Sweet Dreams: The Story of the New Romantics
by Dylan Jones
Faber and Faber
Review by Lee Sobel (12/4/20)
5 out of 5 stars
I happen to love all kinds of rock music but I have a special place in my heart for synthpop. I was a senior in high school when Gary Numan came on the scene and I saw him live at the Palladium in New York City in 1979. I also used to go dancing at a New York City club called Hurrah that regularly played The Normal's "Warm Leatherette" around that time. From age 13 I had become a science fiction fan so all that fantasizing about futurism made me a very easy target for music that was driven by synthesizers. Some people may have heard something cold and robotic but the melodies in songs by Depeche Mode and Yaz to me were beautiful.
So, yes, I loved bands like Visage, Soft Cell, early Spandau Ballet (their first album only, actually), Ultravox and Duran Duran (before they went too pop with total crap like "The Reflex"). And of course I'm a David Bowie fan and he was certainly the primary influence (along with Roxy Music) on the whole synthpop
scene. Now here is a book weighing in at almost 700 pages on the subject of the New Romantics, a distinctly British phenomenon that the 18 year old me was fascinated by in the pages of magazines like The Face back at that time. I'm too old to quibble about which bands were New Romantic and which bands were not that seemed to get thrown into the genre, like Adam Ant who looked New Romantic but his music seemed very unlike Gary Numan (did Adam Ant even use synthesizers?). But who cares if Sade is New Romantic (she is? I had no idea - sorry not a fan of Sade who would not have me on the dance floor like DD's "Planet Earth" or Visage's "Fade To Grey" would have - and don't get me started on Soft Cell's "Sex Dwarf" which is my absolute favorite song of the entire genre).
I was an only child, living in Greenwich Village in an apartment with my mother who was an actress. All her friends were gay. My mother would not have cared the least if I had turned out to be gay and my interest in the androgyny of David Bowie was completely encouraged by mom. The bands who became well known from the New Romantic/synthpop scene were almost all fronted by men experimenting with their feminine side by wearing makeup and clothing that was decidedly un-macho. I was absolutely a fan of the whole thing and was fascinated by Steve Strange, the poster boy for this phenomenon. This scene probably would have come and gone except that a lot of the music was catchy as hell, the bands embraced making visually striking music videos and were catapulted to huge fame when suddenly in 1981 a new thing called MTV appeared and needed music videos -- especially ones with good looking young men and women in them. So, you have the rise of Duran Duran who developed a huge following who probably never heard the term New Romantic except when Simon Le Bon mentioned them in the lyrics for "Planet Earth." By that point New Romantic had been assimilated into the pop music mainstream and yes you pretty much have Steve Strange to thank for that happening.
This book is incredible and I am only too happy to praise it and give it 5 out of 5 stars. It's mainly an oral history and everybody involved with the New Romantic/New Wave/Synthpop movement is interviewed here. The book is broken down by year starting with 1975 and ending with 1985, so you're getting a very vivid picture of the before, during and after Steve Strange and Rusty Egan created the movement that was originally called "The Blitz Kids" and "The Cult With No Name." Say what you will about the costumes worn at clubs like Billy's and The Blitz, but for me it's all about the music -- what a great single Spandau Ballet's "To Cut A Long Story Short" was to me when I was 18 years old. It didn't make me throw away my Sex Pistols and Clash records by any means but synthpop made me want to dance and still does except I might throw my back out these days so my dancing days are sadly behind me (actually not true, when Biden won the recent Presidential election my wife and I had another couple over and we danced up a storm in our kitchen so I may be older but I'm not dead yet, haha).
Great book -- highly recommended and it will having you digging out your Human League and Eurythmics records.