Searching For The Perfect Beat
Visage's Rusty Egan reveals a change of face
Visage drummer Rusty Egan discusses his multifaceted talents to Sean Rothman.
Six form poetry coupled to two chords, an octave bass line and a husky French femme fatale vocal, Fade To Grey was a worldwide hit of 1980 and placed Steve Strange's Visage on the cover of virtually every pop magazine and supplement in the country.
Strange, an ex-Moor Murderer with limited vocal prowess but a strong line in cosmetics and charisma was the frontman for a group that never existed outside the recording studio, a group comprised entirely of musicians with careers flagging after the initial punk explosion. Barry Evans, Dave Formula and John McGeoch from Magazine linked with Rich Kids' Midge Ure and drummer Rusty Egan to work on a studio project with Ultravox's Billy Curry using studio time initially paid for by EMI. These sessions resulted in the album Visage.
That album sold well. In fact it sold so many that I am sitting in a multistorey office block with recording studio that was largely bought with the proceeds. Rusty Egan is leaning back in a luxury padded arm-chair sipping tea (two sugars) and reminiscing.
"We used everything on that album. We had a GS2, two Yamaha grands, two ARP Odysseys about three Yamaha string synths, a CS80 and a Minimoog. We used a Fairlight on that album, we had the first one that came over from Australia. Before The Steps it's Peter Gabriel going 'Waugggh, wauggh!' Richard Burgess from Landscape did all the links between tracks. Later I recommended him as a producer to Spandau Ballet.
"I was using a Roland CR78 drum machine. This was before the TR808 came out remember. Of course in those days it was difficult to get everything in sync — life before the Linn drum!"
Egan likes talking about the good old days. Until recently he hasn't had anything to talk about as the last Visage LP proper was The Anvil back in 1982. Since then and Pleasure Boys, he's been locked in lengthy litigation with his old management. However, this has now been resolved and Visage's new album Beat Boy will be released next month preceded by the single Love Glove.
Why has it taken you so long to get the LP released?
"We've changed production company," he begins. "You see Visage, the original idea, was made by musicians as a studio situation, so we did a deal with a studio. It happened to be Martin Rushent's studio (at one point there was a chance that the LP would appear on Genetic), that's where the first Visage album was born and it was completed and mixed for Morris O'Donnel productions who in turn were the management of Ultravox.
"Now a production company takes a royalty like a producer. You have a production company finance the recording of your record for you because you can't get the money to pay for your recording costs if you haven't got a recording contract. Anyway, Morris O'Donnel said 'We'll pay for you to finish the album', that was all, the songs were already there.
"After a while we felt Visage was getting a second rate everything. Midge (Ure) and Billy (Curry) basically... how can I put it... wanted to run the show but of course the way I looked at it, Visage was Steve Strange and myself and they were very good musicians and that was it. When everything went in Ultravox's favour we felt a conflict of interests and wanted to terminate the agreement and go elsewhere. It's taken me two years to get out of this but if Beat Boy came out a year ago or came out today, for me it's as good as it's ever going to be. The thing is, the first Visage album was finished a year before it came out as well so I'm getting used to it!
"What I don't like about all this is Ultravox have actually said in the press, 'What have Visage done since we left?' and I can't believe that — they're the ones who have stopped us from releasing the record! I've been trying to get my album out."
Visage's line-up has altered considerably since The Anvil and the nucleus of Steve Strange on vocals and Rusty Egan on drums has now been augmented by session player Gary Barnacle on sax and keyboards and his brother Steve Barnacle on bass and keyboards while Andy Barnett has replaced Midge Ure on guitar and vocals. Egan explains.
"We've sold millions of albums and nobody knows you and you're stuck in your bedroom. Who cares whether you can play or not — it's got nothing to do with that."
"I twisted every one's arms to bring in Gary on bass for Night Train and I'd also worked with him seven years previously on one of my projects. Dave Formula who came to the rehearsals for the album went off on tour with Howard Devoto and when he rang me the other day I told him we no longer needed a keyboard player. Visage are still a very keyboard orientated band but Gary and Steve were competent enough keyboard players for what was required."
Beat Boy was recorded at Trident Studio which has a Solid State Logic desk that is widely considered to be the best in the world. They are undoubtedly the most expensive, starting at around £150,000. Surprisingly hardly any electronic instruments were used on the LP, just a Fairlight CMI, Egan's MC202/SH101 sequencer combination, a Jupiter 8 and a Linn Drum. The album continues where Pleasure Boys left off, only in a much harder vain with one of the finest drum sounds I've heard for sometime. Musically, it's less interesting with most of the songs being formed around a repetitive sequencer bass line and treated guitar and sax, keyboards being largely relegated to the background.
"We've always used guitars" continues Egan, "it's just that the image we had was sophisticated. Tracks like Visage, The Dancer and Malpaso Man all feature guitar heavily. Midge Ure is a great guitarist."
Beat Boy has an incredible snare sound, really metallic. How did you get that?
"We hired in JJ, he's the Fairlight programmer for Zang Tumb Tuum — ABC, Trevor Horn, Malcolm McLaren and The Art of Noise. I said to him 'Listen, I've got this song and I need the heaviest snare sound ever, so what we're going to do is send this sound into a room, gate the ambience, put it through some Drawmers, all that stuff'. We just built up the sound. Then I said 'Now we need this' and had a door opening and then I said 'now I want it closed' so we had a door open, a door closed, a door open, a door closed. Then a train — chuggachuggachugga, then two cans boing, boing — fucking year ago! What's really pissed me off, and I'm not saying anything here, is that JJ and The Art of Noise have since released a record called Beatbox!
Beat Boy must have been a difficult LP to write what with the group's line-up changing. Where does Steve Barnacle fit in?
"Steve Barnacle was originally brought in on a session basis but he quickly became the right-hand man. Y'see I'm a drummer, I write songs with my rhythms, arrangements and sequencers but... well, lets just say he made the notes."
Steve Strange is also much happier with Visage's current way of writing.
Rusty Egan agrees. "Yeah Steve actually wrote the single Love Glove on his own. He writes lyrics at home all the time, I come along and find them and go 'Oh, what's that? Oh, that really goes with that melody I've got. We write together now — the new album is credited to Visage."
"I want people with direction. I'll do a production deal put people in the studios and cut records with anybody who knows where they're going and what they're doing. I will offer them the machinery that I have created. The point is if they've got no talent all the machinery and all the studio time and promotion time is gonna do bugger all for them and neither am I."
Your line-up now is much more like a gigging group. Are you going to be playing live?
"I don't know. We did that Tube special last year. People say 'you were supposed to be live and you were miming' but it was live — it was happening there and then. It was not supposed to be 'Hi! I'm playing my instrument' that's why I stood behind a bloody Minimoog and I'm a drummer!" Egan pauses as though he has only just remembered something.
"But what we did do though was we had my Teac Portastudio doing the backing track and the Moog was live, the guitar was live and the vocals were live... and the drill!
"But all those musicians who sit at home and say 'Ah, but they can't really play' — listen. We've sold millions of albums and nobody knows you and you're stuck in your bedroom. Who cares whether you can play or not — it's got nothing to do with that! Why did Marilyn go out and get a record contract — he knows nothing all about music!
Some people have said this is going to be the last Visage album!
"Thats crap! We've just signed with PolyGram for three more albums. As soon as I get this bloody record out I'm going to have another one ready. Two years — d'you think I can only write eight songs in two years? I've been doing dozens of things. Metropolis is the name of my publishing company which publish Soft Cell, all of Visage, and Jimmy O'Neal... we publish Herbie Hancock and Rocket, Material and Bill Lazwell, articles, records, the lot. As a matter of fact Metropolis is now the production company of Visage, who paid for Trident Studio which we bought three years ago. The Cure recorded some of The Top here.
"I've signed up six groups recently, all of them via demo tapes. I've just signed The Specimin. If your readers want to send me demo tapes, I want people with direction. I'll do a production deal, put people in the studios and cut records with anybody who knows where they're going and what they're doing. I will offer them the machinery that I have created. The point is, if they've got no talent all the machinery and all the studio time and promotion is gonna do bugger all for them and neither am I."
You've produced Kirk Brandon. Have you done any other production work recently? "Yeah, I remixed Spear of Destiny's One Eyed Jack. I have actually got a solo LP deal. I recorded a single written and sung by Kirk Brandon but Polydor turned it down. They said it wasn't commercial enough.
"I done quite a few sessions. One unusual one I did was the 'b' side to The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. It was written by some guy from the '60's and I got a phone call from him one day and because it was him I did it. I did Top Of The Pops as well with Midge Ure and Phil Lynott. Fucking eight bars of drums — thanks for the session fee boys! Visage are session musicians. We'll play on this album, that album, we could do the ABC album as far as I'm concerned. Martin Fry and the other guy (Mark White) should just phone me and Steve Barnacle. I tell you, we'll knock that album out. They need a new sound and I actually told them that as a matter of fact, that's why I mention it. I did a single with Nona Hendryx, Steve and myself — 'The Cage featuring Nona Hendryx'. I also did Timezone and The Wildstar, a big NY record. It was all done on a sampler. The first twelve second sampler, in my friend's studio in Germany.
"Really, people put far to much emphasis on production. Production is important, I know what these technical people go on about but to me it's just a formula. A good song is not just about technology. Marc Almond doesn't give a toss about technicals — he uses a bloody Dr. Boss for his drums!"
Any great pearl of wisdom to end on?
"Yeah. What people in the music industry never understand is that wives and girlfriends and private lives really fuck up groups. You should all go and see a film called 'Spiral Top'. It's a hippy film all about a dirty rock 'n' roll band called Spiral Top who are going down the tube and the record company think they're shit and they're going on tour and the manager walks out and the girlfriend takes over and she's got absolutely no fucking idea and they end up playing in an amusement park supporting the Sooty show. It's like 'Bad News on Tour'. It's hilarious but true — that's rock'n'roll!
Interview by Sean Rothman
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