20 Questions

Doctors of Madness' Richard Strange

by Evan Sawdey

13 June 2017

The Sex Pistols once opened for them, and are cited as the missing link between glam and punk. At long last, their music is available again, and frontman/erstwhile Death Eater Richard Strange reflects on it all.
1976 Doctors of Madness Promotional Shot (Courtesy of Cherry Red Records) 
cover art

Doctors of Madness

Perfect Past: The Complete Doctors of Madness

(RPM)
US: 8 May 2017

To call Doctors of Madness a cult band would be one of the larger understatements of human existence.

For frontman Richard Strange, guitarist/violinist Urban Blitz, and the rest of the gang, this British punk precursor managed to garner a lot of attention in their short period of existence, taking glam rock’s more aggressive elements and synthesizing it into something simultaneously new and instantly recognizable, unafraid to be bold while still retaining the artiness that made glam so intriguing. The band’s pedigree was incredible, with alumni of the Damned and the Skids in their ranks. This was rock royalty without the convenience of a punk court (or mosh pit) to reign over.

So while the Sex Pistols (who once opened for the Doctors) eventually took the UK punk movement by the horns, bargain bin hunters and storied survivors of one of rock music’s more tumultuous decades told the tales of the Doctors of Madness, copies of their three records—Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms (1976), Figments of Emancipation (also 1976), and Sons of Survival (1978)—have long been out of print and traded in hushed circles of rock scholars. At least until now.

Released via RPM Records, Perfect Past: The Complete Doctors of Madness is a triple-disc set that not only gives a polish to these long hard-to-find classics, but also embellishes them with B-sides, live cuts, and radio sessions galore. To celebrate the occasion, Richard Strange, whose career post-Doctors has resulted in not only a litany of music projects but also a formidable screen actor career as well, answers PopMatters’ 20 Questions, revealing what advice John Lennon once gave him, which Bob Dylan album may be considered one of the greatest ever, and how a $25 guitar bought in Copenhagen changed his life.

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1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?

This is going to sound odd, but there is a passage in the novel that I am writing right now (called The Feast of Stephen) that I cannot read aloud without bursting into tears. It concerns the death of a young Indian girl in an arson attack. Is that permitted? Otherwise, maybe By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept by Elizabeth Smart. That always gets me blubbing! It is written in such rich, densely poetic prose that every paragraph is like eating a five-course meal!

2. The fictional character most like you?

I love Sir John Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2. He seems to be vain, boastful, a drunkard and a petty criminal, but there is something lovable and irresistible, and I would say ultimately heroic about his sheer joie de vivre and indestructibility.

3. The greatest album, ever?

I think, for the sheer quality of so many of the songs, it has to be Another Side of Bob Dylan (1964). So many of the songs here are of such high lyrical quality, as well as such a broad spectrum of emotional range that I wonder if this collection of songs has ever been bettered. “Chimes of Freedom”, “My Back Pages”, “To Ramona”, “All I Really Wanna Do”, “It Ain’t Me, Babe”, “Ballad in Plain D” ...

That’s an amazing body of work- add to that the fact that “Mama You Been on My Mind” was left off the record and you get an idea of the potency and intensity of Dylan at that period of his life. There was something so thrilling to me as a 13- or 14-year-old kid hearing that and witnessing the transition of pop artist from singer to poet: it’s a colossal journey that culminated, rightly in my view, in Dylan winning last year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. It set me on my own road of creative and artistic discovery

4. Star Trek or Star Wars?

Can I have A Star Is Born?

5. Your ideal brain food?

The books of WG Sebald and Iain Sinclair, both flaneurs or psycho-geographers, who use walks as their source material for insights into the human condition. I love the rap/poetry of Kate Tempest and John Cooper Clarke, the music of Tom Waits, John Adams, Steve Reich, Chopin, Gavin Bryars, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey and Leonard Cohen, the plays of Shakespeare and Harold Pinter, the films of Luis Bunuel and Harmony Korine, the architecture of Zaha Hadid, outsider art, travel to New York, California, Paris, Berlin, Spain and France and the Far East. Always carry a notebook: you never know when inspiration will visit!

6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?

When I am not acting, singing, writing or curating, I teach third year BA music degree students. I work specifically on their Final Major Project, which we refer to as a “Media Artefact”. This is something they have to physically submit at the end on the semester and is worth a third of their overall mark.

Historically, before I started leading the course, the hand-ins were always audio recordings: CDs, albums, MP3s, whatever. These students, aged typically between 20 and 22, usually come to study a contemporary music degree thinking that it is going to be all about attaining a level of musical virtuosity and technical expertise on their chosen instrument, but for me it is about daring to fail, addressing new challenges and pushing yourself as far as you can go to be truly creative.

By the time I finished my last teaching semester, students were routinely submitting audio sculptures, computer games, apps, fine art installations and documentary films, all featuring their original music or sound design. For me, having the courage to solve the problems presented by an ever-changing music business and embracing, rather than being fearful of, the new technologies is what education should be about.

The paradigm of the music business that I grew up with in the ‘70s and ‘80s, of record companies discovering and nurturing talent over a period of three or four years seems to be gone for good, as are the old methods of consuming and distributing music. As a contemporary musician you can either yearn for a past that is now as quaint as steam travel or as outmoded as the eight-track cartridge, or you can accept all the changes wrought on the industry by the digital and post-digital revolutions and be excited by the new possibilities they present to creative minds.

7. You want to be remembered for… ?

Being an artist who embraced challenges and disappointments as opportunities, rather than as failures. When the Doctors of Madness started, we had no idea how long our career would last ... or if we would even get to the point when it could be considered “a career.” When we split in 1978, I was 27 and had not idea where I would go next. I did a bit of reflective thinking and identified my strengths and weaknesses.

This is something worth doing after every high point or low point in an artist’s life. I decided my strengths were: an ability to conceptualize original work, the courage to try new things, an ability to write good songs, an ability to enthuse and lead others into an adventure, a skill as a front man, a thick skin, an ability to charm. My weaknesses were a lack of patience, shortcomings as an instrumentalist, a lack of commitment to achieving perfection, a tendency to sell myself short in order to please others etc etc.

I harnessed my strengths and created a solo show, using pre-recorded backing tapes, that I toured the USA and Canada with. That led to a solo deal with Ze Records. On returning home to London, I realized I wanted to change the context where my music was seen… so I started a multi-media arts club called Cabaret Futura (still going strong). That led to me being invited to act in a film, and getting an agent (this was the 1980s) who I am still with (Michelle Braidman). This led to roles in Batman with Jack Nicholson, Robin Hood with Kevin Costner, Mister Lonely directed by Harmony Korine, Gangs of New York, Mona Lisa and Harry Potter among many others. These film roles led in turn to stage roles, including The Black Rider, the Tom Waits/William Burroughs/Robert Wilson collaboration, in which I acted for three years in London, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sydney.

I subsequently wrote a memoir, worked in higher education, curated international Live Art Festivals and performed at Glastonbury Festival. I sincerely believe that if the Doctors of Madness had been more commercially successful, I would have done none of these things, and my life would have been impoverished by my success rather than enriched by my “failure”.

8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?

William Burroughs, Jacques Brel, Arthur Lee, Bob Dylan, Patti Smith, Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson, Allen Ginsberg, Lou Reed, John Cale, Robert Rauschenberg, Kathy Acker, Cristina, Leonard Cohen, David Bowie, David Byrne, Hal Willner, William Shakespeare, JS Bach, Dylan Thomas, John Lennon, John Cage, Steve Reich, Tom Waits, Robert Wilson, Jim Jarmusch, Martin Scorsese, Robert de Niro.

9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?

Howl by Allen Ginsberg.

10. Your hidden talents . . .?

I can knock up a very delicious dinner for 12 friends, get it on the table ready to eat and enjoy eating it while I enjoy their company.

11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?

John Lennon once said to (the 15-year old!) me “I help them what help themselves!” (I was asking him for money to publish my book of spotty teenage poetry!). It made me realize that none of us have any entitlement to anything: we have to work for it. In the world of the arts, in particular, there is no correlation between how long you have been “doing it” and how “successful” you are. We do it because we must, and if success comes, that is a (sometimes) welcome bonus.

12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?

An acoustic guitar in a coffee shop in Copenhagen for $25 in 1969. It was to spite my Dad, who had just told me he wouldn’t allow me to go to university, because “no-one in our family ever had done so before.” It seemed to be the perfect revenge, and it proved to be my ticket out of that narrow-minded little world. I have never looked back.

13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or . . .?

I like a lot of the clothes I bought from a shop called Johnsons in King’s Road, Chelsea in London in the ‘80s. Suits, shirts, and shoes: all very rock’n'roll! I also have a soft spot for garish suits of no discernible make, bought in African and Caribbean shops in London, in metallic red, gold and blue. Does this make me a bad person?

14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?

WG Sebald, the writer of The Rings Of Saturn. The book ably demonstrates that the man is both a master of conversation and an encyclopedia of facts and historical knowledge. His ability to weave this knowledge into fascinating and original narratives, and to tease out hitherto invisible connections would make him a uniquely engrossing and engaging, as well as an illuminating, dinner guest.

15. Time travel: where, when and why?

I always fancied traveling back to the English Restoration, mid-17th Century to early 18th Century: the time of the Age of Enlightenment. Charles ll, Samuel Pepys, Sir Christopher Wren, Isaac Newton, Henry Purcell: may I be excused the Great Fire of London and The Great Plague though?

16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?

I always find that sex with a loved one works for me!

17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or . . .?

Coffee definitely, alcohol definitely, good food definitely, travel definitely, music definitely, sunshine definitely, sex definitely ... anything else is a bonus that would be gratefully received!

18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?

Gosh: only one? I always think that topographically Los Angeles has everything pretty nearby: ocean, mountains, desert, Mexico, and a thriving metropolis ... but I have only ever been a visitor, not a resident. I love Europe and have lived in London, Paris, Copenhagen, and Berlin, and all have their own unique charms.

19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?

Stop leading us off the Brexit cliff into a dismal future, stop austerity, invest in education, and give us something to look forward to. Everyday life in Britain is unmitigated gloom at present.

20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on, now?

Editing a film of the William Burroughs event I curated in London a year and a half ago. I composed an opera with Gavin Bryars, using some Burroughs texts and some of my own. The opera, called Language Is A Virus From Outer Space is part of a film of the whole evening, which featured artists from every discipline: dance, theatre, music, poetry, literature, and fine art. A short version of the film recently won the Best Art Film Prize at the Portobello Film Festival.

Working with Ivan Pope on a stage musical Suicide City, featuring the musical catalogue of the Doctors of Madness and Richard Strange. Writing a novel: The Feast of Stephen. About to start teaching Masters Degree level Contemporary Music students with Martyn Ware of Human League.

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