❚ VALENTINE’S DAY 1981 was not so much the Woodstock of the New Romantics movement, but more akin to a Scouts and Guides jamboree in a giant ornamental wigwam in north London. Instead of boasting proficiency in camping and camouflage, a few hundred suburban Romantics fluffed up their frills and plastered on the Pan Stik to parade their skills in masquerade and maquillage. The “People of Romance”, as the tickets described them, paid £3.50 for a long evening starting at 5pm. They were expected to hold their own as stars alongside the cult’s budding bands at a venue renamed for a day The People’s Palace.
An auditorium in Finsbury Park made the perfect backdrop. When it opened in 1930, the Astoria was one of Europe’s flagship cinemas seating 3,000 people. Its gloriously kitsch interior architecture depicted an Andalusian village whose rooftops and twisted barley-sugar pillars climbed towards a horizon and the starlit indigo ceiling way above balcony level. For a decade from 1971 the theatre had become a live rock venue, hippily renamed the Rainbow, where finally the stalls had been deprived of seats in favour of dancing audiences. Later the very year it hosted the People’s Palace, the place was to fall into disuse for a decade and a half, before being rescued and restored by a Pentecostal church.
Thirty years ago today, posses of over-the-top Romantics incongruously wandered its vast auditorium and bars and cavernous Moorish lobby in search of photo opportunities. It seemed at times as if photographers outnumbered the cast. Richard Young, king of London’s celebrity snapperazzi, had arranged two sheets to create an impromptu studio where he was immortalising the generation who relished calling themselves posers, garbed from top to toe in bejewelled, befeathered lace and velvet and ridiculous hats.
The soundtrack throughout was the latest electronic pop, spun on Rusty Egan’s turntables as well as played live onstage. On this Saturday Ultravox were arriving at No 2 in the singles chart with Vienna, and here at The People’s Palace they were topping a bill booked by the event’s promoters, Egan and Steve Strange, to capture the zeitgeist, even as the duo planned their next clubbing venture following the closure of their Blitz nights.
Much as Midge Ure protested about his band qualifying as New Romantics, in February ’81 any band toting synths ticked the box. Among supporting acts the then unknown Depeche Mode opened the live sets for a handsome fee of £50 in their first major performance off the clubbing circuit, one week before releasing their debut electro-single Dreaming of Me.
Peter Godwin revived the new-wave band-name Metro, surfing in on the strength of their 1980 album Future Imperfect, followed by the dance troupe Shock, dressed by Birmingham’s Kahn and Bell, as exponents of the robotic dance-style across Britain’s clubland where their single Angel Face was a dancefloor hit.
Steve Strange had hoped to stage a splashy fashion show too, though according to Judi Frankland — who had featured with her outfits in Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video the previous summer and is visible second from right in the masthead for Shapersofthe80s — “The other designers pulled out at the last minute and as I was still under Steve’s spell he made me carry on and do a ‘show’ alone with a mere six outfits. When he pulled me onto the stage, ohhh that still makes me cringe! However the one good thing I got out of it was being on the same stage as my faves, still to this day, Depeche Mode. I keep bumping into lovely Dave Gahan every few years in the most unexpected places.”
Meanwhile most of the original Blitz Kids — who had animated the Bowie credo that behind a mask you can be anyone you wish — wouldn’t be seen dead at The People’s Palace. In the wake of chart success by Spandau Ballet and Visage, they were competing in a calculated dash towards fame and fortune in clubland, glossy mags and the music biz, whose singles charts by the summer of 1981 welcomed Landscape, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, The Human League, OMD, Level42, Duran Duran, Heaven 17, Altered Images and Imagination.
Like Midge, we can argue ad finitum whether these acts all technically counted as the New Romantics bandwagon, but they did play dance music, not rock — which defines the reformation that fundamentally vanquished rock to change the sound of the 80s charts — and all benefited from the momentum, as ABC’s Martin Fry later acknowledged. Most of them would, however, set about shaking off the hollow Romantics label in favour of their own musical tastes as soon it had served its purpose. For the moment, like the Titanic heading unwittingly towards its iceberg, the preening Lord Foppingtons and Lady Buxoms at the Rainbow were unaware that theirs was the last real gasp of The Cult That Had Gone Too Far. By Valentine’s Day 1982, there were so many new fashion factions that they would never have turned up for the same ball.