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October 23, 2011
We can be heroes

Nobody would have guessed that by the end of the 80s a bunch of friends who felt compelled to dress, dance and experiment with personal identity would be remembered and referenced as the ‘New Romantics’ 30 years down the line. Yet here we are with a legacy that has inspired each decade from the 80s onwards.

The scene itself consisted of art and fashion students, musicians and those interested in a new approach to nightlife and clubbing. The Blitz became an experimental playground, soul boys danced with dandys and fops, from the ashes of glam and punk the individuals of the night played on personal image like never before.

Graham Smith was one such regular on the scene, with camera in hand he was one of us. Coming out of the punk scene Graham became engrossed in its DIY ethos, ”It all started with punk for me and seeing the Sex Pistols and the Clash. But the beauty of punk was not the music, it was the message. It gave permission, in fact it positively encouraged me to become a ‘do-er’ rather than a ‘consumer’ of culture. Start your own band, make your own clothes, write the review yourself, better still start your own fanzine. In my case, my weapon of choice was a camera.” Soon disillusioned Graham remembers, “Punk was a brilliant muse, but the extraordinary energy that it started with soon fizzled out, as it got exploited by record companies and idiots in the crowd as it went mainstream.”

The photos he took weren’t the voyeuristic images of professional photographers who came to record the events of any given Blitz club evening. Graham’s snaps are altogether of a more intimate nature, “I bought a cheap 35mm Praktica camera and started photographing the bands, always shooting in black and white. I discovered I loved the process of developing and printing these films myself, which I would do in a large cupboard at home. Then I went to Camberwell College of Art and Design to do a degree in Graphic Design and spent most of the time in the photographic darkroom there.” His agenda was of a more innocent nature; a personal journal of friends and the incredible events that were about to happen to a group of people who became recognised through their music and style.

‘We Can Be Heroes’ is the result of a lost archive of photographs Graham has stored and now unearthed, talking to him I suspect he never really thought of his valuable collection of memoirs as being worthy for publication. “At the time, I had a vague plan to do a book, but was never sure that I had enough material. I made a conscious decision not to sell them to a photo library so I could keep this option open. I’m not sure where the years went, but suddenly I was turning 50 and as I’m an Art Director by profession I decided the time was right to create the book. I was amazed once going through the negs how many I had and how few had ever been printed, let alone published before.’ Looking back he describes those moments with a sense of wonder, gigging with Spandau Ballet, planning nights out and visiting the Warren Street squat. “I was on the look out for something new. In September 1978 my best mate from school Robert Elms, had been in PX where Steve Strange had told him about a new club night he was going to start at a venue called Billy’s in Soho. The pair of us went down there with a college friend of mine, Melissa Caplan, and in a sense descending those steps into the subterranean world that was Billy’s, was the equivalent of entering a mystical new planet. People were dressed in an attire far beyond punk and the electro soundtrack was incredibly original and fresh. The whole place looked like the future so the following week I went back and I had found ‘muse two’.”

The real story of this era is stripped of the poseurs facade previous photographers have captured. Part of this is due to the fact that the then 19-year-old Graham Smith was himself living with the same sensibilities we all had, “By the time we’d moved onto The Blitz we were a narcissistic and hedonistic gang, all feeding-off and inspiring each other to push boundaries. This new scene was about rebellion, creativity, originality, excitement, friendship and most importantly fun. I met extraordinary people like Chris Sullivan, (Boy) George O’Dowd, Philip Sallon, Kim Bowen, Stephen Linard, yourself and a gang of Islington lads who had a band. I offered to take a few photographs and design posters for them and they would become Spandau Ballet. Eventually I would design their first two album covers and singles for them. A year later I would meet Sade and repeat the same process with her. I also designed sleeves for Blue Rondo a La Turk, Haysi Fantayzee and Animal Nightlife, all of whom came from these clubs. There was a power to this like-minded coterie, created by the unhindered energy of youth. It made people who entered the Blitz feel they could achieve things. The scene took the ethos that Punk had started and stretched it to the limit.”

When I heard about what Graham was doing I was immediately curious to see these intimate portraits, I got a call from author and writer Chris Sullivan who has contributed greatly to the dialogue of the book and later Boy George, both enthused over this collection of work. Graham Smith himself is modest about his work, he speaks with passion about the time; there is a wide-eyed fascination to the way he explains the various moments and occasions he has captured. “I loved the scene and continued shooting its protagonists in the clubs that followed and spent most of my weekends dossing at the Warren Street squat where many of them lived. I DJ’ed a couple of clubs that I’d instigated with Chris Sullivan and Robert Elms – The St Moritz and Le Kilt, where again I would snap away.”

Being someone who was involved in the scene itself, looking at Graham’s account is a wonderful trip down memory lane but it is also a vivid and enlightening version of the honesty and conviction of a group of people who truly believed in the future with high ideals on self expression. The revealing thing about Graham Smith is his enthusiasm as we excitedly turn page after page, he explains, “I’d like the book to reflect what was an incredibly creative, positive and original scene. It was built by these people themselves, my friends and how influential it would become on music, fashion, clubbing, even sexuality at the time. And how youth (everyone on that scene bar Philip Sallon was under 21) believed in itself and made things happen and had global success ON THEIR TERMS. All this was happening at a time when the country was having a massive recession, so there are obvious similarities to today’s climate. Thus I’d love the book to have a message to the youth of “You can do it”!’

Text: Princess Julia
Photography: Graham Smith

Graham Smith is currently Art Director of Arise magazine. He is very happily married to Lorraine, whom he met in the Spice of Life Pub, on the way to Le Beat Route Club in 1982 and has two grown-up children Carla and Dexter. He still loves to dance. We Can Be Heroes will be available from December, show your support for the book here.

Rusty Egan © 2011