Interview with Richard Strange – the Godfather of Punk Rock
What’s the link between Twiggy, Led Zeppelin, Andy Warhol, Spiritualized, Bill Nelson, Johnny Rotten, Jack Nicholson, William Burroughs, Martin Scorsese, Marianne Faithfull, Harry Potter, Jarvis Cocker and Robin Hood? Richard Strange of course!
Richard Strange is ‘punk rock’s illegitimate Godfather’, having preceded the Sex Pistols, The Damned, The Ramones and The Clash with his highly influential pop art band ‘The Doctors of Madness’. Richard’s career has spanned pop art, punk, writing and acting, most famously for his film roles in Batman, alongside Jack Nicholson and in Robin Hood and Harry Potter. I interviewed Richard close to where I first encountered The Doctors of Madness at London’s Marquee club, a place where cool cats and punk rats came to play, make love, die and do it all again the next day … This is part one of a two- part interview.
Into the strange – Innovation seen from the new consumer’s lens:
PC : What do you consider to be the major consumer trends that will drive music consumption in the future?
The old model of the music business is in its death throes
RS : There’s never only one strand in popular culture or society. There’s always at least two and they usually go in opposite directions. For example, when I think about how we listen to music these days, one of the trends is to listen to it with 255 000 people in a field called Glastonbury, another one is to put two headphones in your ears and listen to it completely one your own. These two phenomena are both happening at exactly the same time in history, in terms of how we enjoy music and how music is delivered to us. The old model of the music business is in its death throes. What’s replacing it, this monster called “new media”, has an appetite for music that’s like nothing we’ve ever had before. Music makes us feel good. Music is friendly and cuddly and sexy. It doesn’t matter if it’s a telephone, a computer, a website. It humanizes the inhuman. The Machine. Everyone wants music. But they want it in different places and for different reasons to what they used to use it. It’s also more transient and disposable.
Network – Strange views on creativity
PC : Tell me about your work in encouraging collaborative creativity and innovation
RS : My wife works at the London College of Fashion. Part of her role as Director of Programmes is to make sure that the quality of their degrees is consistently good across the world. I went out to Hong Kong to accompany her. Whilst I was there, the Dean said ‘it would be shame to waste my presence there’. I then found myself giving some guest lectures to the faculty of digital music and new media. What I did was to talk about my process, projects I’ve done and what I’m doing at The Institute of Contemporary Music Performance here in the UK, where I occasionally lecture. I’m going back out in April / May to instigate and initiate a collaborative project between the fashion students and music students. In the old days, if you made a fashion film, you just added your favourite Velvet Underground or David Bowie track and the job was done. Now, these films end up on YouTube. Suddenly you’ve got copyright problems and off it comes. It just occurred to me that we have an amazing opportunity for kids on both sides of this creative process to get something on their showreel with a credit. The work is done to a professional standard, with high production values, original music being paired with original film, which can be put out on YouTube / Facebook etc. There is huge reciprocal benefit because now the London College of Fashion students get in touch with my music students for these collaborations. Both groups learn life skills, collaboration, negotiation, fulfilling a brief, meeting a deadline and so on.
PC : Your comments on music and the arts match the condition in business. Innovation in many fields now is so complex that it is rarely the realm of the one person / one discipline. This is as true in art as it is in industry.
When did the future begin? – The innovation legacy of The Doctors of Madness
PC : Punk rockers followed The Doctors of Madness but they weren’t punk. Tell me more about how The Doctors were innovative.
The Doctors of Madness were their John the Baptist to their Jesus Christ
RS : I was talking to the BBC re this for a series of three programmes they are doing this year called Punk Olympia. If you looked at what The Doctors did on a checklist, we were punk rock: We had funny names; We had a certain cartoon caricature on stage image; We sang about a more urban lifestyle rather than a rural, pastoral one that came out of prog rock – that was always about wizards and cosmic themes, if you think about Yes and so on; We dealt with more difficult topics such as neurosis, psychosis, control systems, propaganda.
I had blue hair. I was Kid Strange. We sang about that. Half of our songs were ludicrously fast. We did not make a virtue out of musical virtuosity. In fact we made a virtue out of the reverse. It was all fairly shambolic and haphazard. When we made these songs, we would sit down in a circle and would try to blow each other off the planet and that’s how the songs came to be. Let’s see how that all works:
When you see the documentary of the Doctors of Madness, it isn’t punk rock. But you can see why the people who liked us, in that little gap – the blackhole between glam rock and punk rock, you can see why the Dave Vanian’s, The TV Smith’s, The Jam, Joy Division, Penetration and so on would gravitate towards us. I am told that we have been an influence on bands and people like Spiritualized, Simple Minds, The Skids, Julian Cope and Harmony Korine, who directed Gummo and Kids. Vic Reeves used to graffiti the public tubes in the North East with The Doctors of Madness. Shameful behaviour !
We really polarized opinion. We were untimely. We came out of prog rock so prog rockers hated us. We weren’t pub rock. We did not nod towards Los Angeles. We were very English, very British, very London and we didn’t mess around with many love songs.
PC : This is certainly true. Check out Mainlines, Billy Watch Out, Sons of Survival, B-Movie Bedtime and Richard’s more recent work to find out why The Doctors of Madness were innovators across music and art.
Mainlines to creativity
PC : What gets you in the creativity zone when you are composing?
RS : I was always and still remain a word junkie – I love a good lyric. I love a good text or a good idea that is eloquently expressed. And rather tragically I’m wasn’t into Rock’n’Roll, i loved writers like William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, the Beat Generation at the age of 13-14. And I loved Contemporary Art. I would be found hanging out at the Tate Gallery, Indica Books and the Robert Fraser Gallery at the age of 15 rather than going to football matches or fishing.
PC : Speaking lyrically, tell us some of your maxims for an innovative text or lyric?
If something sounds like a cliché it probably is
RS : I set my standards quite high. I have tended to think, if I’ve heard that rhyme before I’m not gonna use it unless I absolutely have to. If something sounds like a cliché it probably is. So I’m very meticulous in staying away from the obvious rhyme – the obvious sequential lyrical development I’m very aware that use words that many people wouldn’t (or couldn’t – Editor’s note) touch with a bargepole. Let’s see one of his great lyrics:
PC : My own observation of your lyrical creativity is that you use contrast and contradiction as a device. Are you aware of that and, if so, can you comment?
RS : I am not a narrative writer, I am a more impressionistic writer. I create mood, atmosphere and polemic.
PC : There is a large body of research starting with Wallas (1926) which suggests that creativity relies on a lot of unconscious work, spread out over time, rather than the instant flash of inspiration. Jean Cocteau and Henri Poincare concur. Does your creativity come out in bursts or do you develop things over time?
RS : Words and songs don’t pour out of me. They are hard wrought. I can’t bang songs or words out. For example, I was asked recently to write a piece for the closing credits of a Hollywood film, Dark Hearts, which was a real thrill. The film has a specific narrative about an artist who is on the skids, whose work isn’t shown any more. He starts to use his own blood in his work and his career starts to take off. A vampiric tendency takes hold, it ends up in a murder and a betrayal between him and his brother. They asked me to write song for the closing credits and it was a case of writing something that portrayed the themes but not the narrative. It had to deal with the themes of betrayal, addiction, dependency and so on and these were my way into writing the song. The last scene is in the desert with the protagonist screaming at the heavens. I know as an artist that certain sounds will work and others won’t. It had to come in with a vocal on the 1st bar and so on. So I spent two days trying the first two lines out, working out whether it was in 4/4 or 3/4 and just searching for the right sounds and words. My poor kids must have been driven crazy listening to me trying all this out.
PC : So you use the concept of ‘immersion’ as a method for creating?
RS : Absolutely, I like to become absorbed in a piece. I find recording to be a wonderful tool for writing. Sometimes words feel good, but they don’t sound good. And sometime the reverse is true. Recording and playing back gives a great sound picture and the sound of words, in song-writing as in poetry, enhances and emphasises the meaning.
PC : What about the idea of detachment, being ‘disconnected’ from the topic, rather like an arts director seeing their work from a dispassionate viewpoint. Do you recognize that as a skill?
RS : That depends on the song. Some songs are observational, some are immersed in the moment and the emotion. Different songs require the writer to adopt a different viewpoint.
PC : Tell me some more about how you manage to compose something different without falling into the trap of ‘karaoke rock’n’roll’? After all there are only so many combinations of music out there and we are bombarded by the stuff. In other words, how do you stay fresh?
RS : I only ever write a song if I believe it MUST be written. If it brings something new to the table. If it doesn’t already exist “out there”.
PC : Tell me a little more about the song creation process, perhaps by using an example. This could be a solo or group example.
RS : I keep notebooks. Always have done. Hundreds of them! I jot down a phrase, a word, a rhyme, a thought. Something I hear on the radio – a misheard conversation on a bus. Then I sift, refine, edit, try out conflicting ideas to see if sparks fly.
PC : Some people swear by techniques to help them innovate, such as using random stimuli or reversal. Others use a more intuitive approach. Are you aware of any particular personal techniques or rituals that you find helpful to escape mainline thinking?
RS : Burroughs always recommended the cut-up method to escape writers block. But he also held that by setting the word free of the confines of syntax and obvious context, you liberated the “True’ meaning. Word falling… image falling… etc. It’s a useful tool, but not one that I use as a staple of my process.
Musically, it’s good to write on an unfamiliar instrument. To get an unfamiliar approach. The hands too easily form the shape of a familiar chord for me if I pick up a guitar, and I fall into cliché progressions. But if I sit down with an accordion, say, there is NO familiarity whatsoever.
PC : Oh yes indeed – a big empathy moment. At the ‘craft’ rather than the ‘art’ level of music, I found that switching genres towards playing in a gypsy jazz style was very helpful to escape the ‘mousewheel’ of playing rock guitar! We have an interview coming up with Bernie Torme, Guitarist to Ozzy Osbourne, Ian Gillan, GMT and Twisted Sister, who was on the bill with The Doctors of Madness. He says exactly the same thing!
Kiss Hello Tomorrow – Strange but wise advice for innovators
Richard concluded by offering 3 pieces of advice to the aspiring artist trying to carve out an innovative niche for themselves.
1. Always carry a notebook
2. Be prepared to kill your babies
3. If you change the instrument, you change the output
More at Richard Strange’s website Check him out in person by attending Cabaret Futura or a Mighty Big If in London. All details on the website.
image credit: last.fm
Peter Cook is Rock’n’Roll Innovation Editor at Innovation Excellence. He leads Human Dynamics and The Academy or Rock, and provides Keynote speaking, Organisation Development and Business Coaching. www.humdyn.co.uk and www.academy-of-rock.co.uk. You can follow him on twitter @Academyofrock