How The Blitz Club Became a Force for Change

ONE: THERE'S A STARMAN WAITING IN THE SKY

All things to do with The Blitz Club start and stop with Bowie. Despite the world tagging them as the Blitz Kids, this generation of diehard clubbers and music fiends were in reality Bowie's Kids — the spiritual offspring of the mighty innovator who shaped the 1970s pop scene almost singlehandedly, David Bowie. The Blitz was much more than a weekly club-night in a tacky London wine bar. Tuesdays at The Blitz were an occasion. The keynotes were outrage and dressing UP in the face of a grinding economic recession far worse than today's. Queues of sparkling clubbers stretched round the block. Something epic happened here, something heroic. These exponents of modern dance and ironic stance began forcing the pace of change. In an explosion of creativity, gender-bending and ridiculous hair, the club's stand-out stars became media celebrities. The Blitz was the crazed laboratory that reanimated the corpse of British youth culture. From here sprang dozens of glamorous young bands playing new kinds of pop. They invaded the British charts and then the world's. Visage and Spandau Ballet were the first bands created in the Blitz itself and they looked like tomorrow. Their synthesised dance music sounded like tomorrow too. Their devil-may-care performances inspired a movement that people called the New Romantics and suddenly firebrands and tastemakers were springing from nightclubs all over Britain. Not in old-school guitar-led rock groups, but as mould-breakers making electronic tunes as 12-inch vinyl singles — club-music to move to. Their friends buzzed around them in creative teams as designers of clothes and graphics, as crimpers and writers and photographers and directors in the new medium of video — because their guru Bowie had shown them how to express their dreams in both sound and vision.

TWO: LISTEN TO ME, DON'T LISTEN TO ME

Bowie had burnt himself into the souls of this generation which was to produce the popstars of the 1980s. They all remember the apparition who stepped onto their TV screens in 1972 when Ziggy Stardust was born. This scifi rock god with feather-cut ginger hair and skintight jumpsuit was shocking yet fascinating.

George O'Dowd, known as "the coat-check girl at The Blitz", later as Boy George of Culture Club: "It was true that Bowie swept into The Blitz scene and soaked up all the ideas, but he was the reason that most of us were dressing up in the first place."
In a sequence of wondrous albums throughout their teens, Bowie introduced his followers to a cast of invented personalities for himself as a popstar, from the self-destructive Ziggy Stardust and the amoral Thin White Duke to his romanticised "Heroes" (the quote marks spell irony).
Through their formative years Bowie invited his acolytes to explore identity, androgyny, the primacy of the visual — and irony.
Gary Kemp of Spandau Ballet on Bowie's Starman: "A cocksure swagger of pouting androgyny that appealed to pubescent working-class youth."
He taught them to adopt stances: individualism, alienation, decadence, and transgression.
He bequeathed them principles for living amusing lives: disposable identities, portable events, looks not uniforms, tastelessness "on purpose".
These curiously educated travellers were surely destined to meet at an intersection in time and space...

THREE: HEROES JUST FOR ONE DAY

Daily life in Britain grew grimmer with the 70s and above the clangour of industrial unrest punk rock arrived to machine-gun the old order with the anger of the young. During the summer of punk in 1977, the Sex Pistols stuck two fingers up at the Queen's Jubilee celebrations. By contrast, Bowie stepped up with the thrilling anthem that still echoes today as his signature tune, "Heroes". He was passionate and optimistic. He sang about intimacy and love triumphing over the horrors of the outside world. Finding joy in simple pleasures could make heroes of us all, "just for one day".

Midge Ure, then also in Rich Kids: "Rusty and his friend Steve Strange realised our crowd needed somewhere to try out our styles and listen to Euro-synth bands like Kraftwerk, Dusseldorf and Telex. These cutting-edge sounds seemed to represent the future."
These were the ley-lines that drew Steve Strange, Rusty Egan and the disenchanted strays of their age together. These outcasts in their weird PVC clothes or Aladdin flashes on their faces only ever saw each other at Bowie events, where they were wide-eyed to realise they were not alone. In July 1978 they filled Earl's Court arena on the UK leg of Bowie's world tour.
Afterwards the fiercest of these kindred spirits sought sanctuary beyond the reach of aggressive punk rockers in a decadent dive in Soho called Billy's. Among Midge Ure's music mates there was the young drummer with the Rich Kids, Rusty Egan, and his flamboyant flatmate Steve Strange who had sung with the Photons and wore clothes from PX, the cool new shop where he worked. Rusty eventually found the nerve to tell the owner of Billy's: "Your Tuesdays are empty — we can fill this place with our friends."
Photographer Derek Ridgers told The Face magazine how it felt stepping into Billy's: "It was like walking into a Hieronymus Bosch painting: there was a dedication that's never been equalled since."
Rusty ran off some flyers headed "Fame Fame Fame, What's your name?" beneath a photo of Bowie, then he deejayed using his own favourite records which meant Tuesday became Bowie Night in everything but name. Steve vetted the door to keep out trouble and sent a dress-code signal with his own leather jodhpurs and long German trenchcoat. After growing up on the sociable soul circuit, his bulging contacts book now came into its own, but he admitted only people with attitude.
Steve StrangeSteve was chuffed that "the bright sparks of St Martin's art school were using the club as its common room". Yet even the fashion student Stephen Linard (quite decorative in his own way) was shocked the first time he walked in: "I wore a blue and green taffeta zootsuit, and lots of diamante. But Steve's look was a toy soldier all in BLUE and Julia's hair was PINK. They were fab!" By most 1978 standards, any colour apart from black was an outrage. Iain Webb, student journalist at St Martin's, one day to be fashion editor of The Times, says: "People who didn't fit in anywhere else suddenly felt part of something at Billy's."
Rusty finally called Tuesday their Club for Heroes, after "Clothes for heroes", the slogan of Vivienne Westwood and Malcolm McLaren's shop, Seditionaries.
In less than three months they'd perfected the once-a-week club-night — a private party with full club facilities — and invented the future of nightclubbing as we know it. Success meant that they had to move on...

FOUR: THE CULT WITH NO NAME


In 1979, Steve and Rusty launched their Tuesday elektro-diskow at The Blitz in Covent Garden. They called it Neon Night and lit a beacon that reached across a sea of lost souls. Tribes of musically dispossessed teenagers had been cast adrift in the black hole left by punk ... but Billy's had reunited them into a playful family of new-wavers, no-wavers, post-punks, mods, glam glitterati, disco divas, soulboys and girls, rockabillies, rebel rebels, city suffragettes, Aladdins and Ziggies.

Chris Sullivan, club-host who set about reinventing the zootsuit: "Contrary to the accepted myth, The Blitz wasn't all frills and eyeliner. The club for the most part resembled the canteen of MGM studios, c1952, a motley crew of extroverts: Fifties bikers, Little Bo Peeps, swashbuckling pirates and even the odd Pilgrim Father."
Steve says: "There might have only been 200 of us but we were ready to take on the world."
When these heroically dressed nightowls were teleported from Billy's into The Blitz, life became a cabaret. Steve as Pied Piper dared his followers to take shock to its limit. Make no effort, and you didn't get in. Punk had taught this crowd how to cut up their clothes. Now they taught each other how to run up their own, and excess came first, glamour second. Crucially, St Martin's art-school was only a couple of blocks away and its trailblazing fashionistas embarked on what was called the Age of Plunder.
The Blitz Kids were a shock to the eye posing away in ridiculous ensembles, six tons of make-up and flyaway hair pointing to the SKY. Tonight Steve might have come as Little Lord Fauntleroy or Robinson Crusoe, Kim as Good Queen Bess, Lee as Nosferatu, Stephen Linard as Bonnie Prince Charlie, Julia as Bride of Frankenstein, George as Boadicea, Chris as agent of the French resistance, and everywhere fantasy hats by Stephen Jones. The looks changed every week. Iain Webb says: "Tuesdays were all about the Blitz. From the moment we awoke we would be planning what to wear."
Christos Tolera, Blitz Kid and artist: "What struck me about The Blitz was the contrast between the club and the outside world. For me, as a 16-year-old, it was my first introduction to the possibility that working-class people could really do something different."
Photographers came swarming, from fashion mags and national newspapers, to CBS and Time. Judi Frankland says: "We all wanted fame. Such a small club, so many big egos!"
Then to everyone's amazement, in July 1980 their god paid The Blitz Kids a visit. Jaws hit the floor when David Bowie dropped in to ask for four of them to appear in his video for Ashes To Ashes. Steve, Elise, Darla-Jane and Judi were whisked off to be filmed in black gothic robes and monumental hats by Stephen, Richard and Fiona. Within two weeks of release, Ashes was No 1 in the charts.
The writer Bob Elms, a Blitz Kid himself, dubbed the movement The Cult With No Name, then all of a sudden the dreaded label New Romantics was slapped on them. Three people are supposed to have invented this phrase during 1980: Perry Haines, student journalist at St Martin's and cub editor of i-D magazine; Richard Burgess, Spandau's producer; and writer Betty Page as a huge headline in the music mag Sounds. Sure as anything, the Blitz Kids disowned the tag!
Stephen Jones, the hat-maker who in 2010 was given a retrospective at the V&A Museum: "The Blitz ruled people's lives. Exactly that. A nightclub inspired absolute devotion of the kind previously reserved only for a pop idol."
Fact is, Steve says: "The Blitz had kick-started a whole new youth culture." The Blitz stars themselves spread the portable party throughout London to ignite a new era of club-nights... Chris Sullivan took over Le Kilt and called his next the Wag, Ollie O'Donnell and Steve Lewis ran Le Beat Route, Philip Sallon ran Planet's and the Mud, Linard's night was Total Fashion Victim, Julia's The Daisy Chain, Dencil's White Trash, Scarlett's Cha-Cha, and more. Most significant, Steve and Rusty, moved upmarket in 1981 with their Club for Heroes, then by 1982 had to go mainstream by taking over the Camden Palace, a theatre converted to clubbing, and the first of a breed of mega-clubs across Britain. Here acts such as Grace Jones and Madonna queued up to sing live.
Across the UK nightlife liberated music, design and sheer ambition. The young turned over the media, especially TV. Style-watching magazines The Face and i-D became essential bibles and London Fashion Week a must event. In 1978 London had boasted only one hip club a week; by 1984 Time Out magazine started listing 50.
On Valentine's Day, 1981, Rusty and Steve staged a dress-up jamboree called the People's Palace at the Rainbow theatre where Ultravox and Depeche Mode topped the bill. Hordes of ornamental New Romantics turned out for the cameras in their daftest frills and poutiest pouts. The event proved to be less of a Woodstock, more the last gasp of the Cult That Had Gone Too Far.

FIVE: HOW CLUBBING CHANGED THE MUSIC


What Rusty played at both Billy's and The Blitz was the music of tomorrow: modern, electronic, edgy, soulful and essentially European. Seventies mainstream sounds were corporate and bland like Fleetwood Mac, Eagles and disco. UK radio played only chart hits.
In 1978 Rusty's fave bands were Magazine, Simple Minds, Ultravox, Bowie, Iggy, Roxy Music, Eno, Lou Reed. Not much you'd call rock. His pal Midge Ure felt synths "embodied a kind of nostalgia for the future". So Rusty visited Berlin and returned with twitchy new Euro-electronica (Gina X, Telex, Yello, Nina Hagen) and a pash for Moroder. A great innovation in the days of vinyl technology was that Rusty would do his own creative mixing live on his turntables, inserting a wallop of Flash Gordon, or dropping out the mid-range. Even Kraftwerk came to sound unique in The Blitz — and prompted cool robot dances just as unique. Though Rusty says: "The Blitz music did NOT have to be danceable. To be played, it just had to be right." But he did lead British dancefloors toward a whole new sound.
As '79 turned into '80 what The Blitz Club needed was electro-pop of its own. Steve and Rusty got together with Midge, Billy Currie and friends as the synth band Visage, and by Christmas 1980 they'd put Fade to Grey in the chart. From the ranks of The Blitz soulboys, Spandau Ballet made their debut at the club's Christmas party, 1979. Within a year they'd signed a deal and To Cut A Long Story Short rocketed to No 5 in the chart.
Spandau had also changed the rules by choosing a manager their own age, and right away fellow clubbers did the same. In spring 1981 the record biz woke up to dance music and even non-Romantic bands all over UK clubland began sprinkling glamour on their images. The emergent new wave included Ultravox, Landscape, Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, Blue Rondo a la Turk, Funkapolitan, Haircut One Hundred, Light of the World, The Human League, Duran Duran, Heaven 17, Altered Images, Imagination, ABC, Toyah, Classix Nouveaux, Haysi Fantayzee, Culture Club, Wham!, Jimmy the Hoover, Animal Nightlife, Tik and Tok, Marilyn and Sade.
But throughout these golden years, always, always, you heard Starman, Suffragette City, Fame, TVC15, Changes, "Heroes". The music of Bowie never fell out of fashion.

SIX: WHO IS STEVE STRANGE?


Real Name: Steven John Harrington
Born: Newbridge, South Wales, May 28, 1959
Groups: Moors Murderers, Photons, Visage, Ferry Aid, Strange Cruise
Steve Strange is the New Romantic kingpin who helped transform nightclubbing as we know it. As club promoter and pop star at the age of 20, he was the driving force behind Billy's and The Blitz (1979-1980), as well as the artfully-styled vocalist with electro-pop pioneers Visage whose biggest selling single was Fade to Grey. Today Steve is a sought-after style commentator on TV and radio.
Steve StrangeAs Steven Harrington, "Newbridge's first punk rocker", he left Wales in 1976 for London where his already flamboyant appearance prompted a postman to rename him Mr Strange. His first job was designing artwork for Generation X, and Malcolm McLaren's Sex Pistols.
After fronting two short-lived bands, the Moors Murderers and the Photons, he met up with Rusty Egan of the Rich Kids and promptly invented the weekly club-night. In partnership with Rusty, Hell and Club For Heroes followed The Blitz, and in 1982 the Camden Palace, where Slum it in Style became the place to be. Also in 1982 Steve wowed Paris when he took a fashion show by six young British designers to Le Palace to create footage for Visage's videos.
Since the heady 1980s there have been highs and lows. Of his lost years, Steve says: "I wasted it on liggers, parties and picking up the cheques for everything." In 2002 he told his tale in a candid autobiography, Blitzed!
Steve hosts events all over Europe's clubland as The Face and has featured in TV shows such as Never Mind The Buzzcocks, Celebrity Scissorhands and Children In Need, and on Channel 4s documentary Whatever Happened to the Gender Benders?

SEVEN: WHO IS RUSTY EGAN?


Real Name: Peter Anselm Egan
Born: London, September 19, 1957
Groups: Rich Kids, The Senate, The Misfits, The Skids, Visage.
He has produced pioneering records for artists such as Shock, Ronny, Nona Hendrix, Didier Rominelli, Burundi Black, Visage, Spear of Destiny and The Senate.
Steve Strange Rusty Egan has been one of the most renowned DJs on London's boutique nightclub circuit for 25 years, as well as being in demand as a music and fashion commentator for TV, radio, magazines and newspapers.
Rusty is often cited as the pioneer of electronic dance music in the UK. A passionate musician, he made his name in the late 1970s as a drummer for the British new-wave band The Rich Kids (founded by Glen Matlock formerly of Sex Pistols), with Midge Ure. He enjoyed considerable success with Midge in Visage, fronted by Steve Strange, which had a worldwide hit with Fade to Grey.
Rusty came to prominence as a DJ at The Blitz Club (1979-1980), where he introduced German electronica to the British scene. As a musical innovator he sought fresh influences in Paris, Berlin, Dusseldorf and New York. His youthful partnership with Steve Strange as host and greeter promoted The Blitz to one of London's most influential clubs which transformed British youth culture. In 1981 they opened Club For Heroes, and from 1982-4 were entrusted to host a 1,800-capacity former theatre, the Camden Palace (now Koko) which attracted international media attention. Live performers included Grace Jones, The Eurythmics, Kraftwerk, Wham!, Frankie Goes to Hollywood and an unknown Madonna making her London debut in 1983.
Today Rusty still lives in Chelsea where he arrived as a punk in 1977.