Ahead of our anniversary celebration 'B-Boys, B-Girls, Break Dancers, Wannabes and Posers', Producer Phil Johnson looks back 30 years to the summer of 1985, when hip-hop came to Arnolfini...
In 1985 I was a lecturer in Film and Communications at Filton Technical College with half my time spent running the Audio Visual Studio, a recording room and edit suite/office that had dropped from the sky as part of a new library and resources building. There was kit of variable quality and vintage, some new, some inherited. I remember a Sony edit suite for big, chunky u-matic videos and another JVC one for VHS tapes, with a beige plasticky mixer that went in the middle by the edit controller. This also allowed you to do grandiose wipes from one camera to another, although we rarely used the camera set-up in the studio because you really needed to know what you wanted to do in advance, and no one ever did.
What students liked using were the portable cameras and recorders, JVC VHS jobs that together with the carry cases and padded camera boxes, plus regulation heavy pivoting tripod, weighed each prospective al fresco film-maker down with the baggage-equivalent of several large suitcases. We had a ’professional' u-matic portable recorder too, and that was seriously heavy, but we didn’t have the necessary three-tube camera to capture the quality it was capable of, never entirely understanding the principle of garbage in=garbage out, with the inevitable result that almost everything anyone did was doomed to remain at least as shoddy as the original dodgy signal it depended upon. But hey, this was education: it was the process we were interested in, not the product.
If broadcast television meant slick presentation and hierarchical structures, video was about demystifying technology and reflecting the lives of the people who used it back onto the screen. The kids, right? This was also the golden age of Marxist and post-structuralist cultural theory, reflected in BFI Education, Screen magazine, Birmingham University’s Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (later closed down by Thatcher) and every down-with-the-kids lecturer’s bible: Dick Hebdige’s Subculture: the Meaning of Style.
Education needed to be about what the kids were actually interested in. Like pop music. Or graffiti. After English and American Lit at UEA I’d done a PGCE for Further and Higher Ed at Garnett College in London, specialising in ‘Media’. With Scott Donaldson, who now works at Creative Scotland, I made a video about Chris Morton, the designer at Stiff Records, who was a friend from Norwich, and a music video of album covers set to Dream Baby Dream by Suicide, our favourite group. I saw Joy Division at the Electric Ballroom and Iggy Pop and Talking Heads at Hammersmith Palais.
When I moved to Bristol in 1980 I lived off the Gloucester Road near a chart-return record shop called Soundsville where reps dumped their promos and you could pick up Rip Rig & Panic, Linton Kwesi Johnson and the first 12” singles by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five for a few pence. I taught video to Foundation Art students and when Planet Rock by Afrika Bambaataa came out we used it for editing exercises, making scratch videos of the sort popular at the time. A foundation student called Oli Timmins was into graffiti so that became another subject, and I collected coverage of sites around town that turned into a short film called Video Graffiti, shown at the Arnolfini’s new Video Library. I ran an after-hours video workshop and through that met 3D, who wasn’t actually a student but came anyway. Me and another teacher, Steve Bennison, started a lunchtime film programme called Teen Angst, showing youth-cult movies usually starring Matt Dillon looking sulky, and a writer’s workshop that published a magazine, Big Writing.
It was one of Filton's portable VHS recorders I was using on the night of the Wild Bunch jam at the Arnolfini on Friday 19 July 1985, the case slung over my shoulder while I held a crap Hitachi single-tube camera with a misted-over viewfinder whose murky B&W picture meant you were never entirely sure whether it was on manual or auto focus. There was no tripod, and no lighting; just me and a foundation student, Jo Evans, helping out.
The original camera tape, which I recently found after presuming it lost, is a Scotch 3M 60-minuter and the video document of the event, such as it is, lasts only until the single tape runs out, which is just about the time the Wild Bunch’s rappers, Claude and 3D, are getting started. The image quality is terrible but when there’s some light in the room - the Arnolfini’s downstairs gallery - you can just about make out what’s happening. When it’s dark - and it generally is - the image is so thin it’s barely an image at all. As this is the camera tape - the raw material for a later edit - the significance of what is shown is very provisional.
What I meant to focus on, and what was only being picked up because it was easier to keep recording than it was to switch to ‘pause’, is impossible to say. But what the tape does show - when, of course, there’s enough information there to make out anything at all - is now the stuff of history: a Mitchell and Kenyon-type document of the yet-to-emerge Bristol Sound, and a weirdly innocent time that existed before the camera phone. And there it all is: graffiti on the walls, funk, electro and rap on the muffled boominess of the mono soundtrack, with dancers breaking acrobatically on the floor as rockabilly quiffed boys, big-haired girls and lots and lots of very young kiddies look on.
As to why I filmed the event in the first place, it was partly for my master’s dissertation at Exeter University (Black Music, the Arts and Education’ - cultural theory meets getting down with the kids), partly because of the contact with 3D, and partly for Arnolfini. There are three other videos: a brief survey of the Graffiti Art show; a short film of the Wild Bunch ‘at home’ (which seems uncomfortably touristic to me now: the only times I went to the Dug Out were to Labour Party socials or to see students play in a band), and an edited version of the Wild Bunch jam, all with terrible digital effects.
An earlier video, ‘Video Graffiti’, of which only a partial version survives (I remember chucking what must have been the finished one into a council-dump skip not long ago), is technically even worse but probably more interesting, as it records long-vanished sites not just of graffiti, but of Bristol itself. Originally randomly soundtracked by a couple of tracks from a ‘Street Sounds’ electro compilation, it’s silent now, and what’s really odd about it is a very poorly argued link between Bristol and the USA, which reflected a writing project I was working on at the time about the early colonists. Because a student - Oliver Curtis, now a film-maker - was going to New York for the summer. I bunged him a few rolls of Fuji slide film and asked him to record any good graffiti he came across, and the results appear in the film, just as copies of Keith Haring’s work appeared in the Arnolfini show. My dissertation got published in a book of academic essays and I enrolled in a screenwriting course at Watershed run by the late Bill Stair, an inspirational Bristol figure who’d worked with John Boorman on Point Blank and created Boon for TV, and who also taught part-time on Filton’s Foundation course. I started writing about music for Venue and then the national press, which meant that later on I got asked by the publisher Simon Prosser of Hodder&Stoughton to write a book about 'the Bristol Sound’, but that’s another story.
Acknowledgements: thanks to everyone at Arnolfini, especially Phil Owen, Helen Davies and Ewen MacLeod; Inkie, Queen Bee and Krissy Kriss; Tim Hughes and the late Mike Dymond from Filton; Adrian from Great Bear for the transfers to digital; ex-students Oli Timmins, Oliver Curtis and Jo Evans and all who appear in the videos.