Perfect Past: The Complete Doctors of Madness (RPM 3-CD set, RPMBX534)
The long-overdue repackaging of the Doctors of Madness’ three seminal LPs arrives, and for once, the smart clamshell box and photo-packed booklet are worth the trouble.
Their formation in 1974 in a Brixton cellar seems completely appropriate, given lead guitarist and singer Richard (Kid) Strange’s predilection for drama and Burroughsian poetry possessing a strong whiff of subterranean menace. Joining him were the magnificently monikered violinist Urban Blitz, bassist Stoner and drummer Peter di Lemma, all contributing to something far greater than the sum of their talents.
Signed to the street savvy Polydor label, ‘Late Night Movies, All Night Brainstorms’ arrived in 1976, fully formed and ready to take on all comers. The opener, ‘Waiting’ hits the ground running, with all the urgency and bluster of punk. ‘Afterglow’s mournful violin, Eastern stylings and slow, reflective lyric throws the listener, expecting perhaps more of the flash and clatter of ‘Waiting’. Instead, something more akin to psychedelic rock takes over, continuing the Eastern stylings in the melancholic ‘Mitzi’s Cure’. ‘I Think we’re Alone’ lacks the lyrical majesty that the instrumentation has in spades, but it’s hard not to get caught up in its romantic mood. ‘The Noises of The Evening’s scratchy, sawing violin intro is backed up well by a spiky guitar solo, leading into an epic, shambolic, piece that is worth the price of the LP alone.
Over on side 2 of the original LP, ‘Billy Watch Out’ begins with a gentle acoustic guitar figure and edgy violin, as Richard unrolls his kitchen sink tale, ironically soaring with the violin’s sound. ‘B-Movie Bedtime’s lively, punky sound has all the speedball excitement of the era, set off by suitably aggressive lyrics. Ending with the epic 15 minute ‘Mainlines’, a heady stew of Burroughsian lyrics, hypersensitive delivery, and camply melancholic backing, it should have made their reputation, and perhaps in some parallel universe, it did.
The CD is extended to include a wild, screeching outtake, ‘Doctors of Madness’ and The Doctors’ shambolic take on ‘Ballad of a Thin Man’, a basement level punk thrash that could not have done the band’s reputation any favours. The ‘We Don’t Get Back’ demo has an interesting feel, but although lacking an engaging vocal performance, nevertheless suggests something that could be built on. The ‘B-Movie Bedtime’ demo is punkier than its final form, and may well have been left alone, rather than over-polished. ‘Out’ is the best demo here, its horror-movie siren sound and snidely delivery working well here. ‘Figments of Emancipation’, also released in 1976, opens with the melodic, slightly folksy intro of ‘Brothers’, but quickly descends into a hellish rock maelstrom, a style that continues in ‘Suicide City’s skyscraper guitars and Bowiesque sci-fi lyrics. The languorous, melancholic feel of ‘Perfect Past’ is proof that the Doctors were not all strum und drang; they had a sensitivity that could have been worth further exploration. Metaphorically flipping over to side 2, ‘Marie and Joe’ sees up back in kitchen sink drama territory, but who can complain about those rises and falls? The instant, up and at ‘em feel of ‘In Camera’ should perhaps have been the opening track, Richard’s slap-down delivery and Urban Blitz’s violin screeches shaking the listener by the neck, then soaring into a glorious, rising Olympian riff that couldn’t have been bettered by any of the rag-tag of rival bands of that mid-seventies period.
If ‘Doctors of Madness’ galloping riff doesn’t get you up, I suspect you may be clinically dead. ‘Out’ appears to have received the same injection untrammeledled excitement that the previous track’s early demo did, and represents a winning closer to an assured second LP. Extended further by ‘Frustration’s standard punk with added sheen, ‘I Make Plans’ sounds more final than the demo it is credited to be, and could easily have worked as a contrasting track on the original LP. ‘Triple Vision’s demo shows the Doctors could also be a little behind the times, and throw in a truly comical rhyme into the midst of a promising delivery.
‘Sons of Survival’ would prove to be the Doctors’ final LP, and perhaps their best, as they found themselves in an increasingly hostile musical world. ‘50’s Kids’ starts off in familiar violin-torturing style, quickly leaping into a punky riff and sneering delivery of rather forgettable lyrics. ‘Into The Strange’ has the Stooges-like slow crawl that was such a template for the punk generation, and the wailing violin once again sets off the song beautifully. Richard’s dry-throat, angry delivery is text book punk, and the song is easily the best on offer here. ‘No Limits’ plodding riff and mockney voice do the worried piece no favours. The single ‘Bulletin’ has the feel of a punk Fairport Convention piece, unlikely to appeal to the legion of spikies and snotties who were taking over the reins of rock by then. ‘Network’s phased guitar sound, crashing drums and bass and herald of doom vocals would work well today, and closes side 1 creditably.
Over on our imagined Side 2, title track, ‘Sons of Survival’ lays down a great, chopping riff enriched with strong guitars, while the sawing violin serves as a warning, as Richard spits out his tale of disappointment and distress. ‘Back from the Dead’ thunders along like crazy, shooting guitars and slicing violin challenging the listener to last the course. ‘Triple Vision’ reappears, fully infused with bile and energy, barely recognisable from its own, folky demo. ‘Kiss Goodbye Tomorrow’ returns us to the kind of romantic melancholy the Doctors obviously still thought had some mileage left in it. Our original closer, ‘Cool’ (live in the Satin Subway) is standard gob along punk, riding on a hell for leather violin screech, enriched with ‘Oi’s from the audience. Added bonuses include ‘Don’t Panic England’, recorded with short-lived member Dave Vanian, whose distinctive voice adds a little, but not enough to matter. The William Burroughs intro tape to the last Doctors of Madness gig (Camden’s Music Machine 26/10/1978) is atmospheric enough, and their version of ‘Trouble’ from this momentous occasion is an appropriately fuzzy, nasty and nothing to lose treatment that would pass muster today. ‘Making Machines’ robotic beat and wailing guitars is another highlight from this epitaph concert, the desperate vocals provided by TV Smith. Finally, ‘Who Cries For Me? a lament with a lullaby-like delivery, is a good place to leave this particular party.
The Doctors of Madness had a lot going for them; great musicianship, imaginative lyrics, grandiose backing and a striking image that set them apart from the rest of the late-period prog rockers they initially shared airspace with. What they didn’t have was luck. They were the missing strand of DNA between glam and punk, with the latter’s more mutant strain of bands quickly grabbing all the attention that should have been theirs. Too weird for the jaded musical conservatism that prog was turning into and too melodic and disciplined for the young punks who viewed everyone older than themselves with suspicion. Initially playing to their strengths and then adjusting to the prevailing mood, the Doctors of Madness imploded before they got the fair hearing they deserved. They’re back on tour this month, so you can decide for yourself.