Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Sweet Dreams: The Story of the New Romantics'

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Dylan Jones's 'Sweet Dreams.'
Dylan Jones's 'Sweet Dreams: The Story of the New Romantics.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

In Caspar David Friedrich's 1818 painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, a well-dressed hiker looks out across an evocative landscape. His back to the viewer, his mop of curly hair blowing in the wind, he seems to be contemplating which of the infinite paths before him his future will take.

It became an iconic image of the Romantic movement in 19th century culture, with its grand sweep and emphasis on individual expression. Any number of popular music movements have drawn on Romantic principles, but the New Romantics went further in most in adopting the Romantic dress code.

What did a New Romantic look like? Think of a refined decadence that was knowing, but not campy. Frilled shirts, certainly. Fine jackets and trousers, yes. Hair? Big, styled, asymmetrical. Face? Made up, darling. The peak New Romantic flex recounted in Dylan Jones's massive new history of the movement may have come when Steve Strange, showrunner and doorman at the Blitz nightclub — defining hub of the burgeoning New Romantic scene — turned Mick Jagger away for wearing sneakers.

With 680 pages, Jones can afford to both zero in on the movement's origins and pull back to take in its vast diaspora. Sweet Dreams starts at the Blitz — a teenage Boy George manning coat check, Sade ordering a martini at the bar — and ends at Live Aid.

The book is an apt companion piece to Michelangelo Matos's Can't Slow Down, and despite the books' differences — U.S. versus U.K., one year versus ten — it's striking how they agree that the mid-1980s, and if you had to pick a year 1985, and if you had to pick a day July 13, marked the end of a golden era in popular music and pop culture.

It's further striking how this perspective is shared by writers covering disparate fields. For example, writer Mark O'Connell calls the years from 1975 to about 1985 the "watching skies" era in movie blockbusters: Jaws to Goonies. For Jones, that's the Sweet Dreams era. In both cases, the latter '70s laid a foundation for the explosion of the first half of the '80s, when it seemed nothing in popular culture could be too big, too colorful, or too optimistic. As Matos notes, when we think of "the '80s" in popular memory, we're really thinking of 1984.

Once we're talking about Prince and Madonna, are we really still talking about the Blitz? Absolutely, argues Jones: look at that frilly shirt Prince made iconic in Purple Rain. Look at Madonna's lacy gloves. Most of all, look at how unashamedly pop both of them were, how hungry they both were for mass adoration. For Prince and Madonna (in 1984, at least), credibility didn't hinge on inaccessibility or insider approbation, it hinged on being absolutely, colossally, undeniably, popular. Being rich and famous wasn't a liability, it was a validation.

Sweet Dreams both begins and ends with thoughtful considerations of the seeming irony of that stance. Madonna's recognized as a feminist pathbreaker; Prince broke color lines (as did Michael Jackson). Boy George and David Bowie brought gender-bending into the mainstream. The enduring frisson of New Romantic movement was how it rode the longing for big dreams and high hopes that Ronald Reagan (and, in her less charismatic way, Margaret Thatcher) identified — but it didn't harness those dreams to the same means. The New Romantic aesthetic was tightly linked to yuppie consumerism, Jones makes no bones, but in the New Romantics' eyes that was empowering. If Gordon Gekko could have a sharp suit, why not Annie Lennox?

Oh, okay...Duran Duran could dress nice too. That quartet emerge as the happy-go-lucky icebreakers of the New Romantic movement: maybe a little boring for a generation dialed in to Krautrock, but undeniably talented and just too damned amiable to hate. In the early chapters chronicling the New Romantics' split from punk, likability emerges as a dominant theme, with Sex Pistols mastermind Malcolm McLaren sulkily acknowledging the pop performers' point. Punk had come and gone...what was next? Even John Lydon could only stay Rotten for so long.

No one does pop subcultures like Britain, and much of Sweet Dreams — particularly the first third of the massive volume culled from original interviews and published accounts, with Jones's own observations copiously interpolated — tracks the finer points of what neighborhoods were happening, what shops were hopping, what jeans were ripped. For close observers of the scene, that will all be invaluable documentation and fascinating discussion.

For the rest of us, the key takeaway is that the New Romantics appreciated the punks' insistence that young artists throw off the shackles of the establishment and channel the subversive energy that music could still transmit, but saw the punk aesthetic as a dead end — and one that was exclusive to boot. When the Sex Pistols shared a bill with Talking Heads, the New Romantics knew what side they were on.

How, precisely, that would look and sound was the question...but it seemed preordained that David Bowie would be a key part of the answer. While the scope of Bowie's legacy has never been in doubt, Sweet Dreams amplifies it by making clear just how directly his shape-shifting art of the early '70s influenced the New Romantics. If you were booked for a DJ set at the Blitz and you showed up with nothing but David Bowie albums, you'd be fine.

While Bowie could be catty about just how direct some of the younger artists' homages were (when asked by a reporter which of his own recent songs he liked best, he shaded Gary Numan by answering "Cars"), he provided crucial blessing to the movement while leveraging its ascendance to inaugurate the most commercially successful phase of his own career: the "Ashes to Ashes" music video, from 1980, stars Strange and a collection of Blitz regulars, walking along the beach with Bowie in his sad-clown suit.

They were crying all the way to the bank, even as they cast Major Tom aside: the counterculture had become the culture. Duran Duran opened for Bowie on his Serious Moonlight Tour, and the icon's Labyrinth look in 1986 provided perhaps the single most enduring image of high New Romanticism.

While Jones's close attention to the finer points of the Second British Invasion — Numan versus Adam Ant, Spandau Ballet versus Ultravox, Wham! versus Tears for Fears — will only be of interest to superfans, anyone who loves pop music will appreciate the book's nuanced explanation of how New Romanticism worked on record, on video, and in the clubs. That is, how the surface polish of a synth-driven genre that celebrated smooth ballads and studio sheen could coexist with a more revolutionary agenda.

Take Sade. If you don't associate Sade with the New Romantics, that may be because she was so far ahead of her time that her understated elegance anticipated the '90s and even the 2000s as much as the '80s, but in fact she and her band (also named Sade) came straight out of the Blitz, and their sound reflected the same predilection for platinum balladry that underlaid the best-known songs of Yazoo ("Only You") and Spandau Ballet ("True"). Jones calls Sade a "designer pop group, a band who dared to whisper about the good life, the thread of the exotic." Elegance and finery wasn't just for country clubbers, the New Romantics argued: it was also for nightclubbers, including those whose color, gender, and/or sexual orientation might have barred them from country club membership.

If anything gets short shrift in Sweet Dreams, it's the actual music — as opposed to the fashion and the politics. Still, Jones makes a notable contribution to elucidating how the patently artificial, by nature robotic sounds of synths and drum machines could evoke a punk aesthetic. (In Glitter Up the Dark, Sasha Geffen notes that robots aren't gendered, making synths fit for a freer exploration of identity.)

Bands developed loving relationships with their cranky electronics; while New Order hoped they could essentially just hit play on "Blue Monday" and go cash in their drink tickets, it never seemed to quite work out that way in practice. "If there is one piece of equipment that has a special place in my heart," says the band's Stephen Morris, "it's the drum machine that we did 'Blue Monday' on: the Oberheim DMX drum machine...You can fall on it, kick it, and it'll still sound like Prince."

The book's U.K. perspective helps U.S. readers situate this music, which seemed as wondrous and otherworldly to we '80s kids as the music of the first British Invasion did to our parents in the '60s. GQ managing editor George Chesterton, for example, is wonderful on "(Keep Feeling) Fascination" from the Human League, whose synth sheen and impeccable looks accompanied the heart of a bar band — one that, characteristic of the era, channeled classic pop R&B into a new aesthetic.

Even the lyrics, consciously or otherwise, allude to this incongruity: that synth pop from the English regions and forgotten industrial towns (the bane of every music-loving parent who'd grown up in the sixties) had a meaningful relationship with its forbears. "Just looking for a new direction in an old familiar way," they sing. Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall's vocals were wondrous precisely because it was what the girls in your school sounded like when they sang along to it. Every time I saw Sulley's blonde flick on the head of a supermarket checkout girl or through a hairdreser's window, I thought of her and of what her group meant.

Sweet dreams, indeed. That song, of course, also makes it into the book: a timeless classic of the era, initially banged out by Eurythmics' Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart on dueling keyboards. As the band members recount to Jones, the song's present-day association with S&M is well and good, but has little to do with its origin. The song's lyrics, explains Stewart, came out of a frustrating personal and professional situation where the duo were trying to find a place in a cookie-cutter music industry.

"Sweet Dreams" became their breakout hit, revealing that '80s audiences were ready for dark and challenging pop coming from the lips of a singer who challenged norms regarding how a woman would act, dress, and sing. It also reflected the restless dynamics of a band who hit their professional stride just as they ended their personal romantic relationship.

"'Sweet dreams are made of this' is basically me saying, 'Look at the state of us. How can it get worse?'" explains Lennox. "It's about surviving the world. It's not a normal song so much as a weird mantra that goes round and round, but somehow it became our theme song...I wore a suit in the video, with my cropped hair. I was trying to be the opposite of the cliché of the female singer. I wanted to be as strong as a man, equal to Dave and perceived that way."

Some sweet dreams, happily, do come true.

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

January 28: Me and Sister Bobbie: True Tales of the Family Band by Willie and Bobbie Nelson (buy now)

February 4: The Meaning of Soul: Black Music and Resilience Since the 1960s by Emily J. Lordi

February 11: The Big Life of Little Richard by Marc Ribowsky

February 18: Black Diamond Queens: African American Women and Rock and Roll by Maureen Mahon


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