If you want to find out what it was like to be young in the late 1970s and early 1980s then you'd do well to take a look at a new book called We Can Be Heroes.
During that period art director Graham Smith was never without his camera and his black and white pictures tell the story of some of London's most hedonistic partygoers since Evelyn Waugh's bright young things partied like it was 1939. Some names and faces will be familiar - Steve Strange, Stephen Jones, Sade, Spandau Ballet and Boy George - but there are just as many who, although not household names, have become designers, writers, make-up artists or film-makers and helped shape post-modern culture.
We Can Be Heroes is a fascinating documentation of the demimonde nightclub scene from punk through new romantic and out the other side when ruffles and rouge were traded in for roughed-up jeans and Rockabilly quiffs. Smith's snapshots capture a wildly flamboyant time when the clientele (male, female, gay, straight and several in between) partied into the night as they planned to take over the world.
It is certainly fitting that Smith has chosen the Bowie lyric as the title of his book because Bowie is to thank for inspiring the transformational theatrics employed by the Blitz club regulars. In the early 1970s Bowie brought glamour and drama to rock music at a time when it was difficult to tell if the denim clad hairy on stage had nodded off during the drum solo. He was a shrewd style thief, an ardent advocate of collage couture. One of the only musicians to survive the vicious tongue-lashing of punk, it was Bowie who helped fuel the electro soundtrack of the '80's subterranean underworld. His Berlin trilogy of albums - Low, Heroes and Lodger - explored the neue world of Kraftwerk and machine muzak. Although let's not forget to credit Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer who had been knocking out the electronic beats in the gay clubs of many a twelve-inch single.
Although haunts like Blitz, Billy's, Hell and Saint Moritz might not have passed for traditional gay clubs they certainly embraced, if not driven by, gay sensibilities. This, in turn, allowed the macho boys to dress up as matinee idols and beatniks, Edwardian gentlemen and Gaucho lovers without having to worry about getting their perfectly pomaded hair messed up in a brawl.
This was no different to how it had been in the seminal days of punk when the original London scene-makers - Siouxsie Sue, Johnny Rotten, Jordan and the like - found refuge in Louise's lesbian bar and 'Yours or Mine' at Sombrero. "All gay clubs let us weirdos in,' remembers Rusty Egan, DJ at the Blitz.
While the hardcore fashion freaks, many of whom were students at St Martin's School of Art (like myself), never felt apologetic for our sartorial shenanigans (and still don't) it is telling how with hindsight the heterosexual revellers appeared to shy away from being part of the ongoing fashion parade when they insist that they knew their fanciful get-ups 'looked bonkers'; that they were meaning to be ironic.
"It's all drag!' as Princess Julia, one-time coat-check girl at the Blitz, insightfully points out. And it was, whether a tough leather studded biker jacket or a brocade frock coat, a Rob Roy plaid flung over your shoulder or a corset flung open to reveal rouged nipples (on a boy or a girl). Even the downbeat and distressed Hard Times look (the fashion equivalent of a hangover to new romantics bender) was sweated over with equally painstaking detail. Throughout this book it is easy to see that the look was paramount and the style-setters worked as hard on the rips in their jeans and a disposition of desolate dishabille as they had starching their ruffs and maintaining their maquillage.
Moreover, it didn't matter that your look might fall apart during a night of revelry because tomorrow was always another day when you could make a metamorphosis into another stylish hero or heroine. Outfits were often created by picking up garments from the bedroom floor (not always yours), purloining others from friends and, occasionally, purchasing something from War On War charity shop, Laurence Corner army surplus or a jumble sale. When a cache of theatrical costumes and defunct fancy dress came up for sale at Charles Fox Costumiers suddenly a host of Medieval knights, Victorian ladies, swooning maidens and swarthy noblemen could be found knocking back the Snake-bite or Pernod and Black at the bar of the Blitz.
This ragbag of clothes became the visual soundtrack to our lives. A few designer labels flourished, namely PX (a boutique that boasted Steve Strange as a shop assistant and, later, Stephen Jones in the basement), Willy Brown's Modern Classics and, of course, Vivienne Westwood (who had already along with Malcolm McLaren styled punk and now pirates). And then there were the new breed of wannabe designers such as David Holah (who dressed both men and women in his cheap and vaguely Grecian muslin chemises) or Melissa Caplan, who clad Toyah and the Spandau boys in tabards and tops that tied you up like a mad person (after bondage pants anything made sense). There was also Judith Frankland who helped fashion the monochromatic religious looks that Bowie purloined, after a visit to the Blitz, for his 'Ashes To Ashes' video. The circle was complete. The followers had costumed their hero and the asylum was up for grabs.
But, however you regard this somewhat over-zealous nightclubbing scene one thing is certain, what the photographs of Graham Smith have in abundance is soul. It is obvious that Smith was part of the world he documented and ultimately the photographs reveal a world full of hopeful opportunists and charming chancers who, without much thought for tomorrow, changed the future of fashion and music and more besides.
This book shows how we believed we could be heroes...if only for one night!
We Can Be Heroes by Graham Smith and Chris SullivanSuggest a correction