Just a few years before Duran Duran, the Human League, and other photogenic British synthpop bands achieved notoriety and commercial success in America in the early ’80s, there was Visage, a London-based collective fronted by flamboyant vocalist Steve Strange. Unlike its more successful contemporaries, Visage never really caught on in America, despite having a huge hit in the UK (and parts of Europe) with “Fade to Grey” in 1980. The band symbolized the New Romantic movement of the late ’70s and early ’80s, which was a reaction to punk by way of a preoccupation with fashion and image (hence Visage’s moniker). For a particular group of disaffected British youth, the New Romantic scene provided a return to the days of glam spearheaded by David Bowie and Roxy Music (a piece of trivia: Strange appeared in Bowie’s iconic “Ashes to Ashes” video from 1980).
At the time of Visage’s formation in 1978, Strange and ex-Rich Kids drummer Rusty Egan were the driving force behind a popular London nightclub called the Blitz, which was also the epicenter of the New Romantic movement. Its mainstays included members of Spandau Ballet, as well as Boy George (before becoming a worldwide celebrity as the lead singer of Culture Club). Visage was a musical extension of the Blitz scene that Strange and Egan helped foment, with an emphasis on synthesizers and disco beats that eschewed the traditional guitar rock format. In some ways, Visage — which first consisted of Strange, Egan, and members of Ultravox and Magazine — was the link between the pioneering electronic sounds of Kraftwerk and the shiny pop of the very fashion-conscious Second British Invasion bands who became staples of MTV’s early years.
Visage’s career was cut relatively short. The group released several singles after “Fade to Grey” but was never able to eclipse that success, leading to the band calling it quits after 1984’s Beat Boy. Then, in 2013, a new version of Visage (led by Strange) released the album Hearts and Knives, which respectably and sonically picked up where Visage left off. Sadly, with Strange’s unexpected death at the age of 55 in 2015, the surviving members released the band’s final recordings with the singer — on Demons to Diamonds — before disbanding for good. Now selections from Visage’s entire recorded output have been collected for the first time, on The Wild Life (The Best of, 1978-2015), which provides an glimpse into the early years of synthpop (at least for the first half of this collection), a sound that groups like Depeche Mode, Erasure, and the Pet Shop Boys have since taken to mainstream and commercial heights.
The first half of The Wild Life is devoted to Visage’s peak years from the ’80s, with most of the material written by Strange, Egan, Magazine’s Dave Formula, and Ultravox’s Midge Ure and Billy Currie. To younger listeners, those early synth-laden tracks from Visage’s self-titled 1980 debut record sound perhaps a bit dated compared to today’s more state-of-the-art electronic music (it would be like playing Pong in the era of CGI). Still, those songs remain quite catchy and infectious, not to mention a great moment of discovery for those who only know the band for “Fade to Grey”. There’s the soaring and anthemic “Visage”, the mechanical clockworks of “Tar” (a rare anti-smoking song), and “Mind of a Toy”, (the latter of which can almost be seen as a commentary about fame, which is prophetic considering how those British haircut bands faded by the end of the ’80s). Visage’s music grew a bit bolder by 1982’s follow-up, The Anvil, thanks to the bump-and-grind throb of the title song, a reference to the once-famous New York City nightclub. “Night Train” and “The Pleasure Boys” follow the same vein as “The Anvil”; they’re aggressive and fueled by some pummeling beats and dizzying, blaring synth noise.
The rest of the music on this package consists of more recent material from Visage’s latter-day lineup, starting with tracks from Hearts and Knives. For the most part, they sound like an almost letter-perfect homage to the past, such as the swirling electronic-guitar rock of “Never Enough” (which sounds something that Blondie and Giorgio Moroder could have collaborated on during the sessions for “Call Me”) and the upbeat, gorgeous-sounding “Dreamer I Know”.
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That said, at a total of 60 minutes, this compilation by a band identified with the ’80s would have have been better served by including a few more tracks from that decade, such as Visage’s new wave-ish cover of Zager and Evans’ apocalyptic ’60s classic, “In the Year 2525”, or the slick disco-minded “We Move”, a track quite similar to Bowie’s “Fashion”. (In fact, both are found on the previous Visage compilation, 1993’s Fade to Grey).
What separates Visage from other commercially accessible British synthpop groups of the early ’80s is the chilly tone evoked in the music. Unlike the other, more whimsical electropop tunes from Visage’s era, like M’s “Pop Muzik” and the Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star”, there’s a melancholic ambiance that surrounds Visage’s music. It’s the downbeat mood that powers “Fade to Grey”, the band’s masterpiece and signature song in part because of its haunting synth notes, mysterious and fatalistic lyrics (sung partially in French by a female voice), and Strange’s wistful yet deadpan vocals. Another track from the compilation, “The Damned Don’t Cry”, hints at the kind of ennui that has been a staple of Bryan Ferry’s songwriting: “Time to close my mind and drift off / to other scenes / lose myself in glossy pages / dull magazines”. Yet, there are moments that radiate amid Visage’s cloud in the form of the ballad “Love Glove” (an orchestral version of which was featured on The Wild Life) and the lovely and jazzy “Aurora” from the band’s swansong, Demons to Diamonds. Fittingly, the disc ends with “The Silence” (from 2014’s Orchestral), a kind of spiritual cousin to “Fade to Grey” that brings Visage’s career to full circle.
One could hear in Visage’s songs on The Wild Life a blueprint for the electronic dance sounds that permeated in the New York City club scene for the first half of the ’80s. There sound also flows through to modern synthpop acts like Goldfrapp, La Roux, and Little Boots. “Fade to Grey” gave Visage and Strange their 15 minutes of fame, but their brief career should not be relegated to footnote status in the history of electronic pop music. After all, “Fade to Grey” ranks right up there with benchmarks such as Gary Numan’s “Cars”, Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”, and Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love”. Even if Visage never surpassed its contemporaries regarding longevity, this best-of — while not entirely perfect — makes a valid case that there was some substance behind Strange’s stylish facade. Most of the time image isn’t everything, but in Visage’s case, it played an important part of its sonic identity.