❚ THE STUDIO BAND VISAGE were central to defining the electropop sounds of 1980 thanks to the musical nous of Midge Ure, who had bought his first synthesiser in 1978 because he felt synths “embodied a kind of nostalgia for the future”. He’d been faffing around with Glen Matlock, Steve New and drummer Rusty Egan in the 60s-flavoured one-hit power pop group Rich Kids, and sensed an appetite in the zeitgeist for a more soulful version of Kraftwerk plus a return to melody. Intent on making vibrant dance music for the “visa age”, Ure dreamed up the name Visage for his new experimental band with Rusty Egan on drums.
They co-opted Rusty’s flamboyant Welsh pal Steve Strange as face-painted frontman to give visual expression to a range of what were being called “moderne” fashions. Dressing up in the face of a grinding economic recession was the destiny that Bowie’s children were to fulfil. Visage’s songs captured the sidelong humour and knowing irony that came to characterise the 80s, while their explosive backbeats, electronic fills and synth riffs changed the vocabulary of British chart pop. This TV generation dreamed in both sound and vision.
What Strange lacked in vocal proficiency he made up for in promotional value, since he soon became a walking advertisement for the cooler-than-cool clothes shop PX in Covent Garden where he was an assistant. Run by Stephane Raynor and Helen Robinson, they more than any other designers in 1980 set the template for New Romantics fashion, favouring oversized chemises, medieval doublets, breeches and frilly lace. The shop’s followers were soon dubbed posers, and the Pose Age was born. Disposable identities, portable events, looks not uniforms – for his disciples, Bowie’s imperatives became the norm.
As a studio project – the original lineup never played live – Visage probably was a case of too many cooks. The band took in several musicians, all of whom had other loyalties, while the creative drive came from Ure and Billy Currie. Even so, Currie was persuading the restless Ure to help resurrect the synth band Ultravox following John Foxx’s departure. By 1982 when Ure quit Visage in favour of Ultravox, Visage had enjoyed four top-20 singles hits in the UK and one top-ten album with The Anvil. As we now know, Ure went on to mastermind the Band Aid fundraising hit single and the subsequent Live Aid charity concert with Bob Geldof, and duly earned himself an OBE.
In 1984 a Visage lineup comprising Strange and Egan along with newer members Andy Barnett, Steve and Gary Barnacle put out a so-so third album, but when it flopped they soon called it a day. The truth was that Visage failed to invest single-mindedly in themselves as a musical enterprise: their progress simmered rather than blazed as individuals pursued their own favoured goals. Occasional tracks sizzled on the dancefloor – In the Year 2525, Fade to Grey, Mind of a Toy, Night Train – but the band lacked unity and commitment.
Nobody can deny Strange’s fizz and chutzpah which in 1979 coralled a disparate group of post-punk no-wavers and outcast fashionistas when he co-hosted the agenda-setting Neon Night at the Blitz Club in Covent Garden. It lit up London in an explosion of invention, gender-bending and ridiculous hair. As the club’s stand-out stars became media celebrities, these exponents of modern dance and stance began forcing the pace of change across the creative industries. Thanks also to Rusty Egan as a mould-breaking deejay, whose mixing did much to change the sound of clubland music, the pair went on to reshape London nightlife at two notable venues, Club for Heroes and the Camden Palace, during the early 80s. At the end of the decade, dance music as we knew it was swept aside by the craze for E’s and rave. Egan set out to make a fine reputation deejaying on London’s boutique nightclub circuit, while Strange can claim a ghosted autobiography as full of fantasy and foggy memories as you’d expect from an arch-poser who’d been out on the town every night for 20 years.
Roll forward to 2010. John Pitcher, who fronts a music services provider called MRC, established a Blitz Club record label and an associated website, and Strange and Egan launched it in January 2011 by throwing a Return to the Blitz party at the site of the former club. The event raised a few media ripples but little groundswell and only three remixes have been released in as many years. With 80s band revivals making waves all around them, that old Blitz magic had lost its charm. Egan said this week: “Pitcher registered everything for us, so he owns everything, including the website and the Visage brand.” Growing personal differences hindered collaboration between the three. These worsened last year when Egan made allegations that Strange had squandered a substantial sum of accrued Visage royalties paid via Strange and that he failed to share them among the original lineup. This week Egan said: “Try telling John McGeoch’s daughter her dad’s [share] was spent by Strange.”
When Strange proposed reviving the band name of Visage after almost 30 years, neither Ure nor Egan could see the point and they disputed Strange’s right to do so. Ure told an American newspaper in January: “Visage was always something Rusty Egan and I created and controlled. The idea of doing a Visage 2 was never appealing to me so I wasn’t interested. I walked away from Visage when it got ridiculous and supremely hedonistic and I will probably leave it that way.” In response to Strange’s claim on German TV last November that Ure was collaborating on a new album together, Ure tweeted: “He is deluded if he thinks that. He knows that isn’t happening.”
Rusty Egan remains aggrieved that Strange has not resolved recent differences. He is angry that Strange should make any claim to creative input into Visage’s lyrics and music, and maintained this week: “Strange had nothing to do with the music in The Blitz or Visage.” In January Egan said: “There has never been a Visage album without me. It’s my group and Strange is a singer. He is not Visage.”
Yet for all this, and Strange’s sad personal saga of ill-health, the vocalist has doggedly set about persuading a new circle of supporters to bring Visage back to life. In the face of widespread disbelief – the garrulous Strange’s little weakness, after all, has always been for exaggeration and melodrama – last year he announced a new “Visage” lineup, with a gorgeous singer called Lauren Duvall, plus Steve Barnacle (fretless bass) and Robin Simon (guitar). Keyboardist Mick MacNeil, from Simple Minds, was enlisted to contribute on a range of vintage analogue synthesisers which include an early Moog Source.
At last, what is being called a fourth “Visage” album titled Hearts and Knives is due to be released on May 27.
“It has been 29 years since the last Visage album and during that period it often seems like we have all lived through several lifetimes,” says Strange. Indeed, “bruised and wounded” declare the rueful lyrics of Shameless Fashion, the new group’s first single, available this week. It isn’t clear whether this refers to the very many contributors we see jostling for credits on the new “Visage” packaging. The Visage 2013 camp is probably keeping fingers crossed.