Think of the New Romantics and you might picture Spandau Ballet, covered in resplendent ruffles, taking to the stage for one of their early shows in Blitz.
The infamous club night, which took over a Covent Garden wine bar bang in the middle of two London art schools (St Martins and Central) once a week, held entire events dedicated to David Bowie and Roxy Music, and is often credited with spawning an entire subculture. Reacting against the brutal nihilism of punk, the so-called Blitz kids began rocking up in garish, homemade outfits and space-age makeup, before being scrutinised by the club’s notoriously picky doorman – Visage vocalist Steve Strange. In 1980 the Daily Mirror ran the piece that immortalised the movement: “Blitz Kids Let Their Hair Up”, blared the headline.
Wrenching off the rose-tinted glasses, Kevin Hegge’s new documentary TRAMPS! – which closes this year’s BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival – is much more interested in the misfits on the fringes, who either got turned away from Blitz, or rarely bothered going in the first place. “People love reminiscing and glorifying the past, and oh, wasn’t it fabulous at The Blitz,” is how designer and socialite Philip Sallon puts it in the opening credits. “Oh please!” “Bowie night [AKA Strange’s night at The Blitz] was about six or seven people getting drunk,” deadpans filmmaker and DJ Jeffrey Hinton.
Accordingly, TRAMPS! has little interest in existing as a nostalgia piece. Far from wallowing in a romanticised version of some lost golden era, and despairing of ‘kids today’, many of the interviewees featured in the film are incredibly honest about the immense challenges faced by young artists 40-odd years on. While the creatives who feature in the film had space to develop their avant-garde practices by living in squats or claiming dole, artists today are mostly self-funded. The cost of failure is staggering now; risk means danger rather than creative freedom.
“The element of consequence changes things,” says director Kevin Hegge. “We’re talking about [the New Romantics] living in squats, in this time period of having grants to go to art school. All those things have provided a framework for them to live without that sense of consequence, pre-AIDS. Now, kids don’t have the option to be without consequence unless they’re privileged.”
“It was always about creating a timeless conversation between art makers past and present,” he says. “A lot of my questions were like: ‘Why are you an artist?’ What kind of psychopath would choose this as a lifestyle? It’s completely unsustainable and precarious. It was this selfish kind of thing, where I just wanted them to say something would make me feel better,” Hegge laughs. When he sat down to speak to the likes of influential club DJ Princess Julia, legendary model and muse Scarlett Cannon, and David Holah and Stevie Stewart (founders of the groundbreaking fashion label Bodymap) all the conversations took place in their homes or studios. “I wanted to do something really intimate, because so much of the New Romantics was about poise, posture and performance,” he says. “I love a bit of rock and roll mythology, but with TRAMPS! I wanted it to be the opposite. It was important to be in people’s homes.”
Hegge originally met Princess Julia and Jeffrey Hinton at BFI Flare back in 2013, when the early strands of the film were beginning to form into a coherent idea. Hinton had just put on a show at the National Portrait Gallery featuring scores of personal photographs from his time living in the Warren Street squat where many of the other New Romantics lived, and, once back in Toronto, Hegge began delving into the other artists who mingled and created in the enormous abandoned property. As he searched everywhere for footage of shows by Michael Clark – a top student at the Royal Ballet School who became known for choreographing playful, avant-garde ballets – Hegge realised there was little out there documenting his early work, and reached out to Hinton. All of the footage had been lost during a police raid on a storage space, and a destructive fire. “It just seemed like an omen,” he says. Soon, Hegge realised the importance of tracking down as many people on the New Romantic scene as possible, and documenting their stories.
Though he’s based in Toronto, Hegge has long been fascinated by the bold, counter-culture movements of London, and the visual nature of the New Romantics. While the first wave of punk was brutal and concrete-hued, all safety-pins and spiked up tendrils of scorched peroxide hair, this bright new offshoot was centred on strut and style; Neil Tennant (who would later join Pet Shop Boys) once argued that the ‘80s scene was “like punk never happened”. Hegge, meanwhile, sees the New Romantics as a newer offshoot of punk: sharing similar DIY values but pushing forward into equally radical territory. Bands like Ultravox, Soft Cell and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark all take the juggernaut pulse of punk rock to a gaudier, more theatrical place; their music drips with a delicious sense of melodrama.
Though their observations didn’t quite make the final cut, Hegge still thinks about a theory put forward by Princess Julia and producer and DJ Mark Moore. “By the time punk rock got a name and was on TV, all of the original punk rockers were into Gary Newman. Kraftwerk[‘s electronic experimentation] was possible. There was this constant change. By the time people put on a leather jacket, we were already dressed like robots.”
Today, certain interviews take on a poignancy. In making TRAMPS! Hegge met with cult post-pop artist Duggie Fields, and the legendary punk designer Judy Blame. Since filming for the documentary, both artists have passed away. Ahead of sitting down for filmed conversations, Fields first met Hegge in an old-fashioned diner near his home in Earls Court, and schooled the director on “builders tea and all these classically British breakfast things”. Notoriously elusive, Blame invited Hegge to his studio in Dalston.
“When we arrived, he went ‘Oh, you finally got me…’ “He was smoking a cigarette, and I went to hug him. It didn’t happen,” he laughs.
“There wasn’t much out there about Judy Blame’s work, or [boutique design studio] The House of Beauty and Culture and all the other things he was involved in. Our initial interviews were really exciting because they were exposing these entire histories. We talked about mortality so much in [Blame’s] interview, and it’s something I’m still reflecting on.”
Elsewhere, TRAMPS! also highlights the notable absence of certain figures of the scene who all died from AIDS-related illnesses – including Derek Jarman, Leigh Bowery, John Crancher, Vaughn Toulouse, and Ray Petri – and mourns the incredible artists unable to tell their own stories.
TRAMPS! is dedicated to the late Judy Blame, and in some ways the salacious, irreverent artist who broke down boundaries and shook up punk into new shapes feels like its narrator. A film about survival under a right-wing government, and the unshakeable impulse to make art in the first place, this might be a story about a past era, but the struggles this band of misfits faced back then feel just as relevant 40 years later.