The New Romantic movement was a combination of music and fashion, rising out of the post-punk scene and influenced by the glam rock stars of the 70’s. New Romantics combined the emerging sounds of early electronic music with a new approach to fashion. With stunning visuals, futuristic music and a penchant for wearing old-world clothes in a new way. They mixed historical styles of dress and challenged gender boundaries. With the right amount of gloss and glamour to fit straight onto the pages of fashion magazines and to walk down the catwalk of popular music, using the newly founded MTV as a launch pad for their art.
Steve Strange of Visage
In the late 1970’s Steve Strange and Rusty Egan who went on to form Visage started running Bowie nights at a venue called Billy’s in Soho. People would come dressed as the various incarnations of Bowie. This progressed to the now infamous Blitz Club which gave birth to the Blitz Kids and in turn the New Romantic scene itself. Promoting a dress code based on Steve Strange's particular aesthetics for the extravagant and the fabulous, club goers would regularly trawl op shops for weird and wonderful outfits giving birth to a DIY version of glamour. The dress code was so strict that Steve Strange made headlines for turning Mick Jagger away.
The Blitz Club attracted eccentrics, art students and would be stars who came dressed with style and panache, clogging up the London subways. Many of the Blitz Kids would go on to become stars including Steve Strange himself, Boy George and the members of Spandau Ballet along with Madonna who gave her first performance at the club.
New Romantics 1981 TV Report
While this was going on in London, the Rum Runner a club in Birmingham had also been running Bowie nights which had attracted Nick Rhodes and John Taylor who would go on to form Duran Duran. The band started running New Romantic nights and took on many of the tasks themselves with John Taylor on the door, Nick Rhodes on the decks, Roger Taylor running tables and Andy Taylor flipping burgers. Duran Duran played as the house band at the Rum Runner to a growing audience of New Romantics and would go on to become the biggest band since The Beatles.
Below is a Compilation that reflects a night at the Rum Runner
Only After Dark
Music at its core is a cultural phenomenon that I believe has more to do with taste and style than technical prowess. In the post-punk landscape, artists no longer had to be virtuoso to create something relevant or original. Punk opened the doors for DIY culture and inspired many people to make their own music. The New Romantics embraced a DIY attitude and combined the larger than life personas of rock stars such as David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Iggy Pop, with the otherworldly sounds created by Brian Eno and The melodic elements of Joy Division and Siouxsie & the Banshees over a funky backbeat. You can clearly hear the influence of funk and disco but presented with the cool detached musical characteristics of Kraftwerk.
Influence went full circle when David Bowie approached Steve Strange to design the costumes and make up for the Ashes to Ashes music video, which came out right on the cusp of New Romantic breaking into the mainstream.
The vocals in New romantic music range in pitch from Baritone to Tenor. Singers such as Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet or Dave Gahan of Depeche Mode dwell in the lower end of the spectrum. While singers like Marc Almond of Soft Cell or Billy Mckenzie of the Associates would go for a slightly higher but much more melodramatic approach and singers such as Steve Strange of Visage or Boy George of Culture Club had a feminine approach, singing higher and in a more gentle manner. While the style of singing varies greatly in tone, timbre and approach the overall aesthetic is consistent. The vocals in New Romantic music are non-aggressive, androgynous and are in tune with the camp aesthetics of the genre. This was at a time when sexuality was coming into question with the rise of postmodernism in art and this was reflected in how the lead singers present themselves visually and vocally.
The vocal processing would often involve pre-delay in both mono and stereo at different lengths to thicken the vocal and give it texture and then a big reverb with a long tail. Creating a sound that is thick, wide and bright.
With the lowering price and wider availability of synthesizers, it quickly became a new and exciting way for people to make music. The rise of the synthesizer challenged the guitar as the dominant instrument in popular music. The masculinity of welding it like a weapon throughout the 1970’s rock era was being challenged. The synthesizer, in contrast, does not carry with it the same posturing as the guitar. However, it carries an introspective nature and makes heroes of introverts. The ability to create your own sounds with very little musical knowledge made the synthesizer a template for creating art through sound and was thus embraced by the New Romantics.
The synth was often used to create drum sounds, basslines, string sounds, textures and lead sounds. Basically, any element of the song could be synthesized. As the synthesizer took centre stage many alternative instruments such as viola, clarinet, horns, and xylophone were also used to create simple melodies sometimes with the real instrument and other times with a synthesized version of the sound.
Guitars were often still present and while they were not at the forefront (some bands did not even have a guitar player) when it was used it was used to support the synth either adding a melody that weaves in and out of the synth line or a funky rhythm that sits underneath it and plays against the drums. Chorus, delay, and echo were all popular effects on guitar within the genre and the tone was usually more singular and not the big wall of guitar sound we’d heard in 70’s rock music. The Minimal Approach New Romantics took to the guitar had a lasting effect it can be heard in genres such as Gothic Rock and Indie Pop.
Within the New Romantic genre, bass lines are often played on synth with a warm analog tone. Many bands rather than having a bass player, would have one synth player mainly looking after bass lines to support another synth player playing the other layers. Bands with bass players such as Spandau Ballet or Duran Duran had a much funkier sound. The influence of soul, funk and disco can really be heard in the bass lines of these bands. With the use of finger plucking, slapping and staccato they developed a repetitive yet solid groove. In contrast, Mick Karn of Japan used a fretless bass to play fluid jazzy bass lines with longer notes.
In terms of tone, the fundamental is quite strong and I feel there is a strong boost in the higher mids to give that punch. A fair bit of compression is used within the new romantic genre on Bass to keep a steady pulsing bottom end.
The drum sound in New Romantic music is quite distinctive often incorporating real drums with electronic drums. Duran Duran and Spandau Ballet for example used real drums with some electric drum pads as part of the actual kit, while bands like Depeche Mode or Soft Cell relied more on drum machines. While sometimes bands would have a drum machine playing as the backbeat and then hit real drums just for fills and inflictions. Whether the drums were real or synthetic an electronic sound is present. I think this is due to the heavy processing, using techniques such as gated reverb reversed hits and compression to make the drums sound big and unnatural.
In the early 80’s digital delay, echo, chorus and reverb were all relatively new phenomenons as were synthesizers, drum machines and electric drums. These things were all embraced by the new romantics and some would say even overused. On the contrary, New Romantics were musical pioneers exploring new sonic territory.
The New Romantic era was a time when fresh new ideas and aesthetics were born out of a DIY culture with style and innovation. They extended upon the cultural landscape of the time and left an impact on modern culture that can still be seen today.
Cateforis, T. (2011). Are we not new wave? : modern pop at the turn of the 1980s (Pg 47 - 51, pg 151 - 167).
Harriman, A., & Bontje, H. (2014). Some wear leather, some wear lace : a worldwide compendium of postpunk and goth in the 1980s (pg 14- 21).
Strange, S. (2002). Blitzed!: The Autobiography of Steve Strange.