When I left Edinburgh after my second solo Fringe run at the end of August 2004,
I had no reason to suspect my career was about to take a nosedive. My Face Academy
show hadn't received quite the same rapturous acclaim as Polaroid Suitcase and I
still stood to lose a fair few grand thanks to the stupendous budget and meagre ticket
sales, but in most other respects everything seemed to be going incredibly well.
Over the past year I'd recorded an album, written a TV pilot, performed a new one
man show, done two series of The Day the Music Died on Radio 2, undertaken a small
but well-received national tour and done countless gigs up and down the country.
There was no reason to think the following year would be any different.
There were changes to be made, certainly, but all these things were for the better.
My latest show had been far from perfect - being so busy had eaten into my writing
schedule and the final result was rushed. A year spent working out how to go down
well in a stand-up environment made me a more confident and approachable performer
but had removed a lot of the delusional weirdness that had made the character so
distinctive in the first place. I decided therefore to take longer over the next
project - two years rather than the single year I'd spent on the previous two - and
to start saying no to stand-up gigs.
The next major change I wanted to make was to get some better music-making equipment.
My first two albums had been recorded on a PlayStation game and mixed in a film-editing
program. Having gone as far as I could with such a bizarre set-up, it seemed a good
time to upscale and get myself some professional gear. A little research led to a
company called Carillon making me a custom PC, fitted with the latest edition of
Cubase and a slew of virtual instruments.
But it wasn't just the PlayStation I wanted to ditch. I also felt like the whole
New Romantic parody thing had run its course. That movement had only lasted a couple
of years in the first place - I didn't want to spend any longer than that making
fun of it. Though I still loved Gary Le Strange and my head was bursting with new
ideas for songs he could sing, I realised I'd done just about all I could in that
particular genre. But rather than ditching the character altogether, it seemed a
good opportunity to widen his repertoire, keeping the same electronic sensibilities
and the same ridiculous delusional lyrics but broadening his sphere of influences
beyond the music of the early 1980s to encapsulate other styles.
For quite some time, I'd had a framework in mind for Gary's progression from amateur
bedroom weirdo to fully-fledged rock star. In many ways I was retracing my own musical
education. I'd started buying records in 1981 at the age of nine, which is where
Polaroid Suitcase had drawn most of its inspiration. My initial thoughts about the
third album concentrated on the mid-80s - I wanted the smoother, artier stylings
of the earlier stuff to give way to something harder-edged, with big machine drums
and sampled guitars, drawing its inspiration more from America than Europe, just
as British pop had done in the 1980s.
More specifically, I became fascinated with Adam Ant's 1985 Vive Le Rock album, with
its bizarre but irresistible blend of USA-tinged punk and glam, its obsession with
American pop culture and call-and-response lyrics. The fact that it had been a commercial
flop and led to Adam Ant's retirement from the mainstream made it even more irresistible
as inspiration for Gary's next move. I'd written a crazy song for The Day the Music
Died in 2003 called The Cowboy Astronaut of Mother's Day, a high-octane blend of
Adam Ant's Apollo 9 and David Bowie's Space Oddity, in which Gary made a desperate
hyper-commercial attempt to capture the American market, the Mother's Day market
and the sci-fi nerd market all at the same time. This formed the cornerstone of my
new approach. Before long I had an armful of songs with ridiculous transatlantic
names like Fishnet Brando, Tough Like Rocky and Limey in the Big Apple. Then one
day the word "Glamoronica" magically popped into my head - Gary would describe it
as "a forward-thinking blend of electronica and glam," though really it was just
moronic - and I instantly knew it wasn't just a great name for the new sound. It
was the best title I'd ever come up with.
Perhaps if I'd doggedly stuck to that simple idea, things would have turned out differently.
But that wasn't all I wanted to do. After thirty years as a penniless student and
general office dogsbody, my new career as a successful musical comedian gave me carte
blanche to catch up on all that music I'd missed. After devouring the work of the
New Romantics and synthpop acts of the late 70s and early 80s, I moved onto the back
catalogue of David Bowie, and from there through the careers of Roxy Music, Brian
Eno, Scott Walker, Nine Inch Nails, Marilyn Manson, The Stranglers, Kraftwerk, Captain
Beefheart - basically anything that took my fancy. I went where the music took me
and it all started blending in my head to form the new songs. Fishnet Brando started
as an Adam Ant pastiche but before long was peppered with references to Bowie, Bolan,
Sigue Sigue Sputnik and Suede. I am a Video blended Duran Duran with Frankie Goes
to Hollywood and Blur. I was no longer concerned with whether anyone "got" all the
references or with slavishly parodying any particular genre. I was only interested
in giving Gary his own sound - even if that sound was nicked from other people.
Gone, too, was my temporal vagueness about when and where Gary fit into the whole
scheme of things. For the past two years I'd consistently told audiences that Gary
was a modern pop star, a present-day never-was rather than a has-been from the early
80s. But in his music I'd tried to retain the sense that, if you weren't listening
properly, you might mistake his songs for the real thing. Now I wanted to make sure
no one mistook him for a thing from the distant past, my new lyrics making references
to Guantanamo Bay, Osama Bin Laden, The X Files, George Alagiah, The Truman Show
and all manner of people and things which didn't exist as cultural reference points
in the 80s. This version of Gary Le Strange would carry him further away from 80s
parody and deeper into the territory of being a proper thing in his own right. Or
at least, that was the plan.
With two years to make the next album, I felt able to take my time over the new songs,
allowing the ideas to evolve organically as I worked out how to get the most from
my new set-up. Hardly having had a day off for the past two years, I took it relatively
easy for a couple of months, playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and occasionally
mucking around with my new electronic toys.
The debt from the Edinburgh show was a little over four grand - more than I'd expected
and not terribly welcome now I wasn't doing so many paid gigs - but it didn't seem
completely insurmountable if I spread it over time. I did one final Christmas special
for The Day the Music Died, giving me a chance to flex my new Cubase muscles and
prove to myself that my investment hadn't been a mistake. When the producer called
me to say he thought Gary Le Strange had gone as far as he could go on the show,
I totally agreed with him and, with the prospect of a BBC-produced TV pilot coming
up, my sudden unemployment didn't seem such a bad thing.
Instead, I concentrated my creative efforts on writing my second TV pilot and hosting
a new monthly comedy club at the Albany on Great Portland Street. Both projects were
called Club Le Strange and both gave me a much greater opportunity to experiment
with new formats for Gary, allowing me to explore his life and background in much
greater depth without the need to keep re-introducing myself over and over again
to new audiences. In short, it was a fantastically creative time, brimming with future
And then one day a bomb fell on my life. Early in December 2004, the management company
I was signed to - who had also, sadly, been my producers and promoters in Edinburgh
that year - e-mailed me with the rather distressing news that the company who ran
the venue I'd performed at (The Pod Deco, for all those wanting to put a name to
it) was filing for bankruptcy, and that they were taking every single penny of my
ticket money with them. Instead of the four grand I was expecting to lose, it seemed
I would soon be owing my own creditors over three times that amount. I took legal
advice but, given the contract I'd signed, there was no way out of it. And, given
that I'd just lost two of my main jobs and spent my entire life savings on a new
computer, this put me in a very difficult position.
There was always the possibility I could have filed for bankruptcy myself, but that
would have meant losing all my assets and would probably have killed Gary Le Strange
stone dead. The only way forward was to pay it off. But as a non-gigging absurdist
character comedian with no steady income, that wasn't looking too serious an option
either. As the only person I knew with any kind of steady job at all, and therefore
the only person I knew who could be trusted to take out a loan, it fell to my amazing
wife Katy to bail me out, leaving me in turn eternally in debt to her. Though we
negotiated a reduction in the amount owed in return for a lump sum payment, it still
saddled us with a five-figure debt which took us another five years to pay off. Needless
to say, I left that management company and signed up with a new theatrical agent
early in the new year. It didn't solve the night terrors, hypertension and encroaching
alcoholism but it did mean I could wipe the slate clean and try to start again.
To say this cast a bit of a pall on things would be an understatement of gargantuan
proportions. My crazy, upbeat, neo-glam masterpiece was suddenly bisected by a huge
slab of gloom. Instead of writing about sci-fi movie legends and transatlantic transvestites,
I found myself writing harrowing dirges about bailiffs, loneliness, delusion and
depression. The refrain of Fishnet Brando changed from "I am a rebel" to "Give me
my money." Though I'd already planned to write a song called "All I ever do is sit
in my room," I wasn't expecting it to end up being so autobiographical, as my life
slowly became a succession of lonely, paranoid days spent largely on my own being
In an effort to drown out the bad voices in my head and convince myself everything
was fine (and to honour the wishes of my chief financial backer, who insisted that
I try to finish what I'd started), I threw myself back into my work. Over the next
few months, I wrote and recorded an enormous amount of instrumental material, providing
me with over twenty new potential songs for the album, among which were some of the
boldest and most ambitious tunes I'd ever written. The live version of Club Le Strange
- the one beautiful success story of that year - went from strength to strength,
building a small but dedicated audience over the next few months. This culminated
in the first appearance of Gary's live backing band (consisting of Dan Mersh on guitar,
Jeremy Limb on keyboards and his brother Chris Limb on bass - named The Masques of
Mandragora by a member of the audience). Then, of course, there was my second TV
script, which I was convinced would finally provide Gary with the platform he needed
to reach the wider audience he deserved. The future still looked rosy, for a while.
It didn't last. The TV pilot fell into instant trouble when it turned out the second
series of Look Around You was based on a similar idea, and they had got there first.
It fell into even deeper water when continual staff changes meant I ended up dealing
with completely different people from when I started. Hasty rewrites only served
to confuse things and, several joyless drafts later, the script - by now a garbled
compromise - was laid to rest. Though the BBC kindly paid me for my trouble, a third
script went unread and my loose production deal with the corporation shuffled to
a miserable end. The Masques of Mandragora - for one night, a shining beacon of hope
that Gary might transform into a real musician at last - found themselves without
a bass player for their second gig when Chris managed to break his arm. By the time
of their third gig, the line-up was reduced to just Gary and a guitarist, and after
that I didn't see much point in bothering. My grandmother - the last remaining family
tie I had to the town where I was born - died in April. The tube network was attacked
by terrorists in July. I spent most nights either blind drunk or unable to sleep
and woke up most mornings (or, increasingly, most afternoons) wanting to maim the
people who'd taken all my wife's money. It wasn't turning out to be a good year.
Then there were the new songs. Though I loved the tunes and was absolutely convinced
they were better than anything I'd ever written before, I became increasingly dispirited
about my ability to write lyrics. A few early ones turned out OK but as the year
wore on, I found myself spending way too much time trying to rewrite the same songs
over and over again, yet never managing to make them funny. My astonishing surfeit
of new tunes - which, annoyingly, wouldn't stop coming - left me overwhelmed, meaning
I couldn't settle on a track listing or direct my energies towards a specific goal.
In the rare event that I finally felt happy enough to try one of my new songs out
live, I invariably found it too difficult to sing. Fishnet Brando - intended as my
flagship song - was such a brash cavalcade of belted-out words that it proved too
ambitious for a 40-a-day smoker to get his gob around. Even then, the expectations
of a comedy audience are very different to those of a music audience and, though
the songs were really quite mad and undeniably clever, not many of them contained
enough laugh-out-loud marker points to sustain the interest of a live crowd. They
simply weren't as easy to listen to as my earlier songs and, consequently, I found
myself yet again having to face the idea that Gary Le Strange simply wasn't as good
as he used to be.
As you might imagine, this wove an immense ball of resentment inside me. At first
with the abstract genre of comedy, for being so bloody restrictive. Everything would
have been so much easier, I thought, if I didn't have to make people laugh. Then,
as the year wore on, I became less enamoured with the tunes too. I was still at the
beginning of a steep learning curve with my new PC software and it would take me
many years to build a way of working I was happy with. Even though, looking back
on it, I actually achieved quite a lot in the brief time I'd been working with Cubase,
at the time all I could see was the vast gulf between what I could do and what was
possible for others. Listening to my favourite albums of the year - like Goldfrapp's
Supernature, with its sultry, pristine electronics, or Demon Days by Gorillaz, with
its multi-layered kaleidoscope of ever-changing sonic textures - only served to ram
home how far I had to go.
It should have been Gary Le Strange's biggest year. All around us, the culture was
showing its readiness to accept him. All the things I'd been obsessed with two years
before, which had seemed so uncool at the time, were suddenly very cool indeed. Electro
rock was everywhere and it was perfectly acceptable for men to wear eye liner in
public. Even my favourite TV programme, the eternally uncool sci-fi series Doctor
Who, had returned from the dead, to become not just a BAFTA-winning critical success
but an absolute ratings smash which every single person in the country seemed to
be head over heels in love with. The prevailing culture was everything I had fought
for it to be. Though it hadn't entirely been his doing, Gary Le Strange had won the
Face War. It should have been the easiest thing for Gary to grab his prize and hoist
himself up into the mainstream.
Maybe that was the problem. My conception of Gary was of a loner, a loser, a fractured
mess, hopelessly out of time - a nightmare version of myself who had no self-awareness
and no sense of humour, doomed to be out of step with popular culture no matter what
he did. Though I was keen to explore all the different possibilities of what he might
become, the idea of him embracing the mainstream obviously didn't appeal to me at
that moment in time. Gary no longer had anything to fight against, and for me, that
completely derailed him. When Russell Brand - previously a jeans and t-shirt act
like most other stand-ups - reinvented himself as a surreal, loquacious dandy in
leather trousers and rocketed to worldwide superstardom on the back of it, I realised
Gary's dream job had already been taken, and that from now on, he would simply be
looked at as a second-rate Russell Brand clone.
It was for all these reasons - and probably many more - that I realised it was time
to stop being Gary Le Strange. But I didn't want to stop being him without giving
him one last hurrah, without making a final statement about who he was and what he
could have been. The trouble was, Glamoronica wasn't that statement. I had other,
stupider ideas I wanted to try instead and, since the Glamoronic concept had become
such a jumbled albatross, I thought it best to shelve it and start again. And so,
a whole year after I'd begun it, Glamoronica got scrapped.
In the intervening years between then and now, it's often been difficult to get my
head around why I did what I did. Scrapping that album may have released me from
a certain set of problems but it ended up causing a whole lot more, not least of
which is the everlasting sense of loss and shame you get when a cherished project
- something so much hope and effort has gone into - has to die. The fact that the
subsequent project was a complete and total career-destroying commercial failure
only compounds this feeling and elicits an infinite stream of "What if" with no discernible
answer. In the end, all you can do is turn your back on the whole thing, chalk it
up to experience and move on.
When the time came to re-release Gary's albums for digital download, I wondered what,
if anything, I might do with the material from Glamoronica. Though I made over twenty
backing tracks and wrote a vast swathe of lyrical material, I only ever recorded
two rushed vocals for a pair of demos in 2006. Over time, my memory tricked me into
thinking these were the only two songs worth worrying about, and I thought I might
just stick them on the end of another album as bonus tracks. But when I looked back
at the others I'd written, I realised they weren't all that bad after all. In fact,
some of them were pretty good. At first, I briefly considered completely rewriting
and re-recording some of them for a new album, but over the course of recording even
more demos in the early part of 2013, it became clear that what I needed to do was
to place these songs back into something approaching their proper context.
This new release isn't the album I intended. It's not even an album, really - just
a vague collection of the six songs from the period I didn't think needed rewriting.
I haven't altered the backing tracks at all, these being the very same mixes I made
in 2005, nor have the lyrics changed. The only new element is the vocal, recorded
entirely in 2013, but using the same microphone I would have used, had I recorded
it back then. The end result isn't perfect - the original tracks are raw in places
and I'd make them very differently now. But this feels like the right way to release
these songs. What's important to me here isn't necessarily to finish the album -
that will never happen - but to finish at least some of them, so that I can place
them back into the chronology where they might have been, had I not been so messed
up at the time.
As for the songs themselves, I still feel fairly mixed about some of them. The opener
Fishnet Brando is an over-compressed, unfunny mess, but it introduces the concept
well and sets the tone for what I set out to do. I only hope anyone listening can
stick with it for the other five songs in the collection, three of which I'd rank
among the best I've ever written. More than anything else I'd done up to this point,
my personal life was bleeding through into the lyrics, lending an emotional honesty
to half the songs here, while the others - most especially the manically intense
Cowboy Astronaut of Mother's Day - are chiefly characterised by the kind of desperate
flailing of someone who's terrified his career is about to end, and that's surely
worthy of doomed fascination.
If nothing else, this EP serves as a useful bridge between Gary's earlier material
and the stuff that came next. The album that finally killed him off for good.
TO BE CONTINUED...