Although his career as a pop star afforded him only one real hit as frontman of the band Visage, 1980’s austere synthesiser anthem Fade to Grey, Steve Strange’s distinctive image and party-loving persona saw him help invent London’s New Romantic scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Partly as a result of his other life as the host of Covent Garden’s seminal New Romantic nightclub the Blitz, he is remembered for his influence on the scene far beyond his relatively limited recorded output.
Born Steven Harrington in Newbridge in the Welsh Valleys, Strange spent his youth between there, Aldershot in Hampshire and Rhyl in North Wales, with his parents running guest houses and a café until their separation.
Expelled from school at 14 for dyeing his hair orange, Strange first witnessed the Sex Pistols at a gig in Caerphilly and soon built up a friendship with touring punk groups including the Stranglers and Generation X.
Featured in the Western Mail in 1976 as “Wales’ first punk”, he was offered a place in the latter band by Billy Idol – although he dithered, the future star soon left his mother and younger sister Tanya, escaping to London and falling into the orbit of Pistols manager and punk impresario, the late Malcolm McLaren.
While he cleaned toilets at the legendary punk venue the Roxy to make ends meet, Strange’s distinctive style on a shoestring budget – less punk and more glam for its reliance on makeup and extravagant clothing, in particular taking inspiration from his great hero David Bowie – quickly got him noticed. McLaren fostered his first musical project The Moors Murderers, one typically born of a McLarenesque desire for a strong image and a willingness to offend.
Infamously announced through a photoshoot before they had recorded a note, the group at various points also comprised Chrissie Hynde, future Clash drummer Topper Headon and punk style icon Soo Catwoman. They released one single entitled Free Hindley, and the minor tabloid furore which followed was not enough to derail the future careers of those involved – probably due to the project’s lack of success.
It was a chance meeting outside a King’s Road café with an Irish drummer called Rusty Egan which set Strange on the path to New Romantic success. Egan played with former Sex Pistols bassist Glen Matlock’s Rich Kids (Midge Ure was also involved), but when that project died he grew disenchanted with the punk scene.
Taking inspiration from the New York disco scene, the European electronic movement and the still-vibrant legacy of Bowie, Strange and Egan moved into club promotion with huge success.
Their Tuesday nights at Billy’s would be the stuff of London legend, as would their promotions at the Blitz Club, a venue which famously saw them employ a pre-fame Boy George to check coats, androgyne pop diva Marilyn as a “cigarette girl” and Spandau Ballet as the house band.
Their nights and venues included Club For Heroes, Hell, Slum It In Style and the self-explanatory Bowie Night, while in the time immediately following their fame the pair spent close to £1 million converting an old cinema into the Camden Palace.
In recollections of this time, however, perhaps the single episode Strange is most famous for is turning Mick Jagger away from the Blitz Club, although some weeks later he would sneak his hero David Bowie in.
The meeting saw Bowie invite Strange to create the styles and cast the extras in the former’s video for his 1980 hit Ashes to Ashes, and he was much later asked to play the opening party for the V&A’s retrospective exhibition David Bowie Is in 2013.
Having worked the counter at punk boutique PX and rehearsed downstairs with his short-lived band the Photons, Strange still had ambitions to be a pop star.
It was when the Rich Kids folded that these would reach fruition, with Ure and Egan inviting Strange to sing with them to use up the pre-booked studio time they had left, creating recordings which included a cover of Zager and Evan’s In the Year 2525. Enthused, the trio brought in keyboard player Billy Currie from Ultravox and members of post-punk group Magazine, and despite Ure and Currie’s growing success of their own with Ultravox an album was recorded.
Hand-in-hand with the top ten UK and continental success of Fade to Grey – it reached number one in 13 countries – that self-titled 1980 debut album did well at home and internationally, and although it possessed no hit singles (The Damned Don’t Cry and Night Train would place modestly) the 1982 follow-up The Anvil also found an enthusiastic domestic audience.
Yet Visage’s time in the sun flared all too briefly; with Strange being courted to repeat the clubbing success of places like the Blitz in various US cities, he dived wholeheartedly into the life of the international rock star, with all the pitfalls that entailed.
Put off by Strange’s drug use, spending sprees and debauched behaviour, Ure left to concentrate on Ultravox and Visage’s 1984 third album Beat Boy was a critical and commercial failure. The band split the following year, the same year that Strange first took heroin.
Although his flirtation with the drug was brief, cleaning up from the following year when he moved to organise celebrity parties in Ibiza, he described it as the worst mistake of his life. His struggles with cocaine lasted for longer, while a move back to Wales following his London home burning down in 1997 saw a period of mental illness begin, during which he was found guilty of shoplifting.
In later years, however, Strange had pulled his life back together, helping manage young Welsh band Jeff Killed John (now internationally successful as Bullet For My Valentine), publishing his autobiography Blitzed! in 2002 and releasing two more albums under the Visage name, 2013’s Hearts and Knives and 2014’s Orchestral.
He died aged 55 in hospital in Egypt following a heart attack, prompting tributes from friends and New Romantic-era colleagues including Duran Duran, Spandau Ballet and Boy George.