Questions of Madness: An Interview with Richard Strange.

In that slick pre-punk heat of mid to late 1970s, Doctors of Madness existed to bridge all the gaps between art-rock and Pistols, Television and The Adverts, they’re the space between glam, Andy Worhol’s New York and the onslaught of UK punk proper. They exploded and dismantled in less than four years and then nothing from that name until…

Last November’s ‘Dark Times‘ is a vast mass of anger, sustained by a new streak of passion. Richard Strange has returned to the Doctors of Madness some 40 years since their last album. From the opening track we’re embittered and pumped by a pinpointed passive aggression. ‘So Many Ways To Hurt You’ is Cohen’s ‘First We Take Manhattan’ with its palatable textures and slick wash of spite. ‘Make It Stop’ snakes and coils like Iggy’s ‘Post Pop Depression’ as we wade into protest and dirt.

Elsewhere we splice ‘PinUps’ and ‘Aladdin Sane’ Bowie with a new thickened slant on past glamrock production. And theatrical slabs of progrock get compressed in the tightly packed gut blow of ‘Blood Brother’.

It’s relentlessly grim with an acidic wit fixed on all that’s imploding around us. And if anything managed to escape Strange’s focus, and his mean rough-cut caustic trained wordplay, the last track ensnares it and injects the venom that’s been building in strength through the album.

To scrawny post-punk guitars and flexed muscular drums, we get pressed close to everything ugly. From “(the boys) who bully their way onto busses with racist sneers […], and promises of free bets and huge rewards” to “their zombie army in leisure wear who traded in the word for the noise”, there’s a litany of sheer nu-age loathing. All the rebels, the heroes, the protests, the punks, the movements of music and power… they all came to nothing but faces on t-shirts, and fear’s the last taste on our tongues.  

‘Dark Times’ is seething, exhausting, exhilarating. A rush of relentless raw pressure. So what could have brought this new album to life? I put this to Richard ‘Kid’ Strange

……………….

ROTR: From track titles to the lyrics that snake through the album, there’s a particular meanness towards new trends around us – political, cultural, societal shifts, paranoia, anxiety, anger. These aren’t new themes for you or Doctors of Madness, but here they sound urgent, more pointed. Is this this something that’s been building for a while?  

RS: Yes definitely. The album is unashamedly political, prompted a combination of factors, but principally because I was seriously ill and felt the weight of my own mortality more heavily than usual, and also a feeling that I had not made the album by which I would like to remembered.  Add to this the global surge to the Right in world politics, from Trump, to Brexit, to Modi, Bolsonaro, Putin and Orban and I realized that my source material was knocking on my door and coming down the TV tube!

ROTR: Can you see these things heading in a better direction?  

RS: Not in the short term. The governments I referred to are headed and populated by self-seeking hypocrites and liars, of mediocre intellect and negligible principle. But I do believe in young people doing good things, and Greta Thunberg is a case in point. This generation, who I have the privilege to teach, are less concerned with materialism and more concerned with issues which affect them and their world.  They are more interested in experience than is consumption and they will make themselves heard.  But at the same time they are very anxious and risk averse and many pursue celebrity above art.. I try to encourage them to dare to fail… “Look at me,” I say “I’m a failed pop star, but my life is never dull!”

ROTR: From the producer, John Leckie (Radiohead, Stone Roses, Pink Floyd, XTC,) to the musicians who worked on the album; Joe Elliott (Def Leppard), Sarah Jane Morris (Communards), Terry Edwards (PJ Harvey, Nick Cave), Steve Bolton (The Who, Scott Walker), Lily Bud, there’s a huge wealth of talent and creative experience… How did these line-ups and collaborations come together?  

RS: It has been a source of great pride and pleasure to call these people my friends and colleagues for many years.  John (Leckie) I first met at Abbey Road studios in 1970 when he was engineering a Roy Harper record. When Doctors of Madness signed with a major label in 1975 we were lucky enough to be able to afford to record at Abbey Road. I asked John to produce our 2nd album, Figments of Emancipation, which he did in 1976. It was I believe his first production. He went on, of course, to produce Radiohead, Stone Roses, Muse, Simple Minds and countless other million sellers. We have stayed in touch ever since.

Joe Elliott was a Doctors fan who came to every gig we did in Yorkshire before he formed Def Leppard.  When he heard I was making this record he insisted on being my backing vocalist and sings on 5 of the songs!  I love the sound of our voices together.

Sarah Jane and Steve I have known since the 80s…Steve played guitar on my 1981 album The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange. Sarah sings on 5 tracks on the new record. Terry was in the band when we performed Tom Waits’s musical play The Black Rider on a world tour with Marianne Faithfull in 2004/6. He was also MD on the tour we did last year, “Richard Strange Performs the Songs of Lou Reed” with a colossal band (Kevin Armstrong, Paul Cuddeford, Dave Imby, Florence Sabeva and Terry- a dream team!)  Lily Bud is a gifted singer/songwriter with a golden voice and makes amazing music of her own, which I am delighted to be producing at present. She is also my daughter!

ROTR: On the album we swerve from UK punk to glam, from New York avant guarde to Gainsbourg and Waits. How much have your influences changed since the last Doctors of Madness release? 

RS: Well, the Doctors of Madness were never only influenced by rock music.  I channelled William Burroughs, Jacques Brel, Jean Cocteau, new wave films, sci-fi, avant garde theatre and pop art through those early records and performances… so yes- I keep my ears and eyes open. I have been lucky enough to work with a lot of my heroes and influences too- Martin Scorsese, Gavin Bryars, Tim Burton, Jack Nicholson, Tom Waits, Marianne, Anita Pallenberg, Harmony Korine, Robert Wilson, a lot of different aesthetics going on there!  But teaching music students at BA and Master level also keeps me alive to what is happening on the ground.  I also have the good fortune to work in Japan a lot, so I have a whole other set of influences coming from that direction.

ROTR: Between music and writing you’ve worked on projects in film, TV, and theatre, curated events from Cabaret Futura to The Tate, worked alongside renowned names and artists (Martin Scorsese, Marianne Faithful, Jarvis Cocker, to name a few), how might these experiences have helped shape the record?  

RS: It is impossible to work with great artists without absorbing some of their aesthetic, their drive, the M.O, their energy, their vision. I have been blessed in my life, from the Doctors onwards, to work with some of the greats. Einstein once said, “Creativity is intelligence having fun”. It’s true. I never met a great artist who wasn’t intelligent. (I met a few who weren’t especially pleasant…but that’s a different story!)  Working to a brief for the Tate Gallery, to curate a live event inspired by the paintings of the Victorian visionary John Martin, for example, was a huge honour.  I imagined a post-apocalyptic Cabaret Futura, a sort of dystopian Blade Runner/The Road and I knew that I would get a huge performance out of Kate Tempest for that, and she didn’t disappoint. The artists Richard Wilson and Gavin Turk were both involved too They are friends and I knew they would “get” it.  We took over the gallery where the pre raphaelites paintings are hung for one night, and 3000 people turned up!

Similarly, when I started to formulate ideas for the William Burroughs event I curated on the South Bank in 2014, I approached friends and artists I admired to participate, producing new work inspired by or referencing Burroughs.  It was a colossal undertaking, but the work was extraordinary, with specially-created work by the novelist Rupert Thomson, the choreographer Luca Silvestrini of Protein Dance. The internationally-acclaimed composer Gavin Bryars and I wrote a cantata, Gavin Turk and Sarah Jane Morris appeared in it, the poet Jeremy Reed performed, the artist Haroon Mirza created a sound sculpture, the dancer Rene Eyre danced and marshalled 20 non-dancers beautifully, musicians Anni Hogan, Seb Rochford and David Coulter performed…and so did Doctors of Madness- (our only ever reunion gig, after 36 years!) with Joe Elliott,  Sarah Jane and Lily Bud sang backing vocals!!!…The film maker Neville Farmer filmed the whole thing magnificently and yes- John Leckie mixed the sound!… 

ROTR: In music, stage and screen you’re prolific. And there’s a dark comic thread of theatrical chaos that runs through the projects you’re part of; from the glam punk of DOM, to Tim Burton’s Batman, to celebrations of William Burroughs’ works… how do you choose what to become involved in? 

RS: I always tell my students “There are 2 sorts of artists in the world…those who say yes and those who say no”.  I am lucky- people find me, or I find people, we chat about ideas and what I can contribute, and if it seems worthwhile to both parties, we are up and running.  I work a lot with the artist Haroon Mirza, and even more frequently with the brilliant writer and vocalist Johny Brown of Band of Holy Joy.  I love working with these people because they trust me to deliver, and I trust them to provide a brilliant context to work within, whether it’s a play, a film, a performance or a film. My acting career sort of runs along in parallel (if I’m lucky!)

Richard Strange to the left of Jack Nicholsons’ Joker. Image from richardsrange.com.

 ROTR: And what have you got lined up next?

RS: So- in the next 3 months- teaching in Sweden, performing and lecturing in Finland, a solo tour of my one man show “An Accent Waiting to Happen” in Holland, a vinyl release of Dark Times for Record Shop day, a Doctors of Madness tour of Japan, a show with TV Smith, and I hope a UK Doctors of Madness tour featuring the music of Dark Times.

In between, hoping for a release of the film of the Burroughs event, a few writing assignments, producing Lily Bud’s album, and teaching Masters students at Tileyard, London, where I work under the Principal, Martyn Ware (Human League, Heaven 17 and endless production credits), who has been kind enough to do a remix of Walk of Shame, from the album! As Johnny Rotten once said “I’m a lazy sod!”

ROTR: And lastly, now some dust may have settled since the release of ‘Dark Times’ (I admit that I’m some months behind), how do you feel it compares to those earlier albums? What effect has time had on the music?

RS: I am a better writer, a better singer, a better guitarist, a better co-producer and arranger now. I have also been rehabilitated and reappraised and people now realize how important and influential we were as a band, and our influence on bands from Joy Division to Simple Minds, The Damned to Spiritualized, and from Julian Cope to Vic Reeves, via Pulp!!-  The Guardian recently called us “The missing link between David Bowie and The Sex Pistols”  I’ll settle for that! 

I am hugely proud of Dark Times. Thematically it is not hugely different form my concerns as a writer in the mid 70s. But it would be embarrassing to try to write and perform like a 24-year-old again…not to mention pointless!  The world has changed so much- especially the world of music. There was no digital recording, no internet, no social media, no MTV, no Spotify, no Instagram, no Twitter, no YouTube when we started. Punk hadn’t happened, nor had home recording, indie labels, blogs, downloads or streaming…. It was all about the record companies and the music press.

As a self-financed project, supported and sustained by my publisher and mentor Adam Glen, with nothing but our own savings to invest, it was a gamble.  But it made The Guardian’s best albums of the year, it was The Morning Star’s TOP album of the year,  and has garnered unanimously positive critical acclaim. I honestly haven’t seen a single bad review. 

So all in all- life is good- apart from the fucking politics!

‘Dark Times‘ is out now on CD and all digital platforms, with highlights as always on Rats On Run Radio.

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