The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange – PART TWO

Richard Strange gets ready to execute Kevin Costner

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.

The Great Strange

Richard Strange – the Godfather of Punk, on creativity and innovation

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.

Strangeways here we come …

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.

A mighty big if – Richard Strange’s monthly live chat show in London – click on the picture for details

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 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 hear 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”.

An example of Richard’s writing – click on the pic to find out more

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!

Richard Strange with Spandau Ballet’s Gary Kemp at ‘A Mighty Big If’

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.  We can arrange masterclasses that cross the articifial divides between art and business.  We’ll continue in a few weeks time with Part 2 – The Phenomenal Rise of Richard Strange: