A rainy Friday afternoon in a photographic studio in north-east London, and out through the door and all the way down the wet staircase carries the sound of sunshine: Althea & Donna’s reggae song “Uptown Top Ranking”, Britain’s number one for a week in 1978.
“This”, says Dean Belcher, standing beside the turntable, “was the first single I ever bought.”
The room falls into a respectful silence. “Love is all I bring,” Althea & Donna announce, “inna me khaki suit and ting.”
Over two decades, Belcher’s photography has often intersected with the world of music—with portraits of musicians as well as intimate depictions of the UK Mod scene, of which he has long been part. Recently, between longer-term projects, he came up with the idea of photographing people with the first vinyl record they ever bought. He put out an appeal on social media, placed adverts in a couple of local record stores, and was delighted when 40 members of the public agreed to be photographed. When seven of them dropped out, he was even happier: it left him with a fortuitous number for those familiar with their revolutions per minute.
The 33 display a diverse range of musical tastes, from the raw punk throttle of a Black Flag record preserved in its plastic sleeve to a worn-looking copy of “It’s the Same Old Song” by the Weathermen—a violin-heavy cover of the Four Tops’ hit, recorded in 1971 by Jonathan King. There are children’s albums, compilations, soundtracks, records sponsored by Ribena, 45s with price stickers still attached or fastidious biro in the top left-hand corner. One woman remembered her 78 as the music she and her husband once courted to, another cried when Belcher played her copy of Art Garfunkel’s “Bright Eyes”. There are even three generations of one family—a mother, a daughter, and a granddaughter—each with their own distinct choice, stamped with the times, but still displaying a shared passion.
This afternoon Belcher is shooting Paul Vache, a personal trainer and dedicated steampunk from nearby Leytonstone. Vache has brought his copy of Michael Jackson’s “Off the Wall”, and Belcher plays it right through while he cavorts for the camera. “I bought it from a little stall in Walthamstow market,” Vache says. “I didn’t get pocket money but I somehow saved up enough.” He kept his savings in “a Benson & Hedges box”.
The title track begins to play. “When the world is on your shoulder,” Jackson sings, “gotta straighten up your act and boogie down.”
“Listen to it and think about what was going on at the time,” Belcher instructs Vache, and the effect of the music is tangible.
“It was a certain time of my life,” Vache says. “It’s sad as well. Bless my mum, she didn’t really understand anything. She was 16 when she had me, things were hard for her—I understand more now I’m older. And there’s a lot of stuff I don’t bring up, I just get on with it, but then, this record was sort of my medicine.”
Belcher’s own love of vinyl began at an early age, in the days when “you would buy what was on ‘Top of the Pops’, or what you read about in Record Mirror. You’d go to Our Price Records, spend three hours in there and come out with three singles and an album.”
He bought “Uptown Top Ranking” when he was 12 years old and flush from helping out on his father’s milk round. The next year he bought his first album, Plastic Bertrand’s “AN 1”. “I went with my dad to Boots in town,” he remembers, recalling a distant age when even a high-street chemist sold records. “And he said ‘Why d’you want this? It’s all in French!’ And the record was rubbish. But it was because the cover folded out, and I could put it on my wall.”
Belcher’s reverence for these records extends not just to the songs but to the peculiar power, the electric, near-conductive force music can exert in someone’s life. There was a particularly transformative moment in his own early teens: “I used to knock about with this guy Paul, who wanted to be a Radio 1 DJ. He was the only person I knew who had subscriptions to Sounds and NME, and he had twin decks in his bedroom and he used to make radio programmes. I was with him, reading a feature in NME about Mods, and we said ‘Shall we be Mods?’ And that day I went home and I put on my best clothes—which was my school uniform—and suddenly my Chopper was no longer Easy Rider, it was my scooter.”
Belcher lost touch with Paul a few years later. “I heard he went on to do local radio and hospital radio,” he says, “however it was never his main career—as far as I know he carried on in engineering after his apprenticeship.”
Alongside each portrait, Belcher has photographed every record by itself. “Despite being an inanimate object,” he says, “they all seem to have a life of their own.” As I make my way through the pictures, I can’t help but agree. Just like its owner, each piece of vinyl seems to carry its own expression, its own weather and wear. And this is the joy—that there in the creases and smudges, the torn sleeves and scratches, lies a story, and a magic. ~ LAURA BARTON