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