Beezer’s Wild Dayz

Legendary documentary photographer Beezer chats to Melissa Gardner about capturing the inception of Bristol’s thriving graffiti and music scene in the '80s. 

“Kiss the future, protest and survive, this is one camera that never lies”

Mark Stewart

Set against the bleak backdrop of Thatcher’s Britain, a burgeoning “Bristol Sound” rose from the ashes of high- unemployment, mass youth displacement and race riots. A unique cocktail of rap, electro, and reggae that came out of the cultural void left by the punk scene, unrepresented by mainstream media. There was however one bonafide lens documenting this colourful ferment of activity: born and bred Bristolian Andy Beese (known to most as Beezer). Armed with a Nikon FE2 and a deep rooted love of bass, it was Beezer’s genuine relationship with his subjects and his immersion in the scene that gave his shots a powerful authenticity.

People say you’re never more than 6ft away from a rat, but nowadays you’re even closer to a Pret A Manger or an overpriced pint. Beezer’s work paints a picture of Bristol before the white middle class Christopher Columbus-ed entire neighbourhoods claiming them as cool. Bristol before the spliffed out melodies of Massive Attack lay on the upper echelons of the UK charts, and they were known as the “Wild Bunch”. Running around with 3D (Robert Del Naja) while he graffed up the city with paint that later went on to influence the likes of Banksy. Shooting iconic scenes at the seminal Dug Out club (Bristol’s spiritual home and the cultural equivalent to Manchester’s Hacienda) before it was a Chinese restaurant on Park Row. Beezer’s pictures serve as a powerful testament to the 80’s Bristol state of mind.

Sharing some unseen images along with some of the work featured in his photobook “Wild Dayz”… We catch up with Beezer to talk about everything from gentrification, wicked basslines, to putting Bristol on the map.

Melissa: With the effects of austerity, Covid and Brexit along with other cultural parallels, a lot of people believe we are in a 30-year cycle. Can you draw any similarities between Thatcher’s Britain and today? 

Beezer: After I left school in 81, that kind of atmosphere was so fucking bleak. I mean, Thatcher’s Britain, oh it was awful. No one had any money, everyone was signing on and whatnot. But we got by, we smiled, we were happy, we had the spirit.

I do think a lot of comparisons can be drawn, obviously the high levels of unemployment. But there’s also a lot of emotional similarities, the depression, the sadness, the misery this kind of isolation factor that Covid has brought.

Going out with your mates was our escape, there wasn’t much else we could escape with. Some people would go down to London or get the overnight “Magic Bus” to Amsterdam to go get stoned but apart from music, there weren’t many options to get away from it all.

So the main difference is that the younger generations don’t have that rest bite. I can understand their frustration. Young people are always going to want to go to clubs, to dance and listen to music together even if there’s a war going on. There’s going to be a whole generation of kids who don’t have proper formative years, they only get to listen, they won’t get to witness or partake in music scenes.

One thing I can say looking back on 80’s Britain and today is that there was some great work, some really great music that came out of it. Something that I am certain you will see from this pandemic through art and music created off the back of all this. In times of trouble, there will always be a shining beacon of people who create. There will always be people getting over themselves showing resilience through music. Conflict breeds creativity. So that’s definitely a parallel that can be drawn; frustration, but through frustration, great music has been made and I predict there to be a similar creative reaction.

The migration of affluent residents to the city has changed the local demographic since your time. How do you feel about the gentrification of Bristol?

I don’t see it as a good thing. It obviously ousts people because they can’t afford to live there anymore. Which then has the knock-on effect of what kind of clientele you’re going to get in the bars and clubs. A lot of these places don’t want riff-raff coming down now. They want their select crowd.

No-go areas and shit-holes are now becoming really popular. I find it mad that Stokes-Croft now has it’s “upper-class bits”. That area used to be rough. Rough as fucking sandpaper. It was raw, there was nothing “Yah” about it like there is today.

The underbelly of it all is still pretty fucking vagrant though. There will always be an underbelly. Rich Bristol University students are only going to change the music landscape so far because at the end of the day you’ve got to be saying something that’s going to make an impact. From what I remember Bristol has never been an easy place to convince. You can’t just come in and say “Oh I’m a big promoter” and win over a place as musically established as Bristol.

However, I spent quality time there about 10 years ago. I get that gentrification is taking over to some degree, but it doesn’t matter, there’s always a big vibe. It’s still Bristol, it’s still a Bristol thing. It still musically holds a lot of impact.

What made you pick up the camera? 

I never saw it as a “career path” to be honest. It came from not knowing what I was doing when I left school. I wasn’t a good achiever. This was mostly down to the fact I was totally into punk and reggae from the age of about 12. So when it came to doing my CSC’s and O-Levels, I was barely awake in the exams because I’d been out all night at a gig or a shubeen. So I left school with below average grades and I didn’t know what to do. Luckily around that time, there was a new training initiative; a government-sponsored Audio/Visual course at a technical college in Bristol [where Beezer had been born and raised]. I had no idea what I was doing but I got accepted onto the course after borrowing a camera from a mate and doing a documentary series on a very rough boy’s school in Southmead.

We’re talking about 1981 and hip-hop was just hitting the shores, and it felt like everyone had started to DJ. So without thinking, I started shooting it. I’d shoot in black and white because colour was too expensive. I bought an enlarger [a projection printer used to make prints from film negatives] and started selling the prints for 50p each.

So to answer your question, I’d already picked up the camera, it was music that kept it there.

When you were documenting at the time, did you have any idea of the wider significance of the scene you were in?  

Were we thinking it would go anywhere? We didn’t have a clue. What was underground then is totally overground now. No mainstream media were interested in us or what was happening in the slightest. The press, the music papers, the Face, NME… they weren’t interested. They wanted Pulp, Joy Division.. indie bands, stuff that was “hip”. We weren’t considered hip by them, it was only until the mid to late eighties that hip-hop, sound system, etc. started getting popular.

So to answer your question, no I had no idea the impact it was going to have. I was just shooting what was around me, I was just shooting my mates. The Dug Out Club, the Redhouse Jam, the Wild Bunch nights; they were wicked but we had no idea that it was going to be a paving stone for something bigger. For example, the Wild Bunch crew [a collective of musicians and DJs who ran a sound system and were putting on nights] then went on to be Massive Attack which of course was massively influential beyond Bristol and beyond the UK. Then you’ve got 3D; I’d go hang out with him and he’d be spraying up the walls and I’d shoot some of it. Obviously, the pieces were only up for a few days. So what it was felt transient but then his work then went on to influence Banksy.

At the time though, who was looking at the stuff? Nobody. I was shooting it for myself and for my mates and as I said before there was no media interest. So in hindsight, I have no idea why I was taking 7 maybe 8 rolls of film to these nights without considering how valuable they would be in the future, or without the goal of making money. So all these negatives remained unused for years. It wasn’t until about 20 years later when my book “Wild Dayz” got published that it kind of hit home what a big deal it was; the reaction was mad.

Nowadays people associate Bristol with drum ‘n’ bass, jungle and sound-system. What did the music landscape look like back then?

A total mix up. I was there for the early days of hip-hop and watched the genres and subcultures coming through. But I was always totally into reggae. The DJs playing reggae most of the time wouldn’t dedicate their set 100% to that genre though; it could be punk, it could be funk, it could be rare groove or dub. At the end of the day, Bristol was, and is, a heavily multicultural place and that really showed in the richness of the music. People just wanted a good time, people just wanted to dance to escape the dismal day-to-day of Thatcher’s Britain. We’d set up a little sound system and everyone would just jam; whether it be a house party, warehouse, or at the Dug Out club. But it was usually bass orientated… it was always bass in your face. That’s definitely something that’s stuck.

A lot of your pictures were taken at the seminal Dug Out club. What was the atmosphere like?

The Dug Out was between the ghetto in St Paul’s and Clifton on Park Row. It was a multiracial club with different nights that had different genres so naturally, it attracted all kinds of people. It wouldn’t matter if you were a Rasta, if you were a Clifton trendy, or if there was a kid with spiked hair tromping along tripping off his trolly. The carpet was always sticky regardless. The music was always great, the basslines were always wicked, it was a fucking hoo-har. It was a regular place to go, if you were into going out I’d have seen your face down there. There was no animosity, it was a small place with a regular crowd, both students and locals. It was definitely a bit of status to get with a student bird though.

No one would have expected the Dug Out to be seminal, but yeah it definitely has reached seminal status. But who made it seminal? The Wild Bunch. They put it on the map. They are responsible for putting Bristol on the map whether they like it or not.

You photographed fledgeling, Massive Attack during their sound system days as the “Wild Bunch”. Why do you think they as a group are a good representation of Bristol’s cultural scene at the time? 

Bristol has always been heavily multicultural and during the 80’s the music scene was totally self-sufficient. It was a DIY ethos and that was the Wild Bunch. They had a sound system, they were putting on regular nights. They wanted to take it to the next level though, and at the time they were actually recording stuff and making little dubplates. There were of course other people carving Bristol’s name at the time too; Smith & Mighty, the Fresh 4, and a little later on Roni Size. But the Wild Bunch were the pioneers of the sound.

Obviously, there is a big London connection but Bristol is where they did their homework. London is just where they showed it off. That mentality still exists today I feel. Bristol didn’t have much of an ego, it has slightly more of one now, but it was never as performative as London.  You’d do your prep back in Bristol, on Bristol time where it was more D.I.Y, more cottage industry. There wasn’t the same urgency; because people were creating for themselves and their mates, not for the money or for show. The only exposure you get would be going to play at the Dugout Club, or a house party. It was strictly for the heads. So many people flock to Bristol for the music and it’s not hard to see why.

The Anti-Apartheid movement would have been pretty landmark in Bristol during your time, were there any major events within the community?

There were a lot of anti-apartheid demonstrations and meetings. Almost everyone was an immigrant there. There’s a huge Indian community, there’s a huge Caribbean community. They’re all as much Bristolian as I am.

One of the most memorable events was the St Pauls Riots in 1980. There was a sense of anarchy, chaos, and you didn’t know how long it was going to go on for. It had been triggered by the police raiding the “Black and White” cafe. They had a search warrant and it was downright police harassment. You know, in those times there was SUS law, stop and search laws, that heavily targeted black people and ethnic minorities.

However, within the community, there was no hierarchy. It didn’t matter what religion you went home and prayed to, it didn’t matter what your skin tone was. There was a hierarchy within what people were doing for sure. There was a differing level of respect amongst people in the music and graff scene. But it had nothing to do with race. At the end of the day all we cared about was girls, records and spliff.

What would be your advice to any young photographers starting out now? 

Use the camera as a tool. If, say, you’re keen to get into break-dancing but you ain’t got the courage, then the camera’s a good way to get involved with a scene. Along the way you might find you have that flair for photography. What I mean is that your main driving interests should lie beyond the lens. Try and specialise in whatever that thing it is that you’re into. Whether it be photographing music, graff, skating or whatever scene it is that you’re interested in. Whatever it is, document and specialise in it. It might just be an everyday environment for you now because other people are doing it and everyone has a camera-phone now. But do it your way and do it with your people. You’ll find that as things go on, those images will begin to hold great value and will time-stamp a meaningful moment in history.

If you could pick one record that resonates most with your time in Bristol in the 80’s what would it be?

You can have your cake and eat it too” by Brenda Taylor