30MAY24 / Tramps!

The older I get, the more obvious it becomes that for all their (fully justified!) hatred of Thatcher and the state of the UK during her hegemony, the bohemians of the generations immediately prior to my own lived in a time of considerable opportunity—particularly those who made it to London, where squatting was still relatively easy (and pre-gentrification housing stock still plentiful), and where the concomitant reduction in one’s basic outgoings meant that the unemployment benefits of the time could support a combination of artistic practice and low-budget decadent hedonism.

The various faces interviewed for Tramps! are quite candid about this, too, as well as about the “anarchic” nature of comprehensive schooling in the 1960s and 1970s, and the option—almost unthinkable now—of going to art college not just without having to pay any fees, but also getting a maintenance grant on which to survive. A kid of a similar age today, looking back, could be forgiven for feeling some cognitive dissonance: the kids of that era lived loudly in defiance of the prevailing culture, an approach which seemed to be much more the preference of the New Romantic pioneers over anything so crass as the donkey-jackets-and-placards dynamic that existed in parallel to them. But to have the time and the opportunity to live lives of protest or of art—or of some combination of the two—was fairly universal then, at least in terms of the old lines of class; that was less the case for my generation, and must seem almost utopian from the perspective of the present day.

As a Nineties kid, I came up knowing (and hating) the 1980s for being a period of superficiality, of “style” and the artifice of appearances, and it’s interesting to hear these pioneers concede those diagnoses, and discuss them in terms of their inheritance of scenes previous. To hear them tell it, the Blitz scene had a fair amount of continuity with the original core of punk, which existed long before the plastic Sids and Nancies started swarming the King’s Road at the weekends; when punk became a uniform, the scenesters went off in a different direction, one of flamboyance and individuality. This can be seen as something of a retrieval or sustainment of the earlier glam era, and particularly the Bowie/Roxy end thereof.

(We tend to forget—due to, for example, the aforementioned plastic-punk phenomenon—that there is a through-line of queerness in subculture from the long Sixties through to the present: the periods where it seems to disappear are, rather, periods in which it was more successfully papered over or pushed out, only to pop up somewhere else doing something different. File under schismogenesis, I suppose—but then again, that is surely the engine of all scenes.)

Perhaps the one thing that unites all the disparate scenes that have ever existed is the way that anyone who was part of them will always reject the name that the outside world imposed upon it: no one in this film wants to own the label “New Romantic”, and they mostly seem keen to caveat even the connection to the Blitz (which was the name of the club, rather than of the one night a week that Steve Strange ran something they simply called “Bowie night”). This makes me realise that I was never part of a true scene in the pioneering sense that these people were: I was always chasing after identities and looks that the media had already packaged up and sold back to me, using methods which really came into their own during exactly the era under discussion. (There had long been music magazines, of course, but the proto-“style” magazines I-D and The Face were direct products of this scene, installing a much more immediate feedback loop between the street and the Spectacle.)

There’s a whole lot more here that could and should be said, regarding AIDs and Section 28 and heroin and all sorts of other stuff, but I am not only too young but very much too straight to have anything useful or informative to say about any of that. There’s also a lot that could be said about the New Romos representing a very distinct phase in the evolution of the media cyborg—something that we might see as a midway point between the still-distant stardoms of the 1960s and the fifteen-minutes-of-influence era in which we are currently living, and a period during which music was in one sense at its absolute peak as a media system through which Western youth could communicate, but in another sense was already losing its primacy in the media pantheon… but that’s a long-term slow-burn project for another time.

So I’ll end by saying that this doco is well worth a watch even if—as in my case—the New Romantics always felt like your aesthetic antithesis. The specifics of that particular scene are, I would argue, very illustrative not just of their temporal context, but also of the nature of scenes more generally.

It’s a real roster of characters, too.



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One response to “30MAY24 / Tramps!”

  1. […] Paul Graham Raven on the docu TRAMPS! about the end of punk and what came next in British culture. […]

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