Directed by Bruce Ashley and Michael Donald, Blitzed! The 80s Blitz Kids’ Story, released by Pop Twist Entertainment, is a lively, fascinating, and satisfyingly thorough exploration of the emergence and legacy of the iconic club night—Tuesdays at London’s Blitz club, hosted by Steve Strange and Rusty Egan—at the heart of one the defining post-punk British youth culture movements of the 1980s, the New Romantics.
Illustrated with some fantastic film and photographs from back in the day, there’s an impressive raft of new interviews with those who were there, like musicians Boy George, Marilyn, Gary Kemp, Midge Ure, and Andy Polaris, writer and broadcaster Robert Elms, DJ Princess Julia, fashion designer Darla-Jane Gilroy, and costume designer Michele Clapton. While the archive footage is kept dynamic with a great stylistic choice of various split screen formations, the talking head interviews are fun but often reflective, going deeper than pure nostalgia, but capturing a palpable sense of the excitement that was in the air on those nights, with comparisons to the “decadent” nightlife of Weimar Berlin.
One of the things that makes Blitzed! such a rich experience is the time it takes to set the scene of the cultural and social context of post-war London of the late 70s. A time of National Front marches, massive strikes that culminated in the Winter of Discontent of 78-79, the beginnings of Thatcherite austerity, and the communal living of squats. Darla-Jane Gilroy recalls that there was a sense of “no positive future coming for Britain”, while for Boy George there was an element of excitement at seeing the “piles of rubbish” and “burning cars” on the streets of London. As Blitz Kid, and the lead singer of Animal Nightlife, Andy Polaris puts it: “there was a lot of racism, it was homophobic, it was sexist and I suppose if you were a little bit of a freak you had to keep your head down or learn to run fast!”
Robert Elms presents a particularly evocative picture of the arrival of the New Romantics with the fabulously dressed posers out to strut their stuff down the Kings Road in Chelsea, congregating around Malcolm McLaren and Vivienne Westwood’s SEX boutique on a Saturday afternoon, being chased by the Teddy Boys, as the “firework display” that was punk began to fizzle.
Into this grey city with few signs of hope, stepped the ambitious, artistic young things who created the future they wanted for themselves, as the 1970s drew to a close Gary Kemp recalls feeling that him and his friends would find a way to make the next decade about them, “it’s going to be different. It’s going to be in colour.”
One thing that united the Blitz Kids was their mutual adoration for Bowie, and several of the contributors talk about seeing him perform Starman on the BBC’s Top of the Pops back in July 1972—his finger pointing directly to the kids glued to their television sets that Thursday evening—as being a defining moment that helped shaped their identities. According to Elms, Bowie “comes on and the world changes”, for him that appearance heralded a change from “black and white post-war bombsite London into this incredible multicolour genderfluid future.”
Having befriended each other on the Kings Road, in 1978 Rusty Egan—an engaging raconteur in the film—and Steve Strange (the house guest that never left) decided to find a venue for a weekly club night to invite their friends, St Martins College fashion students, and like-minded creative types along to. Billed as a Bowie night, they’d play the music they wanted to dance to that nowhere else was playing, like Siouxsie and the Banshees, Roxie Music, and Kraftwerk. Charging 50p to get in, they initially ran the night at a divey gay Soul club under a brothel, Billy’s in Soho, with Rusty DJing and Steve Strange on the door; roles they’d go on to reprise when the night moved venues across the West End the following year to Covent Garden’s Blitz Club, with decor celebrating wartime 40s London, including red Gingham tablecloths.
While Studio 54 was the epitome of New York nightlife at that time, across the pond Strange and Egan took that club’s notoriously strict door policy and created a far more intimate, inclusive, protected space for like-mined folks to express themselves and demonstrate the creativity required to produce a fabulous outfit every week on no budget. It was an underground music and fashion scene that went on to inspire the mainstream, even what Princess Diana was wearing in the early 80s, and filled the charts with pop stars that were either Blitz Kids or influenced by them.
Dedicated to the memory of Steve Strange who passed away in 2015, the film includes some great archive footage that conveys a sense of the man and his passion for what he’d created, including a TV interview of him talking about what it takes to be let into the club; “it’s about fashion. You’ve got to have a look to get through the door.”
Blitzed! does briefly touch on the darker side of the nightlife scene, the drugs that were around that cut some promising careers and lives short, but it doesn’t dwell on that aspect for too long, instead focusing on the Blitz as a sanctuary and playground for creativity and expression. “Everyone was playing games with their sexuality, their clothing, their identity” Robert Elms tells us, while Marilyn recalls “everyone was doing everyone else”, though he jokingly claims not to have been a part of all that.
Boy George, who had a stint working in the cloakroom before one too many incidents of stealing (he freely admits to “topping up his wages”), remembers the challenge of getting past Steve Strange on the door because of their on-again, off-again rivalry/friendship and was often in awe of the fabulous looks that Strange crafted for himself. For George, it was ultimately the music that Rusty was playing that was more important than anything else—which inspired him personally as club DJ—and what unified the Blitz Kids was their “resistance of the norm”.
Although the Blitz Kids weren’t conventionally political according George, he muses “sometimes being yourself is the most political act you can ever commit; saying this is what I am unapologetically: I’m queer and I’m not depressed about it!” The phenomenon of young men posting underwear selfies on Instagram today, as far as George sees is, is down to Blitz Kids like himself who were “the forerunners of a man’s right to be pretty”. Another of those forerunners, Marilyn, talks about the genesis of his identity, turning it from a school corridor taunt to pop stardom. According to Kemp, if you asked Marilyn what his real name was at the Blitz, his reply would always be, “Norma Jeane”.
One of the highlights of Blitzed! comes with the varying descriptions from the talking heads about the night that the Blitz was anointed by David Bowie’s presence. For Elms it was as if they were being visited by a “deity”. Boy George’s testimony that he was the only Blitz Kid who managed to keep his cool is contracted by one contributor, while another warns the filmmakers that people will likely say that they were there that night when they weren’t. One Blitz Kid who definitely was there was Darla-Jane Gilroy, who recalls the thrill of being approached by Bowie to appear in his Ashes to Ashes video along with Steve Strange.
For Strange the night was diverging too far from its origins when Mick Jagger arrived at the door, so he didn’t let the Rolling Stone in. With increased media exposure the night started to become a victim of its own success, with suburbanites playing dress up filling the dance-floor. The club’s impact though has continued for decades after Egan and Strange’s last night at the Blitz in 1980.
One of the first bands to embody and reflect the Blitz Kids scene was Spandau Ballet, who got signed after appearing at the club, and there’s some great early archive footage of them rehearsing and performing, while Steve Strange went on to join Visage with Rusty Egan and Midge Ure, scoring a mega hit with Fade to Grey, and the likes of Boy George’s Culture Club and Marylin climbed the 80s charts.
Touching on the influence that the Blitz Kids still have today, one of the talking heads who wasn’t even born until 1988, is Grammy-winning synthpop act La Roux. Personally, my favourite London club night of the 00s, where I walked in and felt like I’d found my tribe, was DJ and promoter Jodie Harsh’s weekly Friday night Circus at Soho Revue Bar, a mix of music and distinctive looks that was both of the moment and harked back to those iconic Tuesday nights at the Blitz quarter of a century before.
A substantial, inspiring work about a legendary club night that was an integral part of a youth culture movement that helped shaped more open attitudes towards sexuality, and continues to have an impact on fashion, music, and beyond.
By James Kleinmann
Blitzed! The 80s Blitz Kids’ Story, released by Pop Twist Entertainment, had its UK broadcast premiere on Sky Arts.