Three magazines from my huge archive of 80s stuff – Record Mirror featuring Blondie, My Guy with Steve Strange and No.1 magazine with the faces of 1983. Record Mirror was a good music mag but it never inspired the tribal loyalty that attached to the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds.
In the late 70s, it would publish painted images of pop stars, some of which I’ve framed as they were rather fetching. The mag closed down in 1991 but bizarrely, the name was bought by Giovanni di Stefano – an Italian lawyer most famous for being on Saddam Hussein’s legal defence team!
Oh, the eye shadow, hair gel and strange trousers – the turn of the 80s was all about the New Romantics. I remember in 1981 going to something that called itself a ‘futurist’ party. Seemed to involve a lot of guys in sixteen pleat Bowie trousers – which you could buy in the NME classified section. Here are some New Romantic types.
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.
We’d all taken to the streets and rioted in 1981 – or so you might have believed reading the NME. In fact most of us were in the boozer saying ‘you heard where there’s a riot this weekend then?’ with no intention of actually going and observing.
Truth is, we’d all gone a bit narcissistic and poncy by the end of 1981 – eye liner, big fringes (Human League or Spandau) and even though the economy was shot to pieces, people pretended to be decadently rich….on the cheap. Or as Ian Penman of the NME put it…
“This was a year when our narcissism was indiscreet; it moved out from beyond our keyholes and openly solicited us with its gaze.”
Yeah, just like I was saying. Ah, the NME was going through a bit of a wordy, pseudo-philosophical, deliberate purple prose phase. And none of us could be spared the ramblings of their scribblers. In the normal three page article on some cultural aspect, it would take at least five or six paragraphs before you had the faintest clue what was being written about. Almost as if the subject of the article was a total drag.
So Penman continues with this…writing at the end of 1981 in his wrap of the year:
“Nineteen hundred and eighty one divided into two clearly separated but separately ill-defined worlds, both lost in narcissism. The only dangerous intimacies took place in the scenery between these two worlds – but we shall take stock of these later. For the time being – two views. Or, if they are indeed narcissistic in nature – two sets of views.”
OK – anybody understand what that actually means!!! And he then went on to analyse the Adam Ant video of Stand and Deliver.
“Adam stops brandishing his highwayman’s pistol in favour of a hand mirror; this is the point at which we cease to be unmentionable scared. From anyone else it would be sexually hilarious, this switch from gun to gaze, but with Adam the threat is nothing more than a double entendre with no real punchline.”
Cartoonist Serge Clerc interprets the Spandau Song ‘I don’t need this Pressure on’ by showcasing the baggy trouser chic of 1981. The year when you could just about walk down the road with a sixteen pleat or more pair of ‘Bowies’ – unless you encountered a gang of heavy metal fans, in which case you were severely beaten up. I saw this happen to one New Romantic at a club on the Kings Road. His head audibly cracked under the bovver boot of a rocker – still makes me shudder to this day.
1983 was not a good year for the King of New Romantics – Steve Strange. In fact, I think it would be true to say it was the year when the writing was firmly on the wall.
His pop glory years were behind him though the Camden Palace continued to do a roaring trade. I went that year with my Liverpool buddy Austin Muscatelli and a good time had by all – even if we couldn’t find a night bus and ended up sleeping on Hampstead Heath. Oh, happy memories.
But Mr Strange was interviewed that year and said he’d been offered a part in a new musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber that involved going round on roller skates – Starlight Express?? Anyway, Steve was too busy for that.
He then said he’d been offered a TV film part for a version of My Fair Lady where a Malcolm McLaren type would spot him on the streets, take him to the top of the Post Office Tower (now the BT Tower) and show him London. “One day, this will all be yours.”
I’m trying to decide whether it’s a shame or a relief that film was never made.
Between 1979 and 1981, there was a shocking rise in youth unemployment in the first years of Maggie Thatcher. But alongside that was the rise of the New Romantic movement. It sought to achieve glamour on the cheap.
It was also gender bending and extremely camp. I can remember the curious sight of a very heterosexual jock at school going to a party in a frilly white shirt and Bowie trousers. He’d been into rockabilly a few weeks before.
The club that best epitomised this whole look was Blitz. It was overseen by Steve Strange who imposed a very threatening door policy where those meeting his required standards were turned away. Hopefuls caked themselves in make up – male and female – and bought their knickerbockers and velvet capes from outlets like Fab Gear (pictured), which advertised in the music press and fashion magazines.