It’s 1981. Spandau provide the new British electropop, Axiom the radical London fashion show, while Tina Turner and Robert de Niro join the coolest audience in Manhattan…
◼ THEY WERE seven days in May that came right off the wall. Picture a dozen young, overdressed Londoners trundling rails of equally overstated garments through the midnight traffic of New York – and then the same dozen devouring a Chinese takeaway feast next day between picture sessions for glossy magazines. Imagine Martin Kemp flashing his Y‑fronts, sweat‑sodden trousers round his ankles, as he cools off after a gig – or Tony Hadley telling a TV interviewer: “What’s Bowie got to do with me? He’s 33 and I’m 20.”
No one in New York that week was allowed to doubt that London rules as style capital of the world – not since the gang of 21 blew in. 21 in number and 21 their average age, this was the flying circus of one‑time Blitz Kids who unleashed on Manhattan one daring nightraid. First they stunned with a fashion show by Axiom’s group of radical designers, then they stormed in with the glorious electrofunk of a Spandau Ballet gig.
“Showblitzness has launched its American invasion,” said the fashion bible, Women’s Wear Daily. “It is a conquest. Not since the heady days of Studio 54 has a Manhattan club crackled with such intensity.” And one editor of the hip local paper SoHo News confided: “New York was so cool. Nobody likes to admit it, but we’re really jealous. New music, new clothes – London has done it again…”
The New York Times’s sober music critic was moved to declare that the Ballet’s “gothic flamboyance” had “real impact” and even the cobwebbed Rolling Stone magazine stirred itself for a major survey. Predictably the posse of British pop hacks who swooped in from Fleet Street for the freebie duly reported the gig, ignored the fashion show and missed the real story: that for flying the flag, the gang of 21 had boosted not only Britain’s battered image but also the prestige of their own post‑punk generation more convincingly than all the fad merchants of World’s End chasing the Romantics bandwagon.
Trust them to get it right. The brains behind Axiom is ex‑Chelsea student Jon Baker (20), known to all as Mole. “After the show we were besieged with interviews, photo‑sessions – and orders,” he said, exhausted after seven heavy‑duty days of clubbing, drinking, dancing and sweat. Steve Dagger at 23 must be the youngest pop manager with a band in the Top Ten. As he watched Spandau Ballet board the jumbo for London, he smiled his Cheshire Cat smile. “I’m well pleased,” he purred, “well pleased.”
THE FIRST SATURDAY – the lunacy begins . . . The pattern is set for a week where sleep becomes a precious commodity and Manhattan receives a high‑octane transfusion of British adrenaline. The crazies have already been on the town for two days. These are Mole, Ollie O’Donnell the crimper and London’s Beat Route host, Welsh designer Chris Sullivan, Ballet graphics wiz Graham Smith and wordsmith Bob Elms. With their nose for seedy dives, these guys have already clocked enough stories to fill an unexpurgated quide to New York lowlife.
By 11pm they join the week’s first party which brings together the Axiom Crowd and Spandau’s corps de Ballet at the neat downtown flat of local designer Errol Paster. His ex‑wife Rhonda is adopted as our own British ambassador and between them they’ve found everyone crashpads (save the band in their Lexington Avenue hotel).
Designer Melissa Caplan arrives full of horror stories of an hour spent talking her way through US customs with 25 of her high‑style Pallium Products she wants to show “and the woman had the nerve to say she didn’t like my perfume”. Simon Withers demolishes a long order of Smirnoff and says he thought they were going to deport him at Kennedy airport, not surprisingly since his jackboots and stormtrooper kit were a little unsubtle “and the only stamps in my passport came from East Germany”.
When Spandau Ballet arrive in their Musclebound/mittel europ serf‑wear, the party looks like any Friday at the Beat Route. In a curious time‑capsule only one block away, the dirt‑and‑denim fans are pouring out of a Motorhead gig at the Palladium, a leaden reminder of the challenge American musical taste throws at any hint of innovation.
They remind me that I’m glad to be here, a familiar fly on the wall, over a year after meeting Steve Dagger. He swears now that I laughed (“You did, you did, you laughed out loud: ha‑ha”) when he first told me of his unknown band and the “really weird people” who followed them. “The latest thing is romance, pushed over the top,” he’d said. “Chris Sullivan makes even the SS look normal.”
I may well have laughed until I first heard the Ballet play. Within four bars I turned to a friend and we both said “My God. They can play!” As a writer I’d plugged them and as a fan I’d watched them and their riveting cult inject their ideas into London’s bloodstream more effectively than any group since the Small Faces in the Sixties. And here we all are on the sidewalks of New York, umpteen fashion shows, three hit singles, a gold album later – kneedeep in Motorhead throwbacks.
By 1am, the gang is tuning up Manhattan’s grapevine at a snooty 45th‑Street hotspot called the StarBuck where elegant preppies are paying 15 dollars for that night’s show, Dr Buzzard’s zappy Savannah Band. They are magic. “My hero,” says Gary Kemp when he is introduced to August Darnell, aka Kid Creole. Flashguns pop as Gary gets rapping with Holly Woodlawn, one of Andy Warhol’s Sixties superstars. “Who?” says Steve Norman.
By 3am we are at the pitsy Mudd club where some graffiti reads appropriately: “Hanging like the kid, Staying in the game.” The Ballet decide they haven’t much to learn from the Rockats’ campy brand of glitterbilly and so on to a neon‑lit afterhours place called Rage whose civilised mix of early Joy Division and classic soul persuades Elms to teach New York a few dancesteps. A barmaid called Sabrina, whose accent reveals her as a former Sissors stylist from London, tells us she’s working right through to 10am. “And then some of this lot go on to church for the free wine.” The crazies think that’s a nice idea but by 7am some of us succumb to jetlag and opt out.
Sunday is when the toil begins in earnest
The Ballet start what seems a ceaseless round of photosessions, today posing around Greenwich Village, not forgetting to check Bleecker Bob’s, the British record shop who actually pushed 1,600 copies of their album on import alone. Over at Rhonda’s Gramercy Park embassy, sirens wail outside while within Melissa and choreographer Mandy d’Wit play Miss Efficiency with their clipboards. Two rails display clothes hot from London, then Sade Adu and Sarah Lubell arrive from JFK to add their Demob collection. The fashion show is being planned to the nth degree.
Melissa says: “Chris Sullivan wants the guys who model his suits to be casual but not camp. The music I want is that African chant, Burundi Black, and it sounds difficult but I want them to walk to it.” Simon Withers puts Land of Hope and Glory on the hifi and everyone goes dewy‑eyed for one minute. Like a chorus‑line audition, would‑be models turn up all day long. One too‑cool blonde refuses to be impressed by anything, even Melissa’s finned jodhpurs. She fails. A sleepy Italian called Larry goes simply wide‑eyed at Sullivan’s outsize zootsuits. He passes.
That night the band check out the club they are to play, a high‑tech bunker called the Underground at 17th and Broadway which looks like a power station dressed for a Kubrick movie. Tonight Thelma Houston is appearing. “It’s a dream,” Tony Hadley says. “I’m not so sure about the gays,” says John Keeble, eyeing the all‑male clientele.
Jim Fouratt, the event’s promoter and the week’s real Mr Fixit, assures John that Wednesday’s invitation audience will be well mixed but adds with his frontman realism: “Gays set the trends and any club needs them to make things happen. This place is trying to take over from Interferon and by borrowing Wednesdays for my Modern Classix night I’ll be putting them further ahead.”
MONDAY MEANS another million interviews for the band and an afternoon press conference for the whole gang at Vandam’s restaurant. Local rock press and fashion press are clearly baffled and a crash‑course in British social trends ensues. A TV video about the New Romantics is screened. Gary Kemp delivers his now familiar credo about the audience being as important as the band. Producer Richard Burgess says Spandau Ballet isn’t about musical virtuosity; it’s a package of creativity and it was the Blitz which stopped him from slaving around on the road. Mole explains that Axiom is a cooperative of independent designers who don’t need contracts because they’re friends. And Graham Smith displays his photo‑book recording the reign of Rusty Egan and Steve Strange at Billy’s in ’78 and the cavortings of the kids at the Blitz in ’79.
“You’re all so earnest,” says the editor of Trouser Press. “So obsessed with clothes. You’re not the first band to credit your tailors. The Clash did that too.” His photographer then discovers that a Sullivan suit costs £80. “No one in New York would be seen in a suit so cheap – but that one’s really beautiful.”
One gossip columnist says: “I like your gentleness. This is what England’s about, civilised gentility. Gary obviously believes everything he says and I like what Spandau Ballet say about socialising. They’re not bored with themselves like so many rock bands at press conferences. I do wonder about their taking off here because the music scene is really sick. Kids who like Ultravox are light years ahead of the record companies.”
At that night’s rehearsal the models are just as flattering. Jorge, a Spanish singer, says: “I thought it’d be strictly Regency and I’d had my fill of frills. Yet this stuff is so contemporary, it’s unique.” Gennaro, an Italian, says: “I’ve done that pirate look four times over the years: old hippy clothes are so easy. But these snap clothes, I dig. I love their spaciness.” And Lisa, a peppy girl in a 25‑cent church bazaar dress (belt by Betsy Johnson) says: “I love them all, otherwise I wouldn’t be here.” One model girl with an enormous butt insists on shaking it like Marilyn Monroe. “Cut out the dips!” shouts Mandy. Ollie the snip arrives grousing that Tony Hadley has destroyed his new creation. “I’d cut the neck short and crimped it up on top and he went into the bathroom and shook it all out. That boy’s so unadventurous.”
As we run those two rails of clothes back to Rhonda’s at midnight, Melissa sighs: “So this is the glamorous fashion biz?”
TUESDAY: Smith gets the programmes printed and the last models are recruited. By now there are 22 including Mandy, Sade and the versatile Mr Elms. Half a dozen dressers arrive and inside the Underground everyone slogs through their numbers over and over till the timing is right. In seven minutes of Wheel Me Out, three Robin Archer outfits, two by Paul Wynters and nine by Demob have to finish to the second. Sullivan gets three minutes 20 secs of Hard Work for his eight suits.
Earlier the band stops the traffic in Madison Square Garden for pictures, snatches a studio rehearsal on Long Island and gives a zillion interviews, a couple for TV. “The cleverest instigators last year,” Gary tells America, “were down at the Blitz. That’s why Bowie had to go there to find out what was happening.” Martin besports his Mad Monk outfit and reveals that it doesn’t come from Axiom. Treason! It’s made by one Jill Abernethy, a friend of the band. As they turn in for an early night, Martin has no fears for tomorrow’s big fixture. “We’ll just let ’em have it,” he says in true World of Sport manner.
The big event
The guest list is so strictly checked that a queue three deep stretches round the block. Only the British press posse, well wined and dined, swan through. Everyone else is charged 8 dollars. Manhattan has really turned out, from Tina Turner, Robert de Niro, Madison Avenue execs to punks and leather boys. And Stateside Romantics, dressed further over the top than anybody in London. One journalist says: “Until last week nobody wanted to know you unless you walked into a club in punk black. It’s taken tonight to bring out the closet Romantics in New York City.”
At 11.30, Fouratt takes the mike. “In 1981,” he announces, “we present not just music but London: a city and a lifestyle.” For 30 funky minutes, from Wade In The Water and Out Come The Freaks, to Burundi Black and Bustin’ Out, 61 outfits by eight designers blaze down the runway. New York defies us to amuse them but by the time Sullivan’s suits march out their eyes are growing wider and by Melissa’s finale they are popping. When the Ballet take the stage an hour later, the atmosphere is electric. In easily their best set yet, Glow shines out as evidence of Kemp’s songwriting gifts. It points vibrantly, too, to the band’s new musical direction.
Why, then, is the applause so low‑key? One 18‑year‑old in the audience, Phoebe Zeeman, says afterwards: “Everyone I know loved it. But this crowd is so chic, so cool. Their noses are way up in the air. Are they green with envy!”
“They’re confused,” says record executive Doug D’Arcy, “and they don’t want to appear unhip. For a group to play a disco is unusual and people don’t understand why they’re not at the Ritz.”
And pop journalist Brad Balfour says: “It’s not cool for an audience like this to come on strong. But I watched the way they moved. There was a real solid reaction to the band.”
Fashion editor Richard Buckley says: “I’ll be calling my article The New Heroics. I can see them changing the traditional fashion silhouette in the long run: in, say, three years bigger shirts will reach the mass market.”
And Henry Post, a social commentator, said he was certainly writing about The New London. “The fashion show had lots of attitude, lots of energy. It was interesting because they were not pirate clothes. The menswear was extremely impressive. The whole night was splashy – like a punk barmitzvah.”
DURING the past two days nobody ever worked or partied harder. “I’m not sure I really like the effort of being a pop star,” Tony Hadley decides. Steve Norman has no doubts: “I love it. I love the fame, I love being photographed, I love the dirty fan mail.” On the band’s final day, Rolling Stone whisks them off for a prestige photo session. “OK lads, up against the wall,” says the cameraman. “Oh no,” says Dagger, “not the New Wave brick wall shot circa 1976 … Some people will never learn.”
Text © Shapersofthe80s.com
Downtown 81 Movie trailer
❏ Trailer telling the a day in the life of a young artist, Jean-Michel Basquiat, originally titled New York Beat Movie, and not released until 2001 in France. Written by Glenn O’Brien, an underground cable producer and new-wavey filmmaker in NYC, ex-Interview and Rolling Stone, gives us a glimpse of James White and a helluva lot more.