Words Chris Sullivan
Photography Derek Ridgers
“If you didn’t look the part, you were not getting in and that was that. Everyone always goes on about the time I turned away Mick Jagger, but what the fuck did he have to do with our scene?”
“Looking back, what’s most remarkable is how young we all were,” explained the late Steve Strange in conversation with me over a drink or ten in 2014. “We were all 19 or 20, just kids, and none of us knew what we were doing or had any plan. We all just made it up as we went along and ended up influencing the whole world. All we wanted was a haven where all of us individuals could be ourselves and dress as we wanted without the threat of violence from those who didn’t get it!”
The refuge Steve spoke of was provided, of course, by his legendary Tuesday night soirée at The Blitz Club in Holborn that began in 1979. Even though it lasted for less than 18 months, it became world famous, launched a million shoulder pads, spawned the electro and New Romantic movements and changed the face of clubbing, fashion and the pop charts forever.
I’d known Steve since the mid-Seventies. We both grew up in South Wales and went to clubs together. In those days, ‘Steve Strange’ was plain old Steven Harrington, whose mum had a greasy spoon café and lived in a council house at the top of a hill. Consequently, I was at the Blitz every week and witnessed, first-hand, this remarkable gathering where London’s sharpest young artists, stylists, musicians, art students, eccentrics and faces hung out – all wearing outfits that had not been seen in any one time and place ever before. It looked like my imagined version of the Universal Studios canteen in Hollywood circa 1960: you would, on any given night, see people dressed as 1950s bikers, cowboys, Edwardians, swashbuckling pirates, femme fatales, Robin Hoods, futurists and even the odd gaucho thrown in for good measure.
“But It was definitely not fancy dress,” stresses Michele Clapton, Blitz diehard and now costume designer for Game of Thrones. “Your outfit required integrity. I remember a boy from my college who was so desperate to go, but when I saw him exiting the tube wearing a ludicrous white sheet and hideous make up I was mortified and disappeared, as I knew I couldn’t take someone looking like that in with me.”
And that was the point. This scene was not for part-timers. Not only were you expected to be individual, you were applauded for being so. “We dressed like that all the time and used to experiment with different looks, coming up with something new every Tuesday,” recalls Princess Julia, who worked the cloakrooms from day one and was the scene’s main female face. “We’d make our outfits out of stuff we found, dressed up as we’d always dreamed of doing, and went out! The whole scene was like a big, mad adventure, with everyone just having the best time imaginable. My favourite was the Neo Naturist night. Grayson Perry was there, and Christine Binnie walking around naked and painted all over, while the writer Iain R Webb was on a crucifix on the stage. That really didn’t happen anywhere else.”
Indeed, everything was novel, including the soundtrack provided by DJ Rusty Egan, which included glam rock, brand new imported electro from the likes of Kraftwerk, Gina X, Telex, and The Yellow Magic Orchestra and the obligatory David Bowie and Iggy Pop. “A metronomic beat was the sound of the Blitz,” testifies BBC London presenter and Blitz regular Robert Elms. “Punk had been about guitars, but this was synthesisers.”
“I’d source records from Europe,” recalls Egan. “For me Europe and Japan were making better music than the American music in the charts. It was stylish, decadent, and futuristic.” Yet, it was not without humour. You’d spend all week getting a fresh look together from jumble sales and charity shops and step out to the admiration of your peers, who’d marvel at how you’d managed to take the tube to the venue without acquiring a black eye. In short, it was all a bit of a grin, a perilous game of one-upmanship where the stakes were rather high, bashing up the weirdo being a rather popular street sport at the time. On one occasion a gang of about a dozen Arsenal thugs stormed through the club only to receive the pasting of their lives and retreat accordingly. Lest we forget, many of the crowd were rather tough, straight chaps who’d fought the punk versus Teddy boy wars a few years before and could certainly hold their own.
Apart from the odd skirmish, The Blitz was a constant, guaranteed, dyed-in-the-wool hoot, at times hilarious and never banal. The prescribed diet was as much alcohol as one could afford before going in, combined with a few ‘speckled blues’, the strychnine-laced amphetamine tablets once known as Purple Hearts that were potent enough to make a cabbage carouse. As a rule, most everyone was off their gourd and the resulting bacchanal could be described as memorable – if we hadn’t all been too caned to remember any of it.
“What I do remember,” attests ace face Christos Tolera, “was that it was a very mixed gay/straight crowd who really did not care about your sexuality. It just was not an issue. What we all had in common was that we were ourselves, with no compromise – and that was the only agenda.” Undeniably, the Blitz was a sanctuary for the idiosyncratic, including the likes of Kim Bowen, Steven Linard, Pinkietessa, Philip Sallon, Fiona Dealey and George O’Dowd, who was the cloakroom boy for a short while. A mad, barking celebration of British recalcitrance that began during the aftermath of punk, it was created for those whose middle name was excess and for whom punk was just too bland.
Prior to Mr Strange’s input, the Blitz had been a bog-standard wine bar in Great Queens Street on the Holborn/Covent Garden border. Decorated in a style befitting a venue named after one of the greatest horrors ever to befall London, it was replete with 1940s tin signs for Bovril, Woodbine cigarettes and Typhoo Tea, and framed wartime newspapers festooned its walls. Initially, it was the watering hole for the ‘older’ crowd such as Steph Raynor and Helen Robinson, who now owned PX in Covent Garden, where Princess Julia and Steve Strange worked a day job. The latter toddled up after work, was told Tuesdays were free and so transferred his regular Tuesday Bowie night at Billy’s on Meard Street in Soho to The Blitz – and the rest is history.
Billy’s was really where it all began. Strange had taken the night over from puppeteer David Claridge (who was also Roland Rat and started Skin 2), installed Egan as DJ, and created a scene that went through the roof. In truth, Billy’s was smelly, sleazy and full of hookers, so after Vince, the six-foot-six proprietor, gave Strange and Egan a hard time, they left.
“Billy’s became really busy and we were turning away more people than we could let in,” clarified Strange. “Then the owner – who was reputedly a pimp and a gangster and definitely someone you didn’t want to piss off – started bringing more and more of his prostitutes in for a look, which left little room for our crowd, and became really difficult with our money. So, I thought, that’s it, and closed the night down. Really nasty threats of violence followed. Rusty scarpered off to Germany and I found the Blitz, which was a Godsend!”
Undeniably. It was Steve’s incredible front and bullishness coupled with Egan’s arcane playlist that made the Blitz. “I was very selective on the door,” remembered Strange, who passed away suddenly in 2015. “If you didn’t look the part you were not getting in, and that was that. Everyone always goes on about the time I turned away Mick Jagger, but what the fuck did he have to do with our scene? I am sure he just came for a look at us oddballs, but we didn’t need him. This was ours and the rest of the world could fuck off.
“But I am very, very proud of what we all did,” he continued rather emotionally. “So many of our regulars have done so well: bands like Depeche Mode, Ultravox, Culture Club, Sade and Spandau Ballet; designers John Galliano, Body Map and the world’s greatest milliner Stephen Jones; artists like Tracey Emin, Peter Doig, and Grayson Perry; and writers such as yourself, GQ editor Dylan Jones, Robert Elms, and Kathryn Flett. Even though it was all about having fun and being yourself, we were a seriously creative bunch.” Like all great clubs, The Blitz existed as a little bubble outside of society where the rest of the world’s mores, traditions and rules did not apply. As such, it definitely earned its place in history.
To read more about Derek Ridgers and his work go to his website