Francesco Mellina was the eyes of Liverpool’s music scene during the precious era of punk, new wave and early electronica at the city’s legendary diamond hard, rough cut gig venues.
Photographing almost every major band and its followers of the time, and managing Dead Or Alive, he paved his way as one of the primary sources of historic music culture. The former NME photographer shares the stories behind his book – Revealed: Youth culture, pop culture, subculture 1977-1982 – and his memories with me at Maggie May’s over coffee and the noise of screaming kids.
What sort of music were you into in Calabria your home town and how does it compare to the Liverpool scene?
When I was a young boy, there was nothing. I come from a small town in Southern Italy that you cannot compare to Liverpool. For me, I was born to be here in Liverpool.
Who were your photographic influences?
[Don] McCullin. I chickened out of war photography but the punk scene was my battlefield, with all the spitting and the dingy clubs.
At which venue did you have the most fun?
Eric’s for obvious reasons. There are so many gigs I have attended but out of sheer excitement, The Cramps were just magnificent. They had the look, the attitude and the songs. It wasn’t necessarily mainstream but the reality of what they did, they believed it. That particular one was thrilling and after photographing them all over the country, we became friends. They had the connection to Pete Burns through Brian Gregory, the guitarist. He fancied Pete Burns to death, so as a gift he gave him this necklace made of bones. It was beautiful in its way.
Who gave the best performance at Eric’s?
I went to see XTC. The musicianship stood out. Also Elvis Costello and the Attractions.
How did its untimely closure shift the scene?
That was a real kick in the teeth. The powers-that-be were determined that they were gonna close Eric’s down even though there were no gangsters involved, and I think that’s probably why they wanted to close it down. Even the fraternity around the other clubs, they were quite happy for Eric’s to exist because it was not impinging on their business. We were not in any trouble. I think it was because we were different and invited the different kind of people they didn’t like. I think there was a lot of politics, I know so. On that particular night they got really heavy handed, they sent big riot police, beating everybody, arresting everybody, just a ridiculous notion. That night the Psychedelic Furs were playing. I had a job in London or I would have been there too and probably would have been clobbered myself. In many ways the closure didn’t make much of a difference, almost immediately another company took over and it became Brady’s.
Are Kraftwerk as mechanical in disposition as they are musically?
I think they have a lot of feeling actually. They made a determined effort to not show it. I think that kind of Teutonic Germanic thing, they realised that they were onto a winning formula.
Who was the most aggressive band you photographed?
On stage, Killing Joke.
How serious was the political fashion aesthetic?
I think it was just a fashion statement. The swastika thing, when you think about it, is a scared religious symbol. I think it was just a rebellious sign to say we don’t give a fuck, almost symbolic of what the prevalent mentality and philosophy developed. Punk was greatly helpful in making people like myself, believe in themselves. I think the crucial aspect of everything the punks stood for was that it made people do things. It was accepted that even if you were crap, you could have a go at it. My inspiration was always my own determination and punk facilitated that.
Was there space in mainstream publications for promoting underground events?
There was a gentleman called Peter Trollop who was a journalist at The Echo. He tried his very best to promote local talent. It wasn’t punk, it was anything. Most people couldn’t understand punk so there was never any people to champion it, apart from the people at Eric’s.
Where did you process your photos?
I had a two bedroom flat and one of those rooms became my darkroom. I devised my own ways to develop film and I basically had my own system.
After all these years what made you decide to publish this collection?
Back then, I had a decision to make when managing Pete Burns and Dead Or Alive. If you want the band to be successful, it’s 24/7. You can’t be a manager and a photographer at the same time. I got them a major deal which meant we were immediately guaranteed a wage. So from a financial point of view I had to stop and didn’t take many photos since. Then thirty years later I had a major exhibition out of the blue at the Conservation Centre for 24,000 visitors. It’s now made my photographs a historic document. It has huge attachment of nostalgia.
Where did the title Revealed come from?
I had put away all those negatives and hadn’t seen them for twenty five years and the exhibition was like a revelation. Because I had to scan and digitise the images, every frame was like discovering things I never knew I had.
The powers-that-be were determined that they were gonna close Eric’s down even though there were no gangsters involved, and I think that’s probably why they wanted to close it down.
Do you think your Italian looks and accent gave you a front to get you in the right place at the right time?
All the ladies love me! (Chortles)
Now that everyone carries a camera phone, do you think excessive amateur shooting ruins the atmosphere at gigs?
It ruins everything actually. Everybody thinks they can do it. All the equipment in the world will not give you a good picture unless you are determined to take it. The one distinctive factor about all my photos is that I’m there, I’m with it. You can’t be a shrinking wallflower if you want to be a photographer. I was prepared to be hit in the head with a microphone or a guitar to take a photo.
How do you feel about the current mainstream music scene?
Everything changes. Because of technology everything becomes throw-away. It doesn’t fucking mean anything. If the mentality is such, unless you’re an individual who sees things a different way, the majority of people have no clue whatsoever of anything. There is no real distinctiveness about anything, everything is so homogenised.
Which genre holds the new rise of Liverpool live music?
I don’t think there is a genre itself that can do that again. Liverpool has always had a fantastic music history and there’s always talent, but sometimes something happens that says this is extra special. I just hope that what I’ve seen proves me right.
Which modern bands would you like to photograph?
Kings Of Leon. I like people like Skepta, one of these rap artists. I went to see him and really like what he’s got to say because he has a political message.
It goes without saying that new methods of promoting music through the manipulation of online data, panders to the listeners’ commercial appeal. Live performance transcends this. Do you think that gigs are the purest form of music consumption in this age of technological hypnosis and personalised advertising that’s seeded into digital content?
Totally. It is the purest, that’s when you see the uncontrolled sound and response. The talent shines because you cannot manipulate on stage.
How did you work with the raw movement of the crowd?
The crowd and band both respond to each other and when you see that kind of interaction, it’s the most beautiful thing you can see when experiencing something special. I can’t tell you how it felt to be in the fucking middle of the Clash at the Royal Court and the crowd. You’re feeling both and it’s amazing!