Dressing up to go to a Steve Strange club could change your life. In 1983 the Camden Palace offers the best night out in London because, as well as the usual delights, this poser’s paradise has a reputation for offering more. The world’s media and photographers come here looking for the next big thing. On the crowded stairways here, it can pay to pose.
❚ “I’M WRECKED,” NICK ANNOUNCES as he downs his sixth pint of lager at about 2am. “I was so late waking up yesterday I had to take a taxi to the dole to sign on before I went into work.”
Nick [not his real name, obviously] looks startling in a hat so huge it has to be seriously trendy, and is well aware of the irony of his remark. He is 19 and clears £80 a week in Vivienne Westwood’s clothes shop which also dresses him for next to nothing, another £15 on Saturday checking coats in a nightclub – oh, and of course £22 social security. “That’s just pin money,” he says. “It pays the rent.”
We are standing in Camden Palace, an ornate Edwardian theatre lavishly regilded as a noisy, brash pleasuredrome for a generation like Nick who refuse to stay broke because they are young. It is simply the best night out in London because, as well as drinking, dancing and all kinds of original sin, the Palace has a reputation for offering more. Nick knows that he stands a fair chance of being interviewed by a passing journalist or of making useful contacts in music, video and fashion. At the very least, if Nick artfully positions himself in the balcony bar next to the popstars who regard the Palace as an encore to that week’s TV appearance, he will be photographed by the house cameraman and end up in the gossip columns.
The glossy magazines are eagerly reporting that London nightlife is reverberating to the same boom which signalled the Swinging Sixties. And the pace, they note, is set by the street kids who flock to the new clubs hosted by entrepreneurs young enough to be children of the wrinklies running Annabel’s and Tramp.
Way out front are Steve Strange and Rusty Egan, two flamboyant youths determined to be the new Barnum and Bailey and for exactly one year Camden Palace has been the marquee that has housed their dreams. Egan the musician ensures a strict selection of the newest dance music – the glossy melodies that have put British bands like ABC, Culture Club, Wham!, Soft Cell, Blancmange and Depeche Mode into international charts. And Strange’s obsession with dressing up and over the top has the balconies and stairways jumping with a comic strip of current cults.
Hairstyles here command airspace of their own. Clothes are not so much worn as incidentally attached to the body. It’s pointless wondering why that girl has coloured her breasts green or why that man sports fishnets beneath shredded jeans. The Palace is a living advertisement for a hip Who’s Who of UK designers – Antony Price, PX and Sue Clowes who established the Culture Club uniform – plus the streetwise young whose invention keeps bringing the eyes of the world back to London. It’s a rare night when there isn’t a filmcrew heaving through the crowds. An Alan Whicker would doubtless dub the Palace a poser’s paradise, a valhalla to vanity, the McDonalds of takeaway trends.
It certainly amounts to a continuous chorus-line audition. Andy Warhol’s well-worn line about everyone being famous for 15 minutes positively incites the 1,500 courtiers who preen beneath the swirling Palace lights to demand their turn. They’ve watched enough of their nightclub contemporaries propelled to sudden stardom by appealing to the camera first. Why, there are Boy George and Spandau Ballet topping the pop charts. There’s Steve Strange celebrating his first birthday as Prince of the Palace, the Welsh butcher’s boy who today gets photographed by the German trendsetter Helmut Newton and Sixties legend David Bailey.
These nightowls can spot a lens even through a soaking of Pernod. Watch how this couple of severe Futurists switch to autopose the minute a Japanese cameraman zooms in. I stand in line to interview them. Gary, who wears cossack trousers, ballet pumps and too much blusher, is a civil engineer from Harlow. Marilyn wears her hair in a vicious banshee cut, plus a nun’s habit, altered and donated by her aunt who is a nun.
At 19, Marilyn is, of course, “a hairdresser, part-time model, make-up artist, the lot”. She is frank to a fault. “I like to pose, that’s why I come here. Being photographed is proof you’re being noticed.”
An Italian film crew is besieging a 16-year-old from Ealing called Clare, scantily clad and dappled with blue bodypaint like Nijinsky’s faun. She mentions wearily that she was interviewed only last week for Time Out. Mike from Tooting and Becky from Eastcote – style: afro-prints and rags in the hair – say they like the Palace for the people they meet, even the journalists. Mike, who is all of 22, adds: “Being photographed does get a bit tedious at times though.”
Mike uses his £25-a-week dole on top of what he earns in Kensington Market to fund his nights out. Among a repertoire of sharp practices people here admit to, fare-dodging is regarded as essential and one 18-year-old charges friends £1 for lifts in his car home to the suburbs.
“Plenty of schoolmates are sacrificing their O-levels for a social life, something immediate,” says David, a sixth-former from Wandsworth. “Luckily, I got my exams before I realised what else goes on.”
At this moment of relative sanity, a Mad Hatter hurries importantly past beneath another whopping topper. “Bruce!” I call, recognising someone I’d interviewed last summer when he looked as unremarkable as any student of 17. Since quitting college he has become the complete Palace hobo: bare feet, long Dickensian topcoat and £30-worth of Westwood headgear.
“Don’t call me Bruce. My name’s Joshua now. I’m going to be a painter,” he says as if this is the natural order. Behind such relentless frivolity there is method of a sort. Bruce’s rebirth as Joshua comes from the same mould as Steven Harrington who reinvented himself as Steve Strange and made a career out of changing his clothes.
The Palace itself is the wide-screen remake of the B-movie that clinched Strange’s reputation at the age of 20, running a club called the Blitz which is now a shrine among those who worship such deities. The Blitz Kids found themselves spearheading a bizarre movement the press labelled the New Romantics. Strange was their mascot, Spandau Ballet their house band. And on their backs friends who dressed, filmed, staged and promoted them found their own careers taking off.
In the three years since Blitz culture set rolling a bandwagon of image-conscious bands and theme clubs, Strange and other entrepreneurial Blitz Kids have regenerated London music, fashion and nightlife through a string of hip one-nighters. More significantly, youth itself has become a commodity.
“These were the first clubs run for kids by kids of our own age, the first places we could feel we weren’t being ripped off by the old grunters,” says Steve Dagger, 25, Spandau Ballet’s manager. “Today there’s something hip happening every night of the week and the half-dozen key clubs in London are all fronted by people whose average age must be 23.”
After dictating his own radically demanding terms to a record industry used to exercising its own ruthless cynicism, three years ago Dagger found himself the youngest manager with a band in the Top Ten. “Today every aspiring new group has a young manager,” he points out.
Strange, now 23, gets understandably indignant when critics question his talent. He says: “Did the Sex Pistols actually DO anything to help people on the dole? No. They sang about it and made people more depressed. All of us who did well out of the Blitz scene now create employment for other people … at the Palace, in record companies, in artists’ studios, in fashion workshops. We didn’t just sing about creating jobs, we created them. How can that be called a shallow, hollow scene?”
As Strange peers out from beneath a ton of make-up and another terminally silly hat, it’s not surprising the press call him Wally Weird. Yet he is satisfied that someone such as David Bailey respects him. “He has always admired my nightclubs. He says I should be proud of what I’m doing.”
Dagger, who knows him well, says: “Strange is a professional. If he has a photo session, he’s there on time. Even if he’s got drunk the night before, he’ll put on even more make-up, but he’ll be there.”
As the distinctions blur between work and play, a swarm of self-appointed stylists, trendy magazines and television programmes has grown to feed off the entirely Eighties preoccupation not with what you do but how you do it. Self-starters perhaps pass underestimated in the gold-rush. Two years ago, for example, Spandau Ballet took a music-and-fashion show to New York which the media there saw as the start of a British “invasion”. Last year Strange took another fashion showcase to Paris to create footage for his group Visage’s videos. If this spring America and France are making so much of young London, some know who first banged the drum.
“Because our world looks superficially glamorous,” Dagger says, “people think everything happens by accident. But success ultimately comes down to hard graft, pure and simple.”
Strange himself admits: “I chose to become famous and I work very hard at promoting myself. For me going out at night is work.”
Those left standing at the start line can be heard muttering in the Palace’s dark corners. “Strange is just after the fast buck these days,” complained a flat-top called Phil. “He lets any wally into the Palace.” And what is a wally? “Someone who leaves after ten minutes because everyone is staring at him.”
Text © Shapersofthe80s.com