Sweet Dreams: The Story of the New Romantics 
by Dylan Jones.
Faber, 663 pp., £20, October 2020, 978 0 571 35343 9
Show More
Show More
Joanne Catherall and Phil Oakey of the Human League performing in 1982.

Joanne Catherall and Phil Oakey of the Human League performing in 1982.

Iwas​ in Skegness the weekend Britain left the EU. It was raining, and a cold, hard breeze was blowing in from the North Sea. At Butlin’s, in a huge tent filled with burger bars and dayglo cocktails, the Brexiteers were dancing to 1980s pop music and getting excited. A number of drunk men were dressed as St George, wearing England flags and Crusader helmets. Eyes swivelling, pints held aloft, standing on chairs or doing the conga, they were clearly at home in the holiday camp, whose ‘true intent’, it used to say on a neon sign over the swimming pool, ‘is all for your delight’. When the moment came, the revellers enjoyed Big Ben chiming their ‘independence day’. Some of them got quite tearful, beating their plastic swords against their plastic shields. But the biggest cheer by far came the night after when Tony Hadley arrived to sing Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’. Hadley, the Thatcherite singer in an otherwise left-leaning band, was holding a glass of Jack Daniels. He seemed in touch with his audience and every bit as drunk. I’m not sure whether the audience knew his politics, but they heard the totemic sound of the 1980s in his voice, and a thousand facets of contemporary Britain seemed to sparkle in his eyes.

To learn about Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s, you have to talk to hairdressers. They were at the coalface. (I knew quite a lot of them, or felt I did.) Hovering above the streaking cap, they heard it all, and played an important part in enlarging local ambitions. The agents of change in that decade came tinted and backcombed. Every city in Britain had its ‘top’ salon – in London it was Smile or Trevor Sorbie, in Liverpool it was Herbert’s, in Glasgow it was Irvine Rusk. The coolest girls in any town could be found jiggling hairdryers in trendy salons, next to male juniors with no other outlet for their gayness. Further up the High Street, between Woolworths and the Job Centre, or deep in the shopping precinct, was the nightclub, where shop assistants and machine operators could slap on the eyeliner and get jiggy on a Saturday night. At the Royalty in Southgate, the Goldmine in Canvey Island, the Lacy Lady in Ilford, Raquel’s in Rayleigh, the New Penny in Watford, the kids in their mother’s pussy-bow blouses were getting into what Dylan Jones calls ‘a decade of cultural deregulation’. ‘We all wanted to escape into something that wasn’t really there,’ says Marco Pirroni, one-time guitarist with Adam and the Ants. To begin with, it was a southern English thing, but it spread like a rash of entitlement to the North.

Phil Oakey, from Sheffield, was a hospital porter; he lived for alienation, the post-industrial, David Bowie, and having a show-stopping haircut. He was the singer in the Human League. His hair was long on one side, covering the entire right half of his face, and short on the other. He ‘had the perfect postmodernist haircut for the perfect postmodernist pop group of 1981’, Jones writes,

and in fact his haircut almost became the band’s logo … Many fledgling bands had started using all kinds of weird haircuts as a means of getting themselves noticed by the press. No longer was a haircut representative of a particular group of people, and if, in a nightclub, you bumped into someone with a gigantic 16-inch, charcoal-black conk, it by no means meant that they had anything to do with the music industry … pejoratively, the press started to call young groups ‘haircut bands’.

Not the least important of these self-conscious funsters was a band from Beckenham called Haircut 100, who specialised in perky, blond-highlighted pop. Many of their fans had the ‘wedge’, a hairdo invented by Trevor Sorbie, which was quite poser-ish and layered in at the back, popular with boys who perceived a benefit in copying their girlfriends. The two girls in the Human League, Joanne Catherall and Susanne Sulley, had wedges and looked exactly like hairdressers, like girls just out of school. When they sang on either side of Oakey they sounded exactly the same as lots of other girls, all over the country, singing ‘Don’t you want me, baby?’ outside the school bogs and dancing out of sync.

That was the issue: British aspiration. There was no difference between New Romantic bands and their fans: they had the same hair and the same talent, it was just that some of them happened to sell millions of records. (‘New Romanticism’, by the way, doesn’t mean anything: they could just as easily have been called Futurists, or Blitz Kids, after the club, or Dandy Highwaymen, whatever.) Making an exhibition of yourself has solid foundations in British popular culture, but with this lot it was linked on the one side to emerging technology (the synthesiser, the drum machine, home computers) and on the other to adventurous realisations about gender fluidity. Those who scoffed at these groups – the NME, Morrissey, the Clash and the likes of me – were actually much less progressive in real terms than they were. We were into left-wing sloganeering, and ripping up our homework, now and again bringing worshipful energy to our fading backgrounds. Meanwhile, Boy George and Steve Strange, plastered in make-up and wearing skirts on Top of the Pops, were causing parents up and down the country to drop their biscuits into their tea.

I never liked Culture Club or Visage’s music, but they were clever, brave champions of societal change. The bands I liked were kitchen-sink anarchists – Morrissey claimed to be ‘asexual’ at the time, and New Order personified a Northern football-terrace camaraderie – but the boundaries of what it was possible for a British male to be were being redefined by Marc Almond of Soft Cell. In their dark overcoats, many NME writers rained dislike on these ‘gender-bending’ harbingers, because they lacked an obvious political conscience, were too mainstream, too popular with the masses and pursued by the tabloids, and their music was culpably catchy. Almond himself came to feel it was admirable of Morrissey to ‘blur’ his sexuality, to keep himself mysterious. (‘The first time I heard Neil Tennant describe the Pet Shop Boys as a gay band … I wished he hadn’t,’ Almond is quoted as saying in Jones’s book.) But time alters your sense of what risk really is. Soft Cell were pouting at the lads and their fads and their bigoted old dads. It turns out that the inheritors of punk were not those little indie bands I loved, not really – I mean, the Railway Children? Male indie kids were completely conventional, scrubbed boys, who went to the same barbers as their fathers, supported the same football teams, and wore the same aftershave. Meanwhile, Adam Ant painted a white stripe across his face and sported more lip gloss than Madonna.

Transgression isn’t for everyone, but it tempts the future. A lot of the electronic bands of that period dealt in a kind of transgressive yearning, seeming to feel homesick for somewhere that didn’t exist, and never would. Gary Numan appeared to be trying to find his way back to a planet not yet discovered. I remember bounding downstairs aged 11 because he was on Top of the Pops. He stood on a balcony above a pond of dry ice, wearing a black leather jacket over a black T-shirt. We’d never seen a boy so comfortable in his eyeliner, except, of course, for the Bowie clones outside our local chip shop, and he could very easily have been one of them. It wasn’t about the future, but about its disappearance – a ‘nostalgia for the future’, as the late Mark Fisher put it in Ghosts of My Life (a title taken from a song by the proto New Romantic group Japan).*

In British pop, it was Bowie and Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music who came up with the idea that you weren’t just a singer acting out your life, or a fan imitating a singer acting out his life, but could – singer and fan – be haunted by a persona. You could also be haunted by a future that remained in the past, a self that is stalked by unavailable pleasures and riven by the remembrance of hopes dashed (the notion of ‘hauntology’ was borrowed by Fisher from Derrida). The New Romantics would make a wonderful pantomime of all this, and for a while it was quite transfixing. When you were listening to Bryan Ferry, according to the style panjandrum Peter York, ‘you were listening to a singer whose whole approach said: “I’m not singing, I’m being a singer.”’ There’s a crucial difference. Everyday British life in the 1980s took a turn towards the performative; style became a matter of exhibiting the right sort of ennui, and having the correct haircut. In our house, we were obsessed with Ferry’s hair, and at one point even my mother had a fringe falling over one eye. Fiona Dealey, a prime mover in the New Romantic scene in London, was 16 when she went to see Ferry at the Albert Hall:

I wanted the whole thing. I loved the way he dressed and was completely in love with him. Then I looked up at the VIP area, and I could see a little group of people who looked amazing, had the best clothes on … One girl had a pink parasol perm, and I kept looking up at them and I thought: ‘That’s the cool gang.’ That’s what drove me.

Alas, the desire that launched the scene – the hunger to be a VIP – would quickly and predictably align with the decade’s monetary instincts. For the few fertile years running up to the miners’ strike and Live Aid (which took place just after the end of the strike), the New Romantic craze was about club kids in London camping it up, supermarket girls feeling alienated in Solihull, and their boyfriends going big on blusher and tartan pantaloons. But like everything in British culture, it sold out before it had even begun. Duran Duran – triumphant in pastel suits made by Antony Price – sailed into the charts on a windswept hash of lifestyle guff, poncing around the Caribbean on a hideous yacht. The romance went out of New Romanticism the minute the band’s bass player, John Taylor, in the video for the single ‘Rio’, crawled up the beach with a rifle to help a lady who was being splashed with champagne, followed quickly by their singer, Simon Le Bon, diving into the blue Antiguan waters wearing a pair of budgie smugglers. The video’s director originally planned a scene where the group would be chased off the island by locals wielding guns, but there wasn’t enough film stock left to shoot it. What was this nonsense all about? What about Marc Almond’s ‘Sex Dwarf’? What happened to the youth-club boys in their mothers’ ruffled blouses tottering around in heels and shouting about robots?

Dylan Jones’s book is written in the ‘oral biography’ style pioneered by Jean Stein and George Plimpton, and succeeds, as Edie did, in providing a dazzling portrait of an era. The book should be handed out to kids who think that doing badly in your exams ends your life. For these lipsticked heroes, it was the beginning of everything. Gary Numan was expelled. Phil Oakey never sat any exams. Alison Moyet (and David Bowie) left school at 16, ‘unqualified’. Moyet got a hairdressing apprenticeship but was sacked after a few weeks for bunking off to go to a Tom Robinson gig. Boy George deliberately missed all his exams and then refused to join his father’s building firm (‘I painted and decorated myself instead’). In those days, ‘flamboyance and glamour,’ as the artist Nicola Tyson puts it, ‘were under investigation,’ and school was a joke. In our scary, post-millennial, locked-down times, such non-conformity might look like decadence, but it was the only form of decadence available to working-class kids. ‘Before [Steve] Strange and his collaborators came along,’ the journalist Jason Cowley says, ‘the nightclub as currently understood did not really exist; there were only discos and pubs. Blitz called itself “the Club for Heroes” … and there was indeed something heroic about the posturing and ambition of the young people who gathered there, most of whom were from tough working-class families.’ Strange set himself up at the door, taking delight – and drawing fame – in turning away people who weren’t ‘right’ (including Mick Jagger, one starry night, for turning up wearing jeans and trainers). Strange, Jones writes,

understood that clubs were driven by people, not just music, and that while many of those he didn’t let into his clubs thought he was just being spiteful, it was all about curation. Not that the lucky ones were exactly overflowing with empathy. To those left outside on the pavement, the lucky ones could appear snotty, the sort of people who might cut you dead if you saw them again in daylight. In truth, the denizens of the Blitz were adopting the modus operandi of Andy Warhol’s Factory, never responding to anything or anyone around them. The lesson learnt was never to get excited about anything and just stare instead. The mantra was simple: look at it, and let the looking at it become the thing that you’re doing.

That nails it: looking was the thing you were doing. Suddenly kids with nothing else going for them could be the entitled ones. One may dislike snotty narcissism, while arguing that at least this way it was an equal opportunity sport. The music of the New Romantic aspirants became the popular soundtrack to Thatcher’s Britain – ‘You’re indestructible, always believing’ – but that wasn’t necessarily what the songwriters wanted: it’s what the boys from the suburbs wanted when they went to work in the City with their red braces. An original, soul boy innocence and Futurist perversity was overthrown. That’s just what happens, and it happened in the 1980s in ways that are only now becoming clear. ‘The New Romantics were partly a countercultural celebration of free play in a post-industrial world,’ the critic David Stubbs is quoted as saying, ‘in which you defined yourself not by the job you had but what you decided, stylistically, to become.’

It truly was the revenge of the poofs. Out went the previous accoutrements of male working-class style (metal comb, pocket square, Brylcreem, pay packet), obliterated in an excellent mêlée of eyeshadow, free drinks and ballet pumps. And comedy was never very far away. The director David Mallet tells a story about Bowie, who in 1981 imitated the imitators with the song ‘Ashes to Ashes’. He hired the club kids (Steve Strange included) to appear with him in the video, and had the idea that he would play the part of a clown on a beach, attended by all these oddities flouncing for England. ‘The filming was interrupted,’ Mallet says, ‘by an old man walking his dog, looking for driftwood.’ They asked him if he would mind moving out the way, and the director pointed to Bowie leaning against the catering van in his carefully encrusted pierrot-doll costume and pointy hat. ‘Do you know who that is?’ the director asked. ‘Of course I do,’ the old man said. ‘It’s some cunt in a clown suit.’

It’s not always easy in the world of luck. Band members fall out, they undermine one another and themselves, and sink under the weight of their own egos. They argue about credit, they argue about publicity, and fame changes them – as they always hoped it would. After his one big hit, ‘Fade to Grey’, Steve Strange’s band fell apart. ‘Our first pay cheque from that was £350,000, every one of us,’ he said. ‘And that was because of me getting out of bed and going to five countries in a day, and all they did was moan about me going to too many fucking parties.’ A great many of the New Romantics went on to have a tough time, not just bouts of failure or periods of low sales, but full-on disaster. Before the decade was really over, the more survival-minded had begun revving up for a life of nostalgia weekends at Butlin’s. The less prepared, or more enchanted, such as Gary Numan and Adam Ant, went mad for a time, or took up heroin, as Boy George did; they killed themselves, like Billy Mackenzie of the Associates, or just died too young of too much everything, like George Michael. Culture Club’s fourth album, released in 1986, was called From Luxury to Heartache. Perhaps it was always built into the programme, part of the sequencer: have all the dreams you like on this fantasy island, but remember you must pay.

Steve Strange sang at a birthday party in Soho I helped organise in 2005. It was called ‘The Last Disco’ and he was paid £1000 to sing ‘Fade to Grey’. From a previous bash, there was a huge plastic birthday cake onstage, and at the appointed moment he emerged from it, slightly fed up, and sang the song to a rat-arsed audience. When it was all over, I handed him the cash and we stood chatting for an hour at the bar. He said everything had changed in London clubland and nobody had style any more. He asked if I could find him a line of cocaine and his train fare back to South Wales. It was sad to think of the guy who once ran the door at the Blitz, desperate to shore up one more night. He came back to London a year later, back to the coalface, to take part in a TV reality show set in a hairdressing salon.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences