Stationed behind the decks, Rusty Egan made the Blitz club tick and was pivotal to the electronic and new romantic cause. With a definitive Blitz boxset incoming – curated by the man himself – he regales us with colourful tales of Kraftwerk, globetrotting and his late-career rebirth

He might call himself the “invisible man”, but my god, Rusty Egan is really not a quiet man. During our rollicking 90-minute chat, he’s wonderfully, hilariously candid in a way that would worry libel lawyers, utterly unconcerned with the pointless politesse of biz-speak, and a total hoot throughout. There is a deep truth though in his “invisible man” description of himself. This is a performer and DJ who pretty much created UK club culture with the Blitz, the small but storied venue in London’s Covent Garden that reconfigured our national musical consciousness towards Europe and electronica. 

When you dig into the official version of events about London’s late 1970s club scene, you’ll hear about those who sought the limelight and were hungry for fame, essentially because those figures feed into reductive notions about that period, about the elitism and almost-Thatcherite aspiration of it all. Fire up any documentary about the birth of the new romantics and, of course, you’ll hear about Egan’s partner-in-crime Steve Strange and his ruthless Blitz door policy that led to Mick Jagger being refused entry, Marilyn confusing the dancefloor and Boy George pilfering from the cloakroom. 

You’ll hear Blitz war stories too, but what you won’t hear much about is the man who single-handedly came up with the soundtrack for the Blitz, whose obsessions with krautrock, glam and electronic esoterica actually fed the imaginations of the scene’s participants, and blazed a trail that would energise and feed UK pop and club culture for decades afterwards. The man whose entrenched class politics also meant that he wanted to take the exclusivity of the Blitz and open it up to the provinces and the country, and by doing just that he revolutionised 1980s UK music in the process. 

Rusty Egan emerges in any late 70s/early 80s hagiography of the birth and emergence of the new romantics as someone immensely pivotal but rarely seen or even spoken to. Perhaps a good place to start uncovering his crucial yet spectral importance is to pluck one of those words that was floating around that scene at the time – “Futurist” – and see him as someone who has always been firmly focused on the future of music. 

Another word that is key is “fan”. Egan is first and foremost a music lover – as prone to fixation as he is to that feeling of being betrayed – and he really sees his creative life as a process of following that obsessional fandom wherever it takes him. 

May 2024 will see the release of the first curated and definitive boxset of tracks played by Egan at the epochal Blitz club in 1979 and 1980. It’s a revelatory mix precisely because the Blitz playlist has remained so vaguely hinted at over the years and because of Egan’s unwillingness to pursue celebrity. 

I ask him if his presence as an underground instigator and catalyst, rather than mainstream figure, has enabled a certain looseness of the tongue, a certain freedom of expression in interviews and social media, that he would otherwise not be able to enjoy. Inevitably, he half-ignores the question but connects it to the state of play in 2024. 

“The limelight doesn’t interest me and that’s what I find frustrating now!” he says. “In 2024, there are so many creative people on social media. As a creative person, why do I have to learn how to sell myself? I’m in the studio, I make my music, I put it out there – I’m not supposed to do the marketing.

“There’s all these people trying to tell you how to reach more followers. I always ask, ‘Was Jimi Hendrix really good at doing his tax return?’. You just do what you do brilliantly, but the rest of it – the selling, the video, marketing, radio plugging – I don’t care about. My job is picking bands, picking music, playing them in my DJ set, getting them to come down to the club, promoting them, putting them on. 

“This is what I did with Soft Cell and Depeche Mode and a lot of others, but the point really is that I was a fan. A fan isn’t this person who discovers Nick Cave through a TV show or a game and just sticks with that one track. It’s someone who listens to whole albums, to everything that person has done, and goes to see them live – that has to be the starting point. It’s like your magazine…”

At this point he actually holds up the latest issue of Electronic Sound. 

“Your magazine started from people being fanatical about electronic music and it covers areas that 90 per cent of other magazines don’t go near. That’s what a fan is. When you go from being a fan to being a pop star I think you lose that fanatical thing. Most major stars don’t listen to music! Ask Robbie Williams what he listens to and he’s probably too busy being Robbie Williams to be a fan. 

“But if you say to me, ‘I’ve heard there’s this amazing new band from Bradford’, I’ll check them out and I’ll share them. And this album stems purely from music fans. It’s me choosing from the big box of records that I used to play at the Blitz. Ultimately, a fan is what I have always been.”

Born to Irish parents who ran an Irish showband, Egan became a teenage drummer and he joined the Midge Ure- fronted Rich Kids in 1977 with former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock. Sadly, his bold attempts to introduce electronics on the Mick Ronson-produced ‘Ghosts Of Princes In Towers’ album were too ahead of their time. The band split, so he formed Visage with Ure and Steve Strange (who by then had become Egan’s close confederate and co-conspirator) to make the kind of music he wanted to hear in clubs – electronic, danceable and European-influenced. 

As a DJ and founder of both Billy’s in Soho and then the Blitz club in 1979, Egan found himself at the epicentre of what soon became known as the new romantic movement. It’s easy to forget that when Egan and the Blitz emerged, the word “DJ” had odd connotations in this country, somewhere between a Butlin’s Redcoat, a bingo caller and a wannabe TV persona. But Egan’s legendary sets at the Blitz transformed the idea of what a nightclub could be, and introduced to the UK the DJ as a sort of sound visionary. 

“In a way, what did I do that John Peel didn’t?” argues Egan. “He was a civil servant, he was mundane… he’d say, ‘Hello, good evening, my football team lost again, I’m not very happy so I’m going to play some Crass’. And for two minutes the radio sounded like it had gone wrong. This noise called Crass, it was all pop to him. 

“He was the most important radio DJ we had because he had freedom – he didn’t care about gatekeepers, and he cared about music not celebrities. He didn’t care about opening a restaurant like Tony Blackburn, or giving out ‘Crackerjack’ pencils. I think I did the same type of thing in the club. I loved Joy Division and didn’t care about the Bee Gees!” 

Photo: Terry Smith

The music revealed on the Blitz boxset is truly stunning – an all-back-to-mine fusion of post-punk, German avant-rock, glam, electronica and disco that you can hear quite literally setting the 80s in motion. That the 60-odd tracks were whittled down from a list of 239 is even more mind-boggling, as Wendy Carlos and Billy Cobham rub shoulders with names you’d expect. 

Far more than just Blitz war stories, the boxset really gives you an aural picture of what being at the Blitz was like, and how Egan’s frenzied fanaticism about sound sculpted and moulded the coming decade in UK clubs, influencing a whole generation of young artists in the process. Pretty much every band that mattered in the explosion of new pop in 1979 and 1980 came to Blitz, and it was Egan’s voracious thirst for music that fed those bands’ ideas about what 80s British pop was going to sound like.

“I’m a drummer – I’m a young obsessive about motorik drums,” says Egan. “I used to DJ for the dancefloor, mixing drums on top of other records. Cerrone, Sparks… I was always looking for those beats. 

“For me, it was crucial to have people dancing to something like ‘I Feel Love’ and to segue into the next tune via the drums, but also to put on things like Wendy Carlos or Billy Cobham for those moments when the four-to-the-floor disappears and you’re just in this troubled storm of sound… then start another record on top of that. Fast-forward 40 years and everyone is doing that kind of journey, but at that time, DJing was just not taken that seriously.”

If musical variety with taste was the sonic animus behind the Blitz, what aspects of the wider club culture in the 70s were you definitely trying to avoid? 

“The violence – punk was very violent and very homophobic. Traditional clubs were extremely homophobic. But after meeting Steve Strange when the Rich Kids were playing in Wales, I started going to gay clubs with him down the King’s Road that were the total opposite of that experience. There was no violence – I loved them. In a way, the Billy’s and Blitz crowd was just everybody we collected from all the gay clubs on the King’s Road.”

Did any clubs from outside the UK influence Blitz at all? 

“Well, I was travelling a lot at that time,” recalls Egan. “I’d pop off and experience gay New York – The Saint club with Grace Jones playing. I’d go to Paradise Garage, the Mudd Club… ecstasy was already involved. And I’d also go to Paris with Steve and soak up the atmosphere. I travelled to Berlin, Düsseldorf – I just showed up, walked round the town and knocked on Kraftwerk’s door. 

“At all these places I’d sleep on a sofa, and I was just a fan going to order records, finding rare French bands and German stuff, meeting with Michael Zilkha and Michel Esteban from ZE Records, playing Lizzy Mercier Descloux, Telex – anything other than American disco. In the 70s, all anyone cared about in the UK was British and American music. We changed all of that.”

In 1982, as well as being part of Visage, Egan and Strange took on the former theatre space that was Camden Palace (now Koko), dragging the Blitz sound from secrecy and elitism and giving it to the UK public. Live shows from Grace Jones, Eurythmics, Kraftwerk, Wham!, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and a then-unknown Madonna – making her London debut in 1983 – ensured the Palace became a place where analogue UK pop was culturally transformed into the electronic 80s. It was also where future luminaries such as Paul Oakenfold would get their very first taste of what Egan had experienced in New York and Europe.

“I’d play tracks in all kinds of languages, mix two records together, swap them over, extended mixes, samples…” says Egan. “‘Don’t You Want Me’, ‘Blue Monday’, Afrika Bambaataa – all of that fell into place at the Camden Palace. No one had ever heard of any of this, but when they came to the Palace they would hear what was already being called house music in Chicago. I’d play ‘Fade To Grey’, then Colonel Abrams’ ‘Trapped’… anything that had those electronic drum beats. 

“DJs like Todd Terry and Arthur Baker were not even listening to American music, they were looking to Europe and elsewhere. Yellow Magic Orchestra, Japan, Giorgio Moroder. The Daniel Miller version of ‘Memorabilia’ – that’s the beginning of house music for me! And these are the records those DJs would play.”

Empowered by the success of the Palace, Egan got further immersed in production, composition, A&R and the music business through the 80s via his publishing company and studio, Metropolis. However, it seemed that the further away from his original impetus he got, the more he seemed to vanish – the late 80s and 90s were not happy for Egan. A recurrent theme in our chat is how he feels ripped off by those times. 

“I ended up penniless – I’m just the drummer! The thing is with that period in the 80s, so many people would tell you, ‘Rusty was there’. You’re at the Camden Palace, you’re at the Batcave. But in the history books, Rusty wasn’t there – kind of the invisible man. It really damaged me. I gave it my everything and then the party’s over, everyone’s disappeared and you’re left sitting there, broken and fucking destitute. 

“I lost my wife, my house, I fucking lost everything. I was so damaged by that. I just shut myself off for 20 years. Since 2009, I’ve been back making music. Not making any money, but I really love making music and DJing. I love my new album, and I love all the people that have been there for me.”

Egan’s rebirth as a producer, musician, internet DJ and his recent hugely vibrant DJ slots for a plethora of 80s names (Simple Minds, Devo, Heaven 17) show that he’s happiest when he goes back to what he does best – being a fan, and sharing what he hears. The internet that daunted so many of his peers is clearly his natural milieu now because it enables precisely those catalyst connections that Egan is good at. Still busy, still listening, still with a zero tolerance for bullshit. 

As a Futurist, are you optimistic about the future? For the first time in our chat, he pauses for thought. 

“OK, it’s 40 years on from the Blitz,” he muses. “I was very optimistic about the future back then, but it was easier in a way. You’d find this little band, get some studio time, find a small factory and press up 500 copies. You just did it. Then you’re in the business and the label is saying, ‘We need to sell a million copies to recoup the artwork money’. 

“We were way more DIY than that – we were all crazy artistic people who wanted to make our own videos, our own artwork. When I look back on what happened to me, I realise that the music business is kinda like the film business, where you want to make an amazing movie but they take it out of your hands and add a happy ending!”

Wasn’t it ever thus? How can we improve things? 

“Right now, you’re in a band but you have to do everything that record companies should do – merch, touring, packaging, your website – so what haven’t you got? Why is Taylor Swift getting 150 billion streams and you’ve only got two million and it doesn’t mean anything? It’s because people have stopped trying to get the music right in the first place. I’ve connected OMD and Erasure with totally new unknown bands who are getting support slots with these big names, and those connections are forged with music. 

“I’m doing big festivals now, playing all my music and videos, making people have a great time. Whether it’s radio, putting on festivals or starting labels, we need fans to be involved. They don’t care if someone has 10 million followers – connections come from people who love great music, wherever it comes from. That’s what we were doing with Billy’s, Blitz, and the Palace, and that’s what I’m doing now because it still really excites me. I’m optimistic about music surviving the death of the music business.”

Spoken like a true fan, one of the most pivotal ever to get involved in the British music scene. Make sure you dig into the Blitz boxset deep. It still sounds like the future from a man who moulded our futures and a fan who still has a future. All hail. 

The ‘Rusty Egan Presents The Blitz Club’ boxset is released by Demon

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