The very beginnings of the short lived New Romantic movement of the early 80’s can be traced back to one band, Visage. With a style built around flamboyant fashions and make up, New Romantic was a highly visual expression perfect for the new music video generation. Visage was a sort of super group, fronted by vocalist Steve Strange, famous for his antics of enforcing a strict door policy at the Blitz club. The musicians came from various bands, including Ultravox, Rich Kids and Magazine, bringing a wealth of collective talent to the project.
The resulting 1980 self-titled debut album was an immediate hit, supported by several successful singles, including Mind of a Toy, Visage and their trademark Fade to Grey. Strong dance beats, moody synthesizers, as well as an occasional squealing sax, were the backdrop to Strange’s unique vocal style. This long overdue expanded edition is remastered from original master tapes and includes for the first time all Polydor-related period material on one CD for a total of 17 tracks. The 8 page booklet includes liner notes written by author Steve Pafford layered over the colourful single picture sleeves…
New styles, new shapes
It’s often an overused phrase, that of the supergroup. A supergroup is defined as a musical outfit whose members have successful solo careers or are part of an existing entity. Usually used in the context of hoary old rock bands, the term seldom applied to more contemporary musical genres such as electronica.
In British popular culture it’s a common misconception that the first synthpop supergroup was formed in the 1980s; calling themselves, imaginatively, Electronic and consisting of a New Order frontman, a Smiths guitarist and a Pet Shop Boy or two. Actually, the beat (boy) combo that can legitimately lay claim to the title was formed a whole decade earlier, and quickly became central to defining the electropop sounds of the early Eighties, largely thanks to the musical nous of a Glaswegian by the name of James “Midge” Ure.
In 1978, Midge had purchased his first synthesizer, a Yamaha CS50, because he felt synths “embodied a kind of nostalgia for the future.” Formerly the frontman of Scottish bubblegum band Slik, he’d been biding his time with one-hit power pop group the Rich Kids, and in part to make up for the shortage of suitable electronic music in the clubs, sensed an appetite in the zeitgeist for a less austere version of David Bowie’s ‘Berlin’ albums Low and Heroes (both 1977), or a more soulful take on Teutonic techno pioneers Kraftwerk but with an all-important return to conventional melody.
Intent on making these vibrant European-styled dance tracks for the new wave “visa age”, Midge settled on the name Visage (it’s ‘face’ en français), for his new experimental side project, complete with a simplified face as its logo. Initially he rehearsed updating Zager & Evans’ future-shock apocalyptic classic, In The Year 2525, using up some of the Rich Kids’ spare session time booked in an EMI studio in London. There he played around on his synths and a drum machine, before asking a fellow band member, the cockney wide-boy drummer Rusty Egan, to come on board. Ure and Egan had wanted to integrate the new instrument into the Rich Kids’ sound while the rest of the boys preferred to remain ‘authentic’ with traditional guitars and drums. The synthesizer resulted in the group’s decision to go their separate ways.
“London in 1978 was pretty bleak,” says LSE student turned Spandau Ballet manager, Steve Dagger: “Punk was finished—it was a burst of energy that wasn’t meant to last and it didn’t—and we were looking for something new, a new place for pop culture.” If you were a suburban art student and wannabe weirdo, this is where it all began. Disillusioned with the city’s nightlife, a new breed of creatives commandeered seedy unused spaces, ritualising the private party and staging extraordinary one-nighters.
Meanwhile, Rusty Egan had found himself a flatmate: “Steve Strange used to take me to all these odd clubs, like Billy’s, that were empty in the week,” recalls DJ/producer Egan, “So I suggested to Steve that we do a night and invite all the Bromley contingent—Siouxsie Sioux, Billy Idol and other stars of the future—and all the punks that don’t go out on the weekend for fear of getting beaten up, and get them all together on one night.” Rusty and the flamboyant teenage impresario (in a former life, plain old Steven Harrington from less glamorous Wales), took over Billy’s basement bar, a down-at-heel gay disco at 69 Dean Street, Soho.
Rusty’s first decision was not to advertise their new “club” in any traditional way. Instead, he handed out flyers with a picture of David Bowie, announcing: “Fame, Fame, What’s Your Name/A Club for Heroes/ Disco on the Trans-Europe Express.” Dubbed ‘Bowie Night’, their Tuesday stint lasted three months before Strange and Egan shifted the scene, and its colourful patrons, to The Blitz, and the rest, as folk are inclined to say, is history. Decked out like an air raid shelter, The Blitz was a World War Two themed burger joint cum wine bar at 4 Great Queen Street, Covent Garden. While Steve operated a strict door policy of admitting only “the weird and wonderful”, the drummer manned the decks, spinning an eclectic mix of dancefloor Dame with Roxy Music, Grace Jones and John Barry soundtracks. “This sound did not exist anywhere except in that room,” remembers Dagger. “It was a postmodern mash-up. You felt like you had stepped into the future.”
A mix of stylish students and fashionistas decked out in outlandish get-ups and painted faces, the primary mission of the habitués — Marilyn, John Galliano and the club’s ‘court painter’ Mark Wardel included — was to preen and pose. They were initially labelled by the press as The Cult With No Name and then The Blitz Kids, but by the time of Visage’s debut album were eventually dubbed The New Romantics. And after “Princess” Julia Fodor decided she was too regal to be a coatcheck girl, an outrageously attired young troubadour from Marilyn’s Warren Street squat named George O’Dowd ruled the cloakroom. Whatever happened to him?
“At some point Steve contracted hepatitis and they put him in one of those Hannibal Lecter type isolation units at Northwick Park Hospital, recalls Adam & The Ants guitarist Marco Pirroni. “My mum and dad lived around the corner in Harrow, so when he was discharged he came to stay with us for about a year. In that time he started Billy’s Bowie Night and after that, The Blitz. So yes, I was there on opening night and then most subsequent Tuesdays. I loved it! But it’s true that Adam (Ant) hated The Blitz scene, it was another one of his all-consuming frothing at the mouth rages. Nobody ever knew why, though he did try to to get off with Julia and was rejected in no uncertain terms. I think he thought that the Blitz Kids looked down on him, though that didn’t stop me getting a load of them in as extras for the Stand & Deliver and Prince Charming videos.”
Strange and his brash business partner realised they were on to something, and wanted to capitalise on the growing following for the records that fitted their nascent concept of “electro-disco” that was starting to supplant guitar-based post-punk… which in turn fed Steve’s over-riding ambition to be a pop star. As work progressed on Ure and Egan’s fledgling studio project, they co-opted Strange as the face, focal point and frontman of Visage, to give visual expression to a range of what were being called “moderne” fashions. Dressing up in the face of a grinding economic recession was the destiny that Bowie’s children were to fulfil with pride.
It may have been the start of a revolving door of cast members, but Visage’s core line-up was massively enhanced with the addition of Ultravox and Gary Numan keyboardist Billy Currie and three-fifths of post-punk miscreants Magazine – guitarist John McGeoch, keyboardist Dave Formula and bassist Barry Adamson. Producer Martin Rushent (The Stranglers, Human League), had heard some of the band’s material at Billy’s and financed further recordings with a view to signing the band to his new Genetic Records. Visage recorded their first album at Rushent’s home studio in Berkshire, but his label inexplicably collapsed before it had even got off the ground, and the band instead signed to an existing independent, Radar Records.
Brilliantly banal with a loopy synthesizer line, the portentous Tar, an ironic ode to the perils of cigarettes, was issued as the first Visage single in September 1979. Alas, business problems at the label meant the release failed to set the charts on fire. Thankfully the Visage project attracted interest from Polydor Records, who were keen to snap them up. Due to all the other Visage members being contracted to other labels, a complex arrangement was brokered by the Morrison O’Donnell management team with Strange being the sole signatory on the dotted line. A deal which Rusty Egan would later regret. And how.
Meanwhile in July 1980, a high-curious David Bowie, recognising some kindred spirits, paid a royal visit to The Blitz. Strange decided to let him in. “Steve’s door policy was fantastic,” recalls Midge Ure. “He wouldn’t let in anyone he didn’t like the look of. So he famously turned away Mick Jagger because he thought he was too rock and roll. But when Bowie turned up, all these cool kids suddenly went into turmoil and meltdown because The King had appeared.”
The great man himself had come to scout for extras to play a quartet of mourners in his now legendary video for Ashes To Ashes, thereby digging the scene and validating the venue at the same time. In a darkened corner of a room packed to the rafters with editions of him, the Thin White Duke decreed that Steve Strange, Darla Jane Gilroy, Elise Brazie and Judith Frankland were the chosen ones. The soon-to-be Boy George, much to his chagrin, was not. The chart-topping success of Ashes To Ashes created the language of the soon to be launched MTV, and helped to propel the New Romantic movement into the mainstream.
Although Visage’s eponymously titled debut had been in the can for several months, Polydor waited until November 1980 to let the general public decide, by which time Midge Ure had another new project, replacing John Foxx as frontman of Ultravox. Arguably one of the most audacious blends of pretension and provocation ever to trouble the Top 40, the set was dominated by the group’s second 45, the iconic Fade to Grey.
A reflective if slightly satirical lament on what could probably be described as the utter mundanity of a working man’s life, it pre-dated ABBA’s similarly subjected The Day Before You Came by a good couple of years. Of course, Steve Strange lived up to his name singing those lyrics in the somewhat bizarre promotional video, snake makeup and all, but hey, that’s showbusiness.
With its haunting, atmospheric use of Franglais (the evocative French lyrics were spoken by Rusty’s Belgian girlfriend Brigitte Arens, but it’s Princess Julia you’ll see mouthing the words in the video) Fade To Grey was a deserved hit across Europe, even reaching No.1 in Germany and Switzerland in March 1981.
Midge Ure’s glacial, high-tech production left plenty of room for Rusty’s fat, visceral disco wallop, providing a stirring soundtrack for the synthesized state of mind. The ten tracks on Visage bristled with ideas and atmospheres, and 38 years later this quintessentially Eighties classic has lost none of its grand icy drama: from the spooky, hypnotic Mind Of A Toy (the third Visage single) and the sweeping art-rock anthem of the title track (fourth single) to the completely incomprehensible but thoroughly enjoyable Blocks On Blocks and the charging martial beat and Duane Eddy-ish guitar on Malpaso Man, a knowing salute to Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns.
Elsewhere, Visa-Age, a quirky homage to Eighties excess, shows what an uncanny mimic Steve was, getting Midge’s vocal intonations down pat. The set is completed with three almost completely wordless tunes: the jaunty Cossack-quoting Moon Over Moscow (big in Japan, they say. No really, it was: the Japanese actually released it as a single), the preposterously ponderous The Steps, and, sounding like a lost Roxy Music flipside, the explosive glam rock groove of Ure and Egan’s lone instrumental, called, most appropriately, The Dancer.
The additional tracks on the expanded deluxe edition you’re now holding are: 7” and 12” Dance Mix versions of We Move (B-side to Mind Of A Toy, 1981); Frequency 7 (Dance Mix) (12” B-side to Mind Of A Toy, 1981); Second Steps (B-side to Visage single, 1981) and three Dance Mix extended cuts of that most tasty of triumvirates, the awesome A-sides Fade To Grey, Mind Of A Toy and Visage.
Detractors may grump and wheeze about the recherché aspects of all this, but Visage obviously struck a timely cultural chord in Europe. The LP stalled at unlucky 13 in the UK, but went Top Five in France, Germany, Belgium, Denmark and even as far out as Australia. Of course, Fade To Grey is the one incontestable classic Visage will always be remembered for. It’s undoubtedly a veritable velvet goldmine of a track, and the one song that Bryan Ferry would have hocked his last bottle of cologne to have recorded. It might be the band’s only Top 10 single, but almost four decades later it still leaves us poised at the lip of a chasm of tristesse.
So it’s time for you to relive those salad days, listen once more to that halcyon age and maybe get yourself blitzed with eggnog while you’re at it. Oh, my Visage.
Steve Pafford, Author of the BowieStyle book
Visage (Expanded Edition) is released September 28 on Rubellan Remasters