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Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 08:24 am
Pierrot / matelot / aristo / gigolo / fascista

I was particularly interested in the Derek Ridgers pictures The Observer ran yesterday documenting the New Romantic scene at the Blitz Club. Ridgers once photographed me for the NME (and his girlfriend was the infamous Betty Page, who wrote the NME's backlashing zero-out-of-ten review of my Hippopotamomus album). Here, his pictures accompany an interesting article by David Johnson, Blitz Kids and the New Romantics, which dates the style movement very specifically and, I think, accurately.



"If we recast the 80s as a subcultural timeline," ponders Johnson, "the decade actually spanned six years. They began in June 1978 when David Bowie's world tour hit the UK and ended with Do They Know It's Christmas? in December 1984, when Band Aid confirmed rival groups who had risen on the same wave as a new pop establishment."

Now, Johnson is careful to disentangle the New Romantics from Thatcherism, which he says wasn't really invented until Thatcher's second term. But there is something about the New Romantic style that feels... right-ish, in a political sense. Looking at Ridgers' pictures, one sees the elements: heightened, theatricalised punk, proto-Goth, Blade Runner-esque sci-fi dystopia, World War II (apparently there were pictures of Churchill on the wall at the Blitz Club, a shabby basement wine bar), a dialectic between austerity and opulence, and a style I'd triangulate with the style specification: pierrot / matelot / aristo / gigolo / fascista.



Locating the start of New Romanticism in Bowie's 1978 tour is wise, because a lot of this style did originate there. Those of us who attended those concerts (I caught the Glasgow Apollo gig) were given a tabloid-style publication entitled ISOLAR, consisting mainly of full-page photos of Bowie in production stills from the Just A Gigolo film and examples of the painting and drawing he'd done in Berlin. In Just A Gigolo Bowie plays a Prussian aristocrat. On stage -- as this Japanese video attests -- Bowie was in role as a blond matelot or sailor, a look which you can see directly copied by Spandau Ballet in Derek Ridgers' photo. Later, he would pose as a pierrot and recruit Blitz kids (paying them just fifty quid each) to appear in his Ashes to Ashes video. The pierrot, matelot, aristo and gigolo were all Bowie roles. Even the fascista wasn't outside his repertoire; Bowie had, in 1976, proposed himself as a possible dictator for Britain, praised Hitler's stagecraft, and professed a fascination with the links between the Nazis and Arthurian legend.



For someone of a leftish disposition, New Romantic style could be somewhat disturbing. Scottish band The Skids issued their 1979 album Days in Europa in a sleeve which seemed to celebrate the 1936 Berlin Summer Olympics, generally thought to have whitewashed Hitler's regime and its Aryans-only sporting policies. The Skids' label Virgin later re-released the album with a less controversial sleeve.

My Book of Scotlands contains a reference to this anxiety. Scotland 137 reads: "When David Bowie was calling himself the “Führerling” in his 1970s interviews, most people took the declaration that he would make a great fascist leader of Britain with a pinch of salt, or some other white powder. But Scotland took him seriously, and by 1980 he was firmly established in power in our land. The main result, as I recall, is that we were all forced to wear baggy “Bowie trousers,” emphasise our cheekbones, and tease our hair into New Romantic styles featuring blond highlights. Following the release of his disappointing Tonight album, however, Bowie’s Gleneagles HQ was the target of a swift and decisive military coup. Since then, singers have been explicitly forbidden to run countries, and trousers tend to be tighter."



The reason that even lefties like me were willing to give Bowie (and, to a lesser extent, the New Romantics who picked up on his late 70s style, making it the style of the early 80s) the benefit of the doubt is that between the coke-spun provocations of 1976 (the Victoria station "salute" and so on) and this articulate interview he gave Alan Yentob in 1978 -- still my favourite Bowie interview ever -- the Führerling of New Romanticism seemed to swing significantly leftwards in his attitudes. He later attributed this to sane friends in Kreuzberg taking him aside and challenging his views; whatever the reason, on his 1979 and 1980 albums Bowie was singing responsibly about how "to be insulted by these fascists is so degrading", championing immigrants and refugees, and decrying domestic violence. The intelligent, charming and disarming man in the Yentob interview displaced the alarming fascist apologist.

Then again, Bowie would never again inspire an entire movement. Perhaps there are more connections between right-wing populism and popularity -- and between fashion and fascism -- than we care to admit.

52CommentReplyFlag


(Anonymous)
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 07:02 am (UTC)
coke and politics don't mix

this is an unfortunate episode, yes. i also recall iggy pop talkin' some of this fascist trash at some point, as well. but he's always had some fucked up redneck views, anyway (read reynold's and press' The Sex Revolts for a trenchant exploration of iggy's particular brand of infantile, misogynistic and post-lacanian cock-rock).

now that i think of it, even neil young was talking about a fondness for reagan at one point in the 80s, for god's sake. stay away from the hard drugs, that's all i can say...


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milky_eyes
milky_eyes
milky_eyes
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 07:44 am (UTC)
Re: coke and politics don't mix

I dont think Neil young used hard drugs...


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 07:23 am (UTC)

I want to add a sort of footnote. My first band The Happy Family popped up during the New Romantic period, but I don't think of it as a New Romantic band... except insofar as -- like The Skids, like Simple Minds, like The Associates and Josef K -- we looked towards Europe. Europe was our America. Kraftwerk was our Elvis.

It's really quite extraordinary, given the massive pro-American cultural bias of the post-war period, that Europe could have been our America, but there it is, that's how it felt. Europe was the place that seized our imagination, and Bowie's relocation to Berlin was tremendously important in that cultural shift.


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viceanglais
viceanglais
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 07:54 am (UTC)
Cameronian Classicism

I saw this commercial in the cinema yesterday. When it started I thought "An advert for communism!" but it soon reveals the message that Cameronian classicism is the cure for life's woes. More Bullingdon Club than Blitz, the campaign (entitled "The Movement") offers supremacism, elitism, sports and an emulation of European bourgeoisie in a glass.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 06:44 pm (UTC)
Re: Cameronian Classicism

the performative machismo is hilarious in this.


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milky_eyes
milky_eyes
milky_eyes
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 07:59 am (UTC)

fascist elements in music...
it is party or mostly to do with doused drugs? and the action of shooting for fame?

A certain amount of musicians visually explore or lyrics explore the theme... but I never could tell what they were coming or going with any of it: how serious they were. when someone's shooting loads of drugs and ranting about some shit... you know... its a bit of a circus any way you look at it.

but its fun and kinda sexy right?
and over the top. kinda anti-hippie. which is good. Its being honest about ones true intentions. to dominate. Right?

But its used in differnt ways maybe.
Like a lot of noise music is kinda fascist.
there the gay s/m thing thats fascist...



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andrewducker
andrewducker
Andrew Ducker
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 08:01 am (UTC)

Perhaps there are more connections between right-wing populism and popularity -- and between fashion and fascism -- than we care to admit.
Simple explanations hold the most romantic power - they sucker us in by presenting a world we can understand, one that's the way we'd like it to be. And authoritarian explanations tend to be the simplest. Throw in some nice shiny jackboots and you have a winner!


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 08:14 am (UTC)

by his 1979 album Lodger Bowie was singing responsibly about how "to be insulted by these fascists is so degrading"

... and you claim to be a Bowie fanatic!


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 08:35 am (UTC)

Wait, that's on Scary Monsters, isn't it?

The quote I meant to reach for was from Fantastic Voyage: "shoot some of those missiles... think of us as fatherless scum... it won't be forgotten... or we'll never say anything nice again, will we?"

But that's not quite so politically specific.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 08:22 am (UTC)

Was it really fascism per se that was the style influence, though? I'd say it was a retro-modernism which took as much from the left as from the right. Another key New Romantic influence would have been Kraftwerk's The Man Machine, whose cover takes it inspiration from El Lissitsky, and which contains Russian phrases in the lyrics.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 08:38 am (UTC)

True, all that was in there. So was Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter, and so was the Tin Drummish imagery of early Warsaw / Joy Division sleeves, or the Futurist imagery of the first New Order cover. I think what we can say is that in the general orientation towards Europe, fascism was not excluded.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 09:29 am (UTC)

There's a strong class element to this, isn't there? The New Romantics were largely working-class Londoners, dressing up as aristocrats! I guess there's always been a dandy aspect to British working-class culture (teddy boys, Kray brothers etc.). I wonder if working-class dressing-up in some way correlates to upper-middle-class dressing-down. After all, at exactly the same time as the New Romantics were pretending to be pierrots or Jean Genet sailor boys, the Sloane Rangers came to the fore. And the Sloanes had a very casual dress ethic - they wore jeans and smoked Malboros.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 09:43 am (UTC)
Oh.

I thought this post was going to be about Silvio Berlusconi: the clown, the gigolo, the fascist.


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 09:46 am (UTC)
Re: Oh.

His jokes aren't funny enough for him to be a clown, he doesn't have enough power to be a fascist, and a gigolo is someone who gets paid for sex, whereas poor Silvio has to pay for it.


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count_vronsky
count_vronsky
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 11:45 am (UTC)

I saw comic Bill Burr do a funny bit about imagining riding in the limo home from the olympics with Hitler. Pre game they are all "Ve are the master race! Ve vill show the world! It's gonna be so great!"







Edited at 2009-10-05 11:55 am (UTC)


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thomascott
thomascott
Thomas Scott
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 03:11 pm (UTC)

Let's not forget that Ron was the first to reappropriate the Hitler frizzy, cannot imagine either of the Maels would make good fascists though!


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viceanglais
viceanglais
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 05:19 pm (UTC)

Martin Degville referenced Soviet imagery, a crucial difference with might account for his ..er.. longevity. Still the "future of rock'n'roll"!


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 05:34 pm (UTC)
Best Bowie interview

Has got to be the Dick Cavett Show interview. The bit where Bowie mimes a UFO taking off (with whistling sound effects) then briefly bursts into laughter - one of the oddest things I've ever seen.

I'd be interested to know what a psychologist would make of that one, but I suspect the analysis would be fairly mundane, along the lines of Bowie being deep in character while simultaneously coked up to the forehead.


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(Anonymous)
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC)
bing + bowie = david crosby?

how about bowie's xmas thing with bing crosby?


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imomus
imomus
imomus
Mon, Oct. 5th, 2009 07:25 pm (UTC)
Re: bing + bowie = david crosby?

Yes. I think visually Bowie was at his best in the Bing Special. Here he is on it, singing "Heroes":


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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
imomus
imomus
imomus
Tue, Oct. 6th, 2009 01:12 am (UTC)

I'm really torn between two positions on this, Whimsy. On the one hand I believe that fashion partakes of the benefits of all art-artifice; it can be a safehouse, a playzone, a simu-realm. Anything, even dangerous things, can be acted out there. On the other hand, I have a visceral dislike of certain strains of imagery -- for example, the Chivas commercial someone posted upthread. I know all too well that that commercial is a ringing endorsement of real people in the real world who have real power and whose real decisions affect me (the poster, for instance, saw this commercial as an endorsement of the UK Conservative party). So I cannot see a securely-sealed division between the safe world of virtuality-art-artifice and the dangerous world of politics, and of real actions in the real world.

To answer your question, campy fascist seems technically harmless, but should the social wind change it might not be so innocent. Then again, I don't think the simu-realm can be the cause of "the wind changing" throughout society. I think it probably merely reflects or heralds such changes. So "don't kill the messenger" would probably be the lesson to draw.


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