Inventing the Eighties

How the New Romantics transformed punk rebellion into era-defining pop.

by
The New Romantic musician and scene-maker Steve Strange, flanked by models, in 1981. Credit: Brian Cooke/Redferns.

Every revolution has unforeseen consequences. Some effects are quickly acknowledged as the uprising’s next chapter; others get swept under history’s rug or erased from the timeline. So why would England’s punk revolution be any different? 

Its well-known residue of reductivist guitars and post-punk angularity is the stuff of legend, and gallons of spilled ink — but it was hardly the whole story. What followed also consisted of haircut bands, synth-pop sounds and androgynous poses that the U.K. exported wholesale onto the early days of MTV, and which continue to overwhelmingly define what music fans nostalgically refer to as The Eighties. They too were children of punk — but do they get to claim the movement as a birthright? 

How the Sex Pistols directly begat Culture Club and Frankie Goes to Hollywood, among many other divine pop makeovers, is the subject of Sweet Dreams: The Story of the New Romantics, a new book by Dylan Jones, editor-in-chief of British GQ and former editor and writer at i-D, The Face and other publications. Sweet Dreams is an oral history of 1975-’85, following the routes taken by different groups of David Bowie and Roxy Music fanatics to stardom — or, at least, to pop notoriety. 

Each began by diving headfirst into punk’s normalcy-obliterating practices before tuning their own distinct subcultural radars. In the process they upended rock, pop, media, identity and even the demarcation between conservative and left-wing values during the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s reign of state-reducing terror. (Spoiler alert: Many of these artists were as aspirational and consumerist as the yuppies who helped define less-noble ’80s clichés.) Their sound may be forever stuck in sonic amber, but their fingerprints can be found all over contemporary popular culture — no less than those of their better-regarded punk progenitors.

The “New Romantics” of the book’s title were members of a brief, specific late-’70s British club culture that revolved around London venues like Billy’s and the Blitz as well as Eric’s in Liverpool and Birmingham’s Rum Runner. In this scene, a highly style-conscious clientele danced and posed to a mix of glam and electronic disco — Jones says it was briefly even referred to as “white European dance music.” Duran Duran was probably the best-known group originally identified with New Romantics. But the author uses it as an umbrella term for those original punks who saw their revolution as a great philosophical reset rather than a subgenre of rock ’n’ roll. (Not for nothing was 1976 often referred to as Year Zero.)

Boy George at the Blitz Club in London in 1980. Credit: Graham Smith/PYMCA/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.

These romantics reacted to Johnny Rotten’s declaration of “no future” with their own DIY futurism, decentering the guitar for synthesizers and a dance beat, replacing the leather-and-denim uniforms by innovating the fashion pages, and trashing the gender binary in favor of a then-radical sexual fluidity. The mindset of the dreary end-of-industrial-era 1970s evolved into the hypercolor, telegenic possibilities of the new decade. Once punk opened pop’s closet of ideas, the New Romantics went in and tried on each and every one for size.  

They were a disparate lot — different backgrounds, yearnings, skill sets — all looking for the new. Many, like Gary Kemp (songwriter and co-founder of Spandau Ballet), came from the working class, with a love of soul music and an ambitious “striver” ethic; Kemp formed his first band at the age of 16, after seeing the Sex Pistols live. Others, like Stuart Goddard (who became Adam Ant), were unmotivated art-school students, rubbing shoulders with the legend of the Pistols and their oracle-cum-charlatan manager, Malcolm McLaren, long before infamy struck. 

Goddard’s first group, Bazooka Joe, headlined the Pistols’ 1975 live debut at Central St. Martins, a London public art and design college, many of whose pupils were energized to become punk’s early adapters and, dare we say, its influencer class. They were writers and editors (including the author, Jones) and fashion designers and enthusiasts (regulars at McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s trailblazing boutique SEX), along with plenty of clubbers and momentary musicians. Many of them show up in Sweet Dreams to wax rhapsodic, but they also narrate their abandonment of punk, detailing how the revolution turned into mannerism, the music got boring and the crowd became a faddish mob. As Steve Dagger, onetime manager of Spandau Ballet says, “Punk had a built-in obsolescence. It was never meant to last long.” Nevertheless, the punk revolution did set the new audience’s core leanings — a mix of endeavor and transgression, with a bold aftertaste of cultural and media anarchy. 

As before, this new audience’s next musical direction was hinted at by Bowie, whose time with Brian Eno in Berlin aesthetically inspired the Romantic adoption of cheap technology, electronic rhythm and an Eastward gaze, toward Japanese style. Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” (co-produced by Giorgio Moroder, and the single of 1977) were musical touchstones for many punks-turned-budding-synthesists, among them Daniel Miller (onetime recording artist The Normal, but more importantly the founder of Mute Records, home to Depeche Mode); Phil Oakey and Martyn Ware (who founded the Human League in Sheffield in 1977); and Andy McCluskey and Paul Humphreys (who created Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark in Liverpool in 1978). The sound of synthesizer disco also became a calling for Rusty Egan, who abandoned his second-wave punk/power-pop band Rich Kids to become resident DJ at Billy’s and the Blitz. 

One of Egan’s partners at these club nights was Steve Strange, a Welsh transplant whose own life took a turn after a 1976 Sex Pistols gig. And though he moved through numerous punk/pop bands in London before finding fame as the singer of the New Romantic supergroup Visage, Strange’s greatest creation may have been the crowd at the club nights he ran, as doorman and promoter, with his Visage mate Egan. Alongside the young, pre-Culture Club “Boy” George O’Dowd, who played the role of the acerbic (and, according to Jones, pilfering) coat check, they oversaw a fashion parade that punk only hinted at: a mix of stylistic ingenuity, new-designer chic, extreme taste and hair that would soon become each band’s symbol, if not their actual logo. (Oakey’s asymmetrical cut in the Human League was once considered his band’s totem; the winged cut of A Flock of Seagulls’ Mike Score should have been.)

The Human League’s Phil Oakey performs in 1980. Credit: Martin O’Neill/Redferns.

Though many Black communities and soul-night attendees would beg to differ, Strange and Egan initiated what many consider the birth of London’s club culture, and when Mick Jagger showed up to the Blitz dressed in jeans and sneakers, he was ceremonially denied entry. But Bowie, the scene’s godfather, paid the Blitz the ultimate compliment by casting its most fabulous denizens in his famously pricey 1980 video for “Ashes to Ashes,” which many interpreted not only as closure for the ’70s but as a tip of the hat to his pop progeny.

Just as the New Romantics were helping to resuscitate modern fashion with their self-stylized record sleeves, photo shoots and live appearances, they were also normalizing androgyny — and, by extension, queerness. Where America couldn’t handle the gayness of disco, the transgressive appearances of Boy George and Eurythmics’ Annie Lennox were soon deemed safe enough for the cover of the rock bible, Rolling Stone. For this, credit goes to the programmers at MTV. It was obvious that all these sweet young things looked fabulous on video, which is why, when the channel launched in August of 1981, it became the perfect platform for the New Romantics’ international coming-out party. (It was certainly advantageous to these groups’ airtime that many traditional rock stars had not yet begun making music videos, and that MTV’s early days featured almost no artists of color.)

Unlike their socialist-leaning, safety-pin-stitched forebears, these class-climbing pop kids had no qualms about using every means at their disposal to reach for the brass ring. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan’s 1980s mainstreamed the idea of deregulation, enterprise and consumer desire as life force — and the New Romantics did their part to bring this ethos to leftfield music culture and to the self-made identities of its fans. When, in 1985, Pet Shop Boys hit the top of the charts with the contemporary bourgeois boogie “Opportunities (Let’s Make Lots of Money),” it was easy to see how their ironic commentary could be interpreted as boosterism. 

And yet there was something indisputably romantic about how a subculture had tilled its own path, creating a new route, a variety of sounds and a future out of what was, basically, a miniscule moment. “What punk did was liberate how people thought about creativity in the musical sense,” Andrew Ridgeley, once George Michael’s partner in Wham!, tells Jones. “It did for us.” 

That liberation and freedom took on a life of its own, so that, 40 years later, we remain in the shadow of its many breakthroughs. Or as Martin Fry, lead singer of Sheffield’s synthesizer soul-stirrers ABC, puts it: “There wasn’t a designer or a stylist or a record-company voice saying, ‘Do it this way.’ It was homemade. When I think about it, I think the whole idea of the Eighties [was] truly revolutionary.”  

Related

“The Flesh and Bones of Your Fingers Against the Instrument”: A Conversation With Thurston Moore

“The Flesh and Bones of Your Fingers Against the Instrument”: A Conversation With Thurston Moore

The guitarist, songwriter and punk-rock public intellectual on his fiery yet reflective new album, the challenges of the avant-garde, the significance of Black Sabbath, the dynamic of Sonic Youth and much more.

U2: Boyhood

U2: Boyhood

Before the stadium tours, MTV and Eno, the world’s biggest band found themselves and their widescreen sound in the heady post-punk era.

Essays  / Rock
“We Were Blessed to Have Him”

“We Were Blessed to Have Him”

Animals as Leaders’ Tosin Abasi reflects on the genius of Eddie Van Halen.

All your favorite music.
Best sound quality available.

Start Free Trial
TIDAL app