Richard Strange (Doctors Of Madness) – interview
There is a tendency to think all the vital Proto-Punk action came from the US – not true as the Doctors Of Madness were a key band in that weird Pre-Punk/Post-Glam world of 1975. It has recently been announced that they are to play some gigs in support of a new box set on Cherry Red Past Perfect (due for release May 2017). So LTW’s Ian Canty took the opportunity for a chat with band leader Richard Strange about their glorious past and future…..
Louder Than War: Were you involved in any bands prior to the formation of Doctors Of Madness? If not what made you want to start a Rock band? What were the main influences on the music and lyrics of DoM to begin with?
The Doctors of Madness was my first band. Peter di Lemma, our drummer, and I set the ball rolling in 1974. We had been at school together, but I had only been playing guitar for a couple of years. I’d never really thought of myself as a musician before. I loved words and I loved contemporary art. I discovered the US writer William Burroughs (Naked Lunch, Soft Machine, Junkie etc) and the other Beat writers, principally Kerouac and Ginsberg, alongside discovering Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and the Pop Artists, and I wanted to form a band that was like a mash up between the two. I was in love with the Velvet Underground since the release of their first album in 1967- Brian Eno once said that everybody who bought that first album went on to form a band- I know I did and I know he did! I met Urban Blitz (violins and guitars) through the Melody Maker small ads, and Colin Stoner (Bass) had been a friend for years.
How did you fall in with ex-Pretty Things manager Bryan Morrison? How did signing to Polydor come about?
In those early days (1974/75), no-one would touch the Doctors of Madness…we were too weird, too out there! Remember, this was the fag end of Prog Rock, where everyone wanted to show their parents that these long-haired kids in flares could play to the same standard as conservatoire musicians…..that never interested me. I always believed that rock music’s role was to piss your parents off, not to impress them! We looked like we had just landed from a charity shop on Mars! Blue Hair, make up, weird names, songs about mind control, paranoia, neurosis and urban breakdown, with a cast of characters like Dollar Deal Dave, The Reversal Boys, Pigface and The Shiny Gang, The Weird Scenes addicts etc… Welcome to my world!
The only way we could get gigs was by organizing them myself. So I booked our consecutive Saturdays in a room above a pub in Twickenham. Self promoted with posters, flyers and word of mouth. The was no internet, no social media back then. These were the days of analogue! Each week our crowd doubled. By the fourth week we had 150 people in, and we were sublime… played a gig that crystallized and exorcised all the frustration that having neither cash not equipment, no van, no agent, no manager had built up in us. The crowd went wild as we trashed the stage during our final song, “Mainlines”… a 6-minute long mantra-repeated chorus which stretched our musical and performance skills to breaking point. We went to the broom cupboard that served as our dressing room exultant, knowing we were on to something.
There was a knock on the door. It was Jonathan King. He managed Genesis. I hated Genesis. I told him to fuck off. The band were aghast…they thought that was the one chance we would ever have at stardom. 2 minutes later, another knock on the door…a cigar entered the room about a minute before the bloke who was smoking it, it was so long! Bryan “Morry” Morrison, legendary music publisher and manager…published T Rex, Pink Floyd, Bee Gees and Syd Barrett, managed Pretty Things, you name it, he’d done it. He had retired form the biz but wanted to come back and a friend of his had seen our two previous gigs and told him about us. He hobbled in on crutches as he has fallen off his horse playing polo that day. He was the classic East End Jewish wide boy. Said he would make us stars.
We went to his office in Bayswater on the Monday, saw the Gold Discs covering his walls, drank his champagne and signed everything over to him- management, record production, publishing…everything! Think in total we signed 135% of all potential earning over to him…! BUT we left that office a professional rock band. Six weeks in a studio in Charing Cross, 18 hours a day, seven days a week, writing, rehearsing, working on a show, and we were ready to meet our public! He invited every CEO of every major record company came to see us in that tiny room. Clive Davis, Ahmet Ertegun, Maurice Oberstein… We gave them a full on show of three numbers. The lights were faulty and set fire to Clive Davis and he ran out with his pants on fire! We didn’t sign to CBS! But Polydor made a very generous offer for three albums and we signed.
Did it seem bizarre to be on The Twiggy Show? How did that come about? What was the response to the show?
Bryan’s partner was Justin de Villeneuve, who was Twiggy’s manager. The rest was easy! We loved being on TV. It felt like we had arrived. The TV technicians still wore white coats in those days…they were aghast when we played! Twiggy was a sweetheart and sang one of my songs, Perfect Past, with us as a duet. A bonkers combo. It looked like a David Lynch movie! Twig the Wonderkid and the Blue-Haired Stick Insect singing a love song…you couldn’t make it up!
You developed a unique stage presentation for live gigs, against the type of show Prog bands were offering – what made you want to get away from the “standard Rock show” type of event?
We were a cross between a cartoon and an outtake from a never-written William Burroughs novel… That suited me fine. That’s what I wanted to be! Haranguing the audiences, berating hecklers, inspiring the kids who were geeky, gawky, different…
Doctors Of Madness are now looked upon as a vital Proto-Punk band, at the time did you feel like part of the ’70s thrust towards something more aggressive and reflective of the climate in the outside world? Before it happened, did you see Punk coming? It seems DoM did anticipate some of the themes.
We didn’t “see Punk coming”, we WERE punk, or a form of it, before it had been given a name. We sang fast songs, had no pretensions of musical virtuosity, were snotty and arrogant onstage, wore T-shirts, zipped trousers, drape suits, military fatigues, makeup, shades, I was Kid Strange, he was Urban Blitz, he was Peter di Lemma, he was Stoner. I had blue hair, I sang about urban paranoia and mental breakdown, control systems and dystopian landscapes. If we weren’t the Jesus Christ of punk, we were certainly its John The Baptist!
How did the Sex Pistols come to support you on that fateful night at Middlesbrough in May 1976? It was a long way for a support band to come, how did it happen? What did you think of them at the time? Did you know much about them beforehand?
I got a call from Martin Hopewell, our booking agent, saying that there was a band who had only done one gig and their manager (Malcolm McLaren) wanted them to play outside London to get some experience, out of the limelight. We were the only band with a sizeable following he could think of who might conceivably agree to have this bunch of snotty-nosed louts on the same bill!
When I watched their sound-check I thought they were the sloppiest bunch of kids I had ever seen on a stage…out of tune, out of time, bored, boring. When they opened the show for us, I watched from the wings and knew that our career was over…someone had moved the goalposts and we were going to get left behind. To make matters worse they nicked £12 from my trousers while I was onstage! I got that back from Steve Jones on his radio show in LA 20 years later, and got it back again from Johnny a few years after that- a $50 dollar billed scrawled with the words Repaid With Interest…and signed Johnny Rotten…so I did OK!
How did Dave Vanian come to join the band in 1978? How did you come to write with TV Smith on the second Adverts record? Why did Doctors Of Madness split in 1978 after the “Sons Of Survival” album?
Dave had been a Doctors fan from the start. He loved us and came to every gig we ever did in the London area- St Albans, Hemel Hempsted, Aylesbury- Vanian was right there at the front. We became good mates…I was best man at his wedding and he joined the Doctors as we were melting down in 1978. I joined the Damned at the same time! TV Smith and Gaye Advert always came to The Doctors gigs in the West Country- they lived in Devon then,…same thing… we became mates, started writing together. Always loved Tim and the Adverts, great writer, great performer…he walks the walk as well as talking the talk. Modern day political troubadour- he does 250 gigs a year. Love him. We wrote a load of stuff together after the Doctors and the Adverts split, and slowly went our separate ways. We both recorded a song we wrote together called Back from The Dead…still play that song now. Great!
How much was The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange a follow on from the ideas that you used in the Doctors? Why has that album never been re-issued? What were your aims when you set up the original Cabaret Futura club and have they changed over time?
After the Doctors split (1978) I took stock of what I was best at and what I wanted to do next. I was a good writer, a good performer, a good conceptualizer, a so-so singer, a less than so-so guitarist, a good organizer, I could sell myself. I took a lot of drugs around that time, mainly speed, and had the idea of a pop-cultural icon dropping out and reinventing himself as a politician in a future, united Europe. Using advertising and show biz techniques, he gets himself into a position of power, is a populist, disappoints, gets bored and is assassinated by his enemies in the corporate world. Let’s hope it happens again soon! I recorded it myself, in a studio in Cornwall with a number of musicians, mixed it in London and flogged it to Richard Branson on his houseboat!
I had previously flogged the same songs to Michael Zilkha of Ze Records in New York. So we did a live version for Ze (The Live Rise of Richard Strange, recorded at a club called Hurrah! in Manhattan in 1980) and The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange, the studio version, came out on Virgin in 1981. When I came back from that trip to the USA (with John Otway, we toured for ten weeks as Two English Eccentrics!) I decided I was bored with the conventional world of Rock and Roll. I wanted to do something different and perform in a different context, so I invented Cabaret Futura… a mixed media, multi disciplinary Cabaret in Soho, based on the classic Parisian/Berlin mix…artists, musicians, poets, strippers, performance artists…and I would book all the acts, compere the evening, get drunk, take gear, decide whether I would play or not, and slowly went mad! Depeche Mode played, Soft Cell played, the Pogues played…it was cool.
How did you get into acting? What’s been your favourite role in that field? What was it like to have a fight with the Undertaker on the German TV show Gottschalks Haus-Party?
Everyone was trying to get into acting in the early ’80s … Bowie, Jagger, Geldof, Sting…you name them they wanted to tread the boards our see their name on Miracle Mile. I wasn’t really interested, but a girl friend was working for a director called Franc Roddam (Quadrophenia), who was making a film called The Bride in France with Sting. She said it would be a great way to spend the summer, so I went to meet Franc, but didn’t get the job. However, he said “You have a great look and a great voice- you’ll always work in the film industry, who’s your agent?” I said I was a total fraud and wasn’t an actor at all. He introduced me to my agent, Michelle Braidman and I have been with her ever since. My first film was a stupid comedy called, Morons from Outer Space (Mel Smith), then Mona Lisa, Batman, Robin Hood, Gangs of New York, Harry Potter…I have been one lucky guy all my life! I always say to my students there are only two sorts of artists in the world…those who say “yes” and those who say “no” to a challenge. I say yes. I dare to fail. That’s why my life has been such a riot of fun!
My favourite acting role was in the Tom Waits/William Burroughs/Robert Wilson stage collaboration The Black Rider, we toured that for 3 years…London, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Sydney. Marianne Faithfull played the devil…no acting required! Best film role was Abraham Lincoln in Harmony Korine’s Mr Lonely. A load of us were impersonators living in a retirement home for impersonators in the Highlands of Scotland…me, Anita Pallenberg (she played The Queen), James Fox (The Pope) Diego Luna (Michael Jackson), Samantha Morton (Marilyn Monroe) and Denis Lavant (Charlie Chaplin). Harmony K is a genius…a true original. Loved that job. I was Thomas Gottschalk’s English butler on German TV for 3 years…every Saturday I flew to Munich, did the show and flew home. I wrestled with the Undertaker, cooked spaghetti for Sophia Loren, locked Grace Jones in a cage and tried to keep the Spice Girls quiet for 5 minutes. The things we do for a pay check!
As well as performing and acting you also produced a number of recordings including one of my favourite LPs in the Nightingales Pigs On Purpose….any memories of working with them? Rob Lloyd is still turning out some great stuff all these years on.
I always loved the Nightingales, too. Robert got in touch with me after I had produced a hit for a band called Way of the West (Don’t Say That’s Just For White Boys) and a record with Tom Robinson, and I was flattered. He said he wanted me to produced a whole album and I thought this would be a big-money job… I looked at my diary and said- ‘OK September, October and November?’, expecting it to take three months and he said, ‘How about next Tuesday in Balsall Heath, Birmingham!?’ We did it in a single day! Great record…wish we’d taken two days, though!
What made you want to bring Doctors Of Madness back together after all this time? Have you ever contemplated a full- scale reformation in the past? Will there be any new material played at the gig or released?
I did a big William Burroughs event, Language Is A Virus From Outer Space, on the South Bank in London in 2014, it was his centenary year. I had agreed to write a short opera with the composer Gavin Bryars based on the life and work of Burroughs. The opera was only going to be 25 minutes long (it’s brilliant, by the way- we filmed it and won the Best Art Film Prize at the Portobello Film Festival last year!) so I needed to put a programme in around it.
I called some friends to make work inspired by Burroughs- the artists Gavin Turk and Haroon Mirza, musicians Annie Hogan, David Coulter and Seb Rochford, choreographer Luca Silvestrini, poet Jeremy Reed and writer Rupert Thompson all came on board and I thought- ‘why am I not putting the Doctors back to together for this one show?’ So I called them (first time in 35 years!) suggested we do six songs. They all agreed. Joe Elliott of Def Leppard kindly put some money up for the show (he was and still is a big Doctors fan, as well as being a great guy) and sang Suicide City with us. It was a great night and I intend to finish editing the film of it this year. Sadly Stoner, our legendary bass player died 2 weeks later. It seemed a fitting swansong.
Finally, how do you think the Doctors Of Madness bear up all these years on in the cold light of 2017?
We were hugely influential, as evidenced by the praise heaped on us by everyone from Joe Elliott, through Simple Minds, The Damned, The Adverts, Joy Division, Spiritualized, Vic Reeves and Julian Cope. I love singing those songs now- they don’t seem a minute out of date, if anything they all sound like predictions that have come horribly true in a digital world. I feel like a proud father!
The Doctors Of Madness will play live at a secret London location on Tuesday 16th May and a raft of other gigs too in May/June – full details can be found on the band’s official Facebook page here).
All words by Ian Canty – see his author profile here