October 5, 2020
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Dylan Jones's Sweet Dreams is a fascinating oral history of Britain's New Romantic music era (1975-1985).
Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:
"In this colorful and sprawling oral history, Jones (David Bowie: The Oral History), editor-in-chief of British GQ, stitches together quotes from over 100 interviewees on the aesthetic revolution that birthed New Wave."
The 1980s would promise a fairground of attractions, not least where music was concerned. The New Romantic period, however loosely you define it, produced a cavalcade of extremely singular artists, a lot of whom were keen exponents of what would briefly be known as “white European dance music”: Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran, Soft Cell, the Eurythmics, Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Simple Minds, the Normal, the Human League, Heaven 17, Visage, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Tubeway Army (and then Gary Numan), Yazoo, Classix Nouveaux and Japan.
As the 1980s developed, the genre became even more splintered, resulting in groups such as Bow Wow Wow, ABC, Funkapolitan, Culture Club, Haysi Fantazee, Blue Rondo A La Turk, Tears for Fears, Wham! and a re-geared Adam and the Ants.
Some happened as a direct consequence of the moment (Spandau, Duran, Culture Club), some morphed into more glittery versions of themselves (Simple Minds, Psychedelic Furs, Japan etc), and others were grouped together simply out of happenstance (including those involved with Daniel Miller’s Mute Records, for instance).
Punk. Soul. Post-punk. New Romantics. Synth pop. What worlds they were. Sweet Dreams is the story of how these worlds and narratives interlinked, and how they were all undeniably helixed together.
“The Model” by Kraftwerk
At their best, Kraftwerk’s music yielded a sensation of indeterminate depth and expansiveness, while appearing to do just the opposite (“It’s good, but is it rock?” asked Rolling Stone when they were first exposed to “Autobahn”). Their passivity was their strength, a refusal to wield guitars, express emotion or indeed sweat. Minimal, robotic and exhilarating, they were a teasing glimpse of the future. If Kraftwerk counted as a science fiction band, the fiction was just as plausible as the science. Visually, they were a conundrum: on the one hand they looked severe and authoritarian, and on the other, like Ian McEwan’s robot, Adam, in Machines Like Me, their “gaze was empty of meaning or intent and therefore unaffecting, as lifeless as the stare of a shop-window mannequin.” (Kraftwerk means “power station”: “We play our machines into the electrical system and create transformed energy,” says Ralf Hutter. One of the group’s nicknames is the Human Machine, another Sound Chemists.) “The Model” is not just their most popular song, it’s the record that best epitomises the period.
“The Look of Love” by ABC
In some respects, Martin Fry’s ABC pre-empted the entire ethos of New Pop, creating a thoroughly convincing pop property with a light sense of irony – earnest backing vocals, gold lame suits and snarky lyrics. Their first album, The Lexicon of Love (1982), said it all: on “The Look of Love”, when Fry sings “Sisters and brothers, should help each other,” you just know his tongue is firmly in his cheek. “It was like disco, but in a Bob Dylan way,” said the record’s producer, Trevor Horn, although it was actually much better than he made it sound. With “The Look of Love”, “Poison Arrow”, “Tears Are Not Enough” and “All of My Heart”, ABC managed to create totally modern-sounding records that celebrated the delusory idea of pop itself.
“Chant No.1 (I Don’t Need This Pressure On)” by Spandau Ballet
This was, in its own way, as important to the summer of 1981 as “Ghost Town” by the Specials - a canny mix of contemporary funk and bottom-heavy agitprop, the perfect encapsulation of the new decade’s obsession with fiddling while Brixton and Toxteth burned. It is one of the most important records of the early 1980s, and this is not an opinion solely justified by hindsight. By the spring of 1981, the all-powerful music press already had it in for Spandau. In their eyes they were simply a bunch of musclebound poseurs, led by an overripe costermonger who sounded as though he was going through his vocal exercises while giving a dinner call. But then that was the music press, who at this moment in time were all too keen to kick anyone they suspected of having any fun. And one thing Spandau engendered was fun. Spandau were hated by the left, especially when they found out that Tony Hadley voted Tory (regardless of the fact that the band’s leader, Gary Kemp, was a card-carrying Labour supporter). “But the link between Spandau Ballet and Thatcherism is about more than the personal politics of Tony Hadley,” said the Guardian, pompously. “It’s about the emptiness of Spandau, the aspiration to do nothing more than look good in a nightclub, the happy embrace of style over substance.”
“Ashes to Ashes” by David Bowie
It is somewhat ironic that the success of “Ashes to Ashes” (this was Bowie’s second-ever No.1 single in the UK – the first had been “Space Oddity”, to which “Ashes to Ashes” was the maudlin sequel) coincided with a raft of, if not exactly matchy-matchy songs, then at least a seam of modern electronic pop that took a lot of its tropes from Bowie – everything from excessive styling, arch outsider status, and cute androgyny. Ironic because “Ashes to Ashes” is symbolically the end of Bowie’s purple patch, the end of imperial period. This signalled the end of the queer chameleon, the leopardskin messiah and the glam apocalyptist, the last anti-rock hurrah before the arrival of the custard-coiffured yuppie, the man who wanted to stay in and get things done. And as Bowie abdicated – or at least stepped down from his perch – the crowds below were full of acolytes who started making records that sounded as though they were made in order for Bowie to like them. It wasn’t just Gary Numan who aped Bowie’s otherness, but also everyone from the Eurythmics and Spandau Ballet to Visage and Depeche Mode (who were starting to define themselves as a sort of children’s television Kraftwerk).
“Don’t You Want Me” by the Human League
Phil Oakey had the perfect post-modernist haircut for the perfect post-modernist pop group of 1981, and in fact his haircut almost became the band’s logo. Always Sheffield’s finest exponents of ironic-pop (as art school pranksters in the late 1970s the Human League had toyed with rickety indie-pop and split-screen slide shows), this regrouped band of post-pop/post-modern futurists (the meaningless tags of 1980s dancehall pop) embraced three-minute synth-pop and fashion house imagery. Throughout these changes one thing remained constant – Oakey’s ridiculous “piste”, a haircut short on one side and long on the other. He was quoted as saying that the only reason he had it cut this way was the in the hope it would get him, and the band, noticed. By 1981, many fledgling bands had started using all kinds of weird haircuts as a means of getting themselves noticed by the press. No longer was a haircut representative of a particular group of people and if, in a nightclub, you bumped into someone with a gigantic sixteen-inch charcoal-black conk, it by no means meant that they had anything to do with the music industry, as they just as easily could have been involved with the health industry. As their meanings became more confused, more diffused, as their codes became scrambled, so haircuts became more idiosyncratic, losing some symbolic importance along the way. Pejoratively, the press started to call young groups “Haircut bands”.
“Vienna’ by Ultravox
There was an obvious through-line from the likes of Ultravox, Visage, the Human League and Depeche Mode et al, right back to the origins of Pop Art in the 1950s. Whether you look at the slightly parodic work of the British Pop artists, or the more immersive imagery produced by the Americans, they were both dealing with everyday subjects like comic books, advertising, Hollywood, product design and pop music – all of which were mass-produced, designed for mass-market appeal and which often involved mechanistic, generic sex appeal.
This is what Ultravox’s Midge Ure says about “Vienna” in Sweet Dreams: “When the Vienna album came out, there was a marked difference in the dynamic within Ultravox. The band became a real band, which was really quite interesting. There wasn’t a leader, there wasn’t a dominant character, there were four individuals pulling together and making a sound that only those four individuals could make. So once we came out with “Sleepwalk,” people got it. Because it wasn’t the same as the previous Ultravox. Something had changed, and they could hear that something, whatever it was, and they kind of accepted it. And, of course, once “Vienna” came out as a single, we crossed over into an entirely different audience, and they didn’t know the previous Ultravox, the one with John Foxx. Ultravox to them was the band that they’d heard on the radio that day.”
“Are Friends Electric” by Gary Numan
There always something a little comical about Gary Numan, almost as though he were trying to outstare you in the playground. A lot of Anglo-Futurist music honoured a personality type more often seen as a curiosity in need of a quiet word, the sullen show-off, and Numan was that to a T. He was a Tory, he used to sit in his local pub with a white rate on his shoulder, and he looked like a futuristic nerd, a third-generation Bowie clone who wanted to look like a member of Kraftwerk but who made the mistake of starting the process by shopping at C&A. It would be easy to say that the entire British charts of the first three or four years of the 1980s were full of young men and women either pretending to be David Bowie, or using one of his many characters as a blueprint for their own tawdry space-faces, but few copied so obviously as Numan. This is one hell of a great song, though.
“Rio” by Duran Duran
Duran Duran’s songs sounded like glossy magazine spreads come to life, but if anything was a harbinger of how the 1980s would soon start to be seen it was the video for Duran Duran’s “Rio”, which was shot in Antigua in May 1982, and released six months later, the fourth single from the Rio album. Directed by Russell Mulcahy, who had directed the first ever video shown on MTV in 1981, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by Buggles, it captured the band dressed in colourful Antony Price suits, aboard a yacht speeding across the English Harbour bay, literally living the dream. There was no irony involved here, just a beautifully filmed travelogue that immediately moved the band away from any post-punk New Romantic milieu; presented as a gang of wannabe playboys, they were defined by their playfulness and ambition. When the video was first shown on British TV, the response among those who expressed an opinion (and who weren’t appalled by its self-indulgence) was exactly what the band had hoped for: no one could believe how expensive it looked. Here was a music video that didn’t pander to anyone’s idea of pop-cultural “meta”. This was a celebration completely free of inverted commas. Nick Rhodes was seasick during the filming, and, unapologetic to the last, said, “I hate boats unless they’re tied up and I’m having cocktails on them.”
“Tainted Love” by Soft Cell
Marc Almond’s success in the early 1980s with Soft Cell owed more to the band’s quirky electro-pop image rather than his innate good looks and well-groomed hair. But he was a pin-up just the same, whose image was festooned across bedroom walls all over the country. There was always a tendency to describe Almond as having a “ghostly pallor”, a gothic screenwash… Mixing the icy precision of Kraftwerk with the warm emotion of Northern Soul, Soft Cell made electronic punk, happy sad music that mixed glamour with squalor. They could have almost been called Flotsam & Jetsam. Their first big hit “Tainted Love” was Number One in seventeen countries, while their single “Bedsitter” was the first UK Top Five single to feature the soon-to-be ubiquitous sound of the Roland 808.
“Smooth Operator” by Sade
Sade became the first designer pop group, a band who dared to whisper about the good life, the thread of the exotic. In various obvious ways Sade were the quintessential 1980s act, adored and vilified in equal measure because of it.
At the time, the very idea of Sade was anathema to the music press in the UK, principally because she was so different to pretty much everything that had gone before.
“The whole thing is extraordinarily composed, very civilized,” wrote a Melody Maker journalist. “Which makes her arrival as a bona fide pop star even more incongruous. Is this music for young marrieds? Songs for the Habitat generation? A voice for the discerning adult?
“Fact of the matter is there are no easy categorisations for Sade. One of the reasons she’s so fascinating is that she conforms to nothing. She straddles all manner of age, creed and market, confounding the rules of the business at every turn, but doing it with such style and charm that after a while you just don’t care anymore. A woman for all seasons and the first lady of ‘84.”
The way she looked was discussed almost as much as her music, in fact for many journalists this was her biggest problem – her beauty, and the way in which she dressed. “In England, ‘twas ever thus,” wrote Charles Shaar Murray in Rolling Stone, in an attempt to explain her to a potential American audience. “Before the hit records, before the acclaim, before even the voice... there comes The Look. And what a look Sade has: the high forehead; the svelte shape; the luminous, almost Oriental eyes, the generous, sensual mouth. Without pastel cosmetics or a hedge-clipper haircut, Sade has a look that’s both distinctive and unconventionally alluring.”
Dylan Jones studied at Chelsea School of Art and St. Martin's School of Art. A former editor at i-D, The Face, Arena, the Observer and the Sunday Times, he is currently the Editor-In-Chief of GQ. He has won the British Society of Magazine Editors "Editor of the Year" award a record eleven times, and in 2013 was the recipient of the Mark Boxer Award. Under his editorship the magazine has won over 50 awards. He is the author of the Sunday Times best-seller David Bowie: A Life, and the New York Times best seller Jim Morrison: Dark Star. A trustee of the Hay Festival, in 2013 he was awarded an OBE for services to publishing.