We Can Be Heroes

By Graham Smith

The definitive insider history of London clubland in the early 80s

Thursday, 9 February 2012


Here's Alex Petridis in the Guardian:

Sunday 15 January 2012

We Can Be Heroes and Felt: The Book – what happens when fans take over

When music fans are empowered to choose which books they want to see published, they can make bold moves no mainstream publisher would have dared

It can’t have failed to escape your attention that we’re in the middle of a recession, and that a recession disinclines entertainment companies from taking risks. Into the void that lurks to the left of mass appeal have stepped two book publishers, First Third and Unbound.

Both have asked interested readers to financially support their books before publication, and have come up with two music titles no mainstream publisher would have been bold enough to commission: We Can Be Heroes and Felt: The Book.

The former is the work of amateur photographer Graham Smith and former Blue Rondo a la Turk frontman and club promoter Chris Sullivan.

It’s a gorgeous history of 80s London clubland, in the years leading up to acid house. The real pull is the photos of the New Romantic era and its aftermath, a lost world in which Spandau Ballet were demi-gods and nobody laughed at Sullivan’s moustache: here were characters of a brilliant, defiant ridiculousness.

At the other end of the 80s spectrum were Felt, the mysterious Birmingham band whose beautiful records were unlike anything else music had to offer: alternately lush and ascetic, packed with classical guitar filigree and oblique lyrics, and fronted by the remarkable, self-mythologising Lawrence (Hayward, though his surname never appeared in the credits). The general public steered clear, but Felt spawned a cult following. Lawrence’s attention to visual detail was painstaking to say the least (a rumour persists that he sacked a drummer for having curly hair), which makes Felt ideal candidates for this kind of sumptuous treatment.

You could argue the music industry might learn something from this approach. But when bands have tried similar things in the past – funding new albums by soliciting contributions from their fanbase – it has seemed a little uncomfortable, smacking of a career playing out to such diminishing returns they’ve been reduced to a whip-round. These books feel different: they are nostalgic one-offs, initiated by fans. Looking at the results, I’m glad somebody found a way to make them happen.

And Robert Spellman in the Daily Express:

DAILY EXPRESS Sunday December 11,2011

The underground London club scene of the early Eighties has been chronicled in a lavish new book of previously unseen photographs and first-person accounts put together by Graham Smith, then a young art student and very much on the inside.

Smith roamed the nightspots, boudoirs and bedsits with an SLR and stash of monochrome film, capturing this elite band of misfits whose dedication to costume, image and good times – against the wasteland of a recession-hit Britain – beggared belief.

We see the likes of Steve Strange, Boy George, Siouxsie Sioux, Spandau Ballet and future broadcaster Robert Elms in career infancy dressed in quilts, frocks, Weimar, Gatsby and martian chic, heads shaven and bewigged, faces slashed with Bowie zig-zags, eyes set in kohl and skin sprayed silver. The book traces the beginning of it all to around 1976 and the liberating force of punk, and contends that punk’s DIY ethos was very much alive as late as 1984. With the onus being on dressing up and adopting an attitude, the doors to clubs like Blitz and the notorious Hell were not open to ordinary Joes, and even the rich and famous had no guarantee of access. Scene mastermind Steve Strange famously refused Mick Jagger entry to Blitz for being wrongly attired, and one image shows an affronted looking Jack Nicholson in trademark sunglasses blocked at the gates.

The culture also provided a degree of social mobility. Chris Sullivan, DJ at the Wag Club and dubbed by Smith “as the most influential and charismatic man on the scene”, writes of being a working-class lad from Merthyr Tydfil raised in a house with an outside loo, who would later find himself dressed as Bertie Wooster complete with monocle at a dinner party thrown by Joan Collins and partying hard with Bianca Jagger.

To anyone who dismisses Eighties nightlife with the words “Peter Stringfellow”, a thorough reading of this fascinating and definitive account should be a priority.


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