Our Friend in the North: Richard Gray Takes Us Back to the 1990s
“Write about your home,” said the editor. “What it means to you now and when you were young.” I can tell you one thing: home has become more important to me as I’ve got older. When I was young, home was a place to sleep and dream of ways to find a new one.
KIDS ARE AWFUL, AREN’T THEY?
I was bullied at school, just like many other kids were. Even the bullies were bullied and nobody did a thing. But it’s only recently that I realised how much time I spent at home bullying myself, through my very own, very hurtful whispering campaign. A sort of background auto-bullying. I’d take something I’d seen on television, something of no real consequence to me, and magnify it – really, really latch on to it and make it mine.
I remember spending hours sitting on the sofa, worrying about cat burglars. I’d seen something on TV – Crimewatch, probably; that programme messed me up – and I’d just worry about them, dream about them, go out of my way to think about them. Cat burglars climbing through the window, cat burglars getting in through the loft – all manner of acrobatic nonsense. I used to walk round the house and inspect window locks, making sure every door fitted its frame. If that drainpipe can take my weight, well, it could easily take a grown man’s and his balaclava.
If it wasn’t cat burglars it was quicksand. We didn’t have quicksand in Doncaster, but what if you fell in? What if it went up your nose and down your throat and you drowned? What if I drowned? What. If. I. Drowned? Would there be an announcement in assembly? Who would cry and for how long?
I could cry now, thinking about how consumed I was with the most fantastical doomsday scenarios. “Much-loved student accidentally slips in shower and falls out of bathroom window, now dead,” the seven-page special pull-out feature in the Doncaster Star was surely going to read. “School mourns loss of ‘academically gifted’ son.”
Money issues were another favourite cadaver to pick at. My dad was on the dole when my younger brother and I were at school, so being skint provided fertile ground for my thoughts. I was convinced we would be out on the streets by Christmas. I’d root through my mum’s purse, checking how much money she had – I needed to know! I read all her bills and bank statements, desperate to keep my mind tied in knots as I played the lead role in my very own, very dirty little game of poverty bondage.
And it’s when you create, and really hold on to, a nasty little narrative like this that you spend all your time looking for evidence to support it. And find it. The news, newspapers, broken bottles by the side of the road, left by someone for me to fall on. A crying baby in a pram, more than likely abandoned by a heroin-addicted, legging-wearing teen mum with black pegs for teeth.
Everything was rotten and I was going to die. Or starve. Or die from starvation. Now. Or maybe tomorrow… In fact, everybody’s going to die tomorrow. Except for me. A sole survivor with weeping face wounds and hair lice, who digs up daffodil bulbs for food and drinks from ponds with a donkey’s hoof. The amount of times the Russians were about to drop the bomb on Doncaster, I’m surprised we’re all not dead. Maybe we are.
On and on it went, a 24-hour news cycle of ever more inventive torment and absolute concrete proof that, just like Charlie Brown, I wasn’t born to be happy. If you’re reading this, thinking, “Is he writing this in his own faeces on the wall of a padded cell somewhere?”, understand that I’ve spent the past 30 years weeding out the “issues” to now be a happy, well-rounded (not as in fat), fabulously dressed human. All is well.
By the age of 17 I’d retreated to my own island state, second door on the left at the top of the stairs: my bedroom. On the large, white windowsill stood a Balinese wooden puppet in a sepia wood-block-print dress with gold sequins. Her (or was it his?) eyebrows were Dietrich-arched. On the wall, high-fashion ads by Chanel and Yohji Yamamoto had to be Blu Tacked at eye level. On the radiator hung a small terracotta urn filled with patchouli oil from The Body Shop; the whole place – said my dad at the time – “smelt like a Moroccan brothel”. The patchouli vibe was something left over from the year before, when I’d bought De La Soul’s hip-hop-meets-“new-hippie” 3 Feet High and Rising. That album changed everything for me. On the wall, too, Dali’s Swans Reflecting Elephants in a black wood frame, next to his mind-bending Metamorphosis of Narcissus. Fabulously pretentious, the lot.
LONDON IN THE 1990S WAS INCREDIBLE
I owned a pretend home, too. It was from there *points to side of head above ear* that I set off every morning to go to work for Vivienne Westwood. Prancing around my bijou, completely made-up flat, located somewhere off the King’s Road, I’d wear huge Westwood shirts and knickerbockers. In the corner of my divine and super-gorgeous home, full of Eileen Gray furniture (I’d read about her in The Face and thought we could possibly be related), stood a Stockman dummy that I’d dressed in “something totally rare from the Witches collection”. Honest to God, who was I?
I did try to get down to London every month when I was doing my A levels, though, and I’d always come back with what I called my “new ways of being”. Little tricks I could incorporate into my measly northern life: new haircuts, ways of walking, any kind of ludicrous affectation I could adopt and make mine. It would be observed, practised, then assimilated.
I remember being obsessed with a couple of brittle-looking staffers in the Westwood shop. One, all star-print denim and an Anna Wintour-tribute bob, the other, a women’s twinset and pearls: they were the most perfect creatures I’d ever seen and spent hours imagining myself being like them, knowing them and them knowing me. “He’s so funny, isn’t he?” they’d say. “Let’s make him our friend and he can wear all our clothes to school!” What a freak.
One character I’d read about in i-D, called Leigh Bowery, liked “nothing more than to pretend to faint or fall at any party or occasion”. I thought this was the most excellent thing anybody could ever do and decided I would also faint wherever possible. A favourite spot was by the jumpers in Next with my friend and conspirator Sarah, who would briskly fan me after “one of my turns” in front of concerned nans and Saturday shoppers.
THE WALK UP TO SCHOOL/WHAT THE WORLD IS WAITING FOR
In 1991 I discovered Manchester and its brand new fashion scene. And considering my fashion choices – flared jeans, one red Kicker one blue Kicker (honest), a secondhand yellow duffel coat and an insane-asylum bowl cut, it’s a surprise I didn’t get more stick.
I didn’t live on the outskirts of a big city like Leeds or Manchester, Sheffield even. We lived just outside Doncaster and here comes Johnny Knobhead, walking around looking like a three-year-old’s first try with crayons.
My fashion icons had now moved from people I’d seen in i-D to Tim from The Charlatans and Ian and Reni from the Roses. This is the time that Manchester had begun to steal London’s crown: the music, the hair and, of course, the costume. There’s a YouTube clip of the Roses’ vocalist Ian Brown miming (badly and, I suspect, on purpose) to Fools Gold on Top of the Pops in November 1989 – coincidentally, another Manchester band, Happy Mondays, performed Hallelujah on the same show – and in the comments some clever sod has written: “This is the exact point when the ’80s ended and the ’90s began.”
Who was this “monkey man” with hair like Jesus, wearing flares and – was that a prayer shirt? – nodding like a Blackpool donkey when he sang? This was new. Ask anybody who followed the scene at the time: this TV appearance changed the way we dressed and, more importantly, the music we listened to. The video for Fools Gold, filmed partly in the volcanic ’scapes of Lanzarote, with its puce hypnotic video overlay, includes shots of the band walking up and down sand dunes in rollicking flares – drummer Reni’s bucket hat inspiring a million copycat kids up and down the country. There’s one sitting here, writing this.
TIP: YouTube – “Manchester’s New Music Scene (1990)”, for an abridged MTV report on the burgeoning scene.
HOME WAS ON A DANCEFLOOR
Clubbing fashions were the latest Saturday-morning buys of Pam Hogg women’s tops and bondage trousers in black PVC. For me, a black poly-mix wrapover skirt from the inside market, stolen from my mum, and a Hysteric Glamour tee. My hair was long, with Björk-style twisted knots, and I reeked to high heaven of Chanel No 5.
One member of my clubbing clique liked the real stuff, carefully dropping a teaspoon of speed onto a Rizla paper, twisted at one end, to create what he called a “whizz bomb”. Once completely off his Gaultier-tattoo-top tits, he was prone to hanging out of the roof of a friend’s Rav4 as it hurtled down the M4 from Sheffield to Manchester at 10 every Saturday night, shouting, “I’m Captain Fantastic!” I’m not making this up. We each shared a joy franchise, a chemical harmonic between strangers.
I asked Captain Fantastic, now a top hairdresser in Leeds, what he thought about going out back then: “People bang on about all that poly-sexual clubbing bollocks and how all the hot straight men dancing with their tops off were ‘really friendly to the gays’, but they were just there to shag all the beautiful women we hung around with.” The term “poly-sexual”, in the tradition of many a good marketing ploy, conveniently wrapped up the trend with a big pink bow. “But,” adds Captain Fantastic, “everybody really was loved up because the Es were so good.”
I’m fully aware that this is rapidly turning into a love letter to ’90s clubbing and the northern shopping scene, but I’ll square it by saying we practically lived in clubs and always hung out in trendy shops, so us lot – mad keen on fashion and dancing – spent more time there than we did at home. Clubs and shops were home.
By 4am, dancehalls were sewers. Vague in Leeds, Paradise Factory in Manchester, Miss Moneypenny’s in Birmingham – the nightlife of the north of England in the late 1990s was a nexus of motorways that linked clubs like Saint Etienne Sarah Cracknell’s collection of feather boas. People found themselves while also getting lost.
YOU GOTTA GET A GIMMICK
Karl had his fan, Donatella has her tan and I had a pair of wraparound silver sunglasses – “You’ve gotta have a gimmick,” I pronounced to anybody who would listen. Unfortunately, my gimmick seemed to have been everybody else’s gimmick, but being copied was a sign of how the whole scene constantly fed off itself, synthesising runway looks and vintage kitsch with a pouting and glossy vacant glamour. “I want a sugar daddy” for the girls – see Gianni Versace’s Istante line – and kick-bottomed trousers and open silk shirts for a “Mick Jagger Studio 54” look for the boys.
It was certainly around 1994 to 1996 that we saw the beginnings of a dressier club look, one that arguably influenced a young Tom Ford and his slick new archetypes at Gucci.
Flesh, held monthly at The Haçienda, was certainly the dressiest night we went to. Captain Fantastic loved and hated it in equal measure, calling it “posey” and full of “Riah jzuzshers” (hairdressers) and “jumper folders” (shop assistants). Manchester’s best dressed were always the trendy shop assistants and bitchy trainees at the city’s Vidal Sassoon, the epicentre of cool since the early 1980s and a conveyor belt of many of the world’s best session stylists. “It was an incredible creative hub,” says friend of 10 and top groomer Jos Gibson, a Sassoon staffer from 1993 to 1998. “Pretty much every single person in the salon went to Flesh. Most hairdressers these days pray for Saturdays off… God help you if you were an assistant or even staff working the day after Flesh!”
I can tell you for sure that fans, à la Karl, were big news at after-after-club Danceteria, a super-early-Sunday-morning bouncy house, hardcore-ish session in a grubby pub called The Thompsons Arms. The pub’s still there, sitting squat under a multistorey car park somewhere off Manchester’s Canal Street. Come 4.30pm, when it started kicking out, a gathering of wan and sickly fashion parrots sat around playing with the salt crystals that had formed in their eyebrows and picking at the sores starting to form under their nose after 12 hours, possibly more, of dancing while sniffing little brown bottles of amyl nitrite. Professionals doused their dads’ hankies in amyl for an all-night over-the-nose high.
Not everybody could afford catwalk fashions, so grew an organic look, one that had a slightly different flavour in each club. Vague, and then later SpeedQueen in Leeds, had a kitsch make-do look for those with not much cash but bags of imagination: silver high-camp knee-length boots, sparkle wigs and angel wings were key. There was sparse regard for reality. Our little gang wore fat grandpa ties (tied short and stubby) with huge-collar shirts, flared cords and secondhand weird-uncle shoes. More Baader-Meinhof than Studio 54, me, but the Deee-lite DJ Dmitry thing was real.
On the door of Vague stood a knitting needle of a bird. She spat a patter of exclusionary “Not tonight, babes” and was as strict as her uniform of the tightest high-shine fetish gear suggested. Her name was Claudia Croft, then an English undergraduate at Leeds University, now editor of 10. I’ll just leave that fact there and see if it sinks in.
TIP: interested in the fashions from back then? TWA’s Nasty Girls is a full-on representation of the spirit of Vague/SpeedQueen. See also Funky Green Dogs’ Fired Up! – both are on YouTube, and both re-create some of the best dressed-up looks.
Collage by Teddy Mitchell. Taken from Issue 53 of 10 Men – NO PLACE, LIKE, HOME – order your copy here.