Duran Duran in 1980: Birmingham’s fluffiest New Romantics
◼ 40 YEARS AGO TODAY the Birmingham club-band Duran Duran released their debut single Planet Earth, less than two months after signing to EMI. It charted in mid-March, peaked at No 12, and bagged the band a spot on Top of the Pops, Britain’s premier music TV show. They were the first New Romantic band from outside London to make good, and the writer Steve Jansen claims that “inside of three short years, Duran were officially the biggest band on the planet”.
He celebrated Duran’s birthpangs with a thorough survey of their origins titled Switch It On! – Planet Earth & The Launch of Duran Duran, on the blog gimmeawristband.com which though sadly defunct today, is preserved at the Wayback Machine. As a shorter alternative, Shapersofthe80s documented a few key excerpts from his epic account, where Jansen talked to all the key players involved during the run-up to the band’s chart debut. They are published here with his permission…
❚ ON THIS DAYin 1980 Ultravox released one of the three most significant albums of the year that exemplified Britain’s new wave of synthesised electronic music – the others coming from Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark (in February) and Japan (in October). None of them acknowledged any association with the New Romantics movement. Ultravox’s 12-track album Vienna made an immediate impact, though its title track was only its third to be released, hitting No 2 in the charts in January 1981, later winning Single of the Year at the Brit Awards and an age later voted “the UK’s favourite No2 of all time” in a BBC poll.
It was produced by the German Conny Plank with an evocatively romantic landmark video directed by Russell Mulcahy who was creating a stunning visual vocabulary for the then novel music video. Midge Ure can take full credit as lead singer and guitarist for breathing a subtle blend of Roxy Music’s style and krautrock clarity into Ultravox and building them into a credible vanguard for electronica. Even as the word punk was given the heave-ho in favour of the term “new wave”, Ure was probably the first active player of a synth among any of his clubbing pals, having bought his first, the polyphonic Yamaha CS-50, in the summer of ’78.
As one of the most innovative musicians of the new decade, having had fingers in more pop pies than most, Ure is well qualified to stake his claim to have shaped the music of the Blitz Kids (among whom he was very much an honorary member), and here he describes the inspiration for Vienna, in an extract from his eloquent and candid 2004 autobiography If I Was (Virgin Books):
“The first time I plugged in and made a noise with Ultravox was in April 1979 at a rehearsal room in the Elephant and Castle. Right from the first minute I knew I had come home. This noise was what I had been searching for, not only could these people make that noise, but they also could teach me how to make it. [These people being Chris Cross, Billy Currie, Warren Cann.]
What we were doing was radical and new: synthesisers, drum machines and electric guitar mixed together, synth bass with regular drums playing on top of it, the electronic and the organic. It had never been done before. Our sound was massive, this weird crossover between Kraftwerk and the guitars, bass and drums that belonged to every rock band in the world…
I might have been a one-time teeny-bop guitarist but once I was behind the technology, the music that made me famous was the darkest, most serious stuff I’d ever done. Those early days in Ultravox were the best time of my life. The result was a complete crossover, maybe that’s why it worked. The music came from all of us: everyone contributed and we split all the songwriting credits four ways. The classic example of all of us working together was Vienna.
One night I was sitting having a conversation with my old manager, Gerry Hempstead, who had co-managed the Rich Kids, when his wife Brenda said to me: ‘Midge, what you need to write is a song like that Vienna.’ I looked blank and she went, ‘You know, the Fleetwood Mac song.’ I looked blanker. ‘No, it wasn’t Vienna,’ said Gerry, ‘it was Rhiannon.’ That was the night I went home with Vienna lodged in my brain.
The next morning it was still there. I walked into the kitchen in my little flat and said to Billy, who was staying over, ‘I’ve got a line running around in my head I can’t get rid of, “this means nothing to me, this means nothing to me, Vienna”.’ We built the song from that one lyric. Every component element came from all four of us. It wouldn’t have been Vienna without Warren’s heartbeat drum sound, and it wouldn’t have been Vienna without the bass synth notes and Billy’s eerie viola… ” / Continued in Chapter 10 of If I Was
❚ ON THIS DAY IN 1981 Spandau Ballet, spearhead band of the New Romantic movement, were flying off to Spain and Portugal by way of a working holiday with sun and sand — a brief tour of principal cities to establish their first European fan base, which remains strong today. Most significantly, on Ibiza, the island which young British sunseekers were starting to make their own, Spandau played at the then spanking new Ku club, as one of the first fashion bands whose visits were to make Ku one of the Mediterranean’s destination nightspots.
Spandau Ballet in 1981: a quick sprint to the Iberian peninsular as well as a hot date at Ibiza’s Ku club
But the day before their departure, Spandau had lit the fuse to a musical bombshell. They changed their sound to outflank the emergent slipstream of new image bands invading the British charts with synth-pop.
That Thursday they had taken over Le Beat Route in Soho, a mythical Mod club during the 60s, now fronted by Ollie O’Donnell, a suited but laid-back young crimper from Keith-at-Smile’s cool salon in Knightsbridge. The downstairs hideaway in Soho was the current Friday-night HQ of London’s nightlife leaders whose jackets and printed ties were hastily shaking off the New Romantic tag even as Duran Duran’s second single revelled in it. The bamboo decor helped: hints of a tropical holiday-camp with baskets for lampshades. South Seas tongue-in-cheek, maybe. Glamorous it was not. The ethos for new one-nighters was never to be smart, always gently ironic.
Here before an invited audience of Friday regulars the innovative Russell Mulcahy directed Spandau’s promotional video for their fourth single, Chant No 1. The bombshell was a surprise change of direction, announced by rat-a-tat congas and a burst of brass. The new tune, Gary Kemp said, had been inspired directly by the dissonant brass on the disco-funk track Wheel Me Out, the debut 12-inch dance single on Ze from US new-wave group Was (Not Was). The eerie sound had been introduced to keen Brit ears during the Axiom fashion show that had preceeded Spandau’s set in New York that May, during the first Blitz Invasion.
Chant No 1 was a blue-eyed funk mover that echoed the band’s teen years on the soul circuit, musically fresh while the lyrics seeped a certain seedy paranoia. There on-camera was a black trio of brass instrumentalists, Beggar & Co, who were the horn section for the British funksters Light of the World, and who’d already had their own hit with Somebody Help me Out.
Gone were the artsy settings and OTT costumes of Spandau’s early videos. This razor-sharp musical documentary intercuts Soho streetlife with a live club performance by Spandau. “Down, down, down, pass the Talk of the Town” urges the deejay’s Chandleresque rap as Tony Hadley sweeps past The Talk, the cobwebbed Mecca of international cabaret from the Judy Garland era. Inside the steamy Beat Route itself we take in the stylish ambience where the “mobile knives” now live to dance, as well as dress up in a distinctly more boy-meets-girl way than the incessant camperie of the Blitz, the long-gone poser-paradise. We glimpse the deejay Steve Lewis before his portrait of Lenin, in a season when Soviet button badges are also de rigueur, and it’s evident that, yes, things are different here.
The video emphatically makes the point that clubland rules. Spandau drummer John Keeble spoke with only slight exaggeration when he said: “For the next couple of years, no new band played live on a stage.” What he meant was that rock venues as the source for original music had been superseded by nightclubs. White socks and hedonism were the key: girls in swirling party frocks with hair cropped like chives, and boys wearing braces and rolled-up sleeves soon walked the streets of every town. Ha! Why, even the NME finally conceded by introducing a “Dance Chart” alongside their lists of Indie garage bands.
Chant No 1: Gary Kemp with one of Beggar & Co’s brass section at front
Once released on July 6, Chant No 1 rocketed straight up the charts to reach No 3 on August 1 (the NME chart actually placed it at No 1). Simultaneously remixed by Richard Burgess as a B-side and as an extended twelve-incher for clubs, the track immediately became an upbeat dance anthem for the school-leavers who were discovering what economic “hard times” were going to mean.
“I Don’t Need This Pressure On” ran Spandau’s chorus as a timely slogan for that summer when Britain went into shellshock from the rare experience of repeated race riots on the streets of London, Manchester and Liverpool. The fashion-conscious band who had been dismissed by the rockist press as fascists and dandies hit back with supreme optimism. This vibrant tune pressed the pop button with fans as well as rival bands who envied the chemistry of Spandau plus Beat Route. It announced a new brand: Team Soho. For ten weeks in the charts, Chant No 1 confirmed its rhythm as the sound of the new pop: once-and-for-all the dominance of the rock guitar was shifting to the supremacy of bass and drum for pop generations to come.
Ironies were everywhere. Not only did the crepe-shoed rocker Shakin’ Stevens occupy the No 1 spot for four consecutive weeks with Green Door, a comforting throwback to 50s nostalgia. By contrast, the cool young band who also held Chant off the top spot for another three consecutive weeks were The Specials, whose haunting single Ghost Town (where “all the clubs have been closed down”) became a poignant epitaph for the inner-city angst starting to erupt among the ranks of the hard-pressed in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain. The times were changing, not entirely for the better.
Duran Duran in 1980: Birmingham’s fluffiest New Romantics
◼ 30 YEARS AGO TODAY the Birmingham club-band Duran Duran released their debut single Planet Earth, less than two months after signing to EMI. It charted in mid-March, peaked at No 12, and bagged the band a spot on Top of the Pops, Britain’s premier music TV show. They were the first New Romantic band from outside London to make good, and this week the writer Steve Jansen claims that “inside of three short years, Duran were officially the biggest band on the planet”.
He celebrated Duran’s birthpangs with a monumental survey of their origins titled Switch It On! – Planet Earth & The Launch of Duran Duran, on the blog gimmeawristband.com. As a shorter alternative, Shapersofthe80s has documented a few key excerpts from his epic account, where Jansen talked to all the key players involved during the run-up to the band’s chart debut. They are published here with his permission…
The New Romantic Jive: Rum Runner regulars Gay John Lupton and Lavinya Jatjm, dressed to the hilt and dancing in the official 1981 video for Planet Earth, co-directed by Blitz Kid Perry Haines and Russell Mulcahy
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MORE INTERESTING THAN MOST PEOPLE’S FANTASIES — THE SWINGING EIGHTIES 1978-1984
They didn’t call themselves New Romantics, or the Blitz Kids – but other people did.
“I’d find people at the Blitz who were possible only in my imagination. But they were real” — Stephen Jones, hatmaker, 1983. (Illustration courtesy Iain R Webb, 1983)
“The truth about those Blitz club people was more interesting than most people’s fantasies” — Steve Dagger, pop group manager, 1983
“See David Johnson’s fabulously detailed website Shapers of the 80s to which I am hugely indebted” – Political historian Dominic Sandbrook, in his book Who Dares Wins, 2019
“The (velvet) goldmine that is Shapers of the 80s” – Verdict of Chris O’Leary, respected author and blogger who analyses Bowie song by song at Pushing Ahead of the Dame
“The rather brilliant Shapers of the 80s website” – Dylan Jones in his Sweet Dreams paperback, 2021
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VINCENT ON AIR 2022
✱ Deejay legend Robbie Vincent returned to JazzFM on Sundays 1-3pm in 2021… Catch Robbie’s JazzFM August Bank Holiday 2020 session thanks to AhhhhhSoul with four hours of “nothing but essential rhythms of soul, jazz and funk”.
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UNTOLD BLITZ STORIES
✱ If you thought there was no more to know about the birth of Blitz culture in 1980 then get your hands on a sensational book by an obsessive music fan called David Barrat. It is gripping, original and epic – a spooky tale of coincidence and parallel lives as mind-tingling as a Sherlock Holmes yarn. Titled both New Romantics Who Never Were and The Untold Story of Spandau Ballet! Sample this initial taster here at Shapers of the 80s
CHEWING THE FAT
✱ Jawing at Soho Radio on the 80s clubland revolution (from 32 mins) and on art (@55 mins) is probably the most influential shaper of the 80s, former Wag-club director Chris Sullivan (pictured) with editor of this website David Johnson
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