Like any teenager in thrall to pop music during the ’80s, I spent much of that decade doing my best to mimic the look of my idols. On reflection, perhaps I didn’t yet know who I was and so it may have seemed easier to let someone else make my fashion choices for me?
As the ’70s (thankfully) slipped away, obsessed with the 2 Tone scene, particularly The Specials, of whom I was a bona fide, paid up fanclub member, I dressed smartly, in and out of school – invariably Sta Press trousers, a fresh Fred Perry polo shirt, clean white socks and well-polished loafers.
But on 13th August 1981, a lightning bolt moment – Soft Cell’s first appearance on Top Of The Pops (performing ‘Tainted Love’). Marc Almond, with his bangles, mascara and capped sleeve black t-shirt, may have deeply divided everyone with a penis at school the next morning but I instinctively set a course for beatnik sleaze. Living, as I did, in a former mining village in the Midlands at that time, my top-to-toe black, beret, studded wristband and John Lennon specs were tantamount to wearing a target on my back. I dreaded turning every corner, lest it conceal a jeering mob and prone to blushing, did everything I could to avoid encounters with girls. And yet, somehow, beyond the predictable calls of “Homo! Bummer!” (very popular back then), no-one laid a hand on me, neither male nor female.
As Marc Almond had inadvertently put me in touch with my, not so much feminine side but a decidedly non-macho image, being exposed to The Smiths for the first time in 1983 saw my wardrobe take a turn for the worst. Or was it for the better? From thereon, until well into the ’90s, much to my mother’s chagrin, I only bought clothes at charity and thrift shops. My grey rain coat (historically associated with followers of Joy Division and Cabaret Voltaire), taken up above the knee (for reasons I’ve long since forgotten), shared my shoulderless frame with oversized shirts and cardies, skinny-fit black jeans. In the Summer, plimsolls (or “plimps”); in the Winter, black monkey boots. My hair, naturally curly, stiffened into a quiff by Silvikrin spray (the mere whiff of it now takes me straight back to that time), sometimes as daring as Morrissey’s exaggerated clifftop drop (see photos below). My friends, a closely-knit circle of four, wore variations on the same, to the extent that we could swap clothes and no-one would be any wiser as to who actually owned what. Mothballed “dead man’s cardigans” kept us warm through the Winter, as did army surplus-bought mesh scarves and Arctic white gloves.
“Is it The Bunnymen or The Mary Chain?” enquired a fellow student, as I passed through the halls of our college, Juno-60 synth under my arm, sometime in 1985. Even I wasn’t sure. The lines were blurred, I was in transition, as I’d been from Terry Hall to Marc Almond, from Almond to Morrissey (by way of Dave Gahan, it must be said).
I heard The Jesus & Mary Chain before I saw them. John Peel, as reliable as ever, played their first single, ‘Upside Down,’ on his late night radio show and even though it was the antithesis of The Smiths’ beautiful, crystal clear jangled melodies and forlorn lyrics, I was instantly hooked. The next day, talk was of little else and the four of us skipped lessons to head for the nearest record shop, in Nottingham, a good seven miles away by bus. We all bought that 7″, as I imagine up and down the country, many of our kind were doing. We’d missed the ’70s model – this was our punk.
The look, Bobby Gillespie aside (more on him later) – thick, almost scribbled, bird’s nest hair, tie dyed or checked shirts buttoned up all the way to the throat, tattered jeans, leather jackets with thin lapels (in the ’80s, these were referred to as “box jackets,” although I have no idea why). And those VU shades which barely concealed the band’s derision of everyone else.
Again, I sheepishly walked through the door marked “Follow us” and within a matter of weeks, I was barely distinguishable from the Reid Brothers, bar the leather jacket – Morrissey had convinced me (and this held, without waiver, for the rest of my life) that meat was, indeed, murder and leather was very naughty indeed.
For the next couple of years, my look mutated around that Mary Chain axis. I no longer had haircuts. I positively encouraged holes in my clothes. In the absence of anything resembling a muscle, textiles simply hung off me. The most expensive purchase of my life came in the form of a black, polyester polo shirt frequently modeled by Jim Reid – fifteen whole pounds from Leicester’s Silver Arcade.
In Summer ’85, Bobby Gillespie’s golf jacket on the back sleeve of Primal Scream’s ‘All Fall Down’ single had many of us scouring the secondhand shops for something similar. There was, however, a thin line between a jacket that made you look like you were in The Byrds and one that resembled your auntie’s shopping coat. It was around this time that I began to question the identikit indie look, most particularly the bowl cut hairdo coupled with a polo neck or striped t-shirt; the skinny-fit jeans topped off with winklepickers. For a wee while, I wore an anorak but I was far from twee. If I’m honest, with a few exceptions, all those shy-boy-meets-shy-girl and sha-la-la songs made me wince. I wanted noise, feedback, distortion, volume. Imagine my disappointment when even The Jesus & Mary Chain went kind of “nice,” post-‘Psychocandy.’
In a feeble attempt to disassociate myself with the Five-Go-Down-To-The Sea, thumb-sucking crowd, ridiculously, I was vocal in my self-labelling as a “shambler,” a term I associated with the rougher end of mid-’80s indie pop and not the coyer, Sarah Records end of things. Even so, I doth (dideth?) protest too much, given that I was a huge fan of The Sea Urchins, who, signed to Sarah, made beautiful, lovelorn, sixties-inspired songs, heavy on tambourines and 12 strings. And did I not adore The Bodines and The Razorcuts?
Only recently did I discover that “shambling” was “a John Peel-coined description, celebrating the self-conscious primitive approach of some of the music.” It’s an accurate description too. Behind that wall of noise, The Jesus & Mary Chain could barely string three chords together but it just did not matter. Much like the punks, they were coasting along on noise and attitude. I could only dream of being that cool but at the very least, I could mirror the look.
For the remainder of the ’80s, my style organically slid into a sort of post-Mary Chain hangover. I gave up buying clothes and settled into plain t-shirts beneath checked shirts, non-descript jeans and trainers. Hair was cut at home, by friends with no qualifications, often drunk. Ironically, by the late ’80s, I saw that I wasn’t alone in this passive chic. Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr, Nirvana and a whole new breed of American alt-rockers appeared, as I, to have entirely given up trying to look presentable.
My father never once wore jeans. In fact, right up until the late ’80s, most British men over forty were still wearing suit jackets, ties even, when they went to the pub. Were we, the next generation, rebelling against that uniformity, against the tradition? We weren’t the first of course. The rockers had done it, so had the hippies, the punks, the grebos, etc. The mould is there to be smashed. In fact, when our turn finally came, it was in smithereens.
By the time I started a proper band, in 1996, our chosen image was of smart engineers – American-style ’60s shirts and smart trousers; often, pens in our top pockets. Ironic that the most transgressive look I could come up with was that of someone in my father’s profession.