DOCTORS OF MADNESS
Richard Strange interview by Robert Pally
"We might not have been Jesus Christ but we were sure as hell John The Baptist!!"
The 3-CD box Perfect Past collects for the first time all of the recordings of the English glam, proto-punk band Doctor Of Madness (1974-1978). In this interview, their leader Richard Kid Strange (Richard Harding) talks about success, being pre-punk, Williams S. Burroughs, the Sex Pistols and his favourite project.
PSF: What triggered the reissue of the entire output of Doctors Of Madness?
Richard Strange: Sometimes, everything just falls into place at the same time... the right time. I did a big William Burroughs tribute celebration multimedia performance at The Queen Elizabeth Hall on London's Southbank a couple of years ago. I wrote a short opera with the composer Gavin Bryars based on Burroughs's work, and added a number of artists and performers to the evening to reflect Burroughs's influence across all the arts. Music, Literature, Fine Art, even Dance. Given Burroughs's influence on me as a songwriter, and by extension on the Doctors of Madness, it seemed appropriate that I should make the call I had resisted for over 30 years to the other guys in the band. We hadn't seen each other since we split in 1978! They were all very enthusiastic about the idea of the Doctors playing a short set as part of the evening. Joe Elliott of Def Leppard supported the evening financially, bless him- he is a huge Doctors fan, and joined us onstage for “Suicide City.” We filmed the event and it reminded me how relevant and pertinent the Doctors music is today, and it made me think about playing live again. Sadly, Stoner (Colin Bentley) our bass player died soon after and I had to reconsider the options. Two brilliant Japanese musicians, Sister Pau, are big fans of our work, and since they play bass and drums, Urban Blitz (Geoffrey Hickman) and I teamed up with them for a Japanese tour last year which was a huge success. Cherry Red Records got in touch with me when we returned, completely unconnectedly, and asked about rereleasing our entire back catalogue. Sometimes, it's all about serendipity and the zeitgeist!
PSF: You are pretty successful as an actor (Batman, Mona Lisa, Gang Of New York), musician, music teacher and more. Why did you go back to Doctor Of Madness?
RS: It's one of many projects I am involved in. I realized I love playing those songs live with great musicians, and I love getting the opportunity of travelling the world doing so. There is a potentially MASSIVE Doctors of Madness project in the pipeline- sadly, I am sworn to secrecy at the moment!
PSF: Looking back, which of the three Doctor of Madness albums is your favourite one?
RS: I love each for a different reason. The first was so exciting to make, our first album, all those songs we had been playing live. Suddenly, we were a REAL professional rock band with a recording contract... it was the realization of a dream. We knew exactly how we wanted those songs to sound... “We are building huge cathedrals of sound” we kept reminding each other- wanting the musical landscape to get bigger and wilder and braver. Hearing those songs take shape was an unforgettable experience. By the second album, we were more competent, having toured lived for a year and becoming slightly more sophisticated, and John Leckie brought a great polish to the songs- it's a more soulful album too. The third album was kinda sad because I knew by then that we were all over, it was going to be our last record, and the songs had either a political anger to them, like "Triple Vision," "Bulletin" and "Sons Of Survival," or they formed an elegiac farewell, like "Kiss Goodbye Tomorrow" and "Network."
PSF: Some people see Doctor Of Madness as proto punks. How do you see the band today?
RS: We might not have been Jesus Christ but we were sure as hell John The Baptist!! Names like Kid Strange and Urban Blitz, playing fast furious songs at a million miles an hour, with song subject matter (like) urban decay, drugs, mind control and political indoctrination. Blue hair and a 'fuck you' attitude. Sounds like punk rock to me!
PSF: The Sex Pistols were your support band. Did you see their potential?
RS: When I watched them from the side of the stage when they supported us, I knew we were all over... someone had just moved the goal posts!
PSF: What was your personal biggest success with Doctor Of Madness?
RS: Changing the way I saw my own life- I knew I was an artist, a good writer, a compelling front man, an ideas guy who could make things happen. In retrospect, if the Doctors had a hit record, we would probably have got trapped, like so many bands, into rehashing and regurgitating the same material for 30 years- I might never have worked with Tim Burton, Jack Nicholson, Harmony Korine, Tom Waits, Robert Wilson or Damon Albarn, never have been an actor, a curator, a teacher, a writer... Oh and without the Doctors, there would have been no Damned, no Pulp, no Simple Minds!
PSF: Apparently, you hated progressive rock. Despite that, some of your songs sound pretty proggy. Is this a normal contradiction of life?
RS: Yep! I was never sufficiently virtuosic to play prog, and for that reason, it never interested me. I was always turned on by words more than music anyway.
PSF: Reading the liner notes to Perfect Past, I sense more than once that there was pressure from the record company. Has that influenced your songwriting in any way? Would Doctor Of Madness have sounded differently with complete artistically freedom?
RS: No- I have never been able to write to order. Whenever you try to hitch yourself to a bandwagon, you find the bandwagon has probably moved on and left town without you!! Write about what you know and what interests you and let the world catch up. After the Doctors, I wrote a political fantasy album called The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange in which a shyster uses his personal wealth and understanding of showbiz and advertising and the gullibility of people to become president!! Imagine that ever happening in the real world (ha ha)!!!! Then I opened a European style mixed media Cabaret (Cabaret Futura- still going strong after 37 years!). Then I wrote world music like "Damascus" and "Lowlife" and "God Help The Wealthy Man" just before world music happened.
Kid Strang live 1976
PSF: One of your major lyrical influences was Williams S. Burroughs. What is so fascinating about him?
RS: How long do we have??!! He revolutionized the process of writing with his cutup method. His subject matter... lowlife, drugs, science fiction and political and psychological control are endlessly fascinating, he has an original take on time... and he is SO FUNNY.
PSF: Why did Doctor Of Madness split after only 3 1/2 years?
RS: It became clear that although we had been at the forefront of the emergence of punk and new wave, we had been around just too long to titillate the record company. They wanted vastly inferior, generic acts that they could easily put into the “punk” pigeonhole and flog accordingly. We were too complex, too literate, too arty for them to do that, and they got very confused and scared. Pop music loves novelty and we had been around 3 years.
PSF: How did you feel after your last concert at The Music Machine on the 26th of October 1978?
RS: A bit relieved, a bit scared, a bit excited. I always love new challenges, new adventures. But you have to dare to fail in order to succeed and in order to come up with something original. I had been writing a bit with TV Smith from the Adverts, and working a bit with Dave Vanian from the Damned... but I was already looking for something VERY different from punk rock.
PSF: Any regrets about your time with Doctor Of Madness?
RS: God no, we were great, recorded three ground breaking albums, influenced everyone from Vic Reeves to Joe Elliott and Julian Cope and left a great legacy that sounds as fresh today. We are now recognised as the trail blazers we were, and I am respected everywhere I go. What would I regret?
PSF: What did you want to do differently as solo artist compared to Doctors Of Madness?
RS: Work with machines! I toured America and Europe with a tape recorder and a guitar and never once had a fall-out!
PSF: What triggered your autobiographically book Punks and Drunks and Flicks and Kicks : the Memoirs of Richard Strange in 2005?
RS: A chance meeting at a dinner with a publisher. Originally, he asked if I could write 5000 words about the '70's. I ended up writing about my first 50 years... As I was writing, I realized what an amazing and probably unique life I have been lucky enough to lead. Who else has kick-started a musical trend, appeared In films with Jack Nicholson and on stage in Hamlet with James Nesbitt, opened a Cabaret Club, worked with Martin Scorsese, written an opera with Gavin Bryars, been friends with Damien Hirst and Marianne Faithfull, worked with Tom Waits and Robert Wilson, and NEVER been to art school or university, just a South London comprehensive?
PSF: After Doctor Of Madness up to now, you have been involved in many projects. Which is your favourite one and why?
RS: Cabaret Futura always gives great pleasure, as I get to see new acts every month from every discipline of the arts- writers, musicians, comics, performance artists, film makers. I love teaching and working with young artists and musicians, and do that all over the world- I was Artist in Residence in Hong Kong and have taught in Sweden and in the USA and I am a proud Principal Fellow of the Higher Education Academy- one of only 350 in this country. Not bad for someone who went to a state school. Currently working on editing the film of the Burroughs event Language Is A Virus From Outer Space I mentioned earlier, and have already won Best Art Film Prize at a film festival with that.
PSF: You've tour with Doctor Of Madness again. Will there also be a new album? If yes, how different would Doctor Of Madness sound today?
RS: No plans to record anything new at present... though that would be fun! I think it would probably reflect the high speed, always-on, always-connected, post-digital world we inhabit. And would CERTAINLY be interactive and collaborative!
photo by Chris Walters
Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms(1976)
Figments Of Emancipation (1976)
Sons Of Survival (1978)
Into the Strange – The Doctors of Madness Live 1978 CD (2001)
Perfect Past: The Complete Doctors Of Madness 3-CD Box 2017 (RPM)
Also see www.richardstrange.com
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