed; before 1960 is fairly embryonic and slower-paced. 1990 onwards, I felt the UK youth scenery loses all focused intensity and was the beginning of the decline, a slippery slope to mediocrity.
Were there any looks or scenes that you had to let slide, and for what reasons if so?
Yes, there's a few sub-scenes that, due to a strict page-count, had to be put on ice until next time, perhaps! For example, the proto-industrial scene look of 1979-80, southern gothic, i.e. The Cramps, Birthday Party kids from 1981-83, Scruffs, acid-mod from 1988-90, NWBHM kids from 1978-82 and so on... it never ends.
The Bag I'm in: Underground Music and Fashion in Britain 1960-1990 is available to buy here.
See more photos from the book below: