Finally hearing “Rebel Blue Rocker,” it’s shocking that someone at EMI picked this song with its brash intro horns as the lead off single from”Strange Cruise.” All the elements of this song just seem to be awkwardly stitched together like some sort of misbegotten Frankenpop. Complete with an ill-suited, metallic, squealing guitar solo. The lyric refrain of “you didn’t hit, you didn’t run, now it’s time for fun,” called back lyrically to the equally bad opening track to the album. Worse, the showbizzy cold crescendo with Steve Strange growling “he’s a rocker, and he’s a reeeeeeebellll” had my jaw dropped in disbelief. The song was crudely constructed from awful parts that absolutely did not cohere in any way.
Just when I was grasping for a loose timber in this stormy sea of ill-conceived pop rock, “Communication [Breaking Down The Walls]” gave me a respite, even though it also had a 6-count drumstick intro that I would have to get used to with this CD. I really enjoyed the sophisticated tenor sax from Gary Barnacle and the synths were soft string patches and rhythmic electric piano instead of the cheesier Hammond patches and horn stabs used earlier. Strange sounded more in his in comfort zone with performance and lyrics this outing, and Wendy Cruise sounded well-integrated with the song here; her support vocals given just the right spotlight. The appealing melody didn’t hurt at all and ultimately, thanks to the great sax, this one could have been from “Beat Boy.” The track was well-balanced with some cool bass runs tucked away in the foundations of the song. Even the squealing guitar solo fit in well here. The only false note here was the fortissimo cold ending. It seemed abrupt and forced; What did this band have against coda fades? Maybe it was all down to a sense of trying too hard to be “real.” Refuting the “synthetic” Visage sound?
The next track was in my face with brash, cloying Motownish brass. The noxious vibe seemed familiar. “This Old Town” was reminding me of something I didn’t like. Wham? Culture Club? NO! After about my 6th run through of this album, it hit me like a ton of bricks. This felt for all the world like a “shallow cut” from David Bowie repulsive “Tonight” album! This could have been right at home on that record! The massed backing vocals and “jaunty” sax really grated. A rare fade at the song’s coda here did little to improve my demeanor.
“Animal Call” featured another 6-count on the sticks. The syncopated bass line and the digital synths presaged Eric Carmen’s “Hungry Eyes” from the “Dirty Dancing” OST! I did like the scratcher percussion details though. Strange sounded fairly at home on the song, which counted…for a little, but the chorus just missed the boat. The overly jazzy drum fills on the coda were another misguided touch on an album with no shortage of such hi-jinx. We got served up two-in-a-row 6-counts on “Heart Is A Lonely Hunter!” The extra fruity sax solo in the middle eight sounded like Gary Barnacle showing off on a song that needed more than that. The best we got here was some thunderthumb action from his brother Steve on bass.
More obnoxious faux-Motown bounce marred “Love Addiction” at the starting block in spite of some zippy rhythm guitar that I liked. Too bad about the twee keys here. This was another look back at Bowie Adrift At Sea on “Tonight.” This time worse, due to the mind-sapping ululating trills by Wendy Cruise used as the worst hook on the song’s chorus I’ve ever heard! She sounded like a horse whinnying to the beat on this one! Adding to the discomfort was the overly brash trumpet solo by Luke Tunney as was the “big finish” showbiz ending that screamed “1968!”
Understated intro synths came out of nowhere for “12 Miles High.” Then the verse structure kicked into action and the tight rhythm section got some rare strong support with the heraldic synth chords that seemed to fit the bill here. The band were in a propulsive groove and Strange was matching them pound for pound. Maybe overstating a little but it was kind of endearing in a song this sharp. I loved the refrain of “We’ll leave the kids alone until they’ve learned to dance.” This was a song that managed to wear the neon colors and heavy shoulder pads of the mid-80s with no little verve. This was Strange unleashing his inner rocker in an environment that actually made some sense to my ears. The only misstep here was the abrupt cold ending at 2:51. A song working this well, should have played out a little longer.
The indifferent ballad “Where Were Their Hearts” was touched with with some of Strange’s worst singing here. He tends to sing really flat and the softer music bed did him no favors. Speaking of softer music bed, if I ever ask to hear the dreaded Fender Rhodes Piano sound please punch my lights out. You have my permission. That this often grotesquely overstated original album had the temerity to end on this boring, indifferent track almost seemed like a loss of faith. In my mind I was imagining a fondant layer cake of ever-increasingly jazzy crescendoes until the album exploded in the CD player. On this CD, however, there were now bonus tracks to contend with.
As if the original had been poor enough, the “Rebel Blue Rocker Rebel Mix” was not aided by the obnoxious added dub effects and length which made a bad thing even worse. Hearing Strange attempt a guttural growl in the coda was still highly discomfiting.
Insouciant flute and fretless bass gave “Silver Screen Queen” a vibe that was unlike anything else here, and the singsong chorus sounded crudely bolted on to the verse structure of this demure ballad. Where the band was playing instrumentally, it attained a breezy, carefree vibe. Reminiscent of the like-minded “She Loved Like Diamond,” but without the vocal overkill courtesy of Tony Hadley on the earlier track. The instrumental portions were almost lovely but the whole thing was slight and one could easily see how it would have gotten relegated to non-LP B-side status on an album as blazingly overstated as this one had been.
If I had seen the LP of this at any time from 1986 to the time when the CD came out, I would have bought it in a heartbeat. But having had the “Rebel Blue Rocker” 12” for almost 30 years, it’s true that the whiff it gave off scared me away from ever spinning it. The notion was always there to get the “Strange Cruise” CD once Cherry Red put this out, but I tend to buy a big batch of my CD want list every four to five years with the birthday money that my in-laws send my way every year [which usually goes to household expenses] and I’ve last done that in 2016, so I might have missed out on the window of opportunity for this CD had not Mr. Schwenko come to my rescue with this timely disc.
That said, the end result is probably something for completists only, and I’m guilty as charged. The last 20 years have seen me finally come around to embrace the “Beat Boy” album after writing it off immediately on release. With that record, the offending tracks were so bad that I think it overshadowed the more agreeable songs on that opus. This album played like its mirror image with at least two strong tracks that I could honestly embrace [“Communication” and “12 Miles High”] with the rest being merely indifferent to shockingly bad material. When a record is reminding me [more than once] of David Bowie’s “Tonight” this is almost as bad as things can get.
Steve Barnacle’s music was almost accomplished. In some places, it definitely was, but often the heavy stitching showed up in the arrangements that had bracingly disparate elements cheek-by-jowl with the sort of MOR pop elements that might have been right at home in the mid-80s but usually never in my Record Cell. Wendy Cruise was usually underutilized here and maybe the album would have been better with her taking a few leads here and there. Instead they leaned on her to buttress the never strong vocals of Steve Strange with some strategic harmonizing that was a gambit that also showed up on the later Visage recordings with Lauren Duvall. As for Steve Strange, we didn’t know how debilitating his drug habits were at this point. That this album even got made at all was probably a feat of some kind.
Ultimately, I can almost make the case that the best of “Beat Boy” could have the worst offenders swapped out for the two tracks I honestly enjoyed here to craft an even better third Visage album. But with Strange’s drug addictions that dogged him for long years past this point, it was perhaps for the best that he waited until he was in a better place to return to his comfort zone with the Phase II of Visage that managed to release a final burst of highly enjoyable accomplishments that I can still point to as the sort of late reformation that went down like a house on fire.