Sweet Dreams, a new oral history by British journalist Dylan Jones, charts the musical about-face in the UK immediately after punk had run its course through the 1980s, and how that synth-based, fashion-conscious wave swept over the U.S. via MTV. Bands like Duran Duran, Culture Club, the Eurythmics and the Human League dominated the tube-waves, to much chagrin and gnashing of teeth from true rock & rollers. Jones’ book reconsiders that era and answers the question: Was it really as bad as all that? David Chiu aimed to find out for PKM.
“Like punk never happened.”
That is a quote attributed to then-music journalist/now Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant to describe the British pop music scene during the first half of 1980s (it also served as the title of Dave Rimmer’s book from 1985). It was a period when photogenic and fashion-conscious music stars in the U.K.—among them Duran Duran, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet, Eurythmics, Wham!, Adam and the Ants, Soft Cell and the Human League—ruled the air waves. Known as the New Romantics, these acts emerged from the British punk rock scene only a few years earlier. Though a number of them were inspired by the Sex Pistols and the Clash, these ’80s acts made music that was brighter, optimistic and glamorous that contrasted with punk’s nihilism and greyness. The New Romantic movement wasn’t just relegated to these musicians: it included artists, writers, fashion designers and stylists, and nightclub entrepreneurs driven by both creativity and ambition.
Starting from the late 1970s through 1985, amid the backdrop of Margaret Thatcher’s administration, Britain experienced a pop culture boom. Not only did the period yield such great and memorable pop music—in which synthesizers became mostly the primary instrument over guitars—but a number of the New Romantics challenged preconceived notions of gender roles and sexuality with their androgynous look and attire. Aided by the British music press and tabloids and, of course, music videos, the New Romantics weren’t just musicians: they were celebrities. And it wasn’t only in Britain: the New Romantics also found tremendous success in the United States with the help of MTV, kicking off what would be known as the Second British Invasion of America. At the height of the invasion in 1983, these British acts gave American fans another taste of Anglophilia, a phenomenon reminiscent of Beatlemania about 20 years earlier.
The British writer and editor Dylan Jones documented this commercially successful yet underappreciated period in 1980s music and pop culture through his new book Sweet Dreams: The Story of the New Romantics (Faber & Faber) from the influence of 1970s’ godfathers David Bowie, Roxy Music and Kraftwerk, through London’s Blitz nightclub that was the epicenter of the New Romantic movement, to the mega Live Aid concert in 1985 that symbolically marked the end of British music supremacy in America. With a preface by Culture Club’s Boy George, this nearly 700-page oral history features interviews with a majority of the aforementioned musicians as well as others who experienced and thrived during the period. For fans of ’80s music, Sweet Dreams is a trip down memory lane for those who fondly remember the era of big hair, shoulder pads, synths and ‘I want my MTV!’
In this PKM interview, Jones, an editor at GQ, talks about this era 40 years after the fact.
Dylan Jones: It’s a period that I have a lot of affection for. Plus, it’s also a period which I think has been demeaned by pop historians and cultural theorists for quite some time. There are numerous books about punk, there are hundreds of books about the ’60s, ’70s, ’90s, Britpop. But there are almost no books about the New Romantic period…I wanted to reclaim it, because it’s a fantastically important part of the pop narrative.
PKM: What was the case that you wanted to make through this book?
Dylan Jones: That it’s an important period of pop music, particularly in terms of the single. And it’s probably the most important period for British pop music, apart from, say, three or four years in the ’60s. And as an adjunct to that, this was responsible for the Second British Invasion [of America] in 1983. In 1983, three quarters of the American Top 30 was full of acts from the UK, where it was Eurythmics, Wham!, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran, et cetera. Secondly, it’s an incredibly bohemian period, a time of enormous creativity. I think that it’s a period that was a great platform for gay emancipation, particularly in the pop arena.
In 1983, three quarters of the American Top 30 was full of acts from the UK, where it was Eurythmics, Wham!, Culture Club, Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran, et cetera
PKM: Most of your interviewees came of age during the British punk rock period. How influential was punk to the New Romantics? And was the music by the New Romantics a reaction to punk?
Dylan Jones: A lot of the protagonists of the New Romantic movements were involved in the early punk days. By almost by 1977-1978, a lot of those people had moved on because they found that the original punk ethos was being co-opted by these hordes of short-haired masses who were really no better than the kind of people who went to heavy metal concerts. They were an army and they all looked the same. It was an orthodoxy. And one of the most interesting things about the New Romantics–and the people who started to go into nightclubs like Billy’s and Blitz in London–is that they were fanatical about being individuals and they didn’t want to belong to an army. They didn’t all want to look at same.
PKM: Sweet Dreams explains how important David Bowie and Roxy Music in the 1970s were to the musicians who eventually hit it big in the 1980s.
Dylan Jones: It’s already well-documented the influence on at least two generations David Bowie had: in terms of his influence on fans but also on people who wanted to follow in his footsteps and become musicians and pop stars. But Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music in the U.K. were incredibly important culturally, stylistically and sartorially. And these were the two [acts] who the protagonists of the early New Romantic period really looked up to. At the first New Romantic nightclub–which was Billy’s– it was basically a ‘Bowie Night’ where you go, and the records you heard were mainly David Bowie and Roxy Music, mixed in with a bit of Kraftwerk and Iggy Pop.
One of the most interesting things about the New Romantics–and the people who started to go into nightclubs like Billy’s and Blitz in London–is that they were fanatical about being individuals and they didn’t want to belong to an army. They didn’t all want to look
PKM: Kraftwerk were hugely influential on early and mid-1980s pop music, particularly with their emphasis on synthesizers.
Dylan Jones: If you look at all the synth duos who came out of the U.K., like Soft Cell, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Eurythmics–all of them you can trace back to Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk were genuinely inspirational and influential because they were the first. Before Kraftwerk, nobody was making electronic music in the way that they were.
PKM: It seems like a good number of the New Romantic acts who later found success, like Culture Club and Spandau Ballet, stylistically borrowed from American Black music. The British acts seemed to appreciate Black music more than us Americans did at the time.
Dylan Jones: Disco was as important as punk in the formation of this scene.
PKM: The London nightclub Billy’s, and then later the Blitz, was the ground zero of the New Romantic period in circa 1979-1980—spearheaded by Steve Strange (later of the New Romantic synthpop group Visage) and Rusty Egan. What distinguished the scene?
Dylan Jones: What stood out was that it was a genuine hotbed of creativity. Not only did you have a couple of hundred people who were fanatical about the way they dress–they wanted to look particular, individual and idiosyncratic. You also had a kind of petri dish of the young creators who would go on to be fashion designers journalists, stylists, costume designers, pop stars, actors,
PKM: The arrival of the New Romantic movement coincided with the rise of Margaret Thatcher and her administration. Is there a correlation between the New Romantics and Thatcher because they all were about individuality and ambition.
Dylan Jones: I think a lot of the left-wing music press and a lot of the left-wing national press of the time considered that a lot of the pop stars were these conservative Tory stooges because they were interested in being successful–they were dressing up, and they used the new medium of MTV to espouse their principles. Lots of the cultural critics were beginning to see the ’80s as the decade of style over content. So I think they were demonized. Even though almost all of the people involved in the scene were entrepreneurs, they were almost from the left. They were not socialists, but they were certainly more inclined to vote for the Labour Party than they were to vote for the Conservatives.
Lots of the cultural critics were beginning to see the ’80s as the decade of style over content.
PKM: In addition to the music, you also devoted pages of Sweet Dreams to the fashions and artists from that period and the colorful music and style magazines like Smash Hits and The Face. Why did you feel that was important to mention them?
Dylan Jones: Because they’re all part and parcel of the same thing, The influence on the style press was enormous. If you consider that in the space of three months, you have the launch of three magazines–The Face, i-D and Blitz–which would go on to define the decade. That’s an incredibly important component, because not only were these magazines reflecting what was going on–they were creating what was going on because they were inside the circle. It was amazing, because I worked on those magazines. And it’s true: we didn’t just think we were reflecting the culture. We were very arrogant. So we were the culture, too.
PKM: At the beginning of the New Romantic period, who would you say was the first star to emerge and hit the mainstream? Was it Adam Ant?
Dylan Jones: You could say it was Adam Ant, but then Adam Ant was an old punk who was considered to be washed up by 1980. And then under the guidance of [Sex Pistols manager] Malcolm McLaren, he decided to represent himself as a sort of dandy highwayman and was consequently incredibly successful. The first band to properly come out of the London scene was probably Spandau Ballet, but the most enduring icon from that period is Boy George from Culture Club.
We didn’t just think we were reflecting the culture. We were very arrogant. So we were the culture, too.
PKM: Along with Culture Club, Duran Duran certainly emerged during this period as one of the superstar acts of the Second British Invasion.
Dylan Jones: They were the kind of Beatles of their period. There were five pretty good-looking boys who were intent being a successful as possible. They were very stylish and they made really good pop music, They didn’t really have an incredible backstory, but they made great pop.
PKM: The Second British invasion of America probably would’ve not happen without MTV.
Dylan Jones: MTV was incredibly important in defining the look and sound of the ’80s. The other thing is that if you look at a lot of the successful U.S. acts at the time, they used MTV as a kind of prism, and they used a lot of the influence of the British groups and in order to present themselves in terms of marketing. I don’t think Madonna could have existed without (a) MTV and (b) the groups that were coming out of the UK at the time.
PKM: If you look at the videos of the British artists, they were far more stylish, charismatic and comfortable in front of the camera compared to their American counterparts before Michael Jackson and Madonna. What accounted for this?
Dylan Jones: The Brits are natural show-offs.
PKM: Another important aspect of the era is how these artists in changed the way we look at gender and sexuality. Singers like Boy George, Eurhythmics’ Annie Lennox, and Soft Cell’s Marc Almond broke ground—similar to what David Bowie did during his Ziggy Stardust phase.
Dylan Jones: They were certainly pushing boundaries. I think that when Bowie was doing, it wasn’t accepted. But when the New Romantics came along, there was an expectation that people were going to play with gender–that they were going to cross-dress, dress up, and be quite extravagant.
I don’t think Madonna could have existed without (a) MTV and (b) the groups that were coming out of the UK at the time.
PKM: Certainly the period of 1983 and 1984 was the imperial phase of British pop. Were the Band Aid charity single and Live Aid the penultimate moments?
Dylan Jones: I use Live Aid as a kind of bullet point, an end piece for the book. Not only did it seem to make sense that that was the natural conclusion of these people that had come out of the night clubs and the punk clubs 10 years previously, but also in some way it sounded the death knell for that period.
If you look at Live Aid particularly, if you look at the concert that happened in Wembley, the first half of the day was made up of the likes of Howard Jones, Spandau Ballet and Adam Ant and a lot of the people that had become recently successful. And the latter part of the day was made up of what we would now call heritage artists, people like David Bowie, Elton John, Queen. And it almost became a sort of re-pivot for them. They were bounced by satellite into the living room of everyone around the world, and suddenly people realized how much they like Queen, David Bowie, Elton John and U2.
PKM: Things changed after 1985, when American artists started to dominate the U.S. pop charts again like Madonna and Prince. Why were the British acts eclipsed by the Americans?
Dylan Jones: I think Madonna, Michael Jackson and Bruce Springsteen were more enduring artists. They were bigger artists. Also, after Live Aid, everybody wanted to play stadiums and if you couldn’t play a stadium, people weren’t really interested.
PKM: In your opinion, was the New Romantic period the last great pop music moment?
Dylan Jones: No. I think that after that, you had acid house, grunge, Britpop, and a dozen different manifestations of hip-hop in terms of grime and drill– lots of different forms of music. It’s very easy to say that music has transmuted into genres and in areas that are less exciting. I think that the narrative arc of youth culture and pop culture after the Second World War, you could see that sort of coming to an end, but it’s being replaced by something else. Who’s to say that being 17 isn’t as exciting as it was in 1995 or ’85 or ’75?
PKM: Nowadays, there seems to be a greater, if not belated, appreciation of music from the first half of the ’80s as depicted in the book.
Dylan Jones: I hope so. Twenty years ago, when there was this big-nostalgia boom in the U.K., lots of people talked about the ’80s… but actually I think over the last decade that period has come to be reappraised. I really do hope that my book helps reclaim that.