Cheap Makeup and Big Ideas: ‘Music for New Romantics’

The majority of the music assembled here still sounds brilliantly fresh and strange after all these years, writes Johnny Restall.

Blind nostalgia is a poison, seizing up the limbs and rotting the mind. While the urge to look back is understandable and can be hugely informative, rose-tinted glasses should have no place when the past is revisited. At first glance, the title of Cherry Red’s new 3-CD release Music for New Romantics does not inspire confidence, conjuring images of cut-price supermarket compilations riddled with only the most obvious retro hits. Fortunately, the bland moniker actually stems from a last-minute dispute over the planned name rather than a total lack of inspiration.

Compiled by John Reed with DJ and Blue Rondo á la Turk alumni Chris Sullivan (who also provides the gossipy sleeve notes), the 59-track album celebrates the music played at influential late ’70s/early ’80s clubs such as The Wag in London, Pips in Manchester, and The Rum Runner in Birmingham. Their selection ranges from ’60s kitsch and sleazy glam to industrial electronics and smooth disco.

Although the 3 discs are not individually themed, in general terms the first leans more towards glam and underground ’70s classics, with the second covering icy synthesisers and post-punk, and the third taking things more directly to the dancefloor. Taken together, they paint a picture of the alternative culture that informed the New Romantic scene, seeking to escape the provincial drabness of Britain via a smorgasbord of exotica, European style, new technology, and fashion. Whether many of the bands that grew from the scene actually matched their influences remains debatable; in any case, aside from predictable appearances from Visage and Spandau Ballet, the selections here largely avoid the resulting sounds in favour of their sources.

The opening track, Mott The Hoople’s All the Young Dudes, indirectly acknowledges the compilation’s most noticeable absentee (presumably due to rights issues): the song’s author, David Bowie. His shadow looms over much of the music, as it did over the scene itself, even if his contribution is represented only by writing credits and appearances from Berlin-era Iggy Pop, and his erstwhile collaborator Mick Ronson. The first disc makes its way through the expected likes of Roxy Music and New York Dolls, with unexpected digressions courtesy of Zager & Evans’ beguilingly ludicrous In the Year 2525 and Graces Jones’ La Vie en Rose, still sounding like a wistfully decadent report from the best party you never went to.

The second instalment establishes its tone with Tubeway Army’s gorgeously glacial Down in the Park, before embracing the innovative likes of John Foxx, The Normal, and Throbbing Gristle, with a smattering of gothic post-punk from Siouxsie & The Banshees and Magazine for good measure. The third disc is perhaps the blandest, favouring a surfeit of smooth 80s disco-lite, though there are still highlights from Marianne Faithful, The Associates, and New Order, amongst others.

Sullivan defines the clubs that gave birth to the titular scene as being “about dancing, and dancing well… All you had to be was interesting and interested.” The majority of the music assembled here meets these criteria, with the best moments still sounding brilliantly fresh and strange after all these years. Listeners might quibble about the versions used (with Japan’s Life In Tokyo and Donna Summer’s epically filthy Love to Love You Baby in particular crying out for their full renditions), but only rarely about the quality.

If the compilation has an Achilles’ heel, it is familiarity: the likes of Tom Tom Club’s Genius of Love and The Cure’s A Forest remain wonderful, but do they really need to be anthologised yet again? Most veterans of the era will already own copies of the majority of the songs here, while the context may mean little to newcomers potentially intrigued by the music but indifferent to name-dropping reflections on long-gone club nights. Yet such concerns are perhaps a little churlish; if this album brings new and old fans back to the Kraftwerk-gone-berserk-in-a-sweetshop rush of Moscow Diskow by Telex, or the joys of La Dusseldorf, for example, it will ultimately all have been worthwhile.

❉ ‘Music For New Romantics’ 3CD Clamshell Box Set (Cherry Red CRCDBOX131) is released by Cherry Red Records on 28 October 2022, RRP £22.99. Click here to order from Cherry Red Records.

 Cherry Red Records have been releasing and reissuing the most innovative and independent thinking music since 1978. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.

Johnny Restall writes and draws inky pictures. You can find him on Twitter @johnnyrestall.

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