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Meet the people: Francesco Mellina

Music and fashion were always the passion for the flamboyant Italian photographer. Now his largely unseen black and white rock and roll world, focusing on Liverpool, infinity and beyond, is to go on display here

Published on July 30th 2009.

Meet the people: Francesco Mellina

You aren't from around here are you?
I am from a small town called Polistena. It is in the Calabria region of southern Italy.

Isn't that where the broccoli comes from?
Ha, amongst other things, and, yes, that is what they call us, the Calabrese.

What brought you here?
I came here essentially because of the music of the Beatles. And the whole of the football culture. When I was young, back home, we would get the famous Eurovision broadcasts. When the music came on, it was all Beatles and black and white images. And one of the things that happened was that Liverpool played Inter Milan. I came to know Liverpool through both football and music, two of my passions.

Did you come as a student?
No, I left home when I was 16 and travelled around Europe. I just wanted to travel. By the time I got here I would be 21 or 22, that was in 1976. My perception of Liverpool was that it was this mythical place. I always knew, at the back of my mind, that I would eventually end up here.

So you didn't know much more than that about it?
You have to put yourself in my shoes. I was from a small town and the way the communication was in those days, you got glimpses of something and it wasn't quick-fast media, so you had plenty of time to elaborate in your mind what this place would be. I had this huge fascination for everything Liverpool.

In the early 1980s, you and Paul Rutherford and Pete and Lynne Burns all used to walk about the place looking like you had just stepped out of a music video. Pete with his long braids and ribbons and black contact lenses. You all wore full make up...
I didn't !

...No! But there was the off-white sports jacket and the slick black hair... Very Robert de Niro.
I was always into art, fashion and music. All the things that have influenced me over the years and have made me what I am. One of my favourite subjects at school was art, something that I actually excelled in.

Did you find many kindred spirits in Polistena?
No. I was totally a fish out of water. But there is one fellow who is still lives back home; he was the only one who was on the same wavelength as me. And that was the reason I had to go, because I could not find what I was looking for. My mother used to say that though I was her son, I didn't belong to her.

How did you get by when you first got here?
I worked in New Brighton baths, as a life saver.

When did the photography happen?
I got into it because I wanted to be part of the cultural goings-on. I used to frequent O'Connors which had the readings of Roger McGough, Brian Patten and Adrian Henri.

Anything that was happening, I had to be there. Having longed to be here from such an early age, and finally being here, I was not going to miss the chance of being part of everything.

How did you end up falling in with the music crowd?
I heard about this fantastic place called Eric's. I used to go on my own. You can meet people much more easily if you are on your own. I must have stuck out like a sore thumb. They were all young and I don't think they had ever been in contact with an Italian person. There I got to know Mac, Ian Broudie....

The beauty of the place was that the same people who were in the crowd were the same people who got on the stage.

So you had to be seen to be doing something?
Exactly. I couldn't play in a band because I couldn't play an instrument or sing....so I took to photography as my contribution and studied it part time at the art college for three years.

The first band I photographed at Eric's was The Cramps. I thought “Oh my God! This is it!” I walked out of that on cloud nine. And I later became a good friend with Lux Interior.

From the selection here, what's the story behind the Pier Head pic, where you can just see Pete Burns and the DJ Storming Norman Killen in the bottom right?
That was a Royal Iris gig. There were quite a few, but here everyone was queueing up to see Magazine, with Howard Devoto. Wah! Heat were supporting that night. Sailing up and down the Mersey.

Did you ever look back?
Can you imagine what it was like? My hometown has an entire population of 10,000 people. When I arrived back in Italy, with my punk t-shirt and pink earring, it was kind of unusual, to say the least. People would make the sign of the cross as I walked past.

Blimey. Did you take the Dead or Alive gang over to meet your mum?
They probably would have shot us.

How come you ended up managing them?
By then I was working as a freelance photographer, supplying photos to the NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, and I heard that Nick Logan was starting a magazine called The Face. I was in London and I went to see him and I said, “Look, I've got these photos, you've got to see this guy,” - this guy being Pete Burns.

He said, “Oh my God, it doesn't matter whether he's famous or not, he's got to go in!”

When Pete realised that I was able to get him into a prestigious magazine like The Face, I think he must have thought, “this guy knows what he's doing.” Then out of the blue he said “Would you like to manage me?” I said “Yeah”.

Did the photography take a back burner then?
Not immediately. But if you are looking after a a band it takes a lot of work, particularly one where there are no musicians.

So I got people like Wayne Hussey in the band, who is extremely musically talented. Then you start to have a structure.... I went armed with the master tape of a single, It's Been Hours Now, to Geoff Travis at Rough Trade. They were very accommodating people and gave us a two-record deal.

You can ride these things out just on pure confidence.
Yes, no one will believe you if you don't believe in yourself.

Where did it all end with them?
There comes a point with everything when you think “I just can't work with that person any more." People see things one way, you see them another. And eventually clashes will result. I didn't agree with some of the things they wanted to do. How they carried themselves...

How did it feel, after all that effort, to see them have that massive commercial success with Stock Aitken and Waterman?
Well, I felt totally vindicated by my belief in the band. Nobody in Liverpool, as far as I remember, wanted to touch them with a bargepole. They didn't want to get involved with Pete Burns because they thought he was too difficult to handle. But the transformation started long before then. Pete was always into disco and we had top 20 success before then with That's The Way I Like It.

What of your photographic style?
I always preferred to take pictures of people performing live. People don't like to think of musicians as being workers. But that's essentially what they are doing, working.

Those U2 pictures are interesting.
I took them at at Eric's and they became a little bit of history. U2 were supporting Pink Military and Wah! Heat and they were third on the bill.

What I saw in them that night is something that I have rarely seen before. When Bono started to sing...and who could believe the guitar sound that The Edge was coming out with? What I felt was the passion.

Your job was probably helped by the fact that people trusted you because you were around all the time.
Yes, I would go to the Armadillo, just like they did, or to the pubs. But even the ones who didn't know me, like Siouxsie and the Banshees and the Stranglers, trusted me because I made an effort. I didn't just arrive there the moment they went on stage. I spent the whole day with them and made friends with them.

It wasn't a bad job, was it?
No, but in financial terms it wasn't fantastic. But when you are young you don't really think of it in that way. You are enjoying yourself.

Now we get to see your first exhibition with most of the pictures seeing the light of day for the first time.
Sixty are going up in the main display in the Conservation Centre upstairs. Then probably the same amount on audio visual.

What do you get up to these days?
I live in Childwall. I do photography still, but my main source of income is fashion. I sell clothes! I have a network of suppliers, Armani, Valentino, Versace, and I advise and sell to a network of private, individual customers.

How does that work then?
It's just me being Italian!

Has the digital camera made it easier for a lot of people to take lower quality pictures?
Precisely. Not only that but I think it can stifle the most important aspect of it which is the creativity aspect. When I was a music press photographer they would ask me to do Elvis Costello at the Liverpool Empire, so I would finish at 10 o'clock and have to go home to my flat in Lancaster Avenue, develop the negatives, dry the negatives, proof the negatives. Choose a photo, print it, and I had to give them at least a choice of three, then I would have to go to the station at 6am to send it by train, by parcel, to meet the deadline. Now that is working.

But working with film must be have been limiting?
Yes, you knew you only had 36 shots and because of the financial constraints you really valued what you had in the camera.

On one roll of film I have The Clash, Julian Cope and Pete Burns. Twelve shots of each. I'm doing 12, 12, 12, because I'm trying to save money. But at least I am capturing them anyway. Twelve shots is better than none, but now you have a camera that allows you 1,000 shots. So who cares?

Given the business you now operate in, does London not provide a more appropriate or lucrative location?
Wild horses wouldn't drag me away from Liverpool. It answers everything I could ever want because it is essentially a village, but it is a village that allows you to be an international. And the beauty for someone like me who is Italian is that I cherish the contact with people. I love walking down the street and meeting with people that you know, or that you haven't seen for 10 years, I love that banter and that friendliness. I love the way that Liverpudlians stand for what they stand for. I like the edginess.

Time for a book?
You know what, it's funny you should say that....
*Sound and Vision: Music and Fashion photography by Francesco Mellina, Liverpool, 1978-82 runs at the National Conservation Centre, Whitechapel, Liverpool 1, from 1 May to 31 August 2009.

As told to Angie Sammons.

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10 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

Stanley StreetMarch 24th 2009.

Aha! Young Boxhead, and is is that Wylie in the drape jacket?

AnonymousMarch 24th 2009.

Hilarious! He did a mean four seasons when he worked in the pizzeria next to Liverpool Theatre School.

Kinnel TommyMarch 24th 2009.

Crikey! New Romantics on London Road! In those days merely having a complete face on London Road made one a likely target for a good kicking!

Rusty SpikeMarch 24th 2009.

I think if you all take a closer peek at Francesco's visage you'll see that he's actually Tony Mulhearn, one time head honcho of Militant in Liverpool.

AnonymousMarch 24th 2009.

Pete Burns is hardly recognisable! How did that morfing happen?

AnonymousMarch 24th 2009.

That would be around the late 1980s, inny

Inny BoyMarch 24th 2009.

When was that, Anonymous? He was working at our school about 1974 or 1975. It was then he bought his Rolleiflex outfit in a fitted aluminum case.

Inny BoyMarch 24th 2009.

Of course we knew Francesco as 'Frank' when he was a lab technician on our school.

AnonymousMarch 27th 2013.

Totally pizza as far as I remember and well if he remembers JG....

AnonymousMarch 27th 2013.

It's not the best pic of Pete - slightly before the nappy phase I think! Love Pete - he's fab!

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