New Romanticism (also called Blitz kids and a variety of other names) was a pop culture movement in the United Kingdom that began as a nightclub scene around 1979 and peaked around 1981. Developing in London and Birmingham, at nightclubs such as Billy's and the Blitz, and fashion boutiques such as Kahn and Bell, it spread to other major cities in the UK and was based around flamboyant, eccentric fashion and new wave music.
Several music acts at the start of the 1980s adopted the style of the movement and became known to epitomise it within the music and mainstream press, including Visage, Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet, and Boy George (of Culture Club). Ultravox were also often labelled as New Romantics by the press though did not exhibit the same visual styles of the movement, despite their link to the band Visage. Japan and Adam and the Ants were also labelled as New Romantic artists by the press, although they had no direct connection to the original scene. A number of these bands adopted synthesizers and helped to develop synthpop in the early 1980s, which, combined with the distinctive New Romantic visuals, helped them first to national success in the UK, and then, with help of MTV, to play a major part in the Second British Invasion of the U.S. charts.
By the end of 1981, the original movement had largely dissipated and, although some of the artists associated with the scene continued their careers, they had largely abandoned the aesthetics of the movement. There were attempts to revive the movement from the 1990s, including the short-lived romo movement.
New Romanticism can be seen as a reaction to punk, and was heavily influenced by David Bowie and Roxy Music. In terms of style it rejected the austerity and anti-fashion stance of punk. Both sexes often dressed in counter-sexual or androgynous clothing and wore cosmetics such as eyeliner and lipstick, partly derived from earlier punk fashions. This "gender bending" was particularly evident in figures such as Boy George of Culture Club and Marilyn (Peter Robinson).
Fashion was based on varied looks based on romantic themes, including frilly fop shirts in the style of the English Romantic period, Russian constructivism, Bonny Prince Charlie, French Incroyables and 1930s Cabaret, Hollywood starlets, Puritans and clowns, with any look being possible if it was adapted to be unusual and striking. Common hairstyles included quiffs, mullets and wedges. Soon after they began to gain mainstream attention, however, many New Romantic bands dropped the eclectic clothes and makeup in favour of sharp suits.
New Romantic looks were propagated from fashion designer Helen Robinson's Covent Garden shop PX, began to influence major collections and were spread, with a delay, through reviews of what was being worn in clubs via magazines including i-D and The Face. The emergence of the New Romantic movement into the mainstream coincided with Vivienne Westwood's unveiling of her "pirate collection", which was promoted by Bow Wow Wow and Adam and the Ants, who were managed by her then partner Malcolm McLaren. However, the post-punk Adam Ant himself has always denied being a New Romantic, and reiterated this in 2012.
The band Japan also refuted any connection with the New Romantic movement, having adopted an androgynous look incorporating make-up ever since their inception in the mid-1970s at the tail-end of the glam rock era, many years before the New Romantic movement began. In an October 1981 interview, vocalist David Sylvian commented "There's a period going past at the moment that may make us look as though we're in fashion."
Similarly, the electronic duo Soft Cell also denied any connection to the New Romantic scene. In an interview published in January 1984, keyboardist Dave Ball reflected back on their first year of success (1981) and stated "At this time we were linked to the whole New Romantics thing, but we were never a part of that. It was just a trendy London club thing with Steve Strange."
While some contemporary bands, particularly those of the 2 Tone ska revival, dealt with issues of unemployment and urban decay, New Romantics adopted an escapist and aspirational stance. With its interest in design, marketing and image, the movement has been seen by some as an acceptance of Thatcherism and style commentator Peter York even suggested that it was aligned with the New Right.
In its early stages the movement was known by a large number of names, including "new dandies", "romantic rebels", "peacock punk", "the now crowd", "the futurists", "the cult with no name" and eventually as the "Blitz Kids". As the scene moved beyond a single club the press settled on the name New Romantics.
The New Romantic movement developed almost simultaneously in London and Birmingham. In London it grew out of David Bowie and Roxy Music nights, run during 1978 in the nightclub Billy's in Dean Street, London. In 1979, the growing popularity of the club forced organisers Steve Strange and Rusty Egan to relocate to a larger venue in the Blitz, a wine bar in Great Queen Street, Covent Garden, where they ran a Tuesday night "Club for Heroes". Its patrons dressed as uniquely as they could in an attempt to draw the most attention.
Steve Strange worked as the club's doorman and Egan was the DJ at the Blitz. The club became known for its exclusive door policy and strict dress code. Strange would frequently deny potential patrons admittance because he felt that they were not costumed creatively or subversively enough to blend in with those inside the club. In a highly publicised incident, Mick Jagger tried to enter the club while under the influence of alcohol, but was denied entry by Strange. The club spawned several spin-offs and there were soon clubs elsewhere in London and in other major British cities, including London, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.
While still at Billy's, Strange and Egan joined Billy Currie and Midge Ure of Ultravox to form the band Visage. Before forming Culture Club, Boy George and Marilyn worked as cloakroom attendants at the Blitz. The video for David Bowie's 1980 UK number one single "Ashes to Ashes" included appearances by Strange with three other Blitz Kids and propelled the New Romantic movement into the mainstream.
In Birmingham the origins of the New Romantic movement lay in the opening in 1975 of the Hurst Street shop of the fashion designers Kahn and Bell, whose elaborate and theatrical designs brought together futuristic visual elements and influences as diverse as Egyptian, African and Far Eastern art, and would largely define the movement's look. By 1977 a small scene featuring Jane Kahn and Patti Bell themselves, Martin Degville, Boy George and Patrick Lilley had emerged around pubs such as The Crown and clubs such as Romulus and Barbarella's.
Styles of music
Many bands that emerged from the New Romantic movement became closely associated with the use of synthesizers to create rock and pop music. This synthpop was prefigured in the 1960s and 1970s by the use of synthesizers in progressive rock, electronic art rock, disco, the "Kraut rock" of bands like Kraftwerk, the three albums made by Bowie with Brian Eno in his "Berlin period", and Yellow Magic Orchestra's early albums.
After the breakthrough of Tubeway Army and Gary Numan in the British Singles Chart in 1979, large numbers of artists began to enjoy success with a synthesizer-based sound and they came to dominate the pop music of the early 1980s. Key New Romantic bands that adopted synthpop included Duran Duran, Ultravox, Visage, and Spandau Ballet.
Early synthpop has been described as "eerie, sterile, and vaguely menacing", using droning electronics with little change in inflection. Later the introduction of dance beats made the music warmer and catchier and contained within the conventions of three-minute pop. Duran Duran, who emerged from the Birmingham scene, have been credited with incorporating a dance-orientated rhythm section into synthpop to produce a catchier and warmer sound, which provided them with a series of hit singles. They would soon be followed onto the British charts by a series of bands utilising synthesisers to create catchy three-minute pop songs.
Of groups associated with the New Romantic movement, Culture Club avoided a total reliance on synthesizers, producing a sound that combined elements of Motown, the Philly sound and lovers rock. Adam and the Ants utilised the African influenced rhythms of the "Burundi beat".
The second British invasion
In the US the cable music channel MTV reached the media capitals of New York City and Los Angeles in 1982. Style conscious New Romantic synthpop acts became a major staple of MTV programming. They would be followed by a large number of acts, many of them employing synthpop sounds, over the next three years, with Duran Duran's glossy videos symbolising the power of MTV and this Second British Invasion. The switch to a "New Music" format in US radio stations was also significant in the success of British bands.
During 1983, 30% of the US record sales were from British acts. On 18 July 1983, 18 singles in the top 40, and 6 in the top 10, were by British artists. Newsweek magazine ran an issue which featured Annie Lennox and Boy George on the cover of one of its issues, with the caption "Britain Rocks America – Again", while Rolling Stone would release an "England Swings" issue with Boy George on the cover. In April 1984, 40 of the top 100 singles, and in a May 1985 survey 8 of the top 10 singles, were by acts of British origin.
Decline and revivals
Music journalist Dave Rimmer considered the peak of the movement was the Live Aid concert of July 1985, after which "everyone seemed to take hubristic tumbles", and Simon Reynolds also notes the "Do They Know Its Christmas" single in late 1984 and Live Aid in 1985 as a turning points, with the movement seen as having become decadent, with "overripe arrangements and bloated videos" for songs like Duran Duran's "The Wild Boys" and Culture Club's "War Song". The proliferation of acts had led to an anti-synth backlash, with groups including Spandau Ballet, Soft Cell and ABC incorporating more conventional influences and instruments into their sounds.
An American reaction against European synthpop and "haircut bands" has been seen as beginning in the mid-1980s with the rise of heartland rock and roots rock. In the UK, the arrival of indie rock bands, particularly The Smiths, has been seen as marking the end of synth-driven new wave and the beginning of the guitar rock that would come to dominate rock into the 1990s. By the end of the 1980s many acts had been dropped by their labels and the solo careers of many New Romantic stars gradually faded.
In the mid-1990s, New Romanticism was the subject of nostalgia-oriented club nights — such as the Human League inspired "Don't You Want Me", and "Planet Earth", a Duran Duran-themed night club whose promoter told The Sunday Times "It's more of a celebration than a revival". In the same period New Romanticism was also an inspiration for the short-lived romo musical movement. It was championed by Melody Maker, who proclaimed on its front cover in 1995 that it was a "future pop explosion" that had "executed" Britpop, and including bands Orlando, Plastic Fantastic, Minty, Viva, Sexus, Hollywood, Dex Dexter. None made the British top 75, and after an unsuccessful Melody Maker-organised tour, most of the bands soon broke up.
^ During the New Romantic period, two of four Ultravox members—frontman Ure and keyboardist Currie—were also in the then six person group Visage.
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