Visage Before Beauty: Steve Strange Interviewed

Steve Strange talks to Andrew P. Childs about reality TV, heroin and the new romantics. Oh, and, the perfect spag bol...

Incredibly, it’s 30 years since Visage released the huge dance floor hit, the era-defining ‘Fade To Grey’. And it’s even more incredible that Mr Steve Strange is still alive to tell the tale. To celebrate, Universal are set to release The Face: The Very Best of Visage including many of the original 12" remixes.

The infamous drug user and, recently, reality TV star can these days be tracked down to the South Wales coast where he now enjoys a relatively quiet life. The former dandy prince of 1980s clubland and new romantic pioneer is currently busying himself with the promotion of the revised and renewed sounds of Visage. He’s also excited to be working on new solo material with some young musicians.

The Quietus listened intently to a voice apparently marked by a million Marlboro lights and the tests of a more flamboyant time . . .

How are you?

Steve Strange: I’m OK but just getting over an operation. You know, I’ve been out of work. Not through choice but from being laid up from having an operation. It was from a hernia behind my belly button. At first it was a cancer scare but then they diagnosed the hernia and had to push it back. So no strenuous lifting and stuff like that.

What is more creative, doing a hair cut or having a hair cut?

SS: Neither. I think it’s more creative being in a recording studio. Actually, you can be quite creative when you’re doing a haircut if you’re left to your own devices and not when you have a hawk around you like Lee Stafford . . . and that’s a nice word for him.

Of course: you were sacked from Celebrity Scissorhands by that Lee Stafford bloke?

SS: I didn’t get sacked, I actually . . . I was diagnosed with what they told me, as a joke, [was] a hair allergy. And they kept on playing along with this joke and I’m getting weaker and weaker and weaker. So on my second day off I went to my own Harley Street specialist and said that I need you tell me what’s wrong with me as I have just got zero energy. When we got the results back it turned out I had gastroenteritis. Basically, I had to be confined to my own bedroom and drink as much water as you can, and eat when I feel like it. I never . . . I just slept for four days around the clock because I was that ill. I wasn’t sacked. The certificate was downstairs the whole time.

Did you genuinely not get on with him, or was it just played out for the telly?

SS: To be quite honest, that year there was a new production team brought in. I’d won it the two years prior to that. And it was great and it was a programme that seemed be doing what it was there to do, like Children in Need. And all the people involved, the so called celebrities, gelled very well together. You know, we thought it was all for a good cause so we’ll try it out. But the third series, they were lovely people, but they were a new production team and they seemed to turn it into Celebrity Bully Hands. They were doing the same things as they do in the Big Brother house! You know it was a kids’ charity show, for god’s sake, and they were really taking it out of all proportion. So in the end I had to take a conscious decision. Having spoke to my mum and I’m not name dropping . . . but Kate Moss was iPlayering me and she was phoning my best friend Miranda, who is Mick Jones’ wife from The Clash, and Kate was saying Steve is so funny on the telly, pass him my regards. I said to Miranda, tell Kate I’m not going on with it, I can’t. You know, my mum and my sister were really worried about my health so I just didn’t go back in and concentrated on getting myself better.

You broke the Guinness World Record by shaving 34 heads in one hour, what happens when you break a record. What’s the process, like do you have to go and collect medals and certificates and stuff and attend a special banquet?

SS: No, nothing came my way. There’s probably something hanging on the production team’s office wall. I saw nothing.

Now you are a bit of a reality TV star would you do any of the others like Celebrity Ice dancing, Big Bully, or anything like that?

SS: I’ll never say no, put it that way. I wanted to do the Jungle purely to overcome a lot of barriers, you know. And also there’s another one that I’m really pissed off I didn’t get asked for. It’s that show called From Pop to Opera! Think of all that free vocal training. How to use your diaphragm. Where to sing from and they pay you for it, fucking hell. If that came my way I’d be first in, without any doubt.

The 90s seemed like an horrendous decade for you, and the noughties I think saw a turn in your fortunes. How tough did things get back then?

SS: I just wanted to get away from the music business. [Recounts extremely libellous story] After promoting The Anvil I got into working on modelling campaigns for Jean Paul Gautier and was doing lots of catwalk shows and stuff like that. Someone offered me a line at a party and it turned out to be heroin. It did, however, relieve every bit of stress and all the problems in my head just seemed to go. So by the time the 90s hit I was well and truly in the throes of getting the devil off my back because that’s all that stuff is. All I wanted to do was get well and show people not to that stuff. And when I did that interview way back then when I held my hands up to it, it stopped a lot of people from going in that direction. But when it comes to an end it’s lonely and quite hard to come to terms with, like dealing with why it all went pear-shaped. And I think, when I started writing my autobiography at the end of the 90s was such a clean period and it helped me stay clean. Doing that lifted quite a lot of weight from my shoulders.

Visage, out of that original bunch of ‘new romantic’ bands, I think were the most left of centre, and maybe except for tracks like ‘Night Train’ were the least poppy out of that original bunch. Is that how you wanted it to be at the time?

SS: No. Well I looked at tracks like ‘Damned Don’t Cry’ and ‘Mind of a Toy’, as well as ‘Night Train’ as big pop tracks. But the rest of the album, yeah maybe. It was about getting a good balance. You wanted to be taken seriously. But the pop tracks were good quality pop anyway. And also the third album, Beat Boy, I actually think that’s better than the second album. Not many people know about Beat Boy because it wasn’t heavily promoted as we were going through our court claims and all that shit. But to me it was an excellent album.

It’s funny, I would say yourself and Boy George were lynchpins in the whole new romantic thing, in that the product you both had to offer individually was genuinely quite good, and pretty much out there. Yet it was you two who seemingly ended up in the biggest mess. Why do you think that was?

SS: Ha ha ha… well at least I haven’t ended up in jail, yet! God, don’t put me in that place too. In fact don’t put me any place where George is around . . . you might not see daylight for a couple of weeks. Ha ha.

Are you still buddies?

SS: Yeah, well whenever I see him, like when I’m doing Gay Pride or one of the Here and Now tours and we’re on bills together. Yeah. He adores my mum and if he comes to Wales you know we’re going to meet up at a show and stuff like that. And now that we’re older there’s none of that bitching behind each others back either. To be quite honest I don’t want to walk away from someone who is not going to put a knife in my back. I don’t have people like that around anymore. I haven’t for a long time. I’ve managed to get over that . . . you know, these sycophantic people who are only there to be in the entourage. It was my mum, who said, towards the end of the second album, Steve, why do you pay for all these people to eat with you at fancy restaurants? I said Mum these are my friends they don’t have much money. To which she pointed out that I was paying 60 per head for 30 odd people. She told me how ridiculous it was and that these people are not going to be there when you go down. And she was right but luckily about 5 out of 30 odd people stood by me and proved that they were true friends. Yes, George and I are still friends.

Midge Ure said his job was to make the music good and everyone else, which I suppose included you, had to take care of the image. Is that true?

SS: Not on all the tracks. Not at all no. I mean, the one thing that I’m pissed off about with Visage is for example ‘Fade to Grey’. It’s the only track that not any of the others had any involvement in. But that is what we did. You had to accept it. Rusty was going out with a French girl at the time and it was my idea to use her as the vocalist and change the English vocals into French. Now sometimes Midge wasn’t there but he still got a credit. And sometimes other people were not there but we had it written down that all the early tracks would be credited Strange, Ure, Curry, Egan etc. It didn’t matter.

From what I can see you were a leading player in the whole Visage set up, a lot more than just the face at the front. And as you say you were definitely an ideas person too. With all the nightclub stuff like Camden Palace and the West End clubs. How did you manage to keep everything going for as long as you did?

SS: With the success of the record sales it was all done, well a lot of it was done purely on cocaine. Which was supplied by people connected to the record company who basically see you as a commodity. The more countries you’re in in one day doing this that and the other, and all the press conferences obviously means the more records you’re going to sell. Basically, you do become a commodity to them. But on the nightclub scene I just think between me and Rusty we had such great ideas. I think by the time we got to Club for Heroes we thought we had found our niche. We were really happy there and it was great fun… queues round the block… packed to the rafters. We were then approached and asked if we wanted to be share holders and have carte blanche in running of The Camden Palace. I think what played a big part of the success of these clubs was the fact that I was doing all this promotion stuff, sometimes in 4 countries on one day. I think without being big headed, all these people turning up, sometimes there would be 2,500, I think a lot of people went to see if I was going to be there, or to see what other pop stars would be there. It would make the night more of a happening, even if I wasn’t there just because of that anticipation and excitement… it made it quite special for them.

How was it being immortalised in Taboo the musical?

SS: I couldn’t go on the opening night but my Mum went. And George came up to her with a bunch of flowers after and asked her what she thought of it. She told him that she thought it was great but couldn’t understand why they had given me such a forced Welsh accent. And then when I went to see it and I was enjoying it until the guy playing me came out I just couldn’t believe it, I was laughing so much, as I have never ever had a Welsh accent. I don’t know who was playing me, some blonde Welsh actor (Nathan Taylor). So it wasn’t until the First anniversary showing and they had a party. I was sitting next to the co-director who was a real thick scouser, I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, I mean a thick mouthed scouser ha ha ha. I asked him why he was portraying me with a broad Welsh accent. He told me it was because I was known to people for being from Wales and the audience have to get to grips with who’s who in the show. And once they explained it I was ok with it, and I did like Taboo. But I did advise them that they shouldn’t do it in America. I mean they heavily edited the show and re wrote it. But no one over there knew or gave a fuck about who Marylyn was, and most probably didn’t give a fuck who I was. And they wouldn’t get the references, the accents, the clubs etc, and what that new romantic thing, this new movement was trying to achieve at the time.

Do you still go clubbing at all?

SS: I still DJ occasionally. About once every three months. You know, the nights are marketed on The Blitz and how the Blitz created more than just outrageous people; the bands, fashion designers, photographers and interior designers. It was new cafe society really. It’s not a sad thing because there are a lot of these new electro bands get involved. I mean I was DJing bands like like La Roux a long time ago. I DJ’d at the Brits and I even did Peachy Geldof’s 21st birthday. I go to to Russia too and a lot of times play in Germany.

So, Universal are putting out a new Visage compilation what’s different about this compilation compared to The Damned Don’t Cry released 9 years ago?

SS: I hope that they’re sticking to their guns because I said to them that isn’t fair, because they have released a DVD which was supposed to me more than just a retake of that video from 86 and it’s exactly the same except for my input on the cover and what it said inside. Up until the film where I go to Egypt where it just looks like Steve Strange’s gone on his fucking holiday tour, to me it’s quite embarrassing. And embarrassing for the fans to be given a new box with essentially the same material in. But I’m hoping the different re-mix people that we’ve been involved with are going to be on it. So I think it will be different.

You’ve got remixes of Fade to Grey by both British house DJ’s Lee Mortimer and Michael Gray, who got them involved, are they your mates?

SS: No, that was Rusty.

I believe you were quite instrumental in getting The Damned don’t Cry released, how involved have you been in getting this record out?

SS: I kind of got involved from the bottom end, to be truthful, and have had to fight my way up. And say I want this done and that done. I can’t really say anymore. As best mates as I am with Steve Norman and Martin Kemp it’s like having this bloody feud going on with Spandau Ballet, so I can’t really say that much because of what’s going on at the moment with them.

A few years back, well before Heaven 17 did something with La Roux and Little Boots did something with Gary Numan, you launched various projects as Visage MkII with people from several electronic bands and projects from that time (Steven Young, Sandrine Gouriou and Rosie Harris from Seize and Ross Tregenza from Jetstream Lovers/Goteki) I can imagine that experience was more fullfilling than reality TV, did anything good come from that?

SS: To be quite honest I think at the time, my career had become TV, in a sense of reality shows, documentaries, and stuff like Never Mind the Buzzcocks. I just don’t think I had a 100% time to put into what I was doing with Rosie and Steve from Bristol, and the band Sieze. I just think so much more could have come from it if I had the time.

Who from the current bunch of new so called electro bands would Steve Strange like to collaborate with?

SS: Yeah there is… what’s her name? Name some of them. I can’t remember! I’ve had a black out but I love her voice. She’s really quite voluptuous. In fact, she’s more than voluptuous..

Little Boots?

SS: No no, Beth is the lead singer… The Gossip! Beth Ditto. I love her voice. Working with her would be good!

Visage was made up from elements of Punk and New Wave bands like Rich Kids and Magazine. It’s widely acknowledged that these bands bridged the transition from Punk to the New Romantics. If Punk hadn’t happened what would have Steve Strange gone on to do with his life instead?

SS: Most probably be locked up somewhere in Wales. No, to be quite honest I just knew I was going to get out of Wales with or without a Punk scene. When I put the Sex Pistols on in Wales, before the Bill Grundy show. The band were more shocked that the audience were more outrageous than them. So you know I knew that there was nothing more for me to stay in Wales for, in the valley anyhow. I don’t know what they’re like now. I live quietly on a beach house in between Swansea and Tenby.

Is there going to be any more Visage MkII stuff?

SS: Well at the moment I am working on my first ever solo career. I’ve got a guy a drummer and a guitarist, and I’m working with Naomi Sky on a project and also the Sieze guys again. We’ve got about eight tracks but I’m not holding my hopes up because the music industry, I’ve found since I got involved with this Visage compilation, has changed so much, I think for the worse. Ok, I know a lot of it is because of I Tunes and downloads and all that but it really needs some more energy. You go into label offices and there is nothing happening. I think these days A&R guys don’t even listen to anything, I think they just get advised on what to do next. So if it happens great..but who knows in these times. It will come out one way or another, even if we pay for it ourselves. I am really adamant that people will want to hear these tracks, especially hard core Visage fans… and you know the songs we have got are great.

What’s your favourite decade for pop?

SS: Somewhere between 70s and 80s. Obviously Bowie became my inspiration. Then Roxy Music, Eno and Lou Reed and people like that. I also like all the Glam stuff like Sweet and Mark Bolan. And obviously all the stuff that came out of the early to mid 80’s. The Associates were great. And Devo. Grace Jones was fantastic with that Warm Leatherette album.

Are you happy down there on the South Coast of Wales?

SS: I am. But if I didn’t have my bolt holes. How can I say it, even if it is reality shows, if I didn’t have my four to six weeks away from Wales every now and then. Or if I wasn’t going up there for auditions and to do TV shows then I would get very bored down here, but luckily things come in and get me on a train up to London which is OK.

The Quietus are putting together a compilation of our favourite pop stars’ cooking recipes. If you enjoy your cooking would you care to contribute? You never know, it may even lead to a spot of Celebrity Master Chef.

SS: Spaghetti bolognaise with a lot more garlic and lot more spice.

It’s a dish that prompts a lot of discussion. Some people say you should put chopped chicken livers into the bolognaise, some don’t.

SS: Depends who you’re cooking it for. If I was cooking for myself then yes I would. Some people argue that you shouldn’t put carrots in the bolognaise..

Yes, and I heard just the other day a lady on the radio suggesting that you should never put garlic in the sauce.

SS: Who would do such a thing? Outrageous!

The Face: The Very Best of Visage is out March 8 on Universal

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