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Visage – The Anvil (Expanded Edition) 2020 album sleeve notes by Steve Pafford

Following on from their rapturously received reissue of Visage’s debut album in 2018, I was delighted to be asked back to pen further liner notes for Rubellan Remasters’ continued reinvigoration of the Visage back catalogue.

Released in January 2020 are the expanded repackaging of the electronic supergroup’s subsequent pair of long-players, The Anvil and Fade To Grey: The Singles Collection, the later of which is proudly making its compact disc debut in the highly sought after Special Dance Mix Album variant that made a brief appearance in 1983.

Specialising in making available obscure and classic alternative releases from the 1970s and ‘80s, the US-based Rubellan has been a thing for less than two years, but in that time Scott Davies’ diligence, persistence and attention to detail has certainly won him plaudits, particularly in the high audiophile quality of his uncompressed remastering, which is faithful in retaining the sound of the original records yet with a fabulously full dynamic range is able to reveal little nuances found buried on the master tapes that are often hitherto unheard.

Available from January 17, this brand new 2020 edition CD reissue of The Anvil boasts seven bonus tracks including all the relevant B sides, rare dance mixes, and a previously unreleased US single mix of We Move, along with an 8-page booklet including my extensive collage-effect sleeve notes which are reproduced here.

Front and rear art proof detail from the 8-page booklet

Travelling with no destination, no place to go

At the end of the 1970s, momentous change was afoot in Britain and the world – in society, politics, fashion and culture. The musical landscape was also about to change forever.

The guitar-driven dominance that had propelled rock and punk throughout the decade was about to end, as synthesizers signalled the sound of the future and video transformed the look of the pop charts. The 1980s were about to explode into life, and at the heart of this seismic leap into a futuristic new dawn were two records that set the template for much of what was to follow.

At the end of 1980, if Midge Ure had left London on an overnight sleeper train, returned to the low skies and smoky streets of Glasgow, and never played or sang another note, we would probably still be talking about him. His legacy as an original and accomplished vocalist, songwriter, and conceptualist would have been assured.

Visage 1979: Rusty Egan, John McGeoch, Barry Adamson, Dave Formula, Billy Currie, Steve Strange, Midge Ure. © Sheila Rock

Ure was a prime factor in creating, recording, and producing Visage, formed from the genesis of the London clubland as a studio project, taking their inspiration from the Dusseldorf scene combined with sounds of the Blitz Club in Covent Garden, founded by Steve Strange and Rusty Egan.

With an emphasis on synthesizers and electro disco that eschewed the traditional guitar rock format, Visage was the link between the pioneering electronic sounds of Kraftwerk and the shiny pop of the very fashion-conscious Second British Invasion bands who became staples of MTV’s early years.

Bringing a wealth of collective talent to the project, the electronic supergroup’s eponymous debut album (recorded in ’79, but not released until November 1980, and reissued in expanded form by Rubellan Remasters in 2018) was a minimalist synth-pop masterpiece. Visage is a visceral ultra-reduction of the Krautrock of Harmonia, Cluster, Kraftwerk, and Roedelius, blended with the kind of simple and catchy melodies a teen girl might come up with. Beeping, pulsing, and deeply evocative, it’s one of the most satisfying synth albums ever made.

“It was a simple idea inspired by the desire to make European electronic dance music with our favourite musicians of the day,” says Midge today.

Fade To Grey, the LP’s key single and the combo’s epochal trademark tune, was the combo’s commercial breakthrough, peaking at No.8 in the UK singles charts on 7 February 1981, just a week before Ure’s other band, Ultravox, commenced their runner up role for Vienna, infamously denied pole position first by a posthumous John Lennon and then a certain novelty record called Shaddup You Face.

Fade To Grey and Vienna were global hits that shared the same stark ambience, European aesthetic and electronic heart. The albums that birthed those landmark singles expanded that sonic palette even further and brought the art-school alternative into the very centre of the mainstream.

Visage would go on a three year tear that saw them output a second studio set, a remix album, and a successful string of singles released to varying degrees of chart potential but always delivered in the band’s shamelessly fashionable style. This was post-disco dance rock; heavy on the La Düsseldorf electronics and razor-sharp attitude. 

If the sounds and sonics of Midge’s refashioned Ultravox were the pathfinder that Visage were ultimately forced to follow – at least in terms of release dates – the New Romantic glitterati recognised in Visage the immediate predecessor that fostered its birth.

Jack Nicholson with Steve Strange © REX Features

Visage’s sophomore set was recorded in the latter part of 1981 at Mayfair Studios in London’s Primrose Hill, but by the time The Anvil came out in March 1982, things were very different for the cast who had produced the eponymous debut. Not only had Ultravox taken precedence in Ure’s burgeoning career, but sax playing guitarist John McGeoch left both Visage and Magazine and was now a member of Siouxsie and the Banshees. Keyboardists Billy Currie and Dave Formula remained, as, of course did Blitz club kings Strange and Egan.

And out in clubland they were having a helluva lot more than fun. Thanks to the success of A Club For Heroes at The Blitz and Barracuda on Baker Street, Strange and Egan were about to embark on their biggest venture yet with Mornington Cresent’s cavernous Camden Palace. Strange, in particular had become a bona fide celebrity, being pap-snapped hanging out with everyone from Jack Nicholson to Elton John to Jerry Hall.

Thanks to Strange and Egan’s growing interest in the new funk forms that had been emerging on the NYC club scene, a funkier perspective had been introduced to proceedings, and a direction that had been indicated on We Move, the B-side to Mind Of A Toy in 1981.

Elton John with Steve Strange © REX Features

In order to authenticate things further, there had been talk of Roxy Music’s bouncy young bassist Gary Tibbs joining the band, that is until he was unplugged and swiped by the jukebox’s flavour of the moment, Adam & The Ants. Instead, original Visage bassist Barry Adamson rejoined, but this time as a hired hand, and his subsequent contribution to half of the album was to have a profound effect.

The glamorous European romanticism that had dominated the Visage debut was omnipresent, taken to ever more luxurious lengths with lavish monochromatic cover photography by Helmut Newton.

And even beyond their imperial moment there were still unfolding pleasures to be had. The airy synthesized soundscapes of The Anvil still sound remarkably fresh some 38 years on, perhaps with a bolder and slightly more consistent atmosphere this time round.

Defiant artifice though Strange’s appearance might have been, there’s nothing superficial about the moody epic The Damned Don’t Cry. Talking its name from a camp old Joan Crawford film noir, its sex-and-death signifiers bristle with unusual pathos and sufficient prescience that it still sounded satisfyingly post-millennial at its Nag Nag Nag outings twentysomething years hence, and anticipating The Knife’s heartfelt techno into the bargain.

The throbbing bump-and-grind beat of the Cabaret Voltaire-esque title song is fuelled by pummelling, palpable undercurrents of aggression and dizzying, blaring synth noise, a knowing nod to New York hotspot The Anvil, the infamous hardcore homo meat rack beloved of Lou Reed and Queen’s Freddie Mercury before it bit the dust amid the AIDS hysteria of the mid 1980s.

Next, the tinny, raw electronics of Move Up are classily cold and bleak, Strange’s voice recalling Howard DeVoto or early Phil Oakey. 

The album’s second single, Night Train would be the fourth and final time Visage made the Top 20 in Britain. Night Train furthers the sense of Kraftwerk homagery by rubber riffing on Trans Europe Express and ‘70s disco vibes in a more frenetic and fractionally on-a-promise-of-debauchery fashion, and shows off the act’s post-punk inheritance with one of the most fabulously funky basslines this side of Japan.

Moving over (in vinyl terms; the world’s first compact discs were issued six months after The Anvil), the second half of the album kicks off with an intriguing Ultravox meets Chic hybrid on The Horseman. It certainly was interesting to hear Midge Ure aping the maestro himself, Nile Rodgers, albeit using his distinctive flanged guitar style rather than a more traditional fluid rhythm slice.

And with Ure’s backing vocals so prominent in the mix of (especially in the middle eight), it was almost an Ultravox song in all but name. While Steve Strange’s characteristic, but occasionally dispassionate lead voice was an essential part of Visage’s identity, it was Ure’s input that provided the credible vocal musicality.

Trailing The Horseman are two impressive slices of melancholic pop: Look What They’ve Done was a dramatic slice of neu romance, and it was on songs like these where Strange’s less tutored vocals came to the fore, suiting a more austere electronic backdrop more than the misguided adventures into rock which came later.

With the glorious Again We Love, every aspect of Visage’s collective talents clicked in unison, both vocally and instrumentally. From the dramatic start and the eerie, atmospheric melancholy to the stupendous percussive climax and echoey fade, it summed up what this beat boy combo was all about. Yes, they were the New Romantic supergroup and were a formidable combination when firing on all cylinders. And it was this song on The Anvil that probably got closest to recapturing the grandeur of Fade To Grey.

The woefully wonky Wild Life follows (easily the most throwaway track here, despite Egan’s powerhouse drum fills) but thankfully, victory was snatched from defeat with the shimmering show closer. Whispers is a dreamy “wake up from the dream/the morning after” ambient instrumental, its sad synth replies interrupted halfway through by a simple, heartfelt melody over a stark funereal beat.

It was inexplicably issued as a Japanese single in its own right after the piece was used in a TDK TV ad featuring the Strange lad himself, which was all the more ironic seeing as our non-playing Welsh wonder doesn’t actually feature on the track himself. Somehow, it seemed to mark the end of the New Romantic era, and sadly gained further poignancy and resonance in light of his passing in 2015.

The additional tracks on the 2020 expanded deluxe edition you’re now holding are:

Motivation and I’m Still Searching (B-sides to The Damned Don’t Cry and Night Train singles, both 1982); We Move (previously unreleased USA single mix, 1981) and four Dance Mix extended cuts of that most quintessential of quadrumvirates, the awesome A-sides The Damned Don’t Cry, Night Train, The Anvil (commercially at least, actually a B-side but still given the Dance Mix treatment nonetheless) and Pleasure Boys, the last of which closed out 1982 as a non-album 45 and something of a major break with the past, being the first Visage release since Midge Ure left the band to concentrate on Ultravox.

Of course, though forever in the shadow of the band’s groundbreaking debut, The Anvil did manage a feat denied to its predecessor — landing fairly and squarely inside the UK Top 10, even if it ultimately sold less and spent half the time in the album charts Visage had.

Fade To Grey, 1983’s sterling singles collection aside, this would be Visage’s last great long-player before conflicting commitments and musical differences pulled the band apart, but here a range of styles works in its favour. Eerie, evocative, alluring, luxuriant, this one’s almost Hegelian in the denseness of its summation of the New Wave era. And in retrospect, it’s surprising there isn’t more print invocation of this record. The Anvil showcases much of what is good from a time/place as well as anything else that can be listened to from the modern rock movement of Britain in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Time to close your mind and drift off…

Steve Pafford

Journalist and author of the book BowieStyle

Thanks to The Electricity Club

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