Popular recent interpretations of the '80s often include new wave angles, fluorescent colors and Miami Vice-inspired louche looks. But of course, style in the music underground was evolving in a much different way. Members of the UK indie scene, in particular, adopted styles inspired by the Byrds, the Velvet Undergound and other unsung heroes of rock and pop's original revolution. Even today, one can see traces of this indie look in bands and fans—many of whom have no idea of the roots of their chosen aesthetic. A new book, A Scene In Between: Tripping Through the Fashions of UK Indie Music 1980-1988, chronicles the emergence of this style from the ground up. It includes dozens of photos, both professional and amateur, shining a light on this DIY music movement's fashion component. We queried Sam Knee for more background and to see if he could narrow '80s indie in the UK down to five types. He did!
The indie scene in the '80s had a real affinity for the '60s in terms of look and sonic aesthetic. Do you think this worked against it being taken seriously? In other words, did it come off as a rehash—rather than something new? Or was it also expressing a wish to revisit those '60s revolution values?
The '80s UK indie bands clearly had a deep fascination for all things '60s but with a distinct '80s bent, they weren't total revivalists. The '60s were in the air and seen as a utopian escape from Thatcher yuppie Britain. Remember that this mythological era was less than twenty years before and hazy fading glimpses of it were to seen regularly in all towns and cities across the land. Sixties clothes were available for pennies in charity shops and hard to resist. The indie scene was the last extension of the new wave DIY era before the whole E thing set in around 88. It couldn't have existed without the new wave, post punk preceding as inspiration as well as '60s isms.
What were Morrissey's love beads all about? He seemed very taken with the '50s, but then the beads kind of went in another direction.
Morrissey had his own unique fashion sense plucking select sartorial elements with suggestive knowing flare from a cornucopia of sources. I guess the 501's and quiff were James Dean via Billy Fury. The beads, gladioli, floaty blousy shirts were a hodge podge mash-up of Quentin Crisp, Oscar Wilde, Joe Orton, poetic bohemian flamboyance with an added contemporary ironic Dole reality. Morrissey chic took hold of the nation's youth and soon became a fashion sub genre in its own right, eventually becoming a cliché that he's never shook off.
This "indie" look wasn't the only thing going for music subcultures at the time... What else was happening? I remember that the cowpunk look, for one, was big for a while with the bolo ties, etc.
The UK in the early/mid '80s was literally infested with youth sub genre underground scenes and movements. You had Goth which peaked around 83 then became increasingly commercial. Elements of the goth type look tipped over into cool foreign bands like The Birthday Party, Gun Club and of course The Cramps. These three were big here in the UK prior to the homegrown indie explosion and their fashion slants bled into bands such as MBV, JAMC around 83/84.
The mod revival kicked off in 79 and steadily grew and grew throughout the decade to become a vast self contained underground network of bands, fanzines, clubs. Mod was huge! I was a bit of a scruffy longhaired mod and crossed over into this scene quite frequently, this was the era of indie/mod crossover that died out around 88 also. The mod scene carried on regardless of course as every year was 64/65.
Why do think that Velvet Underground/Byrds look was so influential? Was VU a complete package—sound, look, attitude—kind of a code word for entry into the underground?
Both bands evoked an exotic mystery and cool that '80s disenchanted teenagers could relate to and form fashion direction from. Far from the glossy mainstream horror of Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, etc. the VU and Byrds lured a gateway to parallel realities.
JAMC brought the stark menace of early VU into the youths consciousness via Pastels, Subway Sect, Fire Engines and Hamburg-era Beatles. The look was already going on but they refined it into their own around 84/85 and became the Creation Records roster template. Johnny Marr was a leading exponent of The Byrds look also as well as early Primal Scream, so it was becoming a youth trend circa 84-87.
Who might the sartorial hero of the indie kid in the '80s be? You mention John Cale/Sterling Morrison in your intro.
Contemporary wise it was early Orange Juice's Edwyn and James Kirk, Stephen Pastel's a big influence on the whole era and Bobby Gillespie. '60s wise Love, VU, Byrds, Pretty Things, John's Children.
And who for women?
Contemporary wise Marine Girls, Dolly Mixture, Talulah Gosh plus '60s sirens Nico, Kitchen Sink dramas, Jean Seberg in Breathless.
Some of these bands were hailing from smaller towns, where did they get their threads?
As the look was generally second hand (in a pre vintage world) indie scenesters relied heavily on charity shops/jumble sales and old fashioned outfitters carrying old stock from the '60s (now known as deadstock). Shoes were trickier, so a trip to an outlet of Shelley's Shoes for their Chelsea Boots was required or D.M shoes which you could get anywhere cheap or Clarkes Desert Boots.
Did folks play up their look mainly for live gigs and club DJ nights, or was it a 24-7 thing in the UK?
This was how people lived and looked. There was no stage wear as such or any kind of dressing up, this was it.
Can you give us five examples of different looks from the 81-88 era and what elements defined them?
1- You had the Orange Juice look which dabbled with Americana, Gabardine shirts, Pendelton plaids crossed with a English public school, aristocratic twist ie: cable wool cardigans, cravats, Tweeds.
2- JAMC look circa 84/85 consisting of black leather box blazer jackets, black leather drainpipe trousers, creepers, stripy T-shirt or tatty check shirt all combined with a big fuzzy backcombed hair. Cool.
3- The Morrissey. Voluminous floaty blousey shirts half done up to show off your beads and flower chain, tatty original 50l's bought easily from secondhand meccas such as Flip in Covent Garden London or Kensington Market stalls that specialised in American rag. D.M shoes or old brogues easily acquired for little expense plus fifties style quiff for total worship.
4- The Sterling Morrison. Head to toe black. Either chelsea boots or engineer boots (penned as King Hatreds by the man himself). Skinny jeans. Black roll or turtle neck and lank greasy moptop of hair covering eyes and face to add an antisocial slant. This look was hugely popular across indie scenesters and '60s garage enthusiasts.
5- The Anorak. Largely pioneered by Stephen Pastel the look was very evocative of the early '60s art student/beatnik style. Sixties anoraks were easily acquired in various fabrics/colourways and were often reversible with quilting. Worn over, for example, a stripey Breton Tee, with a pair of straight leg cords and desert boots oozed '60s youth angst topped off with a srcuffy, shortish mop of hair. Pretty happening.
Felt B/W by J C Brouchard 1986
What happened in 88? What killed this scene and accompanying looks?
The indie scene here was winding down and evolving into other sartorial chapters...
E rave culture came along and increasing interest in the US indie scenes with the rise of the Sub Pop, Am Rep, Sympathy, TreeHouse, Homestead etc. etc. type bands.
Will the next book have more American acts?
Yeah it'll have some, most importantly Beat Happening and the embryonic Olympia K scene among others. I'd like early pics of the Watch Children from NJ, Crystalized Movements if anyone has any out there?
Can you think of any bands still pulling off the 80s indie look? Preview A Scene In Between at Cicada Books
Mmm pass on that one, I'm waay outta touch.
and order online from Amazon UK.