Take It Like a Man

Take It Like a Man: The Autobiography of Boy George (1995)
Boy George with Spencer Bright

boy george 4

In the 1980s, one of the most common descriptors applied to Boy George was “gender bending”. It was a phrase meant to encapsulate a look that many found to be shocking at the time. His name was “Boy George” yet he looked like a girl! What I found while reading his autobiography, however, was that “gender bending” was not the intention behind his hair, makeup, and fashion choices. He wasn’t trying to look “like a girl” but was rather just trying to be pretty. Prettiness wasn’t something Boy George thought belonged exclusively to women and he liked the way he looked with makeup on better than he did without it. Thirty years later, we understand that gender doesn’t exist in a binary and a whole new set of terminology has developed in order to accommodate individual experiences along the gender spectrum.

We know that makeup and beauty aren’t exclusive to cisgendered women but this was a more radical idea in the 80s (I can’t tell you how many articles I’ve read in the last year that mention the use of “guyliner”). As Brian Peters argues in his article, “Androgyny, Masculinities and the Re-Gendered Aesthetics of the New Wave: Duran Duran and the Second British Invasion”, eyeliner and other “feminine” fashion choices were originally seen as the purview of British bands in the Second British Invasion of the 1980s. He compares their fashion to that of the disco era: “The new man of the early 1980s [was] a far cry from his hairy-chested and moustached disco-other: a new dandy […]. Further, the first wave of British new wave bands embodied a desire to respond to the immediate past, as the various bands revealed a new agency that accompanied representation/signification, gender, desire and the aesthetics that epitomized the early 1980s” (298). There is an important distinction between the “new dandy” fashion of Duran Duran, however, and the “agency” Boy George asserted through his aesthetic fashioning beyond the gender binary.

culture club
Culture Club in Sue Clowes’ designs. The use of the Star of David as well as fabrics and patterns from other countries and cultures became a part of how Boy George played with categories of identity

Before he was in Culture Club, Boy George (and others like Marilyn and Pete Burns) used gender as one aspect of the self that could be manipulated as a fashion choice, seeing it as a way to outdo others in the same club scene. How far could one obscure one’s identity behind a veil of make up? Among the folds of kimono or beneath a Boadicea helmet? When do I stop being me and start being a character, or have I been some version of a character all along?

boy george 1
Marilyn winks while Boy George sports his Boadicea helmet

Boy George emphasizes throughout his autobiography that he was constantly changing his look; he always viewed his physical identity as mutable and he changed his fashion according to mood or what was inspiring him in the moment. It started — as has the fashion choices of nearly every postpunk man I’ve written about — with Bowie. A sampling of Boy George’s musings on his relationship to Bowie:

I put Mum’s makeup on, blue and green eye shadow, salmon lippy, and I pranced about signing into a hairbrush, “Metal Guru is it you. Yeh, yeh, yeh,” Mum had the minimum of makeup, she never really used it. It was there just in case someone decided to get married. I was only eleven but I wanted to dress like Marc Bolan and David Bowie (29).

Bowie was like an alien. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever seen. The crowd were screaming, “David, David, over here, me, me, I love you.” I was screaming too. Everyone was singing. I knew all the words, “Suffragette City,” “Jean Genie,” “Life on Mars,” “Five Years.”

I walked home singing into an empty Coke can. No concert I have seen since has had the same effect. (31)

I jumped on the bus to Beckenham. That was where Bowie lived, at Haddon Hall. I spent the day standing outside with the rest of the fans. Angie Bowie opened the window and told us to “fuck off.”  I was really happy. […] I got home about nine. Richard [George’s older brother] and Mum went mad. They couldn’t understand the pleasure of hanging around outside someone’s house. I didn’t get to see Bowie. That wasn’t important. I met other people like me. I felt like I was part of something. (32)

Discussing David Bowie’s visit to the Blitz to find extras for the “Ashes to Ashes” video:

I badly wanted to meet Bowie but it just wasn’t the right moment. It was odd being so close after all the years of trying. I wondered if Bowie liked people sucking up to him. A week later he came to Hell. I said hello, and he told me I looked like Klaus Nomi, the freaky operatic singer from New York. I was insulted. I was an original. I decided Bowie was better as a concept than a reality, an ordinary bloke with crooked teeth and a funny eye who happened to change my life. […] It was true that Bowie swept into the Blitz scene and soaked up all the ideas, but he was the reason that most of us were dressing up in the first place (141)

The Blitz scene was also aided by, as I discussed in my post on Steve Strange‘s autobiography, a general malaise that had set in among many of the London punks. For some, like George, once the public had a name to call all of those “weird” kids like the Sex Pistols cursing on the TV, punk was over. He explains: “The Sex Pistols appeared on late-night TV and then on Thames Today effing and blinding at Bill Grundy. Suddenly the whole thing exploded. Before that people smiled at us benignly, thinking we were going to fancy-dress parties. Their tolerance soon turned to intolerance. Now we had a name. We were spitting, snarling punk rockers” (70).  For George and his friends, punk was initially about the music and the energy of the scene as well as the possibility of upsetting the general public. Punk showed George the possibility of fashion experimentation but it wasn’t a subculture to which he felt a particular kinship as time passed. His experience of being a punk was became one of being targeted by angry teds who beat punks up for wearing draped jackets and brothel creepers, clothing that was once the exclusive domain of the teds. Adam Ant and Billy Idol also have stories of being beaten up by teds after punk shows where teds were lying in wait outside the venues.  As Boy George clarifies, “The rivalry between punks and teds attracted idiots spoiling for a fight. The Kings Road was divided. Teds on one side, punks on the other, police in the middle” (71). When violence spilled out into the streets and was coupled with the knowledge that punk had now gone mainstream, it was time for George to get out.

Punk had become a parody of itself, an anti-Establishment uniform, attracting hordes of dickheads who wanted to gob, punch, and stamp on flowers. I got beer thrown on me at punk gigs and called a poser because I wore makeup and frills. It was sad because I loved the energy and music of punk. In the beginning it was screaming at us to reject conformity but it had become a joke, right down to the £80 Anarchy T-shirts on sale at Seditionaries.

Punk was safe, we were spinning forward in a whirl of eyeliner and ruffles. Getting a reaction was the ultimate goal. (118)

boy george punk
Boy George as a punk

Though George was drawn into punk in order to explore his interest in disruption via personal fashion choices, he didn’t ascribe to all of their ideology: “Punks wanted to destroy the past, they jeered at nostalgia and called Elvis a fat pig. I loved Elvis, he was the world’s most beautiful rock and roll hero” (71). In considering his soon-to-come transition into the New Romantic scene, this rejection of the punks’ hatred for the past is important. The New Romantics, as I’ve written about before, rummaged through the past for sartorial inspiration and in doing so, broke free from the class bifurcations that besieged England in the 70s and 80s. By donning historical clothing that the working class would not have worn in the era in which it originated, the primarily working class New Romantics overcame the flimsiness of class divisions and exposed them as artificial and problematic.

Reflecting the New Romantic interest in the past, George described the scene as eclectic and competitive:

Like sheep we rushed to gigs to check out the next big thing, bands like Spandau Ballet, Blue Rondo a la Turk, Funkapolitan. They hired out boats and discussed cinemas to turn their gigs into happenings.

The fashions were nostalgic and theatrical: showgirls, Dior girls, top hats and tails, kilts and cassocks. […] Everyone had their own idea where fashion was going. Spandau Ballet were sporting a romantic Highlands look designed by Simon Withers. Blue Rondo a la Turk were decked out like Latin gangsters with zoot suits and goatee beards. The real stars of the scene took notes but always added their own touch (147-148).

Other bands like Hayzee Fantayzee and the JoBoxers also used the fashions of the past to make a statement about the future. This experimentation with looks as well as the dissimilarity of the bands which sprung from the scene caused the New Romantic movement to founder. Once Boy George was “discovered” by Malcolm McLaren, who was looking for a singer for Bow Wow Wow before deciding Annbella Lwin was a better fit, he was off on his own adventure. Culture Club would not have happened without the New Romantics but the band quickly joined the ranks of New Pop as detailed in Dave Rimmer’s book, Like Punk Never Happened.

I recently read an article about the newly relaunched version of Queer Eye called “The Queer Art of Failing Better” by Laurie Penny which ends with this amazing sentence: “Give a man a makeover and you fix him for a day; teach a man that masculinity under late capitalism is a toxic pyramid scheme that is slowly killing him just like it’s killing the world, and you might just fix a sucking hole in the future”. The article uses Jack Halberstam’s book The Queer Art of Failing as a device through which to read Queer Eye’s makeover focus as a vehicle in which straight men are gently told that it is okay to be a failure.

The queer art of failure, as Jack Halberstam writes in his book of the same name, “turns on the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable.” Halberstam imagines queerness itself as an alternative to the punishing model of success imposed by the straight world. Instead of striving relentlessly for the brutal, homogenous perfection, the queer art of failure “quietly loses, and in losing it imagines other goals for life, for love, for art.

I’m drawn to the idea of imagining “other goals for life, for love, for art”. This question of failure or losing has been hovering at the edges of my thoughts as I’ve been contemplating what distinguishes postpunk from other genres of music. More specifically, given my interest in the New Romantics, I have been contemplating how they altered themselves in order to say something about the culture they lived in. This thought came to me after reading an article on queer pop music in the 1980s. In this article {“‘Luring Disco Dollies to a Life of Vice’: Queer Pop Music’s Moment” by Lucas Hilderbrand), the author offers the following thoughts on the New Romantics:

A short-lived postglam new wave movement called the new romantics featured mostly straight men dragging it up in heavy eyeliner, pale foundation, and tribal- retro clothing. Even in the gay press, however, they were not taken particularly seriously. Although Adam and the Ants would be the leading figures of the new romantics movement, the band would soon be outdone in popularity and androgyny by Boy George of Culture Club and Annie Lennox of the Eurythmics, as well as outsexed by Soft Cell. The new romantics would fade just as synthpop exploded. (426-427)

I take issue with a number of points made here (tribal-retro?!?) but I do agree with Hilderbrand about the New Romantic movement being a failure. This is a common argument about the New Romantics given that there was no real organizing feature embedded in the movements. Everyone dressed crazy but in different ways. Lots of people were in bands but they were all doing something different. There was nothing other than outrageousness and a general dislike for the uptight, conservative rich to unite everyone together.

Take It Like a Man, is equally about success and failure, as was George’s career beyond the book.[1] As with many rock autobiographies, George’s story is one of redemption after a battle with drugs. The book jacket emphasizes that he was on an “unfinished journey” and in 1995, he truly was. Though clean at the time the book was written, George continued to struggle with drugs until 2009 or so. As Ake Oksanen explains in the article, “To Hell and Back: Excessive Drug Use, Addiction, and the Process of Recovery in Mainstream Rock Autobiographies”:

Drug-orientated rock bands and artists often start their autobiographies with drug-related statements; for example, Steven Tyler, the singer of Aerosmith begins Walk This Way (2003, 1) saying: “Hey, man, you wanna know how I got sober after twenty-five years—gacked to the nines?” After the introduction story, the books usually describe: (1) childhood, (2) youth and struggle for fame, (3) commercial breakthrough, (4) problems caused by fame and constant touring, and (5) recovery or survival. In the autobiographies, the artist has to hit rock bottom or a crisis point before survival begins. This is often the important middle part of their story. This nadir is when concepts such as “addiction” or “alcoholism” come into play. (149)

This format is common in celebrity autobiographies even if they do not deal with addiction. The celebrity must confront a waning career or comes to the realization that there is something “more” they want from their lives. The loss of fame or the desire for something fulfilling beyond it allows the celebrity to heal from the damaging effects of Hollywood or the music industry. Excess – whether in the form of sex, drugs, or money – proves to be the road to ruin and it must be healed through a reckoning with the “true” self.

boy george 1989 2
Boy George revealed his heroin addiction in 1986.

Oksanen notes that rock autobiographies discuss recovery in a set number of ways, though the most popular mode was the “cycle narrative”. In this narrative, the narrator is caught in loop between addiction and recovery: “The identity of the narrator is so much tied to the role of the rebellious decadent rock star that it is almost impossible to let go. The journey […] becomes a labyrinthine circle. The self is portrayed as being lost or confused. It is an identity that has never been truly free of addiction” (152). The evocation of the labyrinth resonates with me in thinking about Boy George’s autobiography not because of a return to addiction but because of the complicated identity he presented to the world. In George’s labyrinth, he isn’t “lost or confused” but his identity is one that cannot be truly free from the addictive qualities of gossip, bon mots, and an assertion that there is a real self beneath the inventively decorated exterior. Though he does bounce back and forth between addiction and sobriety, this labyrinth is also indicative of the variety of things he found himself addicted to and unable to shake free from: whether from his tumultuous affair with Jon Moss, his love/hate friendship with Marilyn (nee Peter Robinson), or his burgeoning belief in Eastern religions.

The labyrinth of the self also returns me to the idea of failure (and to capitalism but that’s a topic for another post!), though I am not suggesting that Boy George was in anyway a failure. It was his willingness to risk failing that positioned him to be the gender/identity disrupter that he became … and remains!

boy george new

[1] Boy George’s second autobiography, Straight, was published in 2007. It covers his life after the end of the first book but is arranged in thematic chapters rather than following a strictly chronological timeline.

Blitzed!

Blitzed! The Autobiography of Steve Strange (2002)
Steve Strange

(Or Notes on New Romantic/New Wave Masculinity)

For all the talk about Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran as New Romantic bands, it’s really Steve Strange who was the first New Romantic. Spandau might’ve supplied the soundtrack to the scene, but Steve Strange provide the venue: the Blitz. The Blitz was essential not just as a place for the New Romantics to gather but it was also a state of mind. Strange and business partner/club DJ Rusty Egan created an oasis where artists in various genres and levels of development were able to express themselves and their world view through their fashion and through the music to which they liked to dance. Strange’s clubs were staging grounds for self-discovery and artistic development and the Blitz was also vital to the revitalization of dance club culture in England in the late 70s and early 1980s. Disco obviously made people want to gather together and boogie, but the Blitz represented a true “club culture” in that its reach of influence extended beyond the dance floor. It was a place to dance, be seen, and to draw inspiration. For the New Romantics, dancing in a club replaced or bettered seeing a live band. In a club, the dancers were the show and the music existed to support their performance. Gary Kemp even argued that Spandau Ballet was “a mirror to [their] audience. An applause, if you like” (I Know This Much, 122).

strange 1
New Romantic makeup was way beyond guyliner. Strange set the bar for experimentation high!

Strange was also the singer for the band Visage whose song, “Fade to Grey” is a cornerstone of the New Romantic sound. Midge Ure and Billy Currie of Ultravox, Rusty Egan, and John McGeoch, Dave Formula, and Barry Adamson of Magazine rounded out Visage’s early lineup. Strange’s extreme fashion and makeup inspired many of the other New Romantics who went to the Blitz. Strange had style, panache, and, well, balls. Not only did he not let Mick Jagger into the Blitz one night, he regularly excluded the “little people” by turning a hand mirror to them and saying, “Would you let yourself in?” (51). He was a creative, funny man who never quite got enough credit for helping so many people launch their careers. He died far too young in 2015.

I thought I would approach this post differently than the others I’ve written so far. My goal for this summer was to write a journal article that back in June I thought might be about Adam Ant. Or Liberace. Or both? Maybe something about celebrity autobiographies since last summer I wrote a chapter on gay celebrity autobiography for a book about gay autobiography edited by a former colleague. It took awhile for all of those kinda-related-but-not-really ideas to percolate and turn into a drinkable brew, but I do think I have some idea of what I want to do now. In order to pursue more solid thoughts about the whole thing – and to give me more to work from when it comes to researching – I’m going to use this post on Strange’s autobiography to track/record what I’ve already identified as recurring themes and to maybe discover a few more.

What’s the big idea? I would like to write about New Romantics/New Wave masculinity: how do men who participated in a certain genre(s) of music in the early 1980s write about themselves as men? How do they talk about their identity and what is different about it for them and for us, the readers? What can we learn from looking at musicians who participated in creating culture at a certain period of time and in a particular place? The other issue I need to wrestle with is how a musician’s autobiography might be different from celebrities in other fields.

Musical inspirations (Bowie, Roxy Music, Sex Pistols):

Bowie was the gateway drug for both punks and the New Romantics who followed them. Every single man I’ve read about: Marc Almond, Pete Burns, Adam Ant, Boy George, Gary Kemp, Tony Hadley, Andy Taylor, John Taylor, and Billy Idol were all obsessed with Bowie.

“I liked Marc Bolan and Bryan Ferry, but Bowie was the best. By the summer of 1973 he was at his commercial peak, having already topped the album charts with Aladdin Sane earlier in the year. I had his posters all over my wall. He seemed to be perfect. He had a great look and made great music. I admired the way he was able to reinvent himself with a new look for each album” (17).

And the inevitable slide from Bowie into punk:

“It was places like this [clothing stores in London] that I first saw the punk thing happening long before the press picked up on it. People like Siouxsie Sioux and Billy Idol would be hanging around and I’d see how they were being creative and not just wearing clothes they had bought in the high street chain stores […] Back in Wales I started putting my own outfits together, wearing plastic bin bags and ripping up clothes and safety pinning them back together. I dyed my hair jet black and made it stand up in spikes. Word soon got around about my appearance. The Western Mail ran an article with the headline ‘Hey punks, meet the chain gang’ and said I was the first punk in Wales. There was a photo of me in my black plastic jumpsuit with my eyes heavily made up, my nose pierced and three chains from my nose to my left ear. The feature talked about this outrageous new cult and quoted me as saying that the only thing that worried my mum ‘is the neighbours’” (25-26).

Strange saw the Sex Pistols at the Stowaway Club in Newport, Wales in September, 1976.

“The Sex Pistols had the biggest effect on me. I saw those four lads and thought that anyone could get up onstage and be in a band. Seeing them made me decide I wanted to have another go at being in a band. They were saying ‘we can’t play’ and neither could I, but now it didn’t matter” (27).

There’s also a great story about Strange’s first gay sexual experience being with Jean-Jacques Burnel, the bassist of The Stranglers. They hooked up after a Stranglers show. Strange took Burnel back to his mom’s house! That’s not part of the autobiographical study or anything, it’s just good gossip!

In returning to Bowie, Strange and a few other New Romantics were featured in Bowie’s video for “Ashes to Ashes” after Bowie took in the scene at the Blitz one night, was impressed with what he saw, and asked Strange to turn up with some friends the next day to make a video. Strange, Judith Franklin, Darla Jane Gilroy all dressed “as gothic ecclesiastical priests, in black and white, topped off with beads and crucifixes” (52) and walked along the beach with Bowie followed by a bulldozer.

In these examples, Strange reflects what many post-punk/new wave/New Romantic men articulate in their autobiographies. Bowie sets the example for outrageous fashion as an outward expression an internally complex (non-traditional male) self.  Additionally, fashion and music become twinned and equitable modes of exploration, and finally, the Sex Pistols give the writer courage to explore fashion’s furthest reaches and/or to start a band.

This reliance on fashion is an important clue to new wave masculinity. It isn’t all that different from Mods or Teds or any other British teen subculture, but there is one essential difference: an expressed desire to be a new kind of man, one not bound by society’s definitions of traditional masculinity. This desire to be something other than a traditional man was explored via punk but through New Romanticism, it become san embrace of more feminine clothing and makeup. Punks weren’t traditionally masculine but they were tough and toughness doesn’t necessarily transfer over into post-punk sensibilities.

strange 3

Experimentation/invention of self

Strange has a pretty amazing tale of leaving Wales to live with various punk luminaries he met after shows. He was friendly with Glen Matlock and lived in a squat with Billy Idol. He was also in a punk band called the Moors Murderers with Chrissie Hynde, though the band dissolved before they could actually record anything. Punk, however, stopped being interesting for Strange.

strange 2
Strange, Billy Idol, and Perry Lister

“I’d go to a Siouxsie and the Banshees gig in a Vivienne Westwood outfit, and the bottom of bill would be a skinhead band or a band like UK Subs. It got so the stage where in your blood you thought, ‘I’ve got to get out of here or I’m gonna get my head kicked in.’ Punk, which was supposed to bring people together was now dividing them again. An overtone of violence was in the air when these band were on the bill. All the original rebellious force of punk, and creating your own style, was gone. The Daily Mirror was telling you how to rip your clothes and pretend you had a pierced nose. Unbeknown to me at the time, I was getting bored with the scene and I was getting read to move on” (37).

Strange attributes his inspiration to move on to the violence that permeated the scene which leeched the fun from it, while also acknowledging the queer culture that provided another impetus to exit punk. Without queer participants (like Strange himself), New Romanticism wouldn’t have happened, and the straight, cis male members of the scene would’ve most likely not have had the courage to push boundaries as far as they did.

“I was disillusioned by punk and felt it would be nice to be in a band or even kick-start something myself. I had already met some of the colourful characters that felt the same way. I was walking across Piccadilly Circus one day when I heard a camp voice shout out, ‘Look at her in her Vivienne Westwood suit. Where are you going?’ It was Philip Sallon, who had been a bit of a face on the London scene for years. He was with Boy George, then just plain George O’Dowd […] After a while, and a few drinks, George and I got talking and we both agreed that we were bored with punk and wished something else would happen” (38).

Boy George writes a great deal about Sallon in his autobiography. What a fascinating man! He was a Quentin Crisp for the punk set. Unabashedly out and unafraid of public reaction to his bizarre outfits, Sallon stalked the edges of the New Romantic scene, providing inspiration, starting fights, and just generally being a diva. This queer connection is important because it also extends backward to punk with Club Louise, the lesbian club that allowed punks to hang out and drink when most other pubs and clubs were ejecting them. Sexual identity, then, plays a role not only for New Romantics like Strange and Boy George but also in the creation of marginalized albeit safe spaces in which outsiders of various stripes can gather. Sexual identity also connects to the non-gay musicians in this “study” (keeping the quotation marks around that so it doesn’t seem too pretentious!) who regularly were beaten up and taunted with homophobic slurs because of their fashion and makeup.

strange 4
Strange and Boy George at the Blitz

Obviously, Bowie is also a queer connection. In his autobiography, Gary Kemp reflects on his first Bowie sighting while watching Top of the Pops at a friend’s house: “A Mephistophelean messenger for the Space Age, expounding a manifesto that was almost spiritual in its meaninglessness, he spoke his words through a grinning confidence that had me signing up to whatever he was selling for the rest of my life. Pointing his long fingers down the barrel of the lens he sang: ‘I had to phone someone so I picked on you,’ and I felt that he had. And oh, but oh, when that guitar solo clawed and choked its way out of the Gold Top Les Paul, brandished like a musical laser gun, the Starman Bowie threw his arm around his golden-suited buddy and I wanted to go to that planet” (53-54). Kemp’s memory of a moment of camaraderie between Bowie and Ronson is also charged with the same sexual frisson the two exuded in the performance.

Strange’s desire for something else to happen after punk manifested in club culture. Strange met Rusty Egan (who was in the Rich Kids with Glen Matlock) and the two discussed how tired of punk they were. They shared an interest in European music like Kraftwerk and Nina Hagen and a desire to bring something akin to Studio 54 to the London club scene (43). Though Strange differs from the other new wave men I’ve read about in that he was less motivated by music and more into the scene that surround the music, all of the men were at some point convinced that their particular interest in music was a way to express a mode of being that was no longer fulfilled through punk.

“We were young and had balls to do anything, so we looked for a venue where we could set up our own club. We were very shrewd. We went to Billy’s, a club at 69 Dean Street, on a Tuesday, and saw that it was empty […] The people hanging out there were mostly Soho’s sex workers, grabbing a breather. Two weeks later we went back to the owner and said we could pack the club […] We printed up flyers with the tantalizing line, ‘Fame Fame Jump Aboard the Night Train/Fame, Fame, Fame. What’s Your Name?’ We opened in Autumn 1978 and very quickly we were successful. All the punks who were closet Davie Bowie fans turned up. Soon it was a regular event known as Bowie Night” (43).

Visage-outside-the-Blitz-Club
Strange and Visage outside of the Blitz

“The people who turned up were a bit of a mish-mash, but what they all had in common was that they were fed up with punk, and had a love of David Bowie. Rusty, who DJ’d tried not to play much punk music, so there was a lot of Bowie on the turntables, along with futuristic German music, “Being Boiled” by The Human League, “Warm Leatherette” by The Normal, the theme from Stingray and torch songs from Marlene Dietrich” (44-45).

This mash up of past and present in the music the club kids listened to also reflected in the clothing they wore. Strange and others wore a mix of styles and time periods which reflected a futurism that gazed backward to the past for inspiration and guidance. In opposition to punk’s torn and tattered fashion, the New Romantics put on more: more fabric, more makeup, more hairspray. Their mix of eras and their disregard for class barriers (all of those working class kids wearing the clothes of their historical “betters”!) allowed the New Romantics to protest class barriers like the punks did, but simply in a more beautiful way.

New Romantic fashion as a reaction against punk’s masculinity/non-acceptance of gayness

The New Romantics weren’t always called the New Romantics. Betty Page (nee Beverly Glick) writing for Sounds magazine was the one, it seems, to give the scene this name. In her interview with Gary Kemp – Spandau Ballet’s first interview in September, 1980 – Kemp discussed the political importance of fashion for the working class. Taking this information and combining it with her observations of the clothes many in the scene were wearing, Page wrote the headline for her article: “The New Romantics – a manifesto for the Eighties”.

“There was drinking all the time. We never needed much of an excuse for a party. It was ironic that England was about to sink into an economic recession, but then they say you party the hardest when the ship is sinking” (49).

“Everything was going well at the Blitz. [Boy] George and I were being seen at parties, and a day later it would be in the gossip column as the national newspapers tried to give a name to the movement. The Face and i-D had started and they were reporting on the scene as well, dubbing it the Cult With No Name, the Blitz Kids and the Now Crowd. Pick up the Evening Standard, and there was my stark, white face, scarlet lipstick, jet black, spiky hair 12 inches high, steamed and crimped with steel steamers, staring out at you” (49).

I think of this inability to find a name to accurately call the scene a way in which Strange and the others queered their subculture. Countering class and economic troubles with fashion was the New Romantics way of asserting an alternative identity that transcended labels whether they were personal, political, or sexual. The men and women tended to look alike as makeup and hairstyles were so extreme they quickly destroyed gendered distinctions. The new masculinity of post-punk was androgynous and men sought to be unusual, beautiful, and distinct without concern for appearing “manly” in a conventional sense.

“The more coverage our clubs got, the more the media tried to pin a label on us. But we changed so fast it was impossible. Every week the clothes would be different, as people constantly tried to outdo each other. One week I’d turn up in a bishop’s outfit, the next week I’d be working on the door dressed as an adult version of Little Lord Fauntleroy.

Somehow though the term New Romantic seemed to stick and I could really argue with it. Without trying, or even knowing what we were doing at first, Rusty and I had kick-started a whole new movement, the first original subculture to come out of England since punk” (62).

strange 5
Strange by the fireside

What fascinated me the most about the New Romantics is how short, strange, and hard-to-define the movement was. Because “every week the clothes would be different”, it was impossible for the New Romantics to establish a singular identity around which a more stable subculture would really exist. As James Truman mused in a 1981 article in The Face, the New Romantics confused everyone: “The real event of the season hasn’t been the music, the clothes or the attitudes; it’s been the way in which the media has steamed ahead in search of the right context, the real significance. There’s been Blitz as right wing conspiracy, Blitz as the final step in rock’s evolution and plenty of stuff too clever to understand”.

Those ruffles, however, did really take over the 80s.

Recovery

For Strange, recovery from an addiction to pills and heroin is coupled with his sexuality as his mother was only able to accept his being gay once she attended counseling sessions when he was in treatment (177-178).

Love

There is no romantic partnership as there is in the concluding chapters of most gay autobiographies. Strange, though, does highlight a peaceful resolution to a previously tumultuous relationship: his friendship with Boy George. The end of Strange’s autobiography describes Boy George reaching out to him to ask for permission to use Visage’s song “Fade to Grey” in the musical Taboo. Strange describes meeting Drew Jaymson who plays Strange in the musical as being a surreal encounter with himself.

“I couldn’t really imagine anyone impersonating me, but when I met Drew I could immediately see what George was getting at. I can just picture him, standing outside the real-life Billy’s in his – or rather my – French Revolutionary garb, silver-topped cane in hand, behind the gold rope, vetting the potential clientele […] Drew wanted to capture my personality but also capture the bitchiness of the era, when it was all about being seen wearing the right designer labels and drinking the right champagne. Here I was in 2002 telling myself how to be me 20 years after it all began” (187).

This doubling of self is a fascinating way to end an autobiography. I will have to deal with this more effectively at another point in time, but I do think it points to a construction of a remembered self that reflects on the autobiographical process. Meeting the man who playing him onstage causes Strange to remember himself in the present tense (telling himself how to be himself) which says something about memory but perhaps also about the nature of subcultures.

Death of parent

Strange was very close to his mother but like many of the other men I’ve read about, had a strained relationship with his father. Even KROQ DJ Richard Blade writes about the death of his father in his book. There are obvious observations to make about the connection between masculine identity and one’s father but I’ll leave that for another post.

Respectability – appealing to teen girls as being a mark against them

This wasn’t an issue for Visage because they weren’t a typical “heartthrob” band, but Strange does say that the New Romantic scene as a whole didn’t receive respect from the NME or Melody Maker (49) because it was perceived to be too insular.

Conclusions

I have a number of points to explore and others to knit together into a more cohesive view of this subculture. Strange’s book as really helped me to think about the issues present when exploring a subculture in general. As opposed to someone like Adam Ant who disavowed his connection the scene, Strange places himself at the center of it. He takes the fashion aspect of it seriously, queers aspects of the scene, and gives something other than just a musician’s point of view. Now I need to kick myself out of research phase and really get to writing!

I Know This Much: From Soho to Spandau

I Know This Much: From Soho to Spandau (2009)
Gary Kemp

After seeing the documentary on Spandau Ballet, Soul Boys of the Western World, I was struck by a wave of Spandau obsession. I’d always been a Duranie, though Spandau’s presence was inescapable, of course, as “True” was a huge hit at the same time Duran Duran fever had a hold on me. What Soul Boys of the Western World did for me, though, is to show me the depth and artistry of Spandau’s career that went far beyond “True”. I was really struck by the emphasis on their working class origins and their participation in the New Romantic movement inspired me to look more deeply into a subculture that many don’t know even existed.

spandau new york
Spandau Ballet during their first trip to NYC, 1981

If you are a fan of Spandau, are English, or frequent British based music sites, you might be aware that after reuniting in 2009, Spandau went through a tumultuous period that resulted in Tony Hadley leaving the band (before the reunion, the band had last played together in 1990 and were only to meet in a courtroom in a battle over residuals by the end of that decade). Spandau now has a new singer and recently played a couple of sold out shows in London. The response from hardcore Spandau fans has been … mixed. Some have readily accepted Ross William Wild as the new singer, or are at least willing to give him a chance. Some have declared that the band is nothing without Tony’s voice. Some blame guitarist/songwriter Gary Kemp for destroying the band. Some think Tony let Spandau and the fans down. I lurk in several Spandau fan groups on Facebook and the arguments continue as to who is at fault and if the band is renewed or doomed. Hardcore fans are very, very upset about the whole thing.

In his autobiography, Kemp reflects on what began to go wrong within a band that had been formed through genuine friendships and artistic desire:

Where did the end start? Certainly it would have gone unnoticed in 1986, so much good stuff was happening. We were famously ‘five mates’, ‘the Angel Boys’, closer than any other band, drinking pals on a permanent world bender and having the time of our lives. But at some time, something must have started imperceptibly to alter things, a mutation of a single cell, unnoticed at first, but with our fate contained within it. Where can I find the first fissure, the first footfall of the trouble that was to arrive? (243)

Kemp sees the beginning of the end as accepting the starring role – along with his brother Martin – in the 1990 movie, The Krays. In truth, though, his autobiography as a whole is an examination of the many little cuts that led to the death of the band.

krays

Death is the organizing force of the book as Kemp begins his story as a ghost looking back at his own life and ends with the death of his parents. In between there is the death of class divisions, of the band’s names and musical genres, of Spandau Ballet itself, and in the court case which finally severs Kemp’s songwriting from the rest of the band, of friendships that had lasted 20 years. It is a book largely about loss, though it isn’t joyless or without humor. Kemp is, however, interested in dissecting/illustrating the ins and outs of band life but also the role his own attitudes played in the decisions Spandau Ballet made along the way.

Kemp repeatedly returns to class and the role it played in his life and career. He prides himself on coming from a working class family but recognizes the complications of continuing to identify as working class when one becomes a successful musician. Before success in Spandau, however, Kemp and the others who made up the band – brother and bassist Martin Kemp, saxophonist and percussionist Steve Norman, singer Tony Hadley, and drummer John Keeble – would all use their working class backgrounds to their advantage in the emerging club scene in London in the late 70s and early 80s.

Kemp’s discussion of the Blitz club, fashion, working class politics and identity was my favorite part of the book. Unlike Hadley who seemed a bit embarrassed and bemused about his fashion from the time, Kemp embraces it, really seeing it as a political statement as much as an artistic one. He also discusses the scene which lead to the New Romantic moniker with great detail:

Blitz was a wine bar in Great Queen Street decorated with thirties memorabilia. It suited our theme of dancing while Rome burned. [Steve] Strange wore his hair and heels high, and tottered at the door with a silver-topped cane, while hundreds, desperate to burn brightly in these dark times, block the street outside. (93)

Kemp goes on to name Stephen Jones, Stephen Linard, Melissa Caplan, Fiona Dealey, Sade, John Galliano, Boy George, Princess Julia, Jeremy Healy, Marilyn, Rusty Egan, and Mige Ure among many others as Blitz regulars who all went on to find fame in fashion, film, and music. The New Romantic scene relied heavily on the creativity of young people who wanted to look incredible but had no funds to make it happen. The Kemp brothers were fortunate to have a mother who was willing to make her hot-on-the-club-scene sons a couple of zoot suits, while the others found would they could at Oxfam or stores with lax security measures. This working class ingenuity resulted in a glorious mix of fashion from a huge range of time periods and styles. These inventive fashions allowed the kids wearing them to transcend time and place, but most importantly they transcended class as well. Kemp and others like him became fantastical peacocks, indeterminate of gender, class strata, and any other social or cultural markers. They were inspired by punk but were most interested in surpassing it in terms of social disruption. What better way to stealthily bomb the mainstream than to infiltrate them with style and pop music? Kemp and his band of gorgeous outsiders were determined to become the soundtrack to this movement.

spandau ballet 2
An example of Spandau’s adventurous fashion in the early days of the band

Spandau didn’t immediately infiltrate the Top 40. Kemp traces the many permutations of sound and style of the band but the book is most concentrated on Spandau’s glory years which naturally reflect the excesses of top-earning rock stars. Kemp thoughtfully unravels the complex tapestry that is class and money when he discusses the band first making big money. Moving into his own place, he muses:

It was more than a physical move away from home. Those aspirational yearnings that I’d been nurturing […] all those years before were now fully fledged and allowed free flight. But as I placed art and books on the wall, church candles and interior magazines on the black enameled coffee table, I felt a strong sense of denying everything my family was. I sat on my William Morris chair – designed by the esteemed architect Philip Webb, I hasten to add – and, with a glass of claret in my hand and something light and choral on the stereo, I realised I’d become middle class […] My desire for higher things left me appearing like a snob. Or maybe I just was. Waves of pride and shame would alternately crash against me, especially when Martin and I parked our matching Porsches side by side outside our parents’ home in a street full of rusting Fords. Were the locals proud of their prodigal sons or were we rubbing salt (Malvern, of course) into the wounds of a beleaguered working-class neighbourhood? Money left me a mass of neurotic contradictions, and, as much as I wanted a more cultured lifestyle and aspired to the other side of the Essex Road, I was still riven with guilt about it and the fear that I might be deserting my roots. (178-179)

Although class issues have come up a lot in the books I’ve read so far, Kemp writes about his conflicted feelings in a touching and profound way. As an American, I don’t relate to class in the same way as the English do (or at least English musicians do). Though the American press is quick to latch onto success stories that include a performer coming up from a humble background, there isn’t as much emphasis on the loss of culture and self once that class status has changed. Most American celebrities, including musicians, don’t speak a great deal about the meaning class has had in their lives, unless it is a discussion of “authenticity” as it pertains to a performance of toughness or street credibility. But class is an issue for English musicians (and a continuing one at that – for example, check out this article in Pop Matters) and Kemp writes about it in what seems to me an honest and complicated way.

Class intersects with band’s stylization of itself, too, as Spandau left behind the more experimental clothing of their past to embrace a more traditional “pop star” look including Anthony Price suits just like Duran Duran wore. They pursued hits and reflected a sense of success in their upscale looks as well as in their slickly produced singles, their most famous of which, “True”, made them seem like romantic softies instead of the arty upstarts they were originally. The movement from their earlier songs like “To Cut A Long Story Short” to the more polished sounds of “I’ll Fly For You” felt to the band like they were moving into more serious (and radio friendly) territory, but the press was more concentrated on who the band played to and how they looked while doing it:

During our fall from grace with Diamond the common judgement from the serious rock press was that we were fashion-obsessed dandies who couldn’t play and that we’d had our run on the fickle train of youth culture and been swiftly forced to alight. There was a certain amount of glee and told-you-so in their statements. Now they saw our new, successful, smiling version as irrefutable evidence that we were interested only in financial rewards and not musical credibility. (188)

Not being thought of as serious musicians is a recurring theme in the autobiographies of 80s pop stars I’ve read so far. Though each musician/singer embraced their teen appeal with degrees of bemusement, they all also felt the hard graft they’d put into their musicianship or songwriting was being overlooked. This idea of respectability is something I want to delve into in the journal article I am planning on writing on what I’m (tentatively) calling “New Wave masculinity”. What hinders getting the respect of the press is primarily the band’s fanbase, not the actual musical product. And that fan base? Teen girls. They are the kiss of death. A recent article in Pitchfork clarifies:

When fame is girded by a swelling teenage, female fanbase immediately, that celebrity becomes false, temporary, and unearned. We’re always grappling for a reason to disregard the value of a popular—and populist—product because blindly embracing it means the market research and Simon Cowell-eque figures behind it have duped us again. The presence of teen girls offers up a handy barometer: if they like something you can be rest assured it’s not worth a serious listener’s ear [,,,] female fans are seen as less legitimate, so their adoration is an instant credibility-killer. The crux of teen-girl illegitimacy is the assumption that they are incapable of the critical thinking their older, male counterparts display when it comes to their favourite bands.

Even Kemp describes an encounter with teen girl fans as having witnessed a flock of “Hitchcockian birds” as the girls screamed, cried, and threw themselves against a plate glass door while watching the band walking into a radio station.

spandau fans
Are there any other kind? 

Spandau, of course, soldiered on in their career, making more albums while the in-fighting between them increased. Kemp writes a great deal about how controlling he was, from writing all of the songs to dictating how Tony Hadley should sing a particular line. This control is what lead to the court case Hadley, Keeble, and Norman brought against Gary in the 1990s. Kemp characterizes it as a decision to have his personal publishing company to stop contributing to the costs of running the band (since he was the lone songwriter in the band). He says that long-time manager Steve Dagger “told the others” and that “there was no confrontation about it, but it was a decision that would have a very slow-burning fuse indeed, and more destructive firepower than anything [he] could possibly imagine” (259). Well, yeah! It seems a little naïve to say that you couldn’t know that making a decision to stop sharing monies with the band would result in such anger. I think the court case, though, wasn’t just about the money but about the idea that somehow Kemp was the only important member of the band.  But as Kemp says, by the time Heart Like a Sky was being recorded, it was obvious the band was falling apart. He wanted to hurt the band for taking him for granted and to prove to them that he was the real center of Spandau Ballet.

spandau sporty
In photos, however, Tony was usually posed as the center of the band because he was the tallest (sorry, Gary!)

Kemp concludes the book with the band’s reunion a decade after the court case in which he was triumphant. The story of their getting back together is interwoven with the story of his parents’ death. Kemp’s father practically died right in front of him and he along with his brother Martin was tasked with telling their mother of her husband’s death while she was hospitalized during a battle with cancer. After they’d told her, Kemp says that, “the second or third thing my mother said through her tears after she’d hear what had happened was this: ‘And he was so looking forward to [the reunion of] Spandau Ballet’ (310). Four days later she, too, died. These profound deaths make the whole “let’s get the band together!” ending of the book pretty melancholy to read. Knowing that the band wouldn’t stay together in their original form also makes this ending a bit sad. But it’s an excellent book in which Kemp is honest about his flaws and he’s willing to laugh at himself in the process of exposing them. There’s also stuff about his acting career, his love life, and lots of tales of excess while on the road. An overall good read, whether you are a fan or not.

In terms of my New Romantic research, this book is indispensable. I really admire Kemp and I’m grateful for his continuing triumphing of the importance of New Romanticism. (He also also liked a few of my tweets which was, like, the greatest thing ever!)

Please enjoy a few of the following selections from the Spandau Ballet oeuvre:

 

Like Punk Never Happened

Like Punk Never Happened: Culture Club and the New Pop (1985)
Dave Rimmer

This book has a provocative title, one that I read for the first time in an article I’d come across by a former professor, Neil Nehring. The phrase “like punk never happened” was used as a jab against Duran Duran and how their existence belied the disruptive presence of punk just a few years before. What was the point of punk if it begat Duran Duran or Spandau Ballet? While making this point, Nehring cited Dave Rimmer’s book. I knew I had to track it down, particularly because I took the charge against Duran Duran and Spandau very, very seriously!

Like Punk Never Happened was published in 1985 and is a mash up of Rimmer tracing the development of the genre known as New Pop and a tour diary written while he was in Japan with Culture Club during their 1984 tour.  Rimmer’s bio on the back of the book notes that he was a “freelance writer” for Smash Hits magazine and he thanks Neil Tennant (yes, from the Pet Shop Boys) for being his “agent, editor, and collaborator” on this book. A the editor of Smash Hits, Tennant undoubtedly has a ton of amazing pre-Pet Shop Boys stories and thus I declare that he needs to write his autobiography!

As I discussed in my post on Adam Ant’s autobiography, Rimmer traces the beginning of New Pop to Ant, declaring him a “monomaniacal success robot” with some affection, actually (11). Rimmer stresses that the point of the book is to explore New Pop, not to judge it, and so he writes about Adam’s arc toward stardom with an anthropological curiosity, using Ant as the ur-popstar on which all other 80s popstars are built. Adam’s roots were in punk and as most people already know, he was mentored by and then stolen from by Malcom McClaren (who lured Adam’s original Ants away to form Bow Wow Wow), a figure Rimmer sees as another harbinger of New Pop. McClaren always wanted to be a success and he always wanted the Sex Pistols to be famous. Their look and attitude was punk but McClaren’s desire was pure “imaginative entrepreneur” who wanted “to make the most of an easily manipulable music industry” (14).  Rimmer, like Simon Reynolds, sees punk as germinating from pop music, destroying the boundary between the radio friendly hit and the sneering, tuneless punk song. Both pop and punk are used as delineating lines between those “in” and those “out”, and once punk blew itself up, pop merely shuffled back in to fill in the void. Rimmer argues:

The irony of the situation is this: to those who cling on to the spirit of punk, everything about the New Pop is utterly abhorrent and devoid of heir precious ‘credibility’. The New Pop isn’t rebellious. It embraces the star system. It conflates art, business and entertainment. It cares more about sales and royalties and the strength of the dollar than anything else and to make matters worse, it isn’t the least bit guilty about it. (13)

Beyond Adam Ant, Rimmer sees the New Romantics as ushering in the age of New Pop. He says in the first chapter of the book that Culture Club “were the perfect New Pop” group: “Colour by Numbers was the nearest thing to a perfect pop album the decade has produced. ‘Karma Chameleon” was the nearest thing to a perfect pop single: pretty and sickly, complex and singalong, meaningless and meaningful all at the same time” (5). After he theorizes about the transformation of punk into New Pop, Rimmer spends the rest of the book detailing Culture Club’s 1984 tour. The tour tales are interesting, though they mostly focus on Boy George and Jon Moss constantly fighting, breaking up, and making back up. Boy George discusses their relationship in his autobiography if you’re interested in the details of their volatile love affair. It’s quite a story!

culture club

Something I found really helpful in Rimmer’s book is his discussion of money and New Popstars’ desire for success. Money and success comes up frequently when writers attempt to define what New Pop was. The music that came after punk was a lot of things: Postpunk, New Wave, New Romantic, and New Pop. It’s difficult to define what exactly makes each one of those categories because there are overlaps, slips, splits, and fissures among all of them. In a 2005 Pitchfork article, “Now That’s What I Call New Pop” by Jess Harvell provides a useful definition of New Pop which focuses both on sound and desire:

New pop, the UK post-post-punk movement, is too porous to be rigidly defined. It contains everything from ABC’s Arcadian soul-disco, to Orange Juice’s Byrds/Buzzcocks jangle, to the Human League’s supersonic Abba update. Much of it could also be called post-punk or synth-pop or leftover glam. There was no shared manifesto; many of the bands couldn’t be more different.

If anything defined it, it was a strange mix of DIY (spurred by punk) and ambition– to make the charts, make TV appearances, make newspaper headlines. Sometimes this was for money; sometimes just to see if it could be done; sometimes simply to reach as many people as possible. But clearly, for many bands, merely selling a few 7″s was no longer an option.

Rimmer reflects Harvell’s emphasis on ambition when he critiques the charge that New Pop was “Thatcherite” or “Falklands Pop”. He continues, “In some was that’s a profoundly stupid description. Culture Club aside, the consensus among today’s pop musicians is broadly left of centre. Even Andy Taylor of Duran Duran – the group most usually lumbered with the ‘Thatcherite’ tag – was recently heard remarking that it made him ‘sick to watch what she’s doing to the country.’” In other ways, however, Rimmer confirms the connection between New Pop and Thatcher in that New Pop’s orientation toward success mirrors “the Thatcherite ideal of how to revitalize the economy” (76). The connection to Thatcher always sits uncomfortably with me, particularly given the working class background of almost all of the New Romantics as well as a large swath of New Popstars. I loved this quote from Jon Moss in the book: “Duran Duran reflect what people can’t have in life. We reflect what they can have” (121). What can they have, though? Not Culture Club’s money but perhaps an audience could have their multicultural, gender bending approach to life? Along with how to define New Pop via success, Rimmer clarifies New Pop’s connection to Black dance music and he investigates the issue of sex, seemingly important because of Boy George’s (at times unexpressed) sexuality.

Like Punk Never Happened ends with Rimmer arguing that 1985 is year New Pop’s bubble burst. With increased fame, New Popstars had steadily increased the space between themselves and their fans. Additionally, fame obliterated the original philosophy that underpinned bands like Spandau Ballet or Culture Club. Along with Band Aid and general chart success, Rimmer also pins the blame on Wham! who “aimed to be nothing more than they seemed to be: two nice middle-class boys busy making a fortune. After their first couple of singles, their songs didn’t even seem to spring from their own experiences. It was all just George Michael playing with imaginary emotions and situations. Scratch the suburban surface of Wham! and you’d find nothing beneath but nagging delusion” (185).  Poor Wham!! I do remember, though, in Graham Smith’s book on the New Romantics, We Can Be Heroes, that several New Romantics lamented that Wham! stole their fashion (seen in “Wham Rap”, “Young Guns” and “Bad Boys”) from the “Hard Times” look (as the New Romantics called it) after visiting the Blitz one night and seeing patrons sporting rolled jeans and greased-up pompadours. It seems even in a movement that eventually jettisoned credibility, the illusion of cred was still important!

Boy George hated the video for “Karma Chameleon” so I decided to post a live version of it (complete with a dig at Siouxsie Sioux at the beginning!)

Here’s Wham in all of their stolen Hard Times glory:

Stand and Deliver

Stand and Deliver (2006)
Adam Ant

In September, I’m heading to Reading, England to participate in a conference on music subcultures. Participants will present papers on how one writes, investigates, thinks of, and defines what subcultures are and who participates in them. Here’s my abstract:

 

Though his ruffled shirts, working class background, and appeal to “wild nobility” would seemingly mark him as a New Romantic, Adam Ant rejects that he was ever was one. In his autobiography, Ant adamantly states, in fact, “I really did not want anything to do with them” (151). Considering Spandau Ballet and others as elitist and obsessed with celebrating the upper class, Ant saw himself as part of a wholly separate tribe, even if his songs referenced kings and looking flash, and his style evinced a historically rich, cash poor aesthetic favored by the New Romantics. If Adam Ant rejects his membership, is he still part of the subculture?  Moving away from the generative core of Visage and Spandau Ballet, writing about New Romanticism becomes a complicated game of “who belongs?” as Blitz kids become bands and outliers like Duran Duran claim to have been New Romantics only long enough to make fun of them. Ant’s autobiographical rejection of membership is accompanied by Steve Strange, Boy George, Gary Kemp and others alternately placing themselves or others within or outside of New Romantic boundaries. Nearly anything can move those boundaries: belonging to the wrong social class, visiting the Blitz and failing the fashion standards, or more generally not being “authentic”. Ant’s rejection of membership, then, reads more like an admission of being part of a fast moving, complicated, highly stratified scene which saw fashion as an agent of political change and beauty as a destroyer of class and social differences. Using autobiographies, songs, photos, music videos, and interviews, this paper will consider who makes the New Romantic cut and who doesn’t (spoiler alert: “[he] may not like the things [I] say”, but Adam Ant is decidedly in).

Ant’s autobiography is interesting because he clearly anticipates what people want from it: a discussion of his mental health issues. Since it was published in 2006, the book doesn’t include his most recent struggles, though within the last few years he’s stabilized and done a series of successful revival tours. Throughout the book, Ant looks back at behavior like his hyper-busy work ethic and his obsessive need to control every facet of the visual aspects of his performance and ascribes it to his not-yet-diagnosed mental illness. He is frank about his behavior and the way it affected others, including friends, lovers, and family.

I read this book, however, for Ant’s take on his career and his potential role in the New Romantic movement. I say “potential” because as I’ve began to piece together who and what is/was this thing called “New Romantic”, Ant presents a particularly difficult case. He, like, Billy Idol was thought to be a sellout, someone who hungered for fame and abandoned a series of subcultures in his pursuit of money and recognition. Admittedly, “Puss ‘n Boots” is a long way from “Stand and Deliver” (Though Ant’s fashion in each is similar – that lip gloss remains on point, too! Check out the videos for these songs at the end of the post) but Spandau Ballet traveled a long distance between “Chant No. 1” and “Highly Strung” as well. Adam and the Ants (to distinguish the band from his later solo output), Spandau, Duran Duran, and Culture Club all were bands that started deep within a subculture and who moved out into making what was dubbed by Dave Rimmer in his book Like Punk Never Happened, “New Pop”. Rimmer’s book (I’ll do a post on it soon) is invaluable in understanding the movement from punk to New Romantic to New Pop. Published in 1984, the book represents one of the earliest meditations on the movement of the alternative music scene to the mainstream in the 1980s. Rimmer targets Ant as the one who truly began the trend:

In his rapid rise to the status of first teen idol of the 1980s, he mapped out all the moves for those who came after. Though the Human League and the Thompson Twins would later pull it off too, he was the first to engineer a self-conscious move from margins to mainstream, from cult to conqueror. He didn’t seem to have even the tiniest prick of conscience about ‘selling out’ (an old hippie concept which the punks had adopted), he just made damn sure someone was buying. (8-9)

Ant readily admits his willingness to move from “margins to mainstream” in his book as he sees all of his incarnations as just “show business”, whether he was a punk singing “Plastic Surgery” or a dreamboat being taunted by the moniker “Goody Two Shoes”. It was all the same to Adam Ant.

Midway through his autobiography, Ant reflects on his decision to go solo by noting:

I started a promo tour of personal appearance I Manchester, and the next day Friend or Foe the LP made number 5 in the charts, which was a good beginning, I thought. Unfortunately, that was the best it would do. Interviewers were asking me if I thought that it was all over for me, if my bubble had burst, and shouldn’t I have kept the Ants? Fuck you all, I thought. I will succeed. (203)

The desire for fame and fortune is what sets Ant within the New Romantics, not outside of the subculture. They, too, were using their fashion, beauty, and music as a way to pry open the Top 40. They made being “upper class” a performative event, one in which they mocked the very class they were seemingly trying to join. Ant misreads this desire as wanting to be upper class, while he was firmly entrenching himself in the working class status he was born into. Ant, however, used fashion in the same way the New Romantics did: as a way to create disorder within the class system and as a way to reflect what it might look like to be a working class kid who disrupts history.

Adam ant

Throughout his book, Ant discusses his fashion choices, describing his thought processes behind the feathers, makeup, and leather pants. Though he wore some Vivienne Westwood fashion early in his career, he insists that by the time he was wearing his “Apache/gypsy warrior look” (he’s sporting the “dandy highwayman” in the photo above) he was creating the looks on his own (146).  This doesn’t, however, set him apart from the New Romantics as much as he thinks it does. Those earliest in the scene were famous for cobbling together looks from a number of sources, bypassing designer clothing because of the price and because they preferred to do things on their own.

I think that Ant rejects the possibility of being part of the New Romantics because he didn’t really hang out at The Blitz or pal around with others on the scene. He also isn’t one much for labels as he sees himself simply responding to what he likes and acting accordingly. So, if someone refuses to see themselves as part of a subculture, could they still be considered part of that subculture? I say yes! Ant was a punk, a New Romantic, and a New Popper. (He also uses the phrase “making love” far too often in his book but I suppose that’s a different point altogether. Also: he dated Jamie Lee Curtis and Heather Graham!) Rimmer argues that,

With a single-mindedness bordering on obsession – in itself as characteristic of the New Pop as anything else Adam got up to – he became the first artist since the Sex Pistols successfully to sell, not just an unmistakable ‘look’ (as he always put it’) and an unmistakable ‘sound’ (ditto) but also a half-baked set of theories and attitudes that pinned the two together […] Adam was the punk who grew up wanting to own or control everything he did [… His] explanation: ‘That’s business.’ And so it was. (9-10)

Ant’s book is a good look into the way he approached the business of himself, whether he was playing a punk in Derek Jarman’s Jubilee or singing with Diana Ross at Motown’s 25th Birthday Concert. It has most helpfully aided me in thinking about what to do with someone who stubbornly refuses to agree with my point of view on musical subcultures.

In case you’re interested in Ant’s fashion evolution, below you’ll find “Stand & Deliver” from 1981 and “Puss ‘n Boots” from 1983. The latter of which involves a little joke about his earlier look in the form of a sexy video vixen.

Dancing With Myself

Dancing With Myself (2014)
Billy Idol

The Bromley Contingent continued to make the scene with a series of wild parties, including one memorable bash at Bertie Berlin’s house, with Siouxsie, Steve Severin, Simon Barker, a bunch of workers from Malcom’s Sex shop, and Johnny Rotten. Those were the fun times. We were fine young cannibals, ready to conquer the universe, poised to become stars in our own right. (54)

I read this book primarily  because of Idol’s involvement in the “Bromley Contingent” which was a group of punks who were basically Sex Pistols fans. Aside from Idol, the Bromley Contingent included punk luminaries like Siouxsie Sioux and Jordan (more on Jordan when I get to Adam Ant’s autobiography)  and they were known for their risky fashion choices – enabled by their relationship to Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood – as much as they were for their disruptive behavior at Pistol shows and TV appearances. Idol was also famous in the burgeoning New Romantic clubs in 1979/1980 for being a great beauty who drew admirers like Boy George to him, even if the New Romantics had declared those still wearing punk clothes to be dirty and unfashionable. Sometimes a great face can conquer one’s aversion to torn t-shirts and tattered jeans! Idol had, in fact, lived in a squat with Steve Strange (singer of Visage and owner of The Blitz club, among many other important New Romantic clubs of the time) when both were in the early days of the punk scene. The punk section of this book is rich with information and filled with Idol’s encounters with heavy hitters like The Clash.

The book loses some of its punch once he becomes famous, though there is a great story about him appearing on the TV show Solid Gold to perform “Mony Mony” in 1981. I’ll let Billy tell it:

I was asked to do some promotion, and I agreed to go to L.A. to perform on Solid Gold, the U.S. chart TV show hosted by Marilyn McCoo and Andy Gibb […] We flew out for the show, on which I was to lip-synch the words to the recorded track. After doing so much TV in the UK, I was up for it.

When we arrived for the rehearsal, a choreographer had worked out all of these ‘60s steps for me to perform with the Solid Gold Dancers, but I told him, ‘I sing, they dance,’ so he got them to perform their routine around me. My long, hard stare into the future at the end of my performance let everyone know, ‘I’m a punk rock ‘n’ roller’” (147).

There truly is nothing more punk than acting tough on Solid Gold. Good for you, Billy! I  believe the camera didn’t actually capture that long, hard stare but you can look for it here:

There are the usual stories of excess here and one explicit encounter with a fan that is the first thing I think of when I tell people I’ve read Billy Idol’s autobiography. If you’re interested, pick up the book and leaf through it. I guarantee you’ll know which fan encounter I’m talking about when you find it.

In terms of postpunk research, this book provides a glimpse into how punk became 80s and then finally became New Pop.  Good stuff about the early punk scene. Idol is a real name-dropper and I mean that as a compliment!

Freak Unique

Freak Unique (2007)
Pete Burns

I’d read about Dead or Alive’s Pete Burns’ time at Probe Records in Liverpool in other books (maybe even Boy George’s autobiography?) because his time selling clothes in the backroom and working the register for the record store are legendary. He would pass withering judgment on anyone buying albums he thought were “naff” and some customers would wait for him to go on break before they would dare to buy anything lest he loudly deem their choice uncool. I was rebellious as a teenager but I would’ve never had the moxie to be so sure of myself, so defiant, and so dismissive of others just for a laugh. Burns’ attitude was definitely punk and was shaped by his unusual childhood as much as it was by Rocky Horror Picture Show and the Sex Pistols. In his autobiography, Burns writes about the early days of punk with a lot of passion, though he’s more interested in recounting his fashion choices than in digging into his enthusiasm for punk rock. One of the difficulties I had with this autobiography is that Burns doesn’t really talk about music much at all – his or others’ – and the book eventually devolves into a discussion of his many plastic surgeries and his love affair with his husband, Michael (I don’t believe the relationship lasted very long. I suppose writing rhapsodically about one’s great love in a book is the equivalent of getting a tattoo of their name: bad juju). He talks about his time on the TV show Big Brother and about people he likes and hates. It isn’t very interesting after a while, and the detailed descriptions of the aftermaths of his many plastic surgeries proved unsavory reading at bedtime.

Burns does have informative things to say about fashion and identity, however. The earlier chapters could be helpful in thinking about how clothing changed from punk to New Romantic with the addition of some ruffles, a pirate hat, and some dreadlocks. I think it’s also an important story of someone who rejected a myriad of identity labels long before society was ready for such indeterminacy. The rest of this autobiography would really be for hardcore Burns fans only. If you’re looking for Dead or Alive insider information, though, it really isn’t here!

Burns died in 2016. I wish he’d left behind an autobiography that better captured his wit and his important contributions to fashion and New Pop/New Wave music. Here’s a taste of his thoughts about his very idiosyncratic approach to fashion:

What it [dressing up] ultimately taught me about the real freaks, the ones doing the shouting and giving the hassle, was just as important. It taught me why they shouted why they jeered. When they do this, it’s never really about me – it’s about them. Whatever I’m wearing, it’s not me they’re seeing. It’s themselves. A well-buried fear, a secret desire. ‘Look at him … what a freak!’ is what they think they’re saying. ‘Look at me, I’m here, too,’ is what I’m hearing. The louder they shout, the more they want the world to look at them. It’s almost like a competition for attention, a primal jealousy. And don’t try shouting me down as a drama queen who craves attention. I don’t dress or look the way I do to get attention. I did it to build walls and fend off attention. I do it to stop people approaching me, to keep me as isolated as I was back in Port Sunlight as a child. (53)

 

The World in My Eyes

The World in My Eyes (2017)
Richard Blade

Though the Los Angeles radio station KROQ bills itself as “world famous”, this autobiography will probably be most enjoyed by locals who listened to the station in the 1980s when Richard Blade was in his heyday (he still has an 80s show on Sirius XM, so listen to it while you’re reading the book for the ultimate flashback experience).  Although I had an older brother who gifted me with some essential music over the years (thanks for KISS’s Destroyer, Steve!), KROQ was truly the generator of my musical tastes. Richard Blade’s presence on the station was inextricable from the music he played. With his English accent, he sounded just like the guys in all of those bands my friends and I were so obsessed with … and we were obsessed because we listened to KROQ. I distinctly remember being disappointed when I realized a band I liked wasn’t from the UK. Blade not only had a radio show but also a TV show, MV3, that played videos and had a group of real New Wave kids dancing to them in the studio. He presence, then, was part of the New Wave scene in L.A., and he was like a rock star to me and my friends. I wanted to be on MV3 with excruciating fervor but I worried my clothes weren’t cool enough to be on TV. I also knew that being in close proximity to Richard Blade would be overwhelming.

I was a Duranie and KROQ really fed my mania for them. Duran Duran was the first band I was devoted to and devotion meant not only listening to KROQ to chart how many times Duran Duran was playing during a day (I had an actual chart!) but also collecting posters, magazines (particularly Japanese ones), and every album and 12 inch ever released. I still wear my original 7 and the Ragged Tiger tour shirt and I proudly display the Duran Duran board game in my office! I looked forward to all of the Duran Duran stories in Blade’s book as he was a close friend of theirs, and Spandau Ballet’s, too.

This was a surprisingly interesting read, though it takes Blade a long time to get to the 1980s. But Blade is good storyteller and all of the years he spent scrounging around Europe for radio jobs large and small are just as involving as his stories about being a DJ at a station, despite being relatively “underground”, which had the power to introduce L.A. listeners to a wide array of new wave, postpunk, and other alternative bands. Having grown up in the San Fernando Valley in the 80s, I was really fascinated by all the goings on behind the scenes and it was fun to recognize the names of other KROQ djs like Jed the Fish and Swedish Egil. As for gossip, Blade is relatively circumspect but he does write about being romantically involved with Berlin’s Teri Nunn, and story of him asking her to marry him is really a doozy. Highly recommended just for that!

In terms of research, this book wasn’t enormously helpful but it could assist in rounding out an understanding of how bands were played and promoted in the 80s. Maybe I could interview Blade if I can get a 33 1/3 book on Duran Duran or Spandau off the ground?  My 13 year old self is already squealing at the thought!