I always wanted to be a pop star. Ever since 1981 when the likes of Gary Numan, Adam Ant and The Human League inspired the nine-year-old me to write a bunch of songs about cowboys, robots, warriors and spacemen. As a child, I made pretend records out of paper and span them round on a pencil while singing my latest pretend hit single. As a lonely spotty teenager, I wrote heart-rending love songs about girls who wouldn't look at me twice. There was nothing I liked more than music, and my instinctive desire to emulate everything I liked meant that, while ever I bought records, I would always want to make them myself. After 'famous TV actor' and 'hilarious comedian', 'pop star' was the Number One career choice for me.
But I wasn't very good at it. I tried to learn guitar but found it way too time-consuming and I didn't like the way it hurt my fingers. I had slightly more success with the piano, but ours got sold in the wake of my parents' divorce and my single-octave electronic organ just wasn't in the same league. I wrote comedy songs and recorded them on a tape recorder on my bedroom carpet, but they were usually just new lyrics sung over the top of other people's records and, after years of listening to myself, I realised that I couldn't actually sing. Though I continued to write pop songs till I was 21 years old, my inability to either play or sing them meant they remained permanently locked inside my head. By this time, it was obviously too late to start a pop career, and, as I spiralled wearily into adulthood, I thought it best to forget all about being a pop star and try to be a comedian instead.
But I wasn't very good at that either. OK, I had my moments, but I wasn't very proactive when it came to getting gigs, and when I did get them, I wasn't exactly a crowd-pleaser. Of the various acts I tried over that first five or ten years, the most popular involved me shouting about Ronnie Barker in a loud thespy voice while stripping down to a PVC thong. Everything else I did was just too damn weird. As a consequence I rarely ever got paid to do it and spent far more time in stuffy London offices honing my skills as a data entry clerk and telemarketing rep than I did in my No 1 career of choice. This, quite naturally, made me very unhappy indeed.
And the music in my head wouldn't go away. Every time I listened to music, new ideas emerged, reshaping themselves into new forms in my mind. The songs became more complex, the hooks catchier, the tunes more melodic. I started to dream new music, would wake up with new songs in my head and hurriedly write down nonsensical lyrics in a frenzied attempt to remember the tune. It hadn't occurred to me how strange and uncommon this was, that most composers write songs on an instrument rather than in their heads. But I had a silent jukebox of new, original music continually playing inside my brain, and no way of telling anyone what it sounded like.
I was 27 years old before I realised I could make music on computers. A PlayStation game called Music, which allowed the player to rearrange various pre-programmed loops into different structures and thus make his or her own banging club anthems. It soon became apparent to me that, if I looked beneath the surface, I could dispense with the loops entirely and use just the basic sounds - all sampled from real instruments - to make more complex tracks, note by note. From there, it didn't take me long to realise that, for the first time ever, I could bring life to the music I heard in my head. One sleepless month later, I had two albums' worth of material and a burning desire to succeed.
But it all sounded awful. Amazing as the Music program was, the stuff it churned out didn't sound like the output of a professional recording studio. And, by getting rid of the pre-programmed dance loops and making my own beats note by note, I'd removed any semblance of modernity from my work. This was the late 1990s and, though I liked a lot of dance music, all my musical references came from an earlier time, before breakbeat and techno, before acid house and drum 'n' bass. Basically everything I did sounded like it was made in the 1980s, and everybody hated the 1980s. I sent a demo cassette - yes, an actual cassette - to a music magazine which praised the music's ambition but pointed out I really needed to get myself some better gear if I wanted it to sound good. A brief bit of research suggested this meant buying a PC, a software sequencing program and an entire library of expensive virtual instruments before I could even get close to reproducing what I could already do on the PlayStation. Something a humble data entry clerk couldn't readily afford.
Back to the comedy then. My wife - thankfully a fan of both my comedy and my music - said maybe I should try to blend the two, write some lyrics to the tunes and try to incorporate them into my act. But in my dark-hearted misery I didn't listen, preferring instead to mope about how the modern world was rubbish and how they didn't even have proper pop stars any more, not like in my day. The pop stars of my day were heroes who wore too much make-up and ridiculous outfits and dared to make themselves look silly in pursuit of a chart hit. Not like these stupid shoe-gazing guitar bands and pathetic faceless dance acts who spend way too much time trying to look cool when in fact they're just boring dullards in jeans and t-shirts who all look exactly the same. No wonder our country's going down the pan.
I suppose that's when it dawned on me. That instead of moaning about why modern music was rubbish, I should make my own antidote to it. That instead of rejecting the way my gear sounded, I should embrace it. And that instead of worrying about being completely out of step with the times, I should deliberately go out of my way to capitalize on that fact. From that moment on, I decided I should model my act on the New Romantics of the early 1980s. I would wear outrageous fetish clothing and smother myself in make-up. I quickly thought up a suitably pretentious name, taking the 'Gary' from Gary Numan, the 'Strange' from Steve Strange and the 'Le' from Simon Le Bon, and before I knew it, I was no longer plain old Waen Shepherd. I was the New Romantic pop star Gary Le Strange.
I then spent the next two years avoiding it. Despite the continual protestations of my wife, who thought it was the best idea anyone had ever had in the entire history of humanity, I wasn't convinced it would work. I'd never played my music live for a start, so had no idea whether anyone would like it. I was also a bit concerned about how commercial it all seemed. Nostalgia was big business and, even though everybody thought the 1980s were an embarrassing pile of big hair and shoulder pads that was best swept under our collective cultural carpet and forgotten about, the kids who grew up in those years were now moving into their prime and dictating the cultural terms of the nation. Around the turn of the Millennium, the tide of public opinion started to turn away from the 70s-inspired sounds of the 90s and the forgotten "Me decade" started coming back into fashion.
While I was procrastinating about Gary Le Strange, the charts slowly filled up with dance tracks based on Gary Numan riffs - like Armand van Helden's Koochy, Where's Your Head At? by Basement Jaxx and The Sugababes' version of Freak Like Me. Steve Strange wrote an autobiography called Blitzed which joined the life stories of Boy George and Marc Almond on my "must read" list. Bands reformed for TV shows like VH1's Bands Reunited and lucrative Here and Now nostalgia tours. And then, crucially, Adam Ant got sectioned after throwing a car alternator through a pub window and threatening a bunch of onlookers with an antique revolver, starkly proving to everyone who hadn't already noticed that he wasn't just some has-been teen idol in lipstick but in fact a deeply eccentric individual whose life and work were worthy of much greater scrutiny than they'd already been given. All of which threw early 80s pop very much back into the cultural limelight.
In fact, it was such an auspicious time to create a comedy character based on the New Romantics - and such an obvious target to pick if you wanted to parody anything at all - that I worried it would look too cynical, too commercially driven, and that somehow this would harm me. I was a creative artist, or so I thought. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life being referred to as "that 80s guy." The idea that people would think of me as some kind of vapid nostalgia merchant made me feel physically sick.
Then again, I reasoned, the New Romantics weren't that commercial. Their best stuff was weird and depressing and angular and arty. They were more likely to sing about grotty bedsits and futuristic rape machines and giant records that grow to the size of the solar system than they were about boys meeting girls and happily dancing in the moonlight. It struck me that if I was ever going to be a pop star, that's the kind of pop star I would be. I also worried that if someone else did it - and if I didn't hurry up, there was a greater possibility that they might - they'd emphasise the big hair and the shoulder pads, confound it all with yuppies and Thatcherism and totally ignore the weird, dark side. Worse still was the idea that they might actually make a success of it, and I'd spend the rest of my life hating myself for not having had the balls to run with it when I had the chance.
I was terrified though. Largely of failure. This was a massive job - character creation on a scale I'd never really considered before. I wasn't sure I could pull it off. But that was nothing compared with my fear of success. Because if I did pull it off, it had the potential to be massive. Good comedy songs were hard to come by, convincing comedy pop stars even rarer. With the right idea at the right time, Gary Le Strange could be stratospherically huge. I'd spent so long hiding behind a nicotine-soaked cloud of obscurity that the thought of success seemed so alien, so desperately remote, that it almost seemed threatening. Did I have the courage to give up my comfortable penniless anonymity and reach for a successful future, where I might not only be loved and praised but also hated, mocked and judged?
I was able to postpone a decision even longer thanks to a stroke of bizarre good fortune, when a sideline in animation got seen by someone at Channel 4 and I ended up being asked to direct a 12-minute cartoon for the Comedy Lab series. This dovetailed with me finally finding an agent and allowed me to spend nine paid months sitting in front of a computer screen looking at CGI pictures rather than worrying about whether or not I should be making New Wave pop music. Fortunately, these months only served to teach me that I never wanted to make another animation as long as I lived, and before long I was itching to get back on stage. I quickly formed a double act with my friend Simon Farnaby. It was only a matter of time before Gary Le Strange became an integral part of our stage show.
Gary made his first public appearance at a gay club called Barcode on Archer Street in Soho, where we did regular sketch comedy nights for a largely clueless audience. Gary at this stage was a psychotic, drug-addled has-been trying to make a comeback. I sang a song called Sex Dummy, about a man who falls in love with a shop-window mannequin, before raping it, discarding it in a skip and finally becoming it. I didn't realise it at the time but I suppose it was an allegory for what I was doing to the New Romantics. It went down well enough to warrant another go, so I added another song called Geometry which emphasised the character's lonely weirdness and placed him in a more down-to-earth context. All my mates loved it but the public at large weren't that impressed. I entered a few stand-up competitions in the summer of 2002 but no one really saw any potential in my act. I made a few recordings which were frankly rather terrible and, by the end of the year, I was ready to give up on it and move onto something else.
But my wife wouldn't let it go. And, when Simon got too busy and our double act bit the dust, Gary Le Strange was the only option left. So at the beginning of 2003, I redoubled the effort. The songs got better - Ballerina and Grey were more sophisticated and, crucially, funnier than the first two. I worked harder on the character, intensely studying biographies and interviews to find the right manner, the right stance, the right tone of voice. It struck me he'd be much more fun to write if I ditched the idea that he was making a comeback and pitched him more as a guy who had never even been there in the first place - a sad, deluded anachronism who believed wholeheartedly in a pure synthpop vision, a man out of time who was riding the crest of a new wave into what he hoped was a glorious electronic future. Just like the New Romantics, he hated being called a New Romantic (he preferred 'Neo-Regency Face Warrior') and would do anything to avoid being associated with the term. But just like the New Romantics, he was destined to be a flash in the pan, a glorious moment of hopeful creativity where everything coalesces into one beautiful freeze-frame of infinite potential, then evolves into something slightly less appealing and eventually disappears.
It was quite late in the day - February 2003 - when it became clear it was now or never. The act would never progress unless I did what all comedians are supposed to do and take an hour-long show to the Edinburgh Fringe. It was a conversation with Danny Robins that did the trick - he basically said the timing was right and that, if I didn't do it now, the moment would be lost forever. And for some reason I believed him. He introduced me to a company called It's Alright for Some who were only too happy to produce the show and within a couple of weeks I was in a studio having the photos done for the poster.
From then on, everything moved at a lightning pace. I had four months to write four more songs and an hour-long character monologue, while still trying to hold down a day job as a media analyst and somehow continue to pay my share of the rent. To aid my speed, I started to devour all the inspiration I could find - CDs, vinyl, books, documentaries - anything I could get my hands on. The result was Polaroid Suitcase, an hour-long show about a 31-year-old wannabe New Romantic pop singer who'd been doing it forever but never achieved a thing. Yet still he carried the vague hope that he might one day be a star, "like the Gods I saw dancing on Top of the Pops." The character blossomed from a one-dimensional nutcase into a multi-layered loner, painfully sincere but sadly deluded, with a detailed back story about his fractured relationships and his total failure to make a mark, ending with a rallying cry to join him in his doomed but weirdly plausible mission to reshape the world in his own image. In many ways, it was far more autobiographical than anyone realised.
You'd have thought with all this I'd have enough on my plate, but no. Never having been one to give myself an easy ride, I decided to give him his own website. Ostensibly run by a fictional pair of crazed fans called Tracy and Michelle, who adored everything Gary did with a psychotic intensity, it served as a surprisingly effective promotional tool. And then, on top of all that, I decided to record an album.
My experience as a record producer and sound engineer was minimal to say the least, and the equipment at my disposal was primitive even by the standards of the time. But I did have a fair inkling of how to go about recording something vaguely listenable and, though my attempts thus far to record Gary Le Strange had all been abysmal, I was determined to get it right. Initially I wanted ten tracks on the disc, but I just didn't have time, so I opted to record only eight, hoping a smaller workload might give me a greater chance of success. The new songs - an Adam Ant-inspired piece called Prince Charles, a Japan-influenced song called I'm Japanese, a John Foxx/Human League hybrid called Individuals and the Gary Numan tribute Is My Toaster Sentient? - all had to be top-notch if I was to make this project work.
The music was, with one exception, all created in a two-bedroom flat in Walthamstow, East London, on a program called MTV Music Generator for the PlayStation2, the tracks loaded one by one (via a MiniDisc recorder) onto a PC, before being processed in a program called Sound Forge (which allowed me to add effects like reverb and distortion) and reassembled in a film editing program called Adobe Premiere. The only exception (apart from a few sound effects here and there) was Prince Charles, which still utilised sounds from the PlayStation but added a few instruments from another program called Fruity Loops (an experiment I quickly abandoned, mainly for reasons of time and money). The vocals were recorded on a Shure SM58 - the cheapest microphone I could get, and not one particularly suited for studio recording - before being loaded into Premiere alongside the backing track and finally mixed down to a master file. Looking back, it was an insanely complicated system, but I didn't have the time or the money to upgrade to anything better.
The result was as good as I could possibly make it. I'd never strived so hard for perfection in anything I'd previously done and, though I'll always be too close to it to be able to view it objectively (I hate watching or listening to anything I've ever made or been in - I only ever see the mistakes), if I listen to what others tell me, I appear to have pulled it off. It's clear it hasn't been made at a top professional studio, but it sounds much better than a typical amateur bedroom recording. It's still raw in places - listening to it now I hear various pops and clicks where the sound distorts as the volume gets too high - but those moments are relatively few and, nine years on, I'm surprised by how clear and punchy everything is, how detailed the arrangements are. I became a better singer later on but the voice here isn't too flat. As for the mastering - I always thought I could probably do a better job, but revisiting it now, with more experience and more professional audio mastering tools at my disposal, I've discovered that no matter what I try to do to make the master tapes sound better, I always end up making them sound worse. Having lost the original multi-track files long ago, these master files are all that exists, and there's nothing I can do to make them sound any better. What you'll hear if you download these tracks now are the same, unaltered files I made in that suburban bedroom in Walthamstow in the spring of 2003.
It could all have been a massive, expensive, time-consuming mistake. Fortunately for me, the live show was an enormous critical success. An early slew of four and five star reviews meshed with a generous word-of-mouth buzz to guarantee me a sell-out audience for the second half of the run and a fair appraisal by the Perrier panel, somehow unexpectedly and brilliantly resulting in me winning the Perrier Award for Best Newcomer. After a brief bidding war, I won a TV script development deal with the BBC, a regular slot on the BBC radio series The Day the Music Died and, at the ripe old age of 31, finally embarked on a solid, tangible career as an actor, comedian and comedy songwriter. Gary Le Strange spent a few hectic months as the next big thing before everyone moved onto the next next big thing and, after two more live shows and two more albums, he nosedived into obscurity. By the end of 2007, I resolved to stop being him and got on with something else.
As for the album, I only ever pressed a limited run, which I sold at gigs and on my website until I ran out many years ago. I always meant to re-release it as a download but for various reasons never got around to it. But it feels long enough ago now to be able to look at it with fondness rather than embarrassment. I no longer fear being "that 80s guy" so this feels like a good time to give Gary's music a wider release at last. I just want to finish by extending my eternal gratitude to all the many, many wonderful and talented people who believed in Gary Le Strange and helped me through that difficult but thrilling summer in 2003 - not least my beautiful wife Katy. It's thanks to you that I've never had to go back to being a data entry clerk, and that, for one brief, fantastical moment, I finally became a pop star.
Waen Shepherd, November 2012
Waen Shepherd has been a core figure on the British character comedy scene for the past decade. In the guise of New Romantic pop star Gary Le Strange, he wrote and performed the critically acclaimed stage show Polaroid Suitcase, which won him the Perrier Award for Best Newcomer at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2003 and the Chortle Best Newcomer Award in 2004. As Le Strange, Waen became a regular cast member on the BBC Radio 2 series The Day the Music Died and Out to Lunch, writing two further solo stage shows, Face Academy and Beef Scarecrow, and recording three comedy albums to promote them. Such was the impact of Le Strange that in 2006, The Times placed him in a list of the UK's Top 50 comedians, and The Rough Guide to British Cult Comedy named him one of Britain's Top 50 Cult Comedy Icons of the past thirty years.
As a comic actor, Waen has played many diverse roles including space hero Captain Helix in two series of BBC 2’s sci-fi sitcom Hyperdrive, various villains in BBC 3's We are Klang and dodgy Geography teacher John "Paedo" Kennedy in E4’s The Inbetweeners. As a composer and comedy songwriter, Waen has written music and lyrics for a whole heap of TV pilots, radio shows, stage plays and internet projects no one has ever seen or heard of, in the process of which his words have been sung by talents as diverse as Lucy Montgomery, Rich Fulcher, Isy Suttie and Connie Fisher.
He currently lives in London, England, with his beautiful wife Katy and four stuffed animals.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID...
"Le Strange is a kohl-eyed amalgam of your worst New Romantic nightmares. Take the hair of A Flock of Seagulls, the Estuary twang of Adam Ant, the bombast of Spandau Ballet... and you've got an idea what to expect. It sounds excruciatingly naff, but it succeeds because the musical spoofs are so accurate."
Bruce Dessau, London Evening Standard, August 07, 2003
"A send-up of the '80s New Romantics that is as sharp as it is affectionate. The combination of spot-on banter, outfits and make-up sets the scene, but it's the six songs that stop the show. With vocal and physical inflections all perfectly of the era, Shepherd beautifully and even poignantly targets Adam and the Ants, Japan, Visage, Ultravox and others."
Mark Monahan, Telegraph, August 20, 2003
"An amalgam of David Sylvian, Gary Numan, Adam Ant and David Bowie... His songs brilliantly deconstruct hits from the time... Give this man a record deal before he injects himself with too much liquid eyeliner."
Alex O' Connell, Times, August 21, 2003 *****
"A lovingly-crafted p*ss-rip... But Shepherd stands and delivers more than just perfect pastiche... Polaroid Suitcase is disciplined character comedy that comes complete with catchy tunes and some seriously bad clothes."
Dominic Maxwell, Metro, August 08, 2003 *****
"1980s synthpop is funny enough that you need only mimic it with skill to be funny. Le Strange does this so well that some songs are better than the originals - Prince Charles is Adam Ant's Prince Charming but with a different tune and a lyric about cowboys, indians and Princess Diana. Grey would be Ultravox's greatest moment if they'd written it. That said, Le Strange doesn't just sing like Adam Ant and then Midge Ure; he is a fully rounded character with his own voice, even if that voice is pretty much David Sylvian shouting."
Andrew Eaton, Scotsman, August 18, 2003 ****
"With hindsight, it's so obvious someone would eventually parody the likes of Adam Ant, Japan and Gary Numan - but Waen Shepherd has done it first, and done it brilliantly. His attention to detail is what makes the spoof so effective. The original bands were almost self-parodies in the first place, but Shepherd has delicately judged the subtle tilt required to show them up while still staying reasonably credible... Combine this with a spoof songwriting skill worthy of Neil Innes... and you've got a parody that does for the New Romantics what former Perrier winners Garth Marenghi did for the horror-writing genre."
Steve Bennett, Chortle, August 05, 2003 ****
PHOTOGRAPHY BY JAMES BETTS