A year on from her brilliant book the 80s, Sound And Vision, Sheila Rock is back with another. This time diving deeper into the decade, looking at the new romantic scene. Subtitled from Billy’s to the People’s Palace, it is a limited edition of just 800 copies.
The punk scene which came before it, should be considered to have been the enabler, which allowed people to be more expressive in their dress. Unlike punk, where people dressed to shock and often the rougher the better, promoting Oxfam chic, the New Romantics raided those same charity shops, but instead of ripping arms off and generally distressing the clothes, they embellished them with lace, silk and other colourful exotic fabrics. Denim was out and your mum’s ballgown or granddads zoot suit, redefined but definitely in. Hats were back in fashion, along with long evening gloves. The one link remaining between punk and new romanticism was the ubiquitous tartan.
It was now dress to impress time and clubs often had strict door policies, designed to keep out the curious after work revellers, who’d come out straight from the office. Again the scene was initially born in the capital, but unlike punk, it was Birmingham and the Essex heartlands, rather than Manchester which embraced it fully. It also promoted a more androgynous look, where gender lines were often blurred. Like punk, a lot of the early clubs were gay clubs, which opened their doors (and presumably wallets), to the straighter crowd earlier in the week. A night out at these clubs would often mean calling in sick the next day. If it wasn’t the hangover or lack of sleep, it was the time needed to take off the make-up and in some cases literally unpick yourselves from the figure hugging garments you’d been sewn into the night before.
Again, like the punk scene, 70’s luminaries such as Roxy Music and Bowie featured prominently, until the likes of Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Culture Club and Depeche Mode began creating their own music. Guitars were mainly dropped in favour of synths and drum machines and the dance floor was no longer the beer sodden preserve of the pogo! New dances were adapted from the 60s, with girls dancing together, hand in hand, It was a time of peacock hedonism. Shoulder pads and harmony hairspray, rubbed along with anything your pocket money could stretch too, from either Chelsea girl or Max Factor, as the inevitable High Street chains attached themselves to this new trend.
Let Sheila take up the narrative………..
In the autumn of 1978, as the summer turned to dust, Steve Strange and Rusty Egan started a “Bowie Night” every Tuesday in the basement of a club called Billy’s in 69 Meard Street, just off Dean Street. This was the birthplace of the London one-nighter, the forerunner of the Blitz, and a venue as important to the New Romantic movement as the Roxy was to punk. What the pair did was ritualise the private party, as the likes of Gary Kemp, Steve Dagger, Fiona Dealey, George O’Dowd, Daniel James, Stephen Linard, Kim Bowen, Chris Sullivan, Robert Elms, Andy Polaris and Melissa Caplan became regulars, creating a scene that would go on to have an extraordinary effect on both British youth culture and pop culture. Billy’s was when London finally went “dress up”. “I went to Billy’s because I knew Steve Strange, who had been in a band with Chrissie Hynde,” says Sheila. “She was the one who told me to go down to the club because it was such a scene. And it was. Steve was absolutely sweet, a very nice person.”
Across the 170 or so pages, there are literally hundreds of photographs taken by Sheila, superbly capturing many in off-guarded moments and some not so candid. There’s some great photos of Depeche Mode looking like extras from Blakes 7 (ask yer mum!). All the “faces” are here. You can almost smell the White Linen! Many of these images are published here for the first time, both colour and monochrome.
It’s a fitting tribute to the scene and a valuable record of the most hedonistic of times in the last 40 years of popular music. Unlike punk, I think the music was secondary to the fashion and should go down as one of the earliest recorded instances of the 21st Century affliction, FOMO, or the fear of missing out!!! This should sit nicely in your bookshelf between Sheila’s other books and Derek Ridgers’ In the Eighties: Portraits from Another Time.
New Romantics: From Billy’s To The People’s Palace is published by Moonboy and available from 1st November