Oi Polloi

An Interview with Mark McNulty

Published: Wed Apr 04 2018

Whilst the birth of modern-day club culture is much chatted about, very few people took the time to document it. Mark McNulty is a rare exception.

From the early days of warehouse raves to the age of the super-club, he candidly captured ‘going out’ at a level usually reserved for hard-hitting documentary photography.

With 2018 marking 30 years since the so-called ‘second summer of love’, now seemed like a decent time to talk to him.

What follows is an interview conducted on a Monday afternoon in the centre of Liverpool. I think it’s important to state here that club photography is only a small part of Mark’s repertoire — it’s just what we happened to talk about at the time. 

Maybe an obvious first question, but when did you get into photography?

I don’t know if I’d taken pictures on someone else’s camera or something, but I just wanted a camera. And when I was 14, my mum and dad got me one. I think it was a Praktica — it was a really basic camera.

I can remember saying to my mum and dad that I wanted to be a photographer, but I can’t remember ever thinking too much about it as a career. When I had film, I’d take pictures. They were probably mostly rubbish.

But then there came a point where the stuff around me got more interesting. I started seeing bands and going to clubs. Before that I’d just take pictures of my nan.

A Guy Called Gerald - Liverpool

How did the club photography come about?

There was a club in Liverpool called The State, and that was the club I’d go to with my mates. We’d go on a Thursday night, and it was a penny to get in. They’d play things like The Smiths, but then they’d also play old 60s records and old Northern Soul records. It would play everything.

It was an old 1920s ballroom, with a tiled floor, and was actually the venue that Franky Goes to Hollywood played on their first appearance on The Tube. It was in that film Letter to Brezhnev too. And that club started playing a couple of those early house records. 

Around that time, I’d started getting in with various musicians, and there was a man called Peter Coyle who was in a band called The Lotus Eaters. He put on night called 8 Orgasms where there’d be all kinds of mad shit.

There’d be arty bands, performance artists and a karaoke machine. And he brought in a DJ called John Maccready who’d play house records. And that was the first place that did dance music that I took pictures of.

8 Orgasms - Liverpool

At The State I’d take pictures of bands who were up on stage, but taking a camera out and photographing people dancing, before the rave scene, didn’t feel like the obvious thing to do.

When did things change?

I got asked by a Manchester magazine called Avant to go and photograph a club called Quadrant Park. It was in some sort of warehouse up in Bootle, and it was massive.

People had come from all over the North. I hated it, but I loved it. There was no dancefloor because the whole place was the dancefloor.

Quadrant Park - Liverpool

How did you go about taking pictures in there?

There was no benchmark, because I’d never really seen any pictures like that. That first night, I didn’t take a lot of photographs, I just got these mad crowd scenes of people with their hands in the air and people on speakers.

Before that, people were just going to nightclubs to cop-off — that old fashioned night club thing where the people would stand around the edges watching girls to move in on. But suddenly, everybody was dancing together and nobody was taking any notice of the oddball with the camera.

After that I started going to more and more clubs that started opening up in town. 

When you’re going there were you going there to take pictures, or could you enjoy it like everyone else?

At first I was there to take pictures. I’m terrible at hearing in loud places as I can’t differentiate between sounds, so once I’d taken a few pictures in a club, that just made me want to do more. I can never talk to people in clubs because I can never hear them, so taking photographs was my way of dealing with being in places like that.

When I look back, I sometimes I haven’t got pictures of my favourite clubs. The ones I really enjoyed, I didn’t really take pictures at.

How did you get involved with the club magazines?

I just thought that what was going on around me was cool so I started to send in photographs to the magazines. These were the nationals like I-D, The Face, Mixmag and DJ Mag. They liked what I sent in from Liverpool, so they started to send me to places out of town and then further afield. 

Suddenly everybody was dancing together and nobody was taking any notice of the oddball with the camera.

In 1992 I went off to Rimini to photograph a week of clubbing and, after getting a bit wobbly and running into a glass door, I came home with loads of boss photos (and a black eye), and they started to send me all over the place. So I did loads of trips to different places in the UK as well as documenting the scene in places like Ibiza, Tokyo, Detroit and Berlin.  

Kaos - Leeds

How did ‘going out’ differ from city to city?

Well, the further north you go the madder it gets. That’s still a good general benchmark for going out around the country on a Saturday night, though I’d say regional differences are more subtle these days. 

Glasgow and Newcastle were always insane, Leeds often felt better dressed than a lot of other northern cities and the spirit of the northern soul scene felt like it lived on in a club like Golden down in Stoke. 

In Bristol the club scene was heavily influenced by the music the city was producing and that affected a lot of the clubs. I did actually spend a lot of time in Bristol clubs in the 90s and whilst clubs like the Thekla and some of the other smaller clubs really took influence from the music that was being produced, there were also the big house and rave clubs that every other city had. 

Revolution - Bristol

There used to be a great night called Revolution at The Lakota which was a big name DJ house club with a great music policy and a well-dressed crowd who were up for it. But then once a month they’d run an all-nighter and loads of people used to come in from South Wales, and you really noticed the difference.

They didn’t get as many chances to party so they made the most of it and the whole thing just went up a level and suddenly Bristol didn’t seem so laid back as it usually was. 

What were people wearing in the different cities? Was there regional outfits? 

I think the main differences were in the different scenes within the bigger club scene. Everywhere had their full-on rave clubs which meant white gloves and glow sticks and then the cooler raves were more into the whole baggy look.

It was all about the practicalities of dancing for six hours, so things got looser with sportswear, or tighter with Lycra. Then as the club scene moved into the older clubs that had existed for years, some of them got a bit better dressed. 

So in Manchester, somewhere like The Hacienda would be baggy, but somewhere like Most Excellent had a smarter crowd. So there were these clubs around the country opening that were maybe a bit more discerning than the initial raves — clubs like Back II Basics in Leeds, Smile in Liverpool and Venus in Nottingham. Smaller and a bit more perfectly formed if you like, but still very much big party places. 

Rezerection - Edinburgh

You mentioned before about a mad night at a club called Rezerection in Edinburgh. What was going on there?  

That place was insane. It was on the edge of Edinburgh in some sort of showground and it was a big fenced off marquee affair with no alcohol on site, and I’ve never seen such a deranged crowd in all my life. 

It was mostly a young crowd — too young at times. It was all white gloves and whistles with random folk in fancy dress — like a fella dressed up in a wetsuit with an inflatable shark under his arm. 

Rezerection - Edinburgh

Where else stood out?

Judgement Day in Newcastle, in a hard-core ravers kind of way, and likewise, Bowlers in Manchester or the Hard Dock in Liverpool — not for the feint hearted by any means. 

But my favourite clubs were smaller, better dressed and with a better music policy. I’d say one that got it all right was Back II Basics up in Leeds, though I’d say my favourite club of all time, in the UK anyway, was Voodoo in Liverpool. 

This was at the time of the super-clubs, when Liverpool had Cream, one of the most important clubs of all time. And whilst I loved how Cream was putting Liverpool back on the map, in popular culture terms anyway, there was nothing better than finishing a shoot at Cream and then heading around the corner to Voodoo. 

Voodoo - Liverpool

It was as much of a family vibe as you could get out of a techno club, ran by an amazing couple called Sam and Claire with incredible residents, ace guests and an understanding management. It was the complete opposite to what was going on at the time with the emergence of clubs as brands. There’s nothing wrong with the big clubs, and it’s great to be lost in a big crowd with a camera, but I always preferred the smaller affairs. 

How did you go about actually taking the photos? Were you tactical with how you shot the clubs?

It was all about finding the right place. Using the flash, you didn’t just want to photograph someone against a wall, because it didn’t look very interesting. You had to be in the middle to get all the flashing lights and everything.

The people at the edge are usually just standing around, so you had to get involved. If you just walk into somewhere with a camera bag, people are going to notice you, but if you’re somewhere for a while, you can be part of it.

I’ve been back to nightclubs in recent years, and I just think, how did I do this?

Later on in the early 90s there was a point when things got very much about stopping people and asking to take their photograph, and asking them what clothes they had on. They had a thing in MixMag where they’d be some question of the month, and I thought that was shit – I didn’t like doing that. At the time, I wanted to document things, I wanted to be a fly on the wall – I didn’t want to stop people.

Yeah, as soon as you ask someone to pose, you lose that candid thing. What sort of cameras were you using?

Most of the time it was a 35mm Nikon with some pretty cheap lenses. We’d use these flashes called Vivitar 283s which had three zones you could set depending on the distance you wanted to shoot.

A bit later, I started taking photos on a twin-lens medium format cameras with slide film and an off-camera flash.

At the time it seemed easy, as it was all I knew, but I’ve been back to nightclubs in recent years, and I just think, how did I do this?

Herbal Tea Party - Manchester

How long would you be there? Would you take photos all night?

It gets to the point where it gets too messy.

Was that a conscious decision – to show people in a decent light?

I wanted to show it for how it was, which is why I got fed up with it when it became people posing and wanting their picture taken in nightclubs. I wanted it to be real. I wasn’t trying to make anyone look great – but they were great. And also, I didn’t want to make people look horrible.

I like that whole thing of people being stars for the night. What I didn’t like was that cult of the DJ. You’d start going to nights, and everybody would be facing the DJ, but earlier on, it never felt like that. People were dancing everywhere you looked — everybody was the star for the night.

Heavenly Social - Nottingham

Were there other photographers around back then?

In the mid-90s there was suddenly a lot, but before then, I don’t remember anyone else doing it in Liverpool. I mean places like Erics were documented by Francesco Mellina and you had Tom Wood, shooting his Looking for Love photographs at the Chelsea Reach, but not so much on the rave scene.

Everything is constantly documented now. The late 80s and early 90s are probably the last period of time before everything was documented.

Every now and again an old photographer will find their pictures from 40 years ago, and everyone will be like, “Wow, look at these old pictures!” But I don’t think that will happen in the future. There’s just so much imagery of everything.

G-Love - Liverpool

I wonder with the states that people get in now, what it’s like with phones. Do people get up the next day to loads of photos of them from the night before? I do think sometimes, if there was camera phones in the 90s, would people have been more reserved?

Haha, good point. When did you stop photographing clubs?

When I got bored. And I guess I got bored when people started stopping me to ask for a photo. When they started to become conscious of the fact that they could appear in Mixmag and be famous for five minutes and it became more about that than being caught in the moment.

Cream - Liverpool

I also got older and moved away from the scene and my own music interests changed, so I moved on and I photographed different scenes.   

At the time you were going out a lot shooting photos, did you think people would look back on it, or were you just doing it?

I don’t think at the age of 20 you ever think that you’re documenting stuff from the future. Those times were pretty amazing, and everything was new. It was something which had never happened before. Now we can look back and say that.

Universe - Bath

What are your thoughts on the nostalgia that surrounds that era?

Good luck to them, but it’s not for me. It’s weird really as the whole dance thing has never stopped, so it’s odd that people are doing all this revival thing for something that’s never needed to be rediscovered, because it never really went away.

Quadrant Park - Liverpool 

You’re still very busy with photography stuff now, what are you up to at the moment?

Photographing and filming with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, doing commercial work with all kinds of organisations and documenting arts festivals and music festivals in all kinds of places. So I’m still documenting music and the scenes around it, it’s just a little bit more polite and with better hours.  

Mark himself - Bold Street, Liverpool

Sounds good. As someone who’s worked doing photography for a while now, have you got any wise words you’d like to add here?

Well, if it’s music photography we’re talking about, don’t hang about with shit bands. Although these days with digital cameras, I’d say just photograph absolutely everybody.

With film, I used to have to choose what bands to shoot. Looking back on the first musical festival I shot in Liverpool, I just photographed the bands I thought sounded alright. I photographed The La’s, but I didn’t bother with The Stone Roses or Pulp. But now, there’s no excuse.   

See more of Mark's photos here.