Richard ‘Kid’ Strange, Doctor of Madness and many other things, talks to Dave Woodhall.
Richard Strange is many things, including singer with Doctors of Madness, a cult pre-punk band now touring again after a gap of almost forty years. First of all, now you’re sixty-seven. Is it still right to call you ‘Kid’?
“Not really. it’s not really accurate with the passing of time but it’s stuck with the fans. It’s a bit odd for a middle-aged man to call themselves Kid though, isn’t it?”
Particularly since you’ve done such a lot since the name came about. It’d certainly be quicker to look you up than go through your entire, varied career here. Singer, actor, lecturer, composer…
“I’ve been incredibly lucky. I do a bit of teaching and one of my lectures is about taking the fear out of failure. I’m mindful of the fact that if I’d had one hit in the seventies I’d have probably had a very miserable life eking out a living on the back of it like a lot of bands do.
“But because I didn’t, and because I’m a resourceful and creative sort of bloke I just had to keep re-inventing myself and as a result I’ve worked with Jack Nicholson and I’ve worked with Marianne Faithful, Ton Waits, Tim Burton, Martin Scorsese… If I’d had that one hit I’d still be churning it out in Sutton Coldfield. I’ve been forced to reconsider stuff and be reflective, and also I love collaborating with people.
“I’ve been lucky enough to work with absolutely brilliant people. I love music, I’m proud of what the Doctors did but I’m so glad that’s not all I’ve done.”
Is there anything you’ve not done that you might fancy next?
“I wanted to do an opera based on the life of William Burroughs for his centenary. A colleague at the university asked me what I would most like to do and I told her that I would love to write a libretto for an opera based on the life of William Burroughs. I told her I would like to write it with Gavin Bryars and she said ‘He’s my next-door neighbour.’
“We met for about half an hour at St Pancras station when he was about to go round the world. We went from twenty minutes, which was all he originally had time for, to a three act opera featuring 400 electric guitars. We did it all by email. That was in 2014 and we’re just finishing the film of it now.”
Did you ever think that the next thing you’d want to do was get the Doctors of Madness back together?
“I really didn’t. As part of the Burroughs event I had a 25 minute centrepiece and I thought it would be ridiculous not to do the Doctors music. They were all still alive at that point and we got together for that one show. Poor old Colin Spooner died about three weeks later, almost as though he was waiting to put the Doctors to bed once and for all.
“Then I had a couple of days in Japan with a Doctors tribute band, who were better than we ever were. I spoke t a few people and I said I’ve got a female drummer, she’s four foot two and the loudest drummer you’ve ever heard and there’s a transvestite bass player. It was the band again, they were great and we toured the UK last year, it was so much fun.”
You had the Sex Pistols supporting you, and both you and Joe Strummer had the same impression that what you were doing was finished, yet it took the audiences time to catch up.
“That was like George Melly when he saw Tommy Steel for the first time and he knew that British rock’n’roll was pushing trad jazz out. The Pistols hit the stage and the way they commanded the audience, that was the same way.
“The Doctors could see it because we were like nothing else. I had blue hair, I was Kid Strange, we talked about post-urban decay, we weren’t prog, we weren’t glam. Punk had that political edge, we were picking up on Burroughs and that mind-control, propaganda, brainwashing, all that sci fi stuff he was talking about was part of our music.”
I always think we’re too quick to write off ‘old music’ when it’s only old if you hears it originally. There are many younger people who still think of it as new.
“When we toured last September there were sixteen year old kids coming along and they bought the vinyl, the CDs. In Japan, and in certain other parts of the world, there’s kids into such a tiny niche of music, something as small as British pre-punk 1975-76 and that’s all they here. But looking back I’m proud of the three albums we did, I think they’re being re-appraised with the benefit of forty years of hindsight. It was a transitional period of mumusic and we did influence a lot of bands that subsequently came through.
“You can see the innovation and the creativity of the Doctors of Madness that maybe people didn’t get at the time because it didn’t fall neatly enough into this bag or that bag. It wasn’t punk, or pub rock, or prog, or glam. It needed a bit of application to get into and a bit of courage to say to your mates that you loved it. But people still come up to me now and say that one of the albums was the first one they ever bought. That’ll do me.”
It must be odd going back to the 100 Club, where you’re playing soon, after all that time.
“Any club venue is a bit odd because there aren’t many left now. They were very much of their time. You didn’t know whether you were in Birmingham, or Glasgow or Bristol. They all felt the same, the kids dressed the same. You’d do the gig, maybe talk to a few kids afterwards, have a drink and then you’d go home. We did the Hare & Hounds last year and that’s a fantastic venue, not far from where I used to work with Robert Lloyd and the Nightingales.”
I hope this doesn’t sound insulting, but Doctors of Madness are the sort of band you’ve heard of but you couldn’t name any of their songs. Yet Jonathan King was interested in managing you and Polydor released three albums. Do you wish you’d become a pop star?
“No, because I’d have had to have a rock’n’roll life and I’d have probably died at the age of 27. Instead the years have been absolute bliss. I finally pulled the plug on the Doctors in 1978. We decided that we’d gone as far as we could with that format and I had to think what I’m good at. I realised I’m a good writer, a good frontman, I can conceptualise and work with other people.
“I started writing, I did this book about a confederation of European states and how this guy manipulated the media to become President, and that was in 1978. It’s not fiction anymore when you think of Boris and Donald Trump. That’s what happens when you get a nasty, populist democracy with shifty, authoritarian figures in power. That’s exactly what’s happening now. When the law lords, the judiciary, anyone who doesn’t toe the line is called a traitor.
“It’s frightening. People are anxious now, the certainties have gone and they’re unable to plan. But the kids I’m involved with are engaged and they’re pissed off big time. I think the next generation is one that will be taking to the streets again and will be looking to put right the mess we’re in.”
The Doctors of Madness play the Birmingham Institute 3 on Friday 23rd March. Tickets