It's impossible to overestimate the effect the Perrier Best Newcomer Award had on
my career. Before August 2003, I was an underachieving data entry clerk who occasionally
did strange things on stage and once made a low-budget animation about a boy nobody
likes. By the end of the month, I was an award-winning professional comedian, the
celebrated 1980s parodist Gary Le Strange, who left the Edinburgh Fringe clutching
a ream of five-star reviews and a stack of job offers that would keep him out of
data entry for the rest of his life. All I needed to do was follow it up with an
even better show which everyone agreed was several hundred times better than my award-winning
five-star mega-triumph and the world would finally be mine for the taking.
From my success-addled point of view in the summer of 2003, this didn't seem difficult.
After a month belting out Polaroid Suitcase night after night, I was all too aware
of its shortcomings. The live show was a rigid character monologue, interspersed
with songs, in which a failed pop star catalogued dreadful incidents from his life.
An earth-shattering success in its own small way, but the general consensus told
me the talky bits between the songs weren't quite as entertaining as the songs themselves.
And when it came to the music, I knew I could do better. Gary Le Strange's first
album had been an introduction to the character, a series of snapshots painting a
broad picture of who he was and what he liked. The second, I reckoned, would be a
much deeper affair, a fuller exploration of the character and the world around him,
a dynamic experience which brought the character firmly into the present day and
placed him right in the centre of your brain.
There were plenty of other things I wanted to change too. Cut his hair, for one thing,
and get some better clothes. Widen his sphere of influences so it wasn't so rigidly
stuck in 1981. I wanted to demonstrate to people that I wasn't just a vapid 1980s-obsessed
nostalgia merchant and that Gary Le Strange was a formidable comedy character who
could go anywhere, do anything and had a lot to say about the world around us. I
wanted to make him more confident, more approachable, more real, to delve deeper
into his psyche and become one with the character. I wanted more songs, more chat,
more ridiculous dancing and more work at the end of it. In truth, I wanted nothing
more complicated or ambitious than to improve it in every respect - better writing,
better acting, better music and better comedy, made by a better professional who
was better than anyone else.
But I was way too busy for that. Overnight, I shot from try-out spot to headline
act, doing countless gigs up and down the country and giving countless interviews
to publicise them. Within two months of winning that award, I'd landed a script development
deal with the BBC and a regular role in a new radio sketch show, managed a sell-out
run at the Soho Theatre, met Tony Hadley on a chat show, had dinner with Steve Strange
and performed my entire show to a packed house at the Palace, where they usually
did Les Miserables. Over the course of the year, I did a national tour, wrote a half-hour
TV script, made several TV appearances, did a video taster tape for the BBC and appeared
in twelve episodes of Radio 2's The Day The Music Died, supplying an original three-minute
pop song each time. Finding the time to write and record a new album while devising
and rehearsing a new hour-long show would be a challenge to say the least.
The only solution was to start straight away. Thankfully, it didn't take me long
to find the starting point. At the end of my 2003 show, Gary had invited the audience
to throw off their shackles and join him in his crusade against conformity. The obvious
next step would be to show that plan coming into action. And what better way to illustrate
the shackles of conformity than by looking at the state of the music industry?
In a stroke of unlikely good fortune that adds weight to the idea that I am merely
a two-dimensional supporting character in someone else's TV series, in October 2003
I landed a job on a music-based sketch show for BBC Radio 2 called The Day The Music
Died. Presented by Andrew Collins with special weekly features from Jon Holmes and
Robin Ince, the first two series featured Gary as a recurring guest star, who, each
week, sings a crazy new song shedding witty light on some hilarious facet of the
music industry. This forced me to focus on the realities of what was happening to
the music business in 2003. Things like falling singles sales and whether or not
downloads would catch on, or the cultural reassimilation of 80s-style electronica
and whether it could truly survive when stacked up against the ubiquity of hip-hop
and boring guitar bands who all sounded like Travis. None of which really interested
me. But there was one thing at the time which stood out above everything else, something
Gary was exactly the right person to explore, something I passionately loathed and
which I felt represented the first step towards the utter destruction of our society.
Pop Idol. Formerly known as Popstars and soon to be usurped by The X Factor, the
talent competition for wannabe singers had taken a vicious stranglehold on British
culture and represented everything that was wrong with modern pop music. It wasn't
that it wasn't entertaining or that the participants had no talent. It was more that
it removed all of the danger and creativity from pop music. In its mission to appeal
to as many people as possible at any one time, it created a new lowest common denominator
form of entertainment in which singing someone else's song rather than writing your
own was prized above all else, in which the tastes of millions were dictated by a
panel of judges and the guy with the cutest smile and least weird haircut was probably
going to win. It glorified karaoke over artistic expression, the extravert over the
introvert. To me, it seemed like proper democratic pop music had died and been replaced
by an evil cabal of shady businessmen intent on filling the charts with cheap disposable
rubbish, and I just didn't think Gary would stand for it.
Such concerns formed the philosophical basis of my work for the coming year. I reimagined
Gary not as a failed pop star, but as a ridiculous revolutionary. In the first show
I had christened him a 'Face Warrior'. In the second, I would declare a 'Face War'
on the music industry. Gary Le Strange would be the creative alternative to Pop Idol,
the anti-Will Young. Working titles for the new show included Captain Peacock, Escalators
to Glory, Silicon Warlord and Dancing in Disguise. But a misreading of the BBC's
short-lived Pop Idol clone Fame Academy gave me the title I needed. The new show
would be a lecture at the Face Academy, in which the audience would be Face Cadets,
training to be Face Warriors at the onset of the Face War. It was just like all those
things I'd adored about Adam Ant when I was a kid. He didn't just write 'music' for
his 'fans'. He wrote 'Antmusic' for 'Sexpeople'. His Prince Charming tour wasn't
a gig, it was a 'revue'. This was the kind of pop star I wanted to be. The kind who
didn't give a shit what you think about him. The kind who had fun with ideas.
Returning to the Edinburgh Fringe the following year was a fixed point, a deadline
I couldn't miss, so if I wanted to record a new album too, I had to start straight
away. Even then, I had my work cut out. The previous eight-track album had taken
me roughly eighteen months to write and record. To aim for ten tracks on the second
was tantamount to insanity. But I was sure that, if I stayed focused and stuck to
my schedule, my lofty ambitions would somehow translate into a tangible achievement.
So on January 2nd, 2004, I set about recording my second album.
Musically, Face Academy is bolder, sleeker, more Spartan than its predecessor. With
Polaroid Suitcase, I tried to ensure that each song had its own unique sound. Face
Academy began in the same way but early demos proved both disappointing and time-consuming.
So, for practical reasons as much as anything else, I decided to give all the tracks
a uniform production style. Inspired by Japan's Tin Drum (one of my favourite albums
and arguably the best album made by any of the so-called New Romantics), I wanted
to de-clutter the soundscape by limiting the number of instruments. In my head, Face
Academy was played by an imaginary band of four musicians - a drummer, a bassist
and two synth-players (one of whom is probably Gary). It's rare that you'll hear
more than four sounds at any one time. This gave the music more room to breathe and
forced me to be more creative with my arrangements. Realising also that I didn't
have the gear to reproduce the sound of Tin Drum exactly (though I had a good go
at emulating Mick Karn's quirky bass-playing on Electric Dance), I spent a lot of
time listening to other early 80s tracks to find something my PS2 software could
safely copy. In the end, I decided to aim for a sound somewhere between The Human
League's Mirror Man and a song called After a Fashion by Midge Ure. Even down to
the stereo spacing of where the instruments sat in the mix.
This still didn't mean I had it easy. I hadn't the time or the money to update my
studio set-up from the previous year, so I made the second album in the same over-complicated,
idiosyncratic way I made the first. The basic backing tracks were all created over
12 exhausting days in January 2004 on a program called MTV Music Generator for the
PlayStation2. Over the next few weeks, between other jobs, I transferred each track
in real time, on an instrument by instrument basis, onto a Minidisc, and then retransferred
them all manually in real time onto my PC, where I edited each of them, one by one,
in a sound-editing program called Sound Forge, adding effects like EQ, compression,
reverb and distortion, before reassembling each song, instrument by instrument, in
a film-editing program (Adobe Premiere if you really want to know), which allowed
me to mix each song down to a finished track. All I had left to do was write the
lyrics, record the vocals, edit and process the vocals (again in Sound Forge), add
the vocal line to the backing track and whittle everything down to a final mix. So
long as I didn't experiment or deviate from my plan and I came up with amazingly
funny lyrics to match my marvellous tunes, I reckoned I could get the whole thing
finished by the end of April, leaving me a whopping three months to write and rehearse
the show. You don't have to be Mystic Meg to predict how that turned out.
The rational side of my brain sometimes tells me that, had I not recorded the album,
I would have had more time for everything else, and life might have turned out slightly
better. But the rest of my brain knows that's sacrilege. Of all the things I did
that year, the one thing I never doubted was the album. Again, my rational brain
tells me that's stupid - no one was ever going to buy my album if they didn't know
who I was, and telling people who I was meant I had to get off my backside and crawl
up and down the country trying to make people laugh in pubs.
But that was never going to work. It didn't take me long to realise I hated the stand-up
circuit. Unsurprisingly, a bloke in tights and make-up singing weird songs about
ballet and toasters and reciting subtly-shaded character monologues about his failure
to succeed in the music business turned out to be a bit of a Marmite act and invariably
ended in plentiful jeering. On one occasion, booked to play in a packed rowdy student
bar, I was so hated by the audience and so stubborn in my refusal to leave the stage
that, by the end of my set, there were only two other people left in the room. Given
that the bar was serving free alcohol at the time, I consider this one of my greatest
I was under no illusion about any of this. I never wanted to be a stand-up and, though
I respected and enjoyed a lot of stand-up comedy, it wasn't what I was trying to
break into. I was an actor playing a part, not a stand-up telling jokes. I was hyper-aware
that the only reason I got the gigs was because I'd won an award. But I'd won the
award for writing an hour-long theatrical monologue, not for doing a twenty-minute
set in a pub. I hated being bad at it and seriously wanted to be better, but life
on the road just wasn't much fun. I don't drive so if I couldn't car pool with another
act, I had to spend most of my time - and my earnings - in trains and hotels. More
work meant less time spent with my wife, with my friends - I started missing important
birthday parties and on one occasion missed my own when I failed to turn up to receive
a Chortle Award.
If this all sounds ungrateful, I was certainly always mindful that my new job was
much better than being a data entry clerk. But after a while I realised that, in
terms of not doing what I wanted to do (and instead doing what I thought I needed
to do in order to pay my share of the rent), stand-up and data entry were pretty
much the same, except stand-up is more lonely and humiliating.
It may not be the popular choice - it's usually either Polaroid Suitcase or Beef
Scarecrow that people ask me about - but of the three albums I made as Gary Le Strange,
Face Academy is probably my favourite. It came closest to achieving the vision I
had in my head and, at the time, I considered it far superior to its predecessor.
The lyrics were cleverer, the arrangements cleaner, the performance more confident.
My new microphone (a Chinese mic called a Studio Projects C1 which I still use today)
added a professional sheen to the vocals and made the whole thing sound much more
intimate. With ten tracks and a running time of 45 minutes, this was far more like
a proper pop album than my first had been. Where Polaroid Suitcase was a set of disparate
song parodies sung by a hopeful amateur, this was a solid, coherent album made by
a fully-rounded character with his own distinctive voice, and I really, really liked
Lyrically, Face Academy is all about conflict. Though Warriors of Style and Photocopier
are the only songs to deal with the music industry directly, all the other songs
are about war or despair, depicting outsiders standing at odds with the society they
live in or losers who don't understand why they lost. Metal Boy is about a bunch
of slaves rising up against an evil overlord. Electric Dance is about a virulent
dance which destroys the whole of Europe (whether this is meant to be Nazism or Pop
Idol is anyone's guess, but I imagine Gary can't tell the difference). Even the buoyant
Heart of Tears ends with the singer committing suicide. And The Golden Age speaks
of a wonderful halcyon time which, by the song's end, obviously wasn't as glorious
as everyone makes out. Where Polaroid Suitcase had all been about the lovely silly
things Gary liked - triangles, ballet, Japan and the colour grey - this was all about
the things he hated, the things he suffered and the things he opposed. The humour
may have been more subtle and the jokes less obvious, but it wasn't any less real.
The packaging was much better too, having had way more time and money spent on it.
The superb photos, snapped by the brilliant Andy Hollingworth in April 2004, show
a much more confident and dynamic Gary than the previous year. Gone is the man who
cobbled together his costume in Oxfam and painted his face with make-up stolen from
his sister's drawer. This version of Gary is a professional pop star, a true dandy
warrior complete with expensive leather jeans and bespoke military greatcoat (designed
by my Dad's wife Debbie). Perversely, however (though still in keeping with the anti-commercial
theme and Gary's pretentions), all these things are eschewed on the front cover.
For some reason, it amused me that the central image for an album called 'Face Academy'
should be just a quarter of someone's face. A terrible idea for an Edinburgh Fringe
poster but a great image for an album cover. Shame I can't reproduce the whole package
for a digital download but look in the Gallery section on my website and hopefully
it will make itself known.
Time ran away with itself. The gigs, the tour, the TV script and my steadfast refusal
to ever make things easy for myself all conspired to push back the deadline. In the
end, I didn't send the master CD off for duplication till June 19th. Instead of my
whopping three months, I was left with only five weeks to write and rehearse the
show, during which I had to undertake a hefty series of press interviews, write and
record four more songs for a second series of The Day the Music Died, rewrite and
re-record two of those songs when they were deemed unsuitable for broadcast, deal
with a massive heap of admin and website maintenance and replace a broken tooth which
fell out from all the stress.
But I was Gary Le Strange, the pop star superhero who didn't need sleep or days off,
or teeth. Somehow, I managed not only to write my show, but also to preview it a
whopping five times, all of which went brilliantly. When the pop journalist Andrew
Eaton hijacked his own article in The Scotsman on July 30th to rave explosively about
my new CD, calling it "inspiring" and ending with the words "The campaign starts
here. Gary Le Strange will have a Number One hit. He shall go to the ball. Oh yes,"
I was utterly convinced I had a surefire hit. All I needed to do now was conquer
Edinburgh and collect my prize. Next stop, Everlasting Fame and Glory!
Sadly, it was not to be. Lots of people enjoyed the show and the press was generally
positive, but Face Academy didn't quite set Edinburgh ablaze. Apart from the odd
one or two nights, audience figures were low, some shows pulling in as few as 15.
Over the course of the month, I fell dreadfully ill, lost my voice, spent several
days being followed by a stalker and generally had a deeply miserable time. The Face
War failed to ignite and I left Scotland at the end of August utterly disillusioned,
anticipating a debt somewhere in the region of four or five thousand pounds.
When a show fails, everyone involved starts flailing around looking for someone to
blame - the venue, the management, the press, or more often oneself for being rubbish
at making shows. Looking back at Face Academy nine years later, it's far clearer
what the problem really was. Success killed Face Academy. The previous show had done
so well that I was inundated with work, to the point where I had very little time
to put into the sequel. Looked at like that, It's a miracle I managed to do it at
all, and an even greater miracle I managed to make an album to go with it. The cruel
irony is that, because the second show didn't catapult me to the next level or create
any serious new buzz, all those job offers started dropping away. And when that dried
up, so did the requests for the album. My year as the Next Big Thing was officially
over and now it was someone else's job.
I wasn't totally unaware of this. I had closed my Polaroid Suitcase show with an
invitation to join me in my crusade against mediocrity. I closed Face Academy with
the idea that I didn't really want to be a leader, and that people should find their
own way to fight mediocrity from now on. I've no idea whether I knew it at the time,
but subconsciously I was preparing to relinquish my year of Everlasting Fame and
Glory and fade back into the shadows. Success wasn't anywhere near as much fun as
it looked and, to be honest, I needed a break from it. Not that I expected the break
to be permanent, but you don't always get more than one shot at Everlasting Fame
But Gary wasn't beaten yet. The BBC bosses gave my TV script a thumbs up and asked
me to write another one. I decided to give Edinburgh a year's break but I knew I'd
be back again in two years with a new show - a better show with better writing, better
acting, better music and better ideas. But now it wasn't all about the show. Gary
Le Strange made albums too. For the first time in my life, I was regularly making
music, and once I'd started, I couldn't stop. From now on, I would make more music
- my music - better music with better lyrics, better equipment and better tunes!
I would start my own comedy club, make my own TV series and finally conquer the world!!
Gary Le Strange may not have been the Next Big Thing anymore but he was far from
dead. He'd barely even started.
If only I'd known about the battering to come...
TO BE CONTINUED
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID...
"Something fascinating has happened to Gary since his 2003 show... From merely being
a brilliantly observed synthpop spoof, Gary Le Strange has found his own voice...
where once you could easily spot the Gary Numan song, or the David Sylvian song,
now they blend together into a terrifying Adam-Numan-Sylvian-ABC-Duranesque monster.
What does it sound like? It sounds like Gary Le Strange."
Andrew Eaton, Scotsman, July 30, 2004
"This year's pastiche tunes don't show their roots as clearly as in 2003... But they
still evoke the era as vividly as a wallop in the face from Thatcher's handbag...
But even more than the songs, his voice is the star of the show. Whether he's being
Bowie or Marc Almond, David Sylvian or Gary Numan, his vocals - now trilling, now
howling, always utterly soulless - are spot on."
Brian Logan, Guardian, August 14, 2004 ****
"It's not easy to make comedy that feels original. Part homage, part piss-take, Waen
Shepherd's show is a rare triumph. PVC costumes and New Romantic tunes make for a
brilliant pastiche on the state of the music industry... All in all, an inspired
show, the like of which could scarce be imitated."
Helena Thompson, The Stage, August 27, 2004
"Consistently thrilling... Le Strange is doing essentially the same thing as The
Darkness, except that he gets to have more fun with ideas."
Nadine McBay, Metro, August 09, 2004 ****
"At times engaging, at others brilliant, yet never dull... Let's hope the music industry
does the right thing for once and gives him the record deal he deserves."
Gary Flockhart, Edinburgh Evening News, August 10, 2004
"A pitch-perfect pastiche of a New Romantic-era synth-pop star"
Nicholas Barber, Independent on Sunday, August 08, 2004
"Gary Le Strange is like the bastard son of David Bowie and Adam Ant."
Matt Brereton, August 14, 2004 ****
"He's such a finely-honed creation that it's easy to forget he's a fictional character...
a slick and sensitive performance; if you don't love it you just don't get it."
Leah Milner, Fest, August 27, 2004 *****