In the two biographies I’ve had published – with Neville Staple (Original Rude Boy) and Errol Christie (No Place To Hide) – the same question came up of night clubs that operated a race bar back in the 1970s and early 1980s. That is, in breach of legislation, they refused or curtailed entry to people on grounds of skin colour. You wouldn’t believe this could have happened in England within living memory – but oh yes it did.
The proof? Well, in 1978 the Birmingham night club Pollyanna’s was ordered by the Commission for Racial Equality to stop restricting black and Chinese people from attending its functions. Unbelievably the club not only admitted what it did but tried to justify it. Their argument was that in the interests of “a happy situation”, racial quotas had to be imposed. This included telling a university lecturer not to bring in a group of Chinese students!
Errol Christie told me that several Coventry clubs as late as 1981 operated an effective colour bar making it almost impossible for black youth to enter the premises. Ironically, the aforementioned Pollyanna’s did become a meeting place for Brummie punks and skinheads including a certain Ranking Roger, later of The Beat….who was black.
Out of my personal archive, I’ve dug up an ancient Sunday Times supplement from April, 1980 that was for the most part “celebrating” a year of Thatcher in power. Somehow appropriately, it also had a story about the new musical and style phenomenon that had sprung up alongside Thatcher and pushed punk and 2Tone to one side. It was the era of New Romantic and the Sunday Times had been down to the Blitz to find out who these fops and dandies were.
A 20 year old Steve Strange was identified easily as the leader of the pack. Running the Blitz club in Covent Garden, he would admit 200 “individualists” while turning away 400 who weren’t presumably individual enough. He also ran ‘soirees’ on a Monday night at St Mauritz on Wardour Street – “for intelligent conversation”. The music was Sinatra, Dietrich and Marilyn Monroe. All seems a tadge poncy now but that was very much the ethos of the time.
There has been a return to some of the design flare of the New Romantic era on the Hoxton and indie end of the gay scene. Kids are wearing make up again and extravagent, home made clobber. Back in 1980, one 17 year old wouldn’t have dreamed of being seen dead in jeans – a certain George O’Dowd, who went on to be Boy George. “I’ve looked outrageous since I was 11,” he told the Sunday Times.
Like many seemingly radical movements, New Romantic was actually very retro – constantly referencing the Victorian, Edwardian and the dandies of the Regency. It was sufficiently subversive to wind up the usual suspects in those days as well as being very camp – a way that many gay men could express themselves openly and others could experiment with their sexuality.
On the downside, it seemed to me to be politics-free – a recoiling from the anarchic message of punk or social commentary of ska. We were slowly reconciling ourselves to the devil in Number Ten.
Back in 1981, the King’s Road in Chelsea was a lot more cutting edge than it is today. Since the 60s, there had been very fashionable, niche boutiques. By the late 70s, Vivienne Westwood’s shop Sex – later World’s End with a large clock outside that went backwards – became a meeting point for punks.
What is a now a McDonalds was a night club. I went there around 1980 or 1981 and saw a New Romantic guy beaten up very badly by two or three denim clad heavy metal types. I still recall hearing his skull crack as a boot crashed down on his head. Horrible.
The Sloane Square end of the road was always very respectable. But the World’s End area felt a lot more run down. There were squats and the chunky Victorian villas were in a pretty dreadful condition. But the parties were great. And there was an eclectic mix of punks, Goths, futurists and a strong LGBT presence.