Posted on 5 June 2018
First comes this unauthorised book that tells the world there were two bands called Spandau Ballet back in 1979 and turns over the whole myth about where their name came from and who on earth made up the twee term for their followers, the New Romantics. Then out of the blue I find there are about 100 shockingly well-informed pages not exactly about me, long before this website existed, but following my every footstep through every month of 1980.
True, Spandau Ballet had played only eight live bookings before signing an unrivalled contract in October 1980 and made the Top Ten within a year of their first performance, which was good going for any new band. But when author and Spandau fan David Barrat very flatteringly suggests that I was waving some Invisible Hand behind the scenes and actually writes that “their success can be pinned on one Evening Standard journalist”, well, I’d better just tell this tale like it was. . .
If you want to compare my version here below with his, click the PDF image to read a parallel extract from his book, New Romantics Who Never Were: The Untold Story of Spandau Ballet, by David Barrat, from Orsam Books.
◼ THE JAW-DROPPING NEW BOOK surveying the New Romantics scene, meticulously researched by an unknown fan, has revealed much I never knew about the events of 1980 and I was there. Yet its author David Barrat was not. He describes himself as an ordinary fan who discovered Spandau Ballet with True in 1983 and since then has spent much time interviewing people and delving into documents and media reports as a labour of love to fill the gaps in the story of how the Islington boys came together, the origins of their peculiar name, whether they were truly leaders of the New Romantics – a youth cult like punk that intimately married music with fashion – and who on earth came up with that poetic term anyway. (In his autobiography Spandau’s Martin Kemp reckoned it was me, but apparently it wasn’t quite so simple. I’ll drink to that.)
In pursuing his assiduous task Barrat claims that he’s read “every edition of the Ampthill and Flitwick Record from the 1970s” but he also seems to have tracked every mention of Spandau and the Blitz Kids that emerged from my own pen during the crucial break-out year of 1980. Which is very flattering. Downright spooky too. His many strands of inquiry, Barrat told Music News last month, include “the unknown story of how one particular Evening Standard journalist can be thanked for helping [Spandau] to get signed”. It is intensely flattering to be credited with so much agency, to be perceived as some kind of Invisible Hand mysteriously influencing events. He’s right of course. Shame nobody else noticed and popped a cheque in the post.
To narrow the focus, on this page let’s simply explore the year 1980 itself which did indeed prove the old cliché that history “is just one darn thing after another”. Throughout 1979 the Tuesday-night Elektro-Diskow hosted by Steve Strange and Rusty Egan at Covent Garden’s Blitz wine bar had raised scarcely a flicker of interest in any media with sizeable audiences. Steve’s door policy of refusing anyone who hadn’t come with a new Look might have been just too exclusive. The dawn of an unnamed new sub-culture was proving a slow burn as the Elektro-Diskow approached its second year in Great Queen Street.
So when my phone rang at the Standard on 22 January 1980, little did I realise its message meant: “Put out the cat. You’re coming to the party of your life.” The voice on the other end spoke without pausing: “My name’s Steve Strange and I run a club called the Blitz on Tuesdays and I’m starting a cabaret night on Thursdays with a really great new band… They combine synthesised dance music for the future with vocals akin to Sinatra, they’re called Spandau Ballet and they’re going to be really big.”
How could I know that this was my invitation to the Swinging 80s, when London was to become a creative powerhouse as Britain rode out a recession and its youthful entrepreneurs leapt back into the world spotlight? In that quaint era, “mass media” amounted to three national TV networks offering two weekly pop shows, plus the grown-up newspapers selling 16 million daily, and four weekly music newspapers with trivial circulations. In 1980, the Daily Telegraph described discos as a “dehumanising threat to civilisation”. No kidding.
Pop and rock were not deemed news-worthy unless they echoed with the reassuring names of dinosaurs such as Beatles, Who and Stones. That’s not to say newspaper columnists didn’t have platforms for reviewing rock and pop records, but the chances of getting a new band mentioned were virtually zero. In terms of “yoof” culture coverage, the only competition I regarded as serious in 1980 were Robin Denselow in The Guardian and Peter York with his illuminating social autopsies in Harpers & Queen. TOTP was an embarrassment, the pop charts were a desert of blandness (the Two-Tone bands being lone beacons of originality), and newspaper editors generally were actively hostile to being sold things new in show business. The unfamiliar tended to threaten sales.
There was no assumption among our editorial hierarchies that the interests of the young were automatically news-worthy, so we hacks under 40 had to battle constantly to squeeze pop, rock and all manner of yoof culture into our newspapers, even at the liberal-minded Standard. Consequently, in response to demand among younger staff there, we’d created a little oasis of cool to report on young London in a page called On The Line (aka OTL), where I marshalled my colleagues’ contributions.
So here I am this month reading Barrat’s new book when suddenly on page 101 not only do I get a name check but also all this background to the OTL page being spelt out and for the next 100 pages my name appears like a motif dotted along the trail while he demonstrates the depth of his research and how the two parts of his book title – Origins of Spandau Ballet & Truth About the New Romantics Movement – have become his Mastermind topics. We are reading a spooky tale of coincidence and parallel lives as if Sherlock Holmes were our guide.
The book not only reminds me of that call from Steve Strange on 22 January 1980 to announce Spandau’s new music for a Cabaret audience at only their
third live performance. I am also mortified to read that I was his poor second choice for receiving the good news that kicked off the decade. Barrat reports that Strange had already informed the naff Ad Lib page, a ragbag of press releases in the rival Evening News, two weeks earlier. Because I’d been on holiday in mid-January and thus missed this, I’ve always thought *I* was Strange’s honoured first call. Durr. Consequently I *wasn’t* the first person to write about Spandau Ballet. Well, technically I was: Ad Lib had given the story one sentence as if it was a bizarre dance event without realising that “ballet” was part of a band’s name. So quietly I reckon I can still claim to be the first to write about them, as opposed to giving them half a name-drop.
Next, Barrat is discussing Spandau’s concert No 4 on 7 March 1980 at the trendy Scala Cinema and the band’s strategy of playing only secret dates at non-rock venues and suddenly he knows all about the call I took from their manager Steve Dagger earlier that week who revealed that his band “put looks before music”(!). . . Oh, that’s right, it’s all coming back now. . . About four years ago Barrat arranged to interview me, that’s where he’s got all this from. Said he wanted to check a few dates and I chattered away. And he gets the dates right too. First crucial date to win media attention, 24 Jan, Spandau play the Blitz (p.101), and previously unknown to me, Barrat records not only that a Bedfordshire band had already performed under the name Spandau Ballet, but also that on this day in 1980 one of their mates saw my report and alerted them to somebody else using their name at the Blitz that night!
The second crucial date, 4 March, was my meeting with Spandau manager Steve Dagger (p.105). Committed soulboy Dagger took me for a pint to suss out my suitability to write about his un-rocky fashion band in their wing collars and cravats “and really weird followers”, and luckily I mentioned the magic password, James Brown Sex Machine, while enthusing about the same sort of black dance music he rated. Box ticked, I was A-OK for an invitation to see Spandau play and he’d earned his first “Dandies for Dancing” headline in OTL on 6 March, the day before the show.
[At this point, it’s worth recording one of Dagger’s strategies for dealing with the largely indifferent or hostile music press. He’s a shrewd observer with a witty way with words I came to call Daggerisms and could have made a keen journalist himself in another life. He refused to let most rock writers near his group throughout Spandau’s first year, because he knew so few had ever been inside a nightclub. “What’s more, they can’t dance,” he’d snort. In his view this Jets v Sharks divide is the reason the music press has missed the start of every major trend since rock’n’roll, “and they’ve never liked soul”, so before granting access to Spandau, he subjected all interviewers to discreet vetting. Applicants wearing denim or Doc Martens never reached the shortlist. What Dagger perfected was the game he called Squeeze the Lemon. He graded hacks into Herbs, Chives and Lemons and the most helpful of us would be given a friendly “squeeze” whenever a little promotion might help the band. He only let this slip at The Firm’s Finest Hour party in Bournemouth a couple of years on. It was such a hilarious game-plan that I immediately translated it into a crazed board-game that was totally informed by preposterous but genuine anecdotes, colourfully drawn by Conny Jude, billed as “a bitter-sweet lesson in pop warfare” and published across a spread in New Sounds New Styles.]
Then, with Spandau’s fourth concert, March really felt as if Something In The Air had achieved lift-off. Denis O’Regan had shot a startlingly uplit studio session with the new-look Spandau Ballet, dandified by up-coming designers Willy Brown and Simon Withers, for unveiling at their first performance in a seated auditorium. Simon Brown attended the highly visual event and found his pictures would be immediately in demand.
Under the headline “Chiconomy” the March issue of 19 magazine featured extreme style-leaders from the Blitz, capturing fashion straight-ups of Kim Bowen, Melissa Caplan, Jayne Chilkes, David Holah, Stephen Linard and Lee Sheldrick. On 3 March Christena Appleyard in the Mirror wrote the first major piece about Strange, introducing the term Blitz Kids in its headline and picturing Steve “in bright red taffeta”, Kim Bowen in a “really topping hat” and Richard Wakefield in “full pancake make-up” with 12-inches of vertical hair – though no mention of Spandau, only Visage. Venues such as Notre Dame Hall, Witchity and the Scala on Fridays were reflecting a new fashion-led nightlife mood, while Stevø had started a Futurist club-night at the Chelsea Drugstore. In March Chris Sullivan closed his breakaway retro Hollywood night beneath Soho’s St Moritz restaurant where it had been running for only 10 weeks.
Photographers hummed like bees to the hive: Derek Ridgers had already shot one of the most influential pix of the key Blitz Kids for the prestigious Sunday Times colour magazine which, given its long lead time, didn’t publish until 27 April. During March Homer Sykes took the first comprehensive set of scene-setting images of the stylish action on the Blitz dance-floor (which emerged in the People in June). Andy Rosen shot Willy Brown’s fashion show at the Blitz on 1 April, a month that grew ever more frenetic for the new movement after Easter and found one Blitz Kid who later became a pop singer with Animal Nightlife, Andy Polaris, telling his diary “Blitz packed, best for ages”.
Amid all this, Spandau’s dazzling Scala shindig triggered a cascade of consequences. The audience was pure Hammer Horror meets Rank starlet. Precocious 19-year-old Blitz Kids were posing away in outrageous ensembles, dancing wildly in the aisles in robotic stances and an overstated jive. The band were starkly lit as for a Fritz Lang movie, while a cuff-linked Tony Hadley flaunted a languid cigarette as he sang. Within four bars I had turned to a colleague and we both said “My God. They can play!” This bit was a surprise.
All the forces behind a cultural revolution were working overtime for their column inches. Dagger gave me his blessing by asking half a dozen chatterbox pals to come on the phone within the following week to talk me through the wondrous milieu I’d walked into (in the era before mobiles, this often required the interviewee being in a phone box at an appointed time to take my call). My first explainers in this foreign land were Perry Haines, Robert Elms, Chris Sullivan, Simon Withers and Melissa Caplan, none of whom I actually met till weeks later. One instant outcome came while talking to Perry Haines two days after the Scala eye-opener when I urged him as a student journalist at St Martin’s to propose a fashion item on the dandy theme we’d seen paraded at the Scala to the Standard’s fashion editor Liz Smith. It was more credible that the message came from Haines rather than from me as a colleague suggesting it to Liz myself. It came as news to discover that Perry was already one of Liz Smith’s savvy streetwise informants! Great minds thought alike and a week later I found myself editing Liz’s page for 17 March 1980 with photos of the Blitz Kids from Simon Brown, and coining the headline over Perry’s report on “Dandies in hand-me-downs”.
I dubbed these preening egos and obsessive dressers the Now Crowd since they lived so much for the moment, prompted by St Martin’s design student Chris Sullivan’s mantra that “One look lasts a day”. Further dominoes fell in quick succession. On 8 April Andy John’s report on the Scala gig appeared in the Daily Star headlined “Just Dandy”. The byline was a pseudonym for Barry Cain, the freelance I’d worked with while moonlighting from my day-job to edit the twice-weekly pop pages in the newish left-wing tabloid (as it then was) and it was he who’d gasped out loud with me at Spandau’s musical ability. Barry’s longer and masterful analysis of Spandau’s romanticised vision of the class struggle through “working-class elitism” appeared in Record Mirror, his first home, on 12 April under the headline “John, I’m only Posing”, after Gary Kemp told him: “We dress very, very romantically. We want to be dandies, not clones.”
In response to the Star report, I took a phone call that day from David Thomas, a researcher on London Weekend Television’s documentary strand 20th-Century Box, asking to be put in touch with Spandau’s manager. This resulted in the Scala replay concert for LWT cameras on 13 May, and subsequent broadcast on 13 July of what became a definitive documentary about Spandau and their flamboyant peer group narrated by Danny Baker. It pinpointed the essence of this fresh music-and-fashion scene – and brought the record companies swarming.
I missed the second Scala gig, being abroad on a two-week holiday. And the moment I returned, in came a call from another long-standing acquaintance, the music PR Phil Symes, whose own stylish club-band TCOJ I’d been watching at Maunkberry’s on 9 April. This tight little soul line-up very much captured the prevailing taste for cabaret and were gigging in clubs including the Blitz from December 1978 to summer 1980, but fatally did not have the dynamic clubland support network that was proving its worth promoting Spandau and keeping them in the spotlight.
Symes had asked: “This band Spandau Ballet that you keep going on about – do you think they’d be willing to play a couple of weeks in St Tropez? I book the British acts for the Papagayo club there.” I passed on Dagger’s details, Spandau rehearsed for a St Tropez audition on 29 May, motored off to France and enjoyed a fortnight in the sun from 1 July (closely followed by TCOJ who entertained Papagayo audiences for three weeks).
In the Standard I previewed the LWT programme on 8 July underscoring how the Now Crowd was “given to dandyism” and of course Spandau missed the Sunday transmission, still being in France.
And these are just a few highlights of the year so far. Also in this glorious summer the godlike David Bowie visited the Blitz to recruit four Blitz Kids to strut through his Ashes to Ashes music video. Nobody can forget how this pop icon had taught them all about adopting stances of individualism and transgression. He bequeathed them principles for living amusing lives, creating disposable identities, and wearing looks not uniforms. On 2 May Stephen Linard put the name Neon Gothic to a fashion collection inspired in part by the film Nosferatu. In June the Covent Garden piazza reopened, glamorously refurbed since the fruit-and-vegetable market moved out. On 16 July a band called Duran Duran played their first gig at the Rum Runner in Birmingham. On 2 August, Iain R Webb, a designer freshly graduated from St Martin’s and one day to become fashion editor of The Times, organised a modest runway show at Chelsea’s Chenil Gallery for four art-school refusniks such as Melissa Caplan – it was titled No Sacrifice, “like the shout of the Red Army Faction”. On 3 July Gaz Mayall launched his Rockin’ Blues club-night at the ever-fertile Billy’s, and it stands alone today as the only night from 1980 still running in London. Gaz, we salute you.
As for the dreaded title for all of this, it would be very hard to pin down one creator of the phrase “New Romantics”. I had toyed with “A Beano of Dandies” because my impression was that “dandy” was the one descriptor more used than any other during 1980 by Elms, Haines, G Kemp, Sullivan, Richard Burgess, myself and others, yet it never caught on. Nevertheless “New Romantics” was definitely “in the ether” as Betty Page said after her major survey of the Spandau effect was published in the music weekly Sounds on 12 September 1980, covered by the stark headline “The New Romantics”, penned by her editor Alan Lewis.
Nick Logan has offered that same ethereal source after he wrote that same phrase in issue five of The Face during August: “It was in the air”. Peter York, Alan Lewis and I are all on record as agreeing about that. But it took Lewis to put it on Betty’s feature even though she hadn’t used those words in her text. That is an example of editor’s privilege when you’re convinced what’s “in the air” says it all! Even though Sounds had published their headline, I carefully chose approximations about “romance” in my OTL captions on our 18 September menswear pictures because Spandau (who were showing off their own new Look) absolutely did not want the phrase New Romantics applying to them. Blitz Kids likewise winced at the phrase. Yet there it is.
NONE OF THESE WAVE-MAKING HEROES
WAS OLDER THAN 22
◼ DURING THOSE BUZZING WEEKS OF APRIL I not only proposed a major survey on the Now Crowd for the Evening Standard but, realising that its high eccentricity quotient might prove an obstacle, wrote the piece in full before submitting it to the editor, the respected Charles Wintour. My fear was well founded. Wintour scrawled on the text in his distinctive hand, “Rather too esoteric for us” (I still have it!) and the piece was dead in the water.
Scroll forward to the autumn fashion season when Time magazine felt the moment right to publish its report from the Blitz on 8 September 1980, its vigilant team having visited back in mid-April. By now Nick Logan’s new Face magazine was slowly coming round to the New Romantics en route to earning the accolade of Style Bible for the 80s, and Terry Jones, an old hand from Vogue, aided by the eager Perry Haines, had launched i-D as a cheaply duplicated and stapled fanzine in black-and-white, where Steve Johnston invented his own brilliant “straight-up” form of kerb-side photo-reportage to feature the craziest Blitz Kids among many others.
For Men’s Fashion Week, the On The Line column on 18 September zoomed in on Pose Age Man and the unisex tabard silhouettes of Melissa Caplan sported by two Blitz Kids John Maybury and Holly Warburton, Willy Brown’s printed workwear plus trousers by Simon Withers modelled by Spandau Ballet and the La Rocka prints of Lloyd Johnson – giving due credit to the hair stylists of the day, Ollie O’Donnell at Smile, James Cuts in Kensington Market and Antenna on Kensington Church Street. On 1 October the milliner Stephen Jones, who had established a business in the basement of the PX shop in Endell Street, flagship for New Romantic ready-to-wear, announced his wittily titled “First Collection” to meet orders coming in from the New Romantic pop groups Visage, Spandau Ballet and the world beyond.
On 9 October OTL committed half a page to a quiz of 20 questions to discover the “grooviest person in London” offering a £500 Sony sound system as prize. It tested how well people had been reading this page and posed questions such as the origins of the phrase Spandau Ballet; Steve Strange’s real name; which restaurant designer Paul Howie favoured; and which song OTL’s title was named after. The tie-breaker asked for your phrase describing the past 12 months and readers offered these not-bad designations:
“Year of recessionist chic”;
“A groovy juve-y poove-y movie”;
“Cut the pile with style” (Luciana Martinez);
“Potential and pretensions; excitement and extremity” (Robert Elms);
“Punk gave way to pazazz”;
“Keeping up is not as easy as the cryptic crossword”;
“Brave new twirls” (M Caplan).
Two weeks later we announced Peter Thurgood and Frances Webb, aged 30 and 26, to be the grooviest people in Upper Norwood, he photographed in a tweed jacket from Flip, she in fake fur by Miz. They declared: “Parties are the easiest way to entertain and the best have themes – Sixties, favourite blondes, TV personalities and weird locations.”
By then the dress-up story was so blatantly evident in clubs, bars and street markets that I broadened my previous survey spiked in April by the editor and sought out eight persuasive examples of youthful do-it-yourself self-expression, wrote it up and this time submitted 2,000 words to the Standard’s deputy editor Roy Wright who exploded. “You’re making this up!” he stormed, to which I protested, “Roy, you live in Fulham, you must have noticed these weird people on the King’s Road every Saturday afternoon.” Wright replied: “I’m pleased to say I haven’t walked down the King’s Road in 20 years” and he spiked the new piece.
Not to be beaten again, I sent a copy in to Wintour’s office as a court of appeal (where this time he possibly took soundings from his daughter, yes, Anna, already a fashion editor) and within 10 minutes the editor walked over to Wright, handed him my piece and said, “Roy, we’d better put this in”.
And who were the prodigies who on 16 October 1980 appeared in the Standard under the headline summarising a typical week in the “Private Worlds of the New Young”? From their Hammer Horror club-night at Hell, Steve Strange and Chris Sullivan. . . for his new “100mph dance music” i-D night at Billy’s, Perry Haines. . . at Olympia committing designer Antony Price’s runway show to film, John Maybury. . . also at Billy’s the weekly Gaz’s Rockin’ Blues. . . at Kensington Market in the full-on pantomime of his Dispensary, Brummie clothier Martin Degville. . . and over at the Blitz, beaming his cheshire-cat smile, Steve Dagger, as he clutched a fat cheque signed by Chrysalis Records for his band Spandau Ballet. None of these heroes was older than 22.
One more small chapter followed Spandau’s first single reaching No 5 in the UK chart on 6 December 1980, only three weeks after entering. As a way of acknowledging the sheer spirit of collaboration inspired by the Blitz and which turned newly emerging club-nights into job centres creating opportunities for all, on 16 December 1980 I corralled the 22 Blitz Kids, soulboys and New Romantics who had put the show on the road in 1980 for a now-nostalgic team photo in the mirrored glamour of the Waldorf Hotel. Here were the key helpers who had brought Spandau Ballet to fame, and their average age was 20.
Headed by the five Spands from Islington, with Steve Strange and Rusty Egan to the fore, were the people who had specific roles to play in staging and promoting the band: seven musicians, six designers, three media and management, three club-hosts, two deejays, one crimper and 22 egos. Photographed for the Evening Standard by Herbie Knott. Inevitably Roy Wright spiked yet another preposterous chapter in their story offered by yours truly and this unseen picture has only resurfaced in recent years. By 1981 Dagger, Sullivan, Strange, Egan and friends were well out front making waves.
On 18 December 1980 we held an OTL pioneers Christmas lunch at Joe Allen’s where key guests included Nick Logan, the editor of the soon-to-become-seminal style magazine, The Face. Here were Steve Dagger as manager of the newly signed Spandau Ballet, and key Blitz Kids Kim Bowen and Stephen Jones from St Martin’s School of Art, plus Robert Elms and Simon Withers – all of whom were leaders of the burgeoning New Romantics movement whether they liked the name or not. Plus Rick Sky, a Daily Star freelance, and James Johnson, the Standard’s rock reporter who was still bemused and declared that their scene was going nowhere. Yet by May 1981 James decided to join a press jaunt to New York, along with distinguished rock writer Ray Connolly and TV’s Paula Yates as critics, to witness “the first Blitz invasion” of the USA with an Axiom runway fashion show (masterminded by designer/promoter Jon “Mole” Baker) and a live synth-driven Spandau Ballet concert before Manhattan’s glitterati, blessed by Tina Turner and Robert de Niro. I was there in my role as a moonlighting music editor elsewhere, so I suppose you could say this was my reward. Hang on a minute, I seem to remember paying my own fare.
TAGS – history, pop music, biography, fashion, beano, dandies, Swinging 80s, Blitz Club, Blitz Kids, Scala Cinema, Papagayo Club, St Martin’s School of Art, PX, New Romantics Who Never Were, The Untold Story of Spandau Ballet, Steve Dagger, Spandau Ballet, Tony Hadley, John Keeble, Gary Kemp, Martin Kemp, Steve Norman, Rusty Egan, Steve Strange, Kim Bowen, Simon Brown, Willy Brown, Barry Cain, Melissa Caplan, Jayne Chilkes, Martin Degville, Duran Duran, Robert Elms, Perry Haines, David Holah, Lloyd Johnson, Steve Johnston, Stephen Jones, Terry Jones, Alan Lewis, Stephen Linard, Nick Logan, Gaz Mayall, John Maybury, Ollie O’Donnell, Denis O’Regan, Betty Page, Andy Polaris, Derek Ridgers, Andy Rosen, Lee Sheldrick, Chris Sullivan, Homer Sykes, Phil Symes, David Thomas, Peter Thurgood, Frances Webb, Iain R Webb, Simon Withers, Peter York, Orsam Books, David Barrat