Remembering Visage Singer Steve Strange

Steve Strange of Visage (David Levine)
Steve Strange of Visage (David Levine)

by David Chiu

The British New Romantic movement lost a pioneer on Thursday when it was reported that Visage singer Steve Strange died of a heart attack at the age of 55. Strange and Visage – which also included Midge Ure and Rusty Egan – became renowned for their 1980 synthpop hit “Fade to Grey.” Known for his unique fashionable look, Visage also co-operated the popular Blitz nightclub in the late ’70s/early ’80s that was the home of the New Romantics. He also appeared in David Bowie’s famous “Ashes to Ashes” video.

After a long period of hiatus, Strange relaunched Visage with a new cast of players, who in turn released its first new album in 30 years, Hearts and Knives, in 2013. I spoke with Strange over the telephone for Rolling Stone and I have to say he was definitely one of the most interesting people I have interviewed. His responses, with a touch of charisma, to my questions were really detailed and elaborate, that it required a second interview. He offered an amazing glimpse of his life and influence during that incredible post-punk period.

The following are remarks he made during our conversation that didn’t end up in the final edited version that appeared in Rolling Stone.

On the Blitz and the New Romantic Scene:

[The media] couldn’t pin a name on us. For a long time, we were called the Cult with No Name, then we were called the Blitz kids, we were called the futurists. Because the way the clothing had an air of romance in it, a lot of the people we were attracting were from all walks of life, we had designers, photographers – it became like a cafe society. The crowd was growing even bigger, and the more tracks we were recording with Visage, a lot more guys were sniffing around.

We left Billy’s and moved to the Blitz. The Blitz was bigger again altogether, but its hindrance, it probably held about 280 people, and me being known as the strictest door whore, other times we had visits from the fire brigade. And the fire brigade said to us, “Look, you’re going over your limit. We’ve given you two warnings already. On the third warning, you’re going to lose your license.” I took it as quite seriously because the owner of the club was very much on our side and he said although we’re a member’s club, the nights that you do your night, we’ll tell our members it’s a private party…I didn’t want them to feel like they were in a goldfish bowl. I wanted them to feel like they were leaving their own home and once inside the door of the Blitz, it was like home from home.

So everybody in there was like minded people; it didn’t bother the girls, the guys started to experiment with makeup. It didn’t mean that the guys were gay, it was far from it. And a lot of people thought it was poseurs, but it couldn’t be anything further from the truth. People loved dancing, they loved being drunk. And don’t forget, we were in a recession with Thatcherite Britain and there was a lot of doom and gloom. And one of the sayings by a journalist was these bright young things of London, which are making London swing again, which it hadn’t done since the ’60s. It’s like shit is going down, but people want to party harder. It was although it was maybe these nights springing up over the UK and what it was maybe doing, was some form of escapism to an extent because as I said Thatcherite Britain was an ugly place to be [in]. This club was giving people that freedom of expression to be creative.

By this time, the A&R guys were sniffing around and Spandau Club and Depeche Mode and Duran Duran were all of a sudden wanted by every label. This music scene was starting to erupt, what had become a London thing had soon spread, like I said, Depeche Mode was from Essex, Soft Cell from Leeds, the Associates from Scotland, Duran Duran from Birmingham, Blue Rondo a la Turk from Wales. So it’s becoming a whole movement was taking over Britain.

On David Bowie’s arrival at the Blitz:

The night that he arrived, we had a few run ins with the fire brigade and henceforth the famous Jagger story. The night that this black limousine was going around, luckily that night no one from the fire department were on hand, but we had been given strict instructions that if we went over our numbers, the club was going to lose its license…we loved being at that club because the owner was on the same way of thinking as us. When I noticed this limousine going around and this French woman coming to me stating that there was a very important person in the back of that limousine. I think I said something like “You better be as important as these people that are queuing to go in.” She took me to one side and she went it’s David Bowie. I thought “Oh my God. How the fuck do I get him in the club without everyone knowing that he is here?”

And I went into a bit of meltdown and there was a back fire exit and I had to call some of the security guys…I had to call for a strong security meeting on how we were going to get him through the fire escape without everybody else knowing that he was in there. And also to be able to sit him somewhere where he wasn’t going to be mobbed. We managed to get him in through the fire escape. But people in the queue saw David Bowie going in and word spread like wildfire that he was in the venue and it was just like the amount of people downstairs that wanted to get up stairs and the security men had their work cut out that night because literally people were trying to climb over…in the attempt to try to get upstairs.

On the making of Bowie’s “Ashes to Ashes” video:

Then we got told that the location where we were meeting was at the Hilton Hotel. To us, that just epitomized glamour. Everyone had this preconceived idea that because we were meeting at the Hilton Hotel at Park Lane and at 6 o’clock in the morning that we were going to some exotic place to do this amazing video. And when we got there, there was this coach. We started talking to the coach driver trying to get some information about where the location was going to be. He said, “All I know is, I think it’s South End.” I went, “South End?” He went, “Yeah, you know the beach. I understand the singer has privately closed the beach so you won’t get any intruders sort of harassing you while you were in the beach.” Everyone was in ecclesiastical robes…walking on sand with long robes is really difficult. And also being pushed by a bulldozer, the reason is why I made that long sweeping movement, like the hand gesture when I’m walking, the reason why I’m doing that is so I won’t fall over. And I try to make it look elegant.

The legacy of the Blitz scene:

So many people say if they had a chance or if they had a dream, it would be to be alive in the ’80s to actually go through that whole experience of being a Blitz kid or a New Romantic. I really believe that is why the music holds such attention in people’s hearts, I think it was a lot real movement it gave kids that credibility and creative, it gave them the drive and creative and it gave them basically the balls to show to the world that we are walking pieces of art, we are unique freaks, but this is us. Luckily our music stayed relevant, it still stays fresh.

On “Fade to Grey”:

I never ever get tired of performing “Fade to Grey.” When we do some of the Here and Now and the Rewind tours, you can always tell that the people that have come to Visage that they are waiting for that “Fade to Grey” track. I never tire of performing it. What’s great about it, in Germany for instance, for three decades running, it has won single of the year. And that is such an achievement and such an honor to have the same TV channel have its viewers vote for their favorite single of that decade and for three decades running on RTL, the German’s biggest TV station, it’s been voted single of the decade.

On the influence of Visage on today’s electronic bands:

There’s a lot of young bands that have talent for instance, just recently Goldfrapp, Fischerspooner, the Hurts, La Roux, Little Boots, they have sort of given us credibility in the sense they also stated that if it wasn’t for the likes of Steve Strange, Visage, that pioneered this electronic music, we wouldn’t have this electronic pop underground scene they have today. They’ve given us a lot of respect and a lot of new credibility with a much younger audience.

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