Back in 1979 a little London club was the decadent birthplace of the ’80s. Most of the music and fashion we know from that decade had its roots in The Blitz.
Before its appropriation on regular Tuesdays by a gaggle of outrageously dressed former punks, hairdressers, soul boys, rockabillies and art students, The Blitz had been a normal enough wine bar in London’s Great Queen Street. When it was discovered by the owners and staff of PX, the capital’s hippest clothes store, its place in history was secured. Thanks to Steve Strange and ‘Princess’ Julia Fodor, and their friends and followers, The Blitz would become a hothouse for the mad flowering of creativity that swept London in the exciting years after punk and before house.
Punk was a very brief explosion. Almost more important was the energy and talent its DIY philosophy released. In its wake all manner of ordinary kids started following their dreams, becoming musicians, designers, writers, photographers, DJs and nightlife impresarios – careers that would have been unthinkable in the bleak ’70s. The Blitz managed to collect the most out-there of these former punks and became a churning, swirling home for new music, fashion, graphics and general outrageousness.
Youth cults had always had clear labels but no-one was sure what this lot were called. Were they ‘futurists’, ‘positive punks’, ‘New Romantics’ or simply ‘The Cult With No Name’? Not caring what anyone else thought – the Blitz kids challenged each other to new heights of fabulousness, applied stacks of make-up and looted history for dramatic looks – everything from erotic nuns to Lawrence of Arabia. The press frothed about ‘gender-bending’ as men in make-up – Boy George, Marilyn, Steve Strange, Spandau Ballet – became pop stars. Remember that back then you could easily get beaten up simply for wearing a patterned shirt or a hat.
The scene that started at The Blitz gave birth to bands including Spandau Ballet, Visage, Ultravox, and Culture Club. It evolved into legendary nights like Hell, Le Beat Route, Club For Heroes, Chris Sullivan’s mighty Wag club, and the evergreen Dirtbox, giving us along the way the international cocktail sound of Sade and the zoot-suited excitement of Blue Rondo A La Turk, plus superstar DJs including Jay Strongman, Boy George, Jeremy Healey and Princess Julia. In fashion it produced an entire generation of designers. And it gave us the style magazine – it was largely to document all this craziness that i-D and The Face (as well as the short-lived Blitz) were launched.
The Blitz was an important club, too, for its business approach. It was an early pioneer of the idea of independent promoters taking over a small club one night a week, filling it with their mates and creating a scene. Before this, clubs were almost all run by the venue owners. The new arrangement inspired a wildly fertile period in nightlife.
“The Blitz was to the ’80s what Liverpool’s Cavern club was to the ’60s,” declares Ultravox’s Midge Ure. “The Blitz helped define a generation.”
“It was brilliant fun,” recalls fashion designer Willie Brown. “When you see a futurist space cadet dancing with a man painted gold wearing a loin cloth, or a chap dressed as an Arab sheik setting off home to Basildon in a Renault 5 after a night at The Blitz, it is not to be forgotten.”
“The Blitz had a feel of the future but seeped with nostalgia,” reckons fashion writer Iain R Webb. “It was like taking a trip on the space shuttle all set for 2001 but diverted in time via ’30s cabaret.”
With its World War II Bovril and Woodbine cigarette signs on the walls, The Blitz was a wholly inappropriate venue to house a futuristic disco. But when former punk drummer Rusty Egan and soon to be Visage frontman Steve Strange heard of its vacant Tuesday night they made a deal with manager Brendan, transferred their regular ‘Bowie’ night from a Soho dive named Billy’s, and created a legend.
At the time Covent Garden was a run-down hive of fruit and veg warehouses waiting for redevelopment, so, initially, the Tuesday spot was rather quiet. But after a few weeks word got around. Strange’s punk friends Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol and Steve Severin turned up – the figureheads of the so-called Bromley Contingent – as did glam groovy older guard artists including Alternative Miss World creator Andrew Logan, filmmaker Derek Jarman, stylist Zandra Rhodes, along with a swarm of wayward fashion and art students.
Reacting against punk rock’s grubby guitars, Egan put together a gleaming synthesised soundtrack, the music of the future.
“I can’t remember entering another club where the music sounded more fresh, modern and new,” declares DJ Jeffrey Hinton, who’d later be famous as resident at Taboo. The musical carte du jour prepared by Egan comprised Bowie, Roxy, Kraftwerk, Yellow Magic Orchestra and early Human League, with a smattering of glam rock.
“I’d find European versions of records such as Kraftwerks ‘Das Model’, ‘Le Mannequin’, and Bowies ‘Heroes’ in German and French,” he says. “I felt Europe and Japan had better music to offer than the American music dominating the charts and TV. It was more stylish decadent and futuristic.”
Martin Kemp of Spandau Ballet was one of the regulars fired up by hearing this shiny electronic music. “The magic of the Blitz was the electro disco that no-one had heard being played anywhere else.” This would be a huge influence on Kemp and his band. “His choice of music inspired us to come up with our own sound. It refocused us to write totally new songs using a synthesiser.”
Spandau Ballet were the first band to emerge from the scene, to much envy from the rest. Ace faces Chris Sullivan and Robert Elms, now of Radio London (who together came up with the name after seeing it scrawled on an East Berlin toilet wall) saw Spandau as a way of projecting their scene and its aspirations, of smuggling its aesthetic into the charts; while the band’s canny manager Steve Dagger saw this fertile club as a surefire way to promote the band.
“I’d never seen or been around so many inspirational people,” says Dagger. “I think people underestimate the intelligence of that crowd, bursting with talent and ideas. I couldn’t believe there was no band representing this scene.”
Graham Smith, a keen amateur photographer turned designer, created Spandau’s graphics and documented their rise, as well as snapping portraits of the scene’s leading lights and their wild fashions. Graham’s evocative photos have now been collected in a landmark book We Can Be Heroes, a unique document of ’80s London nightlife. Among priceless shots of the clubbers in all their glory, you’ll see gems like a 19-year-old Boy George applying make-up in a squat, unpublished photos of the Sex Pistols and a teenage Jeremy Healey decked out in classic Vivienne Westwood.
Inspired by older nightbirds, especially Philip Sallon, whose extreme get-ups, not to mention his brazenness in the face of the ‘normal’ world, extended their ideas of what was possible, the Blitz kids treated the club like their weekly runway show. Many were at fashion college anyway, so the looks, crafted from thrift stores, theatrical costumiers and a good old sewing machine, could be spectacular. Blitz regular Stephen Jones, now an OBE as Britain’s most lauded milliner, claims, “Meeting people who really lived their fashion I learned more in one year at The Blitz than my three years at St Martins.”
Needless to say, given the devotion these peacocks gave to their appearance, the door policy, captained by Steve Strange, was tough. Famously, he would hold a mirror up to the dowdy and say “Look at you. Would you let yourself in?”
“I was very selective on the door,’ he laughs. “But all I wanted was to create a haven for all these individuals where they could be free to be themselves without the threat of trouble from those who didn’t get it. It was heavy back then and, if you walked down the street dressed like we did, you could get beaten up.”
“It was nerve-racking the first time I went to The Blitz,” recalls regular Michele Clapton. “Seeing Steve vetting a long queue, it was such a relief to get his approval. Then once in it was a revelation. I realised I could do whatever I wanted with my look. Not only was it allowed, it was encouraged. It gave me an opportunity to experiment.” Undeniably, The Blitz was a haven for the idiosyncratic, a mad, barking celebration of British inventiveness.
“Once you’d blagged or swanked your way past Steve on the door you were greeted by a long bar to your right stocked with Schlitz lager, where most of our gang would rendezvous,” reminisces Graham Smith. “The decor was Second World War austerity and memorabilia: framed photos of London burning, spitfires and D-Day newspaper headlines dimly lit by enamelled lights. Khaki walls. Tables decked in tacky plastic, red-and-white gingham on bare floor-boards, with a wooden staircase leading up to a seated dining area where you’d find the older Chelsea artists set. Downstairs were the toilets, where fellas, hanging out, so to speak, would hijack the ladies. As long as they didn’t hog the over-crowded mirrors the girls liked the frisson. Also burrowed down there would be Barry the Rat selling you your fuel of choice for the evening, with his pet rat scampering back and forth across his shoulders. Towards the back of the club Rusty controlled the Teutonic beats on a small dancefloor and [Boy] George O’Dowd minded the cloakroom, his fingers resplendent with black varnished (but bitten) nails, robbing your pockets.”
“The whole scenario was like a big, mad adventure with everyone just having a great time dressing up and going out,” recalls Princess Julia. “We used to experiment all the time making our clothes out of stuff we found. I remember once making an outfit out of nothing more than an old sheet and got compliments galore.”
“The first thing I remember was pencil skirts, beehives, exaggerated quiffs and shoulder pads with everything,’ recalls Blue Rondo’s Christos Tolera. “There were a lot of male 20th-century archetypes – cowboys, bikers, gauchos, and screen idols, commandos, Italian futurists. It was very stylish and bizarre at the same time.”
The Blitz ran from February 1979 to October 1980. It was nominally ‘Bowie night’ since David Bowie had been such a central inspiration to most of the kids there – for his style and his reinvention as much as his music – and indeed, within the club you could be whoever you wanted: be a hero, as Bowie sang – just for one day! At its height The Blitz resembled the canteen of MGM studios circa 1953, catering to a motley crew of extroverts: ’50s bikers aping Brando and Marvin in The Wild Ones, Little Bo Peep, Elizabeth I, swashbuckling pirates, Robin Hoods, tightly corseted Left Bank whores and even the odd pilgrim father thrown in for good measure.
“My favourite night there was the Neo Naturist night when the artists Grayson Perry and Christine Binnie walked around naked, painted all over, and the writer Iain R Webb was on a crucifix on the stage,” recalls Princess Julia. “That really didn’t happen anywhere else.”
Like all great clubs, the Blitz existed as a little bubble outside of society where the rest of the world’s rules did not apply. It defiantly earned its place in history.
– Chris Sullivan
We Can Be Heroes by Graham Smith and Chris Sullivan is out now. It’s only available online from Unbound.co.uk
1. Telex – Moskow Diskow (Disques Vogue)
2. Gina X – No GDM (EMI)
3. Yellow Magic Orchestra – La Femme Chinoise (Alfa)
4. Spandau Ballet – To Cut A Long Story Short (Chrysalis)
5. Human League – Gordon’s Gin (Virgin)
6. Ultravox – Dislocation (Chrysalis)
7. David Bowie – Boys Keep Swinging (EMI)
8. Visage – Fade To Grey (Polydor)
9. Devo – I Can’t Get no Satisfaction (Warner Bros)
10. Kraftwerk – Neon Lights (EMI)
11. OMD – Electricity (Factory)
12. Japan – Life In Tokyo (Hansa)
13. Cabaret Voltaire – Nag Nag Nag (Rough Trade)
14. Grace Jones – Warm Leatherette (Island)
15. Roxy Music – Trash (Island)
16. Simple Minds – I Travel (Arista)
17. Neu! – E-Music (Brain)
18. Throbbing Gristle – Hot On The Heels Of Love (Industrial)
19. M – Pop Musik (MCA)
20. Joy Division – Atmosphere (Factory)
Selected by Rusty Egan