From the Punk scene in the 1970’s evolved a new glossier, polished youth culture. Keeping the essence of British rebellion, New Romantics were born. A form of peacock punk mixed with thrift store chic reigned supreme, with music as the driving force behind the fashion.
With the birth of music videos, MTV brought fashion and music together for the first time in history in a 24 hour format. The first video ever played on MTV aired in August 1981, and “Video Killed the Radio Star” foreshadowed what would happen for decades.
From the Bromley Contingency sprung artists whose aesthetics rivaled their music. A trailblazer in this scene was Steve Strange, a musician and nightclub promoter.
His ground breaking first hit song ‘Fade to Grey’ (by his band Visage) exposed North America to the pulse of what was happening in London’s Underground scene.
He helped launch the careers of many artists in the early 80’s through The Blitz Club. These acts included Depeche Mode, Boy George, Spandau Ballet, Soft Cell, Human League and Duran Duran. Not since the Beatles had British pop music dominated the charts this strongly in America.
Strange was once so bold as to tell Siouxsie Sioux to wear only black. This advice, however unwarranted, was a crucial deciding factor in creating Siouxsie’s iconic look.
Steve Strange was born in 1959 in New Bridge, South Wales as Steven Harrington, later changing his name. He moved to London as a teenager and became active in the punk movement. He hung out in the scene known as The Bromley Contingent, which included acts such as the Sex Pistols, Siouxsie Sioux, and Billy Idol. He worked with Malcolm McLaren, former manager of the Sex Pistols and the New York Dolls.
The Punk movement help free creativity and allowed people to express their look through fashion and music. But eventually, Strange found that Punk was starting to be perceived as unoriginal, and that Nazi Punk created a negative political statement.
Looking for a way out in 1978, he originally created The Photons. But he knew The Photons were not going to be a successful band, and hated the bright multi-colored suits they wore.
When the band The Rich Kids were splitting up and weren’t intending to use the rest of their studio time at EMI, Strange jumped at the chance to get in there and record, which is how Visage started.
The sound was new, and pioneered electronic music. “Fade to Grey” was the band’s first release and most acknowledged song. The video was extremely low budget. Trying to come up with a creative idea that would have lots of impact, Strange shaved his body hair and painted himself silver. A hand-painted snake with glittering scales had the effect of coming to life and turning into Strange. The crew worked for 36 hours straight on the video to get all the looks and changes. When it was time to remove the make up and paint, painful Brillo pads were used.
The intended effect was to create an epic mini-movie. Visage was topping charts across the world, without even going on tour. Worldwide Visage fans were eager for a follow up video, and so “Man of a Toy” was released, although it did not have as large of an impact.
However, Strange preferred the aesthetics and still feels it’s an underrated video that is far more innovative than “Fade to Gray.” It annoys Strange to this day that he has had other hits and top albums, but the focus always remains on his first hit.
The first club night that Steve Strange started was a Tuesday night at Billy’s in Soho, London. This is where the first of the New Romantics hung out, a branch of the New Wave movement. Strange created an environment of creativity with hairdressers, art students, budding designers and eclectic club kids.
Billy’s target audience was a group of like-minded people who wanted to express their individuality. But soon the club began to attract people that were going there just to see a spectacle rather than being part of the creative movement.
Strange wanted to avoid the goldfish bowl environment created by the men in suits that came to the club to observe, and he was vehement in his refusal of allowing certain people in through the door. This only added to the hype.
Part 2 coming soon…