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STRANGE FASCINATION: THE NEW ROMANTICS

AT FIRST, IT WAS A SECRET, AN ESCAPE. AT NIGHT, BELOW THE STREETS OF SOHO, UNKNOWN FACES EMERGED INTO THE LIGHT, CLAD IN EXTRAORDINARY CLOTHING, DANCING TO A FUTURISTIC SOUNDTRACK. IT WAS A NEW WORLD – AS YET, ONE WITHOUT A NAME…

Fame Fame Fame – what’s your name?’ said the flier. It was a Bowie quote for a Bowie club night, held weekly at Billy’s. Situated in the heart of Soho underneath a brothel with Rusty Egan as its house DJ, the club attracted a small but fiercely dedicated crowd, heavily made up, outrageously attired, all eager to see and be seen. Among the outcasts and the peacocks were George O’Dowd and his friend Peter Robinson (both to be transformed into Boy George and Marilyn), Siobhan Fahey (Bananarama) and a whole host of aspiring artists and designers. The night was so popular Egan brought in his flatmate, Steve Strange, as gate-keeper.

A few months later, they’d moved on to Tuesday nights at the Blitz wine bar in Covent Garden. Strange still kept guard, more a Pied Piper than your average doorman. Inside Blitz, with its war-time décor (gingham tablecloths, dusty lamp shades, Churchill posters), Bowie (and Roxy) remained at the centre of Egan’s ‘electro-diskow’, joined by the likes of Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder soundtracks. Yellow Magic Orchestra and The Human League featured as well as oddities he’d acquired in Berlin (Gina X’s No GDM, Telex). “It didn’t have to be danceable, it had to be right,” said Egan. Bowie’s Warszawa would be followed by Grace Jones’ La Vie En Rose with maybe a burst of Flash Gordon in between.

The crowd was equally diverse. The faithful from Billy’s flocked there (O’Dowd would soon be the cloakroom attendant), planning their outfit for a whole week; boys and girls of all sexual persuasions, including a bunch of working-class lads from the Angel’s council estates who would soon form the club’s house band, Spandau Ballet. Squat-dwelling, dole-claiming ‘fantastic nobodies’ would rub shoulders with somebodies like film-maker Derek Jarman or former punks Siouxsie Sioux or Billy Idol.

Steve Strange, one of those who most affected the course of style in the 80s, with Vivienne Lynn, later a journalist and fashion academic
Clare Thom and George O’Dowd on a coach trip to Margate, September 1980
© Graham Smith
Tony Hadley and Spandau Ballet performing on HMS Belfast, 26 July 1980

Strange’s door policy was strict. The look, not VIP status, guaranteed you entry. Infinite sartorial variety was on display. The Blitz was like a series of tableaux from a Fellini movie. DIY glamour; repurposed clobber from charity shops, costume (togas, O’Dowd’s Boadicea) and fancy threads purchased from the PX boutique nearby (Strange worked there). Artist Mark Wardel (aka TradeMark), a Blitz regular, recalls seeing a PX favourite there, a space-age suit, as worn by Numan; it made him look like “an extra from Star Wars”. Futurist garb vied for attention with those raiding the wardrobe of history: 40s Hollywood glamour, Fauntleroy collars, Robin Hood outfits. Crucially, a sale at Berman’s and Nathan’s costumiers meant Blitz-goers scooped up all manner of one-off period pieces, transforming the dandies into Regency Libertines or Elizabethans. Ransacking history or flashing forward into the future both meant escape from the gloomy present. Punk had confronted the moment (“Now is the time to realise, to have real eyes”, howled Lydon in I Wanna Be Me), but this new scene sought refuge from drab late 70s England with its rising unemployment and rising uncollected garbage.

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About Classic Pop Presents

In our latest Classic Pop Presents special, we immerse ourselves in the flamboyant world of the New Romantics. From the scene's origins as an underground movement born out of the Blitz Club in Soho through to the worldwide surge of popularity that led to mainstream success for some of the major players who made their musical mark, such as Boy George, Spandau Ballet, Visage and Duran Duran. Inside we tell the story of the Godfather of the scene, Steve Strange, and explore his pioneering band Visage with the help of Blitz DJ and band member Rusty Egan and fellow band-mate Midge Ure, who moved on to front Ultravox. We chat to Spandau Ballet's Steve Norman, who guides us through the making of their game-changing debut album Journeys To Glory, plus we head up to the Midlands to the Rum Runner club, which gave rise to another of the scene's major success stories, Duran Duran. This issue has plenty more to be enjoyed, including an exploration of David Bowie's influence on the movement plus eye-opening interviews with some of the scene's faces to get their side of this fascinating era, including Toyah, Princess Julia and Mark Shaw. Raconteur, author, DJ – and Soho's Wag Club founder – Chris Sullivan shares his hilarious memories of the times, and we strut the cat-walk with Blitz Kids, fashion designer Judith Franklin and photographer Graham Smith for our New Romantic fashion feature. Also inside, there's our Top 40 Essential New Romantic playlist, the design styles and artwork of the scene's many fine releases, and all with stunning photos throughout!