Each decade of popular music so far has its merits and its embarrassments. But perhaps the most derided of them all is the Eighties.
Looking back on this most confused of eras – a juxtaposition of gloom (urban decay in Sheffield) and luminescence (the fluorescent socks your auntie bought you in 1983) – it’s easy to forget among the chaos that some astonishing music was made.
And in the first half of the decade, the force majeure in terms of British pop laboured under the regrettable – but perfectly apt – term of New Romantic.
The term didn’t emerge overnight though. For three years the scene – initially little more than the unusually dressed clientele of a single London nightclub (Gossips) and specifically its Tuesday night session, ‘Billys – A Club For Heroes’ – didn’t have a convenient title.
The concept of clubber Steve Strange, Billy’s began life as punk’s first wave breathed its last in 1978, and later moved from Gossips to a venue called The Blitz, a club decorated with World War II images.
The crowd, a mixture of ex-punks and others looking for a cultural identity, were fond of dandy-ish, vaguely late 18th-century clothing and make-up lifted straight from punk’s dressing-up box.
The air of fierce elitism which simultaneously protected and elevated the club and those who frequented it was reinforced by the snobbery of its staff. Doorman Strange turned away anyone who wasn’t dressed appropriately, or who looked as if they might only be there to snigger at the freaks – weeding out the riff-raff and preserving the atmosphere of in-crowd elitism.
Famously one such casualty was none other than Mick Jagger. Strange said he wanted simply to create an environment where the clubbers could party unmolested.
Steve’s ever-changing image also defined the Blitz Kid style: a blend of futuristic and retro elements that jumbled bolero hats, gold braid, toy-soldier coats, Russian cummerbunds, geometric haircuts and pillbox hats.
Meanwhile, an early cloakroom attendant was Boy George (then just plain George O’Dowd), who was later fired for thieving from people’s handbags.
As he later wrote in his autobiography, Take It Like A Man:
“Tuesday nights we went to The Blitz club in Covent Garden, hosted by Rusty Egan and Steve Strange . . . Steve lorded it on the door, making us wait while he turned away some poor freak from the sticks. I felt sorry for some of them, they’d spent so long putting on their make-up and landscape hats. The success of The Blitz led him to believe he had created the New Romantic scene.”
The music was as exclusive as the dress code. The club DJ was ex-Rich Kids drummer Rusty Egan (pictured at left) who formed a band called Visage with Strange in 1979 and filled his DJ playlist with the music of David Bowie, Roxy Music, Kraftwerk, Chic and the new electronic artists such as Gary Numan.
By the end of 1979, Spandau Ballet had formed and were playing regular dates at The Blitz.
Other clubs opened with similar attitudes to music and fashion and as the scene expanded, the media inevitably focused their attention on it.
By the close of 1980 Spandau Ballet had scored a hit with To Cut A Long Story Short and Visage had entered the Christmas Top 10 with their never-equalled Fade To Grey.
However, Adam and The Ants had also taken the charts by storm with three Top 10 singles at the end of the year, while Malcolm McLaren‘s new project, Bow Wow Wow had also emerged from the indie gloom – although they wouldn’t hit their commercial peak until 1982.
Even though the latter two bands had little if anything in common with Visage and Spandau Ballet, after journalist and author Jon Savage wrote a feature in The Face entitled ‘The Cult With No Name’ it became apparent that someone would have to find a proper name for the so-called “Blitz scene”.
The ‘New Romantic’ tag (which had more to do with the look of the Blitz scene and Spandau Ballet than anything else) was the one that stuck and travelled around the world.
The media and fans of the rapidly-rising Spandau Ballet latched onto the New Romantic tag like starving piranhas, to the horror of the inner circle who had revelled in their exclusivity. Suddenly, any new band which had a synthesizer and liked a dab of lip-gloss were New Romantics.
The roll-call expanded with great speed and before long a raft of acts including The Human League, Japan, ABC and Ultravox – all of whom came to prominence at around this time – were regarded as members of the clan, regardless of their musical diversity.
The rise of Soft Cell, prime movers of scene face Steve ‘Stevo’ Pearse’s Some Bizarre record label, added to the confusion: the duo – whose commercial peak would come in 1982 – were not New Romantics as such, but they certainly liked synths and make-up.
The die was cast, and Stevo’s 1981 label compilation – which featured many fledgling New Romantics – was the scene’s early benchmark.
Of course, many of the British public were appalled. On the surface, the New Romantic movement seemed – to those not in its thrall – to be based merely on a load of new wave elitist snobbery and an obsession with effete clothing.
How we laughed at “the clumsy boots, the peek-a-boo roots” that Adam Ant (not quite a New Romantic but definitely flirting with the idea) mocked so deftly in Stand and Deliver.
And with good reason: by the mid-1980s, when the movement had emerged from its painfully exclusive origins and spread into the mainstream, the quality of the music being made had faded.
What to conclude about the New Romantics? Yes they were self-indulgent. Yes they looked stupid. But in their own way, and on their own terms, they played as important a role in their era as the punks and the glam-rockers did in the previous decade.
Mocked mercilessly on all sides for their foolish image and relentless tribalism, the New Romantics still managed to hold their own for a brief moment