In the Fall of 1980, I chanced to see the video for “Passing Strangers” by Ultravox and that was a real game changer. I diligently tracked down the life-changing “Vienna” album which took me several months of trying in torpid Central Florida. In fact, the actual disc was purchased in another state while on travel, so low was the band’s profile in America at the time. Of course, in this time period, they were also-rans in the UK as well. It would remain until early 1981 and the near-chart topper “Vienna,” the lineup’s third single, before their fortunes would dramatically shift in their homeland. Suffice to say, by early 1981, I was acutely attuned to all things Ultravox. In short order, I got the band’s early albums, the solo debut by their former lead singer John Foxx, and the debut album by a curious Vox-related studio combo called Visage.
I had read a review of the album and it sure sounded like something right up my alley. The band featured insanely talented keyboardist Billy Currie from Ultravox and Gary Numan’s “Pleasure Principle” album. Midge Ure, the new Ultravox singer/guitarist produced and played, and the bulk of fellow Post-Punk trailblazers Magazine also got in on the action. I had just purchased their amazing “The Correct Use Of Soap” album and could hardly believe that the cream of two bands this amazing found time to collaborate in their spare time.
I actually chanced to hear the single “Fade To Grey” on WPRK-FM prior to purchasing it at East-West Records South, my closest local emporium. The song was amazing, so the hot album in the pole position for that week in my life became “Visage.” I hope we’ve all heard “Fade To Grey” by now. The song encapsulated the burgeoning New Romantic movement that was poised to reach critical mass in 1981. It began like an electronic hymn with solemn organ tones undercut by the classic CR78 rhythms that percolated through the song. Then the real drums kicked in and were eventually abetted by keyboard percussion with great, reverberating patches of high attack white noise; one of my favorite rhythmic gambits of that proto-Linn Drum era. [just ask Prince].
The famed undulating synth riff gives the song a rhythmic impetus that propels it effortlessly forward yet the pacing of the song remained languid and filed with a European ennui that is the essence of New Romanticism for me. It’s not the makeup. It’s not the drumming. It’s not even the clothing. For me New Romanticism is the state of mind that the music illuminates. It revolves around classicism; not the blues. It speaks to a fin de siècle aura of imminent doom and desolation that’s just below the glittering surface of the hollow beauty that surrounds us. All is not well, and we can’t even hope for it to be. In “Fade To Grey” the very color is draining from us and our environment. Life forces are ebbing. Not coincidentally, white pancake makeup for both genders was de riguer for the New Romantic look. Pale Euro boys and girls may no longer have a future but at least they could aspire to a sense of personal glamour that had its most perfect soundtrack in the music of Visage.
While the single was a very successful calling card for the album, side one began with the eponymous title cut that was a perfect précis of every principle the project was founded upon. The propulsive cut was built on a phased, galloping synth beat that was peerless when coupled with Barry Adamson’s nimble baselines that echoed the sequencers. The middle eight featured Moroderesque sequencers firing in delightful syncopation while drummer Rusty Egan played fills around them. Vocalist Steve Strange then proceeded to sing what amounted to a manifesto of what the band stood for while twin guitarists John McGeoch and Midge Ure added rock grit to the disco DNA that was just below the surface, suggesting rather than demanding. This is still my go-to song from this album and in 32 years I’ve yet to tire of it.
“Tar” was the band’s debut single on WEA that came out in 1979 and went nowhere. It was a year in advance of the group’s mature market so it’s not surprising that it was no more successful than Ultravox had been a year earlier, though Midge Ure was not yet in that group. His work here is in advance of the “Vienna” album, though it functions like a fecund petri dish of ideas and concepts that would bear fruit with the other band in a year’s time. The lead synth sound of Billy Currie most strongly echoes his Ultravox sound with the aggressive pitch bending characteristic of his viscous Ultravox solos. I’m assuming that the electric piano keys are the handiwork of Dave Formula. The drum machine sets down an unwavering 4/4 of little imagination but careful listening to the metallic percussion reveals incredible cymbal and high-hat work that is as inventive as I’ve ever heard! Since this was recorded in 1979, I’ll guess that Rusty Egan was utilizing noise gates on the cymbals to achieve the sort of digital precision one hears in the intro that was highly unusual for its vintage.
After immersing myself in this album for this Rock G.P.A. it’s fun to have a track I’m over familiar with like “Malpaso Man” become a very late blooming favorite after decades in the game. This is a rhythmically berserk, high-energy number with a Morricone vibe that makes it closely related to Adam + The Ants “Los Rancheros” that was concurrently being fabricated at this time. The vocal chants are there in both numbers. The twangy Duane Eddy guitars reveal a freedom and willingness to color outside of the outlines of The Cult With No Name even as the frantic rhythms on drums and sequencers give this cut a real go-for-the-throat attack that sets it far apart from the pale introversion of a cut like “Fade To Grey” or “Mind Of A Toy.” It almost sits on the same shelf as Ultravox’s explosive “Some Of Them.” Almost.
“Visa-Age” is a high-energy track that suggests where Ultravox will go next with a cut like “Western Promise.” Billy Currie’s lead synth patch on his Arp growls like a cougar here and listening to him play there is no way that that Visage can fall into the camp of “robotic” synth music. This is fiery, expressive music. Though Egan may have put Kraftwerk at the core of the Blitz Club’s playlist, this music doesn’t feel half as calculating or bloodless. It’s got all of the power of rock music, but you can dance to it. Listening to this cut as if for the first time, I was struck by how much the vocal here sounded like Midge Ure. My guess is that Steve was carefully following Midge’s guide vocal from the demo. While Midge is all over the backing vocals, he wisely stayed in the background in Visage given that he was playing guitar and synths as well as acting as producer. I remember friends complaining that Midge didn’t take lead vocals, but then it would have been Ultravox, wouldn’t it? Better that ace face Steve Strange was the figurehead and focal point that allowed this “group” to exist in a malleable form as a project.
It’s almost easy to forget that this album has no less than three instrumental numbers tucked in among the vocal cuts. “The Dancer” is almost back-to-basics dance rock with synths relegated to bright stabs of impact throughout the more conventional instrumentation throughout the song. “Moon Over Moscow” has a complex, reverbed baseline that, as usual, mirrors the compulsive sequenced synth lines throughout the song. The album’s closer is the dramatic “film music” of “The Steps.” Once again keyboard percussion is use for an exotic touch with a [heart] beat that’s a close cousin to the one that was used earlier on “Just For A Moment” and later on “Vienna.”
This album cuts quite a nimble, yet dandy figure with a vibe that travels all over the map with introverted electro-disco, furious synth rock, and dance music that doesn’t forget to rock. It is tongue-in-chic po-mo rock disc that is ready to have its cake and eat it too. Music like this was the fleet-footed legacy of the Great Fathers, Bowie and Ferry and Visage proffered an ironic glam stance rebooted with the latest technology for the Glam Godfathers’ next generation of progeny who were inventing post-disco club culture for a tribe of disaffected, yet creative youth attempting to re-make/re-model themselves into stars.
Next: Things get heavy…
The debut album by Visage is really the best exponent of what the Blitz and New Romantic movement was attempting to achieve. It’s an album made by the creators, not the follower of the era. This is why it sits so well and importantly with Pleasure Principle and Systems Of Romance. The fact that it is music made by musicians reaching the peak of their creative strengths from different corners of the post punk melieu, makes it an even greater achievement.
I’m totally on board with your reference to classicism. Numan touched on it literally by interpreting Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1. Visage follows that very deliberate spirit of craft throughout. Formula’s piano is key to this. But even Strange’s vocal are at time operatic and full of drama that is pretty damn arresting. He uses just the right amount of pomp and disembodiment in his delivery, something that Ure could have taken more to heart in Ultravox.
One other thing that, for me, links Visage with Pleasure Principle is the synths. I’m sure this is down to Currie’s time with Numan. I can easily shuffle the two albums together and be very satified with the results.
On the Vienna comparisons…I think Private Lives, Mr. X and Western Promise certainly feel like they come out of the Visage session – at least in their genesis. Oh, and Astradyne also show’s that classicism at work in this New Romantic era.
Finally Visage is indebted to the legacy of Glam, but there is no deliberate attempt to climb the Glam “mountain” and echo that era, but more a deliberate attempt to jump off the Glam “cliff” and see where it lands…
Echorich – “Finally, Visage is indebted to the legacy of Glam, but there is no deliberate attempt to climb the Glam “mountain” and echo that era, but more a deliberate attempt to jump off the Glam “cliff” and see where it lands…” Poetry, sir. Poetry!
Monk, great review. I think it’s worth mentioning one other collaborator to the project: Christopher Payne. He has a songwriting credit on “Fade To Grey,” but I don’t know the extent to which he performed on the album, if at all. I actually just came across this info last week. I wanted to check if Midge Ure had a credit for FTG, I when I found the info, I saw the names “Currie/Payne/Ure.” Not knowing off the top of my head who “Payne’ was I set out to investigate and saw that we has a long-standing member of Gary Numan’s band. (And just to make sure I wasn’t reading incorrect info somewhere on the web, I pulled out my copy of The Pleasure Principle” to confirm it.) As a keyboard and viola player, seems he and Currie may been kindred spirits.
zoo – Curse me for the novice! I recall thinking about the origins of FTG with Currie and Payne [Numan tour band, Dramatis] on tour with Numan but in my haste [and lack of planning], that went out the window as I sat down to furiously type yesterday at lunch. You deserve more than first drafts, unedited, but until I get that venture capital…
Currie offered the track to Visage when the album was almost done and a little shy of sufficient in the tuneage department. He had written the track with Chris Payne while the two were on tour with Gary Numan in 1979 and yes, as both were viola/keyboardists I’m sure they gravitated together. It’s my suspicion that when Currie brought FTG to the table, it was probably an instrumental that he and Payne had worked out in soundchecks, and I’d bet dollars to doughnuts that Ure provided the lyrics to finish it off.
That Pleasure Principle Tour is responsible for a lot. Not only did it cement the the public’s interest in the new electronic music, it was obviously an incubator for that sound.
I seem to remember reading that Fade to Grey was actually written by Currie and Payne during sound check jams during the Pleasure Principle tour. Ure later gave it a polish when Currie brought it to Visage.
JT – You are correct, sir. I was answering zoo’s comment when yours slipped into the letterbox while I was typing!
Visage is one of those group that got lost on its way to the grocery store. I admire them, and “fade to grey” is a truly incredible song but I don’t see them being remembered on high school walls or written down on some journal.
_Vance_ – For what it’s worth [not much from where I’m standing…] the bands that usually got written on high school walls and journals were exactly what I was not wanting to hear.
Not in terms of the “norm”, in terms of recognition. Visage, in my opinion got lost in the ocean. I for one definitely did not listen to what was being played on the radio, I got lost at Vinyl Shops.