In The Mouth Of Madness: A Chat With Richard Strange

Rediscovering the greatest English band from the mid-‘70s you’ve never heard of

Richard Strange (Image: Facebook)

I could tell you the Doctors of Madness are the greatest English band from the mid-‘70s you’ve never heard of (and I guess I am doing that).

But first, let me really start by stating how I discovered them. By accident. On late night TV in America in 1975. A segment on one of NBC’s news/feature shows. They were an unheard-of new band, and they took me totally my surprise.

The music was frenetic and fierce, often featuring an electric violinist called Urban Blitz on lead, led by a singer-guitarist who went by the name of Kid Strange. Disturbing, seductive songs or song snippets It was a pre-punk, post-glam art-rock maelstrom. 

Here was the rub: The segment was harsh. It painted them as Velvet Underground rip-off artists, as wily charlatans and thieves. Contrived. (God forbids!) 

“The show was a disaster for us,” said Richard Strange, who dropped “Kid” and went back to his given name after the Doctors crashed and burned in 1978. We corresponded last month via e-mail interview. “It finished us in the States before we had even begun. We felt cheated by the crew. They had approached us saying they wanted to do a full-length, prime-time feature on us and on our music. This was 1975 and we had literally just begun our careers. They told us they thought we were an exciting new departure from predictable rock ‘n’ roll at the time – Boston, Foreigner, Bon Jovi that sort of thing.

“The TV crew came round the UK with us for a couple of weeks, filming concerts, rehearsals, recording sessions, photos sessions, interviews, everything.  But they already had their angle before they even met us – that we were a manufactured hype with nothing to say.  Nothing could be further from the truth; we were a band that grew organically for two years before we were ‘discovered’ and our image and our sound had already been honed and the songs were already written.  The betrayal was like a sucker punch.”

Me, I fell for the music and ignored the scabrous commentary.

The Doctors of Madness profile has risen markedly in recent years. There have been various written tributes – the most famous theory being that the Doctors of Madness the missing link between glam and punk – and various reissue packages. In October, the first two albums, Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms and Figments of Emancipation went digital on pretty much every platform. On Nov. 18, the third album, Sons of Survival, will do the same. And on Dec. 2, the 2019 “comeback” album, Dark Times, follows.

I never saw the Doctors of Madness live – how could I? No US tour – but met and interviewed Strange when he was doing a solo reel-to-reel tape recorder and voice show under his own name, a concept piece about a corrupt politician called The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange in 1980. We’ve been in touch over the years and caught up recently upon the occasion of the digital releases.

 

Looking back, it would seem accurate to say the Doctors of Madness were both ahead of their time and out of time (to borrow a line from your song, “Out”). The thought these days being that you were the missing link between glam and punk. It’s certainly easy to see that now, though at the time, and I listened from the first album on I saw roots in the Velvet Underground, Bowie and Roxy Music – and of course I didn’t know what was ahead. Did you see what you were doing as groundbreaking? Was there any band or group of bands or movement you felt part of?

We always felt like outsiders. As you say, we arrived BETWEEN genres. Prog and Glam had happened. Punk and new wave hadn’t.

I knew when I formed the band what I wanted, a sort of an amalgam of the Velvets, Bowie, Dylan, theatre of cruelty and William Burroughs.  I was always word-driven, image-driven, rather than music-driven.  I knew what the band might look like before I knew what we might sound like. There was nothing around like who I wanted us to be.

 

Many bands either cite the Velvet Underground as a source or don’t site them and borrow liberally. I think you were one of the first to do this – both site and borrow in your case. If that was indeed a template, how did you think about working off of that, to make music that was yours uniquely?

We were very much a British band, rather than an American one. I liked that difference. Our references overlapped (beat literature, pop art, subject matter- drugs, paranoia, control, sex) with The Velvets, but were filtered through a British – no, a LONDON lens, rather than a New York lens.  I KNEW Lou Reed’s influence, [both] literary and cinematic, but I also had my own, which were more European – James Joyce, the films of Fellini, Bergman, Godard etc.

Doctors of Madness Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms, Polydor 1976

What was the chemistry and dynamics within the band? You are, I believe the main songwriter, but were you the sole songwriter? What did the other guys bring to the mix?

I was always the only songwriter. Peter di Lemma, the drummer, and I had been at school together. I started playing music relatively late. I was 18/19, and he had been drumming for a while. He had a cellar and we could just jam there together. I started writing songs, often inspired by Dylan, The Velvets and Burroughs – wordy, stream of consciousness, cut-up things; they were awful of course, but they had something. We thought we should recruit some musicians to form a band and give them some shape. I have always been aware of my own limitations as a guitarist and singer! It took a long while. Stoner, the bassist, was someone I knew socially but I always felt that he was too much of a muso to ‘get’ the whole picture.  I was wrong, of course. He had been waiting to be asked to join for a year before we invited him. Urban Blitz – on violin and guitars – we recruited through an ad in Melody Maker, the main music mag.  As soon as the four of us played together for the first time, I knew this was the combination. Stoner and Urban were the musical driving force, they sort of gave us our ‘sound.’ Peter was reliable, and a good organizer, and I was the creative, thinking about songs, stage shows, artwork etc.  It was a good team.

 

Were you the first rock band to feature a lead violinist?  I know there was Daryl Way in Curved Air and of course the Celtic/English folk-rock bands had ‘em but I can’t think of anyone else. Can you? 

No-one else had used a violin as we did.  The was a U.S. band called It’s a Beautiful Day, there was jazz with Stephane Grapelli, and of course John Cale used an electric viola in the Velvets for drones.  We used it differently – melodically, rhythmically, and occasionally for sheer angular noise! Urban was a great player and could evoke classical riffs, rock riffs, folk riffs and even bluegrass. I started to write differently, hearing the potential sound of a song before even writing a note or a word.

 

And, I know Urban Blitz is not in the Doctors as reconstituted now? Why not and/or where is he? Do you miss what he contributed?

His musical contribution was enormous as I have stated, but he became increasingly difficult to work with and, in the end, I think he wanted the financial security that a job outside of music could give him. He left in 1978, while we were recording Sons of Survival.  We toured as a three piece for a year. We reformed the band briefly for a one-off show that I had organised to celebrate William Burroughs’s centenary year in 2014. We played four songs, ‘Mitzi’s Cure,’ ‘Doctors of Madness,’ ‘Suicide City’ and ‘Marie and Joe.’ Stoner was very frail by then. He had developed liver cancer, and Peter hadn’t played drums for 25 years, and Urban was pretty much the same. They all seemed so much older than me! I had never stopped playing, so our experiences of 21st Century music, especially in the digital world, were radically different.

 

There’s the Guardian story which says about you: “They perfected angry, screeching misanthropy before the Sex Pistols …” Whoa. Full stop. I don’t think angry, screeching misanthropy was what you did at all. Complex story songs, characters in turmoil, the highs and lows of drugs (coke?), the stress of relationships, the tension that surrounds us all. Some of it at breakneck speed and some of it slow and ominous. Your take?

Yes, I agree with you. We were NEVER an easy band to categorize. We understood dynamics – the power of silence as well as high volume, the impact of slow dirges as well as high octane rushes. My song ‘Waiting,’ for example, on the first album, is often cited as the first British punk rock song, whereas ‘Mainlines,’ on the same record, is a 16-minute cinematic critique of contemporary urban life as I saw it, in four distinct ‘movements.’ As far away from punk rock as you can get, but it’s on the same album!! There are a great deal of vocal harmonies on our recordings, which again is not very punk!

Yes, drugs were a part of it. We were a bit before coke – more speed and weed! Coke was still quite exotic and expensive! It was for rock stars! But my references nearly always came from OUTSIDE of music, from cinema, from books, from contemporary art, from theatre. And also from outside of US/UK references. I read French literature, German literature, I saw a lot of avant-garde performance and theatre. I travelled extensively through Europe.

 

Songwriter-musicians practically always get asked this and I will too. What separation should we see between the songwriter and the story/image/sound that’s put forth? That is, you write about characters with novelistic veracity and people may wonder, how much of them is you or your friends at the time. (I know from my interviews with Lou Reed that he was not – always anyway – the dark troubled angry soul he appeared on record. Yes, some were autobiographical or quasi-autobiographical, but a song is musical fiction.)

Inspirations for my songs came from all over…from real events within my friendship group, from newspaper stories, from film, from observing strangers on the bus.  I always kept a note book (still do!) to jut things down.  Songs like “Billy Watch Out,” “Brothers” andSuicide City” were directly drawn from friends and family. Some songs, like “Marie and Joe” were coded narratives. “Mitzi’s Cure” was a Burroughs-ian cut-up, as was “B-Movie Bedtime.” Some songs were out and out political, like “Triple Vision,” “Sons of Survival,” “Network,” “Bulletin” and ALL of our most recent album, Dark Times, which is inspired by the horrific corrupt politics of Trump, Boris Johnson and the New Right, and the power of social media to spread disinformation and paranoia.

 

I don’t know what the level of hype was in England (none in America of course) but were bright shiny objects dangled in front of you? And when it all crashed, what was the feeling then. Beaten? Defeated? Pissed off? Determined to go on? I know you surfaced – quite brilliantly – doing your Phenomenal Rise album and man-and-reel-to-reel tape deck tour, which is where I first met you, here in Boston.

By the time we hit the buffers as a band, in 1978 with our third album Sons of Survival, punk rock was the only game in town for record companies and for the hugely influential British music press.  The fact that we had been around for two years longer than The Clash, the Pistols, The Damned etc. meant that we couldn’t really claim to be part of that emerging scene (although older bands like The Stranglers and The Police managed to tag along), even though all those bands were fans and flag wavers for the Doctors. Joy Division supported us, the Jam supported us, The Pistols supported us, Simple Minds supported us. The Adverts, Penetration, the Skids, Julian Cope and The Damned were all fans, but I knew it was time to move on for me. I had already been thinking about The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange concept album, and also had been thinking about the logistics of touring when I hit on the idea of using pre-recorded backing tracks and a Revox reel-to-reel tape recorder, plus films, projections and spoken word links. 

I toured the States and Canada with English eccentric John Otway in 1980. I was a one-man show, coast to coast, from New York to L.A. and back again, travelling in a small bus, playing a different town every night, using backing tracks and an acoustic guitar and trying out the show. I didn’t do any Doctors of Madness songs.

 

 

For my money, the first two albums were A-level brilliant and the third, Sons of Survival, took it down a notch. I don’t know if you’d agree but I thought I’d float it … 

Well, I agree with you about the first two and I think maybe we weren’t as focused by the time we recorded the third. It felt like the album was a contractual fulfilment. Our record company were working on The Jam and Siouxsie and The Banshees and we were a bit old news to some of the execs there who wanted to be seen as “down with da kids”!! Contractually, they HAD to finance this third album, but their attention was already elsewhere. Having said that, I honestly believe some of my best songs are on that record, “Triple Vision,” “Network,” “Sons of Survival,” “Kiss Goodbye Tomorrow.” I am still enormously proud of, and often feature them in my shows to this day. 

 

What was the idea behind re-forming Doctors of Madness for Dark Times? Political? Musical? Wanting perhaps to get your due from a generation that missed hearing you back in the day and the subsequent punks and post-punks who caught onto it later?

I was sick in hospital in 2018 and thought I was going to die. I felt I still hadn’t recorded an album I wanted to be remembered by, and the world was in turmoil with Trump, Brexit and the Right taking over the world (Brazil, India, Russia, Hungary, Italy etc.) I was horrified by how the world had relapsed – as if the ‘60s had never happened, all the advances made for women, people of colour, gays, the environment etc. were all going into reverse and we were headed for the ‘50s again. I started writing furiously (literally!) and produced 10 songs in two weeks. It was a protest album, or an album of protest songs, old style! I recorded demos of them as soon as I got home (I didn’t die!), using Logic software and playing everything- drums, keys, bass, guitars and vocals, I was so close to the songs I didn’t know if they were any good. I felt they were, though, and sent them to my friend John Leckie, who produced Figments of Emancipation for us in 1976, and who had been a friend for 40 years. I asked him, “Tell me straight: Are these songs any good?  Next day, John got back to me saying “We HAVE to make this record!” I was energized. John has produced the best in the world since we worked together in the 70s: Simple Minds, Radiohead, Muse, Stone Roses, XTC, Magazine, The Verve, Suede…you name them…he’s worked with them!  

He asked me how much budget I had. I told him about $20! He guessed as much and found a residential studio where we could work 16 hours a day, or more, if we wanted to. It belonged to Jethro Tull’s drummer Barrie Barlow. It was just outside London. I called my Japanese rhythm section Susumu (bass) and Mackii (drums) Ukei, with whom I always toured Japan and anywhere else. Stoner had died by now; Peter was too frail and Urban was impossible. I asked them to fly to London to record with me. I played all guitars and my daughter Lilybud sang with me, and the songs began to take shape. I was feeling great. Then something magical happened. Old friends and fans who heard about this new record called me and said they wanted to get onboard. Terry Edwards, from PJ Harvey and Tindersticks, Steve Boltz from The Who, Paul Young and Atomic Rooster, Sarah Jane Morris from The Communards, Dylan O Bates, who provided beautiful violin parts and, most surprisingly of all, Joe Elliott from Def Leppard.  Joe had been a huge Doctors of Madness fan when he was growing up in Yorkshire, and used to come to all our gigs up there. We never met at the time but he got in touch with me and said he’d heard about this new Doctors of Madness record we were making, and he wanted to be my backing vocalist!  He was incredibly generous, and sang on 5 of the songs – “Make It Stop!,” “So Many Ways To Hurt You,” “Blood Brother,” “Walk of Shame” and “Sour Hour.”. He was brilliant, added fabulous vocals and ideas, and within two weeks the record was finished. We mastered it at Abbey Road Studios and it came out early 2019 to AMAZING reviews.  Better late than never!

 

I know you’ve a had quite extensive, and varied, post-Doctors life and career. Wanna give me the Cliff Notes version?

I have led a charmed and blessed life.  I am a failed rock star who has always landed on his feet! I had a solo career with The Phenomenal Rise, got signed by Michael Zilkha in New York for Ze Records, in 1980. Back in London I opened a club called Cabaret Futura and featured the first gigs by Depeche Mode, Soft Cell and The Pogues. I produced records by Tom Robinson, The Nightingales, The Glare and Way of The West. I became an actor and worked on movies like Mona Lisa, Batman (with Jack Nicholson), Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, Gangs of New York, Mister Lonely and Harry Potter. 

Onstage, I worked with the great US theatre Robert Wilson on his collaboration with Tom Waits and William Burroughs’ The Black Rider (2004-6) in London, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sydney. I did a world tour appearing in a Russian-directed production of Hamlet (1988/90). I played an English butler on a German TV show every weekend for a year. I wrote a memoir, Strange – Punks and Drunks and Flicks and Kicks, (2005) I wrote an opera with the British classical maestro Gavin Bryars. (2014). I appeared in the European premiere of Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels, singing baritone with the 80-piece BBC Concert Orchestra at London’s Royal Festival Hall. I worked frequently with Hal Willner on his themed events- Disney, Sea Shanties, Nino Rota etc. I recorded a song with US singer Jolie Holland. I was asked to front a tour called Richard Strange sings the Songs of Lou Reed, (2019) with an all-star band including Kevin Armstrong (Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Prefab Sprout) and Terry Edwards. I wrote a play which premiered this year. I have toured Japan six times with the new lineup of Doctors of Madness, I have taught undergraduate student and post graduate students in Hong Kong, Japan, Los Angeles, Finland, Sweden and London over the last 10 years, working with Martyn Ware from Human League/Heaven 17 at Tileyard Education.  I was Creator In Residence at The Hong Kong design Institute (2012) I have started my own radio show Dark Times Radio, got married for the first time and become a grandfather for the first time. Apart from that, I am a slacker!

 

What does this multi-platform digital release of the albums mean to you/the band?

It is a way of introducing a whole new generation to our work, some of which was genuinely pioneering and influential, in ways that can only really be appreciated with the benefit of hindsight and historical context.  It also gives me a chance to revisit the songs and try to understand what I was thinking as a 24-year-old, trying to make sense of the world. 

 

 

Latest posts by Jim Sullivan (see all)

 You May Also Like

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for The Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem. Follow him on Twitter @jimsullivanink.

One thought on “In The Mouth Of Madness: A Chat With Richard Strange

  • November 16, 2022 at 5:21 pm
    Permalink

    Magnificent interview.
    Brings back loads of memories watching DOM in the mid 70’s at Sheffield Top Rank, Retford Porterhouse & Doncaster Outlook several times.
    The autobiography is highly recommended also.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *