Pat Ivers and Emily Armstrong are sifting through their voluminous archive of punk-era concert footage as it’s digitized for the Downtown Collection at N.Y.U.’s Fales Library.
Described by the Soho Weekly News as “New York’s best party band,” Strange Party was a witty, stylish group serving up a fizzy cocktail of performance art with a dash of Latin-infused new wave. They were a huge outfit with six backup musicians and four vocalists upfront. And what vocalists! Led by downtown art star Joey Arias, the quartet was rounded out by Tony Frere, Paige Wood, and Janus Budde. They were eccentric and compelling — their guitarist George Elliot once described the band as “a little like heavy metal Ricky Ricardo.” Joey suggested they were just trying to turn art into fun.
Strange Party’s look was as unique as their sound. Tony Frere remembers Betsey Johnson occasionally lending a styling hand, but for the most part, their image was based on their own individual style. Still, as Kristian Hoffman (ex-Mumps, Contortions) told us, there could be no Strange Party without Klaus Nomi. Klaus was a German-born, downtown legend. Known for his wildly stylized makeup and theatrical performances, he was as likely to sing operatic arias as a cover of “The Twist.” In 1978, he got his start at Club 57’s New Age Vaudeville show, auditioning for Ann Magnuson. “He came on at the end,” Hoffman said, “and no one would believe that he was really singing because his voice was so beautiful. I formed a band with him right after that and I helped guide him from opera to pop-era.”
Memorably, in 1979, Joey and Klaus performed on Saturday Night Live as backup singers for David Bowie after a chance meeting with him at the Mudd Club. Decked out in Thierry Mugler-designed outfits and pushing a stuffed pink poodle, Klaus and Joey did the impossible: they upstaged Bowie.
But there was restlessness. “We were all dwelling in Klaus’ world,” Tony remembers. “We just needed to stretch out a little and that’s when we became Strange Party. We were vocally stronger than most bands. I could do five octaves. We would blend performance with rock and roll and crooning.”
They played all over New York, usually tailoring their shows around a concept like Decadent Roman Beatniks or Mermaids on Heroin. Then they would write original songs around the theme. With a tip of the hat to Burroughs and the Dadaists, they would each write a sentence, cut them up, put them in a hat and then pull them out. “That’s how we came up with some of our best ideas,” Joey said.
And sometimes, he thought, perhaps they gave ideas to others. “We like to think we inspired the Talking Heads,” Joey said. “After seeing us a number of times, they went from a four-piece band to a multi-piece orchestra.” Well, downtown was indeed a small mall back then, and within that hothouse of creativity, there was a lot of cross-pollination.
Strange Party recorded a single, “Sleepwalking Through Life,” and even made a music video with their friend Robin Schanzenbach that actually made rotation in the early days of MTV. But in a band that size, it’s hard for the center to hold. “Tony had started working at the ad agency B.B.D.O., doing Pepsi commercials with Madonna,” Joey said. “Paige was designing film posters and it was a little hard to ask them to commit to a contract that demanded touring.” Finally, things just wound down.
Joey, of course, continued to work as a cabaret singer, a drag artist and as a performer channeling Lady Day in “Strange Fruit,” as the ringmaster in Cirque Du Soleil’s Zumanity in Las Vegas and in the off-Broadway show, ”Arias with a Twist” with puppeteer Basil Twist. Most recently, with Kristian Hoffman, he toured with ”Lightin’ Strikes”, a musical homage to Klaus Nomi. “I hadn’t seen Joey in years,” Hoffman said. “I had forgotten how loving and wildly charismatic Joey is as a performer.”
There is almost no trace of Strange Party on the internet, nothing on YouTube — just a few pictures. We’re glad we captured them with this clip, performing “Mambo For Depression” at Danceteria:
“Money for your rent
Bought that Andy Warhol print,
You can’t get too much enjoyment
Out of two week’s unemployment.
Those lyrics to “Mambo for Depression” were as sardonically hilarious as they were true in 1980, and they still seem pretty funny today. Watch it, enjoy and pretend you’ve bought some art.
This post originally appeared on The Local East Village.