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The Face - The Best Of Visage Iain Moffat , March 19th, 2010 15:07

"From half-spoken shadows emerges a canvas. A kiss of light breaks to reveal all mirrors are redundant. Listen to the portrait of the dance of perfection." (Robert Elms introducing Spandau Ballet's debut gig at the Scala, c. 1980)

"Gawp at how awesome every record released in 1981 was." (Bob Stanley reviewing The Virgin Book of Top 40 Charts, 2009)

The notion of the past as a foreign country's an all-too-familiar one, but when discussing that particular era it's particularly apposite. It was, after all, an age when singles with the towering ambition of 'Stand And Deliver', 'Ghost Town' and 'Tainted Love' could outsell everything else, with silver medals going to the absurd likes of 'Vienna', 'Happy Birthday' (we're thinking more of the Altered Images one here, although there's plenty to be said for the successful political element of the Stevie Wonder one too) and, of all things, 'O Superman'. And underpinning this whole upheaval was the surprisingly short-lived New Romantic scene, arguably the most audacious blend of pretension and provocation to ever trouble the charts, and, while the Elms quote above is perhaps the most indisputable evidence of this, this here retrospective makes for a compelling Exhibit B.

Of course, given the extent to which it's been subsumed into popular memory - we're already ten years past I Love The 80s, and there's a whole generation now who don't even know that School Disco didn't always exist - it's easy to forget how dangerous a movement it was. Not in a sort of punks-as-folk-devils way, mind you, but it certainly tackled the prejudices of the era head-on: glam had had an element of androgyny, but it was never so militant about its sexual ambiguity, and the notion of Pop as Art was a risky one given that, at the time, apoplectic abhorrence of another unnamed figure getting a government grant for a pile of bricks (and it was always that, as if modern art's horizons extended no further at all) seemed to be a staple of every slow news day. And yet, in stark contrast to all the ghettoised subcultures that'd emerge subsequently, from goth to grime, it engaged wholeheartedly with the mainstream, which, if anything, made it more of a threat and much more of an influence, and, if anyone could be said to embody all these disparate threads, it was this lot.

There are, we're reminded, plenty of figures here who had what we might call form - Midge Ure's there or thereabouts, as he invariably was at so many key signposts from the mid-70s up to Band Aid, while there are members of Magazine and the Banshees on board at various points too (notably on early single 'Tar' and a more-useful-for-its-futurist-stance-than-its-actual-quality cover of 'In The Year 2525') - but, essentially, Visage was one of pop's great vanity projects. Steve Strange and Rusty Egan were, chiefly, club promoters and self-promoters (indeed, Strange appears in Bowie's 'Ashes To Ashes' video, making him possibly the first performer to appear on Top Of The Pops both before and during his pop career), yet, like Siouxsie and Adam before them, ended up making records that far outstripped mere scenesterism. Several of those came out in 1981, and, as Stanley suggests, were indeed awesome.

For instance, there's 'Mind Of A Toy', included here in its 12" version, which has a certain naively decadent charm that juts with a precise awkwardness from the dark, dehumanising themes it explores (placing it as something of an analogue to Kraftwerk's 'Showroom Dummies', a subsequent hit that Strange and co. would undoubtedly have been enormously well aware of) before mockingly and menacingly descending into innocent ice-cream tones. 'Visage' itself is both of-its-time (that'll be the syndrums, then) and yet fiercely forward-facing, its glamorous whispery minimalism, pristine keyboards, disco reclamation of the power chord and thrillingly jagged bass all pointing to a new way of approaching dance music, and, indeed, at New Order. And even beyond their imperial moment there were still pleasures to be had: 'Night Train' furthers the sense of Kraftwerk homagery by riffing on 'Trans-Europe Express' in a more frenetic and fractionally on-a-promise-of-debauchery fashion, while 'The Damned Don't Cry', its sex-and-death signifiers indicating how things could have eventually panned out, bristles with unusual pathos and sufficient prescience that it still sounded satisfyingly post-millennial at its Nag Nag Nag outings twentysomething years hence.

Plus, there's that piece de resistance. Admittedly, putting 'Fade To Grey' on FOUR times is overkill (or, indeed, something of a liberty - delete according to your sympathies), but, really, it's astounding just how remarkable it still sounds after the best part of three decades. Its name alone, overturning the views espoused by Neil Young in 'Hey Hey My My (Into The Black)', is a superb riposte to rockism; its celebrated talky bits in French are sufficiently striking to comfortably transcend their descent into cliche; and, from its misdirectingly classicist opening through the sudden, significantly undated techno soars that launch it into life and into Strange's oddly inviting opaqueness, its debts to the previously mentioned Teutonic tribes might be affectionate, but it's still that rarest of beasts: a record about alienation that sounds genuinely alien.

Little wonder, then, that this has become - at least since the mid-90s, when distance rendered a reappraisal not just ripe but canonically tolerable - the lingua franca of anyone attempting to marry commercialism with creativity. Sure, Visage themselves made missteps along the way (graciously acknowledged here: the somewhat Cabaret Voltaire-esque 'The Anvil' is far more effective in its German version, 'Der Amboss', so both are included; and '84's 'Love Glove' may have been a doomed effort to drink from the well in which Marc Almond had been all-but-drowning at the time, but, as a minor hit, it's represented too). But they've become a wonderful shorthand for style and substance, providing inspiration that reaches way beyond the slightness of their own catalogue; the Kylies and Richard Xs of the world would be all but lost without what was achieved here, and even artists not yet born at the time have been drawn to reference them, whether explicitly (there's no arguing that 'One Word' outclassed the entirety of the rest of Kelly Osbourne's oeuvre, is there?) or implicitly (hello there, Gaga!). The Face is a little padded for a greatest hits, perhaps, but if Visage had never happened then there's the very real risk that all pop could have turned out to be Justin Bieber and Jason Derulo, so for that alone we should be truly thankful.