Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Punk, Politics, and Pandemics: Picking the Legendary Richard Strange’s Brain

As a bold pioneer of punk rock for over forty years with his band Doctors of Madness, it’s not so strange that musician, actor, writer and curator Richard ‘The Kid’ Strange has once again delivered with his politically charged 2019 album Dark Times and self-narrated 2021 audiobook version of his memoir, Strange: Punks and Drunks and Kicks and Flicks.

Described by The Guardian in 2017 as “the missing link between David Bowie and The Sex Pistols,” Strange’s latest Doctors of Madness album addresses the current political environment with soul-shaking bass and thought-provoking lyrics, accompanied by a backing band of his close friends and family. 


Getting lost in Strange’s fascinating life story told in his unabridged audiobook, it’s no wonder this legend’s music confronts contemporary issues with such poignancy and power. 


We chatted with Strange to unpack his latest masterpieces and glean valuable advice for artists navigating a digitalized post-COVID world…


What inspired you to release ‘Dark Times’ in 2019? 


I was in hospital at the time, and I hadn’t made the album that I would like to be remembered by yet. I also hadn’t made an album for about 25 years that actually addressed the contemporary world as I see it. So there I am, these two weights on my mind in light of what’s happening in the world with Trump, Brexit, and this lurch to the right politically…and I started writing songs. When I came home, I had about ten. I sent the recordings to my friend John Leckie, one of the great record producers of Doctors of Madness in 1976. To my astonishment, he got back to me the next day and said that we’ve got to make this record because these are really important songs. I work with two musicians in Japan who agreed to be on the record, plus my stepdaughter. Other friends like Joe Elliot from Def Leppard, Sarah Jane Morris from the Communards, Terry Edwards, and Nick Cave also wanted to be involved. I ended up with this amazing backing band making an album for Doctors of Madness for the first time in forty years with songs that I was really proud of. 


How did you come up with the band name ‘Doctors of Madness?’


There’s a character in William Burrough’s Naked Lunch called Dr. Benway that does everything that a doctor shouldn’t do. He takes drugs, doesn’t observe any hygiene regulations…it’s comic writing at its finest. I’ve always liked the idea of paradoxes and the juxtaposition of words, which is a Willliam Burroughs trope. I suppose Frank Zappa’s band, the Mothers of Invention, was also resonating in my head somewhere, and I thought that the name Doctors of Madness represents a dichotomy between doctors who are supposed to cure the madness and doctors who actually give you the madness. 


Do you have a specific songwriting process that you follow?


I just about always come to songwriting through a lyric rather than through a melody, even back when I first started. I took a Bob Dylan album to school once, and one of the teachers had a look at it and realised this isn’t the sort of thing kids are normally listening to. To be honest, my older brother had bought the record, and I was just going along on his coattails. But, being one of those brilliant teachers, he thought, ‘This is a way for this 14-year-old kid to discover literature.’ Suddenly, he’s giving me books of poetry and plays and novels. That teacher switched on a light for me that’s burned ever since. 


Do you think that music and politics are inherently entwined?


I think they are. I teach masters students in music once a week, and recently I put together a lecture on protest music. Researching that for myself for the lecture, I found that music can be linked to protest as long ago as the 1670’s when land workers protested the conditions under which they worked for a feudal lord. Growing up in the ’60s, there was this huge explosion of activism where you had gay rights, women’s rights, civil rights, abortion, and the first ideas about environmentalism and green politics surfacing all at once. In the 70’s you’ve got punk rock, in the 80’s you’ve got R and B and rap, and this leads right up to albums like ‘Lemonade’ from Beyonce. Although music and politics are not always extremely comfortable bedfellows, I think protest and music go together more than any other art form. Music is a very effective and powerful communication tool. 


For those that haven’t read your memoir, how did you get into music?


In 1969, I thought I might go to university, although no one in my family had ever been. No one. And my father didn’t like the idea because ‘No one ever had, so why should I?’ Although I didn’t end up going, I did go to interviews and got offered a place, and I was really upset about not being able to go. I wondered, what would be the greatest thing I could do to get revenge on my father? Then I thought, I’ll buy a guitar. He would hate that! Haha! So, I travelled to Copenhagen with my brother and bought a guitar in a coffee shop. That was the beginning of my music career in 1969. By the early ’70s, I could put a few chords together, by 1973, I was confident enough to collaborate and got three other people involved. By 1974, we were the band Doctors of Madness. 


How did your career transition from music to other areas of the arts sector?


Well, I never had that big hit record, and I look back and think that is my greatest stroke of good fortune. If I or the band had had one, we could have probably eked out a living for 40 years, still going with one or two nostalgic songs. Because we didn’t have that option, I had to reflect: what went well and what went badly in that attempt of becoming a Rockstar? 


In 1978-1979, I wrote a conceptual album called The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange, but I realised it wouldn’t work in rock and roll form, so I opened a mixed-media club called Cabaret Futura. The Pogues played for the first time there. Because the club was very performance-oriented, someone thought on one occasion I wanted to be an actor, which had never crossed my mind. They introduced me a movie director in France. From there I got a stupid film, then a few commercials, then a part in Mona LisaBatmanRobin HoodHarry Potter…as I say, I really am lucky. I’ve worked with The Sex Pistols, Jack Nicholson, Tim Burton…and I’m a kid from a London state school who left with nothing except for extreme determination.  



What is one of your favourite stages to perform on?


I always enjoyed the American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco on Geary Boulevard. They’ve got a great history of putting on experimental work. In London in 2004, I was at a party and met a theatre director called Robert Wilson. I asked what he was doing in London, and he said, “I’m casting for a Tom Waites musical called The Black Rider.” When I asked when auditions were, he said, “The last one is tomorrow.” I asked if I could come along, and he said to bring my guitar.  The day after the audition, I got a call saying I’d gotten the part. 


For about the next ten weeks, every night we would look through the curtain before the lights went down and go, “Who can you see?” It was always like, “I can see Neil Young in the fourth row!” or “Whoopie Goldberg and Keith Richards are there!” Very happy memories from the Geary Theatre. 


What was it was like to read your life story aloud in your audiobook? 


It was odd. When I first wrote the book, I’d just gotten to fifty years old, so I thought I was just old enough to be thinking about a memoir, given that today the average age is eighteen. Haha! My original idea for the book when I started writing it in 2001 was to somehow overlay my little life, both artistic and personal, over this big picture of a world that is really changing post-Second World War and becoming highly digitalized. It’s a world where young people have a voice and spending power for the first time in history. That was the original idea. In the end, it didn’t quite come out like that. 


But when the first lockdown hit in March 2020, I thought my next logical project was to make an audiobook, thinking that this pandemic might last two months or something. I decided to read from my original manuscript rather than from the book, which is the edited version. The audiobook book is unabridged, and it contains a lot more material than the printed version does. It also includes music such as old rehearsal tapes from Doctors of Madness and songs from different historical time periods in my life.


In your audiobook, you were saying that it’s easy for artists to imitate each other. What do you think about social media and its impact on artist originality?


In the last twenty years, music has become democratized. It used to be that you couldn’t make a record unless you were signed to a label because recording, distribution, and selling costs were so high…it was all a nice cosy cartel between the record companies and music publishers. When punk rock came in, we saw the first chipping away at that in 1975-76. You could go into a studio for 150 quid, maybe record two songs and sell them at gigs. From there, recording software became available for home computers, and suddenly, you had access to a recording studio in your bedroom. There’s more on Logic Software than there was in Abbey Roads Studios when I recorded there. 


But now you’ve got much more music, which causes distribution problems. The music press used to be kingmakers in the music division. And the writers…I still remember all their names because I was terrified of them giving me a bad review! Which they all did! So that availability of technology democratizes the process, but then you’ve still got to find an imaginative way of using social media to get your head above the power pen because there’s so much more music out there now. Everyone’s a Rockstar. 


How can artists work around the reality of more competition? 


I always say to my students that there are two sorts of artists: those who say yes, and those who say no. Those who say no are the ones who are comfortable in their own zone and don’t want to risk failure. I think this generation is very risk-averse, mainly because they’ve been sold the lie of success. Andy Warhol predicting that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes in the future before the internet had been imagined is a testament to his powers of clairvoyance. Social media is a game-changer. You must either embrace and adapt to technology or reimagine what it is you do, maybe by collaborating with other disciplines outside of music. For example, you could work with film or provide an audio installation for a fine art gallery, etc. The idea that you’re going to make a good living from making records alone requires a lot of luck. It’s hard, but I don’t feel like I’m being negative about that. This is a generation that doesn’t expect to pay for music. 


What did you do to maintain your creativity during the pandemic besides your audiobook?


When I finished reading the audiobook and realised to my horror that the pandemic was still on, I thought, what now? I decided to host a one-hour radio show once a week on Soundcloud featuring my own work. Not in a narcissistic way, I hope, but just because it was interesting to make connections between things that I’d done, people I worked with, things I’d produced, people I’d performed for or collaborated with, and also music that really inspired me. It was a very subjective, personal show, with no great expectations. I’m currently doing one two-hour show every week, but now the show has been picked up by five different radio shows around the world in Los Angeles, Portugal, London, Yorkshire, and soon Japan. 


What sort of advice do you have for artists who are recovering from the effects of the pandemic?


Don’t give up. You can’t achieve anything if you’re not trying to achieve it anymore. Also, set your expectations at a realistic level for the time being, at least. It’s not the world it was two years ago, and it won’t be for some time. Finally, remember that people will always need music, something that shines a mirror on existence and reflects on the beauty, tragedy, heartbreak, exultation, and sheer blissed-out joy of being human. We’re always going to need someone who can articulate and commemorate those things for us. 


Audiobook available at: https://www.richardstrange.com

Album available at: Youtube Music, Apple Music 


Nickie Finnegan 


Image Creative Commons Licence: https://www.flickr.com/photos/manalive/41038878222

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comment Here;