inside the warzone: photographing belfast’s 90s punk scene
New book 'Belfast Punk' tells the story of the small counter-cultural hub that went on to become known as one of the most credible D.I.Y. venues in Europe.
There's a lyric in an old song by Belfast anarcho-punks Toxic Waste that goes, "I am not a Catholic, I am not a Protestant, I am not Irish, I am not British, I am me, I am an individual. Fuck your politics, fuck your religion, I will be free, we will be free!". As far as one line summations of the Belfast punk scene go, it's as good as any.
"It's often been said that the reason punk was more popular in the north of Ireland than anywhere else in the world, is because we needed it more," confirms Toxic Waste guitarist Marty Martin, by means of an introduction to new book, Belfast Punk: Warzone Centre 1997 - 2003. A city that had, by the mid-90s, seen sectarian divisions between Catholic and Protestant deepen to the point of almost permanent stagnation, punk offered a respite; an alternative to the ongoing cultural lethargy and an opportunity to draw identity from something other than religious lines.
Congregating around a space known as the 'Warzone Centre' during the tail end of the 90s, Belfast Punk tells the story of the small counter-cultural hub that went on to become one of the most credible D.I.Y. venues in Europe. Captured through the lens of Belfast photographer Ricky Adam, then a suburban punk (and would be drummer) in his late teens, the book documents a small window in time — one in which the alternative ethos of the punk scene became a liberating space for many coming of age in the shadow of Northern Ireland's violent past.
"Even though the photos in this book are of a later generation, the majority of people who frequented the Warzone had grown up during The Troubles," says Ricky. "The punk scene offered a welcome escape from all of that. No matter what side of the city you lived on, it provided a place where people were welcome. No questions asked."
What was the Warzone Centre and when did you first start going?
The Warzone Centre was a youth and community center in the city of Belfast. It was an all ages venue that originally opened in 1986 with the help of Belfast's new center for the unemployed and was run by punks. In 1991, the venue moved to a much bigger building which is where all of the photos in this book were taken. Over the years it became infamous as being one of the most credible venues in Europe for D.I.Y. punk. I can't remember exactly when I started going but it must have been around 1995 or thereabouts.
What made it so special? Can you describe a typical night?
There wasn't anywhere else like it in the city. The center was very much built on a D.I.Y. ethos and was self governed by a collective of people who helped run it. If you wanted to do something, for instance put a band on, or organize some sort of show, the center gave you that opportunity. It was a free-thinking space that challenged convention and offered people a chance to create and present their own ideas, voice opinions, and make real change that went far beyond the confines of the center.
It isn't unique, there are similar autonomous venues such as Gilman Street in San Francisco, The 1 in 12 Club in Bradford, and many other places in Europe or around the world. What made this place so special was the fact that it was in Belfast, it was run by punks, and somehow bulldozed its way through a large period of The Troubles with a collective 'fuck you' to anything that resembled violence or the so called 'religious war'.
I'm not sure there was ever such a thing as a typical night. Whoever was playing dictated what sort of crowd would show up. There was no bar so people would show up with alcohol and whatever else turned their crank. You can probably gather from the photos as the night wore on it often turned into utter carnage and entropy. That said, a lot of people came to simply to hang out, chat, and watch the bands. There was a good cross section of creative folk ranging from musicians, artists, anarchists, and oddballs.
What were some of the gigs you saw there?
I saw a lot of bands play over the years. The more memorable ones being Jawbreaker, Bluetip, Bleeding Rectum, Los Crudos, Hard Skin, Godflesh …the list goes on. It was a real cross section of varying musical styles. Everything from political hardcore bands to avant-garde art type punk bands. Crowd numbers were often unpredictable. On a rainy Wednesday night in the middle of winter there could be 10 people (or less) stood around watching a band that had travelled halfway around the globe to play Belfast. On the other hand there could be 200 plus people. Either way, bands always received a warm welcome.
What did spaces such as the Warzone Centre provide for suburban kids like yourself?
I was born and grew up in the suburbs during the mid-70s and 80s, just twelve miles away from Belfast, but I was well buffered from the grim reality of the goings on in the city and further afield. It took me a while to grasp that Northern Ireland is a strange place to grow up in.
In my teens, I didn't think that I was remotely political. Like everyone who lived in N.I., I grew up listening to this continual background drone of Northern Irish politics, which in turn made me distance myself and stopped me forming any sort of political outlook of my own. But without my realizing it, playing a part in the punk scene was very much a political act. Punk rejected mainstream politics and the narrow minded views that were prevalent. The center raised a middle finger firmly in the face of violence, religion, bigotry, sexism, sectarianism, and anything else that flew in the face of common decency. It offered its own set of politics, it provided a stage and enabled people to talk about issues of sexuality, women's rights, animal rights, etc. It also provided the opportunity to throw down power chords of face melting riffage through the house speaker stack!
My friends and I used the space a lot for band practice and in the early 2000's a recording studio was built which we used to record demo tapes etc. There was also a cafe which was open during the day. It was very much a hang out, somewhere you could go on a rainy winter's afternoon to listen to records, get a coffee, that sort of thing.
At what point did you start taking photographs there? Do you have a favorite image from the book?
I got my very first camera in 1997. At the time, I just snapped photos here and there without any real intention. I was more into drumming in bands than taking photos, and in hindsight I wish I'd taken more. But in some respect I really like the naiveté that comes through in the pictures.
I have to say it was a strange feeling editing the photographs for the book. Late nights spent hunched over a light box peering at negatives, reliving a past life. I'm not one for living in the past, but it is nice to have some sort of record from this time. A trail of history of sorts.
I'm not sure I have a single favorite. Many of them hold different memories. The photo of Mero, vocalist from Knifed, in his leather gear looming over those two kids is up there. I just remember turning around, and these kids had appeared from seemingly nowhere. Mero started asking them if they were enjoying the show and other random stuff, much to the amusement of the crowd. Probably scarred them for life! Scary to think those kids are well into their 20's now.
What does punk continue to mean in 2017?
'Punk' inevitably means different things to different people. It's a very difficult thing to define these days. Personally, I think punk — or whatever you want to call it — is more vital now than it has been in a long time. Between Trump, Brexit, and everything else that's going rotten around the globe there's a sour reek. Young people have a sense of empowerment and are resisting in a way we haven't seen for a long time. It's palpable, and they have good reason to be pissed off! Back when punk shed it's gimmicky, commercial high street appeal bands such as Crass, Fugazi, Conflict — to name but a few — gave punk a political outlook. Punk is so much more than kids with funny haircuts and studded jackets. It is direct action and it can make change happen.
i-D's Belfast Punk Playlist by Ricky Adam
Bleeding Rectum, Very Unpleasant Indeed
Pink Turds in Space, No More Sectarian Shit
Runnin' Riot, Alcoholic Heroes
The Redneck Manifesto, Friendship
The Farewell Bend, In Passing
John Holmes, Everything Went Blacker
The Kabinboy, From John Holmes Split
Submission Hold, Sackcloth & Ashes (The Ostrich Dies On Monday)
Belfast Punk: Warzone Centre 1997 - 2003 is published by Damiani.
Text Matthew Whitehouse