Recent pop-leaning music industry happenings would lead one to believe that UK-based production duo Disclosure are the most significant dance-to-pop crossover act in quite some time. How long, exactly? Well, if we listen closely to Disclosure's sound and style, that answer should be readily apparent. With it's base being so heavily steeped in soul and two-step impulses, the obvious harbinger is UK garage, a sound that globally dominated in both the underground and mainstream near the turn of the 21st century. Dovetailing nicely with this garage resurgence is the photography of Ewen Spencer, who - alongside being a well-respected and in-demand photographer in the era - photographed the rise of the garage era in clubs like London's Colosseum, wherein genre-defining party Twice as Nice occurred. His released a book of photos from the UKG era, UKG, as well as having made a slick documentary on the scene, Brandy and Coke, has just been released, and I had the opportunity to speak for a bit with Spencer himself and discuss the rise, fall, sounds, and legacy of the UK garage scene. Enjoy!
What music were you into before becoming a fan of UK garage?
Music wise I'm a collector. I collect rare and unusual 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s soul music.
So Northern Soul then was what you were into?
Yeah, I'm a Northern Soul head. That's what I grew up listening to. Those were my formative years of going out and clubbing, it was to clubs and discos for Northern Soul parties.
Aside from that, what else were you listening to?
The Who, The Kinks, and The Jam. I was a "mod" teenager. They were aping that Tamla, Motown, that Detroit sound. So, I started going to the record stores and getting those records, as well as more modern soul, '80s sounds like Joyce Sims, Sharon Brown, you know, those more "dancefloor" soul records. Also, via Soul Train (which was broadcast on a Friday evening before I went to the youth clubs), I started listening to more contemporary soul music, hip-hop, and house music. Then, when house music ceased to be a dancefloor/underground sound and became more about acid house, I started to get back into "real" soul music and Northern Soul. Me and my pals started then to head to the north of England and head to Northern Soul [parties], weekenders, that sort of thing.
So then, was UK garage for you a happy mix of a lot of things that you were already into, mixed with some things that you weren't so aware of?
Yeah, so I came down from the north of England to study photography in Brighton, which is close to London. After three years, I was still heading to Northern Soul do's and other parties in London. I started photographing it, so my first portfolio was made up of pictures from the Northern Soul scene.
My first official commission to make pictures was with Sleazenation Magazine to photograph clubs around London. One of the first club parties I was sent to was Twice as Nice in 1998, That's where I discovered the UK garage scene. It felt like home. It felt like where I had left off with the soul scene, and was like a more contemporary [soul scene]..
The style and poshness shown in your photographs of the UK garage scene feels similar to the onus placed upon being stylish in Northern Soul and American disco, too. Your thoughts about the juxtaposition of high fashion against what many consider the "low culture" of underground dance scenes?
The aesthetic idea of working class kids dressing up for the weekend, going out and enjoying themselves has always been important. UK garage felt like a heightened version of that exclusive and "VIP"-type environment. The mix of people there was absurd. There were so many different types of people there. So many people dressed up and made an effort [to look stylish]. It's about clean living under difficult circumstances. Making an effort to look sharp, then going back to work Monday through Friday. It's about having a good time, it's about living for the weekend, it's about escapism. .
Was there something missing in popular music that you feel UK garage filled for some people? In so many other underground dance scenes that have bubbled to the mainstream, I feel that's what was the factor that made them so popular and beloved, and also what leads to the makeup of the people in the scenes being so strange and unique as well. Thoughts?
I'd agree. You can trace it back to places like the Gas Club, which I never went to. The music policy there was that they were fed up with the house music scene and what had become of it, Gas Club messed about with house music. They took more of the American garage template, to speed up [those records] and make it feel a little more British, a little more two-step, with that "Lover's Rock" and reggae feel. In that moment, it became British and underground. It was about looking for an antithesis to the mainstream. I actually feel as though there's a history of that in British youth culture, where things get borne out of a certain boredom, a reluctance to go with the flow. From Northern Soul at the Blackpool Mecca to UK garage at Twice as Nice, I really feel as if there's a link between the two.
I don't know if it's the same thing in Britain, but I feel that in America, there's always an undercurrent or subtext of race/gender as an issue in how these scenes develop. Did that affect the development of UK garage, too?
[UK garage] was definitely about music for music's sake before it was about anything else. I'd even go out on a limb and say that Britain can be quite a liberal place at that stage of sub-culture, [insofar as] it can be quite welcoming. Steve Gordon, who started up Twice as Nice at the Colosseum had a policy that it was a club event for people who ran events, ran clubs, promoted clubs, and were DJs. [Ideally] it was a Sunday night scene for them. They, then, invited all of their girlfriends and boyfriends or whatever to this club night. Therefore, it became this sort of ultimate club night made of and for people who were into dance music. In a way then, that has to encompass everybody.
A lot of scenes could be quite moody (like the jungle scene). However, when the tough blokes from the jungle scene would come to Twice as Nice and see guys dressed in all-in-one fishnet outfits with a jockstrap on roller skates on the dance floor prancing around, that immediately cuts out any sort of aggression. When they see that girls don't want to dance with the "hard man," but they want to be with the man who's fun, it is not a moody scene at all.
What were some of the key records of the UK garage scene, meaning, in your opinion, which were the ones that really popped off in the clubs?
The most magical record, to me, on the scene, would've been Roy Davis, Jr's "Gabriel." I didn't hear it first in a UK garage club, I heard it first in a drum & bass club and I thought "that's not drum and bass music, that's not garage music, that's my music, that's soul music. Why is that being played here? I don't get it." The place went bananas. I was at the Metalheadz party at the Blue Note. I was there making pictures. I wasn't there to dance. But when I heard ["Gabriel"], I thought, "this is new, I like this. This is amazing." That was the moment for me with UK garage when I was knew that [UK garage] was something else. Then, I went to Twice as Nice a few weeks later, heard ["Gabriel"] again, and thought, "this is it. I like this." Also huge were Wookie's "Battle," which was a really British, really clever and very emotive and soulful song. As well, there was Ramsey and Fen's "Love Bug," which was a little more sexy and fun.
There are people who feel that garage is getting a revival with Disclosure. I was wondering if you had listened to them yet and your thoughts?
I've gotta admit, I'm less interested in the progress of garage. I think I've only listened to Disclosure [of the current crop of garage-styled house music], and I can honestly say I'm not listening to too much of the newer stuff. I hear what they're doing and I get that. A lot of big artists are borrowing from the sound. I can't really comment too much on it. It would be disingenuous for me to comment on it, but I hear it on the radio and I like it.
At what point did you decide to "leave the party." There comes a point with any scene where you decide that it is distinctly not what you remembered it being, and it's time to move on. When did this happen for you with UK garage?
The "over" moment happens over a couple of weeks, doesn't it? There's a "Best of" coming out, a "Top 10 Best of Garage Tunes" from Ministry of Sound. That's when the anvil goes around the neck, and it starts to plummet to the bottom of the ocean. The music starts to make radio, hit the charts and by the late '90s/early '00s there was a more polished/knowing sound coming from acts signing to Ministry of Sound. You can't diss [Ministry of Sound] outright, though. They ran a really healthy garage night on a Friday night for a long time, and it was very well regarded. However, as a label they were a big machine with distribution that could make a white label track into a big hit. Twice as Nice also moved to a larger venue, and before you knew it, it was over. The police were there, it was really kicking off, and the party had become for the masses.
Outside of things like Disclosure being popular in 2013 (and beyond), what other things can we look to in order to find the legacy of UK garage?
The Streets. Mike Skinner listened to pirate radio coming from Birmingham and North London. He listened to that music and made sounds that were similar to it. I thought, "this sounds like garage, but it's not garage." Then, a few years after that you had grime.