Having shared a lunch over a year ago with an animated Rusty Egan talking excitedly about the possibility of a new Visage album, this has been in the pipeline for a while – since 2010 in fact. Sadly things don’t always pan out as expected and the Visage planned didn’t come to pass. No song from Midge Ure; no contributions from Chris Payne… or even Rusty himself, as it happens. No original members behind Steve Strange, instead Steve Barnacle from a later incarnation and Robin Simon from early Ultravox have been drafted in to appear here and there, along with Welsh singer Lauren Duvall.
Which leaves us with Steve Strange’s voice, never the strongest even when Visage were at their peak and a collection of songs which the production team behind this album have ensured “sounds like Visage” – specifically the first two albums, with a few sonic nods to more successful times… a CR78 pattern from ‘Fade To Grey’, for example. It SOUNDS like it’s Visage… so from that point of view, it’s been a successful exercise. But proclaiming they’ve produced the album so it sounds like it was done in 1981/82? Well, why is that a good selling point in 2013? The questions are therefore raised – is it actually any good? And how does it compare to Strange’s last project, the god awful Detroit Starzz?
Well, thankfully, while ‘Hearts & Knives’ is not a great album, there are some good things here for Visage fans. And no, it’s nothing like the execrable Detroit Starzz project. But while an impressive list of old synthesisers and production equipment has been used, the production – meant to sound like it was done in 1981/82 remember – is basic and flat. The drums were apparently recorded in a day. That’s not a good start.
The album kicks off with ‘Never Enough’… sequenced synth bass, Simple Minds-ish guitar. The song winds its way into your head – which is more of a testament to the song as it sounds unfinished, like a home demo, accentuated by the short sharp ending.’Shameless Fashion’ has been available as a free download for a while and is a good pointer for what’s on the album. A catchy chorus, pulsing synth bass, flat drums, semi-spoken vocals… albeit with a bit more guitar. It’s a pleasant enough 4 minutes.
Then comes the ‘Fade To Grey’ drums intro of ‘She’s Electric’; a bit more laid back this one. The verses have little going on and are really just a vehicle to get to the chorus which again has a hook. But again, let down by the bargain basement production values… the middle 8 keyboard solo sounds like it was done on a home keyboard brass patch but was apparently Mick MacNeil, ex-Simple Minds!
On ‘Hidden Sign’, Strange’s thin voice is painfully exposed on the verses – but another catchy chorus which with stronger production would deliver more. Am I repeating myself? Indeed! Many songs have Strange’s vocals doubled up by Duvall. ‘On We Go’ is a good example. Slow and atmospheric with some choppy guitar work but doesn’t really go anywhere without any studio cleverness to add any twists. The songs go from A to B to C without any real surprises en route. No sound ever takes you by surprise or hits you in the ears with any impact; no little twists to deliver something unexpected. A big noise has been made about the use of original analogue synths on this album but that’s no reason for them to sound so uninspired.
‘Dreamer I Know’ exposes the vocals on the chorus quite badly, despite the hooks. The song is good. The execution… well is almost an execution. It’s a singer’s chorus – and Steve Strange, with the best will in the world, is not a great singer. ‘Diaries Of A Madman’, by contrast – co-written with Magazine (and ex-Visage) keyboard player Dave Formula – has a bit of bite to it; Strange double tracking his own vocals which have a little more strength and menace to them. The chorus is catchy and simple.
So… what’s the conclusion then? Well, ‘Hearts & Knives’ does have tunes on board. For that reason, give it a listen. More often than not it manages to sound like VISAGE. But for the most part one is left with a feeling of “if only…”! With today’s music buying market expecting immaculate production, perfect vocals, and quantised timings, it IS a relief that Strange wasn’t autotuned to death – but more could’ve been done with his vocals, with the drums, the synth sounds, the production… while keeping it sounding like Visage. Ultimately it’s annoying that whoever is behind this project seemingly was only half interested in making it as good as it could possibly be. And how did it take them over 2 years to make it?
When many bands of old have come back with excellent, revitalising comeback albums (The Cars, Devo, Duran Duran and Men Without Hats as recent examples here), just trotting out a 9 song album and badging it as “VISAGE” isn’t enough!
With thanks to Vicky Berry at Quite Great PR. ‘Hearts & Knives’ is released on 20th May 2013 by Blitz Club Records as a CD and download
Billy Currie is a classically trained, multi-talented instrumentalist / composer. With a serious musical background, he was once offered a place at London’s prestigious Royal Academy of Music back in 1969.
He opted not to go; the prospect of regimented training and academics being promptly traded for a more creative and experimental outlook. He didn’t go far wrong and since then, he’s worked with Tubeway Army and subsequently toured with Gary Numan’s band in 1979. He was also a member of Visage (a studio-based project fronted by New Romantic icon Steve Strange), and co-wrote the smash hit single ‘Fade to Grey’ with Chris Payne and Midge Ure. Now a long-standing member (since 1974) of the new wave electronic rock/pop synth pioneers Ultravox, Billy has long since been associated with the technical side of song crafting. Without a doubt he is Ultravox’s very own virtuoso of counterpoint and melody, and famed for delivering sounds of radical contrast; all of which seem to hold that air of suggestive spontaneity.
Billy is typically noted for his trademark soloing, which in the main, was created using his ARP Odyssey synthesizer. His profound blends of some of the most harmonious and expressive sounds, have not only helped establish him as a player with a unique charismatic edge, and one of unprecedented musical sophistication, but have also brought a somewhat striking shade to the colourful threads that were interwoven to form the music of Ultravox.
As a violinist, Billy would create a stylish, yet subtle classical inflection that still manages to leave a glaze all of its own, some three decades-plus later. On an instrument that perhaps lends itself more to virtuosity than others, he has also given scope to some of the most meaningful and unique aspects of Ultravox compositions, when considering the eloquent melodic violin sequences contained within the vast majority of their earlier material. Alongside his sharp soloing however, be it on violin or synthesizers, there’s also the alto voicing of his viola playing, often understated and played legato – adding yet another dynamic to his sound.
To date, Billy has eight solo albums to his credit. Each exhibits many distinct and individual stylistic features, ranging from the exhilarating and worldly Transportation (Billy’s 1988 solo debut), to the organic violin/viola sounds that constitute Stand Up & Walk. The most diverse of all, perhaps, emerges from the dynamic, intricate orchestration that leaps off the score to form Unearthed – showcasing snapshots of the lively symphonic, all set against contemporary vision, with definite impressionist elements that arguably go a little way to trigger a reminder to the French composer Maurice Ravel. Other works include Accidental Poetry Of The Structure, a delicately voiced dialogue forming an impressive collection of sensual and evocative compositions. There’s the heavily weighted, emotionally charged, upbeat synthesizer sounds hailing as Push, and not least, the wonderful minimalistic expanse that is Still Movement – to mention but a few.
Following the reformation of Ultravox in 2009 for their critically acclaimed Return To Eden tour, there was more to follow in 2010, which saw them stage their show not only in Britain, but also in Europe and Scandinavia. In the space of just two years, fans have been privileged with the release of the Return To Eden DVD (filmed live at the London Roundhouse in 2009) and also 2011’s Moments From Eden EP (recorded live during the German leg of the Return to Eden Part 2 tour.). However, the best and most celebrated news would come in January 2011 with the announcement of a brand new Ultravox album in the making. Fast forward to May 2012 and the album is here. The album entitled Brilliant is ready to hit the streets with Billy lately citing his favourite track was ‘Live’.
Just very recently, Billy stated on his website that he was also working on his next solo output. The Electricity Club caught up with him to talk about his vast body of work and not least, the new Ultravox album.
The news regarding the new Ultravox album only became public knowledge in January 2011 and was a tremendous surprise for fans – when did a new Ultravox record become a very real possibility for the four of you?
It was July 2010. We had a meeting and decided YES!
New music is something you seem to have set your sights on fairly early on, picking up from previous interviews since the live reunion?
That’s correct, I discussed it with Midge and Chris as early as May 2009. They were not very interested then. We all got more serious about it while doing the 2010 Return To Eden Part 2 tour and in Sweden for the festivals, we spent the travelling time discussing how we would go about it. I have a great memory of Chris driving me and Warren all the way across Sweden to Varberg. We talked a lot. Beautiful country, especially in August. We usually went there in winter.
After putting out so much solo material, how did you find working with a full band again?
I was anxious at first. When we went over to Canada the first time in September 2010, we did not bring ideas with us to work on. I thought that was good. We all felt the same way. We had to start from scratch.
I brought a couple of very basic ideas just to fall back on if we got a NOTHING HAPPENING AT ALL moment. One became ‘Rise’. The band put such a great rhythm to it that I had to take my average idea off and do something better. Midge helped. It was a simple pattern of chords. A few 2nd inversions though. That’s an influence from my solo work. It’s just the bass playing the 5th of the chord.
How would you describe the tone of Brilliant?
It’s sounding bright and positive. It sounds like we are having a good time.
Stephen Lipson is an excellent choice as producer. What extra qualities has he brought to the album?
Mostly energy! He has lots of it! He is very organised as well. We mixed it together. He is very good with drums and the bass synth. He would work tirelessly on them. He never forgot the whole picture though. His sounds are powerful and direct. He responded very well to the mid-tempo tracks. With ‘Hello’, he helped us virtually rewrite it in the studio!
And with ‘Remembering’, he told us to go away and rewrite it! He does not take any prisoners. It was good that he knew how far to get involved. He knew not to start doing any writing himself. That was our business! We had a good laugh as well!
Violin is your first instrument and you are a left-hander that learned to play right-handed (violin/viola). Did this present any barriers during your early years when learning the instrument?
It did at the very beginning. It seemed so unnatural. It began to mean that I was much quicker making the notes, higher positions and generally faster. More head stuff. I loved the note number-crunching part of music like sight reading. My bowing with the right arm, which really should be the leader and creator, lagged behind a bit in power. My bowing got better when I was at Music College. My teacher likened the movement to animals and reptiles jumping to catch prey which I understood. Natural Instinct!
Did you feel any inclination over the years to become a concert violinist or involved in anyway with symphony productions?
Yes, that is what I intended to do. On viola, I led the viola section in the orchestra for four years, playing symphonies and all sorts of modern stuff. I loved the string orchestra as well.
You are a classically trained pianist. But what first attracted you to the synthesizer?
When I was in a band, I found that hiring a string synth like an Elka Rhapsody could put the track in a different world. A new world! So when I got the chance to buy an ARP synthesizer in 1977, it was to further that quest. It also cut like a chainsaw. It was nice to be heard. It was exciting to make my own softer sounds that would help the song by lifting it. I enjoyed making counter melodies to the vocals. Weird sounds could completely change the feel of a track.
Was it love at first sight with the ARP Odyssey? What made it so special for you compared with say, the Minimoog?
I just liked that honky mad sound. The LFO was in a good position for me. Just moving a slider up and down, forward and back. It felt right. The Minimoog was all knobs, it did not seem as agile. They were both incredibly spacey to use. Very different though. They were abstract times. You came, eventually, to a sound, used it and never got it back again quite the same way. A Minimoog that had to have the panel upright did not look cool for me but it had to be up to play it properly though. The ARP had a lighter keyboard action which I preferred.
Chris Cross had a Minimoog which obviously suited his role in the band and Warren Cann bought his Roland TR77. Was there a particular moment or influence as to when Ultravox Mk1 decided to utilise more electronics?
Our electronic sound started to creep in while making the Ha! Ha! Ha! album. My ARP, Warren playing more fours-on-the-floor like in ‘The Man Who Dies Every Day’, John Foxx’s vocals painting pictures, high synth helping with the pictures and Chris with the repetitive, still, bass guitar at that time, and robotic parts. In 1977, recording ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ was a milestone.
You’ve mentioned in the past that when you were asked to join Visage, you had ideas stockpiled from before Systems Of Romance, “things that John Foxx and I argued about that we didn’t use”. So what songs on that first Visage album started off as Ultravox ideas?
‘Mind Of A Toy’ and ‘Tar’. Another became ‘I Remember (Death In The Afternoon)’ by Ultravox and one was used as the melody on ‘Kissing The Shame’ by me on Push.
When the Vienna album was released, ‘Astradyne’ was the perfect opener and a glorious statement of intent. How was the track conceived, especially with all that interplay and the way the final section starts on that unexpected lift?
It is hard to remember now. Midge started with that strong melody, Chris’ bass was also a very strong feature. I played a piano counter melody behind. The track was so strong that we felt at ease to lengthen it with a long textural piano bit that is sort of bell-like with the metronomic bass drum beats and the violin tremolo solo. We even start it with the spacey piano bit. Midge came up with that final section lift taking it out of the long ARP solo. I double it! It is a very good strong keyboard part. I used to say at the time: “Only a guitarist could come up with that!” I meant that as a good thing!
It is very celebratory at the end. Definitely some La Düsseldorf entering the rehearsal studio.
The ARP Odyssey was as good as gone by Lament. But Ultravox were early adopters of digital synths with the PPG Wave 2.2, Yamaha GS1 and DX7…
I loved the PPG. It was hard to programme though. I loved that glassy sound. It could also be crisp and metallic! I changed from turning a knob or a slider to moving numbers or letter increments in a window. A bit like getting your money from the HOLE IN THE WALL at the bank, not a very expressive action.
How were you finding the transformation from analogue synthesis as a player and how it was affecting your creativity?
It was tedious! The DX7… I had a rack of eight, it was good for ending all creativity and causing a severe headache! Good sound though when stacked up. With MIDI, I found myself mixing the more boring DX7 sounds with Oberheim or PPG. That was fun. All my synths seemed to be connected by a MIDI cable, like a washing line, round the studio. I could have five or six different synths linked together to get one sound. That got a bit silly though.
You have worked with soft synths for a good while now and seem quite happy to do so. But at what point did you decide to get the ARP Odyssey fixed up for use on the latest album.
It was a couple of months before the tour. I used it on my Still Movement album on the track ‘Deflect Downward’. I use it on my solo albums occasionally.
Are you able to tell us on how many tracks the Odyssey appears on the new album?
What was the most disappointing synth that you’ve used, the one that didn’t quite meet up to expectations and why?
Prophet T8. I got it thinking it would be a competitor to the Yamaha CS80 but the action was always far too heavy. It was the only other synth that had a totally polyphonic touch-sensitive keyboard. It was about £4000… a bargain!
You mentioned on a recent update that you have played violin on the new album – something that has always been a big part of the Ultravox sound. Can we expect some immensely atmospheric violin passages similar to those that were prominent on the likes of Vienna and Rage in Eden?
There is a rhythmic violin on ‘Flow’. The rest are solos. One violin part is adding atmosphere behind the vocals.
The Quartet and Lament albums had less obvious violin parts than the previous albums. Were there any particular reasons for that?
No, but Systems Of Romance had no violin on. Sometimes, keyboards are so consuming, especially when there are lots of very interesting changes going on in technology. There certainly was in 1982 to ’84. To flag up your question about the change from analogue to digital, that was what was going on then. I sort of forgot about the violin.
You must be very proud having just completed the first new Ultravox album for many years. Are there any particular highlights for you?
I love the atmosphere of ‘Lie’, the chord changes of ‘Live’, and the simplicity of ‘Change’ and ‘Contact’.
Apart from the fact yourself, Midge Ure, Chris Cross and Warren Cann have all written and recorded material – in your opinion, what makes this latest offering a standout Ultravox record?
It is very positive!
You have mentioned that you are working on a new solo record. Based on the superior quality of 2006’s Accidental Poetry Of The Structure and 2009’s Refine, that is another wonderful piece of news. How far are you with it, and have you incorporated any new influences picked up from perhaps working with Ultravox once again?
I have got eight tracks going now. Working with Ultravox has encouraged me to get out my fiddle but I also thought: “Why not get my viola out as well!” It is quite a dramatic track with impOSCar sounds. Not too fancy. Mostly the violin and viola are in octaves. There’s some very strange violin on another. One violin is straight, the other is very effected! One track is very up with a tempo of 130 BPM.
I’m using Nexus, that is a synth that I used on Ultravox’s ‘Live’ (in the middle solo section) and ‘Remembering’. That could very well be an influence from writing with Ultravox. The album will be released realistically early next year.
Your first solo album was Transportation in 1988 but why was that released before the material you were working on which ended up as Keys & The Fiddle?
I started a solo album in early 1983. I expelled much energy but then decided to shelve the music. I had just come off the eight month Ultravox Quartet tour and we were soon to start the Lament album. Visage was breaking up. I had to keep an eye on my energy. I worked with Steve Howe on a couple of the tracks so when I started work on Transportation in 1987, I got in touch with Steve again as I loved working with him! Keys & The Fiddle was an album that Rob Ayling at Voiceprint wanted me to do in 2001. It was a process of putting out all the music I had in the vaults. So to speak!
Your solo work is primarily instrumental – how do you find your titles?
They come according to the nature of the finished piece.
So what’s coming up that you’re able to tell us about?
There’s the British and European tour with Ultravox. We may be venturing out further in the New Year. I cannot say where yet as nothing is definitely booked.
If you had to take just one of your instruments to a desert island with you, which one would it be and why?
My viola. I sometimes hate playing it. It’s so big and hard to get round if I am out of practise. I love the look and smell of it!
The Electricity Club gives its sincerest thanks to Billy Currie.
The album Brilliant is released by EMI Records on 28th May 2012.
Ultravox tour the UK in Autumn 2012. Dates include:
Bristol Colston Hall (21st September), Oxford New Theatre (22nd September), Portsmouth Guildhall (23rd September), Nottingham Royal Concert Hall (25th September), Birmingham Symphony Hall (26th September), London Hammersmith Apollo (27th September), Guildford G-Live (29th September), Manchester Palace Theatre (30th September), Southend Cliffs Pavillion (2nd October), Ipswich Regent (3rd October), Sheffield City Hall (4th October), Blackpool Opera House (6th October), Glasgow Clyde Audiotorium (7th October), Gateshead The Sage (8th October)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Featuring Duran Duran, John Foxx, Gary Numan and Ultravox
The Synthpop Phenomenon Re-emerges
Some three decades ago witnessed fine electrical currents of post-punk experimental playback; an all-new generation of musicians who pumped new blood into the heart of pop culture, embracing the synthesizer as a creative art form and blended to give an alternative voice to our musical youth.
In recent times, the synthpop boom that we came to identify with, has since re-presented itself in the form of several high impact releases from those original innovators of the genre. The Electricity Club investigates the possible contributing factors behind the mainstay of the synthpop phenomenon, as it continues its refined, yet hugely contrasted take on musical fashion.
“The mid-70s synth based music created for films and soundtracks like Dr Who, The Man Who Fell To Earth, Blade Runner, Serpico, Music For Airports plus Moebius, Cluster, Can, Neu! and Kraftwerk inspired musicians to use electronics and synths to create their music, rather than guitars. The sounds available were also inspiring lyrics such as ‘I’m In Love With A German Film Star’, or ‘The Man Who Dies Every Day’. Songs were written in the third person in a film noir style or even as a soundtrack.” – Rusty Egan (Visage)
Circa 1978 saw the formation of British band Duran Duran. Initially given the harsh cold shoulder by the British music press, they soon refused to disperse quietly and promptly exploded into the ranks of worldwide pop mainstream, earning an equally enthusiastic cross section of devoted followers. At one time, it seemed that there wasn’t anyone who didn’t have a soft spot for at least one member of the trendsetting five – and don’t say you never thought about those luxury yachts or the scenic Sri Lanka coast line; the songs delivered everything short of actually being on location. Such was the strength of the new era that heralded the pop video.
The waters often brought exhilarating sun-soaked excitement, but later, as the years marched on, the ocean had at times been reported as choppy, with a distant darkness looming on the horizon. It’s been a somewhat long voyage for them since; it wasn’t all cocktails and supermodels but thankfully, nobody got washed up.
2011 dawned, and unfolded to become what was clearly a year of definition for Duran Duran, not least down to the incredible success of their All You Need Is Now album. The once ‘ever so pretty boys’ had exceeded way beyond pin-up friendly, and matured into a tight unit that would put out some fine examples of decadent song crafting. They showed us how to take that tentative step over the strict boundaries that are so often put in place by some box-ticking social architect, one who seemingly goes on to define each genre and supposed fan model. They delivered an arena tour which would take the wind right out of 2011’s sails, and they proved their music gave birth to more than just a nostalgia trip for the over-indulgent recycled teenager.
Filling the large arenas worldwide is no mean feat by any stretch of the imagination. But not only that, their biggest strength, it would seem, now lies with new material; perhaps another phenomenon that escapes the general rulebook. ‘All You Need Is Now’ and ‘Blame the Machines’ are present-day cuts that unexpectedly merged so seamlessly when they were played live alongside the older staples. It’s as if there were merely years, rather than decades, between them. Technically, their sense of beat and overall rhythmic agility was nothing short of impressive; a winning formula that underpins so very tightly. Another key defining ingredient: think intricate and creative percussive embellishments drawn together with John Taylor’s funk-driven, precise bass. Their latest single, ‘Girl Panic!’, proves the point entirely; pumping out the adrenalin with its energetic Latino groove and striking percussive character. This perhaps goes some way to demonstrate exactly why they are a band that has reinvented themselves, only to emerge way ahead of the game yet again.
With the ‘Girl Panic’ video boasting nearly five million hits in just a short time and which sees the industry’s most respected supermodels feature, Duran Duran are without a doubt heading back into vogue as we bring in 2012. Granted, it’s not always been plain sailing for the Duran boys, but for now, this particular machine is free of blame and heading in the right direction.
“What happens with music is, it’s cyclical. It’s getting more like the fashion industry in that in some seasons certain beats sound right—then next season it changes. Right now we have all converged on what we were doing quite early on—merging dance beats with rock music and electronics—it seems to feel right. Fresh and vibrant again…” – Nick Rhodes (Duran Duran) via vanityfair.com
“John Foxx? Class cannot be erased.” – John Taylor (Duran Duran).
John Foxx, as an artist, portrays complete contrast against the massive PR machine that has carried the likes of Duran Duran through the course of the decades. Still, John Foxx & The Maths went on to win ‘Best Electro Act of 2011’ at the recent Artrocker Magazine Awards, and Interplay continues to receive huge critical acclaim.
‘Understated’ is a word that very much defines the original Ultravox front man, and that is where the thrill lies – a larger than life creation that somehow emerges from stripped down, hard electro compositions, leaving only a superbly pure attack of synth magic. Nothing is diluted in the slightest, there’s a brave thrust of analogue technology the appeal being that, yes, John Foxx is a purist. Not afraid to go against the grain; forgotten is the immaculate sequencing or the perfect production music and in comes a lovable retro feel that embraces futuristic trance. An untamed edge that once again surrounds itself by the common denominator of high class musicianship – given the ripened skills of Benge, Serafina Steer and not least, violinist extraordinaire Hannah Peel.
“Everyone should own the first three Ultravox albums with John Foxx…” – Nick Rhodes (Duran Duran)
Gary Numan, recently graced with the honour of picking up 2011’s Artrocker Legend Award, has been a long-standing pioneer of electronic music, being amongst the first to hit commercial highs since his 1979 breakthrough album Replicas.
An innovator with a distinct sense of individualism, he’s consistently maintained control over his sound. His latest release Dead Son Rising has shifted successfully into contrasting areas of his former identity; a shining experimentation en route to the dark, often metallic soundtrack that leans towards a science-fictional entrée, with some tracks even slanting in the direction of industrial rock anthems. Without doubt, Gary Numan has endeavored to create new dimensions with his unique blends that drive the synthesizer towards fresh pasture, while maintaining artistic vision; an optimistic outlook rather than repetitive recycling of formulae such that can only ensure additional longevity of our beloved Synth Britannia.
“…Gary Numan has a devoted lifelong fan base for his crafted songs and appeals to the iPod more than the dance floor. He just sticks to what he is good at and delivers and that requires a strong will and talent…” – Rusty Egan (Visage).
It seems Ultravox have always been noted for their significant step into the mainstream, following the appointment of Midge Ure as front man. They scored strong hit-making ingredients that would give them more than just a brief flirtation with Top Of The Pops. Hits such as ‘Vienna’ and ‘Dancing With Tears In My Eyes’ have become anchored mainstays; providing a point of identity for even the most casual of listeners, and hit on by many a radio station to this day.
“The group’s big success probably came from a dynamic between the members at the time of that success. When the members changed, the dynamic wasn’t there. Happens with most groups. But not all.” – Simon Napier-Bell (Ultravox manager, 1992-94)
Essentially very much a live band, their musical virtuosity took them beyond the quintessential pop record. With a clever combination of subtle classical inflections set against the integration of electronic percussion – not to mention some of the most expressive synth solos ever encountered – the fruits of experimentation were definitely on their side and ultimately set them apart as a band. Consider the growth of the pop video; Ultravox embraced visual artistic form. From great stage sets to iconic videos, such futuristic visuals bound tightly to touch emotions and create strong ambience, and produced a very dramatic and theatrical aspect that has endured a lasting effect, now synonymous with the band.
Today, Ultravox, remain a true synergy, showing strength in the fact that the band as a whole, have always presented an entity that is much greater than the sum of its parts. And now, nearly four years after reforming, they are about to release their first album featuring the classic line-up, in twenty eight years.
“I await with bated breath for Ultravox’s album. I believe they have retained their own sound and style. Midge has written many solo songs that I believe would have been amazing in the hands of Billy and co. They need each other and together they are truly amazing.” – Rusty Egan (Visage)
At this moment in time, it’s no surprise that Ultravox’s planned release has been one of the most debated throughout various online fan communities. Their foundations of course, were always rooted much deeper than mainstream medley and indefinitely provided the means to grow, which is why 2012 presents such an interesting and exhilarating prospect for both the band and fans alike. So, what can we anticipate from the forthcoming record?
“If Ultravox have strong songs (as I believe they do), Billy’s piano and ARP, Midge’s guitars and vocals, along with that amazing Moog synth bass and power drumming from Warren Cann , I can only expect an Ultravox who will carry on where they left off…as we saw with the Return To Eden tour.” – Rusty Egan (Visage)
In terms of what to expect, thanks to Midge Ure’s Twitter presence, there is evidence that the creative juices really are simmering nicely. January 2011 saw the band cocooned somewhere deep within the winter wilderness of Canada, equipped with Macbooks and guitars while Billy cradled what looked to be (and don’t quote me) his Frank Georg Rost viola. Without any whisper of a doubt, it looked promising. Shortly afterwards, Midge, Billy and Chris made their way to Los Angeles and we were subsequently furnished with more pictorial treasures – this time the mighty Warren Cann was caught tracking his drums at Studio City Sound. It was later revealed that the band would work with award-winning producer Steve Lipson; he produced Propaganda’s A Secret Wish as well as albums by Simple Minds and Annie Lennox. During this time, one particularly thrilling piece of news was the fact that Billy had dug out his old ARP Odyssey and got it fixed up ready for use on some tracks. Given his distinct ARP soloing sound had in some ways been the very essence of Ultravox in their heyday, such news would do nothing to contain the anticipation bubbling amongst the fans.
“It’s got Ultravox’s DNA all over it…” Midge Ure quoting record producer Chris Hughes’ comments on the new Ultravox material in a recent interview with Rockerrazzi
Throughout 2011, any sustained periods of silence were hard going for fans. However, anxious rumblings were promptly traded for excitement once again when cheeky audio teasers were released via Midge’s Twitter account. The tiniest insight into what was to come, yet perhaps too miniscule to portray any of the architectonic character we may have become accustomed to looking for. That said, the first audio snapshot still sent enthusiasm ratings into red with its style of electro rhythmic drive and a percussive persuasion that conjured a hypnotic reverie, decorated with an elevating vocal. There was more to come and the next sample was an obscure object of desire, roughly mapped against the likes of Lament. Definitely the ambient impressionist of the three we heard, with its evocative sense of space weaving a dose of relaxation. The final offering, on the visual side, was rather amusing and featured an upside down video. Click track aside, this short insight was a luminous construction, articulated by those previous melodic concepts that were so prominent in the past; intensified with a euphoric synth tapestry that went some way to create an intoxicating nostalgic touch, before edging towards a change in tonal direction. All short, but most definitely exploited in the most charming way.
Following the reunion tours of 2009/10, there was a time when we were very unsure as to what the next chapter would be as far as Ultravox were concerned, but that uncertainty now appears to be a thing of the past. It would seem the Ultravox revolution is definitely still growing, and let’s hope that when we finally turn that page, the fruits ripen and we experience the full bloom, not least in our headphones.
As far as the evergreens of Synth Britannia go, we can certainly underpin a no compromise creative policy as a common denominator when it comes to their pioneering stature as heritage acts, coupled with a slice of current production technique. Yet in their own contrasting ways, Duran Duran, John Foxx, Gary Numan and Ultravox are each able to offer something that is so uniquely identifiable with their own brands. They are soon to be joined by Visage who are currently in the demo stages with regards to working on a record, with the participation of Steve Strange and Rusty Egan plus contributions from Midge Ure (Ultravox), Mick MacNeil (Simple Minds), Chris Payne (Gary Numan/Dramatis), Dave Formula (Magazine) and Robin Simon (John Foxx/Ultravox).
“Duran have worked with the best current producers, as has Madonna. They write great songs and Nick Rhodes adds great synth hooks – the producers can take this and deliver a Duran record with all the right sounds. John Foxx has delivered a classic John Foxx album – by that I mean he has his own style and it’s still unique. I am a lifelong fan.” – Rusty Egan (Visage)
The rebirth of such finely tuned legacy brings forth a refreshing take on the shaping of our popular music culture certainly with the likes of Duran Duran, yet, more importantly, all play a pivotal role in the anchoring of synthpop. All too often, in this day and age, the ranks of reality TV have perhaps driven pop music towards the world of auto-tuned, over produced landfill, conveniently disguised as a karaoke freak show at best.
Long may Synth Britannia ‘waive the rules’ by ruling the waves.
Special thanks to Rusty Egan, Simon Napier-Bell and Gerard Franklin of Frequency Media.
Duran Duran All You Need Is Now is released by Tape Modern.
John Foxx & The Maths Interplay is released by Metamatic Records
Gary Numan Dead Son Rising is released by Mortal Records.