Punk might continue to fascinate people today, but its immediate successor – the New Romantic movement, which sprang up in 1978 and flourished until the early 80s – is equally intriguing it seems. Fittingly, given this year’s return of Bowiemania, London gallery Sadie Coles HQ is currently showing artist Nicola Tyson’s photographs of New Romantics at the ‘Bowie nights’ held at gay club Billy’s in Soho in 1978. In our book, 70s Style & Design, we mention how the super-stylised Bowie, along with Roxy Music’s Bryan Ferry, were key influences on the sartorially flamboyant New Romantics – hence the name of this ultra-trendy, seminal Tuesday-nighter, co-hosted by DJ Rusty Egan and Steve Strange.
Then came other nocturnal hotspots Club for Heroes (a nod to Bowie’s 1977 album) and Blitz – which still has a following today (check out the fabulous website The Blitz Kids).
Yet more evidence of the New Romos’ enduring appeal comes with new book Punk+, which showcases the work of photographer Sheila Rock, who documented many avant-garde subcultures, shops and clubs in the late 70s/early 80s – including the aforementioned Billy’s and Blitz, and influential King’s Road boutique Acme Attractions. As fans ourselves of her work, we included several images of hers in 70s Style & Design. Punk+, published by First Third Books, will launch at London boutique Browns on 25 April, as well as at Rough Trade East on 29 May. For a preview, visit First Third Books.
But back to the Tyson show, which gives a unique insight into the early New Romo subculture, thronged by relatively unknown, aspiring singers, fashion designers and DJs. In our book, we described these hipsters as po-faced poseurs. Of course, there’s plenty of truth in that, particularly as the scene became more established. Blitz regulars cultivated an impressively impassive froideur, already in evidence in Tyson’s pic of Steve Strange, pouting in his shades, diamanté jewellery and studiedly stylish forage cap (the latter channelling Kenzo’s Nehru-inspired 1978 collection). Yet this exhibition suggests we might have to eat our (Stephen Jones) hats: the Bowie nights boys and gals – including George O’Dowd (soon better known as Boy George), Peter Robinson (aka singer Marilyn) and Julia Fodor (DJ Princess Julia) – were an effervescent bunch who didn’t take themselves too seriously. After all, there’s something very playful, even (to quote Peter York in his book Modern Times) ‘babytimer’ about those paintbox-bright dungarees, all that Crazy-Coloured hair. This polychrome style also mirrored that of Acme Attractions (see below), which in the mid-70s touted primary-coloured peg-leg trousers, mohair sweaters and jelly sandals. And Sheila Rock’s picture of the Photons above (whose line-up included Steve Strange before he went on to form Visage), wearing bondage attire from Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s shop Seditionaries, shows that even punk clothing could be exuberantly coloured.
Tyson was 18 and a student at Chelsea College of Art when she snapped these New Romo antics. And her vibrant pictures tingle with authenticity. As she recalls, ‘By 1978, a new scene was needed to fill the vacuum left after punk went mainstream – and Bowie Night was a start. Roxy and Bowie had influenced the darkly flamboyant aspects of the London punk scene, and so, in opposition to the dumb monochrome cynicism of mainstream punk, each Tuesday anything went at Billy’s, the more theatrical the better.’
Nicola Tyson – Bowie Nights at Billy’s Club, London, 1978, is at Sadie Coles HQ, 9 Balfour Mews, London W1, www.sadiecoles.com.