Saturday, April 28, 2012

The delicious escape by Ian Walker (New Society 8 January 1981)

Has it really been that long since I posted one of Ian Walker's New Society on the blog? What the hell was I doing? Let's get that anomaly corrected without further ado.
It's hard to believe - post June '82 - but once upon a time Spandau Ballet were the most fashionable boys on the pop corner, loved by the music press and the emerging style bibles alike. Ask Robert Elms, he knows. He wrote the script. When this article was originally published in January '81 they'd already had their first top ten hit in the UK, but were not yet the teen fodder in the tailored suits. It took the second and third singles off their sophomore album to bomb for them to scurry down that well worn path with Trevor Horn towards chart salvation and Saturday morning kids tv.
I'm being a bit cheeky, to be honest. They were never a favourite band of mine but they had their moments. Just don't mention 'Through the Barricades'.
The delicious escape by Ian Walker
He has a face as white as sugar, lips painted black, and he is wearing a clown's tunic in sequined purple silk beneath a Greta Garbo black hat and veil. He sips a glass of Pils, looks not a bit out of place in this bar crowded out with Tudor lords, Scottish chieftains, Draculas, 1920s lounge lizards, bell boys, call girls, priests and gangsters. I'm in the pub round the corner from Heaven, at Charing Cross, venue for tonight's Spandau Ballet gig.

Life is a fancy dress party? The high fashion rock movement mobilised around Spandau Ballet doesn't hold with slogans, or advertising. Eight hundred tickets, £3 a shot, have been sold by word of mouth and there's rumours drifting round this bar that people are paying up to twenty quid on the black market. Spandau Ballet have only played six times and they're famous already.

"I like dressing up," says Margaret, who makes clothes, and does a bit of writing, and is tonight wearing a tartan two-piece with black beret. Her friend has a fluffy ginger moptop which turns out to be a hat and not her hair. She doesn't mind if you stroke it for its softness. "It's all feathers," she says.

There are two kinds of people here, according to Brian, who's in a Humphrey Bogart pinstripe: "The one kind who have got money dripping out the ears and the other kind haven't got a bean, make all the clothes themselves." Brian, an English and Drama student, places himself in the latter category, as does his girlfriend, who's just got a job dancing at Billy Smart's circus.

"Bloody Spanish Inquisition over there," Brian is pointing at a man in a black three-cornered hat and bellowing smock. There is no Look, just a range of glamour jokes, clipped from historical dramas and Hollywood films. Some of the Spandau fans call themselves the New Romantics, but Brian says that's only because they don't know what romantics are. I say they're romantic because they iron their shirts.

Smiling, for punks and skins, is not the way to dress your face (times are hard, look hard) but the Spandau fans here in this pub have thrown out the Presley sneer, replaced it with the early Cliff Richard smile: "I can think of nothing better than dancing on the beach."

Malcolm McLaren knows which way the wind is blowing. Self-appointed ideologist of punk, he made an art-form out of PR through his management of the Sex Pistols and has now given his new proteges, the Bow Wow Wows (daddy wouldn't buy you one), this recession romantic look, urging youth to flash round on yellow roller skates, chiffon blouson flapping in the wind, listening to illegally recorded tapes and pretend they aren't on the dole. Why make out you're posing for a 1930s unemployment poster when you can make out you're a Hollywood extra?

At 11.15 all the extras traipse round the corner to join the queue under the railway arch which leads to the front door of Heaven, this gay disco which Spandau have hired for the night. Down the stairs, past someone selling the second edition of a fashion magazine called ID, check the coat with a man who's painted a scar on his cheek, and on into the bar. All six barmen wear identical black T-shirts, white zippered jeans, and the military moustache that has been a gay badge in Greenwich Village for some years now. A row of five white construction hats, lit in green, hang on the wall.

"I just want to be happy and do what I want," says Susie, an ex-computer operator, aged 22, who is now doing A-levels. After that she'll make clothes, maybe, and get a stall, whatever. I say she looks quite normal - black shoulderless top and 1950s skirt - compared to some of her friends, and she says she usually wears a white fur mini-skirt and a white fur hat, but it got boring.

Spandau aren't due on till 12.30 and, meantime, everyone drinks, or dances under the red, blue and green neon to the alienated disco of Talking Heads: "And the heat goes on . . . where the hand has been . . . and the heat goes on . . . "

Upstairs, past the diner where they serve hamburgers, Knock, knock, knocking on heaven's door is playing in the Star Bar. Pass the time here on the pool tables or the pinball or watch the videos of Coronation Street and Batman on TV screens round the bar. Sitting down without a drink are caroline and Sheila, both 20, who grew up together in Darlington and left home together, went to the south of France. "But it didn't work out," says Caroline. "Kept getting chased by Algerians. It was horrible." Caroline now works at Bibas and Sheila is on the dole.

"You can do what you want, wear what you like, you know, and you don't feel out of place," says Caroline, whose black feather flat hat conceals the top half of her face. Sheila is in a tight yellow dress. They both make their own clothes. "It's not fashion like what you see in the shops . . .

But we're a lot of posers, yeah. I suppose that's the idea," says Caroline, the Garbo with the Darlington accent. Sheila, who looks like Monroe, smiles.

Fashion, for these two, is not an ID but a fake passport: in a society dominated by appearances you can appear to be famous two or three nights a week. The other three nights Sheila works behind a bar to supplement her giro.

Downstairs, Spandau Ballet take the stage and there's a surge from the bars. The four boys in the band have abandoned the Rob Roy tartans they wore on Top of the Pops. The lead singer is about six foot three and dressed like a pirate ("No. Navvie," he claimed later) in a wide black belt with big buckle tight round baggy trousers, a white vest, sunglasses, three days' growth of beard. He takes cigarettes out of a gold case, smokes while he sings, very Frank Sinatra.

The lead guitarist, who also plays the synthesisers, wears a sort of black smock with kimono sleeves. The rhythm guitarist looks like a conscripted Gatsby and the bass guitarist has a ted haircut and sweats a lot, you can see it dripping from his chin.

They play synthesiser dance music, fin de siècle good-time. "Fabulous. Fabulous," says Jenny Runacre, an actress, when they've finished. She's just had a baby, but tonight's her night off. Disco music is back on the turntable. Susie, the ex-computer operator, says that dancing is the most important thing, after dress. Music must come in third.

Mac, who is 22, has been friends with the boys in the band for years. He lives in a council flat in Bethnal Green, was a windowdresser till he got made redundant, but he still goes to Le Beat Route and Le Kilt and the other clubs which Spandau fans frequent. He also, recently, travelled up to Birmingham with the band.

"The kids up there, they'd never seen anything like it," he says. "I mean, they've got a lot of suss and all that, but they all surged to the front of the stage, went mad. It was just like the old punk days again, you know." It's 2am. Mac isn't sure how he's getting home: a night bus if it comes, or walk, maybe.

I go past a line of foppish young men in dinner jackets leaning on the bar, have a dance with the ex-computer operator. The 1920s bell boy, in his gold braid tunic, is on the dance floor too, along with all the other extras.

And when the stroboscope lights up, the whole thing disintegrates into a dreamy pantomime of black and white, nuns and surfers, veils and tartan, clowns and crooners, the characters flashing on and off with the bursts from the strobe, freezing the action, and there's nothing much else to do but to succumb to it all, to the delicious escape from whatever it is.

Spandau Ballet. Dance night at the prison. Japanese silks, Scottish tartans, American mohairs, French cottons. It's immaterial, style without content, world without end.
8 January 1981

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