THE POP STAR, THE PUB AND THE FISH
THEY say a picture is worth a thousand words, but there is one iconic image where the story has gone largely unknown – until now. It encapsulates the flowering of a British youth movement that would change the face of fashion and clubland, a band with a strident manifesto who were about to break through to the global stage, and three of Wales’ style pioneers at the heart of a brilliantly compelling and hilarious story.
In the picture taken by London photographer Graham Smith on December 7, 1980, there is the late, lamented King of the Posers – Steve Strange, the interior of Cardiff dockland pub the Packet and a “smiling” fish held by a man with an equally sizeable grin.
However, scratch beneath the surface and what emerges is a tale that both captures the ’80s zeitgeist at the moment of inception – and the joyful anarchy of youth.
The date is December 7, 1980. It’s a cold, drab Sunday in South Wales and Cardiff is shivering.
The day before, the heights of the Premier League would appear a long way off as Cardiff City played out a dour 1-1 draw against Grimsby Town in the old Second Division in front of a little over 6,000 at Ninian Park.
The same day a London group, that five weeks previously had released their debut single, arrived in the city for a Saturday night stopover before playing a Sunday afternoon gig, one of a series of individually tailored events that were as much about art, fashion and style as they were about music.
Spandau Ballet had hit number five in the UK singles chart with To Cut A Long Story Short. By the time they arrived in the city they were the most talked about band in Britain, trailblazers for the emerging New Romantic movement.
After playing a packed Sunday afternoon gig at the Casablanca Club in the city’s docklands the assortment of Blitz Kids who had chartered a coach from London to support their favourite band and the local stylists decamped to nearby pub the Packet, which then had something of a reputation for being a rough docks watering hole.
Photographer Graham Smith was one of those who went along to the pub and vividly recalls walking through the door and the reaction from the locals as they trooped in.
“There was about a dozen of us and as we walked in it was like that scene out of An American Werewolf In London where they walk through the door of the Slaughtered Lamb pub and everyone stops talking and stares at them,” laughs Graham, then a graphics student and erstwhile photographer who would design the sleeves for the first two Spandau albums.
“It was a hard pub. It was full of dockers and this one guy was a mercenary who had been out in Angola. He was showing off his various tattoos. That’s how hard they were. When we walked through the door my first thought was ‘we’re going to get murdered!’.
“A lot of people had taken acid,” he adds. “It was so mad. I can’t remem- ber much about the Spandau show itself. It was your mates and you didn’t realise how big they were going to get.
“It was just fun, we were young and were just enjoying ourselves, but the memory of the pub has stuck with me.”
Little did Graham know that ensuing hilarity would result in one of the most iconic pictures in Welsh cultural history emerging from that anarchic evening.
“Steve Strange was on such good form. He was really camping it up and it totally threw them, so much so that they loved us,” he recalls. “Next thing you know they’re buying us drinks. That’s why I took the photograph. One of the blokes bought us drinks. He said: ‘ You lot are great, I can see where you’re coming from,’ and they bought us drinks all night.
“Steve was at the centre of it as always and got on like a house on fire with them and I snapped away.
“The next thing is the guy on the end says ‘hang on, I’ve got a few fish in my bag’ and so he brings out this cod and starts trying to make the fish smile. It was insane.”
Graham reckons the picture of Steve Strange holding court with the locals ranks as one of his best.
“I’m so glad I got that picture because it’s one of the best pictures I ever took,” he says. “The pic of Steve is one of my favourite photographs. It’s so bonkers and there’s such a good tale attached to it.
“That’s what I’m most pleased with that I had the nous to do it. It stands up as a cultural document of the times and sums up perfectly the personality of Steve Strange.”
Steve Strange in the Packet pub after the Spandau Ballet gig in Cardiff in 1980
Spandau Ballet during their Cardiff gig