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