The Doctors Of Madness Will See You Now:
The Doctors Of Madness was a British outfit that defied categorization. They were Punk in attitude of not style. They were Art Rock in attitude AND style. They were a classic British Rock band before it was cool to be a classic British Rock band. They were forthright. They were gentle. They had smashing tunes. Etc. Basically, the Docs were everything you needed in a band. While they became an influence to so many that followed in their wake, the Docs did not reap their just rewards –fame and fortune – during their existence (1974-78).
But fear not, dear reader! Cherry Red Records has just issued the amazing PERFECT PAST – THE COMPLETE DOCTORS OF MADNESS box set, a three CD set containing their trio of albums – – featuring plenty of unreleased bonus tracks including an unreleased track with The Damned’s Dave Vanian on vocals! This set is the ultimate DOM collection and is perhaps the final word on a band that really deserves to be labeled as ‘seminal,’ ‘iconic,’ ‘legendary’ and ‘quite good, actually!’
Stephen SPAZ Schnee gathered together a set of questions that band leader Richard Strange was kind enough to answer…
STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: PERFECT PAST: THE COMPLETE DOCTORS OF MADNESS is just about to be released. How are you feeling about this project coming together and the way it turned out?
RICHARD STRANGE: To be honest, it has given me a chance to revisit my back catalogue and reevaluate the work I was doing 40 plus years ago, and while inevitably there are some thiNgs I would have done differently – some lyrics I would have rewritten, refined – these are mainly with the benefit of hindsight and experience. I am proud of the work, and I think it sounds as relevant and pertinent today as it did in the mid/late ‘70s. Maybe even more so.
SPAZ: Doctors Of Madness was unlike any band before or since. Some have lumped you into the Punk genre because of the timing of the release of your albums yet I’ve always seen you as more of an Art Rock band closer to Bowie, Roxy Music or even Sparks. In the end, the band was –and remains – completely unique. In hindsight, where do you feel the band fits in in the overall scheme of things?
RICHARD: We were ABSOLUTELY an art rock band.. I never wrote about, never sang about MUSIC. I was interested in all the other stuff – books, films, theatre, fine art, poetry.
SPAZ: When you formed the band, did you feel that you were doing something different than the bands around you? Some bands follow their instincts and don’t realize until later that they are, in fact, forging their own path…
RICHARD: The Doctors of Madness was my first band. Peter di Lemma, our drummer, and I set the ball rolling in 1974. We had been at school together, but I had only been playing guitar for a couple of years. I’d never really thought of myself as a musician before. I loved words and I loved contemporary art. I discovered the US writer William Burroughs (NAKED LUNCH, SOFT MACHINE, JUNKIE etc) and the other Beat writers, principally Kerouac and Ginsberg, alongside discovering Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg and the Pop Artists, and I wanted to form a bad that was like a mash up between the two. I was in love with the Velvet Underground since the release of their first album in 1967 – Brian Eno once said that everybody who bought that first album went on to form a band – I know I did and I know he did! I met Urban Blitz (violins and guitars) through the Melody Maker small ads, and Colin Stoner (bass) had been a friend for years. In those early days (1974/75), no one would touch the Doctors of Madness…we were too weird, too out there! Remember, this was the fag end of Prog Rock, where everyone wanted to show their parents that these long-haired kids in flares could play to the same standard as conservatoire musicians – that never interested me. I always believed that Rock music’s role was to piss your parents off, not to impress them! We looked like we had just landed from a charity shop on Mars! Blue Hair, make up, weird names, songs about mind control, paranoia, neurosis and urban breakdown, with a cast of characters like Dollar Deal Dave, The Reversal Boys, Pigface and The Shiny Gang, The Weird Scenes addicts, etc.
SPAZ: In regards to the band’s influences, who do you feel were the most important artists that inspired the band members?
RICHARD: Burroughs, Bowie, Jacques Brel, Warhol, Velvets, Roxy and, lyrically, Dylan and Cohen.
SPAZ: Were there any then-contemporary bands that you felt a kinship with at the time? I always put you in the same category as Doll By Doll: great songs played by a super group from a different time continuum.
RICHARD: Always loved Doll by Doll. Jackie Leven was a friend who, like us , was for a long time on the receiving end of a Music Media who didn’t “get” what they were trying to do. It didn’t fit into any category. That’s always a problem for lazy journalists.
SPAZ: When you first formed the band, did they end results sound like what you had imagined at the beginning? Or did the band head off in a different direction than originally envisioned?
RICHARD: Here’s what I wrote in my memoir, STRANGE- PUNKS AND DRUNKS AND FLICKS AND KICKS. (2004): “The unique sound of the Doctors really came jointly from the musicianship Stoner and Urban Blitz. Peter and I were just about competent and adequate musicians, but the racket that those two guys made was what made our sound. As a vocalist I knew I was no great shakes, my range is too limited, but as a performer who could put over those songs I’m pretty good. I work within my limitations, but always try to push myself to expand them.
(In the studio, recording our first album….) With the early technical problems overcome, we set about our task of recording a great first album with a genuine relish and a manic intensity. I wanted to make an album that would contain, reflect and mutate everything I had ever felt, ever experienced in my 24 years. I wanted it to reflect every joy, every disappointment, every grudge, and every resentment. I wanted it to be full of bitterness, desolation, alienation, bile and fury. Such tenderness as there was would be tempered with cynicism and distance. Such romance as there was would be doomed to painful breakdown. I wanted the record to be dark, cinematic and colossal. My subject matter was urban decay, neurosis and corruption. I had the anarchist’s loathing for all systems of control. Lyrically my roots were in the singer/songwriter tradition of Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Jacques Brel and David Bowie, but my songs were seasoned with a sour edge and a rotten middle, courtesy of William Burroughs. Musically I loved the energy, directness and gonzo avant gardism of the Velvet Underground at their most uncompromising. Walls of white noise and feedback laid over speed-fuelled, dumb-ass rhythm. The harmonic equivalent of bare-knuckle fighting. Sonic porn. We set ourselves into a circle in the studio, turned down the lights and attempted to blow each other off the face of the earth. We recorded several versions of each song, changing our performances each time. All the tracks were recorded live in the studio, with any overdubs and corrections done later. It meant that the album was hell to mix, because there was so much sound spillage. For instance, the drum microphones were picking up the sounds of the guitar, the violin and the bass, so it was impossible to alter the sound of the drums without also altering the sound of the other instruments. But what the songs lost in clarity and definition of sound, we felt they gained in spirit and atmosphere.”
SPAZ: Do you feel the band was better live or in the studio? Do the albums reveal a deeper, more comprehensive look into the band’s creativity?
RICHARD: We had two sides to us- we were a great, raw, exciting live band, engaging, dangerous and inconsistent. In the studio, we had huge visons and small budgets, and that was sometimes very frustrating, sometimes very inspiring. Making the most of what you have, and using whatever it is that you have is sometimes the key to creativity.
SPAZ: LATE NIGHT MOVIES, ALL NIGHT BRAINSTORMS was a stunning debut. The album takes the listener through so many highs and lows. The frenetic “Waiting” gives way to the wonder that is “Afterglow”… and the ride just keeps going from that point. Was the album a proper representation of your live set at the time?
RICHARD: Yes, it showcased every facet, from furious to bitter to tender to amorous to visionary
SPAZ: Any particular memories of recording the debut album? Did you become comfortable in the studio fairly quickly?
RICHARD: We were just so excited be doing it…we were suddenly a real professional rock band, with our heads full of ideas. Sometimes it was confrontational, a battle of wills between us individually, but generally we were all pulling in the same direction and we all knew what that direction was. “Cathedrals of sound”, we kept saying…”We are building cathedrals of sound”!
SPAZ: From a musical standpoint, did you feel that critics and fans truly understood where you were coming from? And do you think they/we understand it now?
RICHARD: Many did, most didn’t. We had great fans, dedicated, loyal and supportive…and they came from other bands too… The Damned, Joy Division, Simple Minds, The Skids, The Adverts, Spiritualized, Julian Cope, Joe Elliott of Def Leppard. People write lovely things about us now – how we inspired their own work, how we were such a part of their formative years, the soundtrack of their lives, etc. And with digital media and social networks, all these lovely testimonials keep on arriving – it’s so much easier to speak directly to your heroes these days.
SPAZ: FIGMENTS OF EMANCIPATION was made up of songs that were ‘dedicated’ to various folks. Was this an afterthought when putting the album together? Or did you have a clear concept for that particular album when you began to write and record?
RICHARD: Half and half. Once I had dedicated half the songs, it seemed fitting that I should dedicate the rest!
SPAZ: For most bands, the first album is normally made up of songs that the band had years to write. Was the second album made up of newly-penned material or were there holdovers from before the debut?
RICHARD: Nearly all the songs on the second album had been written before we recorded the first and had featured in our live show. I think only “In Camera” and “Out” were brand new
SPAZ: The album seemed more focused, mixing the aggression with the beauty. Did you purposely take a different approach to the album? There is a lot more ‘Soul’ on the album, literally and figuratively.
RICHARD: Yes, we had learned a lot doing the first album, and had improved musically by some distance by the time we started FIGMENTS. Also we were working at Abbey Road with the great John Leckie producing- He is a much more meticulous, complex producer than John Punter, who produced LATE NIGHT MOVIES…, and suited us well at the exact moment of our development. It was great working with female backing singers on “Suicide City” and “Perfect Past”, and trying out sound effects, backwards tape effects, the protean new technologies of the mid-‘70s.
SPAZ: Do you have any particular memories about making the album?
RICHARD: My son was born right in the middle of recording “Suicide City.” My manager was in bits- it was costing a fortune and the session ground to a halt. He kept asking the midwife “How much longer will this take…It’s costing me £120 an hour watching this!” Remember listening to Stoner’s bass solo on “Marie” and Joe and breaking into tears- it’s so poignant, so melancholy, so right. I remember hearing the first playback of “Suicide City” and being so proud that I had written THAT! And I remember a big fall-out with Urban Blitz over “Perfect Past,” because we “don’t record that sort of song”!!
SPAZ: SONS OF SURVIVAL is the perfect mix of the edginess of the first album mixed with the ‘sophistication’ of the second. Did you have any grand plans for the album when you started preparing for it? Did you see it as a big move forward or were you content to just follow your instincts and see where that took you?
RICHARD: I knew it was going to be our last album, and I wanted it to have an elegiac feel to it…hence “Network” especially, “Sons Of Survival” and “Triple Vision”… I think I am especially proud of those three songs. “Cool” was an orgy of noise as a farewell, “Back from the Dead” I wrote with TV Smith from The Adverts. “Kiss Goodbye Tomorrow” was me saying goodbye…without having a clue what I would do next. Punk Rock was the only game in town. I was 27 and washed up! All the other bands were 23/24…a lifetime away!
SPAZ: You still had the intensity of a Punk band but on songs like “No Limits,” you were firmly rooted in classic British Rock. Were genres important to you at all? And do you think that since people couldn’t put the Docs in a box (figuratively) that you may have lost some potential sales?
RICHARD: We lost massive sales due to our inability to get put into a box and packaged so it was easier to give the 10 word executive summary of what we did! That hasn’t changed much, from what I see of the music business these days. Everyone loves a genre!
SPAZ: Any particular memories about the recording of this album?
RICHARD: It was quite a tough album to make…we knew we would be breaking up within a year. Urban more or less left while we were recording it… It was done on a shoestring, we co-produced with our sound guy Dave Hilsden, in the same studio we did LATE NIGHT MOVIES… Gered Mankowicz took the sleeve photos—we look like refugees or aliens… probably alien refugees! “Network” sounds like The Long Goodbye…and that album WAS a long goodbye to our fans and to each other.
SPAZ: The band split after the third album. Do you feel that the band had gone as far as it could go or do you think the split was premature? Was there material written for a fourth album?
RICHARD: I think we had done it. And “it” had done us. I was already starting to think about a solo project, which became THE PHENOMENAL RISE OF RICHARD STRANGE
SPAZ: The box contains some really strong bonus tracks including the demos on the FIGMENTS album and elsewhere. Are there any unreleased studio gems still hidden in the archives?
RICHARD: One or two!! Watch this space. Also some blistering live recording from the mid-‘70s have started to emerge…!
SPAZ: “Don’t Panic England” is an amazing track featuring The Damned’s Dave Vanian? How did you get involved with him?
RICHARD: He had always been a Doctors fan- he followed us everywhere before the Damned even started. We became great friends. I was his Best Man at his wedding…and as our respective bands started to implode, he joined us (He often made impromptu invasions of the stage to join us on songs in live concerts…much to the delight of the crowd! He was a “star” by then.) and I joined The Damned! (for a day!) I wrote the song with TV Smith from The Adverts, so it was a real Holy Trinity!
SPAZ: Looking back, would you have done anything differently with DOM? You left behind one hell of a musical legacy…
RICHARD: I’ll settle for the musical legacy. There are a thousand bands who were more “successful”… but who remembers a single original thought they had?
SPAZ: The Fabulous Poodles seemed to pick up the ‘rock band with fiddler’ mantle around the time the Docs split. Did you ever recognize the influence there? Or was it a coincidence?
RICHARD: Forget The Fabulous Poodles…listen to Pulp!
SPAZ: What is next? Reunion shows or recordings?
RICHARD: So busy! The Doctors did a reunion one-off as part of a William Burroughs tribute evening I created at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall… we played six songs. I wrote an opera with Gavin Bryars for the same event, which featured musicians, writers, dancers, poets and artists, and I am currently editing the feature film of the event. It won Best Art Film Prize at the Portobello Film Festival last year. Stoner died sadly two weeks later – it was like he had been waiting 40 years to play those songs again. Urban and I toured Japan last year with two wonderful Japanese musicians, Susumu (bass) and Mackii (drums). They are coming to Europe to tour with us through May and June and we return to Japan in September to tour again. I still run my multi-media club Cabaret Futura in London, I teach, I curate events, I do festivals and I have a one-man show, AN ACCENT WAITING TO HAPPEN, in which I tell stories about my career, sing songs, show films clips, read from the memoir. Very portable show (would LOVE to perform it in the USA!). Oh, and I act in films and onstage… I was in Tom Waits/William Burroughs/ Robert Wilson’s production of The Black Rider for three years, in London, LA, San Francisco and Sydney. I keep busy!! Would love to return to the States soon and meet old fans and new – either with or without the Doctors of Madness! With would be great though- we never toured the States and you guys missed a treat!
SPAZ: Thank you for your time and the music that we still enjoy today, some four decades on.
RICHARD: My mom always taught me to say “Thank you for having me!” I’ve enjoyed it.
Thanks to Richard Strange