In 1985, Chris Killip was “trying unsuccessfully to photograph nightlife in Newcastle” when a friend told him about the Station, a former police social club in nearby Gateshead that had been turned into a live venue by a collective of local punks.
“I went there and everything else around it had been demolished,” he recalls. “You could hear the music echoing across this vast urban wasteland as you approached the building. Inside, the noise coming off the stage was deafening and the punks were thrashing around, banging into each other, drinks flying. I just stood there. It was so loud and so intense that I was overwhelmed.”
Nevertheless, between March and October, Killip returned to the Station “about 20 times”, placing himself in the centre of the maelstrom in order to capture the visceral energy of the place. On stage, a succession of anarcho-punk outfits unleashed a thunderous lumpen noise, their names shorthand for their message: Blasphemy, Conflict, Death Zone, Eat Shit, Hellbastard, Icons of Filth, Rancid and Toxic Waste.
Killip chose to concentrate on the audience, though, capturing their torn clothes, punk hairdos, leather jackets and army boots as well as their sweat-streaked faces and intense expressions. The punks he captured are mostly male save for a couple of striking female faces. “The women tended to stay back from the front-of-stage mayhem,” he says. His images are a vivid record of a time, place and scene that has since attained a near mythic status in the musical history of the north-east.
He describes the Station fondly as “a total anarcho-punk zone: black walls, black ceiling, black floor. There was a big sign saying, ‘No glue, no glass bottles’, but there was a bit of glue-sniffing and gallons of strong cheap cider. Basically they didn’t have money for better drugs.”
The atmosphere, he says, was charged but never threatening despite the pummelling music and the ritual aggression enacted on the dancefloor. Throughout his time there, he never witnessed a single fight or experienced any hassle save for one “mad-eyed guy” who would occasionally emerge from the melee “to take a swing” at his head.
In the pitch-black interior of the Station, he cut a curious figure, carrying a big plate camera around his neck as well as a flash and an outsized battery that was strapped to his waist. “No one ever said, ‘Who the fuck are you?’ They were in their own world and I was in mine. I was concentrating so much that I never had time to chat. After three hours in there, I’d be totally exhausted. I used to drive home and go straight to sleep, the noise ringing in my ears.”
In 2018, Killip published The Station, a large format zine comprising photographs from the venue and now Steidl has published a similarly designed book of his work. An accompanying exhibition was scheduled to open this month at the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, but it has been postponed due to the coronavirus.
It was Killip’s son, Matthew, who discovered the contact sheets while rooting around in his father’s archive. Killip had filed them away and forgotten about them. Back in 1985, he had been photographing what he calls “the landscape of the de-industrial revolution in the south-east” for over a decade, but had yet to publish his photobook, In Flagrante, now revered as a classic of British documentary photography.
In contrast, he says, The Station “is different in style to much of my other work in terms of its rawness, which of course suits the subject matter, but I do see it as part of a continuum – the decline of the industrial north-east at that time”.
During the day, the Station was hired out as a rehearsal space for local bands. At night, the collective manned the bar and took care of security. “It was a genuine cooperative,” says Killip, still sounding impressed. “They all had roles. There was a booking agent and even a green room attendant looking after hospitality for visiting groups. They rotated their jobs every few months so there was no hierarchy. Everyone had to do their share.”
I talk to Malcolm “Little Toot” Lewty, guitarist and vocalist in Hellbastard, who are still gigging to the faithful. Malcolm’s older brother Nigel (“Big Toot”) was the founder and main organiser at the Station. “My brother was in the Gateshead Musicians’ Collective and he somehow got the grant for the venue,” says Malcolm. “The first thing we did was buy a ton of black paint. Then Nigel painted a huge stencil of the venue’s name as the stage backdrop.”
Not long before, Nigel had been badly beaten up by bouncers at a venue in Newcastle for, as Malcolm puts it, “jumping around to Discharge”. So he decided to have members of the collective take their turn as low-key security staff. “His main stipulation,” says Malcolm, “was that there would be no official bouncers who treated the punters like they were animals.”
Malcolm gives me a potted history of the venue that includes his memory of a riotous night when right-wing skinheads caused havoc at a gig by the Subhumans. He tells me that the Clash played an impromptu set there in the mid-80s that has since become a much-sought-after bootleg, while a very young Björk played there when she was in a band called Kukl.
“It was mainly anarcho-punk bands, though,” he says, “and when word went round that it was a different kind of venue, they came from all over – Norway, Sweden, Japan, America. My brother was a free-thinker. He started N.A.G. – the Newcastle Anarchist Group that organised marches and protests in the north-east and across Britain. It was his way of thinking that informed the spirit of the place, anyone from round here will tell you that. He created the place for outsiders, misfits and miscreants.”
Nigel died in 2007, aged just 41, and a vigil was held on a grassy verge near Sainsbury’s where the Station once stood. In photographs of the gathering, Malcolm says, you can still see a fragment of Nigel’s painted stencil amid the remains of the old building. “People’s lives were torn apart when it was closed down,” he says. “They scattered because they had nowhere else to go that was anything like it.”
Killip agrees. “It created its own scene, not dependent on elsewhere. For the people who went there every week, it was part of their identity. It had a meaning for them that outsiders would have found hard to understand. It was a place for them to consolidate their identity. In Thatcher’s Britain, they were the ignored, the overlooked, the dismissed. The Station was their home. It was them.”