Oh What Fun We Had? – Images by Gavin Watson
#3 in our Featured Photographer series – Gavin Watson
Gavin Watson is one of PYMCA’s longest collaborators, having joined the archive in the late nineties. His photography of Skinheads in the 1980s and the Rave scene in the late 80s and early 90s has come to define the view some of the most important subcultures of last three decades.
Gavin is most famous for his Skinhead images from the eighties, but there are many more images from his archive which document his life in High Wycombe, a provincial town just outside London which provide a unique document of what it was like growing up in the eighties in the UK.
It was during this period that Gavin would experience something that was to change his life forever…
“When I look back to the days of my childhood, the times I remember being the happiest (and it is the same with my friends,) are those I spent with friends away from the house, and the heavy atmosphere of home. It was on one of those nights that this whole Skinhead story begins. I was out with my friends, causing mischief and mayhem in High Wycombe on a dark October evening, ransacking the bins of Woolworth’s and playing “He” (also known as “Tag” or “Tin Tan Tallyo”) in the multistory car park in the centre of town. There were about twenty of us, all mongrels from a pretty grim estate called Micklefield to the east of High Wycombe. Being only fourteen I had to be in fairly early during the week.
Little did I know that this evening something was to happen that would change my life for good. I came in as usual, took my shoes off at the back door (one of Mum’s iron rules), and came into the front room where my mum was in her favourite chair, my dad in his. Top of the Pops was on and there was a band playing, a group of young guys jumping around to a tune the likes of which I had never heard before. I was transfixed and then blown away, the affect of this band on me was incredible. Who are they? What’s their name? I must have that record now. I must have it. The band, I found out, was called Madness. The next morning I think I nicked a pound from somewhere in the house before leaving for school. There, all my friends were talking about “Madness.” Rumors and conjecture about who they were abounded. Were they Mods? Yanks? Punks? Nobody knew. I went straight to Woolworth’s after school and bought the single that was to completely change my way of life and set me on an unbelievable journey. I played that record to death, until the grooves practically wore away, and I was on the verge of being hung, drawn and quartered by my family. The record was “The Prince”; the year was 1979.”
“‘The Prince’ was a tribute to Jamaican bluebeat legend and Skinhead icon, Prince Buster. The alternative A-side of the single was a cover of Prince Buster’s song “Madness”, which had inspired the band’s choice of name. It began to emerge that Madness were really more of a Skinhead band than any other kind of band.
I certainly felt this, and became a Skinhead very soon after discovering them. I became a Skinhead because of the music, and the attention I received, especially from girls. I loved dancing, music and girls, and the Two-Tone scene seemed to have it all. It totally spoke to me, spoke to me about my environment in which a new multicultural generation of kids was coming of age: Pakistani, Polish, Jamaican, Irish etc. etc.”
“Being a Skinhead also drew me to Oi! Music because it was directly geared towards the Skinhead movement.
The first exposure and I am sure the first time I had heard about Oi! Music was on one Saturday hanging out downtown. I was wandering about when I bumped into one of my friends (Sean Taylor I think it was) who excitedly informed me of the latest musical addition to the Skinhead playlist, he took me to OUR PRICE the small record shop. The record shop was full of my mates excitedly surrounding one of the record racks and passing around an album with a yellow cover. I demanded a look and that was the first moment I was introduced to
OI! THE ALBUM with a picture of Stinky Turner of the “Cockney Rejects” giving an energetic two fingered salute to the world. Here was a whole album of music dedicated to being a Skinhead, and street urchins bands that were unashamedly Working class and proud of it.”
“In a world where nearly every close friend and the whole neighborhood and what looked like the whole country was affected by Skinheads there was hardly ever a mention of the cult in any of the media. If Skinheads were mentioned it was in an extremely negative light. I feel this sort of attitude to deny anything that is a little hard to understand was prevalent throughout the whole of society from top to bottom. If you had a fight you were out of control, if you wanted sex you were a pervert, if you wanted to be a little different you were a freak. There seemed to be Skinheads everywhere, buying records, buying clothes, hanging about in gangs, pairs, females, young kids to adults.”
“From my angle the cult seemed to have penetrated every part of my world and more likely than not contributing somehow to society (I had a Skinhead friend Chris who is now a very rich inventor, he invented a contraption to make life a little easier for the physically handicapped when he was still a Skinhead.) But at the time Skinheads were given as much attention by the media as prize marrow growing contests in Scunthorpe. Here was a music and a movement that was totally dedicated to this massive underbelly of youth that were being totally ignored by the mainstream in the hope that if they disregarded it we might just all go away like good little children. But we didn’t and the Oi! Movement grew to become a worldwide influence.”
“As time went on I left school and became part of an even tighter gang. I felt our Wycombe mob was different from a lot of Skinhead gangs, as we were quite isolated from the rest of the Skinhead world, which in the early to mid Eighties was largely focused on the more right wing side of the Oi! Movement.”
“My Mother when she first came to England from Ireland would have to put up with signs in house windows saying “NO BLACKS, IRISH, OR DOGS.” What right did I have to be a racist. I always felt uncomfortable trying to explain Skinheads and racism, as it really was never an issue in my life as a Skinhead. If I ever really needed physical assistance nowadays there are only three people I know in my heart would be there for me. One is White and the other two are Black. One thing I knew when I was growing up is the Black kids were tough, strong, good fighters and if you messed with them you mess with their infinite number of cousins as well. They usually run the borstals and I never viewed the West Indians as a bunch of weeds.”
Gavin’s skinhead pictures have come to define the subculture and also to some extent define him as a photographer, however many of his images that are not as well known and depict scenes from his school days and the people he knew who were not ‘Skins’ reveal another side to his character and also give us a glimpse into the ‘other side’ of life as a teenager in the 1980s
In 1989 Gavin and his brother Neville discovered the newly developing Acid House and Rave scene spreading across the country like a wildfire. As always Gavin took his camera along and captured the heady times. “I’d sit and watch people. You could tell the moment like THAT! Your life’s not going to be the same ever again.” Gavin and Neville compiled the images for the book Raving ’89 published by DJhistory
“I got into Madness for fun, for girls, for the clothes and the excitement that it brought, and just dancing. But by the time I was 23 the Skinhead thing had just turned into macho posturing. The dancing, the girls, all that had gone, and literally all it was was protecting your patch. Stupidity! So when raving came along there was no choice: going up the pub and pretending to be hard or standing in a field with thousands of beautiful people watching the sun come up? There was no choice.”
Come full circle to the present day and Gavin is finally enjoying the success that he deserves from being one of the most influential photographers of a generation. The director Shane Meadows based the look of his film and TV series This is England on Gavin’s images, Terry Richardson has described Gavin as a ‘Genius’ and in the last five years he has had three books published and had numerous exhibitions of his work throughout Europe. Last year Gavin shot campaigns for Farah and Dr. Martens as well as shoots for Vice and Artrocker magazine. This year he’ll continue to work with Dr. Martens and also shoot a major project with the musician Plan B.
In 2012 Gavin’s photography is now in more demand than ever and skinhead style is back on the fashion radar, Gavin explains:
“The influence of Skinheads spread far and wide, and still does. It wasn’t just small groups of people wearing big boots and shaving their heads. Our presence affected neighbours, family, the community, the people we inspired, the people that hated us. Unlike punk, which was arguably the calculated creation of art school designers, Skinhead culture has always been a home-grown, grass roots movement of urban youths with a real need for hard-wearing, practical clothing. Skinhead fashion has been copied over and over again, often by the mainstream, although the fashion industry rarely acknowledges its debt to true Skinheads.”
“For me the stories, the myths and the memories are the most important things now. The memories of a time when we were young and didn’t give a fuck, or at least pretended we didn’t. I feel it is important to try and explain the amount of transformations I went through while growing up in the early Eighties, and the complexities of being a young, white, working class male in a rapidly changing, culturally diverse society. One thing remained constant from my adolescence until my early twenties: being a Skinhead always seemed to be there, whether I was losing my virginity, getting drunk for the first time, leaving home, becoming a Dad, or standing in a field nearly ten years later with thousands of ravers.”
View more of Gavin’s Skinhead and Rave images on www.pymca.com
Check out Gavin’s Blog
Gavin is represented for photographic commissions by Shoot. www.shootgroup.com