Gavin Watson’s 1980s rave photos to feature in new play

Gavin Watson’s images from the 1980s record his own journey from one scene to the other.”Replacing the skinhead scene with raves opened our minds – the world became a bigger place,” said Watson.Theatre director Harry Burton said the “authenticity” in the photos could translate into a story.Watson, 54, photographed the skinhead scene in his native High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, and then moved on to snapping the unlicensed rave scene at the end of the decade.

Skinheads jumping off a roof in High Wycombe
“This was way before parkour,” said Watson, whose photographs from the early 1980s onwards have been collected in books including Skins and Just Kids

The photos have been published in books including Skins and Raving ’89.Having been a “skin” for about 10 years, Watson said: “It was always a classic look and I never got bored of it, but it was becoming stale and all about pubs. It was an older scene and wasn’t gaining new blood.”

Skinheads in High Wycombe
Skinheads on the Micklefield estate in High Wycombe, where London-born Watson grew up

Burton, 58, hopes the photographs can be incorporated into the as-yet-unnamed theatre production.”I was as wary of skinheads as most middle-class kids, but I was always switched on to ska and reggae – music was the link for me,” said Burton, probably best known for his Channel 4 documentary Working with Pinter.”I’m a great admirer of the spirit of Gavin’s work and the authenticity – the natural talent that he brought, his eye, the moment, the group, the feeling of family, the unforced nature of it.”The scene that Gavin photographed was a million miles from the cliché of racist, Nazi skinheads – his gang had black kids in it.”

Kelly looking at poster of Marilyn Monroe
Watson, who used a Nikon FM 35mm camera, also photographed those who adopted the punk/Oi! look in the early 1980s “mainly in black and white, because colour processing was too expensive”
Gavin Watson early 1980s and 2010s
The photographer (pictured in the early 1980s and more recently) was a skinhead for 10 years before moving on to the rave scene
Two boys from Gavin Watson's Skins book
image captionWatson’s younger brother Nev (left) was also converted to the rave scene after years as a skinhead

Watson said he was attending raves virtually every weekend in 1989, and he has been using lockdown to put together a new collection, this time mostly in colour, called Raving Too.

“What the rave scene did was wash the gang mentality away: the football tribes, the goths, skins, soul boys etc.,” he said.”I’m in my 50s and a grandfather, so I’m out of it all now, but it seems to me rave was the last big change of any pop cultural significance where something goes mainstream and everyone, not just youngsters, is aware of it.”I want the play to be more universal and symbolic – I don’t want it to be 100% about me. I don’t want to watch my mistakes on stage.”Burton said: “We think it’s a one-man show and we’re trying to create a story that has that mythological quality to it – there’s a story to be told about that time that includes music, fashion, politics and rebellion.”

The locations of raves were often kept secret until the night and attendees had to call special phone numbers to get directions, although some tickets came with instructions, such as this one Gavin Watson went to in Oxfordshire

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Loves long walks along the beach, holding hands and romantic 80's power ballads, partial to electronic music and likes to make the odd mix or two.