The new romantics – a group that included Boy George, Marc Almond, Spandau Ballet and Steve Strange from Visage – were arguably the last British pop music avant-garde. Even if today they are better known for being in the news pages – Boy George for keeping a young man hostage, Strange for sexual assault and Almond for a close-to-death motorcycle crash – between 1979-89 they were megastars. Against a backdrop of austerity, Thatcherism, homophobia and the introduction of Section 28, the flamboyance of new romanticism was a reaction both against the clampdown on dreams and the nihilism of punk and post punk. “The UK in 1975 was like living in post-war Cracow,” says Chris Sullivan in the text for We Can Be Heroes, a lavish new album of photos by Graham Smith, the scene’s unofficial court photographer, which also contains reminiscences by some of its members.
These were the years of living dangerously – the nightclubs’ names, such as The Blitz, evoked an atmosphere of menace, a Marie Antoinettish approach to life – as if the world were ending. Heroin abuse was also taking its toll. The scene combined the debauchery of Weimar Germany’s queer nightclubs with constructivist simplicity and austerity in clothing (via Kraftwerk, who perfected the style), with Fellini-esque nuns and priests and round-the-clock gender-bending. The figures in Smith’s book are a group of young people with nothing to lose, who ruled Soho (still a seedy place) and rubbed shoulders with pimps and prostitutes, at a time when you could easily be punched – or worse – if you were a man wearing a dress and make up.
Berlin was their temple (many scenesters were going to West Berlin to feel the wind of history at the Checkpoint Charlie and Neue Deutsche Welle clubs) and Bowie was their god. Scary Monsters from 1980 was the defining album, with Strange and George co-starring with Bowie in the Ashes to Ashes video as an army of sad harlequins, in a surreal, blue-boxed, nostalgic landscape. Derek Jarman had just taken his first steps in filmmaking, but his sets for Ken Russell’s The Devils (1970) were a reference for a scene where everything went, if it was decadent enough. Surface was all.
Visage never performed live: the music was as artificial as the plastic their costumes were made of. But they still presented an alternative to plastic-surgery beauty and the heteronormativity of the wider world – though this doesn’t mean the usual problems with drugs and hubris didn’t destroy it in the end. Strange and George especially, when they topped the charts, choked on success and are still paying for it today.
Sullivan tells this story in episodes, and he tells it well. It’s sad that people no longer dress up with endless invention, for the sheer love of clothes, style and culture. There was nothing trashy about the new romantics; it was the opposite of the “waif look” of rags hiding riches. They may have lived in squats and slept on the floor, but that was no excuse to be unglamorous. The only ticket to a Bowie night in The Blitz was a good look.
Some of the figures have disappeared – where are Stephen Linard, Marilyn or Kim Bowen? But we can look with pity at the much better known Studio 54; The Blitz was more interracial and multicultural, and played better music. The scene mixed contemporary New York no wave with mutant disco, funk, soul, and brought this music to Britain. The book brings it all together, with useful timelines for those new to the flamboyance.
We Can Be Heroes: Punks, Poseurs, Peacocks and People of a Particular Persuasion by Graham Smith (photography and interviews) and Chris Sullivan (text); Unbound Books, £30.