In the early 1980s – no, don’t go away – I attended an extraordinary event called Witches Fly South. Held in a vast dusty warehouse in scarred, pre-gentrification Wapping, it was a classic and memorable evening; like being at London’s own answer to Andy Warhol’s legendary Exploding Plastic Inevitable happenings.
At some point – after the brilliant if somnolent Ravishing Beauties, perhaps – I nodded off on a chair, and awoke to find a German blonde massaging my shoulders and whispering something guttural. Bliss.
The cabaret’s impresario was Richard Strange. He was a singer with proto-punk band The Doctors of Madness, and has been an actor, model, writer of his autobiography, Strange: Punks and Drunks and Flicks and Kicks, (Andre Deutsch, 2005), and much else. And, as we find in that book, lover, husband, father and outspoken commentator. It’s a blast, and he tells it like he sees it.
At one gig, the Sex Pistols supported them and dipped their pockets
But really, Strange is far more than the sum of his parts and now, at 62, he’s the best guide to the last half-century that one can find.
Strange grew up in Tooting Bec, in a lower middle class family. Their aspiration, he says, was for him to get a good job: “Something I have signally failed to do.” After attending comprehensive school in Tulse Hill, with fellow schoolboys Ken Livingstone and Linton Kwesi Johnson, he began his long and picaresque life in music, art and drama; sometimes on the margins, sometimes in the middle, always in tune with the zeitgeist’s creative heat.
“In 1973 I put a band together called the Doctors of Madness,” says Strange, his lanky frame topped with trademark homburg. “It was like proto-punk, theatrical. We hated prog rock. I had blue hair and was called Kid Strange.” At one gig, the Sex Pistols supported them and dipped their pockets.
Later, Strange was able to get back the money. “I was interviewed by Steve Jones on an LA radio station. I said, ‘Where is it?’ and he gave it back to me right then, on air. Fifty bucks.”
‘There was an appetite for cabaret’
The DoM were ahead of their time: art, noise, performance. Although they had (and still have) a loyal following, they split up. Anyway, no one institution or band could contain the 6’ 4” Strange, a natural performer to whom the eye is irresistibly attracted. By 1980, he was running Cabaret Futura. “I wandered into a gay club in Soho: Latin Quarter in Rupert Street. Red velvet, plush, little lampshades. There was an appetite for cabaret at that time, and it filled out.”
Strange couldn’t be held back and, after the usual implosions and faragos, he “fell into acting”, as he puts it. Though a serendipitous move, he has since generated a showreel that includes Batman, Robin Hood, Mona Lisa and Harry Potter. His characters are often a little bit eccentric, a touch evil, and all fully exploit Strange’s extraordinary face, with a nose that redefines ‘aquiline‘.
A couple of years ago, it was prominent on a soft drinks advertising campaign. Then, moving from pop to posh, Strange made a great gravedigger in a touring Hamlet. He has also been busy in live art and journalism (“I went to live in Berlin for a couple of years and was asked to be an art critic. So I did”) and as a song-writer, curator and film-maker. He has managed to straddle all kinds of genres, sectors and scenes. Perhaps it’s those stretch legs of his.
A monthly multimedia mash-up
In truth, it would almost take another book to list all Strange’s doings and dabblings. His website can make a stab at that. Suffice to say he has come full circle and now runs two cabaret-type events: one a live chat show in Soho called A Mighty Big If (recent participants include playwright Robert Wilson and singer-songwriter Ed Harcourt); the other, his revived Cabaret Futura.
Both corral his innumerable friends and acquaintances, people including writer Rupert Thomson and musicians Gary Kemp, Michael Nyman and Richard Jobson; indeed, anybody and everybody who enjoys being in the Court of King Strange. “It’s a monthly multimedia mash-up,” he says. “It’s funny how the 1980s and now seem to have this similar creativity.”
Now, the amusing and gracious Strange belongs to the luckiest of all social breeds: the almost-famous. His polymathic tendencies have probably worked against him leaping into the mega-household brand territory but, as a heroic cultural adventurer, he has at least avoided the troughs of ultra-stardom.
“I’m someone who has always been a collaborator,” says Strange. “I like hanging out with people who have ideas. My first word is always ‘yes’.”
As for his family’s early aspirations, Strange is now vindicated. “No one’s got a job for life any more, have they?”