Doctors of Madness
Words by Richard Strange
In Process allows musicians to talk about how they made an album, in their own words. For our debut In Process, the legendary Richard Strange describes how each moment in his (extremely eventful) career built up to Dark Times, the fabulous and furious new album from his band Doctors of Madness...
In the early 1970s, I formed a band. I was bored by how pretentious and bloated rock and roll had become, how strangely cold, redundant and meaningless so much of the music now seemed. What had started in the 50s as teenage rebellion, and evolved through the 60s from ‘pop’ into ‘rock’ and protest, by the early 70s seemed to me to be music designed to please your parents, rather than outrage them. This is NOT what rock music is for!
My band, Doctors of Madness set out to change the world. David Bowie and Roxy Music had brought an art school aesthetic and a visual and contextual glamour to the charts but, for the most part, music was moribund and mundane. I took the New York art rock band Velvet Underground as my role model, infused it with a potentially lethal dose of the US junkie, Sci-fi writer and visionary William Burroughs, and set the whole thing in a theatrical, almost cartoon post-apocalyptic dystopia. As you might imagine, it didn’t appeal to everyone, least of all to daytime radio, but nevertheless we gathered a large coterie of fans and followers. We made three critically-acclaimed albums, our support acts included The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Simple Minds, and The Jam, and our fans were as diverse as comedian Vic Reeves, writer Michael Moorcock, and musicians such as Julian Cope and Bowie himself. By 1976 we had gathered a large following in the UK and Europe and even had a full-length TV documentary made about us by NBC in the USA. What could possibly go wrong…? Well, punk rock came along, and although we were punk rock in everything but bondage trousers, with names like Kid Strange, Urban Blitz, Peter di Lemma and Stoner, and we were singing fast furious songs about urban decay, political propaganda, mind control, and hostile governments, we were 3 or 4 years older than those young bands who supported us, and that’s a generation in pop cultural terms. By 1978 we were finished. A scribbled and screwed-up footnote in the glove compartment of rock history.
I was fortunate enough to be able to reflect on my skills, and enjoyed success as a solo artist, a club host - starting a multi-media club Cabaret Futura in Soho in 1980 - and an actor (with roles in the films Batman, Mona Lisa, Robin Hood, Gangs of New York and Harry Potter, as well as working with Tom Waits and Marianne Faithfull on the William Burroughs/ Tom Waits/ Robert Wilson musical play The Black Rider). I also worked as a writer, journalist, teacher and curator of art events. Life has been kind to me.
"We made three critically-acclaimed albums, our support acts included The Sex Pistols, Joy Division, Simple Minds, and The Jam, and our fans were as diverse as comedian Vic Reeves, writer Michael Moorcock, and musicians such as Julian Cope and Bowie himself."
Last year I was surprised and devastated to find I was ill, and that surgery was required. I contracted an infection after the surgery and, perhaps melodramatically, I thought I was going to die. I was horrified by this premature possibility, not least because I felt I still hadn’t made the record I wanted to be remembered by. In hospital I resolved to remedy that, if time allowed. I started to write. Furiously. Literally furiously. I was furious with the way the world had lurched so dramatically to the Right in the previous 2 years, with the pincer movement of Brexit in Britain and Trump in the USA laying waste to the liberalism and enlightenment that had been hard won by my generation through the 60s and 70s: Civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental issues…though all were unfinished business, we had certainly made some progress from the dark times of the 50s, where casual racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny and irresponsible and wasteful consumerism were the norm. The alt-Right were intent on rolling these back to the 50s, wrapping themselves in the phoney flag of patriotism and nationalism, and hoodwinking a depressed, gullible and blighted electorate with promises of a brighter tomorrow. Populism was reborn and, with it, notions of post-truth, fake news, and the cult of the maverick politician. This was not confined to the USA and the UK…the same populism raised its head in Brazil, in Hungary, in Italy and India, and in many other countries of the world. We had descended once more into Dark Times, and that became my theme, my subject matter and my inspiration.
I wrote an album of material while still convalescing and sent my home demo recordings to an old friend, John Leckie. John had produced the second Doctors of Madness album Figments of Emancipation at Abbey Road Studios in 1976. He went on to produce Radiohead, Stone Roses, Muse, Pink Floyd, XTC and a host of other platinum-selling artists. I told him of my concerns, but also advised him from the start that the record would be self-financed and therefore low budget. Generously, he asked me to send him the songs anyway. Within a day he had got back to me and said, “This record HAS to be made!”. We booked a residential studio where we could work around the clock. We agreed on the songs: So Many Ways To Hurt You, Make It Stop!, Sour Hour, Walk Of Shame, This Kind Of Failure, This Is How To Die, Blood Brother and Dark Times. Just a glance at those titles will give you an idea of the emotional temperature of the record. Damned right it’s political.
My rhythm section Susumu and Mackii Ukei , bass and drums of the Japanese extreme post-glam thrash-metal rockers Sister Paul, flew to the UK and rehearsed with me. We were quickly ready to record with John. We laid down the basic tracks of the 8 songs quickly, then something magical happened: old friends and fans got in touch and said they wanted to be part of this new Doctors of Madness album. Joe Elliott of Def Leppard offered to be my backing vocalist. He told me he had been a Doctors of Madness fan in the 70s and had followed us to every gig he could afford as a kid, growing up in the North of England. So did Sarah Jane Morris, of the Communards. And Terry Edwards, sax player with PJ Harvey, Nick Cave and Tindersticks. And young protest singer Lily Bud. And many others. All made huge contributions to the songs with their individual and idiosyncratic talents. Soon we were finished, and John mixed the record and made it sound huge. Artwork was created by Rich Good of the band The Psychedelic Furs, with whom I recently toured, and my publisher Adam Glen and I decided to set up our own record label, Molecular Scream Records, to release the record. It came out on September 13th, and has garnered many very kind reviews. It is an unashamedly political record, aimed at adults and socially engaged young people alike. Every track locks into the themes detailed above, sometimes directly, as in Make It Stop! and So Many Ways To Hurt You, sometimes elliptically, as in Blood Brother and Sour Hour (The opposite of Happy Hour…the ‘Gloom Room’ I sing about is modern Britain, divided, spiteful, and busted. The “she” is Theresa May, a woman hopelessly out of her depth, driven only by ambition and party dogma, masquerading as a patriot and embarrassing herself and the country at every turn.) This Kind of Failure comes from something said by the Japanese film director Kurasawa. When he completed his film of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot, he was depressed, feeling that he had failed in his ambition to film the novel. “The film is a failure,” he said, adding sagely, “but this kind of failure is no failure at all”. The implication being that setting your sights high, and failing to achieve them, is no failure. Good is not the enemy of perfect. I applied this thought to my ideas about protest, opposition and resistance. The fact that protest doesn’t often achieve all its aims does not make it any less worthwhile or necessary. Sometimes society is changed bit by bit, not dramatically overnight. I grew up in an era when being gay was illegal. Abortion was illegal. Racism was normal and legal, and a woman’s place was in the kitchen.
"The fact that protest doesn’t often achieve all its aims does not make it any less worthwhile or necessary. Sometimes society is changed bit by bit, not dramatically overnight."
The defining track is the title track Dark Times, about the effects of austerity on ordinary people, cheated into downsizing their dreams by politicians and a voracious media. It is a prose poem, set to an insistent, sci-fi drone, like the ambient noise of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, or a Tarkovsky film or Donnie Darko. It references the mundane and banal details of lives who have been robbed of opportunity, a generation…
“who once dreamed of Camelot and Kennedy and King/and have downsized their dreams to Kanye and Kim and endless bling.”
Overall the record is a themed observation of the world as I see it now. It is not negative or defeatist, because I believe in the power of good people to effect change, even in a cynical digital world. There is an optimism, a rallying call to protest and resistance, as I sing in the opening track So Many Ways To Hurt You:
“They’ve got so many ways to hurt you now/So many ways to make you scream/so many ways to kill off their enemies/but they can never, never, never, never, never kill off The Dream.”