I was having a pint in the Lighthouse this afternoon when my mate Lee B. told me some sad news. The Welsh pop star and 1980s style icon Steve Strange had passed away.
Lee is about ten years younger than me, so he didn’t really know who Steve Strange was. On the other hand, I grew up in the time when the New Romantics were the biggest youth subculture since Punk. I remember hearing Visage’s song ‘Fade to Grey’ for the first time, on Top of the Pops, and being struck by how amazing it was. It was one of the first synthesiser-driven records to make the upper reaches of the charts, and marked a watershed in my musical education.
‘Fade to Grey’ was important to me in a couple of ways. First of all, the video was stylish, mysterious and compelling. It represented a considerable departure from the ‘band mimes their song in an everyday setting’ school of music videos that started with ‘Paperback Writer’ in 1965 and prevailed pretty much unhindered (apart from ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, of course) until the New Romantics discovered that it was possible to do so much more with the medium.
The subject matter was interesting, too. It was sung partly in French, but the opening lines painted a picture of life which I could almost relate to:
One man on a lonely platform
One case sitting by his side
Two eyes staring cold and silent
Shows fear as he turns to hide
It was a theme which would be reiterated in Bronski Beat’s song ‘Smalltown Boy’ a few years later. It was the tale of a misfit in a close-knit community, seeking escape and a new life in the anonymity of the big city. As I told you in Zigzagging Down Memory Lane, I flirted on the outer fringes of a fascinating scene in London when I was in my late teens. ‘Fade to Grey’ and ‘Smalltown Boy’ both spoke to me.
I’d grown up in the Valleys during the 1970s and early 1980s. Steve Strange was about ten years older than me, but he’d come from a similar background. In 2013, he spoke to BBC Wales about his formative years: ‘I wasn’t going to be a rugby player and I wasn’t going to go down the pit, so I ran away. I was a creative spirit and I ran away.’
That’s what we Facebookers call a relateable statement. I might not have had his flair for music, or his outrageous fashion sense, but deep down I knew exactly where Steve Strange was coming from, both literally and metaphorically.
I arrived in London during the fag-end of the New Romantic era. Gothic Punk was just getting started, at The Batcave nights. There were some fascinating characters in London at that time: Steve Strange himself, of course, and the other stalwarts of the Blitz club; Boy George and Marilyn; Adam Ant; Genesis P-Orridge and the rest of the Psychic TV set; Leigh Bowery, the outrageous Australian walking art installation, and his equally bizarre wife Nicola…
Looking back with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I could have easily thrown myself into the scene. In one of those countless parallel universes, I did. I was probably shacked up with a cute black-haired S&M enthusiast, working in a bookshop or a record shop, and dancing my weekends away to a soundtrack of synth pop and Bauhaus.
Instead, I’m back in the small town where I grew up. Then again, I managed to circumvent the whole drugs culture that went hand-in-hand with much of the music scene in those days. Steve Strange himself fell victim to the old monkey, as is well documented elsewhere. He came back to live in South Wales, and was arrested for shoplifting in Bridgend some years ago.
I don’t think I ever met him, but it’s possible that he came into Dillons in Cardiff at some point. From what I know of him, I think I’d have liked him. He seemed to have a refreshing attitude to life and a strong creative spirit which blazed brightly for a few years. It’s tragic to reflect that, like so many other tormented souls, he’s been taken from us so young.
My friend Andrew L., an old hand of the Aberdare music scene, loves the synth music of the early 80s. I texted him as soon as Lee had told me the news. As it turned out, he’d already heard. I imagine that there’ll be acres of media coverage over the next couple of days. From my perspective, I was lucky that Steve Strange went to London when he did. He and his bandmates in Visage changed my perspective on music, and the scene he helped to kick-start changed my perspective on everyday life. May he rest in peace.