Exploring the early skate culture of Farnborough…
The post-boom years for skateboarding were a very strange time. During these ‘Wilderness Years’, the rise of BMX had gripped the nation’s youth and skateboarding appeared to be relegated to the past.
Despite feeling like outsiders skaters still felt part of a very special club. One with its own rules, language and culture. As with any culture, it’s always a challenge to go beyond your boundaries – and with word of a new ramp based outside of London, it seemed like a good time to play tourist.
At this juncture, it should be said that there was a strong territorial element to skateboarding. It was loose and flexible element, but it often gave rise to withering commentary between disparate groups.
The Brighton Boys stayed in Brighton (where they belonged), the London Boys thought they were better than anyone else (if they deigned to talk to you to begin with), Skate News, the esteemed organ of the ESA, featured scathing attacks from the Scottish contingent on issues such as who was actually responsible for bringing Caballero and McGill to the UK to begin with (they could often be a temperamental bunch, which is why I was always careful not to say anything that could insult the Scotch…). The only rough geographical demographic that appeared to stay out of any debates appeared to be everyone to the southwest.
Certainly Farnborough had a much more relaxed atmosphere than, say, Crystal Palace. Here, you were less likely to get beaten up for walking down the road (without express written permission).
Farnborough’s half pipe, in its original incarnation, was smaller than Crystal Palace and was a decidedly rough affair. But it also boasted proper stone coping slabs, although no platforms – which made it quite intimidating to do lip tricks.
Located in a pedestrianised area near a shopping precinct, a sports centre and a library, it looked oddly out of place. Most skate locations tend to be isolated to allow for noise – and to avoid any stray boards locating themselves in the heads of passers-by. Unfortunately this still happened on occasion, which was tragic (and yet also produced big laughs at the same time).
1983 seemed to be like an endless summer with a constant influx of new influences and new music. Crystal Palace had served as a good introduction to a broad selection of music for me, which included my first exposure to bands like The Cure. The combination of pop and whimsy that The Cure employed so well (on tracks such as ‘The Love Cats’) intrigued me enough to snap up a copy of Japanese Whispers – a compilation album that pulled in many of The Cure’s early singles.
But 1983 also saw the arrival of ‘Blue Monday’ by New Order. The post-Joy Division outfit had finally cast off the moody introspection of Movement to embrace a much more accessible, electronic approach to music – typified by the insistent electropop rhythms of ‘Blue Monday’. The single was huge and also became a fixed point in the musical background for skate comps for years afterwards.
Skate culture was somehow perfectly geared up for exposure to a wide range of music. The early 1980s saw a very vert-orientated skate scene (this is prior to the rise of street skating) which meant that skaters clustered around wherever there was a ramp. Someone always brought with them a portable stereo and this became our soundtrack, which could include a steady diet of The Cure, New Order, Echo & The Bunnymen (their album Porcupine had just come out featuring the widescreen magnificence that was ‘The Cutter’) and also more hardcore offerings from the likes of Black Flag (whose Damaged release became another iconic album).
Like most scenes, it relied on a team of regulars to look after the care and maintenance of the ramp. For Farnborough those roles fell under the control of Shane Rouse (the UK freestyle champion) who was also involved with the ESA and helped organise many skate competitions. Also, Ian Cocking – a local vert rider who was usually hands-on for ramp maintenance and who also chased everyone for donations and fees.
Shane and Ian made an odd pair as they were completely different characters. Ian had a very relaxed, casual way about him. He’d gained the nickname ‘Tragedy’ on the basis of sporting a Thrasher ‘Prevent This Tragedy’ T-Shirt – but also because being seen as the embodiment of the maintenance of the ramp he was also seen as being responsible if anything went wrong. Meanwhile, Mr Rouse gave off a more serious, authoritarian air and he was swiftly nicknamed ‘The Captain’ on this basis.
These sorts of jobs were completely unappreciated by skaters who wanted everything for free – and yet would always want to blame someone when the ramp was in disrepair. Likewise, we would regard the ramp as our own personal property when it suited us. For instance, if you were skating into the early evening with your stereo cranking out tunes, The Captain might wander over and switch it off and boot everyone off. There were obviously arrangements with the council about limits with noise and such, but we would just interpret it as an example of ‘The Man’ telling us what we could do. We were all a bit ‘Manic Street Preachers B-side’ back in those days.
A stern message was stenciled across the Farnborough ramp: ‘NO BMX BIKES’ which was another example of the battle lines between the bikers and the skaters. BMX was just a craze anyway (unlike skateboarding) – the same as Rubik’s Cubes (which incidentally were also banned from the ramp).
Farnborough also had a selection of regulars who skated the ramp most weekends. The likes of Trawler, H and Joe Evans, Danny Webster and also the Abrook brothers who, to be honest, didn’t look like brothers. Barry was the suave type whereas Mark was a much more intense character (with the maddest hair). Then there was Gary Lee, who was essentially the third Abrook brother. There was always something shambolic about Gary, who would not so much drop into the ramp as fall in – often with his helmet struggling to stay on his head.
Farnborough was also a popular spot for the likes of the legendary Davros as well as people like Don Brider and Mark Abbott. DonB and Mark were a tag team of creatives who had started out doing skate zines (and would later take on the role of editing Skate News).
Mark had one very engaging and wonderful character trait – which was that he couldn’t keep his swear hole shut for one minute. Meanwhile, DonB had this whole intimidating height thing going on combined with this very odd hairstyle – like a madder version of The Human League’s Phil Oakey. Don was also all about the music. I remember him miming swaying palm trees while Siouxsie & The Banshees’ ‘Mirage’ was playing from someone’s stereo next to the ramp. Here was someone who had a passion for music and I was introduced to a broad range of new and exotic sounds care of Mr. Brider.
Don and Mark had also conjured up a series of cassette tapes issued on their own Transfer Dry label. The tapes weaved together these odd little narratives; often using audio clips from TV shows mashed up with an eclectic selection of music. They were given these oddly evocative titles such as Audio Sculpture or 500% Boring featuring arty covers, which would combine in-jokes targeting known characters on the skate scene. Or pornography. Or both.
Later, this creative streak found a home with the pair’s own self-produced deck production company called Softcore. Don had set up his own screen-printing outlet at home to craft the decks with elaborate designs, often including the hand-crafted Softcore logo (which would have equally looked at home on a Cure album, oddly enough).
Encouraged by this cottage industry, I commissioned Don and Mark to create my own board which would be totally black, aside from the bold visual image of a ‘T’ shape on the bottom of the board. This had been inspired by Peter Saville’s fractured design of OMD’s 1983 album Dazzle Ships (the ‘T’ standing for ‘Telegraph’ – both the name of their own subsidiary label and a subsequent single).
Farnborough also became a popular destination of choice for visiting pro skaters from the US, which included a visit from Neil Blender, Billy Ruff and Rodney Mullen. The trio, en route home from the Eurocana Skate Camp in Sweden, stopped off to skate alongside the likes of Sean Goff, Steve Douglas, Shane Rouse and Danny Webster.
Naturally the Americans were bemused by the size of the ramp, which probably resembled an Airfix model kit version of the ramps they were used to skating. Despite this, both Blender and Ruff managed to knock out some impressively high airs – prompting the UK gang to push their own limits.
Danny Webster was, at the time, considered to be one of skating’s ‘Top Guns’. He had a very confident, casual style to his skating, which appeared to push the limits that our small ramps offered. So his airs were often on a magnitude higher than everyone else or simply employed a style that others had trouble matching.
Although Danny was a regular at Farnborough, at times when the ramp was in a particular state of disrepair he would rock up to Crystal Palace. One particular episode springs to mind where Mr. Webster was demolishing the hopes and dreams of the Palace regulars in action on the ramp. Meanwhile, Shane O’Brien and myself were looking to scuttle off to spend the rest of the afternoon skating in town.
As we were packing up, Danny asked us where we were heading off to. I looked at Shane and Shane looked at me. “Uhh, Kennington I guess”.
“Oh OK”, replied Danny, “Do you mind if I come along?” Again I looked at Shane. So this was weird – one of the top skaters in the country wanted to come and tool about street skating with us pair of herberts. “Hey sure” I replied as I continued to pack up my gear.
It was at this stage that I noticed something quite odd. I was wearing a pair of grey sweatpants and was pulling my socks over them. This was, for the time, a fairly practical thing to do.
Then I looked at Shane who, uncannily, was also wearing grey sweats and doing the sock thing. “Huh”, I thought, “I never really noticed that before”. It was then that I noticed that Danny was changing into exactly the same gear – grey sweats, socks over the top. Suddenly I could feel eyes upon us as the Palace locals looked on. I awkwardly packed my bag and all three of us skated off as the Crystal Palace boys waved off what must have looked like the Danny Webster Fan Club skating into the distance…
Back at Farnborough meanwhile, the creation of the ramp naturally led to it being a location of choice for comps organised by the ESA. In the summer of 1983, they staged a contest that drew in large crowds and a sizeable contingent of competitors.
The level of skating was quite fierce. Danny Webster, considered a shoe-in for first place on vert on his home ground, actually conceded the first place to Steve Douglas (then known as Steve Reid) due to injury. Shane Rouse, up against a variety of contenders, including the French, took first in freestyle.
Skate comps were important for keeping a sense of momentum going – and also helped raise the public profile of skating. At that time, skating was considered to be so passé that hula-hoop enthusiasts would openly laugh at you in the street. Apparently Ian Cocking was so self-conscious about being seen openly as a skater that he regularly used to sneak out the back door of his house with his deck hidden away in a bag.
But the other importance of contests was the social angle. It provided an opportunity for skaters to network and to form friendships and partnerships in a world pre-internet. Most of the news, information and gossip was transmitted via Skate News (usually a super-basic 4 page A4 sheet) or via skate zines such as Jammer or Rip ‘N’ Tear (both products of the never-ending Abbott and Brider empire) or Go For It, which was perhaps the most well-known skate zine of its time.
Go For It had been the creation of Steve Douglas and it managed to tap into this very irreverent community spirit that skating enjoyed at the time. It would combine a gonzo journalism style covering comps and events, along with sections simply mocking many of the well-known characters of the time. Much of it was quite cryptic. Who, for instance, was the ‘thieving giraffe’? We may never know…
As Go For It progressed, the quality of the publication improved. Whereas all the early issues were often typical crudely photocopied editions, around 1984 Steve had started issuing full glossy publications with screened photographs. It also offered an avenue for aspiring skate photographers, such as Dobie and Mike John, to get their work out to a wider audience.
Although we were still going through the ‘Wilderness Years’, there was a sense that skateboarding was advancing. Ramps were being constructed, crowds at comps were getting larger, US skaters were becoming a more common sight in the UK. No one was using the word “Revival” at that precise point, but we were traveling an interesting path and had no idea where it was leading to.