(Steve Strange - and friends, including Midge Ure, third from left at the back, and Rusty Egan, far right - your host tonight at Blitz.)
SOME THINGS DIDN’T APPEAR TO MAKE SENSE at the time, and maybe even less so in retrospect. But they happened. And we’re still asking.
Why did kids dressed like Edwardian fops and Weimar partygoers, big blokes in slap-and-eyeliner, and androgynous bodies draped over each other, move from shocking to setting the template a slice of the 1980s? Where could the seemingly contradictory principles of a right-wing government and insurrectionist punk together birth a new movement?
How did the moves in a small club that existed for barely a couple of years end up resonating decades later with a new generation who couldn’t tell you the difference between Michael Heseltine and Marilyn?
Simple really, says Glasgow tenements boy/man walking through Vienna, Midge Ure: it doesn’t matter if you watched it from a Sydney bedroom, walked to it from a London bedsit, sang to it in a Kansas City bar or dreamt about it while doing a shift in a working man’s club in Sheffield, “irrespective of where you come from physically, it’s where you come from emotionally that drove it all”.
The club was Blitz, a tiny space in Covent Garden that each Tuesday night was taken over by stylemeister/ultimate door bitch/not even 20-years-old-yet Steve Strange and slightly older musician/DJ/wilful hedonist Rusty Egan, and made into a room where as long as your outfit passed the Strange test you could hear Egan play David Bowie and Kraftwerk, Roxy Music and Neu!, Can and David Bowie, Giorgio Moroder’s extended remakings of disco & David Bowie.
“We were all Bowie kids,” says one Blitz denizen, cloakroom attendant and future Boy, George O’Dowd, about the man whose Ziggy Stardust appearance on Top Of The Pops in 1973 is described by several people in the film as “my awakening”, and whose style revolutions were templates for clubgoers’ own adventures. “Bowie was just royalty, he was a deity.”
Boy George is featured in the film, Blitzed, by co-directors Bruce Ashley and Michael Donald, which has its Sydney unveiling this weekend as part of the Mardi Gras Film Festival.
The surprisingly joyful film charts the club’s impact then and now on music (apart from Ultravox and Egan and Strange’s own band, Visage, local boys Spandau Ballet played their first shows there; Birmingham aspirants, Duran Duran, and Yorkshire duo, Soft Cell, wished they’d been there; and most of the synth pop bands of the ‘80s pretended they had been as they built their sound on the type of music Egan had been playing since before the turn of the decade).
Then too on fashion (the flamboyant New Romantic movement would sweep up everyone from teenagers in Australia to Princess Diana) and what might be its most significant social contribution, LBGQTI confidence and freedom.
But while he may be the most famous of the so-called Blitz Kids who flit across the screen, Boy George is far from its only luminary, and far from even being its first video star if you consider that Bowie’s Ashes To Ashes filmclip in 1980 starred several of the most arresting Blitz faces.
The likes of future milliner to the royals, Stephen Jones, and award-winning costume designers (including for Game Of Thrones) Michele Clapton and Fiona Dealey, were among the high number of arts college students who found themselves “applauded for being ourselves”. There was broadcaster Robert Elms, later Soho club runner Chris Sullivan, and journalists like Perry Haines who helped birth culture bible i-D magazine.
And of course there was Ure, an occasional visitor (“I was probably the most famous person there, though it was too cool for anyone else to react to it”), one-time member of The Rich Kids with ex-Sex Pistol, Glen Matlock and Rusty Egan, singer/songwriter of Ultravox mark 2, and co-writer of Visage’s first hit, Fade To Grey.
“It was uberly exciting,” says Ure today, from Spain, where he is working on some new songs. “It was for the guys who wanted to be in the limelight, who didn’t have the skills to join a band like Roxy or whatever, they were the ones who said we’ll get these synthesiser things and figure out how it works. And by chance, a bit of skill and a lot of naïveté … there were some great records made, [offering] a cold shoulder to the established industry. At the beginning, anyway.”
Also watching from afar back then were filmmakers Ashley (in Sydney’s northern suburbs) and Donald (in Belfast), who may not have understood it at the time, but would in their own way ride the same wave.
“There was something about the place that allowed those core few to bounce out of their 9-to-5 routine or being in a job. And they enabled each other,” says Ashley who moved to the UK just after Blitz closed, working as an editor initially on the filmclips of another Australian, Russell Mulcahy, who would become famous as the chronicler the decade in pop video form.
“It enabled me to not feel concerned about my own personality and how I dressed and how I looked or how I behaved, and to be much more liberal and open than I was when I was a kid at school. And it enabled me to think more creatively too, be more liberal in an art sense.
(Marilyn was not alone in finding freedom and safety at Blitz)
“It was also fun. I was making music videos with Duran Duran!”
Interestingly for those who saw the sleek looks, “aspirational” locations, and designer suits of the New Romantic period and thought decadent yuppies, Blitzed shows how almost all the “faces” of the movement were working class or straight out poor kids who were designated outsiders.
“Dylan Jones [a Blitz veteran and later historian of the 1980s culture] said to me that what was prevalent among that whole crowd, and they probably didn’t even know it, was they were very much a product of Thatcher’s Britain because they were all entrepreneurial,” says Donald, who at the time of Blitz was more into Van Morrison and Bob Dylan. “They had wild aspirations, and those aspirations, while they might not have thought of them as money-oriented, were certainly entrepreneurial.
"All that Blitz crowd would say they hated Thatcher but in fact they were very much a product of that environment.”
(Not in those shoes you're not - Steve Strange and (pre-Boy) George O'Dowd, door bitches from hell?)
It might seem like a clash but you could argue this art/music/fashion scene was in fact a coalescing of the idea that you could do anything you wanted whatever your social or financial background that underpinned punk iconoclasm and the Thatcherite fetishising of individualism.
“And in many respects, they were both right,” says Donald. “[The Blitz crowd] probably didn’t think of themselves as political creatures, but [Boy] George – and he was obviously talking about gay politics – was saying that possibly the biggest political statement you could make was be yourself. But most people aren’t themselves: most people want to behave how they think they should behave, and please other people, but George was saying, fuck that, just be yourself.”
Be yourself and, if you didn’t get knocked back by Strange – as happened most famously to Mick Jagger, who never made it past the Blitz door – make something, even if it was only a scene.
Blitzed is screening at Ritz Cinema, Randwick on Saturday, February 18 at 3.30pm; at Event Cinemas, George Street, on February 28 at 11.30am; and on demand until March 3 at queerscreen.org.au