Back in dear olde Blighty in 1975, the Observer Sunday supplement magazine published an article previewing The Rocky Horror Picture Show under the heading, “Something To Offend Everyone.” The thought of a musical focussing on a bi-sexual, cross-dressing, psychotic alien was enough to curdle the milk in Tonbridge Wells, and the article gleefully anticipated the shock the movie would cause. It didn’t. It was too far ahead of its time, and Rocky Horror would have to wait a year or so, until the Waverly Theater, New York, started the film’s slow, but relentless rebirth.
As a headline, “Something To Offend Everyone” could have been equally applied by copy editors to performance artist, fashion designer, dancer, actor, singer, style icon and all-round good egg, Leigh Bowery and his band Raw Sewage. The band was formed after Bowery’s 3-minutes of fame as a lip-synching backing singer to Felix on the BBC’s music chart show, Top of the Pops. The band consisted of Leigh, Stella Stein (Stephen Brogan) and Shelia Tequila, who together originally performed under the name The Quality Street Wrappers. In her biography Leigh Bowery - The Life and Times of an Icon, Sue Tilley described the band’s first gig:
Their first show was at the Iceni club in Mayfair. They sang the Donna Summer classic ‘Enough Is Enough’ to a live piano accompaniment. For their finale they stripped off naked and then walked around the club to receive the congratulations of all their friends. However, the management was not happy with this and asked them to put their gowns back on.
It was a start, and encouraged by the response, the band decided to cover a second song, Run DMC and Aerosmith’s ‘Walk This Way’:
“Leigh rehearsed endlessly, demanding that every step was right and that they learnt how to throw the microphones to each other so that there was an element of juggling involved. Leigh designed new costumes for the band which were big net petticoats with tartan taffeta dress on top… Underneath this costume they had their genitals strapped back between their legs so it looked like they didn’t have any, long black stockings and three belts wrapped around their torsos. They then teetered on top of two-foot-high platform boots that Leigh had specially made… The look was completed with minstrel-style black faces with the main features highlighted in white.”
Bowery was convinced the band would achieve chart success, but not everyone was so enthusiastic as Sue Tilley recalled:
“...Leigh asked me what I thought and if they might get chart success. He was devastated when I replied that I didn’t think the record buying public were quite ready for three freaks on platforms doing second-rate covers of songs. It made me realize that Leigh was removed from reality. He was so far ahead of the general public in what he accepted as normal he couldn’t see that his semi-naked, blacked up, genital-less band might cause a bit of a problem.”
Leigh was impervious to criticism and the trio continued with their outrageous performances, each more bizarre than the last - one at the Fridge in December 1992, saw a drunk spectator fellated and smeared with excrement. By 1993, performing as Raw Sewage, the shows lived up to the band’s name with a mix of confrontational theater and childish shock tactics:
“They still started with ‘Walk This Way’ but the next number involved Nicola and Christine Bateman dressing up as nurses and injecting neat vodka into the group’s bottoms (that is all except Stella who had a phobia about needles). They then rushed backstage and filled their mouths with vegetable soup which they vomited all over the audience while singing ‘Mickey’, the old Toni Basil hit.”
Raw Sewage carried on for a few months, even recording a video at the Tracadero, Picadilly, before the band fell apart. Bowery went onto form Minty with his wife, Nicola Bateman, which became notorious for their stage show, where Bowery gave birth to his naked wife.
It was not Leigh Bowery’s ability to shock and entertain that made him important and influential, rather it was his ability to subvert identity and image through the way he presented himself. As the art dealer, Anthony d’Offay once said:
“I tried to think what was it that changed one’s feelings about things, why (Leigh) was so important, the thing that I decided whether right or wrong was this: I felt Leigh did was to be a very bright shiny mirror to reflect very clearly one’s conscious and unconscious thoughts…Leigh’s presence allowed you to grow into the person you really were and face your real feelings at that moment.
“He allowed you to feel real. When I said he was a shiny mirror what I meant was he allowed you to see yourself in this strange shape that he took and that for me was his genius….He unlocked a key in you…”