MUSICAL genres have always been ripe for sending up. From Spinal Tap’s misguided metalheads to Dread Zeppelin, the Elvis/Led Zeppelin reggae crossover that mixed homage and humour, there is great comedy mileage in music. The more seriously the genre takes itself, the greater the potential for taking a rise, but few musical movements were quite so full of po-faced pomp as the New Romantics.
So we should all lift our three-cornered highwayman hats, arch a carefully plucked eyebrow and say a grateful "Bonjour" to Gary Le Strange. At last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Le Strange claimed to have "emerged from a desolate, post-industrial, pre-apocalyptic landscape - a world where lone dandies stood proud in the face of ridicule for their love of dancing, fashion, cowboys, pirates, robots, harlequins, tower blocks and industrial architecture."
This translated as Le Strange appearing in front of audiences in ill-advised PVC pants and peacock make-up while singing songs such as ‘Is My Toaster Sentient?’ Who knows the answer to that, but nonetheless the self-proclaimed frontman for the Neo Regency Face Warriors scooped the Perrier Newcomer Award with his show Polaroid Suitcase. Le Strange was one of the few acts unleashed on Festival audiences in 2003 through genuine word of mouth hype, rather than the big steamrolling machine which is increasingly the power behind the comedy throne for so many acts. Squeezed into an atmospheric space with sweat dripping from walls in the dungeons of the Underbelly, audiences were treated to a manic hour of intellectual spoofing filled with references to photocopiers, clay and all things grey and industrial.
Physically, Le Strange presented a vision of what could have been, had a strappin’ young lad in fishnets and a cape taken to the dramatic gestures and ridiculously overblown philosophies of the time. Lyrically, his songs railed against conformity and commercialism, whether it presented itself in the form of availability of Trabant cars or the aforementioned powers of a domestic toasting appliance.
Debagged of PVC and scraped clean of panstick, Le Strange turns out to be Waen Shepherd, 31-year-old comedian and erstwhile Adam and the Ants fan. The comedy character had started life as a five-minute slot that Shepherd, who has worked with Simon Munnery (alias Alan Parker Urban Warrior) in the past, did as part of a double act, but it had been brewing for years.
"It had been bubbling away in my head for quite a while," he says. "The Seventies revival had been going on for about 20 years so I figured that there would be an Eighties revival at some time or other. I had chanced upon some old Gary Numan and John Foxx records in a charity shop in the late Nineties. I found them so hilariously funny but also quite dark and exciting at the same time. That sparked off this idea of doing this character who was a bit mental and had had hard times but was somehow quite arty as well. An arty pop star."
Shepherd says he was too young to really have been a New Romantic himself but he has enough affection for the period to parody it effectively. "What attracts me to artists like Gary Numan or Adam Ant or The Human League is there is a lot of bonkersness about it," he says. "It’s all incredibly mad stuff. Early Human League is intensely strange. They had songs about crows and babies getting it together and having kids of their own that try to destroy the world. It’s fascinating."
What helps make Le Strange such a vivid character is that many of the New Romantic movers and shakers didn’t draw a line between real life and their stage personas. Shepherd has a theory that David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust was a blueprint for many of them. Just as Bowie’s fictional character often seemed to merge with Bowie himself, many of the New Romantic stars slipped between man and self-created myth.
"It’s the idea that by living the life you actually become that thing that previously you wanted to be," explains Shepherd.
This delusion also makes the New Romantics a godsend for satire. The posturing, studied ennui and empty interest in philosophy and art are just a handful of the targets that the New Romantics presented. Yet Shepherd is by no means wholly contemptuous of the scene.
"What can be funnier than something that is so ridiculous but takes itself so seriously?" he asks, but then adds: "There is something beautiful about that as well. It is beautifully ridiculous."
Shepherd has done a great job of continuing the joke in his website. Working on the basis that just doing a straight site to puff Le Strange would be very tedious, Shepherd’s web presence is presented in the form of a fan site.
As ever with satire, the humour comes from having more than a passing acquaintance with the subject being sent up. Le Strange’s website is purportedly run by two girls called Tracy and Michelle. Just the kind of suburban, hyper-normal names whose owners could see the attraction of escaping to Le Strange’s more glamorous world, and not too far removed from the relationship between Gary Numan and his now wife Gemma, who began life as his number one fan.
The tone of the site is bang on target, from the over-excited use of exclamation marks to the mangled syntax and personal trivia. In the FAQs, the question "what does Gary like for breakfast?" gets the Partridge-esque reply "We don’t know. But he does like Italian and Chinese food, so it could be spaghetti, or chow mein."
With the site, Shepherd has managed to capture the obsessional nature of teenage fads and the way in which they make fans oblivious to the absurdity of what is being said. The explanation of Le Strange’s different make-up styles, his two "war faces" is priceless.
"The usual one (his ‘Sexy Clown’ look) uses a lop-sided smile and slanty eyebrows reminiscent of Jack Nicholson’s Batman Joker, with a nought and a cross on each cheek. The cross represents the masculine side of his face, the nought represents the feminine side. In Gary’s other persona (which he calls ‘Earl Grey’), he paints on a monocle (which represents nobility) and a moustache (which represents Dirk Bogarde in Death in Venice)."
Shepherd says: "You forget how obsessed you could get about something. I find obsession quite fascinating. I’m quite an obsessive character anyway. I’d have to be to get this Gary Le Strange thing up and running. It’s a total obsessive enterprise but that is just mirrored in these fictional fans and their website."
Despite the music press making a few doomed attempts to revive the New Romantics under various Neo-Romo banners, it was a youth culture that has not had the shelf life of goth, punk or even, thank you The Darkness, heavy metal. Shepherd accepts that it was a subculture that died out but argues that New Romantic was an ill-fitting umbrella term for a bunch of artists who outgrew the scene to do their own thing.
"There wasn’t such a thing as the New Romantics," he says. "The New Romantic tag, which now encompasses anybody who dressed up and wore make-up around that kind of time, was something that was rejected by just about everybody who was part of it. All the major figures from that period moved on to do new music. Spandau Ballet became smoothie medallion men. Japan went their own way. David Sylvian went off on... shall we say his own creative path."
Shepherd finds empathetic echoes of the early Eighties era in people such as Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. Not so much in the music but in the theatricality and the obsession with decadence.
"It’s the same kind of imagery and it is inspired by the same kind of stuff that fed the imagination of Bowie and glam rock," says Shepherd. He has a point, but you’re guaranteed to get more laughs from Mr Le Strange than Mr Manson. The self-styled Rock Devil also has his funny moments but they tend to be unintentional, and executed with just a hint less metallic grey eye shadow.
Gary Le Strange, Tron Theatre, Glasgow, Friday (0870-013 5464) as part of Glasgow International Comedy Festival