Mark bids farewell to a musical artist unlike any other.
I can still vividly recall the profound affect that hearing Fade To Grey for the first time had on me. As a teenager in the infancy of my synth-pop initiation, whatever electronic delights remained as yet undiscovered, I just knew – even on the first listen – that it was destined to remain an unsurpassed masterpiece of its genre. It was akin to being presented with a bespoke piece of music – every tiny fragment of the arrangement, every chord change, every (replicated) instrument, those female French vocals, all mapped out and instinctively delivering me to where it knew I wanted to go next (even before I did), as if to spare me the trouble of trying to work it out for myself. Even now, those opening sixteen bars make my hairs stand on end in salutation to the man who gifted me that epiphany. Yet the fact that he reportedly played no creative hand in that experience does not diminish him in the slightest.
Steve Strange passed away last month at the age of fifty-five, following several months of ill-health which culminated in heart failure. By definition, anyone who pioneers a whole movement encompassing both music and fashion will find themselves in pretty exclusive company and Strange (born Steven Harrington) is an inductee of that elite.
Strange’s own revelatory moment came in the form of a Sex Pistols gig at his home town of Caerphilly, South Wales. After a spell putting on punk bands locally, he moved to London and formed punk outfit The Moors Murderers, whose members included Chrissie Hynde and Clash drummer Topper Headon. After a brief dalliance with contemporaries The Photons, Strange became disillusioned with a scene which – tellingly – he believed had lost its sense of individuality.
Shortly afterwards, Strange formed Visage with Rusty Egan, Midge Ure and various members of Magazine and – around the same time – began hosting club nights (with Egan DJ-ing), initially at Billy’s in Soho before moving on to Covent Garden’s Blitz club. Strange exhibited fashion-police tendencies in his role of doorman, rejecting those he felt had not been sufficiently imaginative or industrious in creating their look.
Having released debut single “Tar” in 1979, Fade To Grey followed a year later, released at the same time as their eponymous debut album and charting at number 8 in the UK (though topping charts on the continent). Composed by Billy Currie and Chris Payne (with lyrics written by Ure), Strange always believed that he deserved collective writing credits for the song, although there is some dispute as to whether Strange or Ure came up with the idea for the French vocal.
Following the release of second album The Anvil, Midge Ure left the band. Both he and Currie were also members of Ultravox by this stage, though the split was predominantly down to that old chestnut – “creative differences.” In a 1983 interview, Ure alluded to problems with respective contributions and workloads, whilst also implying that other band members had “recognition” issues (an irony which will not be lost on him post-Band Aid). Strange, for his part, suggested that Ure’s departure freed them from a creative straightjacket, suggesting that the latter was reluctant to evolve beyond the template of their first album.
Following the release of third album Beat Boy, Strange fell prey to cocaine whilst modelling in Paris. Visage disintegrated and – in a make-or-break effort to conquer his addiction – Strange fled to Ibiza, where he became a club host. Strange addressed his drug problem and other issues (such as an arrest for shoplifting and his bisexuality) in his autobiography Blitzed!. In a 2012 interview with The Electricity Club, Strange also suggested that financial difficulties were a root cause of his subsequent descent, referring to “someone I trusted ripping me off.”
The millennium saw Strange hooking up with an 80s revivalist tour, undertaking a brief and subsequently aborted resurrection of Visage and even flirting with reality TV. Latterly, he was a member of DJ/remix project Detroit Starrzz.
2012 saw a third incarnation of Visage and album Hearts and Knives was released the following year. From a personal standpoint, it is poignant that Strange’s last single release was an orchestral version of Fade To Grey in November last year, recorded as part of an album dubbed Orchestral, a classical re-working of Visage tracks, released the following month.
Although my musical tastes have developed a more “alternative” predilection over the years, I can honestly declare that the impact of the experience described in my opening paragraph has not been eclipsed by any subsequent recording. It takes an exceptional individual to induce an emotional state which endures so evocatively thirty years on and, for that, Steve Strange has my eternal gratitude.
- Strange appeared in David Bowie’s Ashes To Ashes video, having chosen and styled the extras and made his make-up artist available to Bowie.
- Ure, Currie and Payne were paid a share of royalties by the writer of Kelly Osbourne’s single One Word, following allegations of copyright infringement regarding musical similarities to Fade To Grey.
- Strange won BBC Children In Need reality series Celebrity Scissorhands two years running.
- Strange appeared in the Eighties-set BBC hit series Ashes To Ashes, performing Fade To Grey during a scene in the Blitz club.
- Strange used lyrics from Der Amboss (the German version of The Anvil) on Detroit Starrzz track Phone Sex.