TIRED OF PUNK`S NO-FUTURE NIHILISM, THE 1980S BLITZ KIDS STIRRED UP THE SCENE THROUGH GENDER-CROSSING EXTRAVAGANCE
White make-up, pop music, club nights. Countering the economic recession and cultural bleakness of the 1970s, London in the early 1980s saw the emergence of a hedonistic, drug-infused subculture centred around a club night run by Steve Strange. In walking distance to St Martin’s school of art, the Blitz Club soon became notorious as a place of escapist utopia and the breeding ground for a new revolution in British youth culture. Keanan Duffty, ex-St Martin’s student and guitarist/songwriter of the New Romantic group Wonder Stories, looks back at a time when style was about more than appearance.
Ella Wolf: What was your path to Central Saint Martins?
Keanan Duffty: We all know that Alexander McQueen, Sade, John Galliano and others studied fashion at CSM at one time or another. Lesser known (though equally important) figures including Blitz Kid fashion designer Stephen Linnard, future GQ style journalist Chris Sullivan and editor Dylan Jones were also students within the hallowed halls of St Martin’s Charing Cross Road. Here was a way I could make it to the bright lights of London and everything I craved: getting a further education, making music and wearing funny clothes at Her Majesty’s Government’s expense.
“We were all on a mission to live like it was Studio 54: thrift store chic and cut price Kraftwerk.”
Blitz Kids were part of the New Romantics. How did this movement relate to or differ from Punk?
1977 was the most explosive year in British popular culture since the summer of love. Sex Pistols, Clash, Banshees, Slits and Buzzcocks blew the cobwebs away and ushered in a new generation whose anti establishment stance provided a soundtrack for the new rebellion. Thrash ruled, melody was considered mediocrity. Almost over night punk rockers appeared on the street. Girls carrying kettles as hand bags. Boys in tight plastic trousers and ‘jelly’ sandals. After the Sex Pistols imploded there was a strange intermediate stage between new wave and the futurist New Romantic period. This ‘in between time’ saw the rise of acts like Toyah and Gary Numan. Spiky pop with chunky analogue keyboards and a bit of a David Bowie.
So your group Wonder Stories formed in that ‘in-between’ stage?
Wonder Stories began in the winter of 1980, with hasty rehearsals in my dad’s garage. We were a dandy band of merry men in pixie boots, out to rob the riches of the music industry. Dennis had been to London’s new romantic Blitz club and had passed the test of style enforced by the club’s promoter and doorman Steve Strange whilst simultaneously facing down the catty remarks of coat check boyGeorge O’Dowd. Now we were all on a mission to avoid the drab conformity of our Northern English town and live like it was Studio 54: thrift store chic and cut price Kraftwerk.
Was the emergence of New Romantics a response to the economic recession of the late seventies?
It’s a simple analogy: The late 1970s were black and white. The early 80s seemed to transform the world into vibrant colour. The 1960s had been swinging, but only for a few hundred lucky people. By the 70s it was pretty bleak. Punk offered an alternative but its nihilism hit a brick wall. The Blitz Kids embraced a more positive upwardly mobile politics.
“The point was to fail magnificently, thereby creating the ultimate success.”
You speak about politics. The New Romantics, however, were sometimes accused of being purely about appearance and style and not about a political message.
The New Romantic movement has been maligned for being shallow, self obsessed and meaningless cult. It was and that was the point. Rather than wallow in the pessimism of post punk they chose to focus on fun, fashion and dance music. Malcolm McLaren told me once that the Sex Pistols knew they would fail – it was only a question of time. The point was to fail magnificently, thereby creating the ultimate success.
What role did club culture play at the time?
Club culture evolved from a series of small independent ‘one nighters’ that created a model which exploded by the end of the 80s. Here was a training ground for musicians, DJs, designers, promoters and drug dealers. Here was a nightlife laboratory where like-minded souls could meet and make plans.
“I looked like a discount Andy Warhol”
A parallel universe?
I had to live down the howls of laughter and disapproving barbs from the neighbours as I waited at the bus stop looking like Little Lord Fauntleroy in crushed velvet, eyeliner and Cuban heeled winkle pickers. I didn’t care. In my mind I was walking down a catwalk, not the high street. Every day was a voyage in a parallel universe. I looked like a discount Andy Warhol. The Man Who Fell To Earth had landed in Coronation Street.
What did London mean to you then? Was it about escaping suburbia?
Escape? Yes! The audience at the New Outlook Club contained a strange bunch of style misfits all fleeing from the mundane: a male nun, a Cossack, a Che Guevara look a like, a bloke in a wedding dress and the Chip Shop King of South Yorkshire, looking like he had escaped from a Game Of Thrones. It was all about creating a fantasy and dreaming our way out of suburbia.
Were hedonism and drugs a big part of the Blitz Kids mentality?
Many in my crowd were indulging fully in an alcohol fuelled frenzy and maybe a bit of speed in order to stay up all night. Drinking was a big part of the culture and the thought of be-frocked men in make-up drinking pints of warm beer is pretty hilarious in hindsight. Fights always follow booze: feathers flying, boas bowling. It wasn’t until the Acid House explosion that I fully explored a hedonistic bent.
What does Britishness mean to you?
‘Britishness’ at that time meant ‘cocking a snook’ at commercialism, embracing creativity and humour. It meant subversive and sexual ambiguity. To me it still does, though Britishness has also embraced a more multicultural, global view point.
The V&A recently devoted an incredible exhibition to David Bowie. Why is he still so relevant?
One thing that cannot be overlooked is the influence he has had on literally millions of people. To say I am a fan of the man is an understatement. I would consider myself a disciple who has learned much of my creative craft by studying this man’s moves and I am not alone in that. However nobody comes remotely close to the real thing. Bowie hit the Blitz Club in London, handpicked a few regulars, including promoter, Blitz founder and nascent pop star, the late Steve Strange. Bowie put them all in his ‘Ashes To Ashes’ video thereby cleverly co-opting the new style ahead of the kids who were actually creating it. He created a blue print that Madonna followed in the 80s and many other music artists adhere to: Co-opting the underground. But Bowie did it first.
The Blitz Kids became known for crossing gender boundaries through fashion.
In 1980 that was absolutely true; any budding ‘Blitz Kid’ who wore black clothes, frilly shirts and make up could result in ‘the fashion victim’ becoming an actual victim of lager louts who cruised around town sporting ill fitting clothes and beer bellies. That is exactly why an underground club culture exploded: An escape from danger and a doorway to a secret world.
“Youth culture styles often start with a mission to rebel against the mainstream but ultimately fail to reach their goals and are derailed by the commercialism of the mainstream acceptance.”
How did AIDS change the scene?
We were unaware of the AIDS epidemic until after the whole New Romantic circus had left town. By the mid 80s panic ensued and governments did literally nothing to help those affected, until it was too late.
Would you say that subcultures have died out as they became absorbed by mainstream culture?
Subcultures were once inspiration for change in global style culture emerging from the streets of London, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo. From the Beatniks of the 50’s to the Mods, Rockers and Hippies of the 60’s, Glam Rockers, Skinheads and Punks of the 70’s, B Boys and Acid Ravers of the 80’s and the myriad of youth subcultures since. Youth culture styles often start with a mission to rebel against the mainstream but ultimately fail to reach their goals and are derailed by the commercialism of the mainstream acceptance. With the rise of the internet it now seems unlikely to me that fashion subcultures will emerge in the world without immediate over-exposure. With exposure often comes acceptance, and by the mid 1980’s some of my subculture heroes had joined the mainstream.
Besides the rise of the internet, the rising living costs and gentrification in London are also affecting the creative scene. Could something like the Blitz Kids ever happen again?
I believe that every generation’s creative force is able to conjure the ‘Sex, Subversion and Style’ that McLaren held dear. I hope that today underground cultures can happen globally, in Thailand, India, Shanghai, away from the media microscope. Then something can grow undisturbed, like a culture in a laboratory.
Do you feel nostalgic about the past?
The honest answer is yes. I have fond memories of that era as in retrospect it seems joyfully naïve. Anything seemed possible. I recently saw the biggest line up of hideous outfits on near naked celebrities at New York’s Met Ball and I was appalled by the sheer lack of subversion and provocation. We have come to an impasse in contemporary culture and the sheer vacuous nature of contemporary celebrity culture makes the New Romantics seem like intellectual giants.