“One of the tabloid descriptions of it was ‘peacock punk' because they didn't know what else to call it,” begins John Maybury who describes the wildly inventive and imaginative New Romantics era from which sprung notable artists such as Spandeau Ballet, Ultravox and Boy George. The era was also known as the Blitz Kids, named after the infamous Soho club of the same name which regularly hosted David ‘Bowie Nights'.
Tramps! A feature-length documentary from director Kevin Hegge made its premiere at BFI Flare: London LGBTQIA+ Film Festival last year; it delves deep into regaling stories from lesser-known yet influential members of the movement such as John Maybury, who rose to prominence as the director of the Pet Shop Boys' 1984 music video “West End Girls”; Princess Julia, who is a DJ, model and a New Romantics icon; and the late Judy Blame, famed stylist who redefined the punk aesthetic and dressed stars like Neneh Cherry, Duran Duran and Bjork.
The documentary is a fascinating exploration of how the New Romantics evolved at a time when the punk aesthetic was all the rage. “Blitz Kids was a reaction to all the new punk rockers that came along who were just wearing a uniform. [There were] hundreds of imitations of Sid Vicious, with the black leather jacket and spiky black hair,” says Mark Moore, a key player in the post-punk underground DJ scene.
Kevin Hegge weaves rare archive footage with the interviews seamlessly to shed light on how the scene was given the perfect conditions to exist as a counterculture within another subculture; it combined the political sensibilities of punk with the celebration of queer club culture and gender non-conformity, with a whole load of makeup and extravagant outfit ensembles to boot.
We hear interviews describing the long gone days of free art school education and sufficient support for the unemployed. Less idyllic but seemingly pivotal to the movement— squats, most notably the Warren Street squat, became mini incubators for the most creative minds at the time. Living in that way contributed significantly to the fashion, and we hear quite a bit from Judy Blame on this. He describes how he created fashion pieces out of the everyday items he had to hand, “Sometimes people would ask [me] ‘How did you come up with that?' Well, that's all I had, I just made it look f*****g fabulous.”
Although squatting may have contributed to the easy exchange of ideas and art, the documentary avoids glorifying the scene as having been some kind of creative utopia. The conditions that some people were living in at the time were stomach-churning. There are descriptions of using barely functioning bathrooms in which people had to wear wellies to wade through the sodden floors that were like ‘paper mache', thick with an accumulation of toilet paper and leaky pipes (meant in both the plumbing and bodily fluids sense). A poignant moment is highlighted in the documentary, where we learn that the movement was tragically intervened by the AIDS crisis. We hear about the devastating pace at which the epidemic took the lives of so many of the friends of the people interviewed.
Tramps! generally does well to encapsulate the evolution of the Blitz Kids and much of it is a truthful ode to the flamboyant, highly original styles of that era. It seems a fitting tribute to the legacy of Judy Blame who had sadly passed away since featuring in the film.
However, where fashion is highlighted really well, other areas are glossed over. In highlighting some of the sartorial inspiration from places like ‘Charles Fox' which was a shop specialising in theatrical clothes, there was brief mention from Les Child that some people in the scene, “Modelled themselves on the aristocracy…to me it felt like I couldn't. It didn't include people like me.” This could have been explored more in the documentary, to truly understand the social fabric of the culture.
You also glean little information about the scene's musical evolution and are left wanting to hear more about the journey from punk and what the change meant to people. Bearing in mind that Thatcherite politics formed the backdrop to the era and the Blitz Kids acted as a massive f**k you to the doom and gloom of that, there could have been more insight into this and the political undercurrents of the era.
Despite those absences, Tramps! is an invaluable collection of honest personal insights into one of the most experimental times in British culture, with a lot to be inspired from and a lot to learn from too.
Tramps! makes its UK debut on digital platforms on December 11th