The Cult With No Book
By Nicky Charlish.
This January saw a small but select gathering in London’s Covent Garden
- the Blitz Club reunion. This wasn’t war veterans reminiscing about the London Blitz when the city was pounded by Nazi bombers night after night during the Second World War but the celebration of a club which played a leading part in the New Romantic scene of 30 years ago. Remember the New Romantics? Blind with mascara and dumb with lipstick, their leaders – singers like Boy George and Adam Ant, bands like Duran Duran and the Human League – cavorted across the nation’s television screens to the accompaniment of ethereal electro music and tedious tabloid shock-horror (‘is it a boy or a girl?’). That night, the dance-floor heaved to old New Romantics – and young Neo-Romantics who weren’t even alive the first time around – bopping to tribal favourites like Bowie’s ‘Ashes to Ashes’, Visage’s ‘Fade to Grey’ and Kraftwerk’s ‘The Model’. Onlookers wondered whether all this heralded the return of decadent glamour to the capital’s nightlife.
But this event raises another question. Almost every youth cult has its novels by which it’s defined, remembered. The Bright Young Things of the 1920s had Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies and Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat. A decade later, Soho’s young criminals had The Gilt Kid by James Curtis. The youth of the Forties didn’t have novels – they’d be remembered by history books and war memorials. The early Mods of the 1950s had Absolute Beginners by Colin Maclnnes, whilst the Chelsea Set wide-boys of the Sixties had The Crust on Its Uppers by Robin Cook (later to reinvent himself as crime writer Derek Raymond). The 1970s skinheads would have the Skinhead series of novels by Richard Allen. Given their impact on youth culture – more of this in a moment – you might expect the New Romantics to have been similarly commemorated. But it remains the one cult conspicuous by its absence from literary recognition.
Why is this? Surely there’d be some mileage in recording their decadence if nothing else. Instead they’ve been ignored, because they were in the right place (centre-stage in the public’s view) at the wrong time (political turmoil).
But who were the New Romantics? Where did they come from? Why should we bother with them?
Tracing the origins of any youth cult isn’t a straightforward task: it’s like trying to build a picture of a long-dead civilization with scattered artefacts recovered from archaeological excavations. But let’s try with the New Romantics by looking at some contributing factors.
From the early 1960s, British art schools expanded: the numbers going into art education rose by about 70 percent. Applied Arts became newly important: the designer increasingly became a star figure. These arts graduates felt that Britain, still emerging from post-war austerity, needed fresh design input and that they were the ones to provide it. Meanwhile, the influence of American life-style references and arts – cue Lichtenstein’s cartoons and Warhol‘s soup cans – started to make itself felt. Style with a twist became the default thought-mode for these new designers and their followers. Cultural commentator Peter York has described such people as ‘Thems’ who “…wear their rooms, eat their art.” They were “cognoscenti of trash, afficianados of sleaze.” Famous Thems would include figures like Zandra Rhodes, Andrew Logan (of Alternative Miss World fame), Molly Parkin, Gilbert and George, and Manolo Blahnik. Their sensibility spread into mainstream life: Biba, the Art Deco clothes-store in Kensington, was their retail flagship; Elton John was a walking Hockney Californian poolside portrait; films like Performance and The Man Who Fell to Earth reflected their influence.
Into this ethos fitted glam rock or, rather, two of its leading practitioners: Bryan Ferry – along with his band, Roxy Music – and David Bowie. Ferry’s various visual guises – tuxedo Hollywood, American GI – showed a rocker who loved fashion, presented himself with taste, style, elegance, and detachment. Bowie showed working-class kids that they, too, could be art objects. While straight boys loved Bowie for the riffs on ‘Space Oddity’, gay boys thrilled to his clothes and make-up. Both performers gave an object-lesson in a pick-and-mix approach to visual presentation.
All this was nourishment for putative Thems from suburbs and council estates, girls who didn’t swoon over bubble-gum pop groups like the Bay City Rollers and gay boys who idolised film stars rather than footballers. Also, there was a long tradition of working-class stylishness – think of the 1940s spivs (minor criminals) who dressed in pinstripe suits and fedoras like Hollywood gangsters, or the cool, sophisticated working-class spy Harry Palmer portrayed by Michael Caine in The Ipcress File. It was exemplified in the early 1970s by the Soul Boys who loved (natch) Soul music and sharp dressing. Ferry and Bowie had aesthetic appeal for them. Finally, socio-sexual outsiders also received encouragement from the 1972 film Cabaret, with its portrayal of decadent pre-Nazi Berlin and free-ranging bisexuality and, three years later, The Naked Civil Servant, the bio-pic about effeminate homosexual Quentin Crisp. Today, when it’s the norm for Conservative politicians to take part in gay pride events, it’s difficult to remember the impact such films had then.
This mixture of arty folk and sexual/class outsiders provided the early foot-soldiers of Punk. Glam rock had lost its edge, debased by clumpy bands like Mud and The Sweet: Punk was a breath of fresh air. Treat the political message about ‘Anarchy in the UK’ that was slung round Punk’s neck like a studded dog-collar with caution: fashion writer Jane Mulvagh has argued that Punk’s general bad behaviour had more to do with a teenage desire to bait authority, shock parents, have sex and get wasted than any desire to effect political transformation, whilst undue weight was given to Punk Svengali Malcolm McLaren’s anarchistic Situationist declarations. Arguably, few Punk records would have been shifted without the visual aids of safety-pins, bondage-trousers and outrage.
The founder punks moved on when the scene became frighteningly yobbish and boringly politicised. Enter the New Romantics. Like Punk, New Romanticism started-out as a London scene. In 1978 two London scenesters – musician Steve Strange and DJ Rusty Egan – started Bowie Night at Billy’s, a Soho club, transferring the following year to the Blitz, a Covent garden wine-bar. Here, exotically-dressed outsiders – Ruritanian, military and Shakespearian dress styles originally predominated – had their own, exclusive style space. (At first, no-one knew what to call them. ‘The Cult with no Name’ was one suggested label, but the press eventually settled for ‘New Romantics’, presumably after the cult of dressy young people who emerged following the French Revolution.) There were provincial New Romantic outposts in Birmingham, Manchester and Leeds, whilst New York and West Berlin (the Iron Curtain had yet to be torn down) eventually had their scenes.
But what gives the New Romantics their cultural significance? The Blitz answers this question because it was a roll-call of cultural achievers and trend-setters for the next 20 years. First, Steve Strange applied a stringent door policy, selecting the seriously style-conscious – those who could get that indefinable thing, the ‘look’, just right – and weeding-out mere onlookers (like the door policy that had helped give the legendary New York disco Studio 54 its exclusive status). Then, to a background of eclectic (Kraftwerk, Bowie, Ferry, Iggy, Siouxsie) music for posing – music to a Wilde beat, music for role-play, reinvention, style, surface – future pace-setters in the arts partied and networked: film-makers Derek Jarman and John Maybury, fashion designers Jasper Conran and John Galliano, milliner Stephen Jones, DJ Jeremy Healey, Daniel Miller (future founder of influential Mute Records), musicians Martin Degville, Pete Burns, Midge Ure (of synthesizer band Ultravox) and Steve Dagger, manager of New Romantic in-house band Spandau Ballet. Dagger perfected the art of getting gigs in off-beat but interesting venues – warehouses, hair-dressing salons, even H.M.S. Belfast – as a way of attracting attention beyond the world of the conventional music press. Boy George manned the cloakroom.
Did this small coterie really have any influence worth mentioning? As with Punk, there is a danger of taking the New Romantics’ influence too seriously. (Punk didn’t dominate the 1970s – bands like Abba, Boney M and Hot Chocolate did.) During the 1980s, Top of the Pops still had its fair share of MOR bands, and the streets didn’t suddenly become safe for boys in make-up. But we shouldn’t underestimate its importance either. The New Romantics’ skill at promoting themselves and their ethos was comparable to the way Andy Warhol gained fame – for a rather longer period longer than the 15 minutes he predicted that everyone would get – by the skillful promotion of his style, films and hangers-on at his legendary Factory.
New Romantic sensitivity spread into the wider culture. Its clothing – especially the ‘Pirate’ look pioneered by Vivienne Westwood – captured the fashion world’s interest and ensured that fashionistas would always keep an eye on what British designers were doing. The ‘one-nighter’ theme club – a product of the scene – rejuvenated the nation’s night-life. The growth of the pop video was due to British New Romantic bands: their visual style made them a collective natural feature – and promotional motor – for MTV when it took off in the 1980s (Annie Lennox disturbed American audiences with her playful use of androgyny). New Romantics’ electro synthesizer music paved the way for house, dance and – eventually – technology-based ‘boffin’ music: any bands that have created their sound with gadgets in a bedroom rather than with musical instruments in a garage owe a debt of gratitude to outfits like Visage and Heaven 17. Blitz regulars helped found The Face, arguably the most influential ‘style’ magazine to be established in that decade and which would give rise to a host of similar ones such as ;-0. (Journalist, broadcaster and Blitz regular Robert Elms got his big break with The Face.) These magazines fostered the importance of design, and today’s domestic and technical style-consciousness owes them a debt, too.
Youth cults have a limited visible shelf life – even though they may leave long-lasting influences for the future – and the New Romantics were no exception. By 1987- the year of the economic crash and the coming of Acid House trance/dance music – the scene was played-out. Cultural decades don’t fit symmetrically with calendar ones and, culturally speaking, the Nineties effectively started in 1987. Lovers of dressing-up gravitated to the gothic, fetish or transvestite scenes – all, arguably, beneficiaries of New Romanticism.
So, back to books. Why has there been no literary commemoration of the New Romantics? Simple. They came over as being apolitical and this was unfortunate, for Britain was in the midst of the economic and political upheavals initiated by Thatcher. Politicised journalists of the rock papers – conveniently forgetting that they were part of the capitalist press themselves – took a dim view not only of the Iron Lady’s policies but also of those performers who didn’t seem all that concerned about them. New Romantic bands were disliked for appearing to enjoy the economic fruits of their labours, although the rock industry had never exactly been run as a not-for-profit charity whilst its foot-soldiers had not been noted for their lack of hedonism. Duran Duran suffered from being liked by Princess Diana, who had yet to swap media status as immature Sloane Ranger for that of iconic People’s Princess. The scene’s flamboyant clothing was disliked too, although Ferry and Bowie had hardly been models of sartorial restraint. A subliminal mix of Puritanism with homophobia may have played a part here.
Cultural mud sticks, and whilst some televisual fame has been given to Blitz – it was portrayed in an episode of cult TV series Ashes to Ashes – novels about the New Romantic scene have yet to be written. Well, that’s not quite true. Nicholas Blincoe’s 1998 noir novel Manchester Slingback mentions New Romantic music, clothes and nightlife in its portrayal of Manchester’s mid-Eighties gay scene. Robert Elms’ In Search of the Crack looks at the straighter side of early 80s London clubbing whilst London lesbian club Heds – that decade’s precursor of lipstick lesbianism – gets a name-check in Armistead Maupin’s novel Babycakes. The New Romantics may have appeared superficial, but they were deeply superficial and the cult – 30 years on from its public beginnings at Billy’s – is ripe for cultural reappraisal. And novels.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nicky Charlish is a freelance writer and proofreader who has contributed to, among other publications, Melody Maker, Record Mirror, Midweek and, currently, to Penpusher and the Culture Wars reviews of the Institute of Ideas.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, February 10th, 2011.