Steve Strange, who has died while holidaying in Egypt aged 55, had a genius for parlaying what he already had into something much better. Like leaving a dead-end town in the Welsh valleys to become the king of London clubland, and a bona fide pop star.
Strange was the original Boy From Nowhere.
Fellow Taff Tom Jones’ hit single could have been written for Steve Strange. ‘Nowhere’, in this case, was the brilliantly-named Pantside district of Newbridge, Gwent, where a young Steve Harrington scandalised the neighbourhood by becoming the Only Punk In The Village when the Western Mail ran a shock-horror piece about this new “teenage cult” flocking to a Sex Pistols gig in Newport in September 1976. They illustrated it with a photo of the 17-year-old Steve with three steel chains between his nostril and earlobe.
He took punk for all it was worth, but knew when to get out.
Wales could never contain Steve Strange. He ran away to London and threw himself into the punk scene, where he lived in a squat with Billy Idol, had a one-night stand with Jean-Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers, and tasted national notoriety when he formed the short-lived Moors Murderers with Chrissie Hynde, releasing the tabloid-enraging single ‘Free Hindley’. But he was smart enough to sense punk fizzling out, and stepped up to drag London into the future.
He catalysed the club scene that shaped the Eighties.
With friend Rusty Egan, Strange launched a succession of club nights, most notably the Blitz, where a new generation of working class kids from the East End and the sleepy suburbs rebelled against the hardships of the early Thatcher years by dressing up rather than down. The New Romantics, as the papers christened them, danced in the face of austerity, while clad like sex pirates from Venus or as parodies of the old-school aristocracy. Flamboyant dandy Strange was Lord of the scene, famously standing at the portal with a full-length mirror, asking feebly-dressed hopefuls “Would YOU let yourself in?”
He made better records than you think.
Strange wasn’t a great singer or musician, but he knew people who were. Assembled from stray members of Magazine and The Rich Kids, Visage were the perfect Eighties entity: a band who barely functioned as a traditional live experience, and only really existed on video and record. ‘Fade to Grey’ is the one everyone remembers, inspiring a shameless rip-off by Kelly Osbourne (‘One Word’) and an exquisite pisstake by Flight of the Conchords (‘Fashion is Danger’), but the first two albums stand up as synthpop classics. Check out debut single ‘Tar’ for a lost diamond. Or the snaky bassline of ‘Night Train’. Or the staccato pianos of “‘The Damned Don’t Cry’, which anticipated Italian house music. Seriously.
Steve Strange knew everyone.
Draw a conceptual mind-map of London society in the Eighties, and it’s basically Steve Strange in a circle in the middle, with a load of arrows pointing to it. He had David Bowie on speed-dial — after getting headhunted to appear in the Dame’s “Ashes To Ashes” video dressed as a Greek Orthodox priest — and was matey with everyone from Jacko to Jack Nicholson. The photo sections of his autobiography Blitzed! are a Who’s Who of the decade, with Steve cast as the Warhol of the West End.
He had his downs, and his ups.
Strange’s struggles with drugs are well-documented, as are the low points of his later life, from his house burning down to getting arrested for shoplifting a Teletubby. But he was resurgent in recent years, relaunching Visage with two new albums (2013’s ‘Hearts And Knives’, and 2014’s ‘Orchestral’) and reviving the Blitz nights before the screen faded to black.
What to say: “A real one-off, and Wales should be prouder of him than it is.”
What not to say: “Mummy, why is that man pretending his arm is a snake?”