Sweet Dreams tactfully sidesteps whether some of the New Romantics mirrored the celebrity-for-celebrity’s sake aspirations of many of today’s vloggers and influencers. But Jones makes a convincing case that their penchant for what used to be called “gender-bending” and their sartorial obsession with self-expression as “a platform for identity” foreshadows a lot of 2020’s hot-button topics. The book is excellent on the movement’s origins both in the aspirational teenage style cult that built around Bryan Ferry in the mid-70s and the more fashion-forward occupants of the same era’s gay clubs and soul nights, who saw the clothes Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood sold in their boutique Sex not as harbingers of spittle-flecked youth revolution but as a particularly outrageous brand of couture...
I found the whole period – vividly recreated here – thrilling but then I wasn’t a player. I was watching from the outside, from the Essex hinterland. And I wasn’t interested in drugs. “Mrs Thatcher didn’t really understand the sociological forces she was unleashing,” says Peter York, the dandyish social commentator. “The radical economic agenda worked, and the conservative social agenda simply didn’t. They were tearing in absolutely opposite directions.”
In his introductory essay and interlinking passages, however, Jones writes with a concise grasp of history, a pithy turn of phrase and a genuine passion for his subject. He does more than enough to carry his central thesis, that the New Romantic movement was not some superficial reaction to the angry passions of punk but actually a continuation of it, by the same group of eccentrics taking a stand against the political restrictions of the era. “A cultural identity is a great outlet for people’s frustrations,” as Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp puts it.
Dylan Jones’s book is written in the ‘oral biography’ style pioneered by Jean Stein and George Plimpton, and succeeds, as Edie did, in providing a dazzling portrait of an era. The book should be handed out to kids who think that doing badly in your exams ends your life. For these lipsticked heroes, it was the beginning of everything. Gary Numan was expelled. Phil Oakey never sat any exams. Alison Moyet (and David Bowie) left school at 16, ‘unqualified’. Moyet got a hairdressing apprenticeship but was sacked after a few weeks for bunking off to go to a Tom Robinson gig. Boy George deliberately missed all his exams and then refused to join his father’s building firm (‘I painted and decorated myself instead’). In those days, ‘flamboyance and glamour,’ as the artist Nicola Tyson puts it, ‘were under investigation,’ and school was a joke. In our scary, post-millennial, locked-down times, such non-conformity might look like decadence, but it was the only form of decadence available to working-class kids. ‘Before [Steve] Strange and his collaborators came along,’ the journalist Jason Cowley says, ‘the nightclub as currently understood did not really exist; there were only discos and pubs. Blitz called itself “the Club for Heroes” ... and there was indeed something heroic about the posturing and ambition of the young people who gathered there, most of whom were from tough working-class families.’ Strange set himself up at the door, taking delight – and drawing fame – in turning away people who weren’t ‘right’ (including Mick Jagger, one starry night, for turning up wearing jeans and trainers). Strange, Jones writes.