Remembering Steve Strange: The Ultimate ‘New Romantic’ who Hated the Name
DJ and writer Chris Sullivan remembers Steve Strange, lead singer of Visage and the New Romantic movement, on what would have been his 60th birthday.
My old and dear friend Steve Strange would have been 60 years old today.
I can recall his 17th birthday party in 1976. His mother was away so, 100 strong, we all invaded his family council flat on top of a big hill in the little village of Newbridge, on the outskirts of Blackwood, south Wales.
Much fun was had as folk from as far as Bristol and London attended. They joined the merry throng all imbibing amphetamine sulphate and cider. Subsequently, someone walked though his mother’s glass door and another broke the toilet, while his kitchen was semi-demolished.
From Northern Soul to Punk
Strange was born Steven John Harrington in Newbridge, Wales, in 1959.
His mother and ex-paratrooper father ran a series of guest houses and greasy spoons during the ’60s, in a variety of seaside towns in north Wales, where they lived in the lap of luxury.
His parents split up when he was a boy, with his dad later committing suicide after discovering he was dying of a brain tumour, forcing Steve, his mum and his sister to move to a council estate in Newbridge.
I met him on the Northern Soul scene. He might have been described as a Bowie- loving northern soul boy. I bumped into him in a pub in Newport and he sported 32-inch-wide baggy trousers, a Fred Perry and an MA-1 jacket covered in Northern Soul badges.
After the pub, we went to the club Scamps just up the hill. Here I found a club full of Bowie and Roxy lookalikes for whom extravagant dressing-up was de rigueur. Harrington, as he was then known, was in his oils.
‘I vividly remember Steve in PX wearing a leather German greatcoat covered with fake diamond brooches, fox fur, gloves and walking cane ensemble,Ian. R. Webb
The next time I saw Steve he was wearing a pink dress, had shaved his eyebrows off and his hair was orange.
Of course, this was early 1976 and the whiff of punk was in the air so we travelled to London to catch concerts by the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Stranglers et al. Of course, Steve was as keen as mustard.
After more than a few trips to the capital, in 1977 (by which time Harrington was a fully-fledged punk, complete with Westwood bondage trousers and safety pin), he befriended the Sex Pistols bass player Glen Matlock and trailed the band from pillar to post.
“He used to follow us every where,” chuckles Matlock. “We’d be at the furthest ends of the country and we’d turn round and he’d be there, having taken buses or hitchhiked, whatever was needed to be in that front row. You had to admire him for that.”
A move to London followed, with Steve, at first, kipping on Matlock’s sofa. He then found himself a gopher job with Malcolm McLaren at Glitterbest, followed by a job in McLaren’s shop Seditionaries.
Introducing Steve Strange
Next, he changed his name to Strange and formed a band with Chrissie Hynde, rather controversially named The Moors Murderers.
They appeared in the News of The World with the headline: ‘How Could They Be So Cruel?’ and, for once, the paper had a point.
Other band members included The Clash’s Topper Headon, future Transvision Vamper Tex Doughty and Mark Ryan, later of the Monochrome Set. The band split in early 1978, by which time Strange joined new wavers The Photons, befriended drummer Rusty Egan, and started working in a Covent Garden clothes store PX.
The Blitz – a club for a gang of kids who liked to dress-up who were now influencing high fashion on a global scale.
“I vividly remember Steve in PX wearing a leather German greatcoat covered with fake diamond brooches, fox fur, gloves and walking cane ensemble,” attests fashion writer, Ian R Webb. “Who could forget?”
Billie’s lasted just a few months after which the club decamped to the Blitz in Holborn, spawned its own youth cult Blitz Kids, and made history. The era of the Blitz Kid had begun and Strange was now fronting the studio band, Visage, backed by Egan, Midge Ure and Billy Currie of Ultravox, and wearing top gear that no one else could afford.
Steve went from future space warrior – all padded shoulders and Lurex zigzags – to Robin Hood with a feather in his cap, and on to his gay made-up Monk look in a matter of weeks.
In those days, he set the bar by which all others were measured. He was out there. He also appeared in his idol, David Bowie’s, Ashes to Ashes pop promo.
“I thought we were going to go somewhere exotic and we met at The Dorchester at 5am,” recalled Strange years later. “But we ended up on a freezing windy beach in Broadstairs.”
The whole decade was extraordinary. I was courted by the world’s biggest fashion designers – Thierry Mugler, Karl Lagerfeld, Montana.Steve Strange
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Steve vetted the door of the Blitz and famously turned away Mick Jagger.
Consequently, the press went crazy. The Evening Standard led with an editorial entitled ‘Dandies in Hand Me Downs’, with images of the likes of yours truly, BBC broadcaster Robert Elms, hat-maker Stephen Jones, Strange and DJ Princes Julia. The accompanying text described us as a gang of “new romantics” and the name unfortunately stuck.
Indeed, none of us were particularly romantic and few dressed that way, but the frilly shirt was everywhere and the press liked nothing better than a fancy chemise, so the name stuck.
Of course, this was early 1976 and the whiff of punk was in the air so we travelled to London to catch concerts by the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Stranglers et al.
“I hated the name New Romantic,” Strange told me before he died in February 2015.
“That was just one look that lasted a few weeks. Unfortunately, a lot of people took it seriously all over the country and, before you knew it, men in berets, frilly shirts, pantaloons and ballet shoes were everywhere. I didn’t mind that much as it became a world-wide youth cult. We changed people lives and as you once said, ‘opened a million closets’ so I’m proud of that.”
In 1980, Strange, Egan and I teamed up and opened Hell in Henrietta Street, which was as mad as a bag of snakes, but closed after almost all our patrons took LSD and smashed the place up.
Later that year, Visage, Strange and Egan released ‘Fade To Grey’, a top-10 hit in nine countries and a number two in the UK.
The next year, Strange went on to promote the landmark Club For Heroes in Baker Street with Egan – a spot that upped the glam stakes tenfold. Then, when I went on to found the the Wag, he launched Camden Palace.
Today, the eighties is again big news with hordes of young groovy cats and kittens sucking up its essence.
“You lot wore what you wanted and had so much fun, without people on their mobile phones all the time,” Ekiza Hill, who has just finished her fashion photography degree at London College of Fashion explained. “These days, anything you do ends up on Instagram. Then styles could gestate and grow, but now because of social media, they are over in a minute. I think the eighties were special because so many people just went out and did stuff on their own and had a go. We need that spirit now.”
He also appeared in his idol, David Bowie’s, Ashes to Ashes pop promo.
“For me there was no one moment that summed up the eighties,’ recalled Strange. “The whole decade was extraordinary. I was courted by the world’s biggest fashion designers – Thierry Mugler, Karl Lagerfeld, Montana. They flew me in first class, gave me a limo and chauffeur, gave me prime position in the front row of all their big fashion shows and treated me like royalty (eventually I realised that they were milking all our looks and watering them down for the Paris catwalks).
“I couldn’t believe it. I was this working-class boy from Newbridge, a small town in Wales, and all this happened in the space of a few years after I’d started The Blitz – a club for a gang of kids who liked to dress-up who were now influencing high fashion on a global scale.
“Then we started Visage and we were number one in all these countries. But, in the eighties, we felt we could try anything and often we’d succeed and, if not, you’d have fun trying. Everyone was putting on club nights, making music, and designing clothes, painting. And don’t forget the country was in the doldrums so we had nothing to lose.”
RIP Steve Strange. Born 28 May 1959. Died 12 February 2015.