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How the New Romantics transformed British culture

As Margaret Thatcher’s political revolution unfolded, a group of style-obsessed misfits brightened troubled times.

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Most weeks as I proofread the back page New Statesman Q&A, I often wonder what I would say if I were answering the questions. To my ­surprise, I find most of my replies change ­depending on my mood, except for one. In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live? I’d have relished editing the New Statesman as Kingsley Martin did during the Second World War and its ­immediate aftermath when Clement Attlee’s Labour won a landslide victory.

Failing that, I’d grab another opportunity to live through the late Seventies and early Eighties, such an enthralling period of political and cultural upheaval as the postwar welfare capitalist consensus broke down amid rising unemployment, stagflation and industrial unrest. Reflecting on her ­early years in power during a speech at a visit to the London Docklands in 1987, Margaret Thatcher spoke of her “fundamental belief that if governments create the background and we free things up as much as possible, then the great talents of the British public and the British people will take over”.

This great freeing up had unintended social consequences of which Thatcher profoundly disapproved, and I don’t mean mass unemployment, which was deemed acceptable in the struggle against inflation. For at the same time as Thatcherites launched their counter hegemonic project and the Hayekian New Right seized the moment, we witnessed a remarkable flourishing of popular culture: a generation of largely working-class kids – many from art schools – embraced the iconoclastic, can-do attitude of punk to create an entire counter-cultural movement which delighted in its libertine bohemianism.

There was a lot going on. As punk morphed into post-punk and then new wave, new style magazines were launched (i-D, The Face, Blitz). Underground and pop-up nightclubs flourished (the Blitz, the Wag, the Cha-Cha). “Futurist” and “New Romantic” pop bands began experimenting with cheap computers, drum machines, vocoders and synthesisers to make electronic music overtly influenced by David Bowie, Roxy Music and Kraftwerk. The synth duo – Soft Cell, OMD, Yazoo, Pet Shop Boys – became a pop staple. 

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The late Seventies was a rough, bleak, violent period on the streets, the football terraces and the picket lines. As uncollected rubbish piled up and inflation surged, the National Front and skinhead movements were gaining ground. And yet, these young New Romantics were fearless: they knew what they wanted, how to find one another and what the dangers were as, in their outlandish clothes, they travelled on public transport to their hang-outs in London. “Gay-bashing” was an acceptable pastime for some back then.

I monitored the rise of this scene from my bedroom in the house I lived with my parents on a quiet cul-de-sac in Harlow, Essex. I read the NME, which had missed punk and was scornful of the New Romantics, and my father, who worked in the clothing business in London – the rag trade, as he called it – used to bring home the new style magazines, which we enjoyed discussing.

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When the time came, I cast aside my studies (such as they were), highlighted my hair, borrowed some of my father’s most stylish clothes and my sisters’ make-up and, with like-minded friends, went in search of what was left of the New Romantics in ­London, which is how I’ve ended ­being quoted in this fascinating new book by Dylan Jones, the long-time editor of GQ.

Sweet Dreams (the title is taken from an early Eurythmics track) is a work of oral history which weaves together interviews, personal recollections and well-chosen ­extracts from books and articles to offer a compelling portrait of the era, which Jones says ran from 1975 to 1985.

It’s long, comprehensive and features contributions from the central protagonists as well as those who wrote about, observed and photographed them. It should be of particular value to anyone interested in the social atmosphere of the early Thatcher years, when, as Andy Beckett euphemistically put it in his book Promised You a Miracle: UK 80-82, “Britain had a burst of energy”.

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A former student at St Martin’s School of Art in London, Jones was editor of i-D in the early 1980s. He knows pretty much everyone who was on the scene and what happened to players such as Steve Strange – the “Blitz kid”, Camden Palace impresario and frontman of the synthpop studio band Visage (other members included Midge Ure and Billy Currie of Ultravox) – who burned brightly and then burned out.

The New Romantics were more louche than the Futurists (mostly earnest and alienated besuited young men with powdered pale faces and long fringes) and some were notorious for their “cross-dressing” and “gender-bending”, in the lexicon of the era. Back then boys dressed as girls, and girls as boys, or something in between.

Think of Boy George, Marc Almond and Annie Lennox but also of the lesser known Marilyn (aka Peter Robinson). He was an habitué of the Blitz and the self-styled Club for Heroes in London, and had – to adapt a lyric from Lloyd Cole – cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin. Marilyn styled himself on Marilyn Monroe, even ­wearing strapless white dresses, and later had a short-lived pop career before ­taking too many drugs and disappearing back into obscurity.

The New Romantics’ wilful embrace of androgyny prefigured today’s identity wars over biological sex and what it means to be a man or a woman. “That ambiguous sexuality was so bold and futuristic that it made the traditional male/female role-play thing seem so outdated,” the punk icon Siouxsie Sioux is quoted as saying.

The New Romantics were brave and certainly outrageous, and quite quickly they moved from the margins of underground club culture to the mainstream. Boy George was a regular guest on the BBC One prime-time Wogan show and used to boast of preferring a cup of tea to sex. Some of the more aggressively heterosexual New Romantics, such as Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, who emerged from the Rum Runner nightclub in Birmingham, went off to conquer the United States, powered by slickly ­produced pop videos and the rise of MTV.

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I remember the first night a group of us travelled up from Essex to the Camden Palace nightclub shortly after it opened under the leadership of Strange, who is ­described here as a working-class Welsh Gatsby. The Blitz kids were looking for a new, much bigger venue as some of them enjoyed the first stirrings of fame and the revamped Palace turned out to be it. It was not easy to get in, especially on Thursday nights when the place was full of people you’d seen on Top of the Pops or read about in the style press.

Rusty Egan, the Visage collaborator who was also a DJ at the club, was on the door vetting who could come in. (Strange had been vetter-in-chief at the Blitz.) Suburban soul boys were turned away with ­relish. The seriously weird were embraced. It helped to wear a hat. Even better if the hat was identifiably a creation of the milliner Stephen Jones, who was one of the gang. I had a Stephen Jones hat bought from his Endell Street store in Covent Garden. My friend Matthew bleached his hair, shaved off his eyebrows, wore a tuxedo he’d found in Oxfam and white trousers around which he’d done something complicated with belts. We were in.

Several years earlier, Mick Jagger had been refused entry to the Blitz because he was wearing jeans, trainers and a baseball cap. It was a sound decision. The Blitz kids hated denim. On another occasion, David Bowie turned up at the club looking for oddballs to appear in the video for his new single, “Ashes to Ashes”. Strange was chosen to the irritation of George O’Dowd, the a­cerbic cloakroom attendant (Boy George in his pre-Culture Club iteration).

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Does any of this matter? Should it have mattered even then? In his introduction Dylan Jones writes that the Eighties were a “decade of cultural deregulation”, which is correct. Thatcher “had unlocked a ­Pandora’s box and released forces into a ­society over which she had no control”. The New Romantics understood that something was breaking down and something new was being born: they seized the day, creating new stylised versions of themselves, greedily, gaudily.

“The Blitz generation,” the author writes, “took punk and dressed it up… They ­anticipated the style-obsessed Eighties, when the world became a global catwalk. Narcissism plumbed new depths as haircuts reached new heights.”

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By the mid-Eighties, the scene was fragmented and fractured. The pace had been too fast. The non-stop erotic cabaret had stopped. From the ­beginning, the New ­Romantics seemed to have a “kind of nostalgia for the future”, Jones says. But now the future was behind them. There were obvious winners but too many losers.

Boy George was a heroin addict. Adam Ant suffered from mental illness. Steve Strange was so poor at one point he was paid to leave prostitutes’ cards in phone boxes. “I didn’t want everyone in my club on drugs,” says Rusty Egan. “You know, where’s the party?” Andrew Hale, of the jazz-pop group Sade, reaches a political ­conclusion. “The opening of that free-market, deregulated world we all grew into in the Eighties ­followed by all the ‘Cool ­Britannia’ stuff with New Labour in the Nineties had ­ramifications that were far more damaging in the long term.”

I found the whole period – vividly ­recreated here – thrilling but then I wasn’t a player. I was watching from the outside, from the Essex hinterland. And I wasn’t ­interested in drugs. “Mrs Thatcher didn’t really understand the sociological forces she was unleashing,” says  Peter York, the ­dandyish social commentator. “The radical economic agenda worked, and the ­conservative social agenda simply didn’t. They were tearing in absolutely ­opposite directions.”

In the end, the garish, technicolour world of the New Romantics faded to grey. But at least, for a while, they lived the ­sweetest dreams. 

Sweet Dreams: The Story of the New Romantics
Dylan Jones
Faber & Faber, 688pp, £20

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 30 October 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning