The substance of style

Kevin Hegge on Tramps! and the artistic legacy of the New Romantics

by Jennie Kermode


They called them the New Romantics, though it wasn’t a name they would have chosen for themselves. You may think of them first and foremost in terms of the music they inspired, but behind all that was a collection of artists who congregated around the Blitz club in London’s Covent Garden and collaborated in many different ways for years before they really gained public recognition. Contrary to popular expectations at the time, may of them are still working as artists today. Kevin Hegge’s documentary, Tramps!, sets out to tell their story. I met up with Kevin when it was screening as part of Inside Out 2022 and asked how he, as a Canadian, came to be interested in the subject.


“There was a movie called Hail The New Puritan, which is by an artist called Charlie Atlas,” he begins. “It's my favourite movie, basically, profiling a sort of fake day in the life of the choreographer Michael Clark. I was a fan of his work. When I was in London, showing my first movie there, I met Jeffrey Hinton, who was revealed to me as the main DJ at Leigh Bowery’s Taboo club. So I came home and I was inquiring about Michael Clarke documentation on Facebook or something, and having met Jeffrey, he was like, ‘Oh, why are you asking about Michael Clark? Because I am the one that shot all of his work.’ That's a whole other story. And just this series of coincidences made me feel like they were these really inspiring people who survived the AIDS tragedy and have a particular kind of optimism that I was searching for, in terms of making an artistic decision to make films and stuff that's not necessarily an easy route. And I was really just looking to them as a source of inspiration.

“They didn't have tons of money, they still don't have tons of money, but their perspective was positive. And one of survival. So I connected myself to that to find some inspiration for me to continue doing this kind of work. So that's how these themes of survival made their way into the movie. And also, I came from that kind of community here in Toronto, like, friends with no money and living in houses with tons of other friends and DJing each other's parties or performing or, you know, the way that those collaborations happen just because you're young. So I was already predisposed to that kind of lifestyle.


"I knew I wanted to do something in London, because it was just like a huge exaggeration of all of these themes that were interesting to me in my first movie [She Said Boom: The Story Of Fifth Column], which is about a band from Toronto, the same sort of themes. And I knew I just wanted to do something more extravagant, and maybe something a bit more like personal. Something more heartfelt because the first movie was really just like a band movie, so I wanted to go a little bit deeper. Which hopefully, we've done with this movie.”

I tell him that when people from London talk about that period they often praise Thatcherism and the free market for creating opportunity, and seem to forget what it was like back then for people who had nothing and has little hope of finding employment, as was the case for many people in the New Romantic movement. Does he feel that, as an outsider, he was able to bring a different perspective to it?

“Yeah, that was really at the forefront of my intention. I have watched all these documentaries and read all the books, I have all the records. Archiving of things, of ephemera, is part of my nature. And having seen all that, I do get annoyed with the regurgitated elements of these sort of more mainstream documentaries of musical movements or sub cultural movements, and it's just really easy for people to be lazy and repeat the same information that we've always been told.


“At one point in time was trying to get the point across that punk never happened. It's a lot of these things that we've clung to, historically, of this pop culture or subculture, whatever. It's just a bunch of lies. You know, it was actually something that I loved about the New Romantics. Really early on in making the movie, Princess Julia said something about when people started, mainstreaming punk and looking like punks, well, everyone that was part of that scene, were already dressing like robots. Because Gary Numan was a pop star, you know. So there was this idea of movement that I was really trying to hammer home, whether an art movement or subcultural movement, you know, movement is the central element. It's a restlessness, to always change, always do something new, always moving forward.

“Because their own bodies and the personalities and mythology that they were creating around themselves were a huge part of that performance, I thought that there was a really vast and diverse amount of art practices and personalities that really made this an exciting time and maybe an exciting city to be in. And I just wanted to show that diversity of character. So when you see the movie, it's like, they're not a clique, they don't act the same as each other. Everyone has a wildly different personality and an art practice. At one point time, I was calling it – they would kill me if I said this, but I guess I will – like a movie about youth culture but with old people. Because I really feel like people like Princess Julia and Jeffrey and Michael, they're so youthful. They put me to shame. You know, Julia and Jeffrey still DJ many nights a week, and they still have all this energy. And so I really loved that. I really love the attempt that we're making to kind of take age out of the equation when it comes to talking about culture, subculture, or you know, these radical, more transgressive art communities.


“When you're making a documentary, people always want it to move into today. It's ‘let's show the club kids today,’ and I just didn't really ever have an interest in talking to kids that are doing club stuff today, because I don't think that they know anything yet. So that never really made sense to me. I love talking to my elders and gleaning information from people that way, rather than trying to clamp on to whatever trend is going on in public these days. But that's not to say that I don't love kids these days. It's like, we really, really didn't want to move in and be like, ‘Oh, kids these days will never understand!’ because I love kids these days, you know, that's what makes the world cool, newness and youth, and so it was really important not to go down that road.

“They have so much energy that you forget about age, you forget about all that kind of stuff. So I hope that that comes through in the movie. Also just reinforcing these ideas, you know: why choose to be an artist? Why choose to struggle like that? And really the answer was, there wasn't really an option not to.”

And again, when people in the UK talk about the New Romantics, they often tend to think of it as a reaction to punk, whereas this film addresses something with much older roots and embraces a broader cultural movement. How did he know where to start?


“There's so much information!” He laughs. “At one point in time this was going to be a mini series. The first cut we did was 12 hours long. And I just started hacking away at it like that. There were different maps that I had in my head of where this story could begin. My research started in the mid Sixties, actually. There was a group called Exploding Galaxy in East London, and there wasn't really people squatting in East London at the time. You know, not in a popular way at least. And they were basically just theatre troupe of delinquent, pot smoking kids, and they chronicled all their trouble with the police and everything. And that was my entry point, because I wanted to show how generations that exist before your generation, there's a baton that's the art, you know, these subcultures, they're linked, and I wanted there to be through way through all this.

“A lot of my friends are way older or younger. I just wanted to have this sweet sense of camaraderie and sort of generations passing on the baton to new generations, and how people started appropriating warehouse spaces or loft spaces, or, you know, Derek Jarman. The community he formed in Butler's Wharf, and people living in the Docklands and everything, creating a community. Even if it's just hanging out, and all your friends are artists, they're really just parties, but that did set this trend of everybody living that type of lifestyle and, and Derek Jarman was really central to that set-up. He mentored people like John Maybury, you know, as a filmmaker, and young artists like Judy Blame and everything, even though he was much older.


“At some point in time, maybe because of Covid, or whatever, I wanted this movie to be a positive and energy-giving experience, and sort of tender. A tender narrative of youth and friendship and creativity and loving, supporting people, you know. That was something that I thought would be nice to introduce to today's cultural conversation. So I'm curious to see if people pick up on those things. Because I don't really think it's really a movie that’s very much about clothes or anything. It’s very much about people. And, you know, the tagline is ‘the art of survival’. And I really have been getting great feedback.”

It reminded me of another film I saw recently, I tell him: Nigel Askew’s Wake Up Punk, which deliberately drops the focus on music to concentrate on the ideas behind it. Was that partly why he chose to ditch the auditory nostalgia and use an all-new soundtrack here?

“I wanted every element of the movie to be totally ramped up,” he says. “I didn't want any aspect of it to be pushed aside. So when it comes to music, I didn't want Spandau Ballet and stuff like that in the movie because, again, I was trying to sidestep stuff that we’ve seen for decades. And it surprises me that people want to say and see the same things over and over again. And so it was actually really easy just not to ask those questions. And then the idea with the music was, I got the opportunity to work with Verity Susman and Matthew Sims, who are both in these really amazing bands that I love.


"Verity was in a band called Electrelane and Matt plays in like a million bands, one of which is Wire, an art punk band who kind of came out of this scene in the first place. And that was just such an honour, to be collaborating with them. I just said ‘Just go wild.’ Like, ‘No,’ I told everyone, ‘don't have any chill.’ I wanted the music to be up on the same pedestal as the images, so we made an effort for the music not really to be literal, or too connected to the visuals. We wanted there to be a lot of contrast all the time.

“The same with the archival film and everything. We didn't want to say, ‘Oh, somebody's in a frilly hat,’ and then show someone in a frilly hat. We wanted to show the films that were the product of these people making stuff in the Eighties. So we tried to stay away from stock footage and stuff like that as much as possible and make the movie something closer to an art film.”

He has a lot of interesting contributors because he’s gone off the beaten track. How did he find everyone?

“It was literally just a chain of talking to people,” he says. “I think I first started talking to Princess Julia, and then she – you know, these people, their memories, it's crazy. So they're just dropping names to me. A lot of the people I knew of, a lot of the people I didn't know. I went there under the auspices of researching this community. When you're hanging around with people like Chris, Julia or Jeffrey, they're such social people. Everyone's still around the city, you know? They go out places, they go to cultural events, fashion events and stuff like that. People are still in the room and still being fabulous. And still making London fabulous. So yeah, that tangibility was really exciting to me.


“Also I just did a lot of stalking. Calling, emailing, you know. I've made jokes about it but there definitely are people that could have gotten restraining orders against me, but thankfully they didn't. And yeah, just being super resilient. A lot of these people are super aloof. So it wasn't so much a matter of finding them or knowing who they are. It was the problem of getting them on camera. And with my first movie, I wanted it to be really like cartoony, so everyone just in like a cartoony setting, you know, nothing personal. I didn't want to show people in their homes. And this scene was so much about hair and makeup and presentation that I wanted to go in the opposite direction and and bring that intimacy of being in someone's home and the demystification of the whole fashion myth that the New Romantics were, so that was more of a challenge.

“It was getting into people's homes and breaching that privacy that they are so accustomed to. And getting them to trust me, that I wanted to do something different. So yeah, proving that took a really long time. And a lot of people came out of the woodwork and were supportive. Like John Maybury, you know, all I heard was, ‘Oh, you'll never talk to him.’ And we did talk to John Maybury. I think he actually ended up calling me, if I remember correctly, and saying ‘Well, you've interviewed all my friends, but you have interviewed me yet. Why is that?’ So that was kind of great because, you know, when you're documenting and begging for favours and begging for money, it was great to have like support from someone like John Maybury and also be making rumours around London about how I'm in town making a movie, and seeing that pay off eventually was – what's the word? A feather in my cap. or something.”


Did his perspective on the era change as a result of making the film?

“I had intentions to get to know these people and to win their trust and really work with them, to let them say something that they actually cared to say. So I was so aggressively looking for that story,” he says. “I definitely learned a lot. You know, there was stuff that I couldn't include in the movie like House of Beauty and Culture and stuff that Judy Blame did after the New Romantic time. Everything just kept sprawling, unravelling out. So I wouldn't say my perspective changed, because I did have this intention to bring humanity to this sort of plastic community. But I would say that I definitely was naïve to a lot of stuff, only some of which we could get in the movie.

“I can watch one of those disco scenes and I see Scarlett, I see John, I see Michael, I see Jeffrey, I see all these people in these videos like archival music programmes and stuff and I guess the personality that I was trying to get at, that's more what changed. Just learning about this community on a much deeper level. It's so interwoven into so many other aspects of art and pop culture, people don't really realise – I didn't even really realise until I started looking and re-seeing stuff that I'd grown up with, like music videos and whatnot, and now having a deeper understanding of those collaborations and who came from where, although they've been permeating my world ever since I was a kid.”

It feels more like the beginning of a conversation than the end of one, I suggest, and we agree that there are many more fascinating stories yet to be told.

Tramps! will be available to watch on digital in the UK from 11 December.

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