Dawn of the New Romantics

By Tom Von Malder | May 02, 2021
Photo by: Cherry Red Records The band Classix Nouveaux.

Owls Head — Classix Nouveaux: The Liberty Recordings 1981-83 (Cherry Red, 4 CDs). About the time Classix Nouveaux released their first album, “Night People” in the U.K. but eponymous everywhere else, including the United States, where “Guilty” became a hit thanks to MTV playing the video, a music magazine in Great Britain mentioned a new scene that it labeled “New Romantics,” naming Classix Nouveaux, Ultravox and Japan as the bands. In this column, I look at new, expanded releases by Classix Nouveaux and Japan, both of whom also fall under the label of new wave and certainly the antithesis of punk.

The New Romantic movement began in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s, but mainly was a fashion scene in the nightclubs of London and Birmingham, such as The Blitz. They were influenced by David Bowie, Marc Bolan and Roxy Music, and the fashions reflected glam rock and the early Romantic period of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The term itself reportedly was coined by musician-producer-manager Richard James Burgess. In addition to the three bands above – and Ultravox never really adopted the fashions as the other bands did – Spandau Ballet, A Flock of Seagulls and Boy George of Culture Club also were considered New Romantics.

Classix Nouveaux was born from the ashes of X-Ray Spex, who had a wonderful debut album in 1978’s “Germ Free Adolescents,” but the subsequent tour took a toll on lead singer-lyricist Poly Styrene, who left the band in 1979. Unable to find a replacement, drummer B.P. Hurding and guitarist Jak Airport (born Jack Stafford) became interested in bald-headed Sal Solo (born Christopher Scott Stevens), previously the singer with a new wave act called The News. Solo also played synthesizer, which would become a key part of Classix Nouveaux’s sound. Bass player Mik Sweeney, another former News member, became the fourth member of the new Classix Nouveaux.

In his recollections that fill the accompanying 20-page booklet, Salo says the band name he came up with indicated the music combined something old with something new. Of the band itself, he says, “Our image was a very conscious decision. British kids at the time were split really into two groups: the punks/ex-punks and the glam Bowie kids. We had kind of both: two punks and Mik was very much a Bowie kid. In fact, the reason I took him on was that in his first audition he came in with pink hair and wearing tight leopard-skin trousers. He definitely looked like a pop star and it turned out he could play.”

The box set contains all three of the band’s albums, including both versions of their debut, plus bonus tracks, mostly taken from singles or EPs. While the band formed and began touring in 1979, its debut album was not released until 1981, by which time Airport had dropped out and was replaced by Gary Steadman (ex-Eaters). “Classix Nouveaux,” the United States and international version of the debut album, opens with wind sounds on the instrumental “Forward,” which ends with chimes. The standout track is “Guilty,” followed by the pop of “Tokyo.” Also worthwhile are “No Sympathy” and “Inside Outside.” Solo does have a tendency towards over-mannered vocals, most especially on “Run Away.”

Two fun tracks only appear on the international version. They are “Nasty Little Green Men,” which speculates on what first contact with aliens might be like (and has a “Star Trek” mention) and has a New Romantics feel with its sweeping keyboards, and “Robots Dance,” with another stylized vocal. “Robots Dance” actually first appeared on their independently-released three-song EP in 1980. The U.K. version of the album instead comes with a different song order and two guitar pop tracks, “Or a Movie” and “Soldier.”

Of the three bonus tracks on the international version, “Test Tube Babies” is more punkish and there is a Bowie-like talk vocal on “Night People.” There also is a second version of “Robots Dance” with a rocking ending. The U.K. version has four bonus tracks, including the 7- and 12-inch versions of “Inside Outside,” plus the fun-named “We Don’t Bite (Come a Little Closer)” and ”Old World for Sale,” with more wild vocals.

Their second album, “La Verite,” was released in 1982. It opens with another instrumental “Forward,” followed by the band’s Top 20 U.K. hit “It’s a Dream,” with its melodic chorus vocals. This was the short-lived band’s only real taste of success at home, even though they had chart-topping hits in Poland, Yugoslavia, Israel and Iceland. Also good are “To Believe,” with its sweeping keyboards and lighter vocal”; “Because You’re Young,” with its “Tubular Bells” type opening sound and dance beat (it almost made the Top 40); and the big beat of “Never Again,” which has late rapid drumming and female-like vocalizing. “I Will Return” is very dramatic.

This time there are 10 bonus tracks, including six single versions. “627” is a pleasing B-side instrumental, while “Where to Go” is a poppy 12-inch track. “Chemin Chagrin” is another instrumental B-side, while “It’s Not Too Late” is a fast-paced B-side with chorus bounce.

Steadman was replaced by Finnish guitarist Jimi Sumen. The band’s third and final album was “Secret” in 1983. It was more pop than new wave, as in the opening “All Around the World,” which has a guitar solo. There are nice moments in the bouncy “The Fire Inside” and with the beat on “When They All Have Gone,” whose first three minutes are instrumental. “Manitou” is electro-funk, heavy on the beat.’ However, “No Other Way” is kind of boring.

The eight bonus tracks include two versions of the very different sounding B-side “Switch,” mostly instrumental with some vocalizing, and three versions of the new romantic dance single “The End … Or the Beginning?” There also are extended versions of “Forever and a Day” and “Manitou,” as well as an instrumental version of “Manitou.”

At this point, Liberty Records dropped the band and, as Solo had already been planning a solo career, the band was finished. He had a hit with “San Damiano (Heart and Soul),” provided lead vocals for the French space rock group Rockets from 1984 to 1992, and released three albums of Christian music in the early 1990s. Grade: B

Japan: Quiet Life (1979, BMG, LP + 3 CDs). “Quiet Life” was Japan’s third album, but the first that vocalist David Sylvian felt truly represented the band. In the booklet notes by Anthony Reynolds, he writes that Sylvian had been disappointed with the first two albums and had contemplated breaking up the group. Here, we hear the band evolving from its glam-influenced (David Bowie and Marc Bolan) first two albums, “Adolescent Sex” and “Obscure Alternatives,” toward the experimental pop of their final two albums, “Gentlemen Take Polaroids” and “Tin Drum.” On “Quiet Life,” the influence is very much Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music.

The box set includes the original eight-song album, half-speed remastered on 180gsm vinyl; the remastered album on CD; a CD of alternate mixes and rarities, including the four-song “Live in Japan” EP; and a complete March 27, 1980 concert at Budokan (it sounds like it was recorded on cassette by an audience member). There also is a 24-page, 12-inch size booklet with exclusive liner notes and photography.

On the first two albums, Sylvian (also guitar) had adopted a nasal sneer, but here he adopts a restrained croon, much in the style of Ferry. Also, the album is produced by John Punter, who had produced Roxy Music’s “Country Life” in 1974 and Ferry’s “Let’s Stick Together” in 1976. On the first two albums, Sylvian was backed by icy funk- and glam-infused rock, played by band members Steve Jansen (drums), Mick Karn (bass), Richard Barbieri (keyboards) and Rob Dean (guitarist). Here, the songs are more keyboard oriented rather than through guitar as Sylvian had tired of that approach – although there is some glam guitar on “Halloween.” There is much use of sequencers. This also is the only Japan album to use strings, as on the closing, wistful “The Other Side of Life.”

The opening title track, inspired by their single work with producer Giorgio Moroder (Donna Summer, Berlin, Daft Punk) is about the tug of war between the desire for pop success and anonymity. It became the band’s first hit single in the U.K., although that was not until 1981. “Fall in Love with Me” definitely falls under the Roxy Music influence, with its simple piano opening. “Despair” is rather elegant, with its hissing drum machine. The cover this time is a skewed version of Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” which has a Robert Fripp-like guitar whine and a Motown backbeat. Also somewhat confusing is the more upbeat “Alien,” despite being downtempo.

Disc two has 18 tracks, including eight Steve Nye remixes from 1982 and 1983. Nye also worked with Ferry in 1977. He would later produce Japan’s “Tim Drum” and three of Sylvian’s solo albums in the 1980s. There are three remixes of “European Son” – two by Nye and one by Punter – that Sylvian originally had wanted Moroder to produce. Instead, the band worked with Moroder on “Life in Tokyo,” which melds Karn’s fretless bass and Sylvian’s lyrics of urban disaffection with Moroder’s synth pulses and disco diva backing vocals. Moroder co-wrote the song. The Moroder influence also comes through more clearly in the German 7-inch mix of “Quiet Life.”

Earlier. The band had recorded a cover of “Don’t Rain on My Parade” from the 1964 Broadway musical “Funny Girl” (made famous by Barbra Streisand). This time, the weird choice is Smokey Robinson’s “I Second That Emotion,” which receives two mixes and pops up as the first encore of the live show. The “Live in Japan” EP tracks are “Deviation,” “Obscure Alternatives,” this album’s “In-Vogue” and “Sometimes I Feel So Low.”

The concert CD contains an instrumental introduction -- with lots of audience chatter – and 15 songs, with much screaming by the surrounding fans. The audio quality is really poor, but I guess its inclusion has some historic value. Six of the eight songs on “Quiet Life” are included.

Japan would reach its artistic peak on its next two albums, but would disband shortly thereafter. Sylvian would go on to make nine solo albums, with the most recent being “There’s a Light That Enters Houses with No Other House in Sight” (2014). Grade: B+

Pink Floyd: Live at Knebworth 1990 (Pink Floyd, CD or 2 LP, 56 min.). This excellent concert was previously available on Blu-ray as part of the 2019 “Later Years” mammoth box set. This is its first stand-alone release. Singer-guitarist David Gilmour remixed the audio with Andy Jackson, and there is new artwork shot by Hipgnosis’ Aubrey “Po” Powell and designed by Storm Studios’ Peter Curzon. The 24-page booklet is filled with photos of the concert.

Silver Clef Award Winners Knebworth, broadcast globally on MTV, took place June 30, 1990 with an estimated 120,000 fans in attendance. Paul McCartney, Genesis, Phil Collins, Robert Plant (with Jimmy Page), Dire Straits, Eric Clapton and Tears for Fears all performed at the event, which supported the Nordoff Robbins charity's efforts to establish the BRIT School.

The truncated Pink Floyd show opens with “Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Parts 1-5” from 1975’s “Wish You Were Here,” leaving off “Parts 6-9,” but includes the title track of the LP two songs later. “Dark Side of the Moon” (1973) is represented by an extended “Money” (50 percent longer at 10 minutes) and “The Great Gig in the Sky,” complete with wailing vocalizing by Clare Torry, who provided the same on the original recording. There is lots of great guitar by Gilmour on “Sorrow” from 1987’s “A Momentary Lapse of Reason,” and “The Wall” (1979) is represented by “Comfortably Numb” and “Run Like Hell.” The guest performers are sax player Candy Dulfer and keyboardist Michael Kamen.

With songwriter-bassist Roger Waters having left the band in 1985, Pink Floyd consisted of Gilmour, drummer Nick Mason and singer-keyboardist Richard Wright, supported by their touring band and backing vocalists. Grade: A+

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