The Soul of UK Garage, As Photographed by Ewen Spencer
I asked him what dance music was like when it was still sexy.
Over the last few years, it's become increasingly clear that we didn't appreciate UK garage to the extent that we should have. You can't help but think that most of the DJs, producers, filmmakers and fashion designers referencing Todd Edwards and Ben Sherman in their work today actually grew up listening to Coal Chamber and wearing Criminal Damage trousers.
One man who was definitely there, however, is photographer Ewen Spencer. Ewen's done a lot of things over the years, from working with the White Stripes and documenting the halcyon days of grime (if there was ever such a thing) in his book Open Mic, to taking the liner photos for Original Pirate Material. His latest project concerns the increasingly lauded but still somewhat undocumented world of UKG and comes in the form of a new book, Brandy & Coke.
The photos are fantastic, perfectly capturing the atmosphere of those early garage nights all my friends' older brothers claim to have been at. The newspaper-print trousers and YSL button-downs are all there in the forefront, being splashed by open bottles of champagne and any one of the classy drinks. After a good few hours of longingly staring at the photos, wishing I was one of the satin-suited people in them, I decided to catch up with Ewen to talk garage, grime, garms and whether or not ex-Newcastle striker Andy Cole really was one of the "original 50 garage ravers".
You can find some of these images and some words from Ewen in the latest issue of VICE Magazine.
VICE: Hi Ewen. So, when did you first hear the term "garage" used in relation to dance music?
Ewen Spencer: In the early 90s, but that would have been American garage, like house music. New York vocal house music would have been called "garage". I first heard it on the soul scene, probably. At that time, it was crossing over and me and my pals were going to soul dos, avoiding the atrocious rave scene. House music was infiltrating the soul scene and, at that time, garage was basically soulful house.
There's this debate about who the true parents of UK garage are – what's your opinion on that?
Yeah, I think it’s a worthwhile debate. It came from America, it didn’t come from rave culture – rave culture was British. It came from Detroit, America, which is when we started to hear house music in the club – in Newcastle, for instance. We liked all of that stuff, but it was placed side by side with soul music – Soul II Soul, modern soul, SOS Band, all that shit. So I guess rave became overground and house music changed and became something else. And then I'd say speed garage came out of New Jersey and was popularised over here.
What other kind of nights were there in London around the time speed garage was coming through?
My experience was being in a little club in Hoxton Square, east London, which was a jungle club. I wasn’t a fan of that – it was really fucking tedious to hear that kind of music all night. The style was awful; it was really dull.
How did early speed garage nights differ from the rest of the capital's nightlife at the time?
It was really fucking exciting. There were couples and lots of blokes dancing together dressed immaculately – suited often – in very colourful garments. This was the post-rave period, so everyone looked a bit lousy, really. All of a sudden, you went there and people looked really dapper, really smart. It was ostentatious, because they were drinking champagne, but it was also exciting because you realised that something was changing and it was completely different to everything else on offer. It felt underground, it felt different – it was exciting going in there.
Was it a strictly grown and peaceful kind of affair? Or was there a rough side to the nights?
It wasn’t really rough. I never felt threatened. It felt joyous and quite celebratory, in the same way as the soul scene did. It felt like you went there for fun. There was a lot of posing and a slightly moody attitude from some people, but people were just posing around.
Your book’s called Brandy & Coke. Was that the tipple of choice at garage nights? Or are you implying something a bit more than that?
Yeah, it's simply based on what everyone was drinking: brandy and coke. That was the drink. There are ladies drinking champagne in some of the pictures, but the drink that most fellas would be drinking was brandy and coke.
It's not a drink you see much any more.
You don’t, do you? It gets you plastered, doesn’t it?
It does. Were drugs big on the garage scene?
It was just smoking weed, which would have been a Caribbean influence – a West Indian influence, possibly. It’s just British, isn’t it? It’s just London.
So it was a move away from the pills of the rave scene?
Yeah, there was none of that. Those massive, bullshit, ostentatious super-clubs packed with thousands of people doing bad Es and shuffling around with really bad coke were never really my thing.
How big a part did style play in the UKG scene?
Massive. That was one of the most integral parts of it, really. People were dressing differently. People were developing that style, which was a slimmer silhouette than the way other people were dressing at the time.
The rest of Britain were dressing like Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach at that point.
Exactly. It was stuff like Addict and all those awful labels. It became slimmer, and I remember thinking that it reminded me of the mod scene I'd been a part of when I was younger – the guys dancing together en masse in their slim, smart looks. There were a lot of kids in London on scooters around that time, too. It had a really nice British feel to it and people made a massive effort to dress up to go out, which I think had been missing until then.
A lot of the fashion was based around designer labels, which seemed at odds with the rave and Brit-pop scenes that preceded it. Would you say it was a scene synonymous with a kind of luxury?
Not so much. It was just that classic British stuff – against the odds, a subculture, mainly working class lads dressing up to go out for the weekend. It’s escapism, isn’t it? I don’t think there was any luxury. It got a bit like that later on, but the scene was done for by then, really.
What was the definitive garage look for a guy and a girl?
The girls would wear amazing dresses. They’d wear simple make-up and their hair, nails and heels would be immaculate. They had to dance well to look good, too. With the geezers, obviously there were different stages, but it wasn't sporty when I was taking photos, it would be the sportswear fusion lines, like chinos, Guess Jeans, that kind of thing. And you might have seen some Paul Smith in there because he was using a lot of bold graphics at that time. I remember he had shirts with huge apples on.
I'm fascinated by all those Chinese print shirts with dragons all over them. Although perhaps that was a bit later when Pied Piper et al came along.
Yeah, that was a bit later on when it became a bit more street.
A lot of guys were wearing Kickers or Bass loafers, right?
I still wear them. I call them Glaswegian loafers.
And those silky black trousers?
Yeah, those mixed material trousers. You saw a lot of them. You couldn't get into a garage club wearing jeans back then, even a nice pair.
And Ben Sherman?
Yeah, Ben Sherman if you were a bit tough. But a lot of the boys would be wearing those bright, satiny shirts with bold prints on them. You’d see a lot of guys wearing suits, but the jackets would be quite long. I remember that being popular. Then you’d just get geezers with a Moschino print shirt on, shades and a pair of strides. Gucci loafers were massive, too.
When did you first begin to realise that garage was going overground, as it were?
When pirate radio started bringing all the kids from the suburbs and provinces in. You noticed a big change in Ayia Napa – British kids getting rowdy and young kids going to the clubs. You could go down Old Kent Road and see young kids at raves, but you wouldn't really see them at the clubs, so they'd go on holiday, go clubbing and bring it back, so it spread and got really popular. Then you’d get half a dozen Craig Davids and Ministry of Sound released a rewind album. I mean, that’s the fucking nail in the coffin of any scene, isn’t it?
They released a deep house compilation the other day.
How many more deep house compilations do we need?
Exactly. So grime became the dominant scene in urban London music some time around 2004 and it was a much angrier, rawer sound. What do you think the reasons are for that?
The people who were making that music were a bit more sussed and they’d learned from garage and So Solid – they wanted the success and the spoils that come with it. But grime was about being a bit more existential, wasn’t it? It was about the street, wasn’t it? It was about what they were saying. You’ve got to remember, when grime was first coming about in 2004, So Solid Crew were playing huge gigs around the country. Kids were getting shot inside and outside the venues, dying. It’s pretty fucking real, isn’t it? Three of So Solid were charged with murder.
You don’t get shootings at clubs any more, but it was a big thing back then.
Security became ridiculous; it became as much of a feature as the music. It ramped it up a bit, didn’t it? You’d see people scattering everywhere with a knife.
Do you remember any incidents like that?
Yeah. I'd moved on from the garage scene by that point, so it was on the grime scene. There would be, like, a kind of music forum day at the Royal Festival Hall and it would all be grime-y kids, and you'd just see people scattering. But grime had a competitiveness that garage didn't; it was about the street, it was about their own experiences, it was about who could MC and produce the best. It didn't get all dancey until much later.
Do you think kids were always angry – even in the garage scene – with their situation?
I don’t think everyone was generally angry. I think garage was a bit more about having a good time and grime was a bit of anger, probably. There was a little bit more punk in that world. Garage was a bit more accessible. It was always going to be more accessible because it was about looking good and dancing.
Yeah. There seem to be a lot of future garage producers at the moment who are missing the fact that garage is supposed to be sexy music. What do you think about that?
With future garage, or any sort of revival, it's not that the sexiness has been taken out of it, it's that it's been edited. The ambiguity was the sexy thing – not knowing where the scene was going to go. It's replaying a bit now. But there's nothing wrong with that because the music’s great, that scene’s healthy and I like future garage. I didn’t like grime much – it wasn’t for me. I couldn't be a complete fucking tourist – a 30-odd-year-old bloke pretending to be into grime. I liked the energy and attitude, though.
You didn’t go home and chill out to some Jammer before bed?
He was fucking great, Jammo. He was great to work with. But the future garage thing – it’s probably less sexy because there’s an element of nostalgia, and that’s not very sexy.
Finally, I once heard a brilliant but totally unsubstantiated rumour that Andy Cole was one of the original 50 garage ravers.
I think he was playing up front for Newcastle, so I don’t know how he could have been one of the original ravers at that time.
Well, that's that cleared up. What are you up to next?
We’re publishing the book, which is brand new. I think it’s worthy of a film. I think, now that it's been revived, it shows it's significant enough. And even without the revival, it's significant to look back and see how it's informed popular culture and subcultures since. For example, I don’t think there would have been any grime without garage – it wouldn’t have happened.
Follow Clive on Twitter: @thugclive
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