Many years ago while working in Leicester I came across a story in the local paper, the Leicester Mercury, about Leicester bands who had not quite made it. Leicester is not exactly a rock and roll city but it’s made its mark on the rock music map of Great Britain. In the 60’s there was Family, in the 70’s it spawned Showaddywaddy, in the 90’s, almost inevitably given the city’s Asian population, there was Cornershop and most recently the city witnessed the formation of Kasabian.
And let’s not forget Englebert Humperdinck of course.
Anyway, there were the also rans who were the subject of this article, bands who had a recording contract but never ‘made it’. One thing that struck me was that the bands never attributed their relative failures on their inability to write decent songs or put on an acceptable live show. Each and every band attributed their demise to external factors, bad recording choices, always by the record company, changes of personnel at the company or generally the record company making bad decisions or sometimes just ceasing to exist. In fact the only thing that was not entirely the record company’s fault was when musical tastes changed and the band were left behind (and often it was the company’s failure that the band were unable to pursue a new direction)
Bloody record companies!
Today anybody with a laptop can put out their music, record companies are becoming redundant at a grass roots level but in the 70’s the only way that 99.9% of bands could make a record was with the cooperation with their paymasters.
One of the many notable failures of the decade were the Doctors of Madness. I caught the band in 75 or 76. My confusion in relation to the date is caused not only by the age process but also due to the fact that I was coming down with the flu and was hallucinating mildly during their performance.
The heart of the band was a lanky singer/guitarist with blue hair which in itself was outrageous at the time. Kid Strange was also, according to my unreliable memory, wearing thigh length boots and had a guitar made out of the letters KID. The bass player Stoner was wearing some pretty unpleasant Frankenstein make up and the drummer Peter Di Lemer was frighteningly blond and looked like Jet Harris from the Shadows. The aural excitement was curtesy of a crop haired individual dressed in grey. Urban Blitz was a classically trained (aren’t they all?) violinist and occasional guitar player. His role model appeared to be John Cale form the Velvet Underground, Cale played viola however, the violin was an even more abrasive instrument in this setting.
In theory there was a lot to like, their open number ‘Waiting’ smacked us about the ears in a painful but good way and the band looked as impressive as any support band can do occupying a six foot strip of stage in front to the headliner’s drum kit.
These days the band are sometimes heralded as precursors to punk but that’s being wise after the event. Kid Strange was actually very influenced by singer/songwriter Roy Harper. Like Harper he had developed a stark and uncompromising approach, being influenced by the Beat writers and particularly Edgar Burroughs. Strange was intelligent and self-confident there seemed little doubt that he felt he was entitled to become a seriously influential figure.
Willing to back his self-belief was record company Polydor, and with The Doctors of Madness signed up their lives would now be dedicated to the inevitable album/tour cycle.
Unfortunately the nation failed to be stirred by the Doctors of madness at all. They toured with Be Bop Deluxe (when I saw them) and the Heavy Metal Kids, ironically other bands that never really achieved their potential. Initially the band was probably just too caustic for the glam rock crowd. Pauline Murray of Penetration, stranded in an ex mining town in County Durham observed that although she would happily travel many miles to see the group they were a ‘real record company type band’ where the Sex Pistols, who she caught a little later were in a different league. The Pistols were later to support the Doctors of Madness were able to blow them off stage not because they were more musically gifted but because they were just totally different, the Pistols were not ‘record company’.
I bought the band’s first record ‘Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms’, second hand of course, and it was obvious that Kid Strange was prone to slightly overwrought song writing, a bit like Steve Harley of Cockney Rebel, when The Doctors of Madness were good they were very good but it was easy to slip into histrionic singer songwriter mode which both Kid Strange and Steve Harley were prone to.
Urban Blitz was to quit which seemed to me to be a blow to the band but Kid Strange was undeterred. The fact was that the band were transitioning, becoming The Doctors and dropping the violin which was now out of step with the time. No doubt the record company thought this was a good idea, Punk was starting to sell and it might be possible that The Doctors could fool enough people into thinking they were a proper punk band without the screeching .
Except, of course that the band, now with three albums under their belt, were still playing the same venues to audiences that might now be tempted to see the Stranglers or Souxsie and the Banshees instead.
In a last gasp the band recruited Dave Vanian , at a loose end after the demise of The Dammed, as co vocalist (although good friends with Kid Strange, the latter recounts in his biography Vanian ‘couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket’). This seemed to last a matter of minutes and the band were no more.
If the band had existed just a couple of years earlier it likely we would have had a more lasting impression of them but instead, like everyone else they were overtaken by punk and punk filtered out memories of everything that had existed before. The Doctors of madness would have seemed better on the same bill as Hawkwind rather than The Sex Pistols, punk seemed to diminish and flatten their impact, it wouldn’t be long before blue hair became the norm although the violin was never fully rehabilitated.
Kid Strange realised that a full band was no longer necessary to ply his trade. With a drum machine and with plenty of effects and a cheap synthesiser he became Richard Strange, edging into a career that included acting, curating, writing and socialising. As we all know it’s impossible to leave the past behind for long so he’s also toured in Japan with a couple of session musicians pretending to be The Doctors of Madness but that was best forgotten, these days he’s as likely to be a guest on radio 4 talking about his latest multimedia project as strapping on a guitar.
Polydor had signed the Jam who looked like a far more exciting proposition, at least financially, and the Doctors where consigned to bargain bins across the land.