Review – Doctors of Madness: “Perfect Past – The Complete Doctors of Madness”

Doctors of Madness

Perfect Past: The Complete Doctors of Madness (3CD box set)

(RPM/Cherry Red)

No apologies.

This is what box sets were made for.

The Doctors of Madness stand at the juncture of so many of the musical movements that cleaved the mid-1970s (and continued cleaving for years to come) that it is fruitless to even try and justify that remark.  If you’ve heard them, you’ll know.  And if you haven’t, you should.  It’s as simple as that.

We’ll get to who they were in a moment.  Let’s start, however, with what they were. Because that’s a question that nobody has answered.

Were they glam?  Frontman Kid Strange had vivid blue hair and bright green sideburns, styled by Twiggy’s personal hairdresser; bassist Stoner (“that’s all.  Just Stoner,” insisted the man) was disguised as Frankenstein.   In a post-Ziggy world of satin, tat and smash-and-grab raids on the cosmetics store, the Doctors fit right in.  But how many glam bands closed their debut album with a fifteen minute epic that insisted, in its first line, “this is the place the rats come to die”?

Were they prog?  Their first album included a side-long suite and, again, that fifteen minute closer, and their line-up included prominent violin, less-prominent sax, and what the credits describe as “low budget orchestra.”  But it was prog shot through A Clockwork Orange, über ultra-violence like you’d never heard before, and wouldn’t encounter again until 1977.  The Doctors did not visit topographic oceans.

So, were they punk?  With names like Urban Blitz, Kid Strange, Stoner and Pete Dilemma, they certainly paved the way for the nomenclatural convolutions of the imminent era.  But that’s all it was – imminent.  The Doctors’ first album was recorded in 1975, at a time before the Sex Pistols had even played their first gig.  (Although they would open for the Doctors the following year.)  But they had a view of the world that made dystopia sound like a welcome alternative, and even their love songs left you pondering other options.

New wave/post punk, call it what you will, then?  The early Simple Minds were arch fans before they even became self-abusers; a solo Strange cut The Phenomenal Rise Of Richard Strange, one of the key albums of the post-punk era (and including at least two songs that the Doctors had performed or demoed); and 1981 saw Polydor release a Doctors compilation to reflect on the influence that the band was now said to have exerted.  But the Doctors had been dead for three years by then, and they weren’t returning any time soon.

Maybe they were all of these things.  Maybe they were none of them.  What is indisputable, however, is that they were the Doctors of Madness, and for the four years during which they practiced their peculiar strain of medicine, they deserved every ounce of praise they received, and every accolade that has been thrust at them since then.  Including the observation that Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms, that so-triumphant debut album, was the sound that drowned the screams as punk squeezed out of glam rock’s urethra.

Which wasn’t exactly what anyone expected, or even wanted, to hear in 1975… in a year that had otherwise granted us such deathless displays of derring-do as Uriah Heep’s Return to Fantasy, Humble Pie’s Street Rats, Tull’s Minstrel in the Gallery and Soft Machine’s Bundles; in which the best-selling albums included Rock of the Westies, Red Octopus and Chicago’s Greatest Hits; in which… okay, let’s stop there.

History insists that punk rock was inevitable because “the kids” were sick of their earlier idols lapsing into laziness, virtuoso masturbators making records because they could, at the expense of the people who should.  And that’s true – it’s hard to get truly enthused about artistic integrity, creativity and art when your two favorite bands of the era, let’s say 10cc and Caravan, are either writing clumsy songs about oral sex (“Headroom,” from the former’s How Dare You?) or titling their new LP with an even clumsier spoonerism (Cunning Stunts).

Antidotes were appearing.  From the now-fading pub rock scene, Dr Feelgood lay down machine gun R&B, single-handedly rekindling the birth of the Stones and the Pretty Things into a world of strikes and mounting unemployment; from an unknown world poised halfway between old time English music hall and the basement where the Stones cut Exile on Main Street, the Heavy Metal Kids were out to prove that you could still have fun while rocking and rolling.

And from the Cabbage Patch pub in west London’s Twickenham, the Doctors were… according to co-manager Justin DeVilleneuve, “reflect[ing] in the seventies the decadence of Berlin in the thirties.”

In truth, he may have lifted that line from the back of the first Velvet Underground album, where they too were said to remind witnesses of “nothing so much as Berlin of the decadent thirties.”  But it doesn’t matter if he did.  It worked, regardless.  The Velvets were still undergoing the first phase of their great rehabilitation and, to the casual listener, the Doctors could be regarded as an updated extension of all that they portended.  Substitute Strange’s nasal lisp for Reed’s monotone drawl, and “Perfect Past” could easily be the new “Pale Blue Eyes.”  Although it’s hard to imagine Jack Jones covering it.

“Perfect Past” (recorded on the Doctors’ second album, Figments of Emancipation) was subsequently nominated  by Strange as “a classic of twentieth century songwriting,” and he should know, because he wrote it.  The thing is, he’s probably right.  Not every song the Doctors recorded hit every button you might want it to.  But when they got it right, which was ninety-five percent of the time, there’s definitely a case to be made, not only for that claim, but for another of the Kid’s loftier pronouncements, that only Dylan and Lennon were his equals as a songwriter, and both had now deserted him.

“They’ve really let me down, and now I’m on my own.  It’s lonely at the top.”

Especially when you have blue hair.

As Richard Harding, Strange first came to public attention as a member of the delightfully named Great White Idiot, a band whose solitary live show – at the 100 Club in London in late 1973 – coincided with what the audience thought was the venue’s soul night.  When it turned out to be anything but, the crowd rioted, the venue was stormed by the local police, and Great White Idiot shattered just as the record company bigwigs they’d invited showed up at the door.

Not to be put off, Harding promptly threw himself into another band, comprising several former Idiots – Peter Hewes (drums), Martin Martin (keyboards), Eddie Macaro (guitar) and a bassist who apparently believed he could write songs as well as the group’s lead singer.

Harding tolerated him for a while, but finally the hapless impostor was sacked, and Colin Bentley was recruited in his place.  Then, with Martin and Macaro following the outcast out of the door, and a handful of prospective synth players having been summarily ejected from the audition studio, the band gathered in Strange’s Brixton basement and – in Bentley’s words – “sat around plotting these absurd ideas, this really outrageous image that we wanted to create to match the type of songs Richard was writing.

“I was living in a flat in Tooting,” Bentley recalled in an interview in mid-1981, “and Richard was just around the corner.  We knew each other quite well, I used to go see him when he gigged, and he used to come and see me.  I was sharing a flat with a folk singer, we had a band together, and Dick was pretty certain I wouldn’t be interested in what he was doing,  He didn’t ask me, he just took it for granted that I wouldn’t, so in the end I asked him.”

As a trio of Harding, Bentley and Hewes, the Doctors debuted at Hampstead Town Hall on January 24, 1974; in July, however, the arrival of violinist Geoffrey Hickman had completed the line-up.  Now it was time to lay out the vision.

“We are concerned with a kind of cinematographic style, where images come in and out,” Strange confirmed at the time, “not making much sense on a rational level, more on a sensory one.  Our music, our show, has got this cold, sleazy feeling to it, of those old street corners.  We are much more nasty than Alice Cooper, very sleazy, underground and outrageous.”

But how outrageous can you be with names like Colin, Richard, Geoffrey and Peter?  A drunken, stoned, evening ended with the rechristening of all four… Stoner (Bentley), Kid Strange (Harding), Urban Blitz (Hickman) and Pete DiLemma (Hewes).  Then, with the assistance of Mrs Stoner, the grotesque make-up which was “to add something to our personalities” was created.  “We are,” Strange announced, “one of the few bands who get booed before we play a note.  Not many others can get that reaction.”

Or, as Stoner put it, “the make-up I wear puts the shits up people.”

Renting a back room at the Cabbage Patch pub in Twickenham, the Doctors began playing alternate Saturday night gigs in late March, 1975.  And it was there, said Stoner, that they met “this Italian, Pierre Forlani.  He was outside walking his dog and heard us, so he came in to investigate.

“It turned out that he was a talent scout for Bryan Morrison [one-time manager of Pink Floyd, Syd Barrett, Marc Bolan and more], and two weeks later, Morrison turned up with a walking stick.  He’d just hurt his leg playing polo.  He came in, introduced himself, and sat down right at the front. “

Later in life, the Doctors would take the stage to a tape of William Burroughs (included among the bonus tracks in the new box set).  At this juncture, however, “the introduction to our set was the four of us sitting at a table in the middle of the stage, smoking and drinking, with a tape of Marlene Dietrich singing ‘Falling in Love Again’ playing.  As it finished, Kid would sing the first lines of ‘Pigface and the Shiny Gang’ and then we’d kick everything off the stage.  At which point a chair flew straight into Morrison’s leg.”

Never released, either at the time or aboard any subsequent collection (not even this one), “Pigface and the Shiny Gang” is the Doctors in excelsis, a duet for Blitz, bass and feedback over which Strange recites a lyric that is part Burroughs cut-up; part “Desolation Boulevard.”

Capable of stretching itself out to eternity (even the demo tops nine minutes), “Pigface” lives on a little in the melody of the first album’s “Afterglow,” but for the most part, it inhabits menaced memory more than tangible evidence.  But it certainly impressed Bryan Morrison. “After the gig he came limping up to us.  ‘I like you boys.  I can make you stars’.”  (According to Strange, Jonathan King, too, was at that show, but they sent him away.  “I hated Genesis” – King was responsible for discovering that band.)

Morrison was more attractive, and turned out to be very attracted, too. “I’m only interested in talent,” he once remarked.  “If a band can turn me on in the same way as Al Jolson did, then they are true artists.  I got that same reaction when I went to see the Doctors of Madness.”  The band, he continued, “have come along at exactly the right time,  Two years ago, no-one was ready for them.”

Nobody was particularly ready for them now, either, but with Morrison in partnership with the aforementioned DeVilleneuve, of Twiggy managerial fame, the campaign to transform the Doctors into the biggest band in the universe kicked off.  It backfired spectacularly.

Spreading rumors that the band had been offered deals up to $250,000, the band signed to Polydor amidst a sea of well-placed newspaper photos, a guest appearance on Twiggy’s prime time UK TV series (now available on the Doctors’ There. Then. Now. Always DVD documentary) and … all the way from the USA… a short feature on NBC’s Weekend.

“We thought it was going to be our big break,” mourned Stoner.  “Our passport to fame and fortune.  But it was meant to be ‘How to Break a Band in England’; it turned out to be ‘how to hype a band in England.  Networked right across the States.  There was a huge row, Justin and Bryan split, and the whole thing effectively prevented us from ever getting to the States, and didn’t exactly enhance our reputation [at home].”

Worse followed.  On December 31, 1975, the Doctors opened the three day Great British Music festival, in the echoey chasms of the Olympia exhibition hall in London.  “We were the soundcheck,” Stoner recalled.  “The PA broke down during out set, it was pretty dreadful.”  The denim-clad hoards come to worship the headlining Status Quo certainly thought so – taking advantage of the season, they bombarded the stage with mince pies and whatever other festive missiles came to hand.

March 1976 saw the Doctors’ first album, Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms, hit the stores.  Bearing the legend “this record to be played with the gas full on,” it fit neatly into the void existing between the original Velvet Underground and early Cockney Rebel, but with more than enough originality to appease the most jaded palate.

But few people looked beyond the band’s make-up, and fewer still cared to actually play their record.  At a time when the UK music scene was finally beginning to shrug away the painted fancies of glam rock, but before it had embraced the even more painted gargoyles of Punk, the Doctors’ brittle, vivid theatre of the perverse was so far out on a limb that you’d have to be legless to even try and dance to them.

Certainly Sounds journalist Giovanni Dadomo was unimpressed – so much so that he penned a put down so vitriolic that Stoner remained impressed by the published review for years to come.  “He didn’t even mention us until the third sentence from the end, but it was a good idea, that review.  He probably had it written already, he just didn’t know who to use it on until we came along.  The fact that we were only mentioned twice means that all he had to do was fill in the blanks.”  (Six months later, Dadomo was on the road with the Doctors and emerged with a two page rave.  “He changed his tune quite quickly.”)

Late Night Movies appears in the box set laden down with bonus tracks – more, perhaps, than such a monumental album should require.  When “Mainlines’ concludes, the album should, too.  But there is no denying either the strength or the value of the added extras.

Three demos from June, 1975 include an early run-through for the second album’s “Out,” the previously unheard “We Don’t Get Back” and the album’s “B-Movie Bedtime”; an out-take of “Doctors of Madness” (also destined for the second LP) and a rehearsal version of Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man” – a song so perfect for the Doctors that it’s hard to believe that someone else wrote it.  The venom with which Strange delivers the lyrics is sufficient to ensure Mr Jones wouldn’t even want to know what’s happening.

A nationwide UK tour followed that spring, with the Doctors opening for Be Bop Deluxe, and again, audiences shifted restlessly as the band ran through its set.  At least, most them did.  In Leeds, however, the crowd became even more disgruntled when it was announced that the headliners would not be playing home town, which prompted Blitz to decide to cool them off,  by spraying them with a fire extinguisher.   According to legend, when Be Bop played the rescheduled gig a few weeks later, the support band was greeted with a hail of missiles which ended only when the lead singer announced, “we’re not the Doctors of Madness.”

The Doctors soldiered on, gigging through the fall of 1976 with the End Of The World tour, a wild extravaganza designed to promote their second album, Figments Of Emancipation, with a stageshow highlighted by exploding shop window dummies.

Again the album crashed, with the public’s disinterest only amplified by the record company’s total lack of concern; and that injustice only exaggerated by the sheer stateliness of the music.  Side one, in particular, melds three of Strange’s all-time strongest songs into a cohesive whole – “”Brothers,” “Suicide City” and “Perfect Past”; side two ignites with a fourth, the mournful “Marie and Joe” – and if things do dip a little after that, maybe that’s why neither “Doctors of Madness” or “Out” made the cut last time around.

But it’s an impressive album regardless, rendered even more magnificent by the box set drawing three demos to out complete its second disc – a November 1976 session that introduces the unheard “Frustration,” previews the third album’s “Triple Vision” and then looks head to The Phenomenal Rise with “I Make Plans.”  (The Doctors also recorded a Peel session around this time, but it seems to have been lost.)

Strangely silent through 1977 (a year that should have been tailor-made for the Doctors), the band broke vinyl cover just once, when a new song, “Bulletin,” sneaked out as a 45.  Further afield, hopes that the band might overcome the impressions fostered by the NBC special, and actually break into the American new wave, were dashed when a double album coupling of their two LPs, titled simply Doctors Of Madness, was DOA.

Unperturbed, the Doctors plowed onto the Route ’77 tour, co-headlining with guitar-wielding labelmate Pat Travers, the two acts topping the bill on alternate nights, before rounding it off with a solo London show apiece:  Travers took the 2,000 seat Rainbow, the Doctors opted for the 700 capacity Marquee, on March 8, 1977.

“That was our decision,” Stoner explained.  “We could have done the Rainbow, but we thought we’d get a better crowd at a smaller place, and we were right.”

It was also the night that the Doctors confirmed for all to see their role as an unspoken parent of the now burgeoning punk movement, as Damned vocalist Dave Vanian (“I met Strange in a shoe shop”) joined in for the encore “Waiting for the Man.”  Neither was that the peak of the cross-fertilization – Strange would also soon be at work with another of the punk scene’s leading players, Adverts vocalist and songwriter TV Smith.

“[TV] first introduced himself as a fan… he and [Adverts bassist] Gaye used to come and see the Doctors when we played the west country,” Strange recalled.  “We got to know each other, then when they moved up to London with the Adverts, I started to go along to their gigs, socially at first, then I started to really enjoy Tim’s writing.  It went from there.”

“Back from the Dead” was their first co-write, cut by both the Adverts (on the b-side of 1978’s “Television’s Over” single) and the Doctors, on their third LP.  It was quickly followed by others: “Don’t Panic England.” projected as a Doctors single during 1978, although it ultimately would not see the light of day until the early 2000s (find it on disc three of the box set); “Last Human Being in the World” and “Making Machines,” performed by Strange and Smith together at the final Doctors show in late 1978.

Even more remains deeply archived: “Summer Fun,” “Kings of the Wreckage,” “Big Break,” “Dance of Death,” “Torpedo” and “Some Kind of War.” All are glorious (the guitar underpinning “Summer Fun” is even better than that); all add up to one of the finest albums you’ve (probably – bootlegs exist) never heard.  But you had most likely guessed that already.

“TV is the only new wave songwriter who can string two sentences together, and still remember what the first one was,” Strange proclaimed (with considerable accuracy, it should be said).  “Apart from me, of course.  I suppose we’re coming from the same place, in that we’re both unfashionable and we both write what you could call protest songs.”

The album, Sons of Survival, was completed, a jagged, monochromatic departure from its predecessors, packed with sharp, short songs, cold, hard and direct: “50s Kids,” laying a wary eye on the approach of Strange’s thirtieth birthday; a reprise of “Bulletin”; Stoner’s still chillingly relevant vocal showpiece “No Limits” (“you know it’s real good politics to keep you all as stupid as you are”); and the gorgeous “Kiss Goodbye Tomorrow” all saw the Doctors facing a new tomorrow, and certainly pinpointed a new direction.  But, like its predecessors, the album went nowhere, and with Blitz’s departure now public knowledge, the obituary pens were being sharpened.

The Doctors, however, had other ideas.  The Damned, too, had splintered, and at the end of March, Dave Vanian was confirmed as Blitz’s replacement.  “He was really wasted in the Damned,” Strange shrugged.  “He used to sing twelve different versions of ‘Neat Neat Neat’ in a set.”

His time with the Doctors, which began at the Marquee on April 2, however, did not allow him much more room.   Wandering on stage towards the end of the show, “making gestures and shooting manic glances at band and audience alike,” sniffed one review, he was little more than an anarchic mascot, “singing a new song [“Don’t Panic England” was also his first and only studio recording with the band] and coming into his own only at the end, where the band and audience united for a raucous retread of ‘New Rose’.”

“I can’t remember if he stayed five minutes or ten,” Stoner apologized.  Either way, Vanian was soon on his way, and so were the Doctors  “The end came soon after the release of Sons of Survival,” Strange reflected.  “When that record came out, I thought ‘this one will at least turn the corner.  This is the one that will stop the straight line we’ve been going in, selling eight to ten thousand albums to, presumably, the same eight to ten thousand people, playing the same gigs.’  It was getting repetitious.  The satisfaction was fast going after that record.”

And so fell the final curtain, on October 26, 1978, at London’s Music Machine.  Though the pre-show publicity abounded with the promise of surprises and guest appearances, there was in fact just one – clad in a fabulous gold lame jacket, TV Smith appeared to perform two of the songs he’d co-written with Strange and a third, new song called “Who Cries For Me” – destined, though nobody knew at the time, for Strange’s first solo album in 1981, with Smith reprising backing vocals under the pseudonym Radio Jones.  (The latter is one of three songs from the show that complete the bonus tracks in the box, alongside “Trouble” and “Making Machines.”)

The live album recorded that night, Into The Strange, documents less than half of the original two hour concert.  But still the power of the band is there for all to hear.  Which is more than you could say for the Doctors themselves.

The concert over, the group splintered.  The memory may be faulty here, but I think the final song they played was another new one, the aptly-titled “Leaving in Style” – which would reappear in eighteen months time, as “Coming Back into Style,” the opening number of the solo Strange’s return to the live arena, one man and a tape recorder before a few hardy souls in an icy college hall in darkest suburbia.  Or maybe it was in Chelsea.

And that was it.  Dilemma, like Blitz, vanished from view.  Strange, too, until the early eighties.  Only Stoner kept busy, touring first with the Sadista Sisters, and then as a member of TV Smith’s new band, the Explorers.

At the time, the band was adamant that there would be no u-turns, no reunions, no nothing.  But the Doctors would reform in the end, more than thirty years on from their finale… in October 2014, the original quartet regrouped to perform at Strange’s “Language is a Virus from Outer Space” celebration of William S Burroughs.

It was a triumphant return; tragically, however, it was also their final show together – a month later, Stoner passed away.  But the idea itself didn’t die and more recently… indeed, as these words are being written… Strange, Blitz and the Japanese rhythm section of rhythm section of Susumu and Mackii are on the road again, celebrating the release of the box set.

Which, with still-breathtaking elan, energy and vision, rounds up the jewel-encrusted genius of a band that should never, ever, have been allowed to sink into the quicksands of obscurity.  And this time, maybe,, it will cement the Doctors’ true position in the history of British rock.  No, strike that.  Their true position at the apex of British rock.

Which might sound absurd to those of you who’ve never heard them.  But it’s hardly news to those of us who know them.

Strange reflected on the band back in March, 1981, as he prepared to launch The Phenomenal Rise album.

The Doctors’ critical fortunes had changed much across the last three years.  No longer the pariahs that the press loved to skewer, they were now the hottest name to drop in all manner of fashionable circles.  And while that new respect did not translate into record sales either, writer Chris Bohn was bang on when he called them “most everybody’s favorite cult band.”

Strange: “The Doctors served a purpose for me, as a testing ground for certain ideas.  They served a larger purpose in the terms of the direction that music took.  While I would never be so presumptuous as to say we were responsible totally for the direction it did take in the late seventies, I think we were very influential, and that influence is becoming more apparent in the bands that have emerged in the past two years, people like Joy Division, the Skids and Simple Minds.

“Attitudes and fashions change.  The records are still the same as when we made them, and obviously we haven’t gigged for two-and-a-half years.  But people have changed in the way they interpret and understand what we were doing.  People have begun to say that they have been influenced by us, and because they have now gone on to be fashionable, people are now able to stand up and say ‘yeah, I always liked the Doctors’.”

“And I don’t feel bitter about it.  I’m glad that it’s finally being accepted for what it is, or was.  personally, I’ve moved on from then, so I don’t feel particularly possessive or obsessive about the records.  But I’m glad I made them.”

So are we all.

Perfect Past – The Complete Doctors of Madness is available now from RPM Records.

[Note: my 1981 interviews with Strange and Bentley were originally published in the TV Smith’s Explorers fan club fanzine TV Times (No Relation).]

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