◼ THE CLICHES ABOUT PUNK are the rage, the nihilism, the safety pins. In fact, punk dawned in 1976, like all British youth cults, as a fashion statement that trumped those clichés. A new and powerful photo book from Derek Ridgers titled Punk London 1977 shows in 152 pages just how considered were its style leaders who had to invent their own iconoclastic looks before they could be bought off the peg. There were no mohican haircuts at the Roxy club when it opened in December 1976 and for 100 days became the platform for Generation X, the Clash, the Jam, the Heartbreakers, the Boys, Buzzcocks, Siouxsie and the Banshees and a raucous wave of rebel music that spread to Soho’s Vortex and the 100 Club.
Ridgers says: “In ’76 the audience became more interesting than the bands.” As he turned his camera away from the stage, he focused on the unique characters in the audience who were creating a new movement through self-expression. “Most of the early punks didn’t look like punks anyway. They just looked like young people who would alter their clothes: very often it would be school uniform or there would be bin liners, a few safety pins but not very many. The ethos of punk is really ‘Do it yourself’. It’s not dressing up in leather and having a mohican.”
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The book launched last night in Mayfair with a vibrant exhibition of its photos and a swell party hosted by menswear designer Paul Smith and the British Fashion Council. Rightly Vogue.com asked Ridgers yesterday: What did you wear while documenting these kids? He replied: “Often I’d be going to gigs straight from work, so I simply wore what I’d worn there—usually a jacket, open-neck shirt, and jeans. I was not a punk by any means.” There’s a key picture of the Damned playing the Roxy in early 1977 where Ridgers is visible in the top right-hand corner, standing on the stairs, in glasses, open-neck shirt, cardigan, smiling. “I didn’t make a very good punk,” he says. No, just a very perceptive footnote to history!
Dazed Digital probed further and asked: Out of all the scenes you’ve photographed, which have you most felt part of? Ridgers replied: “There must be a part of me that wanted to be part of all of them. I see my photography as a very vicarious thing. I suppose if I didn’t wear glasses and if I’d been a little bit more of a macho type of guy, I would have been a skinhead. I don’t think I could’ve ever been a punk or a new romantic.”
As an observer he carved out his own beat along the labyrinthine path British youth culture took during the exotic 80s and became the go-to lensman for his take on more extreme outsider cults. Ridgers told Dazed: “There were a lot of photographers around but I stuck it out longer. Woody Allen said something about success is 80% just being there. It’s the thing with me – I was there. I can’t make any other claims apart from the fact that I was there. Through everything. On the edge looking in. With a camera I was able to stare with some legitimacy.”
The trash mag Polyesterzine asks Ridgers if he could compare today’s Zeitgeist to any of the eras he had shot. “No, not at all,” he replies. “The late ’70s and early ’80s was a very different, much darker time. The streets of London were a mess. The poor guy [I photographed] who had ‘We are the flowers in your dustbin’ tattooed across his forehead had it exactly right. They did all seem like the flowers in a dustbin. . . Things are very different now because a lot of those little clubs don’t exist. Soho for instance, where nearly half my nightlife photographs were taken, is rapidly changing. There isn’t the same after dark frisson of excitement about the place any more. Gentrification and the need for developers to maximise the profit from every square inch of the place means that there just aren’t any scruffy, little basement clubs left. Those scruffy, little basement clubs were the area’s lifeblood.”