arts and design

Sigue Sigue Sputnik at a Newcastle B&B: Homer Sykes’ best photograph


It was 1986 and I’d been on the road with Sigue Sigue Sputnik for a couple of days. They’d played a gig in Leeds the previous night and we’d just arrived at a little bed and breakfast in Newcastle upon Tyne. I dumped my stuff in my room and went down to the bar where I got speaking to the landlady. I was kind of just hanging around when two members of the band, Neal X and Yana YaYa, came down to order drinks. The landlady hadn’t seen them at this point … and she hadn’t seen their hair. She was, shall we say, shocked. I happened to be there so it made a picture.

That’s how I always work. I watch, I wait … and hopefully I see one of these magic moments. If you’re patient then something will usually happen. It’s all about being prepared and seeing clearly. I’m not a setter-upper of photographs. You couldn’t set up an image like this even if you tried. If you had a team of people in there and a crew and an art director and a whole mob of people you’d lose the spontaneity. It’s the finger in the landlady’s mouth that makes the image – she’s looking up at Neal X and his hair and his cowboys T-shirt, which was based on a design by Jim French. Her expression is fantastic. She’s not horrified; she’s smiling and thinking: “What the hell is going on here?”

The picture shows two completely different worlds coming together. Later that night the band played a gig at Tiffany’s in Newcastle city centre. It was part of their Love Missile F1-11 tour. I remember it being loud and noisy and it was push-and-shove down at the front. But I had a job to do.

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I never got to know the band as people. I’m not that sort of guy. I like to stay unobtrusive and just blend in. I’m a very ordinary middle-of-the-road, middle-class guy. I’ve shot a lot of bands in my career but, the truth is, I never listened to pop music … well, not 80s pop music. I was on the road so often that I never had the time. I love music but because of work I missed out on all sorts of stuff. I was actually sent to do this picture by a women’s magazine so the band probably all thought: “It won’t be much cop, it’s not the New Musical Express.” But they were glad for the publicity I imagine.

I was always on the road through the 70s, 80s and 90s, at least three or four days a week. I’ve seen the mods and rockers, punks, New Romantics, all doing their thing. But it never really mattered to me what people were doing or how they were dressing, or even what they were saying or feeling. I was just interested in how they fitted into the society that I was photographing them within.

I’ve travelled all over the UK for my work. As a photographer you get to cross all sorts of social boundaries and see all strands of society. I’m very fond of the country I live in – I’m a great believer in Britain. And whether it’s huntsmen or politicians or rock bands, I always approach the job with the exact same mindset: don’t take centre stage, it’s much more interesting to be a fly on the wall, to observe.

When I look back at this image I can see the elements that work. There are three people in it and they’re off centre. Then you’ve got the bar running down from two-thirds to the right to the centre of the frame. You’ve got Neal’s white hair against the dark background. The yellow ice box is a bit too bright; I could improve on that by not having the flash on camera but hey, that’s life.

A couple of years ago I had an exhibition in Hull that included this image. Somebody came up to me and said: “I love that picture, I went to that gig!” The next day he returned with his ticket stub. My photography is all about serendipity and here was another one of those great little coincidences.

Colour Works: The 1980s and 90s by Homer Sykes is published by Dewi Lewis on 21 June.

Homer Sykes
Photograph: Emma Drabble

Homer Sykes’s CV

Born: Vancouver, Canada 1949 (UK resident since 1952).
Trained: The London College of Printing and Graphic Arts.
Influences: “Bert Hardy, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, and my part-time lecturer at college David Hurn.”
High point: “I was the first British photographer to have a one-man exhibition at the Maison de la Photographie Robert Doisneau, Paris.”
Low point: “Struggling with dyslexia – until I bought a computer and discovered the spellcheck facility.”
Top tip: “Application then inspiration, be inquisitive.”



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