The Blitz club in Covent Garden was ground zero for the movement that came to be known as the New Romantics, an identity that perhaps represented the most forceful rejection of the premises of punk music, which was then on everyone’s lips. Where the punks preached scruffy confrontation and anarchy, the New Romantics veered in an escapist direction, stressing the rarefied forms of yesteryear (most often the 1930s) and an abiding (even a political) belief in actual beauty with a capital B.
The Blitz Kids looked to Roxy Music and David Bowie for inspiration, adopting a sartorial flair that included flaming mascara, outrageous accessories, zoot suits. The Blitz club spawned the New Romantic acts Visage and Spandau Ballet, among others, but nature of the scene was insular—the whole point of the weekly meetups was to parade oneself for all the others who had gathered for the occasion. Gigs didn’t have to be promoted because word of mouth would fill any chosen room.
In May 1980 Strange, Egan, and Chris Sullivan of the band Blue Rondo à la Turk opened Hell, which had a darker feel than Blitz. At Hell, as Dave Rimmer writes in New Romantics: The Look, “many of the Blitz crowd pursued an ecclesiastical theme: dark robes, white faces, a look that prefigured Goth.” At Hell you would hear acts like the Pop Group, Defunkt, the Cramps, and A Certain Ratio, but its “anthem” was “Contort Yourself” by James White and the Blacks. Hell only lasted a few months, and by early 1981 the hot spot had become a joint started by Chris Sullivan and Graham Ball called Le Kilt, which was where BBC sent Robin Denselow to do his report.
Tellingly, the report begins with the strains of Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of Rodgers and Hart’s “Manhattan” as Sullivan carefully dons his tailored duds. A few minutes later, Steve Strange bellows the words “Nobody should knock fantasy!” in fervent defense of the New Romantic ideology in an overt embrace of escapism—and why not?
Gary and Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet are on hand, Gary in particular speaking with palpable edge about the demands the New Romantic movement places on the participants (for they must dress up as much as any performer).
DJ and singer Princess Julia with George O’Dowd aka Boy George.
Billy’s was a nightclub in Soho, London, where every Tuesday for most of 1978 two young men—Steve Strange and Rusty Egan—ran a club night playing tracks by David Bowie, Roxy Music and Kraftwerk. The club was in a basement underneath a brothel. From this small cramped space a new generation of artists, writers, performers and DJs first met up and planned the future together. Punk was dead. It was uncool. It had gone mainstream. The teenagers who came to Billy’s wanted to create their own music, their own style and make their own mark on the world.
Among this small posse of teenagers were future stars like Boy George, Siobhan Fahey (Bananarama), Marilyn, Martin Degville (Sigue Sigue Sputnik), DJ Princess Julia, Jeremy Healy (Hasyi Fantayzee), Andy Polaris (Animal Nightlife) and an eighteen-year-old Nicola Tyson who would go onto become one of the world’s leading figurative painters.
It’s rare that someone is savvy enough to ever take photographs of a nascent cultural revolution. But Nicola took her camera along to Billy’s and she documented the teenagers who frequented the club that launched the New Romantics and a whole new world of pop talent.
Punk was boring. Punk was dead. Punk stopped being interesting when it became chart music. In its place came New Wave—which was really just more of the same played with jangly guitars by bands with a taste for Sixties music. The next really big thing was the utter antithesis of punk. Elitist, pretentious, preening, vain, camp yet utterly inventive.
It was called “the cult with no name”—because nobody knew what to call it. It didn’t fit any easy categorization. There were soul boys, punks, rockabillies, with a taste for dance music and electronica all in the mix. It was the press who eventually pitched up with the tag New Romantics which stuck.
I was never quite sure what was supposed to be romantic about the New Romantics. They weren’t starving in garrets or brokenhearted, writing poetry, indulging in absinthe or committing suicide by the dozen. They were all dolled-up to the nines, flaunting it out on the streets—demanding to be seen.
It had all started with Rusty Egan and Steve Strange running a club night playing Bowie, Roxy Music and Kraftwerk at a venue called Billy’s in 1978.
Egan was a drummer and DJ. He was in a band with ex-Sex Pistol Glen Matlock called Rich Kids which featured Midge Ure on vocals.
Strange had been inspired to move to London and form a punk band after he saw the Sex Pistols in concert. He moved out of Wales and formed The Moors Murderers. The band included punk icon Soo Catwoman, guitarist Chrissie Hynde and Clash drummer Topper Headon. Together they recorded one notorious single “Free Hindley.”
The same year, Egan, Strange and Ure formed Visage—which was to become a catalyst for the New Romantics in 1980 with their hit single “Fade to Grey.”
Visage: Steve Strange, Midge Ure and Rusty Egan in 1978.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves, so let’s be kind and rewind.
1978: Egan and Strange move their club night to a wine bar-cum-restaurant-cum-dance-club called the Blitz. Egan was the DJ. Strange was on the door. Strange has a strict door policy. No one gets in unless they dressed like superstars.
Before Steve Strange became known as a club host at Blitz and a New Romantic pop star with Visage, he was in a punk band with Chrissie Hynde called The Moors Murderers. It’s fair to say, there was a tacit understanding with some elements of punk that to cause offense was an acceptable way to achieve notoriety. Having a band called The Moors Murderers was certain to bring considerable opprobrium and cause offense to the Great British public as the band’s name referred to the notorious serial killers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley who had raped and murdered five children in Manchester, England, between 1963 and 1965, burying their bodies on Saddleworth Moor. To this day the body of one victim Keith Bennett has never been recovered.
Brady and Hindley were a dark stain on the colorful psychedelia of the swinging sixties. Their evil deeds had a troubling influence on many writers and artists, perhaps most notably Morrissey who used the brutal killings as material for songs and may have even named his band after the Brady/Hindley associates and in-laws David and Maureen Smith—or as they were called by the press at the time, “the Smiths.”
Steve Strange’s involvement with punk came when he saw the Sex Pistols perform at the Castle Cinema in Caerphilly, Wales, in December 1976. The gig changed the teenager’s life and he became friends with the band’s bass player Glen Matlock. Strange was then known by his real name Steven John Harrington, and inspired by the Pistols he started booking punk bands to play gigs at his home town. He then moved to London and became part of the revenue of punks that orbited around Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren’s shop SEX on the King’s Road. Here he met the iconic Soo Catwoman, who first suggested forming a punk band called The Moors Murderers. As Soo later recalled:
“The Moors Murderers thing was a big joke to be honest. I was joking about getting a band together called the Moors Murderers and doing sleazy love songs, I had no idea he [Steve Strange] would actually go out and do it. …”
Strange certainly ran with the idea and approached Chrissie Hynde telling her about the band and singing her the song “Free Hindley.”
They say it started in 64
Myra Hindley was nothing more
Than a woman who fell for a man
Why shouldn’t she be free
Brady was her lover
Who told her what to do
Psychopathic killer-nothing new
Free Hindley Free
What she did was for love
The torture scenes the boys and girls
Hindley knew but couldn’t say
She was trapped by her love
What mother in her right mind
Would allow a girl at the age of nine
Be out on her own
Don’t blame Hindley
Brady was her lover
Who told her what to do
Psychopathic killer-nothing new
Why shouldn’t she be free?
Free Hindley Free
Strange claimed to be part of a band called the Moors Murderers in order to do a photo shoot for German magazine Bravo. Catwoman says she was also present but left the shoot. Steve Strange may have played a gig with The Photons under the Moors Murderers monicker supporting The Slits at an NSPCC benefit concert at Ari Up’s school in Holland Park circa Christmas 1977.
At The Slits gig was musician and producer Dave Goodman, who had worked with the Pistols and Eater:
There was a support band who I assumed were friends of the Slits. They had this singer dressed in black leather calling himself ‘Steve Strange’. I also remember at least one female musician, who turned out to be Chrissie Hynde. They had a certain ‘first gig’ quality about them, their sound being somewhat chaotic and the lyrics virtually unintelligible.
I couldn’t believe it when they announced themselves as ‘The Moors Murderers’. It really was controversial. I had lived through that gruesome event and the darkness it brought to my childhood still felt gloomy. To protect me, my mum would remove any ‘Moors Murderers’ tabloid sensationalism from the papers, after first reading it herself.
After the show Steve Strange came up to me at the mixing desk and confirmed the band’s name. I’d heard right - it was as I thought. We got talking. It turned out that they had this song called ‘Free Hindley’. They had just performed it, but I hadn’t noticed. He had my interest - what was his motive behind it? Steve explained. He felt that it was hypocritical of the government to automatically consider other child murderers for parole after a certain length of time, while ignoring Hindley. Being a high profile case, I believe he felt they were just pandering to public demand. We also discussed change and to what level people can achieve it.
Strange told Goodman that he wanted to record a single “Free Hindley,” but Goodman suggested “two main things to Steve”:
1. To show he is not condoning murderers he should create a balance. Why not record the Ten Commandments to music for the B-side? You know, get out of it in the studio and really get into it man! He liked the idea.
2. Talk to Lord Longford, he’s been visiting Hindley in prison and is campaigning for her release. He liked that idea as well.
Strange arranged a hasty press shoot where the members of The Moors Murderers kept their anonymity by covering their heads with pillow cases. According to Goodman three of the group in the photo are “Strange, Chrissie Hynde and Nick Holmes (Eater’s roadie who is believed to have played guitar on ‘Free Hindley’).” The fourth maybe Mal Hart, who played bass on the track.
Understandably, a band associating itself with the country’s most reviled child killers soon saw them damned by the press. On January 8th, 1978, the Sunday Mirror published an article on The Moors Murderers asking “Why Must They Be So Cruel?”
As Strange was mainly unknown, The Moors Murderers was labeled as Chrissie Hynde’s band, much to her chagrin, as she became the focus of the media’s ire.
In mid-January Sounds music paper ran an article on The Moors Murderers—now apparently three members, again with their heads covered though this time with black bin bags. The band played the Sounds journalist four of their tracks “Free Hindley,” “Caviar and Chips,” “Mary Bell” (about the child murderess) and “The Streets of the East End.”
According to Andrew Gallix, following the Sounds “showcase”
...the band played the Roxy on 13 January 1978, supporting Open Sore. Steve Strange was on vocals (calling himself Steve Brady) and Hynde was on guitar. Bob Kylie (Open Sore): “They were terrible! Absolutely dreadful!” On 28 January 1978, Strange told Sounds that he had left the band.
Whether “Free Hindley” was ever released as a single is debatable, but it was available on cassette as David Goodman recalls:
I remember hearing an acetate of the two recordings ‘Free Hindley’ and ‘The Ten Commandments’, possibly played to me by Nick Holmes the drummer. Not long after that, I saw an ad in the back of Melody Maker or NME for the sale of some ‘Moors Murderers’ acetates and cassettes @ £10 each I believe. I seem to remember Malcolm McLaren bringing that ad to my attention. Anyway, I didn’t buy one, I’d heard it once and that was enough.
Years later, when entering a record store in San Francisco, I saw a sign offering thousands of dollars for one. That was the only time I wished I’d grabbed one when I had the chance.
Chrissie Hynde went on to form the Pretenders in 1978, while Steve Strange eventually achieved success with electronic band Visage.
Below Chrissie Hynde talks about her involvement with The Moors Murderers.
Out of the ashes of Punk came the New Romantics, rising like a painted phoenix over London’s club scene. From clubs like Billy’s and Blitz, where Steve Strange and Rusty Egan played Bowie, the Velvets and T.Rex, and Boy George was the coat-check guy, came the New Romantics. Clubbers known as the Blitz Kids, who were made-up and beautiful, and knew imagination was more important than money when it came to having fun.
The Blitz Kids were Steve Strange (Visage), Rusty Egan (The Rich Kids), Boy George (Culture Club), Tony Hadley, Martin Kemp, Gary Kemp, John Keeble, Steve Norman (Spandau Ballet), Tony James, James Degville (Sigue Sigue Sputnik), Siobhan Fahey (Bananarama), Marilyn, Princess Julia, Isabella Blow, Stephen Jones and Michael Clarke, and together they were the generation of New Romantics.
Last year, in the Guardian, Priya Elan talked to some of the “movers and shakers behind the scene that spawned the New Romantics.”
STEVE STRANGE, BLITZ CLUB HOST, VISAGE FRONTMAN: By 1977 I’d gotten very bored by punk. It’d become very violent. The skinheads and the National Front had moved in.
RUSTY EGAN, BLITZ DJ, VISAGE MEMBER: The punk venues got invaded by football hooligans wearing Le Coq Sportif clothes. They’d call us “poofs” because we weren’t dressed in a normal way. Hence why we formed the club. It was for those ex-punks who liked Lou Reed, Bowie and Iggy.
SS: It was about being creative, we wanted to start something that didn’t have anything to do with punk.
RE: It was a horrible time of recession. Covent Garden was isolated and badly lit. But then you’d walk into the club and it was like “Ta-da!” Everyone was drinking and taking poppers. The atmosphere was like Studio 54.
SIOBHAN FAHEY, BLITZ CLUBBER AND BANANARAMA MEMBER: We’d spend the whole week preparing our outfits for the club. We’d go and buy fabrics, customise our leather jackets, make cummerbunds, find old military things and throw them together in a mix of glam, military and strangeness. It was all DIY because we didn’t really have any money to properly eat. We lived off coffee and cigarettes, really.
RE: The song that became the anthem of the club was Heroes by Bowie. “Just for one day” you could dress up and be more than what Britain had to offer you.