Sweet Dreams: A Culture Club for the Style Council
THE FUTURE AND THE PAST
There is a quote forerunning Dylan Jones tome on the New Romantics which is equally relevant to the blog and it is…
Sometimes, I feel the past and the future pressing so hard on either side that there’s no room for the present at all.’
JULIA FLYTE, BRIDESHEAD REVISITED
I’ve mentioned Brideshead a few times so thought it apt. Jones begins by describing the characters and music that defined the Blitz club in London’s Covent Garden on a rainy spring night in 1979. It’s evocative and it’s hard not to be nostalgic.
But the seeds of the so called New Romantics were sown way before the eighties even began in the midst of the seventies. An era where David Bowie and Bryan Ferry were holding centre court, the vanguards of the day blurring the lines between the future and the past. An era where OMD’s Andy McCluskey witnessed Kraftwerk from his seat Q36 at the Liverpool Empire and ‘saw the future.’
What happened between 1975 and 1985 – in terms of music, style, design and pop-cultural perspective – would have a lasting effect, and would be remembered for everything from gender-bending synth duos to the globalisation of the entertainment industry, a publishing and design revolution, and widespread social upheaval. Punk. Soul. New Romantics. Synth pop. What worlds were they?
DYLAN JONES, AUTHOR SWEET DREAMS
And there you have it, Sweet Dreams is not so much a book about the New Romantics, it’s a book about that decade with the New Romantics as a kind of centre field topic. The book works like this; a selection of quotes, memoirs of the time given by anyone around at the time (various musicians, editors, photographers, fashionistas etc) with Jones own narration in italics.
YOUNG ROMANTICS TO YOUNG SAVAGE (THE BIRTH OF PUNK)
The first half of the first chapter is more or less an ode to the influence of Bowie and Ferry from many different sources. Interestingly I could really get the vibe of Malcolm McLaren hating authority and Vivienne Westwood’s comment that Culture is an antidote to propaganda. Roxy Music’s Siren dressed in its sumptuous turquoise sleeve is seen as the first new romantic album – everything has an origin no?
Aside Bowie and Ferry the many guests (Robert Elms, Siouxsie Sioux, Neil Tennant, Midge Ure, AND John Foxx etc) recount the tales of where they grew up and what they were doing in 1975 and their respective journeys to glory mainly in the music or fashion worlds via various clubs from Merthyr Tydfil to Wigan to Essex.
How in christ name anyone knew of clubs hundreds of miles away back then I’ll never know. Kraftwerk, funk and soul were also important and this would fuse into the New Romantic sound later on. Given further reference are the many foundation art courses (much like myself) that all of these would be luvvies attended, London’s Central St Martins comes up quite a bit.
It’s amazing how many celebs were actually at the Sex Pistols gig but as future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant describes the atmosphere was toxic and dangerous. While Dave Stewart of Eurythmics (whose song titles the book) recalls meeting Annie Lennox in 1976.
I FEEL LOVE – FOR THE FUTURE
England’s Screaming addresses punk but more so shifts focus to the upcoming futurism that surpassed it in so many ways, the new wave. Giorgio Moroder’s I Feel Love being the catalyst – even for Bowie and Eno then holed up in Berlin.
And then we get round to Steve Strange – often regarded as the king pin of the New Romantics and unknown to me a Sex Pistols gig in Newport (Generation X and The Police also played there). 1977 was also the year of Bowie’s Low…
I’ve always believed that popular music at its best paints vivid images in the mind; that each individual paints their own images different from everybody else’s and Bowie had that capability.
MARTYN WARE, HUMAN LEAGUE AND HEAVEN 17
TRANSITION: A CLUB FOR HEROES
I think the New Romantics came along and reclaimed the night – amputated the yob element that smashed up gigs – and gave it back to kids who had heard of Andy Warhol. It was elitist, and that is what made it good.
TONY PARSONS, AUTHOR AND JOURNALIST
All I knew of 1977 was a nice pad in Berkshire, an even nicer BMW and trips to London, and Bristol. By ’78 my peripatetic tribe had decamped again south to New Zealand. My first memory of Kraftwerk would either have been The Model – a UK number one in 1982 or at a party on New Zealand’s Kapiti coast where Autobahn must have played for three hours at least on one of those turntables whereby the needle lifts and returns to the start. No one thought to change it.
Of course the Kapiti coast was a far cry from the white skies and ‘alienated synthesist’ winter air of London. I was old enough to appreciate the music but too young to go clubbing and on the wrong side of the world anyway. By the time I was old enough in the late eighties, music had already moved on to the acid house but let’s get back to the book.
The album from which The Model came was called The Man Machine and the book wastes no time in telling us how the band looked in their red shirts and black ties. From Kraftwerk and their phenomenal influence to England’s Sheffield and that can only mean one thing…
The Human League (well, apart from steel and Def Leppard, oh and Martin Fry but we’ll get onto him). Wonderfully the book refers to Phil Oakey’s deadpan singing style as a cross between David Bowie, Neil Diamond, Peter Hammill and Leonard Cohen!
Together with Martyn Ware, they came up with ‘The Banality of Disco’ against an oncoming tide of Thatcherism. The future was as bleak as those winter skies. I have to laugh at their clause of vetoing the word ‘love’ from lyrics – clearly that went out of the window (Love Action for starters). Coincidentally a trait shared with OMD (who years later also betrayed themselves – So in Love).
When Roland and Korg started producing cheap synthesizers, I really thought that electronic music could be more punk than punk.
DANIEL MILLER, MUTE
THE BLITZ: AN INDEX OF THRILLING POSSIBILITIES
How would I describe the Blitz club to people who weren’t there? It was magic. You could make your own magazine, you could be a band or a manager. We carried that on, so all the kids at St Martin’s could go to Blitz and for one night they could be a hero. That was our song: Heroes by David Bowie.
RUSTY EGAN, DJ
The Blitz is obviously about the club and the fascinating characters that went there. I don’t think I would have got in even if I had been the right age as I look too ‘normal.’ This is perhaps why JAPAN most interested me, because they did quirky music without the flamboyant fashion trappings of the time.
The book says Steve Strange was a lot smarter than some gave him credit for, as he understood that clubs were driven by people, not just music. The club for heroes could just as well have been called club for misfits – various village freaks who found each other in the big smoke. It was also mightily brave considering that London was a foreboding place for anyone who looked different.
It’s amazing to learn that Steve managed to acquire a flat in Baron’s Court, very close to where I was in Earls Court but I doubt you would be able to do that now without some serious dosh behind you!
One slight criticism of the book though is that the same names get dropped time and again and sometimes the chapters run away with themselves by quoting albums from years not yet covered. And as mentioned above no end of art school talent ended up at the Blitz from far and wide (OMD, Soft Cell) and it seems that the art schools of the time were very different from my time in the early nineties.
Art schools provided a particular context for people who had few qualifications or class credentials, and little cultural capital, but whose social ‘awkwardness’ – as Frith and Horne [described it] – seemed to have some sort of creative potential. Art schools therefore welcomed the ‘talented but academically unqualified’, who were encouraged to be self-expressive, and ‘find their way,’ but also embody the virtues of the idea of art as a practice.
FROM ART INTO POP – SIMON FRITH AND HOWARD HORNE
Nowadays one DOES have to display some sort of academic currency to enter the art school fraternity. In addition the price of tuition puts many off going so the cultural diversity of students is attained by attracting an international and wealthy student rather than those coming from say, a housing estate in the UK.
The role of science fiction which fed into the new romantic scene cannot be overlooked. John Foxx, Phil Oakey and even Trevor Horn cite J.G. Ballard as an influence on Metamatic, 4JG and even Video Killed the Radio Star.
When I saw the film of A Clockwork Orange, it all clicked. Electronic music, futuristic imagery: it was a perfect storm for us.
The white skied England I speak of above is echoed by a long passage by John Foxx, here’s an excerpt: London was a half-derelict mash of roads and grey concrete. The music was firmly based on the noise and feel of London, plus a few other cities. Beautifully awful places. Plazas, cenotaphs, motorways.
By contrast to Foxx’s January 1980, it was also home to the chime guitars of The Pretenders Brass in Pocket – the sixties reincarnated with a sensual strut, and an almost god given groove. The new wave could be many things to many different people. But the old guard were not over, by all means Bowie was still creative with Scary Monsters and Roxy with Flesh and Blood.
But culture was more than just ear candy; there was fashion, movies and even publishing itself. The Face, i-D and Blitz were all byproducts of the new cool, forerunners to today’s Wallpaper. And then there was Smash Hits.
Fundamentally, the New Romantics were the result of a groundswell of entrepreneurialism, a DIY ethos that, in the space of about eighteen months, produced an entire generation of creatives.
THE CHANT HAS JUST BEGUN
Spandau Ballet’s Chant No.1 doesn’t sound like a song about urban paranoia, it sounds like an English Earth, Wind and Fire.
It is one of the most important records of the early eighties, and this is not an opinion solely justified by hindsight. Pop culture in the UK at the time appeared to be obsessed with mixing the past with the future, perhaps because the present seemed to be so depressing.
And then we were in the magical year of 1982, the music, wow, the music. Spandau’s Chant seemed to pre-empt Martin Fry’s ABC, both Tears Are Not Enough and Poison Arrow exude a pop sensibility and marry it to a sophisticated aesthetic; red velvet curtains indeed.
The Lexicon of Love is almost an aural version of a night in London; the theatre then walking home, seeing the electric blue sparks of the trains coming out of Charing Cross and crossing the Thames on their way to wherever. A film noir for die hard romantics (new or otherwise) – they would do similar with Alphabet City some years later.
Duran Duran meanwhile were romantic on a more global setting, yes, those videos, we all know which ones. By May their second album RIO had appeared. No one knew its sleeve would become one of the most iconic of the eighties for decades to come.
The same month in Manchester the Haçienda club opened, Visage meanwhile were on the wind down with a heated argument over Steve Strange on a camel in New York merely for extravagance. It rained and the camel shat itself, hardly glamorous, Midge Ure walked – can’t blame him really.
Kudos to Rusty Egan though he stuck by Strange and that cost him (millions apparently). New Romance had gotten too big and attracted the money men, the shit stirrers and the shit evidently hit the fan and some right in the eye! Or the wallet.
JAPAN’s brief flirtation with fame is pretty much the same in the book, the slenderise of margins whereby Jones refers to them as a ghost ship, The Flying Dutchman of modern British pop. Which when you consider they got lumped in with the movement (the same as Depeche Mode) is about right.
Nonetheless to some of us JAPAN were and remain special and though Tin Drum was released at the tail end of 1981 it was in 1982 they would reap their greatest reward – 7 hit singles in one year!
The Style Council not a thing until 1983 are referred to in the 1982 chapter as the Nescafe Society, now that could have been a name for a band couldn’t it. Siouxsie and the Banshees meanwhile are classed as sensual psychedelica!
SEX, IMAGE AND MTV
We were probably the biggest band in the world at the time, and when you can have everything, you tend to take everything. For a while, anyway.
NICK RHODES, DURAN DURAN
1983 begins with Duran Duran and sex. Not necessarily Duran but let’s just say that then things were different. Secondary to sex is image – the original and tongue in cheek so often leads to the image becoming reality (Bryan Ferry being a prime example according to the book).
By contrast my 12 year old self touched down at a rather chilly London Heathrow. No air bridge so steps up to the plane (a BA 747), the chill was a refreshing slap in the face! Musically the first thing I heard on the radio was… Sweet Dreams (I thought it was Donna Summer, I was wrong) and two weeks later Duran made Is There Something I Should Know? Their first number one.
There were all sorts of things floating around in the musical ether. Orange Juice, The Lotus Eaters, Jimmy the Hoover! Remember that one? What no one was expecting was for Spandau to go all blue eyed soul with True, completely out of the blue. It was in November that America acknowledged it was in the grip of the British Invasion with Boy George on the front of Rolling Stone.
Now we can read Dave Stewart’s account of how Sweet Dreams (the song) came about and no surprise the record company hated it and said it wouldn’t be a hit. They were wrong too. Annie Lennox also casts her version of events and she’s right ‘everybody’s looking for something’ – a perpetual state of seeking. For those that like their album covers there’s a nice part on the image and typography used for the Touch album cover.
REFLEX AND RELAX
Here we find that the journalist Robert Sandell was less than enamoured by synth pop or the new romantics but he’s even more rude about Sade whose music he calls boil in the bag sophistication. He’s right about Smooth Operator though, that bloody schmaltzy sax gave birth to albums called ‘I Love Sax’ minus the sex. An immaculate conception for record label wankers.
We see how the ‘designer’ became mainstream and how Sade would – according to Jones – become the first designer band. Songs for the Habitat generation, a woman for all seasons and the first lady of ’84.’ Her looks were a talking point, perhaps as much as her (and the bands) music.
I can’t say I ever thought of her as ‘new romantic’ but she’s obviously a good friend as there’s a lot of space dedicated to her and even more about ‘Buffalo’ fashion photography and the life attitude stemmed from it. At least we learn where Neneh Cherry’s hit song ‘Buffalo Stance’ gets its title and inspiration from.
Duran Duran’s second UK number one The Reflex is not mentioned within the mainframe of the book but does appear incorrectly (along with Ultravox’s Dancing With Tears in My Eyes) under 1983 of the DISCOGRAPHY (it wasn’t a single until April 1984) as ‘surrealism as a pop single.’
The Miner’s strike is also evident – strange for a book that on the surface is about the new romantics and culture but politics is part of culture which in turn feeds back into music (Red Wedge, a pressure group that sought to engage young people with left-wing issues).
Its musical camp comprised Paul Weller, along with Billy Bragg, Tracey Thorn, the Communards, Elvis Costello, Heaven 17, Jerry Dammers, Prefab Sprout, Tom Robinson, the Beat, Lloyd Cole, and the Redskins. They failed to dismantle Thatcher’s government or her steel grip on power.
Next up? Frankie. At the time I like many had to have the album but it wasn’t too much of a surprise when their second album Liverpool ran out of fizz. Paul Morley (the famed journalist) meanwhile is even more vitriolic toward the Thompson Twins than Sandell is to Sade. For producer Trevor Horn though, Frankie’s success was like a runaway train. ‘By the end of 1984, I didn’t want to mix a drink, never mind a record.’
But 1984 also belonged to Madonna (Like a Virgin) and Prince (Purple Rain). What did surprise me was the inclusion of Hall and Oates (never a huge force in the UK as they were at home) kudos to Jones for including them. Big Bam Boom was a highlight of 1984 for me.
They are the most successful duo in the history of pop. Not that you’re allowed to admit it, though. When I first worked at The Face in the mid-eighties, I remember one junior editor almost going into shock when I recommended one of their records. In her eyes, the only thing worse than admitting to liking a Hall & Oates record would have been to actually be Hall or Oates.
But as much as I love them are H&O really new romantic? There are times you could consider them new wave certainly in their hot spell between 1980 and ’84 but not new romantic. Even more surprising was to be reading about David Sylvian’s Brilliant Trees! Good call there too.
It’s just a pity that when it comes to The Police – their 1981 album (and its brilliant cover) is covered in the 1984 chapter as a precursor to Synchronicity which itself had been released the year before. Bit confused why it appears here at all really (this is what I mean about the chapters running away with themselves).
Things get back on track with – no prizes for guessing – Band Aid wrapping up 1984 and it did. As Jones further observes… In 1984, our new Swinging London had monetised itself and bought into (literally) a world of Italian espresso machines, lifestyle magazines, designer fashion, matt-black hardware, silver sports cars and lobotomised pop music.
Nineteen eighty-four meant style over content, a Paul Smith suit, a Sade record (soon to be on CD) and a European holiday. In this environment, Band Aid seemed positively contrary. Which is possibly why it struck such a chord.
‘To die of want in a world of surplus is not only intellectually absurd, it is morally repulsive.’
BOB GELDOF, BOOMTOWN RATS, BAND AID AND LIVE AID ORGANISER
The major pop stars of the day convened in London on November 24 – 36 years to the day I wrote this and the rest is pretty much history. And so was the event of the following year. But again the only new romantic relevance to Band Aid is that a lot the talent that came out of it sang on it (Tony Hadley, Boy George, and Simon LeBon who along with Sting laid down the guide vocal).
LIVE AID and SYSTEMS OF ROMANCE
I was two weeks away from stepping on a QANTAS plane to Sydney when LIVE AID happened. A phenomenon occurring on two continents with a who’s who of musicians and organised in just 20 weeks.
While in Australia Simon LeBon had a brush with death on his boat DRUM – this is covered in the book too. But what isn’t is the fact that local bands like ICEHOUSE, Real Life and Pseudo Echo were using the new wave (Bowie and Roxy) as their style guide, unheard of in Australia.
When I embarked on my own foundation in the early nineties, the new romantics formed much of my listening. The music may not have been in vogue but its influence was greatly received.
I really think the eighties are very important in a cultural sense. I feel they are important because they gave a musical voice to people who wouldn’t otherwise have had that chance, and it was very amateurish, in a very British kind of way.
The handful of bands that came out of Britain reinvented pop music in a fresh, vibrant, exciting way, combining electronic sounds with something chic, an amalgam of what had gone before but also making something brand new that was our own.
GARY KEMP, SPANDAU BALLET
What we were actually trying to do was adopt art-school and Bauhaus principles to make beautiful designs for the masses. It was pop Bauhaus. It was shiny, modern beauty for the masses. Why can’t the working-class kids have something colourful and beautiful, instead of this shit we’re all living in?
ANDY McCLUSKEY, OMD
It was totally a golden age of pop, although the eighties are often demonised because people remember the big-hair rock and the big snare drums, and it all got a bit pompous towards the end of the decade. But up until ’85, it was amazing.
PAUL HUMPHREYS, OMD
As the book slouches toward its final station, it even gives reference to Brexit but also recalls what many romantics think of Europe. Speaking of Grace Jones song I’ve Seen that Face Before (Libertango), Jones enthuses that it conjures something completely original, a mixture of soft reggae, tango and chanson, as (Grace) Jones recalls a man she sees in every street corner in Paris.
In many ways, the song acts as a travelogue, taking us straight to a rainy night in Boulevard Haussmann, the nightclubs of Berlin and the cafes of Amsterdam to the airports of Scandinavia or the railway stations of Burgenland.
It was Kraftwerk, though, who truly shackled themselves to the egalitarian European project, where one could rendezvous on the Champs-.Elysees or go to a late-night cafe in Vienna – became a blueprint for romantic modernism. Who cared if you couldn’t afford it, as long as you could feel it. Who cared if you weren’t living the good life, as long as you could lose yourself in it.
By 1985 this ‘travelogue romance’ was all but over as reality came to say hi. Buy the book here.
See also SYNTH BRITANNIA on You Tube – one of the best docs on the era I’ve come across and one of the best new romantic comps CLUB FOR HEROES was actually issued in 1992 by of all people Telstar! Nonetheless it does feature a very good track list and kudos for including Icehouse by ICEHOUSE (not mentioned in the book) instead of Hey Little Girl – their only sizeable hit in the UK.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
Thanks again to Faber for feeding me a tome to read in this time of chronic cultural necessity and to YOU for reading here. If you like this and need a cultural teacher check out my UNIVERSITY page. Meanwhile, please check out The Atlas for more cultural shenanigans!
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*Regular visitors to the blog know I normally purposely pick unusual tracks by artists (not the main hits) but on this occasion I tended to opt for the major hits as they are the ones the book discuss in their cultural context. There are some exceptions; Visage and ABC for example. The book also has its own Discography.
Young Americans – David Bowie
Both Ends Burning – Roxy Music
I Feel Love – Donna Summer
The Man Machine – Kraftwerk
Being Boiled – The Human League
Warm Leatherette – The Normal
Electricity – OMD
In the Year 2525 – Visage
To Cut a Long Story Short – Spandau Ballet
Cars – Gary Numan
Underpass – John Foxx
Brass in Pocket – The Pretenders
Same Old Scene – Roxy Music
Ashes to Ashes – David Bowie
Visage – Visage
Vienna – Ultravox
Don’t You Want Me – The Human League
Penthouse and Pavement – Heaven 17
New Life – Depeche Mode
Bedsitter – Soft Cell
Chant No. 1 – Spandau Ballet
Tears Are Not Enough – ABC
Last Night a DJ Saved My Life – Indeep
Cantonese Boy – JAPAN
Time – Culture Club
Sweet Dreams – Eurythmics
Keep Feeling Fascination – The Human League
Is There Something I Should Know? – Duran Duran
Madam Butterfly – Malcolm McLaren
Lucky Star – Madonna
Relax – Frankie Goes to Hollywood
Thieves Like Us – New Order
When Doves Cry – Prince
Out of Touch – Hall and Oates
Do They Know it’s Christmas – Band Aid
Bad (live) – U2
Trans Europe Express – Kraftwerk
A Song for Europe – Roxy Music
Where Are We Now? – David Bowie
After a Fashion – Mick Karn/Midge Ure
Photo credits: Book cover from amazon, album covers from discogs, Synth Britannia from eBay.