ALIENS IN GLORY LAND
Jonh (sic) Ingham, who’s always trying to be different, talks to the Doctors of Madness, who ARE different.
(Sounds, July 10, 1976)
Abbey Road’s Number Three studio has received a considerable face-lift since the Beatles last trooped through the door to lay hand to mixing desk and guitar. The control room now accommodates 24 tracks with quad capabilities, rear speakers hidden in the wall.
The government grey walls have been banished by Habitat chic, the double windows, between which Roy Harper’s son used to play Superchicken, have been built in. No more irate neighbours.
The air conditioning finally works. Planters grow out of the walls. A twist of the dial creates endless moods in lighting; creativity shall not be hindered by the harsh glare of a light bulb. It looks a plush imaginative set for a science fiction rock movie. It is here that the Doctors of Madness are recording their second album.
Final overdub stage has been reached on the last song, ‘In Camera’, which Webster’s tells us is a closed meeting or a meeting in a judge’s private chambers, is in need of some camera snaps and clicks.
Kid Strange, hair a deeper, less day-glo tone of blue than in the past, is adamant that the photographer out in the studio giving a lecture on which angle his Hassleblad will be best recorded in relation to the microphone is just some guy they found outside taking snaps of the immortalised Abbey Road pedestrian crossing.
Since the snaps man doesn’t have the benefit of a motor-drive and must contort his camera awkwardly in order to convey the snap of the shutter and the whirr of the next frame winding into place in time with the music, Kid’s claim seems reasonable.
The snapsman wonders whether his camera is in the right key. ‘Oh God,’ moans Kid. ‘A dilletante.’ He pronounces it ‘dilletanty’.
Producing this second opus-de-Madness is up-and-coming John Leckie, a Harper engineering alumnus who has also produced Be-Bop Deluxe amoung others. In contrast to the first album, this venture, entitled ‘Figments of Emancipation’, which Mr Strange thinks an accurate description of the contents – ‘free to fly as far as the lead will let you go’ – is constantly twisting through strange choral passages or harmonies or changes from song to song.
Titles besides ‘In Camera’ are ‘Out’, ‘Brother’ (sic), ‘Suicide City’ (‘a perfect non-fiction fantasy’), ‘Perfect Past’. They’re far more listenable than the first effort. More attack, more assurance, greater vision. Absorbing the traditions of the studios, there are odd moments of Floyd, Beatles, Harper. ‘Doctors of Madness’, though, sounds and feels remarkably similar to the Velvets’s ‘European Son of Delmore Schwartz’.
This happy state of affairs, opines Kid, has been equal effort between band and producer.
‘We were mutually aware of the direction we were going in with this one. A lot of the time we worked without discussion. With the first album there was a lot of talking about the songs, and the producer would put his bit in.. John is very responsible for the quality of the sound. I got him because he likes our stuff and he’s a mate, which makes for an easier session.’
‘On the first one,’ adds Peter DiLemma, ‘I think John Punter had a different impression of what we were from us. There’s the basis of a great LP in the raw tracks. It just needs to be remixed.’
‘Also,’ rejoins Kid, ‘He only heard the songs a couple of times, and there was a feeling of ‘gotta start, gotta start’, and before you knew it the song was finished and it was a bit out of control. There wasn’t much room for contemplation.’
This 35 minutes of grooved vinyl will be available in September, at which time the group will embark on a major tour. Before that, through, is the July Midsummer Madness tour. There might also be a Continental tour since the first album resides high in the Belgian charts. It also happens to be the best selling import record in Southern California. That the English public havne’t been similarly moved is of some aggravation to Kid.
‘I thought it was misunderstood’, he says in a serious, sincere voice.
In what way?
‘It didn’t get the attention it deserved!’ he laughs. ‘The people of Belgium, of course…’
…. know more about what’s going on, blah blah?
Have you considered that it mightn’t have received more attention because it didn’t deserve it?
‘No, no. When it came out I only played it four or five times. It receded more and more into my mind and I was thinking it must have been awful. I played it this week and it’s not. I thought it was really different, and that there was a lot going on there.’
Unlike their present musical bliss, and you are expected to buy it in vast quantities, the stage show has yet to reach fruition. Due to the constantly changing sizes of clubs and stages they must forego a backdrop – ‘Some kind of urban backdrop’ explains Urban Blitz, excusing the pun – but the make-up has vanished and hopefully stages will be large enough to allow an amp-free stage.
‘The trouble,’ complains Urban, ‘is that small stages force us to rely on equipment like all those other bands who just stick their amps up there – that’s art as far as they’re concerned. We went to cut that out completely’?’I’d like our performance to not be a rock band playing’ says Kid. ‘I’d like it to just be an experience. The more clues you leave lying around the stage that it’s a rock show the harder it is to get people out of that frame of mind. I know the hardware is what makes it for a lot of people, but we’re very much a 70s band, whereas most other bands are playing 1960s rock.
‘You get to thinking, who’s out there? There must be a few 70s bands in America, but over here it’s so lethargic. The Who do a good show, but it’s more or less the same show they did at Woodstock. Really, Pete!’
Reasonable enough assertions. Certainly no-one else in their mid-twenties seems to be making 70s out-on-the-ledge rock.
As to what genesis the Doctors of Madness, Possible Experience, had, ol’ blue hair isn’t too specific.
‘It was an immaculate conception. Virgin birth. It was Peter and I playing about 30 percent of the songs we still do, knowing funamentally we were right but the components outside ourselves weren’t happening. It took us about two and a half yeas to find the other two gentlemen. By early 1975 we’d done most of the spade work – the donkey work, I should say for our National Front readers, but it was very much in embryo. We didn’t tour as Doctors of Madness, really, until last October.
‘I thought it would be very uphill. We’d established a very small core of fans – disciples – on the first tour, which is what happened. On the Be Bop tour it grew- you know if you throw enough shit at the fan, some of it will stick.’
A beautifully mixed metaphor there. ‘And a lot of it did stick. Then on the March tour it started to happen, only two months after the first Be-Bop concert.
‘It didn’t surprise me that people were absolutely fanatical about us, but when people said it was okay, that surprised me. The occasional ‘You’re as good as…’ Fill in the dots, saying they were accepting us as a rock band on this level with other bands. I don’t think we work on a level with any other bands. We function as a glorious failure, which is great because we’re only in it for the glory anyway, or the most mind-shattering experience since Smirnoff.
‘But all in all, it’s exactly what I thought it would be. Probably a bit better than I thought it would be.’
So good, in fact, that Kid has made the crossover to Filmland. ‘A small part in Hamlet, directed by an Italian, Celestino Coronado Quentin Crisp is in it and he’s very pissed off because my hair’s bluer than his. Helen Mirren’s playing Ophelia and Gertrude, identical twins are playing Hamlet and they’re both on stage all the time. It’ll be shown in festivals – there won’t be a premier at the London Pavillion or anything like that. Maybe the Piccadilly Classic!’
There seemed only the penultimate question to ask.
What made you want to be a star?
‘I’ve always been different you know’, he replies in his serious, sincere tone of voice. ‘You don’t talk about it, you just know that everyone else in your class is going one way and you’re nothing to do with them. It’s really like being an alien, a visitor. It never occurred to me that I would do anything else than be in the public eye. It’s really no big deal for me because I’ve never considered any other possibility.’
Outside the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane after John Cale’s first concert there in early 1975, Kid Strange, his hair a midnight blue perilously close to black, vowed that in a year it would be him on that stage.
Damned if he wasn’t, too.
Camping Out – With the Doctors on? Desolation Row
(Phil McNeill, NME, July 1976)
‘Is it real?’ The audience gasp in unison as the electronic clanging fades and the lights spring on to reveal the face behind the lisping declamation that accompanied the electronix.
My God, he looks even weirder than he sounds!
I’ll swear Kid Strange’s hair is a brighter blue each time I see him, but for many of this overflowing Marquee crowd, largely tourists, this must be their first sight.
He’s like some flaring stick insect, towering over the rodent-like Urban Blitz, burrowing away to Kid’s right, and the fabulous Stoner, without his skull makeup but still ghostly beautiful, lurching on Strange’s left.
Behind them the blond, electric narcissus figure of Peter DiLemma crashes his kit into a relentless train time and the Doctors slam into ‘Waiting.’ It moves at an exhilerating, demented gallop, and it’s still as big a surprise as it was first time I saw them to realise just how well this superficially superficial band can play.
They run through a familiar set, mainly taken from their excellent debut LP, ‘Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms’. The material is all Kid’s. He writes post-Velvets, romantic/intellectual, virtually incomprehensible cinema verite of a blank generation from which his articulation disbars him and of sophisticated paranoia casualities from whom his aggressive self-confidence distinguishes him.
But ‘Is it real?’
Personally I find his distance from his material more convincing than the ‘I’m gonna beat my wife or boyfriend up tonight’ brigade, and although this sort of pseudo-documentary material has lost some of its psychological impact since Lou first used it, it is still capable of strong emotional impact, as even the old master himself occasionally proves when he rises above self-parody.
Kid’s songs are clogged up with words, and most other singers would fall flat on their faces – Steve Harley, for instance – but somehow, Strange’s nasal Etonian Cockney accent manages to convince me, even on lines like: ‘Reversal boys with swollen shoulders Rubbing up the late night grocers…’
Musically, his songs are awkward but interesting, covering a fairly similar range to the first Velvets alubm, from screeching chases to funereal dirges (in fact the Doctors probably play more slow numbers than almost any love band around), but structurally they are more ambitious – sometimes gawky, but often effective.
In other words, Strange is the Reed-like mainstay of the band, a fair singer and writer, and, like Lou, a scrawny guitarist, thundering away on a low volume, the earthquake rumble – along with DiLemma’s drums – beneath Blitz and Stoner.
Blitz plays violin and guitar. How good he is at either is perhaps irrelevant, because he makes suitably mournful/grating/choppy/flowing noises, the colourations for Strange’s monochrome screenplays.
Surprisingly, his less than galvanising, quirky guitar work suffices on all but one section (DOM songs tend to come in sections), the end of ‘Mainlines’, their longest, most lyrical rewrite of ‘Desolation Row’ – though, to be fair, Anglicised and scaled-down almost to reality (‘They call it the hotel 1969’) – when the sullen, black tone of the song gives way to a defiant cackle and climaxes on an instrumental that’s positively joyous. A that point a conventional soaring guitar would be amazing.
On the other hand, of course, the conventional soaring guitar would bring subliminal associations of bourgeois luxury and 70s normality, so maybe the Doctors would reject it if they had it.
You think I’m either jesting or reading far too much into it? Well, I’m fairly certain that the band actually thinks – or at least feels – that deeply into its music, and none more so thatn Stoner, a superbly fluent bassist whose every note, whether guiding the music of soloing against it, is totally in accord with the meaning of the song.
It’s a rare gift – Brian Turringtonhad it in the Winkies – and it is this quality of singlemindedness, togetherness, and emotional commitment that distinguished the Doctors of Madness as more than just a bunch of painted loonies, and more than just Justin de Villeneuve’s play for a lucrative 70s trend setter.
For every one who laughs, there’s another one who goes home singing.
Don’t let me be misunderstood
Obscure lyricist’s poignant plea at graveyard of rats.
(Phil McNeill, NME, 1977)
‘This is the place where the rats come to die’ lisps the skeletal blue-haired giant onstage at Paris’s Bataclan club, and right now it feels like it.
We’ve come virtually direct from the airport, feeling flight-shocked and hungry, to enter the portals of this stark, dayglo psychedelic cavern, featuring nothing to drink, nowhere to sit and a hideous light show.
Mutant tones resound from a tape machine to introduce the Doctors of Madness one by one – Urban Blitz, Peter DiLemma, Stoner, Kid Strange – and then…
And then the Doctors start their set on ‘Mainlines’, the slowest, most desolate dirge in their whole gruesome repertoire, rats dying in the very first line. Well, it’s a ludicrous spectacle. Smoke bombs explode – and the awful lighting seems deliberately to serve the exact opposite purpose to most lightshows, uglifying rather than prettifiying…. I try to make sense of this aural and visual sado/masochism, but it’s no use. All I can see is a bunch of pantomime characters onstage seemingly striving to induce neurosis in an audience which seems oblivious to the band’s intention, but which responds as it would to a heavy metal group, banging heads on walls and the more noise and smoke the better.
The sensory bombardment escalates until by the end of the set the hall is strewn with debris and strafed with strobes, stenched with cordite and steeped in feedback, until the roadies have wheeled on an exploding dummy and trundled the remains off again, until the Doctors have turned in the bleakest rendition even ‘Waiting For the Man’ has ever received… and I realise, soberingly, that The Doctors of Madness have begun to take themselves seriously.
I suppose they always have done.
Kid Strange, songwriter/spokesman/sleevenoter/etc/etc, is a peerless punster – he once told me a certain line had ’14 different interpretations’ and I’d lay money he could enumerate them all for you.
It’s not just in speech and lyrics that this operates. Just as he can apply any of his songs to, say 1977’s significance in the history of mankind, or, say to what he had for breakfast, so he applies a song to his relationship to his audience. The bewildered spectator listens.
‘I hope that the ambiguity is always there,’ he says, after I’ve explained to my surprise at seeing what I’d always considered a kind of cartoon suddenly, several days after the Paris gig while idly perusing a Doctors album pic, stand up as a viable reality. Not only were they taking themselves seriously, but for a split second the image assumed life for me too; the turmoil the group strove so hard to impose on the Paris gig glimmered briefly at me.
‘We survive on a tension between heaviness and lightness’ Strange continues. ‘On a tension between seriousness and humour, or wit, or whatever’. Comedy is probably the word he’s avoiding.
‘And y’know, Where the two are one, that’s where we have our fun, those microscopic spaces‘ he recites, doing the apt quotation trick. ‘That song?”In Camera” is really about us, the artists, and the people who the artists are supplying the art for.’
And what has the blue hair to do with art?
‘That was to get people talking’ Kid assures me blithely, having just shaved it to a convict length which, if anything, makes him look even more lurid.
‘It never caused me any consternation whether the music was strong enough, because I knew that the mucis was intellectually and musically stronger than a very large proportion of anything else that’s happening – and I donÕt say that in conceit or bravado, I just know it to be so.
‘There are very few people trying to make the connection on the level we’re trying – which is very multi-storeyed, starting from a visual stimulus and going, I hope, all the way through to some sort of didacticism. It is, at the death, an attempt at education.’
Isn’t that a bit….
‘Pompous? Absolutely. But I don’t have a lot of time for false modesty’.
But Kid, a lot of what you write is so cliched, particularly the imagery you use: razors, suicide, rats, guns, a plethora of cliches and melodrama (the first of which I hate, the second of which I tend to like). Don’t you think this hinders communications on the very emotional level you work on when at your best?
You have to find a level to talk to people on,’ Strange explains – not that he and I seem to have found our mutual level. Even playing back the tape, I’m floundering around trying to sift the bullshit; as Kid would point out, that’s all of it and none of it.
‘Most of the words you’ve mentioned are very strongly emotive. I’d rather use things like that than something which wouldn’t necessarily be called cliched because it it so cliched – things like the occult, that whole chunk of nonsense from your Yesses to your Black Sabbaths.
‘Look at what you are and read newspapers and try and use that sort of language, and if those come over as cliches it’s probably because we do live a cliche; which is a cliche.
‘The question then is, does an artist transcend cliche? Is an original statement necessarily devoid of cliche?’
Kid Strange thinks not: ‘I don’t know if you devalue something or put it slightly downmarket to make it more accessible by doing what I’m doing. I know I could write a much higher art were I to so choose, and I could get involved with something much less image orientated and much more intellect orientated if Ii so wished. But I’m not that much more of a purist and an elitist.’
If, as I am certain they can, Kid Strange and his band can reach through those ‘Microscopic spaces’ and touch your heart, why do they smother it in so much bombast? And why is that boring old cool rocker image, that most thoughtless barrier, being allowed to assert itself?
‘That’s why I always want to give out clues’, Strange says, mentioning that lyrics are proved on ‘Figments of Emancipation’ along with obtuse sleevenotes pointing out meanings to the songs.
‘ I don’t aspire to the Greatest Misunderstood Artist of Our Time. I want to make that connection. Rock’n’Roll and films are the greatest image banks of our time. You gotta do it – and I’ll go into it with as much vigour as anyone. I know you can never get rid of the stage and the audience and the performers, but it can be a very useful device to have.
‘Especially if you consider what you do to be in some way an attempt to….’ (entertain?) ‘To teach.’
What a twerp, you’re thinking. It’s not what his manager thinks.
Bryan Morrison is fuming. The customs have just confiscated his wristwatch, and as we power into London from Heathrow in his black Rolls Royce, he champs on his cigar and vows he’s going to sue them. He seems to mean it.
On our way to the West End we stop at what looks from the outside like a studio or even a warehouse, a slightly scruffy building in West London. However, on venturing inside, I discover it’s Morrison’s house, virtually an art gallery, wall-to-wall originals, deep pile black carpets, sunken bath in the corner of the bedroom, a dome ceilinged living room which, Morrison gleefully tells me, the decorator compared to the Royal Albert Hall.
This man is by far the most ostentatious rich man I’ve ever met. It might as well be decorated with ten pound notes.
An immensely likeable guy who made his millions for himself, Morrison started out as the Pretty Things’ manager after he booked them for a tenner at his London art school, dropping out to do it, and finally threw in the towel as a rock entrepreneur for health and boredom reasons just before the Pink Floyd, who he’d managed from scratch, cut ‘Dark Side of the Moon.’ He also managed Free, T Rex, and many others.
The Doctors of Madness rekindled his interest. He believes in them – and with his bread, it’s got to be a fascinating band to get Morrison back in the biz.
In a world of music that plays safe, he recognises the Doctors as unique; they may not be totally original, but they are absolutely isolated. As Paul Morley said, ‘the most unfashionable band of all time.’
After the gig, there’s 16 of us round a table in a restaurant. Rene, who designed the florid ‘Figments of Emancipation’ cover, chucks some insult Bryan’s way.
‘Right’, yells Morrison, ‘That’s the last Doctors cover you do!’
‘Oh no’, groans Kid Strange, ‘That means the end of our psychedelic period. Better practice gobbing, lads.’
Footnote: I caught the Doctors again at the Marquee during their Route ’77 tour. With a rearranged set, they were back to their beautiful best – I loved every instant of it. The place was packed, the sound, lights and performance were great. Dave Vanion (sic) of the Damned joined in on ‘Waiting for the Man’. – They wuz fantastic. Just thought you ought to know.
Strangers in a Strange Land
(Giovanni Dadomo, Sounds ‘Route 77’ tour special, February 1977)
TRUE: You have to climb something like ten flights of stairs to get to the dressing room and the people in it. This done, a slow pan of the tall, triangular locale reveals a familiar congregation, ie a handful of press, four or five record company representatives and, at the hub, the group and some close friends.
No mistaking the group: first, the drummer, the one with the short fair hair and the dampest stage gear; the bass player, he’s the hannaed gypsy boy with the golden earing; the one in khaki and the blue-black crop, he packs away the violin with such care it must be his.
Stage centre, his back to a mirror, a glass of red wine in one enormous hand is Kid Strange, unmistakeable even at rest, his huge frame dwarfing the chair it’s perched on into some misplaced item of kindergarten furniture.
The chatter of two and a half tongues: English, French, and broken versions of both as the English journalists meet their Parisian counterparts, the local record company execs and promoter congratulate the management and group on what has so far been a very good tour indeed.
Serious stuff eh? Not quite – me and Kid Strange, we’ve met before, across page and table both. It’s in commemoration of our first confrontation (the one on paper), that he drops the coathangers on my head. Bonk, bonk, bonk.
Does he mean it? Do I bleed? Neither – it’s just an old feud become a jest.
See, I tell Kid, I enjoyed your show tonight. Oh, good. The audience too (but he knows that already) were ecstatic at the end of it all, prompting one to conclude that maybe France is a more appropriate country for the Doctors of Madness than their homeland.
‘It’s not better… different,’ says Kid. ‘Like playing somewhere else.’ the bluebird in his ear moves in time with his jaw. I note that his roots look like they could do with retouching – a tit for tat for those clotheshangers.
FALSE: One morning in 3066 Brady Koobs, a computer maintenance supervisor in the giant Euromond conglomerate wakes up in horror. Nothing is quite as he remembers it; the automatic lighting has failed and the hum of the Alphacomforter by his air bed is strangely silent. He gets up and runs to the window to find himself looking at another world. Or almost – what he sees looks like a scene from a history book – the old city of London as it was before the Great Fire.
His apartment too is altered beyond all recognition: Where once were smooth plasticglass walls, there’s now cheap, peeling wallpaper; the self-adjusting colours of the Moodceiling are replaced by cracked plaster and an ancient light fixture suspended from a worn length of flex. He looks for his clothes in vain- the wardrobe is full of course, uncomfortable garments as worn in costume dramas.
As the day progresses he discovers that he is indeed, to all intents and purposes stranded almost a millenium in his planet’s past. Or is he dreaming? Passing time and the indifference and scorn he meets from his fellow humans put paid to such fanciful notions.
Always a strong willed individual, Brady Koobs keeps insanity at bay and begins to take stock of the situation. Until such a time as a return to his own environment is possible – and he’s realistic enough to realise this might be never – Koobs decides to make the best of this sordid little present.
Or what little there is left of it. It’s late 1974 and Koobs is the only person on the planet who knows that two, maybe three years from now, the entire globe will be plunged into the first Great Fire, a self-induced holocaust which the human race will only just survive.
After much thought, Koobs decides the best way to stave off the imminent armagetddon is by means of rock’n’roll – he’ll go straight to the young people of this doomed world and meet them on their own terms. Gradually this idea takes the form of a rock band: Doctors of Madness, with Koobs taking on the persona of Kid Strange, lead singer/guitarist.
The message is a simple one: as ever the world is devided inot a ruling elite and an enslaved mass, with all the refinements of modern technology taking the place of the slavemasters and centurions who had been used to enforce the status quo by previous civilisations.
The message is a simple one: ‘Decondition/Hang Loose/Stay Close/You’re Beautiful’.
Unfortunately not many people listen and the future remains balanced on a razorblade.
TRUE: Sometimes they do listen. Read any French review of the Doctors of Madness, be it live or on vinyl, and it’s a very different story from what you get on the English- speaking side of the channel. For whereas in Britain it’s rare to find one reviewer in twenty who hasn’t discovered at least one good reason for hating the Docs (and, oddly enough, everyone seems to hate the group for reasons of their own), French ‘rock critics’ fall over themselves to sing their praises. And no, this isn’t because the French are starved of rock’n’roll which they aren’t, or because they don’t understand English too well.
Appropriate therefore that the Doc’s show at the Bataclan, a Paris hall with the capacity of the Marquee Club in London, should begin with a tape of Kid Strange reading a DOM review clipped from ‘Best’, one of France’s two principal rock organs.
If you’ve seen the Docs in Britain, you’ll probably be aware of the fact that the show would normally kick off with a taped extract from William Burroughs’ ‘The Naked Lunch’. Here Strange retains the Burroughs effect by having the review gradually turn into a cut up of itself – an easy thing to get across as the language of the original is appropriately Burrovian.
The meat of the spectacle is the Doctors themselves though, Kid appearing from the shadows in the long frock coat from the British ‘End of the World’ tour, looking like a grave roober from some neo-Victorian futureworld where everyone has blue hair and eyes that glow in the dark.
The others seem quite normal by comparison, even though Urban Blitz is still kitted out like an air raid warden from world war three, and Stoner has on his already mentioned gypsy outfit. Peter DiLemma’s harder to make out, hidden away behind his kit except for occasional flashes of yellow hair, making his presence felt principally through his rumbustuous percussion.
As for the music, this is only the second time I’ve seen the group live but they sound at least ten times stronger and more purposeful than they did at the end of the last British tour. Part of this is no doubt due to the fact that the audience is so much more positive than what they’ve had (or not) so far at home. But there’s also a greater sense of emergency in the playing, with the sets being based around the faster numbers in their repertoire, resulting in an ultimately more dynamic whole.
They rock out more than they did last time, in other words, so that the tension created by the hell’s breath ‘Doctors of Madness’ is retained through the quieter ‘Marie and Joe’, ready to be picked back up again for ‘B-Movie Bedtime’, another stomper, this one with its near throwaway ‘high as a kite’ coda given all the impact it needs by being zapped from speaker to speaker. Next they do ‘Billy Watch Out’, complete with a preface from Strange about the political and religious maniacs who run the world.
There’s slides too: a Salvador Dali Christ looming down over Peter DiLemma during ‘Billy’ repalced by a black and white shot of a photographer (Henri-Cartier Bresson to them that knows) for the subsequent ‘In Camera’.
As I’ve made plain in print before now, my initial response to the Docs was totally negative, culminating in a venomous review of their second album. Much to my surprise the meeting with Kid Strange that grew out of that diatribe left me liking the man a lot and therefore deciding to give his music a second chance. However much I listened to the records though, I retained very large reservations – too much of the first album seemed to wallow in its own sense of large-writ tragedy for example – and even seeing the group live that first time, an uneven affair, no doubt affected by the size (small) and warmth – about half a Victory V lozenge – of the audience – hadn’t done a lot to change my mind onto the kind of super-positive track I reserve for my, ahem, faves.
So I was as surprised as could be when, around the time ‘Brothers’ wheeled into ‘Suicide City’, I suddenly realised I was actually enjoying what was going down almost as much as the French loony leaping up and down beside me. And enjoying it not as some kind of grotesque joke, but for what it was – a very creditable rock’n’roll fire engine powered by a violin with as much to say for itself as most of the guitars I’d been the target for in the last month or two.
And yes, even the encore of ‘I’m Waiting For My Man’, (once described as the worst version ever, or some such by a nameless reporter in an equally forgettable local rag) was as full and fine and privy of punch-pulling as the most devout Velvets afficionado could possibly require. How does it feel to have your head go the full 360 degrees? Fine.
FALSE: That night, in a secret hideout deep beneath the Paris sidewalks, there’s a meeting of The Giants, a secret order dedicated to saving the world from itself. Bob Dylan and John Lennon sit side by side with the French poets Paul Eluard and Jean Cocteau, the singer Jacques Brel, Cartier-Besson with a camera at the ready in his right hand. William Burroughs hidden behind huge dark glasses, the Swedish film maker Ingar Bergman – other faces, some familiar, some not so, some missing presumed dead, all seated at this vast table returning reports. A tentative knock at the door. A tall man with blue hair walks in. ‘Ki Kid, how’s it going out there?’ says Burroughs. Kid Strange smiles and takes his place at the table.
TRUE: Next morning a sleep-shocked Kid Strange takes coffee in the foyer of his hotel. He has a Joni Mitchell badge pinned to his chest bearing the legend ‘Free Man In Paris.’ And he doesn’t like being hated.
‘It’s so much down to the first thing that ever appears,’ says Kid, recalling the first piece ever published about the band in Britain was accompanied by a headline calling the Docs ‘the most tasteless band in the world’.
‘But the point was, no-one had ever called us the most tasteless band in the world before then. And ever since then we’ve been ‘tacky’ and ‘crass’ and ‘gross’ and all that other stuff – and I think it’s down to the initial response from people to that first article.
‘And I find that very interesting becuase that’s just another aspect of the whole thing that we’re about, which is how easily people’s responses are conditioned by their stimulation.’
FALSE: Late 1974. The renowned explorer Beauregard Chancer is unearthing the remains of a Mayan burial ground. At the deepest part of his excavations, he discovers a vast coffin-like object which seems to glow from within. Analysis fails to detect the presence of any known metal. Late one night, as the curator dreams about the ‘bunny’ spread-eagled across his lap, the mysterious container opens, freeling the only survivor of the atomic holocaust that destroyed the civilisation of Atlantis. Improbably tall, gleaming in the darkness, a five thousand year-old man steps into the present...
TRUE: It’s been said of the Doctors of Madness that their use of William Burroughs as a starting point amounts to little more than elegant name-dropping; same with the other ‘literary’ techniques – the slides of Cartier-Besson and Ingmar Bergman’s ‘The Seventh Seal’ too. But then if it’s cool for Patti Smith (like Kid, a Francophile) to sing about Rimbaud…
Kid Strange: ‘I find it very satisfying to have someone from Darlington come up and say ‘I’ve just managed to get hold of a copy of ‘Naked Lunch’… I don’t know whether it’s important or not that someone from Darlington should read some Burroughs, but I do find it satisfying that someone who might never have turned on to that train of thought is there partly because of something I may have said or done. The reason I find it satisfying is because I think Burroughs is working for the liberators rather than the jailers…’
FALSE: Henry and Alice Hibbert, a retired Milwaukee couple, were driving home from a friend’s house one night in 1974 when Alice spotted a long cigar-shaped object in the sky.
‘It was moving at a fantastic rate’ Alice said later. ‘Suddenly, the car stopped dead and we couldn’t open the doors or anything’.
Henry and Alice went on to realate how the vast ‘airship’ had stopped above their automobile and seemingly drawn it up into itself by magnetism.
‘We felt no fear’, says Henry going on to relate how he and his mate travelled to a planet ‘Beyond the Stars’, where they were examined in the minutest detail by a race of telepathic beings of obviously superhuman intelligence.
Finally they were returned to the same stretch of road at precisely five minutes after starting time, even though they’d experienced what seemed like several weeks of subjective time.
Needless to say the Hibbert’s story was considered nothing more than an elaborate, attention-grabbing fantasy. Especially the bit about the gigantic ‘aliens’ with the blue hair.
TRUE: Doctors of Madness, fortified and strengthened by the good vibes, food and wine of France (Kid: ‘It’s always back to Paris’), are about to set foot on native soil once more. There will be no more blue hair says Kid – ‘For you: an exclusive’. There will be stimulation and conflict aplenty.
FALSE: The above is entirely fictitious: there is no such group as Doctors of Madness, no such individual as ‘Kid Strange’.
TRUE: All paragraphs prefaced by the word ‘TRUE’ are totally imaginary.
‘Decondition/Hang Loose/Come Close/You’re Beautiful Slob Condition/Flat Clot/Hag/You/Decode/Cod/Utiful…’
VETO URBAN RENEWAL
(Pete Sutton, Sounds (?), 1977/78)
‘I’ve got to write a hit single. That’s my next job.’
Kid Strange, now looking relatively normal – hair merely hannaed instead of lurid blue – sprawls on a Polydor settee and considers the future of the Doctors (of Madness) with confident assurance.
‘I’ve got to write one because we’ve been where we are on the ladder for so long. We’ve been in the same place for nine months and I think we deserve better.’
His optimism is apparently undiminished by the recent departure of Urban Blitz, whose anguished guitar and violin gave the Doctors’ music its sharp, neurotic edge.
There are no immediate plans to replace him. Encouraged by the success of their recent German visit without Blitz, the band intends to work as a three piece, at least until the summer.
‘It was a bit unnerving to realise two days before you go away that you’re going to be doing the tour as a three piece,’ Kid recalls. ‘But the response was just outrageously good – far in excess of anything we’ve got in Germany before. And it was obvious why the energy level and the intensity level and the commitment level didn’t just go up by 25 per cent, because we were 25 per cent down. It went up 150 per cent, because there were three of us really bouncing off each other and knowing that everything we did had to be that intense or people would say there should be a violin solo there.’
Kid Strange, drummer Peter DiLemma and bass guitarist Stoner will make their first trip to the USA later this month, returning to tour Britian and Europe in the Spring. They’ll complete promotion of their forthcoming album before bringing in any new players.
The new album, ‘Sons of Survival’, to be released in March, contains Urban Blitz’s last work with the Doctors.
Kid explains the split: ‘What happened was, when we recorded the album, he started to freak out on a personal level, he became unmanageable on a one-to-one, or three-to-one basis. The saving grace about all that was, as it happened, he was playing the best he’s ever played. So that with the disintegration of him as a quarter of the band, the nervous energy he was putting in has made what I think is a stupendous record. As soon as he’d done his bits, the backing tracks and any overdubs, that was it, he wasn’t interested in mixing or cutting.
So it was a three piece Doctors of Madness who saw the album through to completion. ‘I’m just happy that the split came after rather than before he’d done his greatest work with us. I think it’s perfect that the band changes after this album, bdecause this album crystallised what we’ve been working towards for 2 and a half years anyway.
A quick preview of an acetate of ‘Sons of Survival’ shows the album to be lot more immediate than the previous two, generally more uptempo and wih a fairly ‘live’ sound and feel. Apart from a couple of guitar solos, Urban’s contributions are mostly violin – as nagging, raw-nerved and neurotic as always.
‘We’ve never been a particularly close band socially,’ Kid informs me, ‘but there’s always been a tacit relationship which is based on a common focus. That focus went for him, and it got so he was just turning up for gigs and going home after them. The three of us really developed in that period.’
But clearly his presence will be missed on stage, and there are plans to fill some of the musical gaps with electronics and recorded tapes.
‘I’m really excited by the idea of doing that. Its been explored so little, and its somthinbg i’ve always wanted the Doctors of Madness to get more into. I think what we’ll use is sound, sound effects, and electronics… just use sound in a very absract way, where the fourth instrument is demanded.
That might seem like replacing Urban Blitz with a machine, but Kid is dead against getting in a new member just now.
‘It’s like stepping into a dead man’s shoe – what is the point of getting a new guy in, and before you can let him develop at all, you say, right, this is what the old guy did. I just want to see this album through, and then say time for another change. If three people can get the spirit of what’s on the album over, that’s much more important than the notes.’
Forgotten Stills of Doctor Caligari
The Doctors, Marquee
(Pete Sutton, NME, 1978)
The inventor of British existentialist rock is looming on the once-hallowed Marquee stage, singing songs of darkness and dismay, and getting showered with phlegm. Did Jean-Paul Sartre ever suffer such problems?
It’s the punx, who perhaps are waiting for Dave Vanian, speaking the only language they understand with practised aim.
Kid Strange and the band seem unconcerned. No stagey threads, no make-up, no trick lighting, no dry ice. And no Urban Blitz either.
If you remember the Doctors of Madness from their Armageddon Revue style of a year ago, expect changes.
The new, stripped down, three-piece (musically, at least) Doctors rock with a power that the old version rarely achieved.
Minus violins, they’re cut back to a jangly, ringing-metal rhythm section.
The musical focus is Stoner’s bass, and the low, engine-room hum of his near melodies.
Peter DiLemma strikes his kit with brutal fury. Kid Strange, now a more than passable player, even by pre-punk standards, has a unique guitar sound – it could be down to his using a Vox Phantom – that avoids the usual screech and growl voices.
The music is the sound of animated machines, a danse macabre for the modern age, and, as Strange once put it, it’s ‘almost organic’. Almost.
It’s achieved with a beautiful simplicity that yer actual punx usually miss.
Over this android music Strange yells and crows his lyrics, fragmented images of doom, madness, dispair, the whole end-of-the-world scrapbook, gleefully offering titallating glimpses of a bleak, ravaged landscape of ideas.
The hardcore punx, who’ve occupied the front of stage zone, gob and pogo devotedly, and clap politely between numbers.
It’s mostly stuff from the new album – the title track, ‘Sons of Survival’, with a tape loop replacing Urban’s nagging violin monotone, chugs mightily.
‘Into the Strange’ hints at mania, ‘Back From The Dead’ confirms it.
Doctors fans of longer standing call out for numbers from the older albums, and get ‘Out’, ‘In Camera’ (the Sartre connection?) and a few others.
Halfway through comes ‘Network’, a song destined to become an anthem. A ragged funeral march, it builds to a repeated chant, ‘Is this just another Network…’
Enter Dave Vanian to join in the rousing refrain.
His role in the band is still a little unclear. He wanders about the stage, making theatrical gestures, and shooting manic glances at band and audience, an anarchic mascot who adds a certain random menace.
His vocal contributions seem fairly insignificant, adding little power to Strange’s and Stoner’s harmonies. He has a verse or two to himself on ‘Don’t Panic England’, a new, unrecorded song, and he’s okay. Still, it’s nothing like what he was used to in The Damned.
Visually, the effect is intriguing. Kid and Dave form a two loonies, welcome-to-the-asylum, front line. Mismatched heights, all blacks and whites, angular mad shadows – a forgotten still from The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.
It could develop into something spectacular. It’s fun as it is.
Lots of encores: ‘Kiss Goodbye Tomorrow’, a lugubrious wisp of romanticism sung by Kid to solo guitar backing, followed by ‘Cool’ (subtitle ‘Live in the Satin Subway’, geddit?) merging into a bit of ‘Waiting For My Man’.
And about a verse and a half of ‘New Rose’ – punx invade stage, stop play. Welcome to the madhouse, Doctors.
A concise history of the Doctors
‘You get booed before you play a note. we are one of the few bands that can get that strength of reaction off people…’ Stoner, 1975
Even 30 years after the fact, Doctors Of Madness are a difficult band to categorise. Kid Strange’s blue hair, Stoner’s Frankenstein make up, Urban Blitz’s unearthly violin, their songs of alienation and late night hedonism gone bad, for the conservative pre-punk audiences of 1975 all of this was hard to digest. Arriving at a time when the Doctors’ overall weirdness was too much for the reactionary climate of the music scene, neither did the docs fit the bill when punk, a movement the band had been in many ways a precursor, precluded any tolerance for songs over 3 minutes, Blitz’s violins, or Strange’s lyrical articulacy.
‘I think I had William Burroughs’s medical maniac Dr. Benway in mind. I like that strange contradiction between the notion of the trusted Doctor and the reality of the psychopath. As a piece of typography THE DOCTORS OF MADNESS is too long to make an impact on a poster or in a headline, and to lazy sub-editors and photographers who want a ‘theme’ or costume picture, our name was a gift; ‘Mad, these new Doctors of Rock’, you know the sort of thing. Within a couple of years we had lost count of how many photographic stylists had arrived at a photo session weighed down with armfuls of white coats, stethoscopes and hypodermic syringes, saying ‘I’ve had this great idea for the shoot’; Fortunately we soon learned quickly how to tell these lame-brains ‘no thanks’
The Doctors arose from the wreckage of kid’s previous band, ‘Great White Idiot’ in 1973. That band had dissolved in a near riot at their hundred club gig where the stage had been rushed by a hostile audience, but Strange did not let go of his ambitions; inspired equally by the Velvet Underground and the writing of William Burroughs, and buoyed by a degree of self belief that led him to rate himself alongside Lennon and Dylan as a songwriter, Kid believed himself a star from an early age.
Retaining Great White Idiot’s drummer Pete Di Lemma, Strange set out to find new musicians to help him realise his aims, a process which took a couple of years, before the Doctors Of Madness lineup solidified with bassist stoner and classically trained violinist urban blitz. at a gig in Twickenham in 1975, kid threw a chair into the audience, which landed on the already injured foot of Bryan Morrison, partner of a high profile management duo with Justin De Villeneuve. the Doctors were exactly what they had been looking for. The pair had been alerted by a friend to the talents of Strange & co, and were impressed with the Doctors’ conviction – “One of the first things that attracted us’ said De Villeneuve, ‘was a question of attitude. It was a real ‘fuck you’ to the audience’.
A deal with Polydor was secured and the Doctors were put through their paces in intensive rehearsals prior to the recording of their debut album ‘Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms’. When launched into the public eye the Doctors were taken by many as a bit of an affront; ‘Late Night Movies’ airbrushed cover captures well their unnatural, alien qualities. The Doctors are observing their own mirror image which stares vacantly back from the screen of some fleapit cinema. Kid’s languid figure dominates, a haughty, 6’4 blue haired oddity. Releasing the album at the end of 1975 at the height of uk rock’s denim-waistcoated conservatism, the Doctors elicited a good deal of hostility; supporting Status Quo that new year’s eve at the Olympia, the band were pelted with mince pies by the dandruff-riddled hordes. ‘They have no sense of parody’ commented Blitz. And yet some people out there were ready for the Doctors.
Yet some people out there were ready for the Doctors. An undercurrent of British music fans were ready for something to alleviate the stagnation, and the Doctors attracted a sizeable following. for those who had been ‘waiting for punk to happen’, the Docs were one of the bands to see; as Sounds scribe Jon Ingham would testify, ‘The only new group that i liked was the Doctors of Madness. They had a guitarist (sic) called Urban Blitz, and Richard Strange had a good sense of what was going on’. Touring with the likes of Be Bop Deluxe and the Heavy Metal Kids, a growing number of fans would congregate. ‘It didn’t surprise me that people were absolutely fanatical about us’ proclaimed Kid in 1976.
Although ‘Late Night Movies’ failed to shift huge volumes in the UK, it did well in Europe and import copies were snapped up stateside, particularly in California. Encouraged, the band began work on their second record, ‘Figments of Emancipation’, in Abbey Road Studios, with John Leckie at the controls. Preceded by their ‘Midsummer Madness’ UK tour, the record was released in early autumn 1976.
“As I went increasingly out of control onstage, the white-coated roadies would rush onstage and restrain me in a strait jacket. Amidst all the mayhem, a modified tailor’s dummy vaguely resembling me, complete with strait-jacket and a blue wig, would be substituted and as a final coup de theatre it would be exploded onstage to close the show.
By this time Punk’s storm clouds were gathering, catching the Doctors in a difficult position. Although many punk qualities could be identified in the Doctors, there was also much about the band that would be considered ‘incorrect’ by the new brigade. The level of ‘hype’ that accompanied their launch would count against them and caused the Doctors to be viewed with suspicion. ‘We started to go and see Doctors of Madness’ recounted penetration’s Pauline Murray of those pre-77 days, ‘who were a real record-company type band: then we saw the Sex Pistols in Northallerton in this tiny club. A short while later they played with the Doctors of Madness in Middlesborough, and they wiped them out. They wiped a lot of bands out. It sounds a cliche now, but i saw it happen. All those bands lost their confidence when the Sex Pistols came along.’
That and their wallets, it seems; while the doctors were on stage one night, support act the Sex Pistols’ kleptomaniac guitarist Steve Jones went through the band’s pockets, effectively counting Polydor out of any future McLaren negotiations. Doctors still retained some standing in Punk circles; friendships were struck up with figures as the Damned and the Adverts, Kid and Adverts mainman TV Smith working together on one song, ‘Back from the Dead’, which both bands recorded. It was one of a new set of songs the Docs worked on in preparation for their third and final album, ‘Sons of Survival’, released early 1978. Their ‘post-punk’ record would be their most concise and hardest-sounding release. In recording this album in late 1977, Blitz began to drift apart from the band and he quit directly after the recording. The Doctors promoted the record, released early 1978, as a three piece, utilising tapes and electronics to fill the gaps in the sound. Kid didn’t at first seem unduly worried by Blitz’s departure: ‘I think it’s perfect that the band changes after this album, because this album crystallises what we’ve been working towards for two and a half years anyway.’ However, the single ‘Bulletin’ failed to register a hit and there seemed little hope of overcoming public and critical indifference enough to make the break out of the cult bracket. Disillusioned, Strange began to map out a solo career for himself, and after a brief spell with the Damned’s Dave Vanian as co-vocalist, Doctors of Madness were no more.
While the Doctors catalogue has remained out of print between the 1981 retrospective ‘Revisionism’ collection and Ozit records programme of reissues which began in 1998, there are fans new and old worldwide; the band’s influence has been trumpeted by some who encountered them at the time and were to progress into their own musical careers, names as diverse as Cabaret Voltaire, Julian Cope and, perplexingly, Def Leppard! A listen to the Doctors of Madness’ recorded works reveals not the bunch of ‘also rans’ of this period as they are often represented, but a paradoxical, highly individual outfit and very probably an important missing link between pre and post punk music. it’s time, in other words, to give the Doctors of Madness some credit.