Skateboarding, being too drunk to take photos and witnessing legendary gigs including Sun Ra, Fugazi and Sonic Youth, Getintothis’ Martin Waters chats to photographer Meany.
Sometimes when you start talking photography to someone, you can immediately see it’s more than just a job for them, it’s a passion.
They can reel off anecdotes about gigs they’ve shot and be more open than most about some of the people they’ve worked with, casually dropping in stories of how they missed the chance of a Kurt Cobain shot that could have kept them well paid for a long time.
Getintothis took the chance to step away from chatting to our current stable of photographers to chat with old hand Ian Lawton, or Meany, as he was known in Liverpool, about his photography exploits.
From why shooting skateboarders is good practice for shooting punk, to shooting for Kerrang! and Sounds and why the 3 song no flash rule is simply ‘bollocks’, Meany doesn’t hold back in guiding us through some of his favourite shots and the stories behind them.
Getintothis: Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got into photography.
IL: I got into photography when I was doing an art foundation course at college in the Midlands and then I went to art school in Liverpool. I got back into skateboarding when I was in Liverpool and started taking photos for Skateboard! Magazine which existed around the end of the 80s – early 90s.
I took the first magazine pics of Liverpool skater Geoff Rowley. He was a rad little kid at the time but he became a world class professional street skater, he was Thrasher Magazine skater of the year in 2000 and got his own signature model Vans shoe. Vans used some of the early pics I shot of him in a book Stories of Soul which has just been republished. Typically I had chucked out all the old transparencies. They had to scan the pics from the magazine!
I started also taking lots of photos of punk, hard-core and underground rock bands at that time because I was writing a music column in the skateboard mag and also because I was trying to start my own. I was always really into music of all kinds, so I started really enjoying taking pics of bands. I was at loads of shows anyway, as a paying punter, I just started taking my camera along. I was used to taking photos of fast moving skateboarders so that was good training for capturing punk bands and stage divers jumping around everywhere! I spent a lot of time at Planet X club which was opened by Doreen Allen and Kenneth Dawick in 1986 in Temple St (it had existed as a night at other venues before that), it was the home of everything punk and goth. It was the heyday of the American rock underground that culminated in grunge and Nirvana, loads of amazing US hard-core and post-hardcore bands were coming over. There were some legendary shows there (promoter Marc Jones has archived a load of old posters here)
Then Planet X moved to Hanover St (equally as grungy as a venue) and I photographed a lot of shows there. Eventually I also started promoting shows there with my friend Bob Wakelin, and later at Guignans. We put on some great US bands – Pegboy, Didjits, Superchunk, Unsane, Kepone, Blonde Redhead, Nation of Ulysses, if those names mean anything to anyone, and lots of local bands supporting them. Unfortunately I haven’t got any photos of those shows because I was too busy stressing about getting the bands on stage etc., or probably just too drunk. After the skateboarding mag I started taking pictures and writing for Sounds music weekly just before its demise and then Kerrang! after that.
Getintothis: What was the first gig you shot?
IL: The first gig I shot was a gig in London. A New York funk band called Defunkt fronted by trombonist Joe Bowie who is the younger brother of the great Avant garde jazz trumpeter Lester Bowie. I trekked down to London for it – It was at Deptford Albany Empire. Amazing band. There’s a great Soul Jazz Records compilation called New York Noise that captures that New York punk-funk scene from that time.
Getintothis: Which is your favourite shot?
IL: This pic of Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth is one of my favourites. I think it was 1989 at Manchester University, Daydream Nation tour. I don’t think they had played in Liverpool before this. They played at the Royal Court on the next tour I think. One of the pivotal indie bands of that era, you can hear their influence everywhere. I used to take a lot of long exposure flash shots, like half a second to 2 seconds exposure plus flash. So you get all these light trails from the musicians or the instruments. You never quite know what’s going to happen but in this shot the jagged light trails seem to capture the energy of Thurston Moore attacking his guitar with a drumstick, which he regularly used to do. I saw the first ever, now infamous, Sonic Youth show in London where he smashed up at least two really nice guitars in a tantrum but alas I didn’t have a camera with me for that one. I saw him play End of the Road festival this year – still looks exactly the same, still sounds the same! This was never published in any magazines so it’s a bit of a Getintothis exclusive for you.
I’m fond of this photo of free jazz legend Sun Ra, sitting at his piano looking regal. Shot on really grainy high contrast negative stock. This was quite a legendary gig at the Bluecoat in 1990, booked by Jayne Casey (of Pink Military fame). It was a very intimate venue for Sun Ra & His Arkestra and it started out as a polite seated affair but ended up with everyone up on their feet dancing. Sun Ra passed away about three years later and his great sax player John Gilmore a couple of years after that. The other amazing sax player in the band, Marshall Allen, is still going strong. I was sat on the floor at the front of the gig trying not to get in the way and be annoying. We couldn’t hear any of Sun Ra’s synth playing for few tracks until I noticed that the jack wasn’t plugged in the back properly so I reached across and shoved it in and hey presto! That was my contribution to the history of free jazz!
I like this pic of Extreme Noise Terror – it seems to capture the spirit of Planet X. You can almost smell the damp basement aroma, the sweaty bodies and patchouli oil. Planet X used to leave its scent on you and the had the choice afterwards to scrub yourself down with shampoo and soap of just go around smelling like Planet X all week – some people chose the latter. I wasn’t really into the crusty thrashy end of hard-core punk but Pek the promoter used to love all that so there was plenty of it. Sadly he has now passed away but he will be remembered as the lynchpin for the whole thriving scene back in the day.
This pic of Youth of Today is another one that I think captures the energy of the shows at Planet X. You can tell what the music sounds like just from looking at the photo – pure chest thumping NYC hard-core. Ray Cappo became a Hare Krishna and formed Krishna hard-core band Shelter – Krishna and hard-core punk seemed like strange bedfellows but there were a few bands doing it. Youth of Today were associated with the straight edge scene – kids who didn’t drink or do drugs, sometimes with quasi-religious fervor. There were quite a lot of straight edge kids who used to come down to Planet X shows … later on a lot of them became drunks!
Snuff were probably the definitive Planet X band. A properly great London melodic hard-core band with a lead singer drummer who should’ve been massive. They played umpteen times in Liverpool. I remember them turning up at Planet X one Saturday afternoon because they’d read in Melody Maker that they were meant to be playing – they weren’t but they got squeezed onto the bill anyway. True punk spirit!
Fugazi were one of the biggest bands out of the American underground at this time. Guitarist Ian Mackaye had been the front man of seminal Washington DC hard-core band Minor Threat. They played in Liverpool three years in a row – first at Planet X. Next time round they had outgrown that venue and were on at the Bluecoat and then at the Poly Students Union on Maryland St.
Getintothis: Any terrible or fun shoots you’d like to share?
IL: The first gig I photographed for Kerrang! was Sepultura, the Brazilian metal band and it was mayhem. It was rammed and I was literally ducking out of the way of flying stage divers and trying not to trash my camera. I did a lot of photos of thrash and death metal bands so there was quite a bit of that.
One gig I wish I still had the pics from is Gwar playing in Birkenhead. They literally drenched about half the crowd in stage blood. They all had these elaborate foam latex monster costumes, kind of like orcs from Lord of the Rings, and played speed metal. One of them had this huge penis under his kilt that he would pull out and hose down the crowd with semen! I had my camera wrapped up in plastic to protect it from bodily secretions. I took a great photo with someone’s blood drenched hand reaching up out of the mosh pit and catching this jet of semen. I’ve lost it, or I chucked it out, like most of my photos.
Getintothis: So what’s your favourite bit of kit?
IL: Well, seeing as I’m not taking photos professionally any more my favourite bit of kit is an iPhone! You can actually shoot magazine quality gig photos with your phone these days, which is amazing. I’m thinking of coming out of retirement and have my eyes on a Panasonic Lumix GH4 because I want to shoot video as well. All the pics you see here were shot pre digital era on an old Canon T90 – a workhorse of a camera that a lot of skate photographers used because it had a fast motor drive for taking sequence shots and a fast flash sync speed for action shots with fill flash. I’m not one for fetishizing gear – there are loads of great digital cameras, great compacts. It’s more important to get stuck in and be in the right place at the right time.
Getintothis: Any particularly difficult musicians?
IL: Sad to say, the La’s were probably the most obnoxious band I encountered. I took photos of them at a music festival in France at the height of their fame. They were so obnoxious with everyone, the promoters, the French journalists, the photographers. It was embarrassing. It was like being in a room with four Liam Gallaghers! I’m sure they’ve all mellowed out now.
Green Day suddenly weren’t much fun when they became famous, after being a grassroots punk band (actually I say that, Tre Cool was fine) I had to bribe them with a bag of weed to sit down for a line up shot out the back of Leeds Duchess of York. Dookie had just become massive and possibly their egos with it.
It always pissed me off when bands got famous and suddenly everyone becomes very precious and they start telling you you’ve only got 3 songs at the beginning to take photos, or they don’t want you to use flash or some shit. Bollocks to all of that.
Getintothis: Who are your favourite Liverpool bands to shoot?
IL: Well I’m living in Brighton now. When I was in Liverpool I was only really taking photos of bands at the punky grungy end of things. Jailcell Recipes were one of the local bands that I like taking pics of because there was lots of jumping around and I knew them because they were nearly all skaters.
Drive were another local band playing melodic hard-core. They were on about every other week!
Walking Seeds were a very noisy dirgey band in which Bob Parker from Probe played guitar. They were prone to on stage falling-outd which could be quite entertaining. I don’t think Frank normally did headstands on stage – possibly this was a unique moment.
Getintothis: Where’s your favourite place to shoot?
IL: I like taking photos at intimate venues where the band are right on top of the audience. Once bands move up to big venues and big stages I don’t think there are many interesting photos to be taken. Are any shots from the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury ever interesting?
Getintothis: What one tip would you give anyone starting out?
IL: Go and take photos of bands you really like, that will help with motivation! If you are really into music you will know who’s good and who’s on the up. Get along and see them when they’re playing small intimate venues first time round. Also it’s easy to walk in with your camera gear at the small venues, because nobody gives a shit. Claim a spot down the front, try not to be too annoying but you are going to piss people off sometimes when you’re trying to get the right shot, so get used to that. I like to use a wide lens, say 28mm, and get right in the bands faces. Don’t throw nearly all of your old photos away, like I did!
Gaze into your crystal ball and have the presence of mind to keep snapping away when you’ve got something that might be important right in front of you. I took photos of Nirvana the first time they came over, Leeds Duchess of York, the backroom of a pub basically. I interviewed Kurt Cobain before the show in a McDonalds in Leeds – I’ve got my camera with me, he’s sat eating a hamburger in front of me. Did I think to take a photo? Did I have the presence of mind to shoot a quick line up shot of the band before we went back in the venue – no? Am I a muppet? – yes. Am I several hundreds of pounds poorer as a result – yes. God knows how much money Martin Goodacre made, and is still making, off of those Kurt Cobain portraits with the eyeliner! Classic shot though.
Getintothis: Best advice you’ve been given?
IL: I wasn’t given any advice! …. it might have been helpful. My girlfriend used to laugh because I had some advice to myself written on a sheet of A4 tucked in my camera bag to remind me of what I needed to remember on photo shoots. First it said ‘Don’t be an idiot.’ then it said ‘Shoot loads’ … That would be good advice – keep shooting, with a digital camera, why not. Keep clicking and there’ll be happy accidents. Even when I take photos with my phone I take about twenty shots of the same thing when everybody else is taking one photo – that’s when you know it’s in your blood!
Getintothis: What’s the worst advice you’ve been given?
Getintothis: Any favourite photographers?
IL: Anton Corbijn was a cut above the rest. I remember being blown away by his Miles Davis portraits. That famous tube station Joy Division shot with Ian Curtis turning towards the camera. That’s the sort of thing to aim for! I really liked the shots that Charles Peterson took of the fledgling grunge scene in Seattle – Nirvana, Mudhoney, Pearl Jam. All wide angle lens, blur, sweaty bodies, stage diving chaos. He was a kindred spirit. I like Mapplethorpe – especially seeing as he did those iconic Patti Smith and Television album covers.
Outside of music photography. J Grant Brittain is the God of Skateboard photography, and I like Joel Meyerowitz, Jock Sturges and Andreas Gursky. I would recommend the film The Salt of the Earth by Wim Wenders to anyone vaguely interested in photography. It is about life and work of photographer Sebastião Salgado who took photos of gold miners in Brazil, Ethiopian famine, and the Rwandan genocide. I sat in the cinema crying – all this rock and pop stuff is a trifling matter next to all this.
Getintothis: What would be your ideal gig to shoot?
IL: Some really high energy band in a small venue with kids bouncing off the walls. Someone like Thee Oh Sees.
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