The golden age of garage

UKG photographer Ewen Spencer talks class, immigration and why the garage scene's glory days went downhill

ES-PER1999001N035-002
From UKG Ewen Spencer

Tonight at 12.05am, Ewen Spencer’s documentary Brandy & Coke, in association with Somesuch & Co, premieres on Channel 4. To mark the occasion, we’re celebrating all things UK garage. From the label-obsessed style to the music, you can gear up for the premiere with all our garage coverage here.

Ewen Spencer first heard about garage at a jungle night, when the DJ slipped in a few tunes ("I thought, what's that? It's amazing!") From there, the then-Sleazenation photographer journeyed out to the first Sunday night garage sessions in Vauxhall, falling in love with the style, the people, and the music of the scene. From there, he turned into a hardcore photographer of the scene, turning up to nights with his camera and travelling to beach hotpost Ayia Napa – becoming, in the process, probably the foremost historian documenting UKG. Mainly 'cause everyone else was too busy dancing, looking good and having fun. Here, Spencer talks to Dazed about the beautiful people and beautiful music of UKG. 

Dazed Digital: You went from photographing everything from disabled clubs like Beautiful Octopus Club and rock nights in Camden to UKG. What did you love so much about it? 

Ewen Spencer: Because I was a massive soul boy, still am. I was going to soul events all over the country. So when I went to the first garage night at the Colosseum, it made total sense to me: it was a continuation of the soul nights I’d been going to but slightly more ramped up, a bit wild. People were really dressing up, making an effort to go out on a Sunday night.

DD: Was that style element a big attraction for you as a photographer?

Ewen Spencer: Yeah. It’s great isn’t it? People on the northern soul scene dress in a certain way; it’s not as flamboyant as the garage scene. They made a massive effort to look sharp.  That spoke to me about what youth culture’s so good at in Britain: dressing up and going out. It made me think of the mod scene in the 60s or suedeheads straight away.

DD: People in London were definitely not dressing like that at the time, were they?

Ewen Spencer: The dress sense at the time was horrible. People talk about ‘normcore’ now, don’t they? I don’t know exactly what that means, but I think it alludes to something that’s homogenised and bagged out. We call it ‘baggy.’ What people were wearing in London in that sort of time in the mid to 90s was really boring, baggy – a bit Gap. There wasn’t much care and attention that had gone into it. You’d see blokes in their mid 30s wearing awful baggy skater jeans and T–shirts. It’s like they weren’t making an effort.

ES-PER1999001N028-012
Ewen Spencer

DD: The thing about garage is that, unlike some of the other scenes around at the time, it actually did attract women.

Ewen Spencer: Well, the girls were dancing. Garage was a dance scene, like soul. You dance all night and there’s no fights, no trouble. And that’s what garage was like; you didn’t see people mooching around, standing about looking moody. And you didn’t see any bother either, until a lot later on. It was real escapism. 

DD: Why was it so peaceful at first?

Ewen Spencer: Well, there were lots of girls. Girls aren’t impressed by blokes fighting. Especially if they’re clever, sassy, smart girls. And that’s what the garage scene was full of. You look at the pictures of those girls, man, they’re not gonna take any nonsense, y’know? And it was a slightly older scene; there was a lot of people in there in their thirties, even older. They were spending money, dropping money on expensive drinks and clothes… You didn’t see people like sweating or off their head on ecstasy or anything like that really. It was just a few drinks and a dance, really. 

DD: So how did it all die out? When So Solid Crew imploded? 

Ewen Spencer: Garage was big, it’s hard to explain how big it was. It was so popular for about three or four years. It was the music that everyone was listening to in terms of clubbing. And when you get a lot more people you start to get all the problems that come with that. By the early 00s, you had a younger crowd coming through and trying to get involved; DJs were doing mixes that were basically remixes of pop songs that had a garage sound, so you got stuff in the charts. Then everyone knows about it, everyone starts queuing up, the clubs move to bigger venues... 

ES-PER1999001N032-006
Ewen Spencer

A lot of the younger dudes wanted to bring an element of American rap culture into it; you got a few more MCs who didn’t just talk about hyping the night up, but wanted to talk about what their existence was. All of a sudden there were people talking about how much money they were earning and how flash they were… That kind of bollocks.

But that element changed things, because you had guys talking about a crew, like a hip–hop crew. What the government was going at that time was trying to crack down with Operation Trident, which was in London and then spread across the UK. They were trying to put an end to black–on–black violence, which is an honourable thing to do, but in turn people were used as scapegoats. Not just in garage, but in lots of other areas where you had groups of young kids in what was called a crew. They started calling them ‘gangs’. That had an uglier connotation to it. Some people wanted to live up to it. 

DD: When did the scene die out for you?

Ewen Spencer: As soon as you get a few people being released on major labels, as soon as Ministry of Sound put out 10 Best Garage Hits, that’s it, it’s over. That was happening by the end of 99–2000. Make no mistake, it is over. It’s no longer an underground subculture, it’s mainstream.  

“It’s an acceptance as well, wanting to understand different cultures and enjoy them. That’s what makes British people, in my opinion"

DD: Obviously America’s got Chicago house and Detroit techno, but it seems like dance music is a part of British culture in a way that it isn’t in other countries. Why is that? 

Ewen Spencer: It’s because Britain’s diverse. If you look at old footage from the East End, skinheads in the late 60s… It’s Jamaican kids and working class white kids all together looking sharp and dancing to reggae. For me that just epitomises it: wanting to dance and look good. It’s an acceptance as well, wanting to understand different cultures and enjoy them. That’s what makes British people, in my opinion.

DD: It’s a shame, because it feels like Britain is becoming more hostile to outsiders.

Ewen Spencer: I don’t believe that. I think papers like to hype things up, and a lot of people who write for them come from quite privileged positions. Those people might think they’re tolerant and have a great understanding of diverse Britain, but I really don’t believe they do. They’re the sort of people that end up at BBC, spending millions of pounds and commissioning bollocks about opera.

DD: So much of British music culture is the result of immigrants, or kids who were born to immigrants, right?

Ewen Spencer: And do you know where they go and live, most immigrants? They live and work in working class situations. And the people that tolerate and live amongst and beside immigrants are all working class or lower middle class people. They’re the people that are tolerant. And what the bourgeois press try and do is give off this idea that the working class are thick chavs with pitbulls who vote British National Party. It’s bollocks.

DD: You see that in your photographs: white kids, black kids, Asian kids, all dancing together.

Ewen Spencer: That’s why British subculture exists. That’s why it’s always happening and always moving forward. That’s why there’ll always be really interesting, fascinating, great subcultures in Britain.

Ewen Spencer's UKG is out now and available here: ewenspencer.com

More Photography