6 Degrees of Steve Strange: How He Created the Sound and Look of the '80s

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  • Steve Strange
    Welsh pop singer (1959-2015)

Additional reporting by Jonathan Bernstein

photo: AP

New York had Studio 54; London had the Blitz. Both were home to decadence, hedonism, and dance music. The difference? While Studio 54 was brimming with already-established celebrities, the Blitz gave birth to its own cast of stars who would go on to create the sound and look of the ’80s. Manning the door was the androgynous Steve Strange (born Steven John Harrington), who expected high standards from the costumed Londoners in his queue. Clubbers hoped they were flamboyant enough to get Strange’s nod of approval; Mick Jagger famously wasn’t.

As word spread Thursday of Strange’s death from a heart attack at age 55, his fellow Blitz Kids — many of whom went on to become some of the biggest names in British music — eulogized Strange, who as the singer of seminal synth outfit Visage was also the face-painted posterboy of the New Romantic scene.

"He epitomized the vibrancy and flair of the ’80s," said Midge Ure, on behalf of himself and his Visage co-founder Rusty Egan, the latter Strange’s partner in the Blitz. "The 80s would have been very different without him," added Spandau Ballet’s Steve Norman.

Below, six artists and songs inspired by Strange’s new romantic antics and the beats blaring inside the Blitz.

1. Culture Club, “Time (Clock of the Heart)”

While employed as the Blitz’s coat-checker, George had a rather fractious relationship with Strange, but that changed over the years. “Steve was a clubbing contemporary, fellow freak, nemesis and later a dear friend,” George told Yahoo Music Thursday via email. “‘Fade to Grey’ remains a seminal and timeless piece of music. He was the undisputed king of the New Romantics, though at the time I would have denied it. Steve was such a huge part of my life. I just feel very sad right now. God bless him.”

2. David Bowie, “Ashes to Ashes”

Strange and the Blitz Kids worshipped at the altar of Bowie, but the icon was influenced by them as well. In 1980, Bowie stopped by the club and recruited Strange to style and appear in his “Ashes to Ashes” video. “He said, ‘I want you to pick the clothes and the extras and use your makeup artist, but whomever you choose, make sure they look like you,’” Strange recalled in 2012.

3. Duran Duran, “Planet Earth”

At the height of Blitz mania, copycat clubs sprung up all over the U.K. The Birmingham scene’s stars were a frilly-shirted fivesome whose first single heralded them as “New Romantics looking for the TV sound.” Paying tribute to the man who validated their existence, singer Simon Le Bon tweeted Thursday: “[Steve] was the leading edge of new romantic.”

4. Spandau Ballet, “To Cut a Long Story Short”

Strange was one of the “True” hitmakers’ first fans, inviting them to be the de facto house band for the Blitz. Spandau were onstage in San Remo, Italy, Thursday when they heard of their friend’s death. Tweeted Gary Kemp: “Spandau in tears in tonight. We dedicated our performance to Steve Strange. Without him we would never have been here. A maverick to the end.”

5. Ultravox, “Vienna”

Strange inadvertently helped the ailing electronic pioneers to find a fresh sound and its greatest ever success with new singer Midge Ure. When Strange declared he wanted to ride camel down New York’s Fifth Avenue to celebrate the release of Visage’s album in the U.S., cofounder Ure says he promptly quit the band, fleeing into the welcoming arms of Ultravox, and bringing with him the sweeping melodrama of “Vienna.” The song became their signature hit.

6. Visage, “Fade to Grey”

Strange went from doorman to international pop star when he became the frontman for the British supergroup of seasoned musicians, lending his voice to the enduring New Romantic anthem “Fade to Grey.” The singer was the sole torchbearer for the band at the time of his death, continuing to tour and release new material, including last December’s orchestral version of “Fade to Grey.”

Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein are the authors of Mad World: An Oral History of New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s.