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…