It’s been a while now, but knowing my predilections, commenter Jordan asked me if I’d be interested in a copy of the Classic Pop “New Romantic Special Edition” from 2019. Not being one to turn down too many free offers, I said “yes” and the mag has been in house for a while now and with my limited reading time, it’s taken me ages to finally get through it. And in doing so, it once more brings me back to the conundrum I’ve been trying to analyze since at least 1980. Namely, how does one define the “New Romantic” era/trend? I’d be foolish to say I have any iron clad ideas and I’ve been listening to the music for 42 years now, but the editors of Classic Pop have had a good stab at what proves to be an elusive subject with all of the tactility of quicksilver.
It was probably some time in 1980 when I first got wind of the immediate predecessor of the New Romantics, The Futurists. That may have had its origins in the pages of “Sounds” magazine, with its influential “Futurist Chart” as compiled by the infamous Stevø who would soon helm the synth-heavy Some Bizzare label in the early 80s. I think I actually saw the word “Futurist” as applied to synthetic music [especially Gary Numan] in the pages of “Dogfood” the local New Wave newspaper in Orlando as the 70s became the 80s. The writer [was it Michelle?] must have been a “Sounds” reader. I didn’t read UK music press, or even any US press at that time, for that matter! But if “Futurists” slotted in with Gary Numan, already a favorite of mine as I was hungry for synthesized pop, then I kept an ear cocked as the scene mutated slightly to become New Romanticism as ’80 became ’81.
It’s telling that these musical trends [Futurism, New Romantic] were indebted to the names of previous art movements given that the musical scens were inextricably linked to all manner of visual artists, from the de riguer fashion, hair, and makeup designers to more traditional artists and illustrators. The fluidity of the scene mirrored that of its members sexuality as it used the music as a honeytrap to grow itself with all manner of input as the scene erupted from what was its own ground-zero point, Bowie Nights at Billy’s.
That was appropriate, as it was Bowie and Roxy Music almost a decade earlier who’d first really codified the links between art/fashion/music in a way that was always on the periphery of youth movements and subcultures but never quite writ as large as they had done. Tellingly, when Punk made 1977 Year Zero, Bowie, Roxy and Bolan were all spared from the chopping block. If anything, they were royalty to the next generation. My experience of the New Romantic movement was strictly from the musical side. I did not really begin clubbing until I was in my twenties. At the age when I was listening to what is now typified as New Romantic pop, I was too young to get into clubs in any case. But the New-Ro trend was all about club life. And its soundtrack was crucial to my interest in the scene.
It was almost down to one man; drummer Rusty Egan from the Post-Punk band Rich Kids. Mr. Egan was also a club DJ with his impeccable taste being the foundation that Bowie Nights at Billy’s, then moved to The Blitz, and later The Club For Heroes as the scene developed and expanded over the three year period of ’79-’81. His playlist is covered here in detail and was legendary. It was why this teenager in the sticks of Orlando, Florida knew and cared about this scene. Egan was at the center of a web which included his partner in crime from Rich Kids, Midge Ure, as well as his flatmate Steve Strange who helped to run the club. Steve was a dedicated Bowiephile dandy. One thing led to another and when Bowie completed the cycle by cherry-picking Blitz Club denizens as extras in his new video, “Ashes To Ashes,” that blew the scene up as it ascended to the mainstream and beyond.
Heavy coverage of the ups and downs of the life of Steve Strange here were intrinsically linked to the scene, as Egan, and Ure masterminded the New-Ro spergroup Visage by poaching some of their favorite musicians from Ultravox and Magazine. The history and final act [interviewing Steve Barnacle, who had been a member from 1982 to the end] of that band got major coverage here.
Crucial albums that were foundational to the movement were also covered in depth. I’m most impressed by the inclusion of the breathlessly elegant “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” by JAPAN; a perfect blend of Art Rock and Disco that managed to best even Roxy Music. I would quibble at the inclusion of “Scary Monsters” but given that Bowie was the groundbreaker who cast the longest shadow over the New Romantics, I can understand that conceit. If I had to pick a fifth album that belonged in this magazine more, it would certainly be “Systems Of Romance” by Ultravox. Which for me, codified the thematic and musical approach of the movement.
While the musical waves of the New-Ro style have ebbed and flowed over the 40+ years since, the movers of fashion that emerged form the scene to become major voices were also given much space here. Melissa Caplan, Stephen Linard, Judith Frankland and many others were cited and interviewed here as fashion students infiltrating the new Clubland and intermixing their energy with that of the nightlife to form an artistic plasma that was neither fish nor fowl, but gave the connected worlds of music, art and fashion a jolt of energy that carried it forward for years.
By the same token, the issue also had the presence of highly theatrical musicians who used fashion as boldly as the New Romantics at the same time as them, yet their music seemed of another sphere. Namely, Adam Ant and Toyah Willcox, who were also covered here. Adam Ant, was rightly indicated on the periphery, with music that was closer to Glam Rock stomp given a dose of Malcolm McLaren’s Situationalism theories. Even Adam himself took great pains to disassociate himself with the movement, but the unwashed public might have had other ideas. Toyah, on the other hand, had makeup in 1981 photo shoots by Richard Sarah, who had all but defined the New Romantic extreme makeup look that saw a run on clown white that no one would have expected that year, otherwise. And yet her music was a chimerical blend of Punk and Prog that was in another universe from what I would recognize as New Romantic music.
In the end, trying to definitively capture the essence of New Romanticism is akin to catching fog in a sieve. I think it’s a tumultuous grab-bag of influences, many of which have nothing to do with music, poured into a youth culture that needed all of these tools to investigate their lives in that time and place. I cannot believe that there’s not been a thick coffee table book on the movement, but until that day, this mag will do nicely as a placeholder to that time that still exerts a strange pull on me decades later.
Terrific post, Monk. Your thoughts are astute as always, especially considering the challenge of defining the movement. These two sentences had particular resonance: “Tellingly, when Punk made 1977 Year Zero, Bowie, Roxy and Bolan were all spared from the chopping block. If anything, they were royalty to the next generation.” Well stated.
I’ve spent 35+ years claiming that NuRo wasn’t a music movement, it was a fashion movement / / club scene. This fashion movement also happened to embrace the hippest music of its era: Bowie, Roxy, Ultravox, Japan… mostly because these very edgy bands were also very well dressed. Note the Japan *et al* always eschewed the NuRo tag, just as Bauhaus and Siouxsie hated being called “Goth”.
After NuRo became a media buzzword, Visage packaged a sound to go with the style. They were the first of the clubbers and fashionistas to embrace the label. Before you knew it, the next generation of bands declared themselves NuRo *bands* (as opposed to being NuRo clubbers): Duran Duran and Classix Nouveaux, for starters. But clearly, these acts were aping something (not originating anything); they grabbed a sound from Roxy, Ultravox, Japan, and Visage (the fulcrum act), and jumped on the bandwagon.
Clearly Duran Duran eventually made more of themselves than just being NuRo hangers-on, but for my money, the ultimate NuRo band is Classix: they took the NuRo fashion style, the Visage sound (as distilled from Roxy, Bowie, etc), and owned up to being NEW ROMANTIC, even if they were derivative of their predecessors in both music and fashion, and even as their predecessors shunned the NuRo label. Classix *wanted* to be a NuRo band. Japan, Ultravox, etc., did not.
LikeLiked by 1 person
JT – Now you’ve done it! I have got to post on Classix Nouveaux next.
As you mention Ultravox here – yep it’s definitively the most New Romantic act, esp. post John Foxx while John Foxx moved clearly towards the Futurism, as Gary Numan did in his way.
The Human League on the other side moved from Futurism to New Romantic and into oblivion. And what magazine would run a story on New Romantics without them or A Flock Of Seagulls ?
LikeLiked by 1 person