spectrum / universal music | 544 381-2 | 2000
Sometimes, back in the early days of writing Documentary Evidence, the challenge was trying to find reasons to write about songs and artists I liked but which had no Mute Records connection whatsoever.
Such was the case with Visage. Recalling ‘Fade To Grey’ brings with it recollections of my four-year-old sister marching up and down a catwalk at a student fashion show in Leamington Spa back in the day-glo decade; while that’s a great reason for getting misty-eyed about a song, it didn’t qualify it for Documentary Evidence. So I was delighted to discover by accident that Barry Adamson had played in Visage, and that all of a sudden legitimised me being able to devote a page to Steve Strange’s band.
The untimely death of Strange from a heart attack leads me to re-post this review of a budget compilation today.
During 1979 and 1982, the core three musician members of Howard Devoto‘s Magazine moonlighted in Visage, the electro-pop studio-only project of Steve Strange and Ultravox’s Billy Currie, with additional contributions from Midge Ure and drummer Rusty Egan. Barry Adamson, Dave Formula and the late John McGeoch played on Visage’s first two albums Visage (which included the genre-defining New Romantic hit single ‘Fade To Grey’) and The Anvil. It seems unbelievable that the backbone of Devoto’s post-punk soundsmiths should moonlight in a futuristic band so far removed from their alternative rock day jobs, and this unusual period in Adamson’s musical career is often missed out of biographies. For those interested in hearing some of Visage’s work, you could do well to check out the budget Damned Don’t Cry compilation on Spectrum, which includes selections from the band’s back catalogue, including tracks from their 1984 swansong where the Magazine members were no longer part of the line-up. Another compilation – the full-price Fade To Grey album – was released recently, but includes almost all of the tracks on Damned Don’t Cry, and certainly no extra biographical information than the two sides of text included here.
In truth, without knowing exactly who appears on the tracks from 1979 to 1982, anyone specifically looking for Adamson’s distinctive bass playing is likely to be disappointed. Then again, having spoken to Barry about his use of studio downtime when Magazine were recording Real Life, he was already experimenting with tapes and synths at this time, and therefore it is possible that his involvement in Visage was more than just laying down the odd bassline. To fans of the early eighties cross-over of New Wave, synthpop and New Romanticism, this collection includes some absolute gems. Notwithstanding the mysterious sheen of ‘Fade To Grey’ (a track which for me will always be synonymous with a Leamington fashion show my sister was in), there is also the funk-pop of ‘We Move (Dance mix)’ from 1981, with some pointy guitars and solid Adamson bass groove, and what must be an occasional vocal from the distinctive Midge Ure. Elsewhere, the hyperactive elastic bass of ‘Night Train’ recalls ‘The Thin Wall’ by Ultravox, laced with lashings of horn-led soul. The super-group collision of styles in perhaps most prevalent on ‘Visage’, where Dave Formula’s signature Synergy-style orchestral synth melodies and riffs blend in with some Peter Hook-esque bass from Adamson, and great vocals from Steve Strange, who proves himself to be an excellent – albeit under-rated – vocalist throughout this compilation.
Formula’s keyboards are much more obviously present on these tracks than either McGeoch or Adamson, assuming that they were using their regular instruments. Nevertheless, there are some brilliant tracks here : the 1980s nightclub-friendly ‘The Anvil’, the dance mix of the instrumental ‘Frequency 7’ (sounding like an early Nitzer Ebb track infused with a synthpop flavour rather than electro-punk, along with some ‘Warm Leatherette’ noises), the positively soaring but mournful electronics of ‘Whispers’ and the Thompson Twins meets Human League crisp synthpop of ‘Pleasure Boys’ in its dance mix guise. ‘Damned Don’t Cry’, the 1982 track that provided this compilation with its title shares the same mysterious, ethereal tone as ‘Fade To Grey’, with the addition of a 4/4 beat, arpeggiated bassline and some Andy McCluskey-styled vocals. ‘Love Glove’ is the best track from the 1984 Beat Boy LP, an upbeat electropop number with saxophones that reminds you of everything that was good about 1980s pop. The over-long ‘Beat Boy’, however, reminds you of everything that was bad about the 1980s – that horrible synth slap bass, orchestral stabs and stuttered vocals. Yuck. The sub-Phantom Of The Opera / Rick Wakeman / Vangelis track ‘The Steps’ (1980) is also worth skipping through, if only to get you to ‘Frequency 7’ quicker.
First published 2004; re-edited 2015.
(c) 2015 Mat Smith / Documentary Evidence