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To Cut A Long Story Short: How The New Romantics Ruled The World
In Depth

To Cut A Long Story Short: How The New Romantics Ruled The World

Recounting the story of the New Romantics, journalist Dylan Jones tells Dig! how the synth-pop originators staged a second British Invasion.

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With Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet leading the charge from 1979 to 1984, it’s easy to forget how the cultural zeitgeist was once dominated by New Romantic artists. As a plethora of electronic pioneers topped the charts with a spellbinding tonic of synth-pop magic, it’s surprising to learn that the music press of the time tended to argue the music was disposable, levelling accusations of “style over substance” at even the most commercially successful acts. Despite these criticisms, the songs have proven remarkably enduring and still tend to be fondly regarded by listeners today. So what exactly is it about the New Romantics which critics found so objectionable?

With the release of his latest book, Sweet Dreams: The Story Of The New Romantics, journalist Dylan Jones charts the rise of the New Romantics from their early days at the Blitz nightclub in London’s Covent Garden to their commercial peak in the early 80s. It captures oral histories and eyewitness accounts in an effort to reappraise the period as a golden era to rival the Swinging 60s. “I wanted to try and offer some kind of redemption for this period,” Dylan Jones tells Dig! “I think it was a genuinely fascinating period of great creativity.”

“It couldn’t have happened without Bowie”

The biggest musical inspiration on the New Romantic scene was David Bowie, the glam rock icon whose penchant for androgynous role-play and musical flirtations with soul proved hugely influential on the likes of Gary Kemp (Spandau Ballet) and Nick Rhodes (Duran Duran). “It couldn’t have happened without Bowie,” Dylan says, highlighting how Bowie’s fusion of soul and rock on 1975’s Young Americans album was a precursor of where synth-pop songwriters would venture once their electronic ambitions could be realised.

Bowie’s influence is undeniable, especially since the Blitz nightclub – a regular haunt for many New Romantics in the late 70s – originally started life as Billy’s, a venue which hosted a Bowie Night for Ziggy fans and plastic soul enthusiasts. Their anointed hero graced the Blitz with his presence in 1980 and greeted his many acolytes, taking inspiration from the same New Romantic subculture he himself had engendered. “I love the way you evolved this whole movement,” Bowie told club-goers. “You’re a very creative group of people and I’d like you to be in my next video.”

True to his word, one of the extras in the music video for Bowie’s 1980 hit Ashes To Ashes was none other than Blitz nightclub host Steve Strange (also the lead singer of Visage, who themselves would hit No.8 later that year with Fade To Grey). From the stylistic nods to funk all the way to Bowie’s outlandish outfit – a Pierrot clown costume –Ashes To Ashes owed much to the bohemian fashion sensibilities of New Romantic tastemakers. “He sort of co-opted a scene,” Jones says. “So it kind of completed the circle.”

“The world that Bryan Ferry aspired to was very exciting”

Another key influence on the New Romantics was Bryan Ferry, frontman of Roxy Music. Most interesting about Ferry – arch and knowingly chic, desirous of glamour and elegance – was that the persona he adopted was at odds with his social background. Born to a coal-miner father, Ferry was a working-class boy from Durham who founded Roxy Music upon leaving art school, a band who Jones credits for being “amazingly influential at the time because they presented a very particular idea of ambition, gentrification and success”.

The reason so many New Romantics identified with Bryan Ferry was his desire to improve his social standing – like him, most kids who were part of the New Romantic scene hailed from working-class or lower middle-class backgrounds. “Ferry always sort of had his eye on the gentry,” Jones says. “It was quite at odds with what the rest of the music industry and the rock fraternity were doing. I think many people thought it was ironic.” Ironic or not, Jones admits “the world that Ferry aspired to was very exciting and it presented itself with lots of possibilities”.

That mix of blue-eyed soul and rock’n’roll spearheaded by Bowie and Ferry wasn’t the only influence on the New Romantics. The rise in popularity of synthesisers – especially in an era dominated by black American music – proved equally inspiring, from the electronic daring of Kraftwerk to the innovative electro-disco production work of Giorgio Moroder on Donna Summer’s I Feel Love. It would, however, take some time for this eclectic range of influences to bubble to the surface, waiting to be roused from their slumber following the onset of punk.

“We laughed at the bands learning three chords”

It’s no secret that the ascendancy of bands such as Sex Pistols and The Clash brought about a sea change in the late 70s music industry. As much as it was regarded as a cultural ground zero, you’d be mistaken for thinking that the snarl of Johnny Rotten had little in common with the synth-based tinkering of Erasure’s Vince Clarke. “People often think that the so-called New Romantic scene is a response to punk,” Jones says. “But if you look at the protagonists of the Blitz scene, most of them were around and active in the early punk days.”

Phil Oakey of The Human League even says, in Jones’, book: “We laughed at the other bands learning three chords – we used one finger.” Joking aside, synth-pop artists with keyboards were as much inspired by the DIY ethic of punk as any scruffy oik with a guitar. “ think that they were attracted to the punk scene because it was different,” Jones says. “It was transgressive, it was shocking.” Nevertheless, around the same time Sex Pistols were sailing down the Thames to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, many decided to turn their backs on punk as they felt it had become too rigid and conformist.

One of those ex-punks wanting to forge a new path was Gary Kemp, who would later become the songwriter for Spandau Ballet. Forming the band with his brother, Martin Kemp, singer Tony Hadley, drummer John Keeble and saxophonist Steve Norman, they sported foppish haircuts and embraced a Teddy Boy-esque aesthetic inspired by dandyism. The group would soon become regular Tuesday-night headliners at the Blitz, and word-of-mouth led them to sign a record deal in 1979, rapidly becoming one of the New Romantics’ leading lights. Their debut single, To Cut A Long Story Short, immediately became a Top 5 hit thanks to its upbeat tempo and teeter-tottering signature riff.

“Effete show-offs who were playing dress-up”

In a way, it’s possible to see Spandau Ballet as a microcosm of the country at large. Fresh from a Conservative Party election victory in 1979, in which Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, it’s worth noting that Gary Kemp was a card-carrying Labour Party member while singer Tony Hadley was a Tory voter. The odd mix of aspiration that would preclude the rise of entrepreneurship under Thatcherism sat uneasily with Kemp’s political leanings as much as it likely did with the rest of the country. Politics aside, an argument could very well be made that Spandau Ballet were also musically under-appreciated in their day, as many of Martin Kemp’s basslines bear a surprising similarity to the later contemporary dance-punk sound of Franz Ferdinand.

Dylan Jones says the music press weren’t quite sure what to make of Spandau Ballet at the time, regarding them as “effete show-offs who were playing dress-up, but actually they all came from North London council estates”. Recalling Bryan Ferry’s yearning to escape his working-class trappings through a love of all things sartorial, this similar approach did Spandau Ballet little favours with music critics as they fell victim to a form of class snobbery, distorted by an aggressive attitude of cultural apartheid in the wake of punk, perhaps driven more by ideological bias than a disliking of the music itself.

To their credit, Spandau Ballet never fully turned their back on the outspoken lyricism of their punk origins. Jones even makes the bold claim that the social commentary of the band’s No.2 hit Chant No.1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On) was as important to the summer of 1981 as The Specials’ Ghost Town. “It’s a song about urban paranoia which reflects the unease of the time that was also wound up with the idea of going out; of nightlife; living on the edge, he says. “I don’t think it has the wider cultural resonance of Ghost Town, but it’s certainly of the same ilk.”

“A lot of our memories of that period are visual”

As a new decade dawned and the 80s began, the New Romantics would stand to benefit hugely as the music industry took a revolutionary step towards embracing the medium of television with the launch of MTV. Not content with merely listening to our favourite musicians, pop stars were now expected to make music videos, too. It was this newfound promise of uncharted territory that would catapult the most popular New Romantic artists, such as Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran, to even greater heights, largely owing to their boyish good looks and distinctive fashion styles. “A lot of the memories that we have of that period are visual because of the way they looked,” Jones says.

With an army of teenage girls lusting after them, Duran Duran arguably received the most adulation of all the New Romantic groups. Formed by keyboardist Nick Rhodes and bassist John Taylor, they were later joined by drummer Roger Taylor, guitarist Andy Taylor and singer Simon Le Bon. Originating from Birmingham, Duran Duran were similar to Spandau Ballet in that they were also handsome working-class lads who aspired to be successful. Sure enough, they did just that: to date the band have sold over 100 million records worldwide.

Predictably, the rivalry between Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran meant you were either in one camp or the other. “That was something that was slightly manufactured by Smash Hits magazine,” Jones says. “The tabloids picked up on it because that was the period where pop stars started appearing on the cover of newspapers, whereas they had never really done that before, unless you were The Beatles or The Rolling Stones.”

In the brave new world of media saturation and all-new colour magazines, that same spirit of creativity from the Blitz was still in abundance; however, this time it had shifted to art directors, photographers, set designers and film directors. Duran Duran arguably benefited the most from this shift, commissioning filmmaker Russell Mulcahy to direct music videos for their 1982 singles such as Rio (which, rather extravagantly, was shot on a yacht off the coast of Antigua) and Hungry Like The Wolf (filmed in a Sri Lankan jungle as an homage to Raiders Of The Lost Ark).

What the British New Romantic pop stars understood – particularly Duran Duran – was how to harness the power of MTV to their commercial advantage. While US musicians struggled to market themselves in ways that fit the new medium of the music video, Dylan Jones says UK acts did not find it as difficult. “Regardless of whether you like the music,” he says, “if you go back on YouTube and watch pop promos for all the British bands, they’re very indicative of the time, and it’s almost impossible to think of one song without the video coming to mind.”

Subsequently, in addition to Spandau Ballet (True) and Duran Duran (Is There Something I Should Know?), the rise of MTV helped many other British pop acts find fame across the Atlantic, among them The Human League, Eurythmics and Culture Club, each of whom invaded the Billboard’s Hot 100 in ways arguably not seen since the 60s. This runaway period of unprecedented chart dominance came to be referred to as “the Second British Invasion”.

“It was an incredibly important platform for gay pop”

It wouldn’t be right to talk about the rise of the New Romantics and how they came to dominate mainstream pop in the US without acknowledging the role they played in bringing gay visibility for those in the LGBT community to greater prominence. In Jones’ book, Pet Shop Boyslyricist Neil Tennant says, “The arrival of Boy George was the moment when androgyny came into mass-market pop music, and that changed everything, because before that it was just straight boys dressing up.”

While Culture Club’s famous 1982 Top Of The Pops performance of Do You Really Want To Hurt Me? caused the same level of controversy as David Bowie did when he put his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson’s shoulder while singing Starman back in 1972, it was nothing compared to the sensation caused when Culture Club found chart success in America. Culminating in Boy George becoming the poster-boy for LGBT youths on both sides of the Atlantic, the singer was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in the spring of 1983.

If the idea of a homosexual pop star from Barneshurst, Kent, making the front cover of rock’s most iconic publication wasn’t revolutionary enough, the whole aesthetic of the New Romantic scene aimed to challenge accepted notions of sexuality from the offset. “It was an incredibly important platform for gay pop, for gay pop stars,” Dylan Jones says. “Not all gay performers were ‘out’, or, indeed, wanted to make their sexuality a defining part of what they did, but if you look at Frankie Goes To Hollywood, Soft Cell or Bronski Beat, they couldn’t have happened without this period being a platform for them.”

“The Swinging 60s was happening – 15 years later”

One of the main reasons why Dylan Jones set out to write Sweet Dreams: The Story Of The New Romantics was to make a strong case that this period of British pop music has been unfairly demonised. “The 80s became framed as this decade of indulgence or excess, or style over content,” he tells Dig! “The ideas of entrepreneurship and Thatcherism get conflated around this time – to be ambitious and to want to be successful – so a lot of the music was kind of forgotten about.”

Jones believes this pioneering period of synth-pop supremacy from the late 70s and early 80s deserves to be reclaimed and should be regarded with as much esteem as the much-vaunted golden period of British music from the 60s. “If you reel back to the 60s,” he explains, “it was treated as a kind of cultural zeitgeist and a lot of these people from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds were suddenly being celebrated because they were creating what became known as the Swinging 60s. But this period I write about in Sweet Dreams was a version of the Swinging 60s, it was just happening 15 years later.”

Curiously, Dylan says the lack of appreciation for New Romantics among UK music critics isn’t shared by those who live in other countries, least of all in America. “In the American narrative arc of post-war pop culture,” he says, “this is an incredibly important period and one that is revered in a way that it isn’t over here, which I think is fascinating. They treat this period and this music with far more respect than people in this country.”

Dylan Jones’ Sweet Dreams: The Story Of The New Romantics is out now, through Faber & Faber.

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