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Tom Wood’s 101 Pictures
Chelsea Intro, 1985 © Tom Wood courtesy RRB Photobooks

Tom Wood shares his stories of photographing Merseyside’s 80s club scene

The photographer recalls the moment he took this image at the Chelsea Reach

While the fashionable club kids and new romantics of 1980s Merseyside flocked to the chic nightspots in Liverpool, photographer Tom Wood instead turned his lens on The Chelsea Reach – a riotous dive across the Mersey River in New Brighton. As a regular face in The Chelsea Reach, Wood and his camera were known and accepted among the club’s clientele and his photographs lovingly capture all the febrile, drunken activity of a young, working-class community getting pissed, dancing, and letting their hair down against a backdrop of huge unemployment and economic hardship. “They called me ‘Photie Man’”, he tells Dazed, “and for a long time I was also ‘David’ because the photographer they knew was David Bailey.” 

“It was a tough life,” says Wood, recalling Merseyside under Thatcher’s rule. “When you looked at women’s faces in the market they probably looked a bit older than most middle-class ladies from Cheshire would look at the same age – not as good a diet, smoking, and all the other stresses that come with not having enough money. That made me even more respectful, you know, to the people I was photographing. It was kind of an honour.” Wood spent his days randomly exploring the city by bus with his camera. “I’d walk around with my great big large-format camera making portraits, and nearly everyone I came across hanging around were unemployed. It was such a waste. Nevertheless, we were living on the fact that the football team were so good and the Beatles had conquered the world; it gave people something to be proud of.”

“There are all kinds of details (in this photograph)... One thing I noticed when I got it blown up big was a huge bulge in the boy’s trousers” – Tom Wood

Wood’s pictures are a testament to his adoration for the people of Merseyside. His seminal 1989-published book Looking for Love gathered together the photos he took of those joyful, intoxicating nights at The Chelsea Reach between 1984-1987. “When people are drunk, they want to know what you’re doing and it’s really noisy. You’re trying to explain and they say ‘Take my picture! Take my picture!’ And they do all kinds of crude stuff, which could form another book, believe me! I’d photograph them and bring the pictures back the next week, and pin them on a board so people would just take what they wanted. They were generally made up.” Redistributing the photographs he took was his way of giving back and contributing to the community he loved. “I’d always make a print for anyone who wanted one, and I had a big cardboard box on my door so anyone could come and, if they saw their picture or they saw their friends, they could take it from the box. I did that up until the day I left the place.”

Becoming genuinely integrated was the most vital part of his artistic process. “The only way I could work there was to be part of the community,” he tells Dazed, living life among his peers rather than observing them from the pedestal of commercial success. “This is a labour of love. I consciously knew all my life that I didn’t want to be a professional or, if I did, I couldn’t make the pictures.” Having made no serious money from his work (and even, on occasion, demonstrating this by whipping out his tax return for the benefit of one or two subjects who came knocking on his door hoping for a payout), Wood has nevertheless been a huge influence on generations of subsequent photographers. Admirers of his work include Martin Parr, another great chronicler of working-class Britain. “Some of the really great fashion photographers have come along to my shows and bought prints,” he reveals. “Corinne Day told me that Looking For Love was one of her favourite books. What an honour to be told that.”

Tom Wood – 101 Pictures, is a newly published retrospective of Wood’s work, surveying 25 years of his time in Merseyside, including previously unseen photos alongside classic images from Looking for Love, and his later collection, Photie Man (2015). Below, Wood shares his memories of nights at The Chelsea Reach, looking back at his picture “Chelsea Intro” and recalling the scene and the characters captured in that moment in 1985. 

“The Chelsea Reach was an exciting place to be. You’d go in and there’d be this cloud of smoke, heat, and energy. And it was always very, very busy – completely shoulder-to-shoulder. This picture’s taken by the entrance to the nightclub. On the right is the cloakroom and on the left is where you pay to come in. It was like one big dance floor and then several rooms off that, and the music was always really loud: ‘Dancing in the Street’, ‘Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough’, ‘Like a Virgin’, ‘1999’, ‘Whip It’, ‘Everybody Wants To Rule The World’, etcetera. 

“The Chelsea Reach was in New Brighton. Don’t confuse it with Liverpool. Liverpool is a separate place; it’s another country, really. New Brighton was across the river, still in Merseyside, but it’s a small peninsula. You could know everyone in New Brighton – or Wallasey rather – whereas Liverpool is a much bigger place. But lots of people from Liverpool would come, especially on a Monday night when it was free entry at The Chelsea Reach. They’d drive through the tunnel, taking turns to be the designated driver each week.

“At that time in Liverpool, years ago, there were really cool clubs. There were lots of bands, lots of things happening. Liverpool was the place where all the trendy fashionable people would be, and New Brighton wasn’t. There were nights over in Liverpool where everyone would have been really photogenic and all the rest of it, but none of that interested me. I liked the Chelsea Reach because they were dead ordinary people. The men didn’t dress up at all, but the women did. There was another nightclub we used to go to which would be where the mothers of the girls in the Chelsea Reach would go to, dressed more or less like their daughters.

“The Chelsea Reach was an exciting place to be. You’d go in and there’d be this cloud of smoke, heat, and energy. And it was always very, very busy – completely shoulder-to-shoulder” – Tom Wood

“Coming back to this picture (‘Chelsea Intro’), all the bars, and all that noise, and all that excitement is just behind me. Where we’re stood, we’re just a little bit away from all that but, remember, it is really dark, lit by 20-watt bulbs on those lamps above. So it’s great what the flash has picked up – the red shoes, the green wall, the people talking at the back of the queue, and so on. All of that was blind to me, really. I saw hardly any of it as I took the picture. I knew there was a couple kissing on the left, and maybe I saw Steve Henderson on the right, but I certainly didn’t see anything beyond that. In there, I only had one shot. Unlike normal circumstances, if you’re discreet, you could maybe fire off two or three pictures before you’re seen, and then change the situation. But in the Chelsea Reach no one else took pictures so, once that flash went off, everyone knew you were taking a photo and that situation’s gone. 

“I spent four years in art school and I studied Fine Art painting. During that time, I was taking photos so I was aware of how things would work in terms of the balance, colour, and composition, but it's also got to live as a photograph – as an image. And this picture works; it holds up really well, even though it's just 35mm film processed as cheaply as I could get it. I often used outdated film because I couldn't afford proper-priced film. Nevertheless, I can make a print, say three feet wide of that image, and it’s got a great presence. There are all kinds of details when it's bigger. One thing I noticed when I got it blown up big was a huge bulge in the boy’s trousers.

“Steve Henderson is the guy in denim, kissing a girl up against the wall. He was outrageous. The things he used to do in nightclubs, but girls liked him. The guy talking at the back is called Steve Roberts – a Liverpool singer-songwriter who almost made it big and still gigs around. When he saw himself in this picture on show at the Tate, he wrote a song about it called ‘Over Here Photie Man’. Some of the words go: ‘We didn't treat him with suspicion, we didn’t knock the camera out of his hand. He caught us kissing who we shouldn’t, dressed up and dancing to Wham... I heard from some friends I was hanging in the Tate making shapes with my hands. Steve Henderson, if you’re listening, we’re immortal – thank you, Photie Man.’

Tom Wood – 101 Pictures is available now and published by RRB Photobooks