We Can Be Heroes – A New Collection by Graham Smith
#5 in our Featured Photographer series – Graham Smith
Punks, Poseurs, Peacocks and People of a Particular Persuasion London Clubland 1976 – 84
We Can Be Heroes charts the rise of London’s club scene from punk in the late 1970s to the New Romantics in the 1980s as seen from an insider’s point of view.
Graham Smith chronicled these incredible visually led times and its characters in his unofficial role as house photographer of the London clubs. Designing the record sleeves of many of the scene’s key members, Smith was at the heart of this vibrant creative community who transformed London’s nightlife and launched faces such as Boy George, Spandau Ballet, Sade and Stephen Jones.
The book starts with images from the Punk scene, but it was, as Graham describes, the beginnings of what was to become the New Romantic scene that really captured his attention
“Punk, that only a year earlier had ignited my life was dead as far as I was concerned and now, aged 18, I was hunting to fill the void. I entered a grotty Soho subterranean dive bar named Billy’s. A camp Welsh cossack posed by the entrance as the electronic beats of Kraftwerk pounded from the speakers, sounding like the future had arrived early. Several androgynous couples danced a robotic jive, looking like replicant toy soldiers. I thought I saw Marilyn Monroe flirting with a dapper Bryan Ferry in his 40s GI look. I know I saw someone wearing an iron as a hat. But where had this strange new breed come from? And how had everyone found this dingy den of iniquity? The look was retro but it definitely felt like tomorrow. So the following week I went back…”
“Nightclubbing became our life: Billy’s, the Blitz, Le Beat Route, the Mud Club, the Wag and the Dirt Box. The press dubbed us the New Romantics, but we paid no attention. We were too busy enjoying ourselves. We became a gang that made nightclubbing our lifestyle – it was our fuel, family and an after-dark gateway to fulfill ambitions. We were narcissistic and hedonistic, but more importantly we inspired each other to push boundaries. It was about rebellion, creativity, originality and being yourself outside normal and straight society”
“The collective strength of this gang gave individuals more confidence, and this energy affected almost everyone that entered these clubs. At the time no one had any money, but because we were naive and innocent, we didn’t hold back and weren’t afraid of failure. Everyone had a role to play; everyone was a cog in this stylishly bizarre, wobbling wheel, rolling into uncharted territories. This may sound pretentious: that’s because we were, some more than others. But together we felt a power to achieve things, bolstered by the headlong energy of youth.”
As well as the Punk images, New Romantics and faces on the scene, We Can Be Heroes covers the fashion and style of the time and also shows musicians at the start of their careers that went on to have huge success and came to define the era.
“The creative energy of those times also inspired me into graphic design. When mates from the scene formed a band I offered to design some flyers and posters. They eventually became Spandau Ballet and I travelled with them and designed their first two album covers. I did the same for Sade a couple of years later. Then, in 1984, I stopped.”
Together with his schoolmate, future broadcaster Robert Elms, and art-school buddy Chris Sullivan, Graham Smith was at the centre of this creative cult. He designed its record sleeves, cultivated its graphics and captured its characters, taking extraordinary pictures throughout the period, most of which have never been reproduced before.
We Can Be Heroes is an amazing account of the heady times at the beginning of the eighties when boundaries were broken and anything seem possible.
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We Can Be Heroes acts as a sonic as well as a visual tour of this pioneering era by including club specific set lists selected by DJs including Rusty Egan, Mark Moore, and Jay Strongman. Key figures Boy George, Gary Kemp, Steve Strange, and Robert Elms have all contributed their own written accounts of the era and the ever dapper Chris Sullivan has written a witty and often provocative text. Smith has collected 500 quotes from 60 of the main players of the time, transporting We Can Be Heroes far out of the traditional photo book realm. To complete this unique documentation there are club flyers and magazine covers, and graphics plotting the evolution of the scene. As Boy George says; “We Can Be Heroes is brilliant! So many wondrous memories and for once it has been put together by someone on the scene”