The BBC has reported the death of Steve Strange, frontman of the 1980s synthpop group Visage and a major figure in the New Romantic scene, which answered the grimness and grime of punk with flowery sentiment and fashion. Strange reportedly suffered a heart attack in Egypt, dying at the age of 55.
Born in Wales as Steve Harrington, he became heavily involved in the burgeoning British punk scene—as so many did—after seeing a Sex Pistols concert. He befriended that band’s Glen Matlock and worked for its svengali Malcolm McLaren as a teenager, began arranging punk shows in his hometown, and formed his first punk band, The Moors Murderers, in 1977. While it played only a handful of gigs and never released any official recordings, The Moors Murderers proved to be a crucible of punk and New Wave stars, with a membership that included The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde, The Clash’s Topper Headon, The Psychedelic Furs’ Vince Ely, and Adam And The Ants’ The Kid.
Still, Strange had his biggest impact fostering other people’s bands, most notably around the Blitz Club he co-founded and oversaw in London. It was there that New Romantic was born, as Strange’s policy of only admitting “the weird and wonderful” gave birth to The Blitz Kids, a scene based around adopting outlandish, androgynous attire and makeup, worshipping at the altars of David Bowie and Roxy Music, and rejecting punk’s anti-fashion ethos with a new breed of electrified dandyism. It was here that future stars like Duran Duran, Culture Club, and Spandau Ballet were embraced and nurtured, away from the gob-hocking punk dives that likley would have torn them to shreds. Lording over them all was Strange, known as “The Peacock Prince.”
Strange’s own band Visage—which also featured Ultravox frontman Midge Ure—wouldn’t enjoy the sort of breakthrough success of those groups, though it did land one major hit with its single “Fade To Grey.” With gauzy synth layers and lyrics cooed in both English and French (spoken by Belgian college student Brigitte Arens), “Fade To Grey” encapsulated the swooning New Romantic movement every bit as much as its video, which featured Strange in silver body paint amid footage of various Blitz Kids in their club uniforms.
Despite the success of “Fade To Grey” and the backing of a major label in Polydor, Visage struggled to hold onto its members—many of whom departed for bands like Magazine and the aforementioned Ultravox—but it still completed two more albums, The Anvil and Beat Boy, before disbanding in 1985. Tensions had long erupted over songwriting credit and who deserved more attention, which was particularly difficult with Strange cutting such a striking figure, both in and out of the group. In fact, Strange achieved arguably his greatest exposure in David Bowie’s video for “Ashes To Ashes,” a song that introduced the New Romantic aesthetic to the masses—and made Strange one of its major icons.
After Visage parted ways, Strange returned to club hosting and DJing, helping to foster another major movement with his trance nights in Ibiza. He was also a familiar face on British television, winning the reality competition Celebrity Scissorhands in 2007, appearing in various specials about the New Romantic movement, and making a tongue-in-cheek cameo as himself on the cop drama Ashes To Ashes.
By his own admission, Strange struggled with drug addiction off and on for years, but returned to music newly reenergized in 2002, determined to reform Visage and produce new material. With a lineup that included Ultravox’s Robin Simon, Strange released Hearts And Knives in 2013, the first album of new Visage songs in nearly 30 years, then followed it with last year’s Orchestral, a re-recording of classic Visage songs backed by a symphony orchestra.
Many of the musicians whose lives Strange touched have been offering up tributes today, including Duran Duran’s Simon Le Bon, Billy Idol, and Boy George: