Clean on the Dirty: An Interview With Steve New
"From the gutter to glamour and back again, Stella's story -- soaking up the seedy life of London post-punk heroin scene, to wearing high heels on Sunset Strip, running off with Clash manager Bernie Rhodes' girlfriend in Atlanta, divine intervention from Chrissie Hynde, beating up David Bowie, doing cocaine aged 17 in a toilet cubicle with Iggy Pop, Steve Marriot, Ian McLagan and Mick Ronson -- has been crying out to be told for the last 20 years."
By Adelle Stripe
Beastellabeast don't sound like anybody else. That's a wild statement, but one that is easy to reach after 25 listens of their excellent new LP Beastiality. They are original, unique, and glisten like a rock-sized diamond in the steaming pile of shit that is East London's half-assed indie scene. Beatrice Brown (the undisputed creative queen of East End bohemia and perhaps the new Kate Bush?) and Stella New have a long-established musical relationship spanning seven years; reflected in the diverse tracks on their debut LP. Recorded at home, in Stella's studio, Beastellabeast were originally signed to Horseglue Records. Founded in 2003 by Barry 7 (Add N to X) and Ethan Reid (Soul Jazz), Horseglue was home to acts such as Selfish Cunt and Pink Grease -- its reputation one of the most cutting-edge labels, with a nose for underground glam still stands.
From techno ultra noise to sex beat, gospel voodoo rhythms to filthy rapping rhythm and blues, stand-out tracks include 'Death And The Devil', 'Final Mistake', and the impossibly fragile acoustic version of 'Sky'. 'Crazy White Moth' is close in spirit and style to the Dr John classic 'Walk On Guilded Splinters', and is probably one of the finest moments laid out on tape this century alone. It really is THAT good. It has to be heard to be believed.
You might have heard of Stella New -- or Steve New as he is most commonly known. In this article Steve will be referred to as Stella, because that's his new name. Stella is Steve New's tranny title.
"I've been a tranny from day one. I was completely ashamed of that fact. It was always a secret life. In the bands I was in it was always Rock'n'Roll, leather trousers, geezer, you know to me that was always more faggy than anything..."
Stella has been in notable bands over the years including Rich Kids, Sex Pistols, PiL, Vicious White Kids, Iggy Pop, Johnny Thunders, Patti Palladin, Generation X, Wasted Youth, Pearl Harbour... his list of punk credentials are endless. Stella is probably one of the most important figures in the underground London punk scene, yet not many people know about him. In a way, his story is far more interesting than the production-line punk tales that are constantly spewed out in the music press. From the gutter to glamour and back again, Stella's story -- soaking up the seedy life of London post-punk heroin scene, to wearing high heels on Sunset Strip, running off with Clash manager Bernie Rhodes' girlfriend in Atlanta, divine intervention from Chrissie Hynde, beating up David Bowie, doing cocaine aged 17 in a toilet cubicle with Iggy Pop, Steve Marriot, Ian McLagan and Mick Ronson -- has been crying out to be told for the last 20 years.
At his home in East Finchley, surrounded by piles of books and listening to Robert Wyatt's version of 'At Last I Am Free', Stella sits in his back garden, smoking roll ups. The only giveaway to his past is his long hair tied back behind his shoulders -- the hair he always refused to cut. Dressed in rough denims, and speaking openly about his formative years as one of the finest punk guitarists in the UK, as well as his struggle with addiction and secret life as a transvestite (until quite recently), he is a highly intelligent and creative mind, perhaps too gifted for the mainstream to ever accept.
His fascination with music began at an early age: "When I was at primary school we were taught movement to music concrete, as a four-year-old I was listening to Varese and Stockhausen". Varese also inspired one of Stella's major obsessions, Frank Zappa. "Varese was totally ahead of his time, and far out because he wasn't really influenced by anybody. I've got a tape of John Cage talking about him -- he said that it's impossible to study him. Because what Varese did was truly original and cannot be traced back. He said 'What I am interested in is the future'."
Steve New's first foray into Rock'n'Roll started in 1976, answering an advert in Melody Maker wanting 'Young Guitarist. No Worse Looking Than Johnny Thunders'. Inadvertently he answered an ad placed by Malcolm McLaren for a new Sex Pistol guitarist. Sensing that Steve Jones might leave, McLaren pulled in Stella for an audition; he played with them for a few weeks in their rehearsal room on Denmark Street.
"Steve was going to leave and join another band, and Malcolm really wanted to keep Steve in the band. So the way they kept him there was by auditioning another guitarist. So nothing came of that, but I always remember going to sign on a few months later, The Pistols had just signed their big deal that day, all of a sudden a limo comes down Lisson Grove, and who is it? John Lydon, with the window down, giving me the bird."
Although Stella went on to work with Keith Levene and Lydon on PiL's track 'Pied Piper', relations between Lydon and New were fraught from the offset: "I remember cracking up laughing at John on Denmark St when I first met him, wearing these striped baggy trousers on, safety pins, yellow hair. He went so red. I decided later on that he's hated me ever since."
A job as a post boy at Warner Records came along, Stella worked for Derek Taylor who was the Beatles Press Officer -- one night he was offered tickets to see Tom Waits at Ronnie Scott's. A perk of the job that brought along Stella's first meeting Joe Strummer:
"Matlock was there with Joe Strummer. Joe copped a complete hatch with me because I was sat there with my old school teacher (who was my lover at the time), we had free drinks and Joe's like 'Fascist!'. I remember cracking up about that, saying to Matlock 'What's the matter with your mate? He's calling me a fascist because I've got a free table and I work for the record company' ...Joe's going 'Fucking record company tosser!'. Which is weird because Joe became a really good friend of mine, in fact I found a piece of paper the other day when I moved house, it had Joe's home number on it (from 1977), in his handwriting saying 'Joe Clasher-Rooney'."
Glen Matlock remembered Stella from the auditions, and bumped into him in Soho:
"One night I was walking home past the 100 Club and all of a sudden Matlock appears, goes 'Alright Steve how ya doin?'. He's wearing his fucking anarchy shirt on, he's like 'Why don't you come down and see us we're playing here tonight'. After that Glen gets kicked out of The Pistols and I bumped into Matlock again down King's Road and he says 'Yeah I'm putting a band together'. I think I said to him 'Don't worry, I'll cut my hair'. And that was the start of the Rich Kids."
The Rich Kids were put together by Glen Matlock, with Midge Ure (formerly of Slick going on to pollute the world as Ultravox) on vocals, Rusty Egan on drums, and Stella on guitar, -- they were produced by Mick Ronson; reflecting a power pop sensibility with a nod to classic 60s combos such as The Who. For Stella it was an honour to be working with Ronson:
"Working with Mick was really important for me, I respected him so much, as a musician Mick was incredible, he produced 'Walk On The Wild Side', and did the whole Transformer LP, it's credited as Ronson and Bowie but it's all Ronson's arrangements..."
The Rich Kids became big at the time, and were commonly regarded as over-hyped; they played at Wembley with David Essex, and also another sell-out gig at The Lyceum with Japan as support.
"That was such a night, Ronson played with us on the stage with Ian McLagan (The Faces) on keyboards, Iggy was there, Steve Marriot turned up. I went off to the toilet, with Ronson and McLagan to do some coke, with Iggy and Steve Marriot. There's me stood there in toilet cubicle, age 17, with Ronson, Mac, Iggy and Steve Marriot all doing lines of coke. Marriot started on Jim (Iggy), he was really aggressive, completely insane -- Steve could be really nasty. He was a brilliant singer though. I remember just thinking 'Fucking hell, you're with the creme de la creme here' I was so young then, I just wanted to get fucked up."
Despite the failure of Rich Kids long term, Stella continued to work with Matlock, and was eventually asked to play on Iggy Pop's Soldier LP, recorded at Rockfield. This led to the infamous scrap with a certain David Bowie who had taken it upon himself to hit on Patti Palladin (Stella's girlfriend at the time):
"Bowie turned up, he was a wanker -- I had a fight with him, over a girl. Patti was my girlfriend then. Bowie turned up: at this point he had taken over as 'producer'. James Williamson who was producing the original session walked out. I was living with James at the Portobello Hotel. James would get up in the morning and drink half a bottle of vodka. He wore a suit and a tie. They called him James 'Straight' Williamson; he was a serious alcoholic. When Bowie turns up at Rockfield, James said 'I ain't working with him'. I think it was over Bowie's mixing on Raw Power. But Jim (Iggy), was cool, I love Jim. If someone was arguing, he wouldn't side with anybody."
Patti Palladin was the stunning raven-haired, red-lipped singer in one of the most brilliant female punks bands of that era, Snatch, and also went on to play in the Flying Lizards:
"One day Patti said 'Did you pick up on it? Bowie thinks he's going to fuck me'. I was full of teenage anger at this guy who didn't answer any of my questions; I asked him all about Low and Heroes, I thought they were great albums and Bowie's like 'Yeah. They are great albums'."
Bowie's failure to talk about his music, to be humble, or to adopt his classic aloof attitude with questioners had riled Stella from the start; though Bowie's flirtation with Palladin was the final straw: "Patti tells me that, I open the door to my room, Bowie's walking up the stairs, so I fucking jumped on him. We both fell down the stairs, it was great."
You can imagine the broken nails and glitter on the carpet even 20 years later...
Stella lived with Patti for three years in Elgin Mews North, playing host to Pete Perret (The Only Ones), and various other less salubrious characters:
"I was totally in love with Patti. She's an amazingly intelligent person. I was obviously just this pretty young thing, but two addicts living together -- it's not a good thing. She was always like 'That band, this band they are pricks!': she taught me to say no to things I didn't want to be involved with."
Before meeting Patti, Stella had been offered the star role as guitarist for a new band, they thought he would be ideal: "I turned it down because I thought it was a stupid name.". The band was Duran Duran (a wise choice in hindsight).
One band worth mentioning that Stella also played guitar for was Vicious White Kids -- a band put together by Sid Vicious, to raise money to send him and Nancy to America. The line-up was Matlock, Rat Scabies (The Damned), and Nancy Spungen; leading to a romantic liaison with Spungen, endorsed by Sid:
"Sid was fucking lovely, I liked Sid. Sid used to score drugs from the same place as me in Hampstead Heath before I even met him. So we were rehearsing this gig and after rehearsal, I ended up with Nancy -- me and Nancy had sex. Next day in rehearsal I turn up thinking 'Oh no, I've fucked up here', Sid came walking up to me and goes 'Oi, Steve! You fucked Nancy last night didn't you?', I remember thinking about what had happened to Nick Kent and Sid's reputation, so in the end I went 'Yeah, hands up, I did', and Sid puts his arm round me and goes 'She's great isn't she!'. After that he was matey with me; which was really sweet of him."
The gig raised enough money to send Punk's premier couple to New York, though sadly, within a week Sid had died. Stella recalls the last conversation he had with him:
"Last thing I gave him, I had this really great leather jacket with an anarchy badge on it -- a dagger with a red flag and a black flag on it. Sid kept bugging me for it: 'Steve, let me have that badge'. In the end I gave it to him, I had a film of it as well that Viv Albertine from The Slits took."
Stella's long battle with heroin addiction carried on through the 80s and up until the early 90s. Bernie Rhodes was managing New. Matlock stayed in the UK as an imminent Sex Pistols reunion was on the cards. During Stella's time in Atlanta, Bernie's girlfriend was his driver, which led to a legendary road trip to LA:
"She had a 66 Mustang. Bernie says to me 'I'm a bit busy, so Wendy's going to be driving you around, looking after you'. I was like, wow, there's this young girl with peroxide blonde hair, who was gorgeous, and she started hitting on me. I was pushing her away like 'No, no, I'm working for Bernie...' One thing led to another, we ended up in bed. Me being the honest guy that I am, I phoned Bernie up the next day: 'Bernie. Where was Wendy last night? She didn't come home did she? Well Bernie. She stayed with me'. Bernie tried to kill me."
Stella married Wendy in Memphis; they settled in LA and had a daughter together. The addiction didn't abate, and eventually New ended back in the UK, flown back by Chrissie Hynde:
"The last thing she said to me was 'If you ever need help, then call me'. I remember being in LA, being homeless, living in my car, I had a Buick, sleeping in it, wife and child have fucked off, I just thought 'I've gotta get out of here'. I called Chrissie's office, she wasn't there, but I left a message for her -- repeating what she had said to me that day all those years ago. I said I needed help; I needed to get back to London. Within 24 hours Chrissie had mailed me the tickets. No matter what people say about her, she's a good egg."
Stella returned to London, and cleaned up via the SHARP programme. It was during this period that he recorded an LP for Alan McGee under the Poptones label. A chance meeting with him at Water Rats led to 'The New LP' project being discussed: "I went to this gig and he was like 'Hi, I'm Alan McGee,' I was like 'Oh. You're the geezer that everybody's going on about...' It was around the time of Britpop -- I hated all of that stuff."
The initial plan was to return to LA to be with his family, though the US wouldn't let Stella back into the country after a drug bust. They have a two-strikes-and-you're-out policy; having a child means nothing if you have a record for narcotics. Though never convicted, Stella had received cautions from the UK authorities:
"I never went to jail, but when you're a junkie, it's so easy to get caught. I don't think junkies should be busted really, junkies are just the result of the problem -- they aren't dealers. If you're an addict, then you just want to go and get drugs. They punish people for being addicts. A lot of people disagree with me on that, but that's my opinion."
He admits that his sexual life was possibly tied into his problem with addiction. Before coming out as a transvestite, Stella had battled with a double identity; that not even his girlfriends knew about: "See there was two battles going on: there was my battle with drugs, and my own shame battle of being a transvestite. Denial on both levels."
Contrary to popular belief, the 70s was not a tolerant arena to reveal your sexuality, especially in the punk scene despite its proclamations of being 'open': "Society wasn't like it is now back then." During rehab Stella opened up to his counsellor about the TV side to his life, and as a result of this confession, helped him lose the shame attached to it, as well as his heroin habit:
"I thought if I try and run from who I am any longer, I'm going to die. I remember her saying to me 'I don't think you have anything to be ashamed about. You are who you are'. That was like the end of it, so what? You're not killing yourself by being a tranny, but killing yourself by not being a tranny. I was killing myself by being in denial of who I really was."
At any Beastellabeast show, you will see Stella in his make-up, dress, and backcombed hair. Playing the finest dirty guitar you have ever heard; he is a legend for real. An undiscovered beacon of light, with a legacy that will outlive his years through countless unreleased albums and a novel's worth of bedtime punk stories:
"It's been 10 years now since I've been like this. I am a tranny. And it's been much better, because now it's not an obsessive thing. I'm not fixated by going and putting loads of make-up on; if I'm doing a gig I'll go and put it on for that. I dress up, but it's not something that I have to do every day. I am a man, and trannies aren't women, so yeah, the drug thing and the tranny thing -- that was my life. The music business stuff, that was all caught inbetween."
At this point in his life, Stella is writing and producing some of the finest musical moments of his career. Though his collaborator Beatrice is on a baby sabbatical, they have produced another three albums' worth of material to follow up on Beastiality. They are a prolific writing duo, and naturally gifted in the art of writing deranged avant-garde pop with a nod to the future that sets them ahead of many of their peers. It is impossible to compare them to any other band. They are truly innovative, and as far away from the mainstream as can possibly be reached. Stella quotes John Cage at the end of the interview: "If you're making music that sounds like anybody else then that's one too many people making music".
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER:
Adelle Stripe describes herself on MySpace thus: Cat Suited Record Player, Fiction Writer/Poet, DIY Publisher, Sub Editor, Country Girl, Music Promoter, Whip Cracker, Northern Gobshite...