Doctors Of Madness – Perfect Past – Album Review
Doctors Of Madness – Perfect Past: The Complete Doctors Of Madness
Released 8th May 2017
Thorough anthology of the recording career of Proto-Punk legends the Doctors Of Madness, with many unreleased tracks and guest appearances from Dave Vanian and TV Smith…LTW’s Ian Canty commutes back to the dark, confused world of UK 1975, Year Zero minus one
Though always very much downplayed when set against the New York scene that ran alongside it, the Post-Glam, Pre-Punk Britain that confronted and included the Doctors Of Madness was to my mind at least as interesting as its American counterpart. There was, perhaps, not quite the one unified force as the CBGBs crowd might have appeared at first sight. Different threads, seemingly unconnected and sometimes far away from the general public’s eye, beavered away intently. Pub Rock thrived on a back to basics ticket, opening up small venues for kids bored of the Rock mainstream and Super-groups. This no-frills mode allowed genuinely creative and eccentric acts to flourish. Kilburn and the High Roads, the Feelgoods and Eddie and the Hot Rods were moving several steps away from the mild Country Rock of the majority. In Sheffield, weird electronic and occasionally musical experiments centred around the Meatwhistle group, a milieu that would eventually yield the Human League. Neighbours Cabaret Voltaire toiled in near obscurity.
Other bands, inspired by Roxy Music and the more cerebral end of Glam, found themselves caught between two stools. Phil Rambow’s Winkies for one, discovered sponsorship from Brian Eno and make-up confused the dandruff and denim crowd. Even so they still managed to impress a certain Billy Idol, who declared them as the UK’s first Punk band at one point. In Liverpool a bunch of art students put together the wonderful Deaf School, who in turn set in motion a chain of events that would lead to a revival of music in the city. Even more out on a limb was the legendary Jesse Hector, resplendent in his Mod/Skinhead/Rocker haircut. He still haunted London’s venues with his rough and ready outfit the Hammersmith Gorillas. They had cut a very Punk version of the Kinks’ You Really Got Me for Larry Page’s Penny Farthing label just the year before in 1974.
Perhaps the strangest (quite literally) of all though were the shadowy Doctors Of Madness. They seemed to come out of nowhere in 1974 with a unique and apocalyptic take on Glam’s original vision and their own way of doing things. They also toted an electric violin that gave them a hint of the Velvets and a sound that ping-ponged between the Punk that was coming, the Glam that had just departed and Art Rock (which never really went away). Fronted by Richard “Kid” Strange, who had begun writing songs that concentrated on the urban alienation of modern city life, the four piece (with Colin Stoner on bass, Urban Blitz on electric violin and drummer Peter DiLemma completing the line-up – they had the Punk name thing already sussed) had formed in Brixton in 1974. Along the way they developed a unique live show for the time with lights, props and costumes which gave the band a decidedly theatrical edge. Also Richard’s acid wit provided plenty of quotes for a music press hungry for something new to write about.
They soon came under the managerial auspices of cigar-chomping ex-Pretty Things supremo Bryan Morrison and his partner Justin De Villeneuve, Twiggy’s (“Kate Moss Of The 60s”) boyfriend. They had contacts, that was for certain. A star-studded press launch attended by the likes of Sophia Loren and Omar Sharif was held at the Ladbroke Club in Mayfair where Richard’s new blue and green barnet was a head-turner. Though hype served its purpose, the strength of the band’s image, the unusual futuristic and sometimes fatalistic tone of their material added to their weird live act convinced Polydor to act quickly and sign the good Doctors up. In the Summer of 75 they began to lay down the tracks for their debut album Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms with Roxy Music producer John Punter and key players in the soon-to-come Punk scene were faces in the audience at their gigs.
They were certainly making waves as a decidedly odd but thrilling appearance on Twiggy’s BBC TV show made clear, but the album was held back for some reason by the record company for around six months. When it finally emerged things had moved quickly and vital momentum as a result was lost. By the time the LP arrived in March 1976, whispers of “Punk Rock” were already being voiced to describe the sound of a young band called the Sex Pistols.
Though lurking throughout the grooves of Late Night Movies… are definitely many portents of the Punk to come, as a record it is a lot darker and deeper than just an advanced warning of the Summer of Hate. For starters it isn’t 14 three minute tracks all rattled off at breakneck speed. They were more than willing to explore a theme over a longer duration and had enough weird and entrancing ideas to see things through over an extended period of time. Curtain raiser Waiting gives us the perfect first glance at Doctors Of Madness: a fast and flashy beast with the electric fiddle being whittled at some fair old lick trying to keep up.
But the next three tracks all interlink and play almost like one piece, with Afterglow, Mitzi’s Cure and I Think We’re Alone seguing into each other. Out of those three, Mitzi’s Cure could have been a template for Suede many years later in its louche finery. B-Movie Bedtime is classic Garagey Proto-Punk with a call and reply vocal section, great stuff. A tale of teen strife Billy Watch Out beats the Boomtown Rats’ Rat Trap to the punch by over 3 years, with a wonderful guitar line. But the epic Mainlines was their calling card, a vast, multi-part and varied beast with an irresistible flashy ending, quite stunning.
The bonus tracks here comprise of an outtake from the LP (Doctors Of Madness which would appear on the next album) and some 1975 demos. Doctors Of Madness has a lovely bouncy bass and although sonically the demo tracks aren’t quite up to the album’s level (though overall the sound throughout the box is tip top), they still provide a smart version of Dylan’s Ballad Of A Thin Man and the unreleased downbeat thriller in We Don’t Get Back. The early version of Figments Of Empancipation’s Out is a total joy, a wry and exciting Space Punker with some nice violin work. These June 1975 demos do a great job in displaying how far they were ahead of the crowd at that point in time.
Shortly after this debut release came the fateful gig at Middlesbrough Town Hill in May with the support being provided by a group of London-based youngsters named the Sex Pistols. They of course famously went through the Doctors’ pockets while they were playing. Richard knew from clocking Rotten’s startling onstage persona and the Pistols’ youth that DoM’s status as front runners for this new, as yet nameless “scene” was slipping away. The United Kingdom version of “Punk” gathered steam as the year progressed, but the Doctors went about their business in isolation, separate yet undeniably linked with the form that they played a key role in developing.
Undaunted with this usurping of their standing by the four loveable spikey tops the Doctors set about recording LP number 2. John Leckie, soon to be famous producer and tape operator at Abbey Road, replaced Punter on the boards as the Doctors made themselves at home at the Fabs’ old HQ. Figments Of Emancipation in some ways represented a tightening up and enhancement on their debut and in others a quieter but still savage meditation on the emotional torpor and numbness of mid-70s society. Strange nails the played-out 60s intelligentsia’s inertia with razor precision on Marie And Joe who have “never been in love but have read all the books on how you should feel”. On the other hand Perfect Past has shade of Syd Barrett in its guitar and vocal “All these dreams they drive you crazy”.
Much like the debut, this record commences with some heavy duty electric violin mayhem on Brothers, which works its way from a mellow start into a furious climax. In Camera has strings added to the already potent mix and the new versions of Doctors Of Madness and Out are gloriously realised. Stephanie De Sykes may have been born with a smile on her face but here she is, along with Claire Torry (Pink Floyd backing vocals on Dark Side Of The Moon) and Jill Mackintosh providing some super soulful backing vocals on Suicide City. This added another dimension to the Doctors and also gave them a little in common with the direction Marc Bolan was moving into as well.
Unbelievably still the general public didn’t bite – perhaps the Doctors insistence on not releasing singles counted badly against them? The bonus tracks on this one are demos recorded just after the album’s release and feature two songs that never made official release. Of these demos, the Mod Punk of “Frustration” is probably the best and namechecks both Johnny Rotten and Pink Floyd (is it possibly linked with the famously altered shirt Rotten wore in 76?) but all three pass muster. Triple Vision (re-recorded for Sons Of Survival), just Strange and guitar, thrills with a performance of passion over technique.
Over a year later their final album, Sons Of Survival emerged. With this record the Doctors Of Madness found themselves in the unusual position of being with the zeitgeist rather than running on ahead of it. No matter: it’s a superior Art Punk statement. This record was my introduction into the world of the Doctors, purchased in the early 80s long after the band had split, they had “made over” their look a bit so they appeared more “Punk” on the sleeve, but the album entranced me from the off. I knew I was on to something different from, say, the Suburban Studs here and I liked it.
Sons… was originally released in March 1978, just a month after “Crossing The Red Sea With The Adverts”, which I feel was entirely apt. I would hesitate to say the Docs were the Adverts’ “big brother” band, but there is an undeniable similarity in Richard’s delivery and TV Smith’s. There’s the same feeling of elation and despair in documenting a country slowly edging towards terminal decline (any of this sound familiar to you at all?), but ringing some hope and fun out of the bleakness. Back From The Dead, a co-write between Strange and Smith, clinches it.
Bulletin, the single issued at the end of 1977 under the truncated Doctors moniker, could be the Adverts’ Safety In Numbers from an outsider’s perspective. The same dissatisfaction of the herd mentality that was slowly but surely asserting itself into Punk at the time. 50s Kids notes the desperation and uncertainty of aging in an intelligent and adept fashion, something Punk (and most Rock to be honest) shied away from. The album is stuffed with great music and cutting lines, like on the title track “Religion is a fetish no that’s not quite right its part of the disease” and Kiss Me Goodbye “Don’t ask me if I care”.
Richard Strange notes in the accompanying booklet that although they had obviously altered their image somewhat, they could not do what the Stranglers achieved because of the higher profile of their work pre-Year Zero and subsequently the record bombed. Putting that aside, this LP was a great 1978 record whatever the sale figures or the genre people listed it under.
The band struggled on to October of the same year before finally giving up the ghost. That slow drift towards splitting is documented on the bonus tracks. Dave Vanian, at a loose end after the Damned had split, joined the band for a while (the Damned would reform just as the Doctors finished). He’s featured on the proposed second Doctors Of Madness single Don’t Panic England, a restrained goodie that with a bit more work might, just might, have given the band the success they deserved.
It never happened of course and the remaining four tracks document the band’s last gig at the Music Machine on 26th October 1978. After the spoken word William Burroughs Intro Tape (Burroughs work was a long-time fixation and inspiration for Strange) we get the Glam Velvets churn of Trouble and a mid-paced stomp in Making Machines with TV Smith supplying some spirited vocals. The final song, the plaintive Who Cries For Me? could have been an epitaph for the band. All three of those songs would have shined on a fourth album but it wasn’t to be. So much potential, three fine LPs, but the world wasn’t listening.
This excellent and much needed collection finally redresses the balance against the Punk histories which usually deny the Doctors their proper place amongst the procession of Proto-Punk originators. Across the three discs here we can trace a sonic path through the 70s decade in Britain, from everyday life to politics to Glam to Post-Punk and covering all points in between, but much, much more fun than any dry history lesson. The Doctors Of Madness changed their names, thrashed their guitars and rallied against the numb passionless and lazy times they found themselves living in with great intelligence and exciting, entrancing music – just like Punk a couple of years later. Time to give them their due – it has been a long time coming – but also enjoy their craft, soul and skill.
Reissue of the year without doubt.
Doctors Of Madness are on Facebook here
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here