An Interview with STEVE STRANGE

Aiming for gold…

Original New Romantic vocalist Steve Strange of Visage fame is synonymous with one of the most flamboyant stylistic images; he defined and inspired an era.

He’s a figurehead that not only created a legend with the masterminding of the Blitz Club (along with DJ Rusty Egan, also of Visage) and its pioneering of acts such as Spandau Ballet, he also became tantamount with a movement centred around the highly emotive, electronic-based music that loaned itself to strong visuals. Life long foundations were made – all set against an elitist crowd of trend setting futurists.

As the face and voice of Visage, he became host to edgy stylistic concepts that worked to enhance a luminous exposure to his pop-tacular danceable anthems. Evocative shadows that would form the imagery of artistic vision, born out of immense musical creative capacity; such is Visage’s highly acclaimed self-titled debut.

Speaking of style, it’s no surprise that Steve would chose Berlin born German/Australian photographer Helmut Newton, known for his erotically charged monochrome photographic work, to shoot the Peter Saville designed cover for Visage’s second album, The Anvil.

But today, for Steve, it isn’t all about flashes from the past and silvery moonlit reveries. Far from Fading to Grey – right now Steve Strange is ‘Aiming For Gold’ – and that’s just his new project the Detroit Starrzz. There’s a Visage album in the making, a Bowie Tribute African Appeal album in the planning, and not least, Steve’s very own superb homage to David Bowie in the form of the Detroit Starrzz take on ‘Loving the Alien’, set to appear on their debut album and given the thumbs up by the man himself.

Given Steve was once ranked high amongst the movers and the shakers on the London club scene, Steve reveals he doesn’t miss London at all these days, having moved back to Wales some time ago. That said, he’s enjoying making the weekly trip to record the Detroit Starrzz debut, which is now nearing completion. Interestingly, the spelling of the name was inspired by John Foxx’s use of two ‘X’s.’

The Electricity Club took up Steve’s generous invite to sit in on a recent studio session, for a close-up one-on-one, blocks-on-blocks insight into all things Strange.

Photo by Jus Forrest

After what has been a fairly low-key period, you have taken on quite a busy schedule recently, not only with the proposed new Visage album, but also with the launch of your Detroit Starrzz project. You’ve got a lot on haven’t you?

I have! But one thing I’m very excited about is that we’ll be doing some live vocal PA stints around the country very shortly. What we’re going to be doing is, me and Lauren Du Valle are going to be singing live over Visage classics such as ‘Night Train’, ‘Pleasure Boys’, ‘Dammed Don’t Cry’, ‘Tar’, and then Detroit Starrzz tracks such as ‘Phone Sex’, ‘Aiming for Gold’, ‘Halo’ …probably around ten tracks.

Detroit Starrzz feature a very interesting line-up of highly regarded musicians / producers. What brought you together and how was the experience of working alongside them?

I’d recently started working with Visage on a track Midge Ure had wrote for the band called ‘Become’, and we’d got in with Rusty and Dave Formula. Everything was going to plan but some unfortunate circumstances emerged that meant we couldn’t finish it for the time being.

Now, this band Detroit Starrzz had been approaching me for a good five months. They had a song that they wanted me to put lyrics to and that was the start, with ‘Phone Sex’. In one afternoon they had the backing material and I actually had to come up with the lyrics. I couldn’t have asked for such a strong writing force with Detroit Starrzz, it was like striking up a brand new band. It was completely fresh, but the best thing about it was, we all seemed to be wanting to achieve the same goal in the same sort of format like style. My lyrics seemed to fit in to what they were creating musically.

Detroit Starrzz have been tipped as one of the most promising new acts for 2012 and you are currently recording an album. Can you tell us about the songs?

It came to us having the chance to do a homage for the Xbox game Halo, and that’s when I said to Patrick Ruane: “Now I’m going to be stumped” because me and Xbox don’t really go! Laughs.

I’m not one of these nerds that sit by and play war games or search for Mario or anything like that! So, I really had to do my homework and get into the spirit of finding out what Halo was all about.

What happened with ‘Halo ‘basically, is that we managed to get it to Xbox because ‘Halo’ was basically Patrick’s idea – you can ask him any questions on Halo and he will nail them! Hand on heart, he will know the answer to every single question.

‘Aiming For Gold’ I wrote myself, like being an athlete and wanting to participate in the Olympic Games. But I wanted to be like the athlete, in that through grit and determination, at times when feeling like throwing down the towel, but being the true survivor I was, I was going to be aiming for gold.

So, with the two songs I just thought there’s got to be an outcome in these two songs, because one of these is going to be right for either Microsoft or a PlayStation game.

Photo by Jus Forrest

I literally put ‘Halo’ up on Twitter and Facebook. Believe it or not, we got in at Microsoft. They really, 100% hand on heart, loved the track so much, and what had happened is, that if we had got that track in two weeks prior, that track would have been on 10th anniversary ‘Halo’. But when we got the email back, it couldn’t have been any better, it was like: “we’re so sorry we tried our best but due to the mammoth size of Microsoft we couldn’t actually entertain all regions actually getting the song to connect with all regions simultaneously, but we love the song so much we actually want to use it at all the Halo conventions throughout the world.”

So it wasn’t a yes and it wasn’t a no, and they also said: “on the tracks that we’ve heard, Aiming For Gold seems like you’re very much in the way that Microsoft like the sounds for their actual games and we’d really love to work with the Detroit Starrzz on up and coming projects in 2012.” It’s funny, because ‘Aiming For Gold’ is going to PlayStation for a game called Olympian. So we’ve had the best of both worlds, it’s gone amazingly well.

‘Phone Sex’ was originally going to be the first Detroit Starrzz single but there was a change in plan?

Originally it was going to be Phone Sex as the single, but having shows in Paris and Sinners Day Festival in Belgium, and then later on doing TV and radio shows in Paris and Belgium, they said: “what record do you want us to play?” and we said “Phone Sex” and they went: “well our show goes out between 3pm and 5pm and unfortunately, if you choose that track you are basically going to be demoted from an A playlist to a C list.”

All of the band me, Lauren Du Valle, Little Andy, Patrick Ruane and Rachel Ellektra, we all sat down and I basically stated like, if it was Visage coming back with that track, we could actually ride the crest of the wave with it being banned. But because the Detroit Starrzz are a new band starting out, we wouldn’t actually gather any momentum by a track being banned.

So the first single will be ‘Aiming for Gold’. We’ve managed to get a hitch of Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’ in behind the chorus. There’s stuff that you’ll hear on Soundcloud, but when we actually release the tracks they will sound different.

Visage, in particular yourself, headlined a key fashion/music movement breakthrough. This sudden explosion into the ranks of fashion and the music charts in some ways took their toll later on – but you are now making your comeback as it were?

What happened in all honesty was when I got really badly ripped off and wanted out of the music industry, I decided I was in a really bad place, and it was basically me making a real conscious decision that I needed to get out of this bad place and the people that I was being surrounded by. So called friends that weren’t, they were just parasites and leeches. I just decided to up sticks and move back to Wales.

For quite some time I’d been asked by the Here and Now tour people would I participate but I just literally wanted out of the music industry. When I was ripped off, it left a real deep impact on me, because that person I thought I could have trusted wasn’t the person that I thought he was all along. He was a con artist and my biggest mistake was leaving my first management, the guys that looked after Midge, Morrison-O’Donnell. If I’d have stayed with them, then, I’m not saying everything would have been fine, but if I’d have stuck with them, I’m sure things wouldn’t have turned the way that they did.

What happened was me moving back to Wales and having my close immediate family around me. And the reason I was actually saying no to the Here and Now people, I think realistically, I knew my confidence levels, and that I wasn’t fully up to appearing before crowds of people.

But you went on to do that tour in later years?

It was around 2003.

Photo by Jus Forrest

Your autobiography Blitzed had come out then hadn’t it?

The book came out in paperback then. The book came out in hardback earlier. I never knew that Blitzed was going to be successful and go to number two in the best selling lists and be as successful as it was.

Basically what happened was that people were actually paying in hardback about £18.99, and I remember getting really heartfelt messages from people saying: “picked up your book and literally just couldn’t put it down it’s basically – not only when you pioneered Visage, you basically made me make my escape from a drudgery sort of, small town and dabbled with make up” or: “now reading your book has made me not want to go anywhere near drugs.”

I just thought these people are spending nearly twenty quid and I’m turning down the chance to entertain them by not doing Here and Now, the least I can do is say yes and do a Here and Now tour.

I did the biggest Here and Now tour that I’d done and it was a way of me saying thank you to everybody that bought my book.

I remember it being very gruelling because I hadn’t been on stage for like ten or maybe twelve years and it was a nineteen date tour.

I just remember getting towards the end of it and thinking to myself I didn’t realise, realistically in my head…I thought I was ready. But towards the end of it, I realised how frail and gaunt I’d got due to the tiring schedule, and not just the fact of appearing and the amount of dates and like having so little days off, but also before the gig we’d have to do like a press conference or like a radio interview or a television interview and all stuff like that, so it wasn’t just turning up and doing the gig, it was all the paraphernalia that went with it as well.

Here and Now had never literally left the England shores but an offer had come in for Here and Now to go to Germany. Because Germany is, and was, Visage’s biggest and most loyal fan base, in the sense we even went double platinum…we even went platinum with the second album in Germany. There were three people asked to go to Germany, there was myself, Martin Fry and Kim Wilde.

I think it was literally five dates in Germany but these were like 15,000 capacity – all of them sell outs, and to be honest that is when I realised that I was potentially back at my peak and I was entertaining the crowds in Germany how I wished I’d entertained the crowds in Britain because as I said, getting through a bad time is one thing, but actually ridding the demons and getting your confidence back that’s another matter altogether. A lot of people don’t realise, its getting rid of the demons which is the hardest thing and getting your confidence level back to the peak.

Photo by Jus Forrest

When I was doing the British leg of the Here and Now tour, I thought I was fully conquered and fully back to the original Steve Strange. But then knowing the type of entertainment that I was giving the German fans, it was a whole different kettle of fish. I realised then that my full confidence was back and it was like having the original Steve Strange back 100%.

Then after that, I had appearances on things like Never Mind The Buzzcocks led to me sort of being put up for various reality shows, then there was me going into Celebrity Scissorhands.

You actually won Celebrity Scissorhands didn’t you?

I actually won it for two years running. I think Celebrity Scissorhands made the public see the real side of me. The music industry readership had perceived me as being very standoff-ish, very aloof and very untouchable and I think Celebrity Scissorhands actually saw me for the real person that I am. I’m very down to earth and if anything I’m more funny than I actually know I am.

Over thirty years later sees you recording a new Visage album. I know you can’t say too much about the upcoming Visage album right now, but, are you able to give us an indication on how it’s all going?

We are about nine or ten tracks into the twelve tracks of the Visage album and there are basically the foundations of two more songs that are more or less done now. Then it’s basically down to Dave Formula adding some different synth parts and Rusty doing live drums on quite a few of the songs. I want twelve songs in all on the album.

What about 2007’s Visage II track ‘Diary Of A Madman’?

The strongest track that’s actually gone out and been performed at Sinners Day Festival is ‘Diary Of A Madman’, that I penned with Dave Formula.

So that’s going to be appearing on the new album is it?

Yes, but every other track is being held under lock stock and barrel, so basically no airings, no previews, until everything is literally digitally recorded and mixed or remixed by various different remix engineers we’ve got in mind.

If we had our way we would actually like to have it out say probably May, and there will most probably be a single before the album. But I actually think the Detroit Starrzz album will be out before the Visage album.

Going back to the old days, what was the creative dynamic between the six or seven members of Visage in Martin Rushent’s Genetic Studios for the first album? Were you all working on different songs in different rooms or actually trying to all jam together?

We did actually do quite a few bits of jamming. In the sense of how I used to write, some of the songs I had to put lyrics to, so although I had been in a band prior to Visage, it was quite new to me, being in a studio and sort of writing lyrics and actually writing the first Visage album in that way.

To be quite honest, I think you know when we actually wrote the first Visage album, I think if it wasn’t for the likes of Godley and Crème, and Martin Rushent from Radar, it wouldn’t have happened. Sadly Martin’s not with us anymore, but I mean that is how we used to sort of write stuff, at the top end of his house and Martin was there and his studio actually wasn’t finished!

It was quite similar to the way in which some of our Detroit Starrzz tracks are written you know.

Is there any one member that you worked particularly well with or found more inspiring in some way?

Midge was very influential on me in the beginning. When I was in a band called The Photons, he came and saw me singing in this band. He said: “I’ve got some free studio time with EMI, do you want to come and sing?” We knew we had a club on our hands and we were turning a lot of people away; I was known as the strictest door whore in London! But basically we only had a handful of records so Midge was being sort of quite clever by actually appointing me to be a lead singer.

The Anvil was very much an under rated album. What Visage songs are your own personal highlights?

That is one of my favourite albums. My favourite Visage tracks are ‘Pleasure Boys’ and ‘The Anvil’.

The German version of ‘The Anvil ‘actually reminded me of Detroit Starrzz ‘Phone Sex’.

Well yes because I used some of the lyrics off ‘The Anvil’ on ‘Phone Sex’, the German lyrics off ‘Der Amboss’. But that album, when it got mixed reviews, they tried to say was that by using Helmet Newton and his stark bland black and white photography, I was actually trying to promote Hitler Youth! It’s not Hitler Youth at all! The way his photography style was, very monochrome – he had a certain criteria to his photography. I only chose Helmet Newton because he was the most hip and happening photographer at the time. So to actually get him to do the cover of the second album The Anvil was amazing.

On the album sleeve, I was dressed up in these boots, but it wasn’t a German uniform. If anything, if anyone would have got their period in history right, they would have saw it was a uniform based on Russia Tsar…it wasn’t an SS uniform at all!

With the cover of ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’, there were girls dressed around a table as boys… they were actually all wearing suits but they all looked like they were boys. I purposely did it so they were all blondes and I was the only black haired person on the table…

‘Night Train’s B-side ‘I’m Still Searching’ which sounded like proto-Pet Shop Boys and the electro disco of ‘Pleasure Boys’ seemed a good direction to go in following The Anvil album. But what prompted the abandonment of all that and then, the move into rock for ‘Beat Boy’?

I think it was Midge – as much as I love Midge, Midge basically did want to try to stick to a format. Although ‘The Anvil’ had a sort of edgier sound, with Visage, Midge would just sort of stick to a winning formula. We decided that because Midge wasn’t with us anymore, we were going to move in direction by getting Gary and Steve Barnacle, and Andy Barnett on lead guitar. It was like we’d had all the clichés of Midge telling us what we couldn’t do taken away so it was like…..

…being granted a new creative licence?

Basically, in a way, yes.

To be honest I think again – yes, The Anvil is one of my favourite albums, but I think that ‘Beat Boy’ was a very understated album and I think if it was remixed I think it would actually have had the opportunity for a lot more success. I think it was actually engineered and remixed by the wrong people.

Photo by Jus Forrest

With Visage’s self titled debut, I always thought the whole package very driven by art. That came through in the expressive music and even the photography on the cover sleeve. You clearly had a lot of direction with the visual aspect i.e. fashion and videos? Camels in New York, that type of thing?

Purposely though, I actually knew what I was doing. I knew that Andy Warhol was going to be there with various other people.

That was all your own creation then? You were the main driver behind that theme?

Yeah, Midge said “if you get on a camel I’m getting on Concorde! And I’m making sure you don’t get on it!” And that gave me the incentive to get on it even more! Because I knew that it would actually get all of the TV stations actually to cover the party. Basically Visage couldn’t go out and play live so the only way to get any international press was to actually create something so ludicrously obscure that the press was going to come to you, that’s what we did.

Later on, we would make a decision to play a live set on one of those Eurovision Festival TV shows and that would probably get seen by about 14-15 million and we’d do that in Capri or different places in Germany and stuff like that.

Going back to the early days of punk – you befriended Glen Matlock, among others, how do you look back on that particular movement in music?

I was in a band The Photons and then sort of Midge came to see us. At the same time me and Rusty had started dabbling in Billy’s, because we’d all got disillusioned by the whole punk era and how it had become very regimental and basically dictated by the nationals how to dress. I was hanging out with Billy Idol and doing artwork for Glen Matlock and Malcolm McLaren when Glen was originally in there.

Photo by Jus Forrest

There was an Ashes To Ashes episode based in The Blitz Club. You actually decided against the ‘Ashes to Ashes’ track for your recent homage to David Bowie?

My homage to David Bowie, ‘Loving The Alien’, is a track which is covered on the upcoming Detroit Starrzz album.

‘Ashes to Ashes’? I thought no, that’s too corny, because I was in it and I styled it, and basically chose all the clothes and chose all the extras. I gave David my make-up artist. I just thought it was too corny to do it and I wanted to capture something, which was different for me. But it was something which when we sent it to his press lady, he gave it the thumbs up and thought our track was really amazing.

Besides the album, what other plans do you have for this year?

I’ll be debuting my homage to David Bowie, ‘Loving the Alien’ live. And what I plan to do is, I’ve contacted a few artists such as Toyah, Hazel O’Connor, Holly Johnson, Billy Idol and I want to do a charity for Africa. I want these artists that I’ve named, plus other artists and I’m planning on putting a genre of artists picking their all time favourite Bowie album. It’s going to be done with the backing of a major record company but with a charity record to aid funds for the terrible events going on over in Africa.

So, we will have the Visage album and the Detroit Starrzz album finally done, dusted and finished and then my next step is actually achieving and getting the Bowie African Appeal album off the ground.

The Electricity Club gives its grateful thanks to Steve Strange.

Special thanks also to Detroit Starrzz – Patrick Ruane, DJ Little Andy, Lauren Du Valle and Rachel Ellektra.

Jus Forrest
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