Steve Strange – fascinatrix, Bowie buddy, lead singer of Visage and Blitz Club doyen – was the pop-art Diaghilev of his generation, the New Romantic Prince Charming par excellence.
Often bizarrely overlooked for far lesser icons, he’s now deservedly receiving media acclaim, following his death this Febuary at the shockingly premature age of 55.
So on Saturday, September 26th 2015, London’s iconic Café Royal celebrated Steve Strange’s life and influence in a stellar, high-profile tribute. Organised by his close friends Amanda Lloyd, Rosemary Turner and Steve Mahoney, the night dripped with mystique and live, mischievously quirky entertainment. Taking stylistic cues from Weimar-era Berlin as re-imagined in the movie Cabaret, Two Blondes and a Harp – Lowri-Ann Richards and harpist Glenda Clywd – burlesqued Kate Bush and cabaret itself. Additionally, singer Eve Ferret created prankish glamour and playwright Celine Hispiche delivered spicily arch poetry.
Fittingly, scalpel-sharp style scrutineer Peter York – ex-Harper’s & Queen and eternally sleek – attended, the first columnist to comprehensively articulate Steve’s protean charisma. But what deviant magic first sparked Steve Strange’s muse before his rise from Blitz Kids glory?
Was early 1970s England an erotic wasteland, dominated by missionary positions and gay caricatures? Not quite. Way before Rocky Horror’s brash sleaze-a-thon, T.Rex glam-rock godhead Marc Bolan quite deliberately, quite impishly, unleashed a pansexual, Pandora’s Box for the ages.
‘You can bump and grind/if it’s good for your mind/But you won’t fool/The Children of the Revolution’, Marc poutingly, presciently sang. Incidentally, he also lit a jumping, jitterbug fuse in the collective libido, a slow-burning, sartorial blitzkrieg. Poet, singer-songwriter and effortless androgyne, Marc catalysed an entire generation of potential, but rudderless glamsters ripening unseen in the UK's dance-halls and schools.
All canny, fey, fop-till-you-bop, Tin Pan Alley Tolkien, Marc mined and set free a stunningly queer, esoteric eroticism. Popularly, in Sun tabloid-speak, revolutions are harsh, brutal and militaristic, but Marc’s was sensuous and satin-wrapped with the holy fire of imagination. It also didn’t hurt that his casual, cocky aura of dandy magnificence fit him like an irresistible, phallic glove.
Predictably, Marc’s flippant, delicious, polymorphous perversity went instantly viral. If far less threatening than Bowie’s instantly alienating, killingly cerebral, bisexual drag, Marc more persuasively smirked while Bowie stalked. Eternally post-gender in his Annello and Davide ballet shoes, a deeply naughty slumber-party pixie, Marc sparked delirious dress-up dreams much more seductive than icy Ziggy’s orgies.
Still – shockingly - the cosy, pop-culture cuddles died overnight as working-class, teenage dreams – omnisexual or otherwise – withered in the face of sudden, mass unemployment. Savagely shackled to dead-end dole or marriage prospects, kids attacked smug glam-pomp an circumstance like screaming rats in traps. Ah, but Art – the perennial saviour of the incurably camp and dispossessed– was hiding viciously chic in the wings.
Doesn’t it always? This time – hair hacked and blunt, quite mad Miss Haversham 1976 – it came screaming, puking and spitting on velvet, a conflicted, cluster-f**k contrarian, sheer Apocalypse on amphetamine. All brutal, penal-colony buzz-cut, and PVC split, spit and snot-encrusted, this was Art as razor-blade reactionary and thuggish, year-zero conservative.
Was it christened or better still, baptised? Given a name, even, beyond the No-Wave disapproval it had vaguely garnered via New York’s Patti Smith and Ramones? Oh yes; the London press, quite dismissively, called it ‘Punk’, the vicious, midnight-alley murderer of mincing glam-rock. It didn’t last, of course – perhaps too smart, furious and intensely self-defeating to survive – but Punk’s seemingly dead-end, DIY detour actually crucially empowered maverick, embryonic pop-gods in waiting. Pop gods, in fact, like one very singular – and achingly visionary – Steve Strange.
Born suffering with terminal, undiagnosed Peacock Syndrome – just like kindred spirit Quentin Crisp – Strange finally bloomed into manic, unrestrained dandyism and eccentricity. A psychological Cinderella state, Peacock Syndrome – a sense of unreciprocated magnificence - is brilliantly conceptualised in Velvet Goldmine, gay director Todd Haynes’s 1998, glam-rock epic.
Screw fluffy baby wards and steaming after-birth; Haynes’s infant Oscar Wilde is delivered by fairy space-aliens, a UFO Oberon and Titania. Better still, Wilde’s legacy – a glowing, green brooch gifting unbridled imagination and a sense of uniqueness– passes to other, deserving souls as needed.
But the imagery, of course, was the direct, dazzling incest-child of Marc Bolan and Bowie. In a reality more miraculous than any movie, Bolan ravished Shakespeare to make Midsummer Night’s Scream with band John’s Children, and Bowie’s detached, alien persona debuted in Space Oddity. Given such a succulent source on a plate, director Haynes joyfully joined his pop-god dots.
So - quite appropriately - Bolan and Bowie – Steve Strange’s subconscious, art-hothouse midwives - gorgeously poisoned his first taste of Sex Pistols punk. And the resulting effect? None other than the shockingly outré, uncontrollable orchids of New Romanticism, shooting up furiously in their bemused, involuntary creator’s head.