Hard Times

September, 1982: Every kid is a dressed-up kid, every home has a hipster. This is A Tale Of Hard Times.

To celebrate the long-awaited return of The Face, we have selected a stand-out story from each year of our extensive archive, from 1980 to 2004.

Remembered by writer Robert Elms

“I went in and gave this spiel to Nick Logan about this amazing scene: ‘Look: all that colour and everything that everyone knows about New Romantics has changed.’ At that stage, people thought everyone in London nightclubs were wearing ruffs and frills and dancing to electronic music. I was 22, and I had fairly good antennae. Thatcherism was really kicking in, and you could just feel this change in the air. And in the trousers. My ‘research’ came from being out every single night in London. The thing that was best about The Face was that it was written, photographed and designed by the people who were there. It was never outsiders looking in. It was insiders looking out. The actual cover is my friend Lee Barrett who was Sade’s manager, and the Levi’s he’s wearing were mine. The writing is fantastically preposterous, but also quite on the money. I mean, it is very arrogant – ‘read this twice because you might not get it’ – and not too many people are going to let you get away with that. But if it was good, Nick would let you get away with that stuff. That was his genius as an editor. I think genuinely the biggest reaction to the Hard Times cover being published is that within about a month there were jeans with rips and holes cut in them on sale in High Street shops – and there have been ever since! Then there were lots of people who were like: ‘Wow, a great bit of writing.’ And then there were others who said: ‘You pretentious twat.’ They were probably both right.”

Robert Elms is a writer and broadcaster. For 25 years he has been presenting a daily show on BBC Radio London. His latest book is London Made Us: A Memoir of a Shape-Shifting City (Canongate)

A SET OF PRELIMINARY ASSUMPTIONS

Bear with me for a while, this first bit may be hard but it is important. Read it twice if you have to because there is something that you are going to have to grasp before we can go any further. And that is the notion that Youth Culture now represents not a rebellion but a tradition, or rather a series of traditions that date back to the advent of the teenager and continue to grow along a compound continuum of action and reaction.

Imagine a spiral that begins with a birth out of affluence and post-war liberation and moves through time propelled by its own mythology and its own contrariness and is affected by technology and whimsy and economics. It is cyclical, but the circle is never completed because it is also evolutionary, therefore patterns repeat but they are never quite the same.

Now you must also accept that there is no such thing as a “generation gap” anymore; how can you rebel against the generation of Coltrane or Brando or Macinnes? What we have is a heritage that you can draw succour and inspiration from, and there’s those who do and those who don’t. That’s the only gap.

In the mid-Seventies there was really only Northern Soul with its sparse, functional uniform, its £30 singles and its clenched fist plea to keep the faith which kept alive the tradition of a mobile, underground lifestyle that demanded commitment and pledged enjoyment. But in recent years we’ve experienced a dramatic revival in the colour and clamour of what was once called Youth Culture but is now in drastic need of redefinition.

Right now every kid is a dressed-up kid, every home has a hipster. Just how that occurred and where it’s all leading takes us neatly into A Tale Of Hard Times.

It’s more than just a feeling now, more definite than the presence of denim where once was silk; it’s definitely a cycle reasserting itself, but we’ll return to that much later.

Suffice to say things are changing. What began as a desire to shed the clinging, depressive old skin of post-punk monotony and replace it with a set of bold, bright new clothes is slowly evolving into an entrenched, die-hard mentality where Good Times is replaced by Money’s Too Tight (To Mention). But the dancing at least doesn't stop.

It’s still easiest to describe as a hardening of attitude. Somehow the atmosphere when you walk into a club today is different; gay abandon has evolved into a clenched teeth determination where precious lager cans are cradled to stop them disappearing and sweat has replaced cool as the mark of a face.

Surely everybody knows by now that it was never a chintzy, cocktail set whirl of debs’ do’s. That only ever existed in the minds of a paranoid rock press and the parties of a few Funkapolitan flunkies. But misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the kind that labelled those who wanted to dress and dance as “little Lord Fauntleroys” and even “escapist middle-class fascists” turned too often into self-fulfilling prophecy as too many people got the wrong end of the stick and then toyed with it.

“Levi’s worn into holes, sweatshirts serving their purpose, leather dominating everything”

But if we take a look at how things stand right now, literally take a look, you’ll see that clothes at least are definitely getting harder. Ubiquitous Levi’s worn into holes, sweatshirts serving their purpose and losing their sleeves, leather dominating everything; sandblasted for effect if you’re rich and Italian, genuinely old and ragged if you’re not. Leather caps, leather jerkins, big boots or no socks and espadrilles. Trousers are getting tighter, T-shirts ripped and torn.

The reference points are numerous but the look is new. Brando on a motorbike in the American Fifties that never made Happy Days. There’s the ever present rockabilly input only now pink pegs have made way for stained drainpipes and checked shirts have been ripped to shreds. A touch of bolshevism here and there with flat caps and red flags, still a glimpse of beatnik ankles and shades, and an awful lot of macho gay icons. And what you have is London in the winter of 1976.

Fashion has always had its own very internalised mechanism of change based on action and reaction; you know, someone wears something, so everyone else wears it, so he wears something else. But in recent times that process has been speeded up to an almost indecent pace by a media that’s been alerted to the fact that something’s going on and is more than willing to tell everybody. And indeed the latest change was a reaction against scores of kids in their grandfather’s suits and their mother’s makeup, against idiot dancers on Top Of The Pops dressed up in cast-offs from Auntie's last pantomime, a reaction against Bucks Fizz dressed as New Romantics and Pete Shelley in a suit.

Sure, suits followed frills and jeans followed suits because that’s the way things happen, but it is more, it’s a sign of the times if you like. For a start it’s all very functional: hot funk in crowded clubs makes a mess of any designs that lean towards dandyism. If you go to the Beat Route on a Friday you sweat. Perhaps that’s one of the places we really ought to visit.

At the moment there’s two definite trends at work in London after eleven o’clock, and if you’re looking for examples, one of them resides at The Palace and one at the Beat Route. The Camden Palace, hugely popular, glossy, efficient, is the equivalent of ABC; taking the ingredients that have added the spice to the last couple of years, dressing it up nicely and selling it to a million, smiling consumers. ABC and The Palace both bear impressive witness to the fact that a wholesale revitalisation of mainstream pop culture has resulted from the natural tendencies of a few dancers in the wilderness. Steve Strange very genuinely hosts evenings of good honest entertainment where bank clerks mingle with milky bar dreads and everybody believes they’re in Studio 54 for a night.

But just as ABC soon dropped their original “Radical Dance Faction” tag, so The Palace is just a disco. They are both signs that England has been turned into a swinging place again, both signs that the oh-so derided attitude which reemerged in places like the Blitz a few years ago has had a much wider influence than many people like to admit. There is a new orthodoxy now, but there is also a new front line.

“It’s 15 year olds and 35 year olds dancing defiant steps side by side”

The Beat Route has been going for more than a year now; some say it’s not what it was, but it has certainly played its part. Its uncompromising, often uncomfortable atmosphere has kept away painted faces and prying eyes so things have had the rare luxury of time to develop. What has emerged is a more aggressive hedonism where sex and dancing and stimulants represent a back-against-the-wall defiance. The Beat Route attracts people from all over the country, and the age range is right across the board. That’s vital, this whole new feel isn’t just that of a new generation: that concept simply doesn’t apply anymore. It’s 15 year olds and 35 year olds dancing defiant steps side by side. People who’ve learnt to dance to Gil Scott-Heron have learnt that age doesn’t mean a thing.

But there’s also a dark side, victims of an all-out lifestyle. For some hedonism has turned to cheap heroin as depression creates one of its ugliest panaceas. But just as hard times leave scars on some, so others become hard enough to beat it.

Just as the idea for once-a-week clubs where you use their space to create your environment originally rose out of a black soul boy tradition of warehouse parties where you literally do everything yourself, so The Palaces and the Ultrateques which cater six nights a week for the new electropop creamed off the ideas and the energy which arose out of the once-a-week clubs, to stuff the pockets of financiers. So, young and old, those who really care, move back to warehouses and create their own space. Enter the Dirtbox.

The increase in the number of warehouse parties of late is a sure sign that something is happening, and the other thing happening is the Dirtbox: a tradition builds upon itself.

Situated above a chemist in Earls Court, the Dirtbox will almost definitely have ceased to exist by the time you read this. But its policy of £1.50 entry, bring your own drink in a cramped claustrophobic room with a fan, some settees and a sound system produced a series of wild nights. All organised by two decidedly post-Blitz kids and DJ’d by a rockabilly who shopped in Sex before the Pistols did. Built to self-destruct, it bore all the hallmarks of the times, dancing on the edge of illegality. They’ve already got another place to move to: move fast, hit hard guerilla tactics. I may be getting a bit romantic, but the Dirtbox is a return to the soul. Now that's a word for the times.

Just as mainstream pop culture becomes more and more produced, safer, predictably bright and danceable, so the reaction occurs. The spiral moves on by looking back, looking for some roots, searching for a little soul in a soulless world.

If Kevin Rowland is still searching for soul rebels then now is the time when he could just find them. For just as people will now draw selectively from the wardrobes of the past, so they’ll live and learn from a musical heritage that stretches right back. The immature, myopic desire to reject things because of their age has been resigned to an acned past. Soul is about depth and it’s the new rebels with torn jeans who are digging deep.

Jazz, soul, funk, rockabilly, cajun. You can now go out for a night and hear The Last Poets, Gil Scott-Heron, King Pleasure, Ann Peebles, Warren Smith, Clifton Chenier. Culture Club, quite simply, aren’t all that’s going on. Music no longer plays a central and really rather damning role in everybody’s lives. It has its place, and that place is filled from as wide a source as possible.

And just as looking back has led to a “discovery” of neglected talents, so looking forward has meant Shoot The Pump, How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise?, Money’s Too Tight To Mention. Hard sounds when everybody else wants to sound like Dollar. Without the likes of Steve Lewis some of the best records of the last two years would have gone almost unnoticed. Steve Lewis is a political man. That’s another topic.

Political awareness is a personal thing, but everybody who can feel is feeling pain right now. People are getting angrier, the optimism that once led to bluff and bravado is now an optimism that you’ll be able to hold on, an optimism that you can defy and you can dance. An awful lot of the music is directly political, but it isn’t The Clash: listen to Curtis Mayfield and see how deep politics can go. Political awareness now runs deep indeed. Robert Wyatt is a star on the scene.

Northern Soul is spinning quietly back, old unemployed steelworkers next to young unemployed school leavers. Jazz both here and in America is beginning to mean jazz again; Wynton Marsalis at 20 years old playing bebop to teach us all. Funk and soul are finally creeping back into the funk and soul racks where once lay little but forgeries. And in Britain black leather and torn jeans are walking the streets again.

Punk is now part of the heritage. In 1976 a small offshoot of the club scene broke away from bright clothes and increasingly bland music to become something angrier, something wilder. Things are changing again only this time we know a lot more than three chords. With any luck there’s even harder times ahead.

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