London’s Underground Rockabilly Scene
How one photographer’s curiosity led to one of the largest informal archives of a mythologized music subculture
While studying graphic design in London in the 1980s, Adrian Sensicle met a man nicknamed Rockin’ Dave, who would introduce Adrian to the city’s rockabilly scene. During those nights out, Adrian took rolls and rolls of film that he’s now revisiting, 30 years later. For Polarr, Emily von Hoffmann spoke with him about his work, which has become an unexpected record of the time.
Emily von Hoffmann (EVH): A man called ‘Rockin Dave’ is the inspiration for this project — What was he like, and how did he enter your life?
Adrian Sensicle (AS): My sister met Dave while I was at college, but he was often round at our house, so our parents came to know him well too (we all went to his wedding a few years later). We lived in South London and when I came back for the breaks I would tag along on a few of the nights’ out to the rockin’ clubs which is what introduced me to the scene.
AS: We have always called him Rockin’ Dave, not sure why he needed the title because I can’t remember us having any other Dave acquaintances, anyway, within our family it has stuck to this day. He was a very straight forward and grounded guy. He joined the army later on and is now a fireman, he’s lost his handsome quiff, but has retained his honest personality.
EVH: Can you tell me how you knew most of the people pictured? Were you more interloper or participant?
AS: I never thought of myself as an interloper, but it is true that I did not live the rockin’ life as many people like Dave did. For most people on the scene it was not a style choice but a complete way of life, some even earned their living completely from the scene. I did visit the central London rockin’ clubs regularly at the time.
AS: Original 1950's clothes were quite easy to find and relatively cheap, remember the 1950s were only 30 years back and there was not the nostalgia industry that there is now, so much of the stuff was just being thrown out. I didn’t go to the clubs to take the photos, I went because I loved the music, the style and the dancing. So, when I did take my camera it was not as a visitor, but as an accepted member of the scene.
AS: My pictures have a fly-on-the-wall feel very different from the rather posed images associated with the few magazine article at the time. Even if someone went out in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, they had made sure they were the right style and the right fit. They were proud of how they lived, so they were really pleased to have their photos taken by someone they trusted, and people didn’t often have cameras with them back then, so there was a different relationship to a camera than now.
EVH: Can you describe a few favorite spots from that time?
AS: None of the venues were at all glamourous. Most were rockin’ nights in pubs or clubs that were used for other things the rest of the time. The place I went to most often was The Phoenix, Cavendish Square, in the centre of London. Tom Ingram was usually the DJ there and the the music he played was, of course, all on vinyl and was often really difficult to find in the days before eBay, Spotify and YouTube, so people were often just listening to the music.
AS: Much of the music was 40 years old then, but often new to us and had a raw energy at a time when pop music was beginning to become very manufactured at the start of MTV.
And I really liked the Camden Workers Social Club, which was, I think, a Victorian building which felt like it was unchanged since the 1950s, just an ordinary social club with darts and a pool table that became a special place when the rockabillies visited.
EVH: The book includes words from the personalities it features — was it difficult to track anyone down?
AS: Well, they came to me really, or to be more accurate my rockin’ Facebook page. A couple of years ago I was moving house and had to sort though boxes of negatives and realised that very few of the people in the photos had ever seen them, so I set up my “Rockin’ London in the 1980s” Facebook page to share the pictures.
AS: The only person from the scene I was still in touch with was Dave, but he had kept in contact with many of the people, so when I set the page up I asked him to put the word out and it grew organically from there.
As I posted images people tagged other people and conversations began about the scene. We discovered what we had all been up to in the intervening three decades and heard about a few who had died, but were fondly remembered in the comments. The idea for producing the book came from all these comments and also made me determined to create a faithful record of that time, when the London rockin’ scene was particularly vibrant.
EVH: Was this your first major venture in photography? Did you expect that these photos would turn into something at the time?
AS: The rockin’ photos were my first comprehensive set of pictures, but I did not think of it that way at the time, I just kept taking pictures, with no thought that I was documenting anything.
I became a graphic design student in 1980 and I bought a camera for my course. The camera was a second-hand Pentax ME Super, I wanted something convenient (the ME Super is slightly smaller than similar SLR cameras), reliable and robust: having dropped it onto many concrete floors, with no ill consequences, I can vouch for its construction.
AS: I bought it with a Ricoh 50mm, f/1.7 lens which gave a sharp picture with a short depth of field and very good low-light performance, making it perfect for the photographs I was taking at gigs, clubs and on the street.
Obviously this was before digital photography, I did use colour slide film in the studios at college, but black and white film was really the only practical choice because I could process it myself, but I quickly came to love the quality of the images. Often in low-light situations and needing a quick exposure to capture movement, I settled on Ilford HP5, at 400ASA a fast, medium-contrast black and white film and to increase the speed even more I pushed the film by setting the camera to 1600ASA.
AS: I always tried to use available light and this set-up was easily good enough for stage lighting at gigs, but in many rockin clubs the light levels were too low, so then I added a basic hot shoe flash unit. I have always tried to compose in the camera, so as much as possible, all the photographs are reproduced uncropped and that’s pretty much how they all will be in the book.
EVH: Do you have any favorites among the images, and if so, can you recall the situation surrounding them?
AS: It’s easy to forget the biggest difference between using film and digital: you could never be sure of what you had on film until it was way too late to change it. Sometimes it was weeks between me taking the photos and seeing the contact sheets, so, many of the photos were a surprise to me. I have a pile of my favourite shots from the time, some because of the people in them, some because I feel they really sum up the moment and some just because I think they are photos I can be proud of.
AS: To pick three: as an image, my single favourite is one of Dave Bourne playing drums with Red Hot ‘n’ Blue, probably the best band on the scene at the time. I must have been crouching as he is seated but his eyeline is above mine. I have caught him looking intently over his drums, the band is not on a stage, so the crowd is all round and the viewers in the background are looking as involved as the drummer.
Rockin’ Dave features in many of the photos simply because he was my friend, but the image of him and two other guys leaning on the Lincoln has to be in my top three. Most of the photos are reportage, and none were posed other than: “quick, go and stand over there and stand by the car.’”
AS: The car and the lads (Dave is in the centre) form a strong shape, again with a low eyeline, then behind everything is pure 1908s, almost like it’s been montaged together.
It is clear looking back that a few particular girls must have caught my eye. Perhaps the most striking was a very pretty girl called Anj, with her big blonde hair. This shot features Anj, but one of the girls behind catches the eye as she is looking into the camera, all the rest are absorbed in their dancing.
AS: They are doing a stroll, which is very like a line dance, most of the boys knew the dance, but it was generally one for the girls (the boys bopped, jiving was in pairs and then there may be a smooch at the end).
I feel honoured to have been there at the time and very fortunate to have happened to have the equipment to capture the scene on film. Dave is working with many of the people involved to get memories of the time, so the book will contain both the faces and their memories.