Friday, July 11, 2008

Fade To Grey Turns To Gold

When ‘Fade To Grey’ by Visage was first a hit on the charts back in 1981, I have to admit I wasn’t a big fan of the song. Over time though I came to appreciate just what a brilliant piece of music it is, and it now sits comfortably inside my top 10 all time favourite 80s tracks. Strange how it takes a while for some songs to really grow on you.

Visage were your classic new wave synth-driven outfit albeit with an ultra-futuristic twist, but they had an interesting evolution and an even more interesting line-up. The U.K. group was essentially the brainchild of vocalist Steve ‘Strange’ Harrington (Steve Strange to his mates) who recruited a number of already established musicians from the punk and new wave scene as essentially guest players on the project (though in truth they were more than that). Among them were Dave Formula, John McGeoch and Barry Adamson, all formerly of the punk-rock outfit Magazine. Ultravox members Midge Ure and Billy Currie contributed to the Visage mix, whilst former drummer with the Rich Kids, Rusty Egan, was also a key member.

Strange had once been invited by Billy Idol to become a member of Idol’s new band Generation X but turned down the offer. Instead he worked for a time as a graphic artist and tried his hand in a couple of short lived bands, before meeting up with Rusty Egan. Out of their common love for the style of Roxy Music, Bowie, Kraftwerk and the like, and working together in London‘s chic club scene, the concept of Visage was born. Midge Ure (who had also been in the Rich Kids with Egan) organised for the three of them to record some demo tracks in late 1978. One of the tracks laid down was one of the most bizarre cover versions in history as Visage did their take on the old Zager & Evans hit ‘In The Year 2525’, which sounded more like it was actually recorded in the year 2525 (which was the whole point I guess). Billy Currie was brought in on synthesizer/keyboards, Barry Adamson bass, John McGeoch guitar, with Dave Formula also on keyboards. Their first single ‘Tar’ was released in 1979 missing the charts, but signalling that Visage had arrived. By the by, the name Visage (aside from being the French for ‘face’) was chosen to represent the group’s ‘vis’ual side and the dawning of a new ‘age’ in dance music - just the French word for ‘face’ seems enough to me.

Visage’s popularity was largely centred in Britain and unlike a number of their contemporaries like Depeche Mode, Human League and Simple Minds, they didn’t make the cross-over to impact on the U.S. scene. But their success in the U.K. was considerable, and in fact for a couple of years they were every bit as popular as the likes of Simple Minds. Visage’s first major hit was ‘Fade To Grey’ which melded haunting, futuristic vocals with cutting edge synthesizers and (what I now think are) really cool segments of spoken word French (which were spoken by Billy Idol’s then girlfriend Perri Lister). Unlike the intricacies of the song itself, the promo clip for ‘Fade To Grey’ was a simple (and cheap) affair, but nonetheless proved an effective backdrop for the song. ‘Fade To Grey’ soon displayed alchemic properties by turning gold in the U.K., peaking at #8 in early 1981, a position it would better in Australia (#6) just a couple of months later.

At the same time Visage released their eponymous debut album, co-produced by Midge Ure, which reached #13 in the U.K. and #17 in Australia in mid ‘81. Two follow up singles were released from the album, ‘Mind Of A Toy’ (UK#13) and the eponymous single ‘Visage’ (UK#21), but neither charted in Australia. The song writing duties for ‘Visage’ the album were shared between the band members pretty much equally.

Visage released their second album ‘The Anvil’ in March 1982 and it surged up the British charts to peak at #6 mid year. Australia seemed to have lost interest in Visage by this point, as neither album nor the first single release ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ (UK#11/OZ#94) did anything of significance here. I remember ‘The Damned Don’t Cry’ from the time, because it was included on a double album compilation called ‘Wired’ which was a favourite of mine. The second single released from ‘The Anvil’ would prove to be Visage’s last major hit in the U.K., with ‘Night Train’ delivering its cargo at #12. Midge Ure then departed the group to refocus on Ultravox, and he was soon joined in the departure lounge by Billy Currie and Dave Formula.

After a 2 year hiatus due to contractual issues (how often does that crop up) Visage released one more album of original material with 1984’s ‘Beat Boy’ (not to be confused with the Bronski variety), which realised the minor hit ‘Love Glove’ (UK#54), and after a failed attempt to take the exclusively ‘studio group’ on the road, Visage faded to grey itself before splitting in 1985. ‘Fade To Grey’ returned Visage to the U.K. charts in 1993, remixed by the Bassheads and Andy Stevenson, and reaching a respectable #39.

Of the former Visage alumni: John McGeoch went on to play with Siouxsie & The Banshees; Barry Adamson became a Bad Seed (of the Nick Cave type); Dave Formula continued playing with former Magazine bandmate Howard Devoto; Billy Currie and Midge Ure continued their duties with their main band, the incomparable Ultravox (Midge Ure later going on to have success as a solo artist); whilst Steve Strange, battling at the time with drug addiction, drifted in and out of the club and music scene during the rest of the 80s and into the 90s. Strange has recently launched Visage Mk II with a completely new line-up.

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