Steve Strange: The man who brought the underground to the mainstream - Articles - Soundblab

Steve Strange: The man who brought the underground to the mainstream

by Rich Morris Rating: Release Date:

In more than one way, Steve Strange, who died on Thursday at the age of 55, was the gatekeeper of early 80s cool. As grand don of Billy's, Blitz and the Camden Palace, he decided who was chic, glamorous or outrageous enough to get in, to be one of the faces of the scene. More than that, when his band Visage scored their hit ‘Fade to Grey’ in late 1980, its perfect synth-pop sangfroid and cutting-edge video defined the new rules by which all pop would hence forth play.

It’s easy for us to forget now, swamped as we are by cosy 80s nostalgia, in which Thatcher, yuppies, leg-warmers and striking miners all exist together in confused, context-free perpetuity, but the new pop-culture world-order Strange represented emerged from a self-made scene in which punk and underground gay culture clashed and merged in a way which was explicitly radical, dangerous and subversive.

Like so many scenes, the one which Strange helped create was both a reaction to and an extension of the one which had immediately preceded it. By 1979, punk had already been assimilated into the mainstream, and with that came a typical whitewashing of its identity: punk was largely portrayed as made-up of, and created by straight, white men.

Women who had been part of the London punk scene since its early days, such as Siouxsie Sioux, Chrissie Hynde, and The Slits, struggled to break into the music industry as easily as their male peers. And while many punks in London and Manchester had found sanctuary in gay clubs and bars, where they could dress and act as they pleased without confrontation, the music press favoured punk men like Joe Strummer and Sid Vicious who projected, outwardly at least, an uncomplicatedly macho image.

It was against this tightening of the boundaries of what punk could be and do that Steve Strange, born Steven John Harrington in Caerphilly, Wales, began to explore his place in the scene. He had already enjoyed some notoriety, if not success, with his short-lived band The Moors Murderers, which also comprised, at various times, Hynde on guitar, The Clash’s Topper Headon on drums, celebrated punk scenester Soo Catwoman, and Vince Ely, later of The Psychedelic Furs.

The Moors Murderers managed one single, the incendiary 'Free Hindley'. It’s near impossible to even hear the song these days, but you can

Chrissie Hynde talking about it and even singing a bit. After the band dissolved, Strange could well have ended up being a curious footnote in punk history, but he was far too ambitious for that.

The Stranglers might have sung ‘No More Heroes’, but Strange’s next move would be an explicit rejection of that ethos. Beginning with Bowie nights on Tuesdays at Billy's nightclub in Soho, Strange and his DJ partner Rusty Egan would eventually found Club for Heroes on Baker Street. Here, everyone wanted to be a star, an idol, a hero. In a validation of Andy Warhol’s famous quote, and anticipating our current social media culture, it was time for everyone’s 15 minutes of fame.

Strange was at the vanguard of a swathe of post-punkers, from Gary Numan to The Human League, Boy George to Morrissey, who had no problem with the idea being heroes to a generation of pop fans; more than that, they positively burned for fame and stardom, seeing it as both divine right and the ultimate revenge on a drab 70s society which had offered them nothing.

Strange’s new wave of pop stars would also offer a decisive refutation of The Sex Pistols’ nihilistic cry of “No future”. Against a backdrop of recession, unemployment, and post-imperial decay, defying the logic of their surroundings, these young, confident, would-be superstars said that, actually, there was a future, and the future was now. To prove it, they looked and sounded the part. They dressed like extras from Blake’s 7 and Doctor Who, and enthusiastically embraced the pioneering synth sounds of Kraftwerk, early Roxy Music and, of course, David Bowie.

Since the early Blitz scene was built squarely around Bowie’s various 70s incarnations (the glamour of Ziggy, the soul of Young Americans, the art-pop of Low), it was no great surprise when Bowie returned the favour by visiting the clubnight and inviting Strange and his mates to feature in the groundbreaking video for ‘Ashes to Ashes’. Strange might have famously refused Mick Jagger entry to his inner-sanctum of style, but Bowie had survived the scorched-earth policy of punk to become the premier influence on the post-punk demi-monde. According to Bowie biography Starman by Paul Trynka, Strange would later happily report that he had shared a passionate kiss with his idol during filming of the video.

However, Strange’s own taste of pop stardom would prove to be fleeting. ‘Fade to Grey’ would be Visage’s only UK top 10 hit. Ironically, it would be two relatively anonymous members of the group who would go on to enjoy the greatest success. Midge Ure, who like the band’s drummer Rusty Egan, had been a member of Rich Kids (fronted by former Sex Pistol Glen Matlock), would go on to find enduring success as a singer, producer and songwriter, while guitarist John McGeoch, formally of seminal post-punkers Magazine, would define the sound of early-80s alternative rock when he joined first Siouxsie and the Banshees and then Public Image Ltd.

Strange, by comparison, proved to be just a little too, well, strange for mainstream tastes. Sadly, it was soon to be heroin addiction rather than pop stardom that became his main focus. Although he would later build a successful career as a DJ, he never fully recovered from the damage wrought by addiction. He retreated to his home country, where he was arrested for stealing a £10.99 Tellytubby doll and given a three-month suspended sentence.

Strange never completely gave up on making music, releasing two Visage albums in 2013 and 2014, but his brand of self-made stardom belonged to a different age. He represented a time sadly long gone, when kids on the street dictated what was cutting-edge in pop and fashion, while style magazines and record execs followed.

However, there can be no doubting his influence on 80s pop and beyond. More than any of his peers, and like his hero Bowie, Strange staked his reputation on being a fearless champion of the new, taking underground club culture into the mainstream. After him would come the likes of Spandau Ballet, Duran Duran and Culture Club, who would all follow suit, but in a way which was diluted, safe, even cuddly.

We probably won’t get another Steve Strange, just like we won’t get another Morrissey, Poly Styrene or Prince. The floodgates which briefly opened in the wake of punk and disco, which allowed weird kids and outsiders from every corner of the UK (and to a lesser extent the US) to claim their shot at pop stardom, were bolted shut long, long ago. With supreme irony, Strange was barred from the pop party in much the same way as he used to bar the satorially challenged from his own parties. 

But thanks to the fearless, DIY spirit of Strange and his ilk, and the fast-evolving technology of the time which they exploited so effortlessly, we’ll never forget them. No wonder we get a bloody 80s revival every few years. Who wouldn’t take Steve Strange over One Direction? 

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