'80s - Visage / Steve Strange (2013)
'Welcome To Strange Time!'
Visage are a British new wave band. Formed in 1978, the band became closely linked to the burgeoning new romantic fashion movement of the early 1980s, and are best known for their hit 'Fade to Grey' released in 1981.
Founder members Steve Strange and Rusty Egan were hosting club nights at Blitz nightclub in Great Queen Street, London at the time and were eager to find new music to play, ultimately opting to create music themselves. Initially, the band was composed of Strange, Egan and Midge Ure.
The band's line-up was completed with the addition of Ultravox keyboardist Billy Currie and three quarters of the post-punk band Magazine – guitarist John McGeoch, keyboardist Dave Formula and bassist Barry Adamson (who left the band early on after the band's debut single, but returned as a session musician).
The band's second single, 'Fade to Grey', was released and became a huge hit in early 1981. It made the top ten in the UK and several other countries, reaching #1 in Germany and Switzerland. The album also became a Top 20 hit in the UK and was certified Silver by the British Phonographic Industry.
After further hits with the singles 'Mind of a Toy' and the title track 'Visage,' Strange struggled to reunite the band's members again to record a second album because of their commitments with their respective bands. So, with some band members gone, in the autumn of 1981 Visage went into the studio again and recorded The Anvil. Released in early 1982 it became Visage's only UK top ten album, producing two top-twenty singles: 'The Damned Don't Cry' and 'Night Train.' Like their first album, The Anvil earned a Silver disc in the UK.
Polydor issued a "best of" compilation in 1983 entitled Fade to Grey – The Singles Collection which included all of the singles released to date and the previously unreleased 'In The Year 2525.' And in 1984, with their contractual problems resolved, Visage returned for what would be their third (and looked to be final) album, Beat Boy. Released late that year, it was sadly a commercial failure, peaking at a lowly No. 79 in the UK. The two singles from the album, 'Love Glove' and 'Beat Boy' also failed to make the UK top 40.
The band broke up ... but some 29 years later Strange and Co. have brought us a brand new Visage album, Hearts & Knives.
And so, having been a fan of Visage's music since day one (back in the UK), it was a real pleasure to finally sit down with the man himself, Steve Strange to talk about, well, all-things Strange!
'Steve Strange' Is Born!
So when did Steve Harrington become Steve Strange? "In a way it's always been Steve Strange," he laughs, "From the age of 12 when I got banned from school for having bright orange hair! I soon became the unique freak from the village in South Wales. I think that's when I realized there was nothing in this small mining village that was going to keep me there."
Were you a good student? "I was actually a Grade A student. And so when I dyed my hair orange some of the school authorities came around the house and spoke with my mum. And she actually asked them, 'Look, he's a Grade A student so how is bright orange hair going to affect his education?' And so when I heard my mum say that I thought yeeeeeeeessssss! And then my mum, sort of being the great mum that she is, she said to me, 'You know, a smile costs nothing. Just raise your lips and say thank you.' I'm so pleased that when my mum and dad divorced my mum brought me up with manners and respect."
"But after a while the school got a little more serious about it and I was told I had to at least dye it a more school-lucrative color ie: dark brown. Something that would blend in with the uniform."
You used to wear a uniform to school? "Well, I never actually wore a uniform as I used to make my own type of uniform up anyway! But, even then one of my teachers took me to one side and said, 'Look Steve, as one of our Grade A art students let me just give you a word of advice. You're one of the best art students we've ever had in this school. Whatever you don't put in your work portfolio is going to be staying on our walls with pride."
"And because he spoke to me as an elder person and not down at me I absolutely listened to him. And I did compile an art portfolio. And it was around that time that I went to see the Sex Pistols. Long before they did the Bill Grundy Show and become known as the most outrageous band in Britain. They were merely just the Sex Pistols: a band that ripped their clothes and couldn't hardly play their instruments. But they just jumped up on stage anyway."
"Which got me into that kind of circle of the Bromley contingent and hanging around with Siouxsie [and the Banshees] who I became a big fan of. And my friendship with Billy Idol, who is still a great friend of mine today. And it was Glen Matlock who saw my portfolio, knew I was born in South Wales and said, 'If you ever think you want to come to London when the time is right you can always sleep on my sofa.' And that was like the green light for me. So as soon as I could possibly get away from Wales I was away. I was only sixteen and had about 30 pounds in my pocket. But told my mum I had a lot more. And I think my mum thought I was getting the train, but I hitchhiked up to London. And I didn't have any going back, really."
The Birth of a Pre-Visage:
In 1978 when you, Rusty Egan and Midge Ure first came together to create music, your first recording was actually a cover of the Zager and Evans hit 'In The Year 2525'. Not quite what we'd expect to hear from Visage! "No, and to be quite honest it was a bit of a testing ground on Midge with my vocal abilities. Midge had some free time at some very famous EMI studios and he'd seen me in another band and wanted to see if my vocals fit this new project. Which didn't have a name or a title to it. And he really liked my unique flare for style. And along the way his band The Rich Kids had always marked me out as being a pioneering leader of fashion. And never following fashion or excepting it. And he basically had the hindsight to see me in this other band and tell me I was too good for them."
"When I got in there I sang as if the world was coming to the end. I made sure Midge was not going to let me go that day," he laughs. "And so with 'In The Year 2525' Midge was testing my vocals to just see how far the world was going to come to an end. I can remember doing a performance in the vocal box, and a padded vocal box at that and I was holding onto this inside padding as if the vocal booth was literally going to cave in and the world was coming to an end. And towards the end of '2025' I'm screaming 'If woman can survive, they will find ...' and I'm really screeeeeeching that out!"
Steve on Midge Ure:
Funnily enough, I was talking to Midge Ure this past January and he also said he asked you to join his band not knowing if you could even sing! You just looked good to him! But luckily, he said you could sing and write songs. So, what has your relationship with Midge been like through these past 30 years? "Me and Midge are fine, yeah. I mean sure over time we’ve had our musical differences, but we never really argued. Sometimes we've even done the Here & Now and Rewind tours together on the same bill. So, no there's never been any animosity between me and Midge."
Steve on Rusty Egan:
That's nice to hear - but what about you and Rusty Egan?! "Yeah, unfortunately it's Rusty who's the one that's not letting things go. And basically, and not wanting to blow my own trumpet here, when Midge left Visage we carried on with Beat Boy. There was Steve Barnacle, Robin Simon and Rusty - but then Rusty tried to derail the project. He was on at the beginning of the project and then he was off. To be quite honest he was just too much hard work. And I just wanted an easy life. I just didn't need all the aggravation."
"So out of everybody it's only Rusty that I don't get on with which is sad. I find it very sad. Because me and Rusty had so much going for us when we started The Blitz. Basically, everything I touched was turning to gold ie: with clubs, music we were creating, the creative work force, the agency we started for make-up artists, stylist and photographers. Basically you could go to one agency and your band would be transformed by stylists, make-up artists, and hairdressers."
"And it's sad really as I did want him on this album but then he started making so many demands. But that's all in the past. He didn't derail the project. If anything he made me work harder and want to finish the album. I mean at one stage I did think it wasn't gonna happen but then I just thought there were too many good people I have around me. Loyal, kind, patient and considerate people waiting for this album. And that it was time for me to deliver."
"And so it was put on the cards that we were recording - and then it was off! And to be quite honest it was a bit like 'Is it on, is it off? Is it on, is it off?' So, I just dug my heels in hard and just said No, this is definitely not being derailed. We have an album that will definitely be finished. And I hope, and I think that through the critical reviews; not just for the album but the live showcases that we've done the right thing."
Visage Is Born!
With you, Rusty Egan and Midge Ure now joined by John McGeoch, Dave Formula, Barry Adamson and then Billy Currie, after the release of 'Tar' (1979) you struck gold when signing for the major record label Polydor Records - and out of that came the worldwide smash hit 'Fade To Grey'! Wow, you're head must have been spinning at that time! "I don't think it was just my head," he laughs, "I think it was my entire body. I was immediately catapulted into these nether regions by leaving Heathrow at Five in the morning. And I'd be doing TV shows, more or less in Italy or Germany. But in-between I'd do Spain and France and then Italy and Germany, or vice versa. It was really tiresome, but I basically wouldn't have wanted it any other way."
And I guess it's around that timeframe that you began experimenting with some things to keep on the ball, shall we say? "Honestly, there's always a dark side of everything, but I'm out of that dark side now. But yeah, I think that back in those darker days when I did some silly things I've learnt by those mistakes. And the only person that I harmed by doing them was myself - and maybe members of my family. By reading about stupid things about me in the press."
"And then I released my autobiography that went to #2 on the Bestsellers List and I dedicated the first one to my mum, my gran and my sister for all the heartache that they had to be put through. And I'm obviously now in a much happier place in my life."
And that's down to this new Visage line-up, I assume? "Yeah, I'm surrounded now by a new line-up of Visage which is a brilliant line-up. Like the addition of the sultry sounds of Ms. Lauren Duvall. And I'm working again with my old mucker, as I call him, Steve Bickell. And everybody in the band all want to play live and the dates are just rolling in."
Visage Live 2013:
Your live London showcase has been getting some great reviews! "Yeah, we have been getting great reviews and not just in England. But in Italy, Japan and especially Germany. We've had a couple of mediocre ones where they think the production drowns out my vocals, but critics are my life. If I didn't listen to them I'd be a bit of a dickhead. It wasn't slandering it was more critical of us live doing the future showcase."
"Which I'm really looking forward to doing on the 21st of July. The London showcase went so well that it felt like we literally raised the roof. It was fantastic. And we're actually doing a gig on home turf, being a Welsh boy and living in Cardiff. Because Visage virtually never played live. So it's fantastic having a working band behind me."
It still amazes me to learn that Visage never played live shows back in the day! "It was because of the way the band was set up. Evolving from super groups such as Ultravox, but Midge Ure wasn't in Ultravox at the time. John McGeoch was in Siouxsie and the Banshees and Dave Formula was in Magazine. So, basically playing live was a complete obstacle, you know. And so the psychology of us ever getting off the ground to perform a live show was never going to happen."
"Although we did about three. In fact one of them was an Awards show for when we'd won Single Of The Year when Radio Luxembourg was going. We won it in 1982 and it was for the Golden Lime Globes. And we played to 80,000 people and when we came off stage I was like I'd been plugged into an electric point! I was talking ten to the dozen and everyone around me was saying, 'Shut up Steve. Shut up!'"
Does singing live for you to thousands of fans make you nervous these days? "I think nervous energy actually propels an artist to a better performance. But yeah, I do go into my own zone before I go onto stage. And the band, especially Steve Barnacle and Robin Simon; even Lauren Duvall who's been with me for two years when we've played those Here & Now Tours for 60,000 people, they know I do go into my own zone an hour before show time. And if anybody within the group comes in asking if I'm alright that makes it worse. So they now know it's basically a time that's Strange Time! To leave me alone and I'll be fine. I'm fine, it's just I need that quiet Me time."
Hearts & Knives Album (2013):
Your brand new album still sounds like it was born in the '80s - which, to my '80s mind is a great thing! "Yeah, I think we've made it current enough to still sound fresh. And quite modern as well. But don't forget that with every piece of material used on the album there was not even a synthesizer older than 1985. There was no software. Actually, the only piece of software on the album was Prologic. And when they used that instrument, which can make any munchkin into a pop star via a fine pitch tuner, I asked them to make sure they took it off my vocals! Because I'd sound like a bloody robot," he laughs. "I've always said I'm not the worlds best singer, but I do it without the aid of a vocal pitch tuner. And, again, even though I'm not the world's best singer, I think I sound better without any aid, let's put it that way."
Indeed, so why was it named Hearts & Knives? "I think some of it was about the past. And some of it about having a big heart. And going through those dark days and the knives getting ripped off and shit like that. And being a survivor really. And also about wearing my heart on my sleeve and having to put up barriers to get rid of freeloaders. I've always been 100% genuine about everything, you know."
Absolutely. So, what is the new album cover art trying to say to us? "Basically, I've always had a high artistic level. It's always been one of my main joys of being an artist. Not just in the roles of music, but pioneering with covers and single sleeves. And the joy of working my time as a photographer too. And so I call my make-up artists my secret weapons. Because we all work together on ideas."
"And the idea was we wanted to split 'Fade To Grey' down the middle and then have my head breaking through this broken mirror. And then so through the pathways of 'Fade To Grey' is emerging a new image. And so that is what the cover is all about."
Your head being smashed through a broken mirror?! "Yeah," he laughs, "my head being smashed through a broken mirror and the spilt of the single sleeve of 'Fade To Grey' merging a new image. So that when you open the actual CD cover out you also get this magnificent poster. Where I look like a Kabuki Boy! With this sprayed-silver hair. It's quite a very striking image. And so when you open the CD it opens up much like the days when you got a poster in your album. It would be like the free poster you got, but now on your CD."
With it being 29 years since you last wrote and recorded a Visage album, was writing it and recording it in today’s world easier or harder? "We didn't want to use any of the technology that we could have used. We purposely shoved it all to one side all the software and gadgets and stuff like that. We wanted to prove we could still create that unique influential sound that Visage was known to pioneer. And yet still keep it current and fresh. And the only aid that we used was Prologic."
But what about the actual lyric writing process? "To be quite honest some of these songs were maybe ten years old and cut up and pieced back together. A bit of the Bowie format in cutting up lyric context from one song, cutting up lines from another, and then piecing it together in another song. I've always, wherever I go carry a lyric book. I take it with me so that I can jot down ideas."
A Follow-Up To Hearts & Knives?:
Have you got the taste back now that you've had thoughts about creating a follow-up album, perhaps? "Well, there will be, after the European tour, a time where Visage go back into the studio. Obviously not this year, but sometime towards April/May next year. So it's quite handy that I've carried this lyric book around with me. It's come in very useful."
A Strange Style:
I've noticed that on recent UK TV interviews you don't see to be as flamboyantly dressed as you once used to be. Have you toned things down as you've gotten older, perhaps? "Well, I'm a bit more mature these days, although I am dyslexic. And I'm ageless so I don't actually know how old I am," he laughs. "But if you've seen the album sleeve or any photo shoot of mine my attire is generally OTT. It's just for daytime TV yes, I have toned it down. But, like for the live shows I still don the Steven Jones hats and I've kept the theatrical costumes."
Your fashion sense and statements back in the '80s was second to none. Was everything you wore all your own creations? "Yes, definitely. And also the Visage videos which I'm very proud of. Not only was it 'Fade To Grey' that won Video Of The Year, but so did 'Mind Of A Toy.' And also a video that Midge directed, 'Visage, Visage.' I still look at Visage videos as mini epic movies. Sadly in this days record industry, budgets for music videos are virtually nil. But you can still be creative without very little budget."
"But I've actually had to fight for my art. I mean, this album sleeve, the way that it looked didn't come along and didn't just drop into the lap of the person who brought the album. I had to fight for it to be as perfect as it is. Because I am a perfectionist where image is concerned. And the photography of album covers or CD covers."
"I just don't work with any Tom, Dick or Harry. I have my favorite photographers that I've worked with over the years and luckily these people still love working with me for my creative output and input that I put into photographic things. And so they find it a pleasure working with me. And even though there's no budget in today’s record industry luckily enough people, like David Levine did it for me at a 'mate's rate.' And that's why you got such a beautiful album."
"And The Times [UK Newspaper] when they reviewed it said the cover alone should be hanging in the National Portrait Gallery and selling as a piece of art. Because this is actually art in itself."
Visage in America 2014?
So, as we're not called Exclusive Magazine for nothing, is there any you can exclusively leak out to us that you've not told anyone yet, perhaps? "Well, I might be jumping the gun here, but we might be doing a small mini tour of the US of A next year! At the moment they're penning in a couple of dates, but I'm sure being how well received the showcase in London was that more dates will be added. There was a lot of interest from the States, but it won't be a massive tour of America. More like a small club showcase."
Well, being that I'm here in Detroit I was blown away to hear that in 2011 you formed a band called the Detroit Starrzz and released the single 'Halo'! So, have you ever been here to Detroit and what inspired the band's name? "I did go to Chicago, but not Detroit, no. Funnily enough it was for the first album launch. And it wasn't me that came up with that name in full. I came up with the second part of it! Patrick Hearne who was in that band came up with the word Detroit."
"What came out of that band, which also included Lauren Duvall was that we were working with other counterparts in the band. But after about three months of working, and both being Welsh, and both being upfront and honest one day we just said, 'Pat, all you seem to talk about is garbled bullshit,' pardon my French. 'What comes out of your ass is coming out of your mouth.' He then said he was really, really disgruntled by all of this and that was that."
"So I got Kleiner Perkins' Head of Microsoft at the time to listen to this track, and in turn convince them to include 'Halo.' Basically, they contacted me because we'd done this sort of instrumental and they said, 'We love it, but it needs some words on it.' And so I had to do my homework because I'm not a massive Xbox fan. So I had to watch the game Halo and that's when I heard things like 'Destroy. The. Halo.' And so it became played at all the Halo conferences, which is mega, around the world."
"But due to musical differences me and Lauren decided to stay together and that's when I got Steve Barnacle back on board with Visage. And I said to the people at the record company if Steve Barnacle's back writing with me then I'm back on board with Visage. Because people were saying without you Visage isn't Visage. And you are the face of Visage. And they even counterpoint the name to you. The whole thing is you. And I thought well, even if we are walking away from Detroit Starrzz I'd found a gem in Lauren."
"She's got the most amazing voice. And I think her sultry, sexual female tones have added depth to the album. So that's why I put my foot down with the record company and said if I am back on the Visage bandwagon so is this young lady. She not only happens to have the voice of an angel, but she's Welsh as well! She's actually from the next valley along from me!"
It seems you have become very at ease with social media in the past year as you Tweet endlessly to your fans! "Not endless," he laughs, "not endless at all. I don't have the time to be endless. It was my friend Boy George who said, 'Steve, I've got to give you Twittering lessons because you're not getting enough followers as you should have.' To be quite honest I saw some people and they were up to 15,000. So I was like f**k, I'm doing something wrong here!"
"So when the Visage album came out I went full force and I think I'm up to about 14,000 now. I just don't have the time to do it as much as I'd like. I might just do it for half an hour sometimes. Then I'll go off it for two days. Because I honestly just don't have the time."
Well, you do seem to be doing a lot of interviews these days! "Yeah, and over the next few days to say I'm doing radio is a bit of an understatement. I'm not complaining, don't get me wrong. But as we said before about being Welsh and keeping it in the family, I'm doing a lot of Welsh radio for my Cardiff gig."
So it was Boy George that molded you for a better Twitter experience? "When I was first doing Twitter I just didn't have a clue. But then Boy George pointed out if I got into an argument with someone I could be taken to court. So I was very careful what I was putting up after that," he laughs.
But wasn't there that thing with him vs. One Direction on Twitter that just needlessly exploded?! "Yeah, there was one stage when he got really hounded by ... I call them the 'One Direction That Need A Very New Direction' ... and there was that whole banter from the 'New Direction' who were trying to slate Boy George for being a pedophile clown! Of course, Boy George being the man that he is said, 'Oh thank you, I'm gonna call my new album that!'"
"But I just got too involved and said, 'Listen girls, we've all been there. We've all hung on girls and boys bedroom walls and those posters soon get faded and soon get torn down and become toilet paper. So just remember this is all nonsensical and, as it turns out, all because of one member of the band not signing an autograph at The Brits! But that is the power of Twitter and how you can get yourself entwined in nonsensical arguments and don't realize the legalities of the areas you're getting yourself into."
Steve & Boy George:
Talking of Boy George, what's all this about you and he doing a new video for one of the upcoming Visage singles? One where you will be wearing masks of each others' likeness? Is that true? "Well, you're somewhere close, yes," he laughs. "Boy George is a very remarkable and talented photographer and yeah, we did a shoot together. And now we're doing another shoot. The first was for the highly-praised fashionista publication called Beige and this next one will be for Wylde."
"And I said to George, having seen the pictures he took that they were some of the best photos taken of me by anyone in ages. Everything he was doing with that camera, I asked him if he turned it around would he direct a video of mine? He thought I was just being idiotic and that I was just praising him up. So he said he'd actually done a new video and wanted me to look at it. So I looked at it and it was really good. And I told him I'd be really proud if he'd do our next Visage video. And I think for a while he still thought I was teasing him, but I was definitely serious."
So, will it actually happen now? "Well, what's happened since that shoot is that the Beige magazine has come out and people have said that the pictures are amazing. So amazing that Wylde then approached me to possibly do a spread for them if George could be the photographer. But me with my schedule and George, I think he's literally just come back from China, it might be tough. But we listened to the song 'Hidden Sign' from the album and George was up for it straight away."
And the masks? "And the idea for the masks, basically is that they have been made. So I think that it will happen, just not as quick as I'd like it to be happening. I think I'm gonna send him a direct message as soon as we've finished talking saying that we need to talk about this video idea!"
Finally, and throwing you a journalistic curve ball, we here at Exclusive Magazine love penguins - do you also, or do you have your own personal story about one, perhaps?! "I used to P-p-p-pick up a Penguin!", he laughs. "So my story does have a penguin on it, but it's a chocolate covered biscuit bar that come in packages of six!"
Interviewed by: Russell A. Trunk
Visage on Facebook
Hearts & Knives CD+Vinyl+SIGNED Red Vinyl Purchase Link!
But, if you would like to win an AUTOGRAPHED copy of Visage's new album Hearts & Knives right here with Exclusive Magazine, and you think you know all there is to know about Steve Strange, just answer this easy question: In 2008, Strange (and Visage II keyboardist Sandrine Gouriou) made an appearance in which BBC drama series set in 1981. In it, they also performed one of their songs in a scene set, funnily enough in the Blitz nightclub! So name the song too?!
Send us your answers and if you're correct you'll be in the running to win one of these wonderful new AUTOGRAPHED Hearts & Knives CDs! Just send us an e:mail here before September 1st with your answer and the subject title CONTEST: VISAGE AUTOGRAPHED CDs to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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