Steve Strange, who has died of a heart attack aged 55, was one of the most influential figures in the London club circuit that launched the New Romantic movement of the early 1980s, and a hit-making pop star with his own band, Visage.
Although his early success gave way to periods of drug addiction and poverty, Strange had recently been enjoying a revival in his fortunes and had re-formed Visage for live shows and a new album.
Strange will be most vividly remembered as the outrageously flamboyant host of a string of nightclubs that powerfully influenced the London fashion and music scenes in the aftermath of punk. In 1978, he and Rusty Egan (then drummer with the Rich Kids) began holding David Bowie nights on Tuesdays at Billy’s club in Soho, a squalid bunker situated beneath a brothel. “We played Bowie, Roxy [Music] and electro,” said Strange. “It was where our friends could be themselves.” Billy’s could hold only 250 people but swiftly developed an outsize reputation, numbering among its garishly clad clientele such stars-to-be as George O’Dowd (the future Boy George), Siobhan Fahey, later of Bananarama, and Marilyn.
In 1979, Strange and Egan scaled up to the Blitz club in Covent Garden, and “the ball really started rolling”, as Strange put it. As scenesters dressed as ghouls, witches, vamps and Regency libertines battled to get through the doors, and Boy George acted as “the coat-check girl”, Strange (in leather jodhpurs and long overcoat) stood at the door and judged who would be allowed in. He enjoyed a huge publicity splash by denying admission to Mick Jagger. “Mick got annoyed and said, ‘Don’t you know who I am?’ before storming off in search of nightlife elsewhere,” Strange wrote in his autobiography, Blitzed! (2002).
As well as being frequented by the filmmaker Derek Jarman, Siouxsie Sioux and Depeche Mode and fashion designers such as Antony Price and Zandra Rhodes, the Blitz was the launchpad for the career of Spandau Ballet, who played there on Thursday nights. “We are making the most contemporary statement in fashion and music,” said the band’s songwriter and guitarist Gary Kemp.
Meanwhile, Strange, who had already played in the bands the Moors Murderers and the Photons, had formed Visage with Egan, Midge Ure and several members of Magazine, and they released the unsuccessful single Tar in 1979. It was the intervention of Bowie that put them on the map. He recruited Strange and some Blitz regulars to appear in his video for Ashes to Ashes, which hugely boosted Strange’s profile when the song went to No 1. Visage signed a new deal with Polydor and in 1980 enjoyed international success with their debut album and their career-defining hit, Fade to Grey.
In 1981, Strange and Egan opened Club for Heroes in Baker Street, then moved to the Camden Palace the following year. The 2,000-capacity Palace became a mecca for international clubgoers, and established Strange as the pre-eminent name among the new clubland elite. Bisexual, he was now in a relationship with Francesca “Chessie” Thyssen (daughter of the German steel tycoon Baron Heini Thyssen) with whom he skied in Gstaad and “played elephant polo in India with Ringo Starr and Barbara Bach”. Prince Andrew and his then girlfriend, Koo Stark, were frequent visitors to Strange’s flat in Chelsea.
He was born Steven Harrington in Newbridge, Monmouthshire, son of John Harrington, who joined the army soon after his son’s birth, and his wife, Gillian (nee Price). The family later moved to Aldershot, Hampshire, where his father was posted, and then, when John left the army, to Rhyl, where his parents ran a guest house and several seafront cafes. His parents divorced, and Steven lived with his mother in a council house in Newbridge, where he attended the local grammar school.
At 13 he began stealing drugs from chemists’ shops, and at 14 was cautioned by police for possessing amphetamines. After seeing the Sex Pistols play in Newport in 1976, he left Wales for London, where he worked briefly for Malcolm McLaren and shared squats with the future stars Billy Idol (William Broad) and Sid Vicious (John Beverley). He worked in clothes shops and as a roadie for rock groups, before joining the Moors Murderers. They released the single Free Hindley before Strange left the band and was briefly a member of the Photons.
Following the huge success of his various clubs and Visage, Strange began to find the pop business awash with cocaine and developed a taste for it. Then, on a trip to Paris in 1982 to model clothes for Jean Paul Gaultier, he was given some heroin and rapidly became addicted to it. “The biggest mistake I ever made was heroin,” he said later. “You don’t ever dabble with it, you stay clear away.”
Friends including Spandau Ballet’s Martin Kemp and the singer Sade tried unsuccessfully to help Strange get treatment for his addiction. He began spending periods of time in Ibiza, where he became involved in the developing trance music scene, but whenever he returned to London found himself dragged back to the addict’s lifestyle. On one occasion he was convicted of theft and fined for stealing a chequebook, intending to buy drugs.
Then he spent nearly five years living in Ibiza, where he hosted the Double Bass club, before returning to London in the 90s. He began hosting club nights again, but then hit a low after the deaths of his close friends Paula Yates and Michael Hutchence. His house in east London was destroyed by fire and Strange found himself back in Wales, living with his sister Tanya and two lodgers in the house in Porthcawl he had bought for his mother a few years previously. He suffered a nervous breakdown and was prescribed Prozac, Valium and temazepam.
In 2000, he was arrested in Bridgend for shoplifting. He was given a three-month suspended prison sentence, and attended treatment to wean himself off Prozac. There were signs that he was making positive progress when he re-formed Visage in 2004, and recorded the song Diaries of a Madman.
In 2006, he co-wrote and performed on the track In the Dark for the electronic duo Punx Soundcheck, and in 2013 a new Visage album, Hearts and Knives, was released (their first collection of new material for 29 years). The band played dates in the UK and Europe, and last year recorded a new version of Fade to Grey.
Strange is survived by his sister.
• Steve Strange (Steven John Harrington), clubland entrepreneur and pop singer, born 28 May 1959; died 12 February 2015
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010