When rock musician Bob Geldof put together his opus, Do They Know It’s Christmas in 1984 he had stumbled on a hell of an idea. He assembled musicians from bands like U2, Culture Club, Wham! and Duran Duran, threw them into a studio, got them to sing about the famine in Africa, sold the albums and generated millions in revenue for famine relief while increasing the public’s awareness of the plight of those living in Ethiopia. It was on that November day that “cause rock” was officially born. The following year, 1985, was a banner year for the “cause rock” trend. Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Ritchie and Quincy Jones, following Geldof’s lead, put together We Are The World featuring some of the United States’ biggest music stars. Canada quickly put together Tears Are Not Enough featuring Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot, Burton Cummings and a host of other Canadian musical legends. There was even Ain’t Gonna Play at Sun City featuring Bruce Springsteen, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr, Run DMC, Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Pete Townsend and an incredible eclectic list of notable musicians too long to name, voicing their anger over apartheid in South Africa. However, there was one “cause rock” single that appears to have been lost in the annals of music history. Why it has been forgotten is simple – because it was so awful most music fans want to forget it. It was possibly the worst song ever written, for possibly the most unimpressive assembling of musicians ever assembled, for the weirdest cause imaginable. The song? Doctor in Distress. The singers? Members of the Moody Blues (easily the high point), Hot Gossip, the cast of Starlight Express, the drummer for Ultravox and a scattering of other unrecognizable names under the collected banner of “Who Cares”. The cause? To save British television staple Doctor Who from cancellation. That’s right. While Bob Geldof was trying to end hunger these people wanted Daleks and wobbly sets. So whose idea was this? Why did the Doctor need saving? How successful was the single? Why, despite a life-long love for Doctor Who, did I only discover this recording a week ago? Friends, come with me for an ear bleeding journey as
CONFESSIONS OF A POP CULTURE ADDICT ASKS
THE STORY OF “DOCTOR IN DISTRESS”
THE WORST LITTLE “CAUSE ROCK” SINGLE OF THEM ALL
Now in the UK Doctor Who is not just a popular science fiction series. No. Doctor Who is a British institution. First appearing in 1963 Doctor Who is the world’s longest running science fiction series and has had multiple generations of fans tuning in each week to be thrilled by the adventures of the time traveling Doctor and his beautiful companions as they voyage through time and space in their Tardis and battle threats like the Dalek, the Cybermen and the Master. In the present day, with the current Doctor Who series winning awards and becoming one of the highest rated adventure programs in the world, it’s almost amazing to think that over twenty years ago it was at the lowest of its lows. In order for us to understand why a song like Doctor in Distress was recorded perhaps we should take a look at what was wrong with the series to begin with.
In 1985 Doctor Who had been on the air for twenty two years. Now after twenty two years on the air it’s not surprising that a series might be becoming a bit stale. However, the Doctor Who team, lead by producer John Nathan Turner, had never had problems finding exciting new angles for the show before. If you needed to breathe new life into the series all you had to do was change its cast. The Doctor’s companions were easily interchangeable. Even the Doctor himself had been played by six different men by 1985. However, it had been four years since the immensely popular Tom Baker had left the series as the title character and a mere year since kindly replacement, and fan favorite, Peter Davidson had left the Tardis. In the role of the Doctor was character actor Colin Baker. Sadly, Colin Baker’s Doctor was just not catching on with the television viewing public. There were a series of reasons why. It wasn’t his acting. God no. Colin Baker was a solid actor. I’ve seen him in a number of non-Doctor Who roles and he’s very talented. The problem with the show was the direction that it was being taken in. It was no secret that by 1985 John Nathan Turner wanted out of the series, but the BBC would not take him off the project. With Turner’s heart and soul not in the series anymore the series began to fall apart. Colin Baker’s Doctor was written to be temperamental, pompous and argumentative which proved unpopular with audiences. Even his eyesore of a costume, a patchwork of colors making him look like he was dressed by a color blind circus clown, was attacked by Doctor Who fans. Furthermore, his companion Peri Brown, played by Nicola Bryant, was also proving to be unpopular with audiences. The main criticism was that her relationship with Colin Baker’s Doctor was too aggressive and the pair spent the majority of their adventures arguing. It was also often pointed out that Peri’s breasts, that always seemed to be nearly revealed, were becoming the new focus of the series. Add to this a number of dull and badly written serials and suddenly the ratings of Doctor Who plummeted to an all time low. The executives at the BBC knew they had a problem on their hands. Doctor Who was too much of an institution to cancel, but they couldn’t keep the noose from around its neck. Thus the BBC did what they thought would be the kindest thing at that moment. Instead of canceling the series, the BBC put it on hiatus until they could figure out what to do with it.
Eighteen months went by. Eighteen months without the Doctor. Eighteen months without the Tardis. Eighteen months without a Dalek. It was the longest time in twenty two years that British television hadn’t had a new episode of Doctor Who. Doctor Who fans began to get a bit edgy with the series in a state of limbo and the BBC seemed to be doing little to bring it back. Naturally rumors of Doctor Who’s cancellation began to surface.
Enter pop music writer and producer Ian Levine. Levine gained fame producing and mixing bands such as Bananarama, the Pet Shop Boys, Erasure and Take That. In the 1980s Levine worked a number of odd jobs behind the scenes for the Doctor Who crew including continuity consultant, tracking down missing episodes and writing the music for the failed Doctor Who spin-off series K9 and Company. Never an official member of the Doctor Who crew, Levine’s involvement was due to the fact that he was a high profile fan of the series. Thus, when the rumors of the program’s cancellation began to fly he took it upon himself to do his part to save the Doctor… BOB GELDOF STYLE!!!!!
Now I’m sure that the idea to mix Doctor Who and music was a natural idea for Levine. I mean, he does music. He knows people in the music industry. Why not write a song about Doctor Who and try to generate interest in the show? However, to do it in the style of We Are the World and Do They Know It’s Christmas was a bold idea. Levine quickly penned a fast paced, ultra bouncy pop tune trying to package twenty two years of Doctor Who history in three and a half minutes. Then the call went out for musicians. Levine was hoping for people like Elton John and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. The best he could get was a couple of members of the Moody Blues who were looking to kill some time. He padded the recording session up with members of such forgotten acts like Bucks Fizz, the Matt Bianco Trio, Hot Gossip, Music Academy, the original cast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Starlight Express, the drummer from Ultravox and even some journalists from Time UK. However what would a Doctor Who event be without a few Doctor Who actors? I mean, the cancellation of Doctor Who would pretty much mean the end of their paychecks so this cause was very real to them. If not it would be the Doctor Who cast and crew who wouldn’t be eating and the last thing they wanted was Sally Struthers crying in their front yard. Thus Levine talked Doctor Who stars Colin Baker and Nicola Bryant, as well as series regulars Nicolas “Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart” Courtney and Anthony “The Master” Ainsley into contributing their… uh… personal song stylings to the recording. This rag-tag group gathered in front of the Tardis on a BBC sound stage in the summer of 1985 and together they recorded Levine’s Doctor in Distress. Want to hear/see the results? Check out the video….if you dare.
Okay. So did you watch the video? Yeah… sorry about that. Now, outside of the cheapest computer effects that put even the 1980s BBC special effects department to shame, besides Colin Baker and maybe Nicola Bryant did you recognize any of the singers in that video? Any of them? Well if you did friends you definitely know your British pop a hell of a lot better than I did. However, there is no denying it, Doctor in Distress was one incredibly terrible song. I mean, wasn’t that part with the Brigadier and the Master awkward?
Still, the record was released in the UK with all sales generated going to cancer research. Noble, but it didn’t help sales at all. The single didn’t make the Top 40. Too many people were buying We Are the World instead. The only thing that the record succeeded in doing was becoming an obscure oddity, one of the worst fan campaigns of all time and nearly killing Ian Levine’s career. Even Levine realized the failure years later by saying “It was an absolute balls-up fiasco. It was pathetic and bad and stupid. It tried to tell the Doctor Who history in an awful high-energy song. It almost ruined me.”
However the question is, did Doctor in Distress save Doctor Who? Not long after the single was released the BBC did bring Doctor Who back on the air. The leads were quickly sacked (Baker didn’t even come back for a regeneration scene) and the series lasted another four years until it was finally cancelled in 1989. This time Levine and the members of “Who Cares” were not on the scene trying to save it. By that time nobody, clearly, did care.
However, Doctor Who fandom is a funny thing. Almost two decades later the Doctor reappeared on BBC television to rave reviews proving that the Doctor can conquer anything. He can rise up against Dalek, Cybermen, poor ratings, Colin Baker, cancellation and even crappy “cause rock” recordings. Doctor Who may be here to stay for a while, but hopefully when the ratings begin to slip on this series nobody will dare sing about it.