GRey MaTTeRS 3
Text by Addie & Mitchell Vassie
ka music originated in Jamaica in the late 1950s, arguably as a precursor to rocksteady and reggae music, with the first ska record being cut in 1960. Following
the wave of migration of Jamaicans to the United Kingdom in the early 1960s, and their settlement in – then predominantly white – neighbourhoods, white working class kids picked up ska. By the late 1960s it had become a popular and driving force in music, together with the blossoming British Mod movement.
Jamaican ‘rude boys’ and British ‘skinheads’ were both generally young, disenfranchised and working class, often either unemployed or in assembly line jobs. With their ‘cropped’ hairstyles and Dr. Martens boots, skinheads liked to dress sharply when they went out, just like the original rude boys, despite limited budgets to support their fashion habit. Whatever cultural differences young blacks and whites had in the late 60s, one thing they did share (other than style) was their music – reggae, rocksteady, original ska and soul music were all on the menu. While the political climate and media frenzy were doing their best to demonize skinheads, the 2 Tone and ska movements honoured what skinheads originally loved and focused strictly on music and anti-racism by example; skinheads who were ska fans were unlikely to be racist. In this latest body of work, Matthew Murray shares with us his insights into this passionate and rich world of ska. At first glance, his Ska series would seem to be quite a departure from the usual projects he works on. However, in essence, his immediate environment, feeding off his everyday visual experiences, generally inspires his work. So the Ska series is something that is close to his heart. He grew up in Birmingham, England, where staples in his own wardrobe
were polo- and check shirts, in a myriad of hues. Consequently,
of the genre. All the participants he shot and talked to display
this body of work holds a certain nostalgic aspect for him.
the same verve and passion for the music, the style and the
Rather than Murray’s usual, seemingly candid, observational
connection they have to this subculture. Like a close-knit family,
work, Ska is an insightful and sensitive series, of real portraits
the movement inspires the individual to develop a sense of
of the ambassadors of the ska movement – individuals who see
identity and a belonging within a group. Actively reacting
ska as a lifestyle choice, rather than a trendy whim, and who
against ‘the norm’, seeking a minority style, thereby creating
live and breathe ska.
a culture of individuals with similar tastes and fashion styles.
Murray’s unpretentious and, more importantly, unassuming
A true contrast to today’s mtv ‘cookie-cutter’-inspired society
treatment of his subjects, encourages the viewer to feel like a
participant rather than simply an observer. We are invited to
A key aspect in this body of work is the simplicity and honesty
view the world through Murray’s unaffected and honest eyes,
of ‘the portrait’. Murray wanted to capture his sitters during a
without judgement or cynicism. Murray’s images are never
night out at a club, while taking them out of their comfort zone.
mocking or condescending, celebrating as they do the
“I really like to place people in unfamiliar environments to see
idiosyncrasies of human nature and the ‘characters’ around us.
how they react,” he says. He reverts to the true tradition of studio portraiture, placing his subjects in a sterile photo-studio
During the 60 years in which ska music has made its influence
environment. With the seemingly loosest of guidelines, the
felt throughout British music and culture, a section of
subjects appear to compose the portrait themselves, choosing
dedicated ska followers have remained firmly true to their
to face away from the camera, look down or confidently confront
roots. Not only in the tunes themselves, but also within ska’s
us and the camera head on.
striking visual style, which has become key to this stylistically
The familiar sounds and smells of the club, mixed with the
bloody-minded, elegant and self-believing movement.
unfamiliarity of a mobile photo studio and a conscious lack of over-directing, quickly stripped away the veneers of Murray’s
“Jack is twenty, I found him interesting because in a time where most
subjects. The resulting images are quietly powerful, lacking
young people his age are into social networking and popular culture,
bravado or pretence. With the social layers removed, a certain
Jack is totally into the ska scene. He immerses himself completely in
vulnerability is revealed, exposing the true character of the
this subculture, despite the fact that he gets quite a bit of stick from
Nazi skinheads about the way he looks and the fact that neither he nor the other subjects share their racist views.” – Matthew Murray Murray loves this passion and commitment to the movement, from young newcomers like Jack and Beth to elder statesmen
I first got into northern soul when in primary school by hearing it from my dad’s car stereo. I refused to go up to secondary school without a parka for the winter. From there I started borrowing my dad’s cd’s and heavily got into both 2 Tone and punk. I went with my dad to lots of gigs all over the uk. And still do. I went to my first punk festival when I was thirteen and I remember seeing Neville Staples from The Specials and Pauline Black from The Selecter. Noel Davis, the original guitarist from The Selecter also taught me guitar at my secondary school in Bilton, Rugby, he was a great inspiration to me. I dressed punk until the age of fifteen when my friend Bilston Dan (from Wolverhampton) started introducing me to old ska, skinhead reggae, rocksteady and bluebeat. I soon fell in love with it and started to dress skinhead because of this music. I also went to see Bad Manners perform at the Esquires in Bedford (2008) and that was really important to me as it almost confirmed I wanted to be a part of the skinhead culture. I got my hair cut as soon as I left school at the age of fifteen, and still have it to this day. I am now twenty. What I like about the skinhead fashion is that I have a wide music taste and it’s almost acceptable. When I was a punk and still into my northern soul it was kind of looked down on. I am still a dedicated fan of punk and soul but my favourite genre is ska. I have had some trouble in the past with people assuming I am racist or a nazi. However it is mainly young people that do not understand the culture. I go through the lengthy process of explaining the roots of skinhead culture to them and most of the time they take back their comments. They simply misunderstood, which is no fault of their own, especially how a lot of the media wrongly represent skinheads. The older generation seem to like it as it takes them back to their youth.
Published on Sep 23, 2013
Preview the first pages of 'Ska' by Matthew Murray, third in the Grey Matters series, published by Schilt Publishing in September 2013. The...