In my last post I mentioned how delighted I was to be asked back to pen further liner notes for Rubellan Remasters’ continued reinvigoration of the Visage back catalogue. Following on from their rapturously received reissue of Visage’s debut album in 2018, released this month are the expanded repackaging of the electronic supergroup’s subsequent pair of long-players, The Anvil and Fade To Grey – The Singles Collection. For entirely sentimental reasons, being involved in the latter compilation is a particularly personal fanboyish moment for me, with it not only being the first Visage album I bought but also the first ‘greatest hits’ album I owned by any act.
With two successful albums and seven well received singles over the previous three years, the time was ripe for a Visage album compiling highlights from that accomplishment. Originally released for the Christmas 1983 market, the Fade To Grey collection was a milestone for a band who brought New Romanticism to the singles chart and the dance floors. Those who purchased the cassette edition were in for a surprise to find not only a number of dance mixes not on the LP, but the album segued from one track into the next for a non-stop Visage experience. The popularity of this Special Dance Mix Album led to a very limited vinyl pressing, which has since become a sought after collector’s item.
Available from January 31, this rare edition album is now making its first ever CD appearance in the year 2020, remastered from original master tapes. Several bonus tracks have also been added, including the single and dub mixes of the top twenty hit Night Train, a Bonus Beats mix of the 1982 single Pleasure Boys, and the rare original vocal version of Frequency 7 (B-side to the band’s 1979 debut single Tar), along with a 4-page booklet including my extensive sleeve notes which are reproduced here in unedited form.
Devenir gris, devenir gris
As a synthpop entity, Visage have never been quite as credible as OMD or even Depeche Mode, due perhaps to queen of the scene Steve Strange’s Klaus Nomi-meets-Pete Burns overly posey neo-glam style. But in historical terms they’ve more than earned their place as the first electronic supergroup, a New Romantic collective comprising members of Magazine, Ultravox and London punks The Rich Kids.
Visage was a musical extension of the burgeoning Blitz club scene that Steve Strange and Rusty Egan helped foment, with an emphasis on synthesizers and post-disco beats that eschewed the traditional guitar rock format. In some ways, the band was a musical and visual vanguard, the link between the pioneering electronic sounds of Kraftwerk and the shiny pop of the fashion-conscious Second British Invasion of bands who became staples of MTV’s early years.
Their first two long-players — Visage (1980) and The Anvil (1982) were notable for their strong dance-based arrangements, counterpoints and musicality while layers of Midge Ure’s backing vocals propped up and often guided Strange’s flat lead monotone.
“I’m really proud of the first two Visage albums,” says Ure today. “The Rich Kids had all fallen apart under our feet; Rusty (Egan) and I were listening a lot to what was coming out of Germany—Kraftwerk, and La Düsseldorf, and Neu!, and Can, we were getting very influenced by that—and Rusty said, one night as we were wandering through the streets of London, ‘Wouldn’t it be great having a band with all our favourite musicians.’ And I said, ‘Let’s do it!’
“So we chose the guys from Magazine and we chose Billy Currie from Ultravox, those were two of our favourite groups at the time, and put this thing together, Visage. It was a great vehicle for me to get into the studio and experiment with electronics, to experiment as a producer. And Rusty’s friend Steve Strange wanted to be a singer, so he stepped into the frontman role, and he did it brilliantly.
“I left when Steve came to New York and decided to turn up at the record launch on the back of a camel. I decided it was too Disney, it was too silly, and I walked away from it. It just turned a bit of a comedy sketch, really. But those first two albums I spent a lot of time and a lot of effort making, and I was very pleased with them at the time.”
“I was responsible for a lot of the songwriting on there, and I wanted to produce, which was the only thing I did that was anything special or anything different from anyone else who was part of Visage, which was a very democratic scenario. I didn’t take any more of a percentage or any more of the income from it than anybody else, but I spent 14 hours a day in the studio doing it – while everybody else just kind of floated in and out – because I was desperate to figure out how this worked in the studio. So the only thing I got that was different than anyone else was a production credit, and that’s all I wanted.”
Midge Ure ended his work with Strange (who was always the main space face of the group – rarely did he ever share a record sleeve with anyone else), and with sessions for a third album marred by further walkouts from Billy Currie and the Magazine crew—plus contractual shenanigans with management—in November 1983 a stop-gap album was issued, Fade To Grey – The Singles Collection.
The 10-track compilation included all of the Visage singles released up to that point (five of them UK Top 30 hits), as well as a pair of non-single tracks: an unreleased demo of Zager & Evans’ post-apocalyptic classic In The Year 2525, which held a special place in the ensemble’s recording history as the song that essentially kickstarted the Visage project back in 1978; and a remix of 1981’s We Move, a track that had been considered as an A-side in its own right and itself a cheeky cop of Bowie’s then recent dance floor filler Fashion.
However, it was the cassette and limited edition vinyl version of The Singles Collection that really aroused interest amongst aficionados, wherein the tracks were seamlessly segued club style as a non-stop Special Dance Mix. And where the standard LP featured remixes off the band’s first demo recording and 45 – the post-apocalyptic In The Year 2525 and, in all its mentholated glory, Tar – on the dance mix album these tracks were represented by their original versions.
Also included was a bonus eleventh hour addition, Der Amboss, a German-language version of the song The Anvil that emphasised the muscular meat rack mechanics of the original. It was Rusty Egan’s favourite cut on the ensemble’s second album.
“For me, The Anvil was the lead track,” he says today. “The Anvil in German, the 12-inch remixes, all that which I did with John Luongo was for me, the single. But the record company didn’t support that. They were pushing for another Fade To Grey so they were going for The Damned Don’t Cry!”
Night Train and Pleasure Boys follow the same vein as Anvil, they’re aggressive and fuelled by pummelling beats and dizzying, blaring synth noise. Inspired by the burgeoning New York club scene, Egan also had Luongo rework Night Train, pushing forward the female backing vocals to soulful effect, and replacing the clumpier snare sounds of the original with cleaner AMS samples, much to Midge Ure’s dismay.
It was another factor that led to him ending his tenure with the outfit. He went on record in 1983, admitting “the trouble with Visage was that there were too many chiefs, six characters all wanting an equal say without putting in an equal amount of work. I was doing most of the writing and producing, and we all knew Steve was the frontman, but when it became successful, jealousy and the nasty side of the business crept in. That was never the way it was intended.”
Amongst the all-conquering Thrillers and the calls to Let’s Dance, the collection scraped in at No.38 on the UK albums chart. As if to rub salt in the wounds, in the middle of a five-week residency at No.1 was Colour By Numbers by Culture Club, their mainman being the very same George O’Dowd who’d been The Blitz’s coatcheck boy. I’m sure Strange and Egan saw the funny side.
The additional tracks on the 2020 expanded deluxe edition you’re now holding are: Frequency 7 (original 7” vocal version and B-side to Tar); Der Amboss; Pleasure Boys (Bonus Beats, taken from a rare DJ compilation circa 1986), and, making their first ever appearance on a Visage album, John Luongo’s 7″ remix and dub versions of Night Train. All aboard.
Of course, it’s Fade To Grey’s instantly recognisable CR78 drum track, hypnotic synth bassline and haunting string tones (played by Chris Payne on a Polymoog) that saw it voted Song of the Decade on the prestigious German music show Hit Giganten during an Eighties special in 2010.
In recent years, trendy réchauffé even brought the track back in various dizzying new reimaginings and affectionate pastiches, from Kelly Osbourne’s One Word in 2005 (the Visage camp sued, quite rightly, to get a share of its publishing royalties: “Linda Perry, the producer and writer, realised her error and relinquished her entire rights to the song,” says Payne) to Kylie Minogue’s Like A Drug (2007) and Pet Shop Boys’ Fluorescent in 2013 (OK, they seem to have got away with those two).
“I think Fade to Grey has become a bigger song now than it ever was at the time,” observes Midge Are. “It was, like, the start pistol for the whole electronic dance thing that happened afterwards. I think at the time it was maybe novel, and I think over the years you look back it and say, ‘No, I think that was the start of something quite special.’ So it’s kind of grown up. Maybe that’s what it is: it’s grown into its boots these days.”
Journalist and author of the book BowieStyle