Punk is celebrating its 40th birthday in 2016, and before we pass into a second year that marks another 40 years of punk (1977 was as important, if not more, than 1976), we catch the Punk photographer Chris Low swiftly after he came back to London from his photography exhibition in Japan.
“UP YOURS! TOKYO PUNK & JAPANARCHY TODAY” – The exhibition documenting everything in the underground Tokyo punk scene that Chris Low was immersed in for over 5 years: its faces and places, bands and fans. Chris’s photos capture this in full colour, snapped on no more than a cheap pocket camera in keeping with the DIY ethos of his subject matter. In his own words: “It’s punk – not a Pirelli calendar!
Here we are talking about his photography, his sub culture inspirations and his punk experience in Japan and in the UK.
How was the Japan exhibition?
Chris Low: If you just went over to Japan and was some kind of… well, voyeuristic isn’t the word, but just basically stuck a camera in someone’s face they would just be like fuck off? But many of the punks in the photographs I know and they have become good friends. I think it comes down to the fact that I’m from the punk scene was in punk bands before so it isn’t like i’m objectifying them. When I first went to punk gigs in Tokyo and I met most of these punks there they thought it was crazy that I used to play for Political Asylum, Oi Polloi and The Apostles as many knew these bands. The exhibition was a huge success. The venue managers and bands who played couldn’t have been more amazing and it was wonderful to meet up with many of those featured in the photos again.
How do you find punk scene in Japan different from the UK?
There are now sub-genres of punk, which have emerged in Japan and imported back to the west. Now they’ve got their own totally unique scene, well it’s very much influenced by certain bands that were around in the early 80s in Britain. It’s called pogo-punk. It’s mad and pretty much all about getting pissed, jumping about and being a punk and maybe kicking in a door. If westerners did it, it would be a bit cringe worthy. In japan, it’s about these young folks who are into it. There is no contrivance it’s all very spontaneous and pure. It’s great!
There’s such a big infrastructure in Tokyo. I don’t know how many punk run venues there are, there are about 5 or 6 that I can think of. There are loads of these kind of punk run venues! Most punk run venues in the UK have sadly fallen apart. In Japan, everything is well organised. There are loads of punk clothes shops – I know 3 in Koenji alone and I have been going there for around the past 15 years!
I’ll still go to a place and someone will be like haven’t you been to such and such record shop, but you think you know a place but no matter how many times you go there you find something new, you just don’t get bored with it. That’s the mind-blowing thing about Tokyo. Attention to detail is huge there as well; whether it’s musically or stylistically it’s incredible.
That’s another thing which they take to total extremes in japan, and it’s why the punk Japanese look is so brilliant, as they are so colourful, they aren’t drab and dour. Some of the people I feature in the book are pretty old now, but Japanese people age so well!
Punk scene in the UK has the dog on a string kind of feel, but in Japan, it’s different. The other thing is the designers in Japan. There are so many designers, and actually not many designers who haven’t referenced punk in Japan.
Tell us a bit more about your time in Tokyo?
The other thing I love, whether its clothes or records, if you’re not obsessed with condition then you will get things crazy cheap! I buy most of my clothes and records in Japan when I am over there. It’s cheaper than anything you will get over here and even if we’re comparing to eBay.
I remember the second time I went to Tokyo, you would see these records on the wall in Record store for up for £100 – £200, so the next time I went with my own editions of all the records I had seen on the wall for crazy money like rare Whitehouse and Come Org records and I was thinking oh my god I can finance my trip just by selling some vinyl in Japan. I took the records into the shop and when I did I said to the guy how much for these and he looked through them, these were records on the wall going for like £200. He was like, I’ll give you £30 for that as its in bad condition and I said no, this is good condition, and he just got a record out which was mint. What they do is blow on the inner sleeve to see if it’s ever been taken out the sleeve, like ever seen the sunlight. Not even just not un-played, so I thought you know what fair enough then, I will keep the record. I had to bring back all of the records I had taken out there.
What got you into the punk in the first place?
I was like, 8 or 9 when I got into punk and I was around 11/ 12 when I was doing my fanzine. There’s footage on YouTube of punk crowds from 79 or 80 and if you see the crowd from the footage you will see loads of pre-teen kids, so very young! I remember seeing Crass when I was eleven, they put on a gig in the afternoon for kids who were below the age of 14, and also the 4-Skins did, who were like this evil, skinhead boy band. They reached us by playing matinee shows as so many kids were under the age of 14 and into punk then!
I suppose was very young and started my fanzine. It was called ‘Guilty of What?’. I did three issues of the fanzine. They featured Crass and Crass type Bands like Conflict and Discharge, but also local Scottish bands like The Fakes and also post-punk acts like Gang of Four, Delta 5 and Pere Ubu. It wasn’t like a weird thing that I wrote fanzines. My friend Nick Bullen of Napalm Death was doing a fanzine at 11 as well. There were loads of other people. I wasn’t the only one. Folk would think you were a real fucking weirdo if you did something like that now. Fair enough, I was probably a bit precocious but all my mates were into punk, I guess it was the logical thing to do fanzines and to form bands as well. That was the next stage.
Also what was interesting about fanzines was, and if you have done any sort of research into fanzines, is the number of fanzines that actually weren’t from London or major cities, instead they came from the provinces. A fanzine was something you could do yourself. The whole fanzine and the tape-trading scene, which was how people disseminated music was how you would hear about lots of bands. You may not always get the records, but you would have friends who would get the record and then friends who would tape the record. There were people who you would send the tapes to and they would record maybe the latest records from that month. You would send them a tape and them send them back a tape of the things you got, so that’s how you would spread and swap music.
That and the fanzine scene were almost like an alternative Internet, Facebook, MySpace, as it was more of like a social thing. You would be communicating with people all throughout the world who you had never met. I remember being so excited when I got my first letters from France and America responding to my fanzine. I still remember getting my first letter from Poland, or somewhere near there and I thought I have no idea that this place even existed. It was probably somewhere like Macedonia, but it was definitely somewhere I had never even heard of and I couldn’t read a word or identify any of the characters written. Somehow they had got a copy of my fanzine and they were writing and sending me some weird money order and a note from a currency, which I didn’t have a clue what it was for.
There were a variety of ways that the fanzines would be distributed. Firstly, you would go to gigs, take them down to shops like Rough Trade, Small Wonder and Better Badges. Obviously, Rough Trade is the big one now, it’s absolutely massive but small ones like Better Badges or Small Wonder was just as big as Rough Trade at that time. Rough Trade was just one of these places where you could get major fanzines. You would take them down a load of copies or send them and they would sell the fanzine and generally take 20% to 25% of the cover price. Most fanzines were generally 25p. That made it very easy, as the shops would take 5p off for themselves. You would send them down like 50 copies and when they sold they would send you back the money, or you could also get your payment in credit vouchers which you could spend on records from the shop, which is another way you could get good money.
There are a lot of recurring bands in the zines. Most zines would have Crass on them, that’s because Crass were so big. You would be guaranteed that if your fanzine had Crass, it would sell out.
Another thing you would often do is to swap fanzines. So one guy would maybe send you 10 of his fanzines for you to sell at gigs or your local record shop, as all local record shops would sell local fanzines. So if there were 3 or 4 other fanzines in an area, these are the ones that would be for sale. Sometimes my friend would send me 10 of his fanzines and I would send him 10 of mine. And they would sell really quickly as they were fanzines that weren’t from the area. In the mid 80s there will people who were specifically distributing fanzines, generally on a small commission.
Actually this year we launched a Punk Zine reimagined for Grime, called INTO THE DIRT.
My fanzine was done in exactly the same way as this. There was nobody to sort of tell you the rules about it and there were things you would never really work out. Like the first line of text was always cropped out as I just didn’t understand that you didn’t type up to the very side. You know, just really weird things like that. Another thing was when I started to take photos myself, the colour ones just wouldn’t come out. I would never be able to work out how you got photographs to reproduce. I put a colour photo in and it just came out as like a black square. The other thing I remember is if you made a mistake, this was before they had paint on tippex, you used to get these strips of white opaque chalky paper. They were really horrible and you had to individually type over the actual letters. It was the weirdest thing. It was so labour intensive and if you made a mistake, you would very often have to go back and do the entire paper again. Now you can just tippex over things.
Funnily enough I did this thing called the KISMIF sub cultural symposium in Portugal this year, which Matthew Worley is involved with, who I want to give the grime fanzines to. And he’s a professor of Modern History, teaching cultural studies, a very good mate of mine and his main thing is punk and he’s doing a thing about the history of fanzines at the moment, so that’s why its really interesting that you’re a doing a back to basics grime magazine, as there has been resurgence of fanzines and its been very much a nice crafty kind of thing. Like you’ll get those very often bound with wool and hand screened. They are very much craft, feel to the fanzine. But yours is more like the original fanzines, more genuine and authentic to their origin.
The difference is they are not stapled and photocopied and that what I look out for and that’s why I go across the road. Things like this (the fanzine girl code) are aesthetically well produced. You look at the back page and expect there to be a logo or something like that.
We kept the subject very contemporary in terms of Grime but we wanted everything else to be completely as it was in 76/77. The only thing we added in to ‘Into The Dirt’ was social media references like twitter feeds etc. What are your thoughts of Grime and any parallel to Punk?
If anything, Grime is one of the closest subcultures to punk. I remember reading about folk making these Grime records on like Atari’s and I can imagine a lot of guys now of a certain age will have Atari’s. The fact is that you can now make music from that. I’ve got like drum machines on my phone. I’m sure there are entire recording studios you can use to make basic music on your phones, and if not that will probably be the future. It’s all about accessibility and means of production.
What is your fav punk fashion?
I love the original 1977 Westwood inspired stuff. I think its timeless and just looks really great! There are just things, for instance creepers, which I think, look fantastic and a good look and also flattering. Whereas, there are things like the crusty look which is popular now, you know whatever everybody likes there’s no harm in that. Personally, I think the original sex, seditionaries’ stuff looks great.
Some of the very first punks I saw wore bin bags. There used to be blue and green bin bags which were the ones for industrial waste, and they were the ones everybody wanted – oh the black ones as well. You would basically cut slits in and get somebody to spray on the back and stick a few safety pins in. I remember my mum had a yellow plastic raincoat and put that on and marker penned sex pistols and put dog chains hanging off it. Some people may of thought that was mental, but I was so young I didn’t even think about it.
One of the other things that would be heresy in the punk scene, that people don’t really acknowledge is that there is even an element of fashion and styling to whole crusty punk look. You know, you don’t end up with trousers all patched like that and looking a fucking state without a hell of a lot of work going on. I Knew punks in squats I stayed at who would get a new pair of trousers and they would get them back and spend ages kind of rubbing boot polish into them to get them looking all shiny and horrible. Sandpaper to make holes, not just slashing them, as that wouldn’t look authentic then cover them in patches. All of that stuff so it would really look like you was a tramp. Amazing! These are stylistic elements fashion designers like Raf Simons, Helmut Lang and Hussein Chalayan have all clearly taken influences from.
Any other point you want to raise about Punk (and the recent Punk London events)?
One thing that fails to amaze me about the punk scene is the amount of things you haven’t seen. Like you think of how many photographs of the Sex Pistols and all those bands you’ve seen would be available. But then a month or so ago at a Punk London Event there was a guy who was a college student in the 70s (Underground- that’s PT Madden) and for his first project he was told to see a band and take photographs of the band playing at one minute intervals. And the band he went to see and took photos of was the Sex Pistols playing one of their earliest concerts. The photographs were all under his bed for 35 years unseen by anyone until recently.
What’s your though on the subculture scene now and how it is being presented?
There has always been a knee-jerk hostility to the idea that academics are analysing, interpreting and telling the story of punk as very often they were writing as outsiders. In the past, you could pick up an article in the Guardian that’s about something and you think, oh that guy doesn’t have a clue, he’s just using Wikipedia and it’s a load of shit. Now, many of these people, maybe in their 40s or 50s now but these folk were involved in the punk scene. Now its about people who were very involved in these scenes telling not only their story but qualified to tell these accounts of what they experienced as they were participants themselves. Now there are avenues by where they can tell these things.
In the late 90s there was a book called Senseless Acts of Beauty. It was one of the first books that came out after the initial wave of punk books in the early 1980’s and had the benefit of being able to look at the scene from a bit more distance which can often give a clearer perspective. It addressed a lot of the issues, which came out of punk but from a very counter-cultural position. As folks say, a lot of the time, when events happen, their influences are only realised years later. So we can see Punk even more clearly now as we are still in good living memory of it but with the benefit of seeing the outcomes. An example will be like punk and fashion. You can walk into the bank now, and your bank manager will have spikey hair, earrings and a tattoo poking out from under his neck. 35 years ago, that would be unimaginable. 20 years ago, if you saw someone with tattoos on their face you would cross the road and think what a serious head banger, but now you switch on Top of the pops or an R&B channel and you see mental looking folk. They could be like LA rappers or something. But you know they wouldn’t be looking like that if it weren’t for punk. It’s obviously not like an influence he would reference but it has opened the doors stylistically. Conversely, if you look at many of the anti-globalisation and anti authority protests across the world you can see elements of the influence of anarcho-punk in them. Not only the participants, but the slogans and iconography they use in their protests.
I got invited to the British Museum for one of the Punk London events. There were people outside protesting and a lot of them were people I knew. I was saying to them, would you rather Punk was not documented and 1977 was just remembered for the Queens Jubilee than it was for the Sex Pistols. The other point is that everything will eventually end up in a museum. Museums aren’t just about cave; paintings and medieval goblets, they should archive and document everything! Museums to come will include iPhone, Mac pcs. Everything is going to end up in museums. Would you rather punk was omitted from history.
Mark Perry said punk ended the day The Clash signed to CBS, which is his personal definition of it and goes to show that everyone had his or her own interpretation of it and there was no unified definition. But in general nobody could ever say there was a particular time when punk ended and most would say it has never ended and never will do so as long as the scene and the spirit remains.
One big advance in the subculture scene now is the dissemination of information. You would see massive big piles of fanzines in record stores like Small Wonder, Rough Trade and Better Badges. If you wanted to find out about a different band, you would go through the different adverts that were featured and send off for a postal order, which cost like 30p for the order and wait a week and then receive these fanzines through the post. The post would arrive first thing in the morning so you would take them to school, read them on the bus and pass them around all your mates. They would ask, have you heard of this band and you would be like no, so then listen to their record which was really good and then the next week you would maybe order all the fanzines for that band.
Now all of that is like a click away, I think back then you had to really engage with anything, whereas now I don’t think you have to do that so you are not really investing as much time or energy.
With music as well, that was your record for the week, so if you thought the single was a bit crap you would still play it through for the whole week, as that was what you had saved for. So it was almost like you had to enjoy it. Whereas now, you can go on YouTube and after 10 seconds if you don’t like it, you don’t have to continue listening. It all comes down to it being a new media for people, and as with everything it’s difficult to quantify, like YouTube hits have gone down, whilst vinyl sales have gone up.
Underground inspires and is inspired by British subculture, both contemporary and from before. Any Subcultures you think that are up coming?
You never hear the term, youth tribes used anymore now. In the late 70s early 80s people would ask do you belong to a youth tribe. Maybe because of the simple fact that you are like a few mouse clicks away, so you have so many more references and not just one defined subculture to adopt. I remember when I was into punk or anything I had been into, you would get into it and then want to find out as much about them as you could, like a band. It took over your life – like it was your identity, your obsession.
What’s the plan for 2017?
My UP YOURS! TOKYO PUNK exhibition will be coming to the Lethal Amounts Gallery in Los Angeles in late January or early February 2017 and also it will return to Tokyo, to a space in Koenji in March or April. I can’t wait for both, as LA and Tokyo are my favourite cities! Also, I am working on a re-print of my photography book which I want to be much larger with many more photos included.
Thanks Chris for the fantastic talk! Good luck with your exhibition in LA!
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