For Dylan Jones, the paradox of the New Romantic music scene is that this British blend of new sounds and styles became a worldwide phenomenon thanks in large part to American television.
“The New Romantics were made by America because of MTV,” says Jones, author of the new oral history “Sweet Dreams: From Club Culture to Style Culture, the Story of the New Romantics.” For those too young to experience it, the scene was one that combined synthpop music with outrageous fashion and makeup.
“Without MTV, this pop music would not have traveled around the world with the same speed and the same ferocity that it did,” he says by phone recently from London and his day job as editor of British GQ magazine.
“Sweet Dreams” is a new oral history of the New Romantics music and style scene that flourish in the United Kingdom in the early ’80s when groups such as Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet and more became stars. (Image courtesy of the publisher)
Dylan Jones is the author of “Sweet Dreams,” a new oral history of the New Romantics music and style scene in the United Kingdom in the early ’80s. (Photo by Richard Young/REX)
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Nigerian-born British singer and songwriter Sade (Helen Folasade). (Photo by Express Newspapers/Getty Images)
Steve Strange was influential in the rise of the New Romantics movement, first as a club operator at venues such as the Blitz, later as the vocalist for the band Visage. He’s pictured here at the Blitz where he often worked the door, enforcing a strict dress code that let the creative in, the mundane out. (Photo by Terry Smith)
The New Romantics bands included the likes of Visage, Culture Club, Soft Cell, and more, many of whom had hits with singles like these pictured here. (Photo by Dylan Jones)
David Bowie and Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music were major influences on the rise of the New Romantics bands such as Ultravox, Depeche Mode, and Soft Cell, a story told in Dylan Jones’ new oral history “Sweet Dream.” (Photo courtesy of Dylan Jones)
Singer Dave Gahan of electronic band Depeche Mode performs at the Lyceum near the Strand in London, UK, 1981. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
1981: Steve Strange (right) of the new romantic synth-pop group Visage at the People’s Palace club in the Rainbow Theatre, London. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
1981: New Romantics at the People’s Palace club in the Rainbow Theatre, London. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)
1984: British pop stars Steve Norman and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet with their girlfriends, including Shirley of Wham! on the right. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
“If you consider that in 1983, there was a second British Invasion when three-quarters of the American charts were made up of British acts like Sade and Spandau Ballet and Culture Club and Depeche Mode and Eurythmics, that wouldn’t have happened without MTV.”
Jones was there when it began, a student at St. Martin’s School of Art at the end of the ’70s. After the big bang of punk rock, a new kind of scene emerged from the weekly Bowie Nights held at the Blitz club in the then desolate Covent Garden neighborhood.
The author of earlier works on artists including Jim Morrison, the Who and David Bowie — as well as an examination of the Glen Campbell–Jimmy Webb song “Wichita Lineman” — he says he was inspired to write “Sweet Dreams” because of the erosion of esteem for the music and culture of the early ’80s.
“Whenever people look back upon the ’80s, they focus on rah-rah skirts and makeup and mobile telephones,” Jones says. “All the very obvious tropes. Big money, bad design.
“So I wanted to try and reclaim that period,” he says. “There are dozens, hundreds of books written about punk. There are books written about glam rock, about heavy rock, about soul, about hip-hop, grime, country, jazz.
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“But there are almost no books about this period and — apart from a time in the ’60s between sort of ’64 and ’68 — I think that this period is the greatest period of the pop single ever in the narrative arc of postwar pop culture.”
It was also, he says, a time of bohemianism and experimentation inspired by artists such as David Bowie and Kraftwerk that incorporated the DIY attitude of punk rock. As a result, “Sweet Dreams” spans the years from 1975 to 1985.
“Basically, ’75 is the beginning of where those strands started to come together,” Jones says. “I wanted to reinforce the fact that a lot of the people involved in the scene had come from the soul clubs, and I also wanted to tease in those early protagonists of the punk scene in London.”
Jones ends his tale in 1985 because he felt that the Live Aid concert that summer seemed like the end of the narrative arc, placing such New Romantics-affiliated acts as Spandau Ballet, Ultravox and Howard Jones on the same stage as older stars including Bowie, Queen, the Who, and Bryan Ferry of Roxy Music, another major influence on the New Romantics.
The New Romantic term was almost more a product of the fashions than the music. Picture a singer in thrift store vintage finery or a frilly shirt and frock coat with an asymmetrical haircut and you’re in the right neighborhood.
Little of it, at first, was off-the-rack, the college student or unemployed budget forcing self-styled creativity, though as artists found success you need look no further than a Duran Duran video to see the couture it inspired.
Musically the period is best defined by the rise of the synthesizers, popularized first and best by Kraftwerk, and adapted by acts from the Human League to Soft Cell, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark to Yazoo. Even then, though, there was room for the punkish tribal beats of Adam Ant and Bow Wow Wow or the soulful grooves of Spandau Ballet and Culture Club.
None of that existed, Jones says, when he arrived in London in 1977 for college looking like a member of the Ramones, his favorite band at the time he left his quiet town in Cambridgeshire for the city.
“It was incredible to be in London; it was like being reborn,” he says. “When I first came I was going to punk clubs and watching groups like the Clash and the Buzzcocks, Jonathan Richman and whoever, the Heartbreakers and Patti Smith.
“And then after about a year or so, I started gravitating toward clubs,” Jones says of the scene that birthed the New Romantics. “You’d go to the Blitz and you’d go to Hell and the Beat Route and the Club For Heroes.
“And it really did feel like we were at the center of something. I’m not sure where that arrogance came from, but we really did feel like we were important.”
In addition to voices from most of the major musical figures of the scene, Jones also includes those of fashion designers, hairstylists, journalists and others who traveled in that orbit. The point is made, through the oral histories and Jones’ own writing, that the music was only one aspect of the movement and maybe not even the first to emerge.
“It wasn’t like a lot of scenes that revolve around the groups, the people making music,” he says. “We were listening to music from disparate sources, soul records, Bowie, electronica. The fashions were born out of people going to clubs for that.
“It wasn’t until there was a scene that groups came out of the scene like Spandau Ballet and Culture Club and Duran Duran. As that opened up, and because of largely MTV, it became a visually dominated medium.”
About the only political debates for American audiences revolved around which member of Duran Duran was the cutest — correct answer: John Taylor — but in the United Kingdom, the New Romantics were often bashed by the country’s music press as closet conservatives for their unapologetic desire for commercial success.
“The legacy of that was the post-punk hangover,” Jones says. “Because punk was about rebellion. It was about tearing things down. Ideology was more important than music — what you believed in, how you framed it, how you contextualized it culturally or politically.
“And that didn’t really sit with the New Romantics, or the people who came out of that scene,” he says. “They wanted to be successful. They were like the pop groups of the ’60s, where you say, ‘I want to be in a pop group because I want to sleep with lots of boys or lots of girls, take lots of drugs, have a really great time, travel the world, make money, be successful.’”
The British music papers such as NME, Sounds and Melody Maker weren’t interested in that kind of band. In fact, they typically sneered at them as frivolous poseurs, though Jones argues they had more in common with punk rock than most acknowledged.
“If you look at a lot of the groups involved in this world, the synth groups like Blancmange or the Pet Shop Boys or the Human League, they had a very similar DIY sensibility to the punks, but instead of picking up guitars they picked up computers.”
The New Romantics faded as the second half of the ’80s unfolded and “fantastic pop music gave way to mediocre pop music,” Jones says. “By the mid-80s, the pop charts were pretty thin gruel.”
Still, the music made in the New Romantics orbit endures, he says, whether on radio, where programmers increasingly add ’80s hits to the classic rock format or on tours where many of these acts have thrived to this day.
“If you’re a ’70s act and you’re still touring, you’re probably a big draw,” Jones says. “But if you’re from the ’80s, like say ABC, the Human League, they can all command good audiences. People still love the records.”
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