In 1979, Mick Jagger turned up at the Blitz club in London, home to an extravagant new youth cult. You can see why his interest was piqued – stories had just reached the press of a shabby Covent Garden wine bar playing host to a crowd of art students, ex-punks and Bowie obsessives, caked in makeup and dressed as Elizabethans, Hollywood vamps, pirates, priests and all points inbetween. But Jagger never got to see them first-hand.
The exact reason the club’s teenage host Steve Strange turned him away isn’t clear (two different versions of the story appear in Dylan Jones’s mammoth oral history of the Blitz, its patrons and their impact on popular culture; more are available online). But evidently the Rolling Stones’ frontman didn’t meet Strange’s criteria that only “creative-minded pioneers” should be admitted. Off into the night Jagger went, presumably wondering exactly how a 19-year-old, recently relocated to London from his native Caerphilly had suddenly ended up the arbiter of what was and wasn’t cool.
Worse was to come for pop’s old guard. In short order, music influenced by the stuff the Blitz’s DJ Rusty Egan played – Roxy Music and Bowie, Kraftwerk’s pioneering electronica, Giorgio Moroder’s Teutonic disco – had colonised the UK and American charts, its image-conscious authors boosted by the rise of the music video in much the same way their glam rock predecessors had been by the uptake of colour TV in early 70s Britain.
By the time the Blitz’s cloakroom attendant Boy George appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine in 1983, their impact on the US was being compared to that of the Beatles. Back home, Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet were so big that the tabloids required a constant flow of stories about them, throwing their phone lines open and soliciting readers for gossip in the hope of finding more: squint and you can see the first signs of today’s cameraphone-fuelled 24/7 scrutiny of celebrity.
This wasn’t the only way in which the New Romantics, as they became known, presaged the world in which we live now, which is one of the arguments of Dylan Jones’s book. He was there at the time (his first job was with i-D, one of the new-fangled “style” magazines that sprang up to document the movement; he has long been editor of British GQ). And he evidently feels he has something to prove, a historical wrong to right. For all their commercial success, the New Romantics attracted much derision: in some quarters, they still do.
They were held responsible for ending the politically charged era of pop embodied by Two Tone and the Jam’s “Eton Rifles” and refocusing music on more frivolous matters: Billy Bragg was apparently so horrified by the sight of Spandau Ballet that he felt impelled to start his own solo career.
The other accusation was always style over substance. Certainly, among the nascent musicians, designers and artists – heavy on students from Central St Martins, the Blitz’s habitues included everyone from milliner Stephen Jones to sculptor Cerith Wyn-Evans - the New Romantics’ ranks also contained a striking number of people whose talent you couldn’t quite put your finger on. “Not really,” said Blitz star Marilyn when asked if he’d always harboured ambitions to be a singer. “I just wanted to be wonderful.”
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: it’s often written out of punk’s history that, at precisely the same time the Sex Pistols’ career was getting underway, there were people in Essex dancing to disco dressed exactly like Johnny Rotten.
And Jones is far more clear-eyed about the era than you might expect. He makes actually going to the Blitz sound like rather a drag, the undoubted buzz about the place undercut by the “unnecessary conceitedness” of patrons “who never [got] excited about anything”. It’s an assessment that’s easy to believe when you read some of his interviewees’ more self-regarding pronouncements. You do occasionally find yourself thinking: ‘oh come on, mate, you wore a funny hat to a nightclub, you didn’t singlehandedly alter the course of Western civilisation’.
Sweet Dreams loses focus when the New Romantic bands become huge in the US. As Jones notes, their biggest successes came because they pursued the mainstream, rather than vice-versa. The shock of the new that accompanied the first wave of synthesiser-driven hits dissipates: none of the music sounds as groundbreaking or extraordinary as Boy George looks. Meanwhile, rather than engender flamboyant individualism, the style magazines start doing the opposite: reflecting a new conformity, a codified notion of sophistication involving mass consumption of “designer” goods. Jones seems to lose interest, pursuing other pop-cultural threads that don’t quite tie together, from Madonna and Prince to the launch of the Groucho Club, and Sweet Dreams starts feeling not unlike falling down an internet rabbit hole. You find yourself reading about Hall And Oates, a US pop-soul duo who have about as much to do with the New Romantics as the cast of Dad’s Army, thinking: how did I get here?
It pulls itself together at the end, with a final chapter that both recounts some bracing stories of the era’s movers and shakers in decline and reiterates Jones’s central argument about continued relevance. Some of the former are scarcely believable – one of the book’s protagonists goes from running an effortlessly hip nightclub to selling disposable lighters outside Queensway tube; another takes so many drugs he pulls all his own teeth out in an addled frenzy – but the latter feels pretty credible. It’s a little over-long and digressive, but you finish the book convinced its author has a point. Besides, even its flaws are in keeping with its subject. If Sweet Dreams is a bit much, well, so were the New Romantics.
• Sweet Dreams by Dylan Jones is published by Faber (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.