DOCTOR OF MADNESS – THE CURIOUS CASE OF RICHARD STRANGE
Richard ‘Kid’ Strange returns with his live, autobiographical spoken word, music and film show, bringing it to intimate venues across the country. Before the start of his tour, he spoke to me at length about his career – spanning almost half a century – in music, acting and the arts: the influences that spawned his often misplaced and overlooked proto-punk outfit, Doctors of Madness, put to death by The Sex Pistols, his commercial success as a solo artist and ‘Mr Cabaret Futura’ and all the famous faces he has met along the way, from landing an acting part alongside the Batman Joker Jack Nicholson to feeding his hero William Burroughs jellied eels.
How did you end up doing this tour?
I’ve done odd bits and pieces and it was lockdown in the pandemic that made me think about turning this into a proper multimedia show – it’s music, film, still images and a lot of chat. Then I realised how lucky I’ve been with my life: I’ve never had any formal training in music, drama, teaching or anything else and I’ve picked it up on the hoof. But my life has been so lucky that I’ve managed to utilise what talent I have, and I’m not under any illusion about the size of my talent – I know that I’m not Mozart, I’m not Francis Bacon, I’m not Bob Dylan – but what I think I do have is a fairly unique skill set in as much as I’m fearless, I’m articulate and I’m curious. And that curiosity has been the key to what has happened for the last 45 years of my life.
[The tour] is very transportable and very manageable. I’ve got a book and a guitar, that’s all I need and I can do it anywhere. So it doesn’t need all that logistical and technical guff that gets in the way. Also, I like having an audience that’s close enough to talk to; 60-70 people in a room who all want to be there. It’s the balance as well: the music, information, amusement and entertainment value of it. It’s a bit like having a look behind the curtain: what’s it like working with Jack Nicholson, what were The Sex Pistols like or what was Martin Scorsese like to work with? I think we’ve all got a certain curiosity with that, with people whose work we admire. We like a bit of gossip and ‘off the record’.
You’re also quite funny…
I use humour to make sure that I don’t get too pompous, that I know the extents of my talent and my skill set. But I’m pretty good at deflating myself if ever I try and get too grand. This exclusive, unique skill set of having worked in film, theatre, literature, teaching, music, event management, curating art events – I think that does put me in a unique place and, consequently, I’ve met a unique cross-section of people.
When I started music – I could date that to 1975 when we turned professional with Doctors of Madness – it was a very, very different world then; not only the real world but the music world as well. It was just coming into the golden age of rock music when bands could take months to make albums. They could spend hundreds of thousands [of pounds] making a video and record companies knew that they would get that money back because they’re a bit like insurance companies – they do risk assessment. I can refer this to myself when I signed with Virgin Records in 1980. If they sign 10 bands in a year and one of those bands is Culture Club, one is Human League, one is Simple Minds and one is Mike Oldfield, it doesn’t matter if the other six don’t make money because those four bands will make so much money that it wipes the slate clean of any money that the other bands don’t earn.
Virgin had the reputation of always being likely to pay you more money than anyone else ever would. That was the deal when I signed with Arista records in the mid-80s: it was the same year they signed the Thompson Twins and Whitney Houston. So it didn’t matter if I sold a single record or not – they would make big money. They would make less money if they gave a lot of money to people like me, whose records were like Shriekback for example – very good band but they never made their money back on their advances. That was how the business was back then. Now there’s no sense of a record company developing an artist. [It] wants an artist to come to the company with 5 million followers and 5 million streams on YouTube before they’ll even take the chance with them. That’s what makes it so hard now. It’s always been hard to make the record because of the cost of the studio, then that flipped when everyone got a recording studio on their laptop and could make their records at home. The problem changed: it’s not affording to make the record – if everyone can do it how do you get yours above everyone else; above all the noise? That’s the difficult bit.
The part of the tour that’s about Doctors of Madness, do you think it’s a good opportunity to learn about the band because it was quite under appreciated?
Yeah, I think so. Time has bestowed a certain respect, admiration or approval on Doctors of Madness – it would have been lovely if we had got it at the time! But we were a band that really split opinion because we weren’t like anyone. We were in that weird little period between glam rock: [David] Bowie had happened, Roxy Music had happened, Sparks had happened. But punk rock hadn’t happened. There was just about a year or two between Bowie and Roxy Music making a huge impact and punk rock – that’s where we were.
It was a tough time to be a band because the music press was incredibly powerful back then. Principally, Melody Maker, New Musical Express and Sounds. They could make-or-break bands and they did every week. If Paul Morley and Anton Corbijn went out to interview and shoot Joy Division or put them on the cover, that album would be Top 5 the following week. It was that powerful – they were kingmakers. It was a tough time not to be one of the chosen ones if you weren’t one of the chosen ones. If someone took against you like Paul Morley or Jon Savage took against Doctors of Madness, it made it really hard to ever come back. They were that powerful. Subsequently, Paul Morley has said lovely things about Doctors of Madness, but he didn’t say them at the time and he said them long after we’d broken up. It’s the same with bands like The Damned, The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Skids, Simple Minds, Spititualized or Vic Reeves, [who] all said now what a great band we were.
It’s nice to get approval and to get the thumbs up: it’s also nice because I’m not reliant on it now. There’s no desperation, so I don’t feel embittered in any way. And in fact, I think the best thing that ever happened in my life was that Doctors of Madness did not become bigger than they were, because I would have probably only ever have done rock ‘n’ roll. That would have been the career path, like Pink Floyd or The Rolling Stones. That’s all they do and good luck to them. But to do that for 40 years for me would probably not have been as amusing, fulfilling, satisfying and challenging as what I have gone on to do, which is to diversify, to assess a problem: “I haven’t got a career anymore because punk rock had come along; [I’m] three years too old. What can I do? Think: what are you good at?” In education we call this personal reflection. It’s like going back. How did that interview go? How did that gig go? How did that recording experience go? What went well? What went badly? What can you do better? What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? I got to know those things quite well. I found out that I was pretty fearless and also that I’m a good communicator, songwriter and performer. I’m not a great musician – I’ve got no illusions about that. I know the things I can do and the things I can’t, so that’s always been my guiding light.
“Time has bestowed a certain respect, admiration or approval on Doctors of Madness – it would have been lovely if we had got it at the time!”
I like the music you include in the show, like the acoustic guitar.
I think whenever I’ve written songs, I’ve tended to write them on acoustic guitar; layering them like sketches and when we would go to the studio they would become much, much bigger. I’ve always thought, like they say on Broadway, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage,” which means if the story you’re telling isn’t any good, it doesn’t matter how many lasers you’ve got or dancing girls, it’s still pretty ropey theatre. Whereas I could listen to the songs of Lou Reed, Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan played on a one-string guitar and they’re still good. Maybe that’s because I love lyrics as much as I love music; maybe more. And that’s how you got into music: through the word.
Was there anyone else doing a similar thing to Doctors?
There wasn’t really. People sometimes said that we were a bit like Cockney Rebel, who I wasn’t a fan of, but I could see why they would say that because it was post-Bowie. They sometimes said Mott The Hoople, but they were going a lot longer than we were; [they] started in the late ’60s. So maybe it was an attitudinal thing that people saw. I don’t think there was much happening and that was why I think we found it so difficult: when you can’t say, “this is punk rock or two-tone or R ‘n’ B or psychedelic music,” it’s very hard to sell it because people have to make their own decisions rather than being told, “This is punk rock and it’s a big thing this week.” We were difficult, I’m very aware of that.
I try to be adventurous with music; I always have. So you listen to those early Doctors’ records and they don’t sound like anyone else’s records. For a start we had a violin player – electric violin player – who put his instrument through all sorts of effects and pedals and we played loud, fast and hard. We weren’t pin-up material. We were abrasive; we were confrontational; we were different; we were opinionated. We were a long way from prog-rock; [it] had been the prevailing music up until Bowie and it was still going on alongside [him].
Where did you get the idea to bring the violin in, were there any influences?
I suppose the only real example of rock music using violin had been Velvet Underground, but that was an electronic viola that John Cale played. [He] came from a very avant-garde journey into music: he was in New York in the early ’60s working with serious contemporary classical composers like La Monte Young and working on drums. It’s very minimalist music. It was the coming together of this avant-garde with Lou Reed, who was studying English at Columbia University, Nico, who was a German fashion model, and Andy Warhol, pulling all these elements together. That’s when you get a fascinating noise. It’s born out of the conflict between these four main protagonists; Lou Reed and John Cale having huge egos but recognising each other’s talent. The conflict, the sparks that fly when you’ve got two people trying to outdo each other, you see often in pop/rock music: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, [John] Lennon and [Paul] McCartney, the Gallagher Brothers, Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend. This conflict between at least two of the protagonists is the engine that makes great art – it’s the dynamo that produces something special.
When we were starting off, Peter DiLemma, the drummer, and myself had an idea of what we wanted to sound like. Synthesisers were very, very new at that time; they’d gotten very tied up with the idea of prog-rock. It was Rick Wakeman, YES, Genesis and bands like that playing – as it says in ‘Amadeus’ – too many notes! I always wanted something quite stripped down, quite direct, theatrical. There’s something unsettling in the music; Urban Blitz, the violin player, was a very, very skillful musician. He could make noise and he could make music.
Was he the trained musician, who responded to the ad?
Yeah, he came through an ad! That happened all the time back then in the early ’70s, the way you would find musicians. There was no social media, no broadband, no Wi-Fi, no mobile telephones when we started playing. The way you found them was in the old analogue way: you put a little advertisement in the back of Melody Maker, “Musician wanted.” We didn’t even stipulate that we wanted a violin player. We just said the sort of band that we were or who our influences were, which was Velvet Underground, Kraftwerk and William Burroughs. We had to sit through a lot of inappropriate people before we found him and then that was the fourth part of the jigsaw. We knew these were the building blocks to use to make the music. Up until then, it was trying to find an identity really.
Can you talk about the contention between band members, particularly you and Urban Blitz?
It never really diminished. There was something about our personalities that clashed and I’ve never diminished [Urban’s] contribution to what we did. But on a personal level, I always found it very difficult being with him partly because, as I say in [my] book, it reminded me too much of my father. I felt there was always a slight undertone of aggression – the potential for violence to manifest itself – which it occasionally did. Peter I’ve known since I was at school, since I was 12-years-old and we used to play sport together. He was the sweetest guy in the world. He died just a couple of weeks before Christmas. He’d always been a really ‘can-do’ sort of guy; someone who wanted to facilitate and make things happen, however unlikely, however outrageous, however outlandish, whereas I’ve always found Urban to be the sort of person who the first thing he would ever see is a problem rather than a solution. Or rather than the fun in it or the challenge, it would be a problem, and that wears you down. It was no surprise that he was the first one to leave the band in 1977 or ’78, when we were making the third album. In a way we knew we were about to hit the buffers and he jumped ship before we did.
But I think it was because I could never see myself doing anything except what I do and what I’ve always done – which is be an artist – whereas for Urban, he wanted financial security, a family life, all of which is really difficult if you’re making it up as you go along. It doesn’t matter if you do the same job for 45 years like I’ve done: there’s no pension at the end. There’s no guarantee of promotion ’cause you’ve been in the job and the thing about the arts is they’re not fair. It’s just the fact of life. Mozart was buried in a pauper’s grave; Van Gogh never sold a painting. They’re not fair! You get recognition after or you don’t get recognition at all. That doesn’t mean that what you’ve done is worthless. What we do, we do it for an audience.
When I work as an actor, doing something in rehearsal is not like doing it in performance: you do it in performance because of that energy you get from an audience. When you’re rehearsing songs before you go out and do a tour, it’s great fun: that process of development, engagement or investigation that comes from rehearsing songs, especially new songs, and you’re writing and finding an arrangement or a performance mode for them, is really interesting. But it’s nothing compared with playing those songs for an audience who’s hearing them for the first time – or for the hundredth time – and they’re in love with those songs. You make work to touch people and, if there’s no people there, you’re doing it into a void and that’s ‘art for art’s sake’. And that’s okay: a lot of work has to come out of that process – the poet in a lonely garret with a blank piece of paper. You’re not doing that to an audience, you’re trying to get something down on that bit of paper.
We were never really close friends in that band; we were never a band that hung out or had fun. We toured; we worked together. I’m not saying it was miserable or it was a drudge, but we weren’t that band who would have been hanging out together even if we didn’t have a band – the four of us weren’t mates like that. Ever. We came from a slightly different direction…it was more like workmates than social mates. If you’re mates, then you’ve got a life outside of that music that connects you. We didn’t really have that. We were all in very different places, living different lives; we’d come together to make records and to do shows.
Also, in that era between 1975 and 1978, we made three records; we’d been on the road nearly all the time and it was quite demoralising to see bands that we knew that didn’t have one tenth of our talent, our imagination or creativity, doing well. That weighs you down, not just from a professional jealousy that I wouldn’t deny that was part of, but also because you see the efforts of the record companies that have been diverted towards these bands you know are no good, so you feel yourself being marginalised. The record business is a business and so it’s all about maximising their return on their investment, of course I see that, but that doesn’t make it any less irksome or demoralising.
Bands that you wouldn’t even give a support slot to because there’s just nothing there – it’s all been copied, assimilated, cut and pasted on. Punk rock was the great example of that: there were some great bands but there were so many bands who just thought, “Oh, I’m going to do that because that looks like it’s easy.” You didn’t have to learn 20 chords; you could play 3 chords. You didn’t have to learn anything about musical dynamics because everything is played at 130 miles-an-hour. And you just shout. I get that it was exciting on a visceral level and being in a crowd. I was at The Roxy, The 100 Club, The Vortex, all those clubs in the ’70s when The Clash, The Pistols, The Damned, The Adverts, The Jam were on…it was exciting; it was a rush. But what you don’t remember is the other 5 bands on the same bill each night who just copied all those things and yet the record companies couldn’t wait to sign them.
Did you feel any pressure to conform to punk rock? What were the American bands like compared to the English bands? How connected were you to those English bands?
We’d done it before it had a name and then once it was given a name it was a case of trying to adapt what it was that we did to it – it was almost like trying to get on a train that’s still pulling out of the station. A song like ‘Bulletin’ on the third album is okay but it’s a punk rock song that has been written as a punk rock song rather than as a Doctors of Madness song. So there were elements of that, where the image of the band as well as the music, was an attempt to refocus it just so that those kids might think that’s a punk band. Even though we’d been around two or three years too long, we had so many of the elements of punk rock – I was Kid Strange, he was Urban Blitz, he was Peter DiLemma; I had blue hair. I decided when I put the band together that I wanted it to be like a cartoon strip. I wanted it to be slightly sci-fi, to be very theatrical and I wanted to do something that no one else was doing. No one else really did that; no one called themselves Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious before there was Kid Strange and Urban Blitz. The American punks didn’t really do it at all. The funny thing with American punk rock was that it was always much better educated. Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, David Byrne – they didn’t pretend to be stupid. Whereas over here, it was like, “We’re really bored and everything’s shit.” That was English punk rock.
“I wanted it to be slightly sci-fi…and I wanted to do something that no one else was doing. No one else really did that; no one called themselves Johnny Rotten or Sid Vicious before there was Kid Strange and Urban Blitz.”
Not to disparage the English bands because the good ones had incredible style, like The Clash painting their own clothes – it’s very art school. We were connected to them because they all used to come see us. Every time we played Hemel Hempstead or St Albans, Dave Vanian would be in the front row. Anytime we played Manchester, Ian Curtis would be there. Anytime we played Scotland, you’d have Jim Kerr and Richard Jobson. If we played the West Country, we’d have TV Smith. Every gig we did. And this is before punk rock, because they saw us as something outside of the rock ‘n’ roll mainstream.
So when that whole thing got finessed and defined, it became clearer and clearer what punk rock was, and that it was The Sex Pistols. The Damned, Buzzcocks, The Clash. They dressed like that, their hair was like that and they spoke like that. It didn’t matter that Joe Strummer was the son of a diplomat: he was still a west London oik because he had to be. It didn’t matter that so many of these kids were middle class, not working class. Middle class is where rock ‘n’ roll always has come from: The Beatles were middle class, The Stones were middle class…Patti Smith and Richard Hell, Velvet Underground – they’re all middle-class kids. It’s a bit of a myth to think it’s a working-class phenomenon. Sometimes you get working class kids who do it and they do it well. But mainly, Jim Morrison, The Doors, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen…they’re all middle class! Maybe that is specific to white rock ‘n’ roll music, and hip hop and R ‘n’ B is a completely different thing. But certainly, historically, so much of the music that’s come through, has been from educated, white middle class kids who want to try it.
Do you have any memories of bands that supported Doctors of Madness?
Well, as I say in my book, there was something about watching The Pistols from the side of the stage, having watched them do a soundcheck because they were supporting us. They had one or two little bits written about them, but they weren’t ‘The Sex Pistols’. They were doing their soundcheck and it sounded terrible. It was all over the place and it didn’t seem to have any real defining features. It was pub rock; guitar rock. But when the audience was in – and it was our audience – [they’d] heard about them, so they’d come early to see them.
The Pistols only played for about 20 minutes that night, but there was something in the attitude rather than the music, and watching that from the side of the stage was what I found really scary, because it was like someone had just moved the goalposts. It was so palpably new and different; it was something that was dismissive of musical virtuosity of trying to please an audience. They were making a virtue of being stroppy, pretending to be bored, being ham fisted and inept and they were turning that into a quality – into a selling point – and it was what kids could identify with because a generation in pop, rock, contemporary music, is only about three years. You feel within two or three years, you might like the same thing; four years or five, forget it – you want your stuff. If their brothers and sisters had been listening to prog-rock and it’s like a fourteen-minute drum solo and the six wives of Henry the Eighth on ice, then a band comes along and they’re not doing albums they’re doing singles – this was a different thing. It had gone from the album to just a two-and-a-half minute single in your face. That was a huge diversion from the way it looked like music was going, from prog-rock, which is something your parents could appreciate even if they didn’t like it because it was too loud. Pop music is not for your parents – it’s for you. When you’re 16, you want your mum and dad to hate Phil Oakey’s haircut or Bob Dylan’s voice because that makes you love it all the more.
You had anger in your songs as well, did you have any affiliation with punk?
My earliest influences were people like Bob Dylan and protest music; the protest element is something that has been with me for 45 years. I am and I always have been very political. I hate injustice, I hate hypocrisy, I hate corruption, like anyone should. And so those early American protests, Bob Dylan and Pete Seegar made a big impression on me when I was 14/15-years-old. When the psychedelic thing happened and the bands then – The Doors, Jefferson Airplane or Frank Zappa – had the Vietnam War as a target; they could express themselves and have that rallying point where everyone could say ‘US out of Vietnam!’. Yeah, that anger I always felt. William Burroughs is a huge influence for me. He speaks a lot about conditioning, about governmental control, propaganda, corporate deceit. I just got that and that’s always been one of my big themes or a source of subject material for me…that hypocrisy, injustice, corruption of governments, corporations or the media that I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about. There’s always targets that I’ll have a pop at. I think a lot of punk rock was supposed to be political but very little of it really was – it was dressed up.
I think someone like Tom Robinson was incredibly brave to come out as a gay popstar or wannabe popstar in 1975, where nine years earlier it had been illegal to be gay, let alone a gay popstar. It was just something that didn’t happen. Pop music was sold to teenage girls. So for Tom to sing ‘Glad To Be Gay’ was incredibly important, and maybe lost in the showbiz of The Clash and The Pistols, Malcolm [McClaren] and Vivian [Westwood] and the pantomime of The Damned. If you’re looking at music having a political edge, it is undeniable that [Tom] was out there and made himself a real target for homophobia as well. In examples like that it is political. I do a big lecture on protest music to my students: the history of protest music goes back to the 17th century, but it obviously comes into its own in the ’60s with Bob Dylan, the ’70s with the Vietnam War and then into Thatcher’s Britain and Rock Against Racism. Coming up to date, R ‘n’ B artists like Beyonce or Public Enemy, are absolutely political. I think the political situation has changed a lot since the 1970s. It’s easier to be political now in music: you’re not so reliant on record companies or the radio stations banning your record because you’ll say something nasty about the Queen or the government.
That statement you made about the Brixton riots, was that televised?
Yeah, it went out live. It was a silly thing. It was 1981: I went onto BBC Pebble Mill and it was six o’clock in the evening; Prime Time. They wanted to talk about New Romantics or whatever they called it at the time; the club culture, the Blitz kids…because I had a club back then called Cabaret Futura, I was lumped in with that.
“The Pistols only played for about 20 minutes that night, but there was something in the attitude rather than the music. Watching that from the side of the stage was what I found really scary, because it was like someone had just moved the goalposts.”
Was it acceptable at that time to make political statements?
No, not at all. That’s the last thing they wanted me to do. They wanted us to talk about silly stuff while people were having their tea and I probably would have done that if I’d been up there a day early. But I lived in Brixton then and it was the day that the Brixton riots started. Police went in heavy handed on a woman called Cherry Groce; it was designed specifically to foment racial tension where I lived, and I just thought, “Do I want to be talking about the clothes or do I want to be talking about what’s happening on my doorstep?” So I made the cardinal sin of deviating from their precious clipboard scripts. I just thought I’m not playing this game and also because there were so few opportunities in live TV to say something that wasn’t edited out 10 minutes later; you could make the gesture but it would be meaningless because it wouldn’t be broadcast. So that was my first life ban on the BBC. I got a second one!
The Doctors’ albums received mixed reviews. I struggled to see why they got bad reviews, I had a feeling it might be to do with Polydor not marketing correctly because you didn’t fit in a specific niche?
Yeah, funnily enough I had a friend called Alan Rankine and he died earlier this month. Looking at Alan on YouTube talking about the heyday of The Associates – they were signed to Polydor, they had the same guy looking after them as we did and he didn’t get them either. When you’re with a record company, you’re so dependent on a personal relationship with one or a couple of guys at the company who are going to fight for you. If you haven’t got them or if they haven’t got much spine, then Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Jam, Sham 69 come along and everyone wants to be associated with those bands, you’re dropped like a hot potato, and that’s what happened to us. There was a guy at Polydor called Chris Bohn, who was fantastic, always, and is still a supporter and now is the editor of The Wire magazine. It was like pushing water uphill for us because we’d been around for two years: we weren’t new and pop music loves discovering new stuff. It didn’t matter if we’d been Elvis Presley or The Beatles: the band had been around 20 years and we weren’t punk rock – no one really wanted to know.
Did you ever think to play shorter songs?
There was always at least two sides to what we were doing. There was one which was the huge, cinematic, 15-minute long, multi-part song which was almost prog-rock but not, because that was never the intention. It just happened to be a song that was in several parts; it could have been five different songs, but it was one song that linked up. There was something about that tension in a performance where, in a long piece of music like in classical music, you could build in effects by juxtaposing loud and quiet, fast and slow, angry and tender, harmonic and dissonant. I liked that and that’s always been part of my music, that on an album like ‘Figments of Emancipation’, you’ll have ‘Suicide City’, but you’ll also have ‘Marie and Joe’ – a tender love song between two imaginary people. Whereas ‘Suicide City’ is full-on thrash, inspired by William Burroughs and by mental health problems. So there’s always been that juxtaposition of the melodic, the tender and almost romantic, and the dystopian, hopeless, desolate landscapes.
I like not conforming to a formula or to a genre. That’s one of the reasons we weren’t successful: we didn’t fit into any genre. No music is totally original. Every musical development tends to be the product of smashing two existing forms together and seeing what the spark is that flies off. So you look at David Bowie when he finally got big, around ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’: it was when he finally pulled in all these threads of Jacques Brel, Anthony Newley, Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, mime, Little Richard, showbiz…it was original because no one had pulled all those things together. But the independent or separate elements, there’s nothing that Bowie was doing that hadn’t been done before. It was only that noone had put them all together before and had them singing ‘Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide’ or Jacques Brel songs alongside Lou Reed’s ‘White Light/White Heat’.
Bowie always said he was a magpie: he just nicked stuff. But everyone does that. You listen to Dylan when he thought he was Woody Guthrie; Lou Reed when he thought he was in a dance band. It’s very rare that they get it right first time; it’s an iterative process. You try something, you fail; you try again, you fail better and eventually you’ve turned up and you’ve got it. But everyone’s played guitar before and you’ve only got 12 notes in a Western scale, so it’s not new, it’s just the way you focus it. I understand these strands that they pull together – it’s that synthesis. I love that because I know where their influences come from, I know they come from Burroughs, Francis Bacon, pop art, the theatre or Tom Waits.
You supported Be-Bop Deluxe in the UK, how was that?
Be-Bop Deluxe were very much a post-Bowie, prog-rock band. Bill Nelson, who’s a lovely guy and lovely guitarist, was interested in stuff outside of music, so there was always lots to chat with him about when we were on the road. They were EMI’s big band and touted as the next big thing and they weren’t the next big thing partly for the same reasons as we weren’t: because punk rock came along. And although EMI had invested a lot of money in them – a lot more than Polydor had put into us – and they were selling records, they just suddenly hit the buffers. A lot of the same audiences who liked them did like us and certainly a lot of our fans saw us for the first time on that tour. That was a big tour: Manchester Free Trade Hall…all the big concert halls in Britain. A year before we were an amateur band playing in pubs, and then on these big, big stages. This is 1975-76; we’d only been professional, only given up our day jobs three/four months earlier and you’re learning that stage craft and performance skills on the hoof as you go along. It’s not like now where you’d go to stage school or they’d get someone in to show you how to move or how to the smile at the audience. Back then, we were just making it up as we went along.
With the European dates, how did that compare to playing to your fans in the UK? It seemed like you had a really good response in Europe.
France, Belgium and Germany were always good for us, partly because they latched onto punk rock later than they did here. But also partly because they’ve always had a soft spot, especially in France, for the avant-garde. Velvet Underground were always much bigger in France than they were here, because it was chic. They were arty and we were arty and they quite liked that in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. Also, because I’ve always been influenced by European music, whether it’s Jacques Brel, Kraftwerk or Tangerine Dream, Edith Piaf – that chanson I’ve always loved – and it’s always been something that has fed into the way I work.
Why do you think people liked the concept of your debut solo album, ‘The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange’?
It was arty for a start. I was travelling with a tape recorder; I wasn’t travelling with the band. The tape recorder back then was modern technology. I did it because I’d done it with a band and, when Doctors came to an end, I thought I really want to do something different that’s more manageable, more easy for me to control, where I wouldn’t have to negotiate so many things with other individuals. Also, there was an economic prerogative because it’s expensive to have a band of four people and two roadies and a tour manager on the road: you’ve got seven people, a car and a van or a coach and hotels for seven people. And if you’re not making the money on the other side of that equation to pay your rent and your food at home, then that’s unsustainable. I thought I’m good as a performer, I can work this technology, I can have a tape recorder and put these new songs that I’m thinking about into some sort of show.
So when Doctors finished in ’78, I’d already started thinking about what used to be called a concept album. It was a political fantasy in which I imagined, sometime in the future, Europe would be a confederation of states and have a president. I imagined the world in which this might exist and who that president might be: it’s someone who’s come out of showbusiness or advertising or the movie business, who knows how to manipulate people, understands the media really well, understands crowd control. He’s an orator; a rabble-rouser. This is 1979 – 14 years before [Donald] Trump. The guy off TV who’s a rabble-rouser, who can inflame people, who can make people think that they are big victims of something or that the other guy is their enemy.
My guy, Richard Strange in the ‘Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange’, goes into politics more or less as an academic exercise, not because he wants power, just for his interest in the system and the process of getting into power. And then when he’s in power, he’s given everything away to the banks and to the media companies; done a deal that, if you support me, you can do what you want. I’m not interested in capitalism, socialism or the media. I’m interested in the process of the game. Can you do it? Is it possible to do that, to get enough people to think you’re their guy? When you look at [Boris] Johnson, Trump, [Jair] Bolsonaro, [Narendra] Modi, you know that is possible, because these are horrible people who have done nothing but harm to their countries and lined their pockets while they’re doing it, and yet you’ll still find people who think Boris was a good bloke. No one who’s ever worked with Boris Johnson has even thought he was a good bloke! It’s populism: someone who watches which way the crowd is running, run to the front and says, “Follow Me!”. Populist leaders are never good for the country: they always take it from Hitler, Mussolini and Franco.
But with your album, people liked it that he became a good guy in the end.
Yeah, he’s a good guy and that’s the funny thing: he goes into it very cynically and gets politicised when he’s in there and suddenly thinks I want to do some good, and that’s where it all goes wrong for him because his backers think, “You’re not here to do good.”
Everything I’ve ever done, I’ve had my supporters and my detractors, but there were enough people to make it viable for a couple of years that I’d been touring, especially in that stripped down version with just a tape recorder. I did put a band together when it needed a band to take it somewhere else, but the bands I put together for that were made up of musicians that I’d either worked with before or people who were friends. I learned the lesson of being in a band who weren’t necessarily your friends because you’re spending a lot of time with these people. If most of the time you’re just feeling detached or isolated or unsupported, then it’s very, very wearing and I didn’t want to be worn down again. These people will be in my band when we’re on stage, but there’s not a band if we’re not performing; it’s like guns for hire and that was great. I still work like that. I really enjoyed that because it means I get to work with fantastic people, but they’re all grown-ups that I don’t feel I have to handhold all the time. They’ve got their own lives and they do what they do. We come together to make music and then we go our separate ways.
What was it like touring in America?
When I went to America with my show for the first time with my tape recorder, I was travelling with a guy called John Otway and we were going out as two English eccentrics and playing every night somewhere. I was solo; he had a band. We went from New York to LA and LA back to New York and we played every night for about six weeks – it was absolutely exhausting. And when we got back to New York we did our last show or what should have been our last show. A guy came into the dressing room after and said his name was Michael Zilkha and he had a label called ZE records. ZE were just the hottest, trendiest, coolest label in the world. They had Suicide, Was (Not Was), Kid Creole and The Coconuts, The Waitresses…they were brilliant. Michael said [he] was a big fan of Doctors of Madness and [he’d] love to make a record with [me]. So we did a live record; it was weird doing a live record when everything was on tape! We did a live album, ‘The Live Rise of Richard Strange’, which was a lot of the songs from the ‘Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange’, but before I’d re-recorded them. This is very early ’80s. So when I came back from that I didn’t want to do this music that I’d conceived in a different way; I didn’t want to do it in a rock club, in The Marquee or The 100 Club. If it’s not there, you’ve got to invent it. What is the space you’d like to do it in? I thought of Cabaret Futura – a mixed media, multimedia club where you could mix spoken word, comedy, music, dance, video, performance art under one banner. Once a week I did it and it ran for about two years.
What was the inspiration that you got from clubs in New York?
Especially in New York, there were places like The Knitting Factory and The Pyramid that were putting on spoken word with people like Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Patti Smith or Talking Heads. These were multimedia x disciplinary performances or installations and there was nothing like that happening in London. I was lucky because it coincided with two things: a big, burgeoning alternative comedy world – those comedians that came up in the ’80s, French & Saunders, The Young Ones or Keith Allen were all people who did Cabaret Futura – but also the availability and ubiquity of video. Suddenly, everyone had a video camera; MTV had just started. There was this idea of video art and people could make video – quite often they were just very bad films! Video art was something that you could program to either have alongside the whole time on the performances on stage or it was a specific, standalone element of an evening show – a short film. It was special. It became very, very popular. I put on bands doing their first London gigs like Soft Cell, The Pogues and Depeche Mode, who’d never played before – they were 15/16-years-old.
“I get to work with fantastic people, but they’re all grown-ups that I don’t feel I have to handhold all the time. They’ve got their own lives and they do what they do. We come together to make music and then we go our separate ways.”
Were they all 20-minute sets? Do you remember what Soft Cell and Depeche Mode played?
Yeah, 15-20 minutes. Everyone got the same length of time; everyone got paid the same: a percentage of what we took on the door. [Soft Cell] definitely did ‘Tainted Love’. Depeche Mode did ‘Ice Machine’, ‘Dreaming Of Me’ and ‘New Life’ – monophonic synths.
Was there any other clubs at that time doing something similar?
Not doing the live performance. You had Blitz Club, which came more or less the same time, but that was just Rusty [Egan] and Steve [Strange] playing records. And you had the comedy clubs; alternative comedy or what they would call The Comedy Store. But there weren’t pretentious arty clubs like mine, putting on poetry, music, installations and video art, side by side. So we got a good cross-section of audience coming down; people in the media, the art world, music, film, theatre…also it became a place where bands knew that I was a soft touch: if I even remotely liked it, they got a quarter-of-an-hour slot. Shane MacGowan coming down [does impersonation]; Richard Jobson was always there doing his sort of poetry schtick – he moved on from The Skids by then and wanted to be a poet or a figure of literature. He worked a lot with us over two years. There was a label in Belgium called Les Disques du Crépuscule and they would release a lot of stuff: Bill Nelson, Richard Johnson, The Durutti Column, Tuxedomoon…a lot of edgy music and [Cabaret Futura] used to go over to Antwerp and Brussels to do shows out there in ’82-84.
The people who came were extraordinary; from every walk of life. Quite often I didn’t even see them because I was never on the door; I was always on stage or at the bar. Andy Warhol was there, Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Malcolm McClaren…but you didn’t always get to talk to them – they’d drift in; they’d drift out. They wouldn’t always stay the whole night. Someone would say, “Did you see Debbie Harry was in?” Oh, I missed that.
Did you meet William Burroughs?
I met [him] once in Brixton when he was over doing stuff at the Brixton Ritzy. They did three nights at the Ritzy with all the Beat writers: Jean Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. I was a good friend of Kathy Acker, a New York writer, who was a friend of theirs and she introduced me to William Burroughs. I was a little bit starstruck, I must say, because he was such a big one for me and I invited him to a restaurant in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, just around the corner from the Ritzy. It was called ‘Burroughs’, but it was an eel pie and mash shop. He said, “What is this shit?!” He didn’t like jellied eels!
What else were you working on at this time?
What happened out of Cabaret Futura, which was a totally unforeseen and unpredicted development in my career, was that someone assumed that, because I was putting on live performance, I wanted to be an actor. [My friend] invited me to come and meet someone that she was working with, a director called Franc Roddam. I’d not got any aspirations to be an actor at that point, but I met him and got along really well. He’d done a film called ‘Quadrophenia’ with The Who.
We’re chatting about this film – a Frankenstein film with Sting and Jennifer Beales called ‘The Bride’ – and it becomes clear there’s no role for me. He said, “Well, you’ve got a look, you’ve got a voice and you’ll always work.” And he introduced me to an agent, who I’m still with now. I went to see this agent and she said, “Well, what have you done?” I said, “I’ve not done anything except be in a band.” And she said, “Well, okay, we’ll take you on for three months.” Like always, I was lucky. I got a silly part in a silly film, then I got a commercial. Then I got a slightly nicer part in a film called ‘Mona Lisa’, with Neil Jordan. And then the next thing I know she says, “They’re filming ‘Batman’ in London with Jack Nicholson and casting all the smaller roles with English actors. Would you like to go along”? So I went along and Tim Burton is directing and doing the castings. He’s only made one film before; he can’t believe his luck he’s doing ‘Batman’ with Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton. I don’t even think they asked me to do anything. It’s just like [they’re] looking at you and how you move; how speak. “Yeah, welcome aboard! You’re in ‘Batman'”. Three months later there’s ‘Robin Hood’, with Kevin Costner – I’m the executioner in that.
In between these other things, in 1984 Richard Strange & The Engine Room did a song called ‘Damascus’. We were doing it in between anything else and it was a really exciting time for me because suddenly – I say I’m fearless – I had to put together a Shakespeare audition piece for this production of Hamlet that was going around the world for 18 months, with a Russian director called Yuri Lyubimov. I’d seen his work in London – I loved it. It was very physical, very visual theatre. He didn’t speak a word of English, so everything was done through an interpreter. I did a piece by Cleopatra just because I thought no other male actor will do Cleopatra. Anyway, after two or three returns, I got a part in ‘Hamlet’ and we went around the world.
We went everywhere to Australia, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Germany, Sweden. I was one of the grave diggers and the other was James Nesbitt – Jimmy Nesbitt – the Irish actor who’s now in everything on TV. So again it’s just good luck that I’ve got no training, I’ve just got no fear. What’s the worst thing that could happen? They say, ‘No thanks.’ This is what I tell my students all the time: the idea of failure is a myth; it’s a fiction. Because all art is made from a constant, reiterative process. You’re trying things out; you’re discarding things. You’re editing; you’re cutting and pasting. You’re seeing what you’re good at, what your strengths are and what works when you stick things together.
You worked with Dave Allen on The Engine Room, what was it like working with him?
David is brilliant. I love David. He’d been working with Martin Rushent on The Human League, Altered Images and all that early, very commercial synthpop stuff that was so genre defining. Dave was great and he’d been working a bit with The Cure by that time as a producer; he’d been working with Sisters of Mercy and The Mission. He just loved songs and was not too expensive. We were on a label at that time so we could get into a proper studio with a proper producer like Dave. We did that first album with him and it had ‘Damascus’, [which] became a bit of a dance-floor hit around the world.
“The people who came were extraordinary…Andy Warhol was there, Burroughs, Michael Moorcock, Malcolm McClaren…they’d drift in; they’d drift out. They wouldn’t always stay the whole night. Someone would say, “Did you see Debbie Harry was in?””
You did four singles for that album, how did they do commercially?
They did better than anything else I’ve ever done commercially so that was a thrill. We were with Arista for that record. They just let us get on with it; they weren’t, pressurising us but nor were they really thinking this is going to be our next big thing. It was a time that you had to have a video as well. We did one for ‘Damascus’ and for ‘Your Kiss Is A Weapon’ – like so much stuff you look back at, it’s a little bit embarrassing. I was just rolling along then: I was an actor, I was a musician, I had a club and I never knew what the next phone call was going to be. It was really exciting. I was getting invited to participate in a lot of stuff, because everyone likes you when you’re hot. I became a consultant to people who wanted to put on art events in rock ‘n’ roll spaces and we were talking about festivals.
Do you think your reputation as an influencer of punk rock helped your reputation as a solo artist or was it because you found your fit?
It was both because the Doctors’ music had proven itself to be influential by now: that can only be done with the passing of time. It’s only with the passing of time whether you know you’ve influenced what’s to come. But also I think people started to trust my judgement, because I’d done a club, before anyone else had, that tapped into the zeitgeist, into the spirit of the time again; then I was making music with ‘Damascus’, tapping into the idea of world music or using different influences – that was a big thing.
Looking back at your music career, what lessons have you learned from the ups and down of the music business?
I think it’s a peculiarly English thing that we hate to talk about money. And so we’re routinely cheated by people who either bamboozle us or gain our trust. I’m still paying for the contracts that I signed in 1975 with Doctors of Madness, even though Brian Morrison [my publisher] is dead! Those songs are still assigned to [him] – they don’t do anything except collect royalties. I’ve just had my first sync, for a Polish TV crime series: they’ve bought a song of mine for the credits – ‘International Language’. My publisher said, “That’s not very much money.” And I’m thinking, “Well it’s more than you’ve earned for me in 40 years for TV sync rights!” You can never win. Yeah, I think I’m very, very bad at business. I think I always have been bad.
Do you have any regrets?
I don’t regret anything at all. I look back from my extreme old age now and think what a fantastic life – I’ve never really had to do a proper job. What I love is that because of the accumulation of experiences and knowledge/wisdom, I’m able to actually impart some of that to students and young people when I’m teaching. I know I inspire some young people; I’m from a generation, or a sub-generation, where music shouldn’t be about music. Music should be a conduit way of talking about life, not the other way around. Beethoven didn’t write about music. Lou Reed didn’t write about music – he wrote about life and used music as a medium. No, I don’t regret anything. I love the fact that I’ve done everything that I’ve done to just the level that suits me to do it. I’d hate to be really famous; I’d hate to be a celebrity – it’d be murder! The great benefit of it all is that people answer my emails or my phone calls and that’s an achievement; that’ll do me.
Are you working on anything else right now?
I wrote a play last year which we performed in Portugal and here. I’m working on a new play – about which I don’t want to say too much – and on this live show; still making and writing music and I enjoy teaching a lot. It keeps me out of trouble. My daughter sings as well – Lilybud – she makes music on her own so I do some production with her and tell her she’s wrong! I love working with her because she makes what I do musical.
*A final note about Julian Cope*
I’ve got a lot of time for him and he’s always been very kind about Doctors of Madness. He did a mini ‘Meltdown’ at the [Royal] Festival Hall years ago and said he wanted one of the exhibits to be called ‘The Doctors of Madness – the smallest disco in the world’. It’ll be a club the size of a telephone booth with a glass floor and lights and all they will play is Doctors of Madness music. There’ll be a bouncer outside saying, “You can’t come in.” [Julian] said, “Can I borrow the ‘Kid’ guitar? I’d like to put that in the club, but no one can get into the club, so no one will see it. It’ll be in a pink, fake fur case.”
Richard Strange’s multimedia solo show, ‘An Accent Waiting To Happen’, tours throughout March and April. Click here for tickets: https://m.facebook.com/657079487/
Photos (except archive and album covers) © E. Gabriel Edvy/Blackswitch Labs.
© Ayisha Khan.