What’s the link between Harry Potter, Jarvis Cocker, Twiggy and Robin Hood? Richard Strange of course! Quoted by Johnny Rotten on the BBC’s ‘Punk Olympia’ as the man who invented punk, author, academic, Robin Hood’s executioner and the man who ate Harry Potter… This is part two of the interview with Richard on creativity and innovation parallels from art, empire and industry. Read part one at Strangeways here we come.
The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange
PC : I read a review of the album ‘The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange’ and it said it was the greatest concept album ever made. How did the concept for the album come about?
RS : When the Doctors finished in 1978 I’d already started to have the idea for the album. The Phenomenal Rise describes a figure who wanted to play the system just because he could, not because he wanted to achieve power. A cerebral pursuit. He was someone who had learned the tricks of Rock’n’Roll, self-promotion and advertising. Quite cynically, but also because it was a game, he wanted to see just how far he could take it. Because he did not want the material trappings of power, he knew he could give everything away, all the stuff that people would obviously want from it. He had just started to put his strategies into place when the system turned against him.
The character in the album was a glamorous figure, a little bit like a rock’n’roll Ronald Reagan, way before Tony Blair. This idea of using techniques from show business but applying them to the acquisition of political power, in the same way that the Nazis did, held a great appeal to me at the time. Perhaps it was influenced by some films I watched at the time by Francesco Rosi, the Italian director of films like The Mattei Affair and Illustrious Corpses. These films concerned corruption, power, the way that the system is bent and skewed and so on.
The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange starts with kidnappings, bombs, terrorism, civil unrest and so on – a great backdrop! By appealing to the Hearts and Minds, He gets power (Magic Man). Like all futurologists I got that bit wrong – I thought that technology would give us more time. The reverse of this is of course true! The press turns against him as he starts to dismantle the system that put him in power (Gutterpress). His wife kills herself (International Language). He sees his death coming (Premonition). We think he has been kidnapped although it might all be an elaborate hoax to stage his own demise (The road to the room). Finally, there is a kind of ‘My Way’ – a classic torch song at the end (I won’t run away), although I wanted to end it with a question mark. The whole album has a cinematic feel, which sets it apart from most rock albums.
PC : How did the music industry respond to this?
RS : The Doctors of Madness finished on a real low point. We self-imploded, blown away by the punk rock that we had helped bring into existence. The Sex Pistols supported us. The Damned supported us and so on. I spent a couple of years writing the Phenomenal Rise and noticed there has been a shift in what people were saying about the Doctors of Madness. Then I went off to the US and Canada touring the Phenomenal Rise with just a Revox Tape Recorder and a guitar and realized I never wanted to play a rock club again. It was liberating.
Like a virgin – Intuition + experience
The experience of touring without a rock band is how I came up with the idea of Cabaret Futura, a mixed media club with performance artists, poetry, short films and so on. I opened in December 1980 in Soho. The very first thing that happened to you as you entered the club was different as you were greeted by a large python, which was the pet snake of the receptionist. Cabaret Futura became a big hit, ahead of time from the new romantic clubs of the 80’s like The Blitz and after punk had more or less extinguished itself. We started to have bands coming through that were a little more art school. The negativity and destructiveness of punk rock had given way to a slightly softer more creative feel. We’d get people like Depeche Mode, Soft Cell, The Human League, Echo and the Bunnymen, Spandau Ballet, Richard Jobson and so on. Richard Branson became very interested in signing me to Virgin. We arrived on Richard’s boat in Little Venice with a copy of the album on cassette. He loved the first track and made me an initial offer of £54 000 for the album. I declined. He loved track 2 and came back with £58 000. Track three did not go down so well – £42 000, but I thought he would like the final track and the offer back to £54 000 – I thought I’d better accept at this point! They were also signing bands like Simple Minds, The Human League, Japan, Culture Club, Heaven 17 – bands that were much easier to market with good haircuts. The Phenomenal Rise referenced Edith Piaf, Bertolt Brecht, Jacques Brel, electric disco and so on – much more difficult to market.
Overall, I’d say that record companies did not, and do not, offer much help to artists who wanted to break away from accepted music paradigms. Added to that I was always able to assist in my own inimitable way! For example, I opened the Manchester Virgin Megastore launch event on my back in a comatose position and ended up in a worse state. Record companies don’t always understand such things!
No Limits – Stone Age Innovation
Innovation is just banging two existing rocks together and seeing what spark is produced.
PC : What should the record industry do now? Is it the engine room of its own innovation or destruction?
RS : The idea of the pop star as we understood it, like the Stones, David Bowie and Madonna is over. Rock music is now just a series of reprised poses and posturing. It is impossible to hold a guitar without referencing Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townsend or Keith Richard. It really has ALL BEEN DONE. And that’s tragic for our kids. What chance do they have except as purveyors of pastiche?
Music has become more disparate. Malcolm McLaren said “We live in a pick and mix culture, where everyone wants a bit of this and a bit of that.” Malcolm got a lot of things wrong, but I think he got this one right. It was much easier to target stuff. Now, there is just so much stuff and it is all much more bespoke. The democratisation of music has made it possible for everyone to put make their own music and sell it, but the chances of anyone finding it on their own without a distribution or advertising machine is limited. For example, I’ve got a 19 year old student with a lovely voice who sings cover versions – she has had 500 000 hits on youtube by using search engines and so on. If that had happened in the world before social media she would have had a number one hit for many weeks in the UK, but she is still nowhere in terms of profile.
It would be clinically insane to predict where social media will be in five years time. Everyone assumes it will get bigger and bigger but who knows. No one saw it coming ten years ago., so who can say where it’s going?
Mark Zuckerberg has said that the writing of computer code should be compulsory at school. Spoken language has been round for hundreds of years. Computer language for maybe 50 years. The horse and cart has been around for longer than the motor car, but who would say that the horse and cart is the future? None of us know – all we can do is extrapolate from a few signifiers. But in all probability computing is an important development.
Pop will eat itself? – Will music be it’s own enema?
PC : Music now can be considered to be the mixing of genres. In some cases what emerges is sublime. In other cases, something else comes out. How do you see the thin slicing of genres, which is probably a marketing invention.
RS : I think musical genres are a total marketing invention. All music is mongrel. The Beatles rehashed a bit of Country and Western, a bit of old Rock’n’Roll and a bit of Tamla Motown and came up with Merseybeat. The Stones did the blues – Sonny Boy Williamson, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry. What were Oasis except the Sex Beatles? – a bit of attitude from here, a bit of melody etc. What was Paul Weller ever apart from an accretion of influences? David Bowie was Lou Reed, Scott Walker, Anthony Newley, Iggy Pop, Jacques Brel and Lindsay Kemp. But the SUM of those parts, those existing elements, was something we would call “original”.
There is no innovation in music, it’s all recombinant DNA. It is just banging two existing rocks together and seeing what spark is produced.
In the afterglow – Strange views on the future
PC : What are you doing currently to pull art, empire and industry by the nose?
RS : I’ve always liked mixing up genres as a means of developing new stuff. I host a monthly live chat show in Soho, called “A Mighty Big If”, with guests from the worlds of music, theatre, literature, comedy, art and film to come for an informal chat and to answer questions from members of the audience, plus some live performance.
I’ve been approached by Don Boyd, a film producer who did the Derek Jarman and Sex Pistols movies and so on. After being on the receiving end of some shabby behavior by some TV commissioning editors a few years ago, he decided to set up an online arts streaming channel, HiBROW TV. What he got crucially and uniquely right was to have practicing artists commission the actual work to be shown. So, he has a number of curators, not broadcasters, not suits upstairs, not counting budgets etc. deciding what to commission. There’s Gary Kemp, myself, Gavin Turk, Sir Richard Eyre, Mike Figgis, ARTISTS who decide what is worth commissioning – We then get a film crew and go and film it. Because we don’t have to put it through committees etc. and leave it too late, it remains fresh and innovative, before all the life has been drained out of it. If you can get a camera into the rehearsal room in the second week of rehearsal, that’s where all the creative stuff is done. I know this, having been in a lot of plays. By the 2nd night of performance, the play is dead. You’ve done all the interesting work in the rehearsal room….and all you are doing in the theatre is rehashing it again and again and again.
I’ve also worked with Marianne Faithful on the Tom Waits / William Burroughs / Robert Wilson collaboration The Black Rider, performing in theatres in London, San Francisco, Sydney and Los Angeles. It’s a Faustian story with Tom Waits writing the music, William Burroughs wrote the book and Marianne Faithful playing the devil. Absolute precision was required down to the last detail. I came out of that experience to work with Harmony Korine on a film called Mr Lonely. Harmony’s way of working is to use improvisation. We were cast as impersonators living in a retirement home for impersonators up in the highlands. I was Abraham Lincoln, Michael Jackson, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie Chaplain, Three Stooges, James Dean and so on. He says, “This scene is where Michael Jackson brings Marilyn Monroe back for the first time. I want you all to be discussing a barbecue / picnic”. So, we work out this scene. Just before we start shooting, Harmony comes up to me, whispers in my ear and says “I don’t want you to do any of that. I want you to talk about taking acid in Vietnam”. Then he shouts, “action!” and waits for the fun to start! So creativity is often what happens off the stage.
PC : An implication for businesses interested in innovation is to find out what is ‘off stage’ and nurture it without trying to mainline it?
RS : Yep. See what is happening on the street, in the clubs, listen to what is getting people excited. Be prepared to ditch your preconceptions about “The Next Big Thing”. You will nearly always get it wrong.
Kiss Hello Tomorrow – Strange but wise advice for innovators
Richard concluded by reminding us 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. Never underestimate the power of charm
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.