The Damned – Interview – 2016

The Big Four: Sex Pistols, Buzzcocks, The Clash and The Damned. The Pistols had all the notoriety, the headlines in the press, and the archetypal punk rockers in Johnny Rotten and, later on, Sid Vicious. Buzzcocks had the tunes, the energy and were (almost) there first. The Clash had the politics, the ire, the songs too. Then there was the Damned. They were the first in may ways. Perhaps closest allied to the Pistols in terms of dress sense, and the ever-so-slightly cartoonish quality they brought to an era. But they had it all. They had the songs, the raucousness, the image and indeed the musicianship.

Whilst punk rockers like to say that music was in dire need of a kick up the arse in 1976, this is only partly true. As always, there was great music being released. Some true rock’n’roll beauties as well, but almost all from abroad; The Ramones, AC/DC, Patti Smith, The Modern Lovers, and Blondie (via their debut ‘X Offender’ single), were all making a big mark. Their back-to basics, no frills rock’n’roll, with more than a hint of embedded DIY, was obviously sending waves across the Atlantic to a nascent punk scene that was forming in small pockets around the country, particularly in London and Manchester.

Yes, there was an impetus to create simple, no-nonsense music as an antidote to the increasingly bombastic and lightweight pop and rock worlds of the time. Artists such as Yes, Camel, Camel, Genesis, Peter Frampton, Steely Dan, Jean-Michel Jarre, Wings, 10cc, and Led Zeppelin were in the firing line for these brewing punks, who were out to question the status quo; the way these things were done (major labels, huge expenses, slow moving, etc) and the way music was supposed to be. Not that these acts were bad per se, it was just that they were getting tired and over reaching themselves. For instance Led Zeppelin, a band who in their day were ferocious, loud, and most definitely raw, like punks in fact, were over reaching by 1976, the release of Presence, was simply blunted, a little overblown and a little… old.

 

But punk wasn’t meant to feature acts that would be playing in 2016, was it? Did punk encapsulate the ‘My Generation’ for the mid-70s? “Hope I die before I get old” and all that? The Sex Pistols imploded in 1978, The Buzzcocks disbanded in 1981 (although they have subsequently reformed, and continue to play a mean, true-to-their roots, gig) and The Clash, for all intents and purposes, disintegrated in 1983. The Damned meanwhile soldiered on, and in effect have never really split up, with Dave Vanian being a constant presence. While Captain Sensible (Ray Burns) has been a constant presence except between 1984 and 1996.

So, it's been 40 years. It was never meant to be this way for punk rockers, was it!? “You sound like Goldfinger!” says The Captain. “’So, what happened Mr Sensible? I expected you to die’! We WERE on auto-destruct for a while, and for someone with a stage name like mine, bad behaviour was almost obligatory. ‘The Captain’s gone off on one again… just leave him to it’. I’m as surprised at us reaching our 40th as anyone else to be honest, but having fun with it.”

Back in 1976, in the midst of a worldwide economic and existential crisis, post the hippy dream and pre-Thatcherism, the conditions were ripe for some angry and energised young things to bring something new to the table. Or at least a music that was essentially stripped back, to-the-point, raw, loud and with plenty of social and political comment. Can you remember much about the formation of the band, I ask The Captain? “I was working at the Fairfield Halls,” (Fairfield Halls being a large venue/conference centre in Croydon). “The staff had been there for years so it was nice when another budding musician was taken on. I told Chris (soon to become Rat Scabies) about my band Johnny Moped. He was playing drums in another local outfit called Tor. Then one day he answered an advert in Melody Maker and came back with his hair all chopped off, and I said, ‘What sort of band is this you’ve joined?!’ If you had short hair in 1976 no girl was going to look at you. He said, ‘I’ve met this bloke putting a band together. A visionary. He's talking about this new music that is going to change everything. And he’s looking for a bass player too’. So I met Brian (James, the original Damned guitarist) at his place in Kilburn where he played me a collection of explosive songs, whereupon I ended up sleeping on his hallway floor during rehearsals. In a shared flat with people getting ready for work tripping over me every morning. ‘Oh sorry, didn’t see you down there'. That sort of thing.”

From such seemingly inconsequential conversations, grand events spring. “Brian saw Dave (Vanian) in a club, thought he looked great and that was that. I don’t think there was any question of vocal auditions. He chose the right bloke because Vanian is the best singer of his generation!” Although Vanian lied in saying he could sing, it was obviously instinctual, and a punt that the chemical reactions between four young and no doubt strong-minded men, who barely knew each other, would result in some kind of magic. They had nothing to lose.

 

“With no money or manager we had to take the gear to rehearsals on the bus,” says The Captain about these early days. “Struggling with drums and guitars up the stairs to the smoking lounge. When it came to gigs you'd have to lie about the nature of the music you were going to play and describe yourselves as a blues band, or country rock band, or reggae… anything that would get you a booking. We had the curtains pulled on us a few times. We weren't that extreme, but compared to the laid back music of the time (he cites bands such as Little Feat, The Osmonds, Emmylou Harris) our approach was probably a bit shocking.”

On first listen you might think that here were four blokes who could barely play, who had no real idea how to play their instruments. But this could not be further form the truth. Sure, they weren’t gifted virtuosos. And definitely they weren’t interested in being flash for the sake of it. But right from the beginning, the band knew they were good and had something. The Captain may well be right when he says, “Brian's an amazing guitarist. And Rat was THE punk drummer,” but it was important to recognise early punk shows as a performance in more ways than one. “It could all get quite frenzied onstage at times when Vanian was climbing the lighting rigs and I saw my job as bassist being to glue it all together. Somehow.” In fact, Chrissie Hynde, a key player in everything punk and new wave when she was living in London at the time, has stated on the record, “They were probably the most musically accomplished punk outfit in town". What does The Captain think about that? “It's true, isn't it?”

Dave Vanian, Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies had been members of the band Masters of the Backside, which also included future Pretenders Chrissie Hynde. Brian James had been a member of the notorious London SS, a band made even more notorious by the fact they never played live, but in addition to James included musicians who later found fame in The Clash (Mick Jones) and Tony James (Generation X). Scabies knew James through a failed audition as drummer for London SS. When the two decided to start their own band, with James on guitar and Scabies on drums, they invited Sid Vicious and Dave Vanian to audition to be the singer. Apparently, only Vanian showed up and he got the part. Soon after Sensible became the band's bassist. Such was the tiny micro-scene that punk was at the time.

For those who weren’t around then or didn’t know it was going on at the time, how would you describe the atmosphere of ’76? “Dossing about for a couple of years, going to the Marquee every night, living in the clothes you stood up in, blagging an occasional meal off interviewers. I think Sniffin’ Glue's Danny Baker took us to a Wimpy once. It was burgers and knickerbocker glories all round.

“It wasn't obligatory to wear an expensive Westwood creation either, an old bin liner was equally fashionable.”

Not only did The Damned release the first ever ‘punk’ single, ‘New Rose’, but they also released the first punk album (Damned Damned Damned) and were the first UK punk band to tour the US.

40 years later, ‘New Rose’, sounds as fresh as it did when it caught the imagination of John Peel and other left field tastemakers, and blew the veritable cobwebs out of the creaking UK music scene, such was its vitality and youthful optimism. “Amongst all that excessive prog it certainly grabbed attention,” say The Captain. “I was particularly pleased when we did Top of the Pops. Is this the stage where The Sweet performed ‘Ballroom Blitz’, I wondered? ‘New Rose’ was recorded in a dingy demo studio round the back of a garage. It sounds like it too. No Pro-Tools on that!”

 

Did Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren really think you were a hippy? “I never got his ‘never trust a hippy’ thing. The 60s brought fresh ideas like peace not war, questioning religion, feminism, civil rights, etc. Malcolm was good for a quote though. Here’s one for young musicians reading this, ‘Never trust a manager’.

“London was a melting pot in 1976, of people who wanted a different kind of music that they weren’t getting on the radio, on TV, at gigs. There was a lot of country rock around and the prog rock bands were singing about knights around the round table. It was incomprehensible nonsense. We weren’t getting the music we wanted to hear. We were all trying to form bands and we went to each other’s shows.”

Punk was also internationalist, a kind of zeitgeist, where similar things were happening elsewhere without you really knowing much about it, such were these pre-internet days. The Saints were making waves in Australia, The Stinky Toys were spearheading a Paris scene and, of course, there was what was happening in America; all different versions of ‘punk’. These bands and scenes were happening at roughly the same time but largely in isolation from each other.

“These people were from the rag trade.” Vanian has said about the likes of McLaren, “They had been around long enough, they’d seen what had happened at the end of the sixties with The Beatles and bands like that, and they could see what was happening, and they had to get involved. Rather than pulling the strings, they were just involved. They happened to be there. And they had the benefit of age. They were slightly older.”

Of course, McLaren, God bless him, did help to generate some priceless publicity. Publicity that they may now cringe a little at now, but priceless nevertheless. To the extent that bands such as The Damned were blissfully unaware what McLaren and the like were trying to do. The Captain believes that events conspired to elevate the Pistols to the top of the punk pile. Certainly in terms of notoriety, but also sales. For instance, there was that infamous UK Anarchy Tour tour, set for late ’76, and which would also feature The Clash, as well as the Pistols and The Damned. In the end, many promoters, councils and venues got cold feet and many shows were cancelled. Did McLaren kick you off the tour before it ended, I ask The Captain? “We'd done more gigs outside London than his lot,” he says referring to the Sex Pistols. “We were worth more ticket sales. Until the Pistols said a rude word on TV (the infamous Bill Grundy incident) he needed us. Then, they became front page news. We were equally good at swearing though… luck of the draw, innit.”

Indeed, such is the fickle ways of the non-stop rock’n’roll circus. But, ultimately, it didn’t stop The Damned either. They knew they were good and they proved it with their debut album Damned Damned Damned, one of the great punk albums, if not the greatest. They then went to tour the US, both firsts for a UK punk band. Although they tripped up with the panned follow up album, Music For Pleasure, and almost split up for good, they re-grouped as a new wave/goth-punk-rock back and for the next few years enjoyed a string of minor hits including ‘Love Song’, and ‘Smash It Up’. Tell me about the songwriting processes in the early days? “At first Brian wrote everything. When he left, the rest of us had to learn to write songs. Fast. My open reel tape recorder came in handy to record TV commercials, turn tape over, play backwards at double speed and bingo. Instant usable kickass tunes, no publishing required.

Dave Vanian has said about that period, “Punk was supposed to be about no rules, anything is possible. But in the beginning, it was full of incredibly diverse bands. The thing that brought us together was that we were all young, and we all wanted to do something different. A year or so into it, it became what the press told us it was and everyone believed that was what it was. And then you got the second wave of punk and it wasn’t so good.”

The Damned were not diehard punks and from 1977 onwards, with the inevitable blips along the way, they showed themselves to be an eclectic, diverse and musically accomplished outfit, who thrived on the live stage. Punk was what they initially dealt in, but there was psych, glam, goth and pop in there, too. “The Carpenters and Monkees float my boat,” says The Captain. What about Music For Pleasure, the second album. You tried to get Syd Barrett to produce? “Syd was lined up to be producer, but sadly he wasn't up to it. We were keen to make a psych-punk album. Floyd sent Nick Mason in his place. We nagged him to have a jam, but every day he politely declined, until the last afternoon where I think we knocked out ‘Johnny B Goode’. Music For Pleasure suffers from over-fussy studio techniques. The psych album idea had to wait til Machine Gun Etiquette. If the multi-tracks existed, they would benefit from a 'punk rock' remix. But tape was expensive and, as soon as album was in the can, Stiff (who they initially signed to) would recycle the two-inch reel for a Costello session, or whoever on the label was next.”

 

Music For Pleasure proved to be anything but pleasurable. Then Rat Scabies left, before the band decided to break up in early 1978. Individually and collaboratively they embarked on a series of projects including Les Punks, in effect a Damned reunion band without Brian James, and featuring Lemmy on bass! “I’d played guitar in Johnny Moped (a key proto-punk band, formed in The Captain’s Croydon area) and with Brian gone I ditched the bass, which left a vacancy in the four-string department if we wanted to do a gig for some quick cash. Which seemed a good idea at the time as we were brassic. Lemmy was always to be found propping up the fruit machine at the Portobello Gold so we went and asked him. After rehearsals he kindly offered his sofa to doss on. The catch was you had to stay up all night watching Luftwaffe videos. If you fell asleep he'd wake you up shouting ‘Oi, you're missing the good bit’!”

Finally, The Damned and Lemmy saw sense. Lemmy ditched the mistress and went back to the wife, full-time, in the form of the soon-to-be successful Motorhead, while Sensible, Vanian and Scabies took back The Damned name, recruited a bassist, and went about recording Machine Gun Etiquette.

That album proved to be the pivotal one for the band. It was the one that re-affirmed faith in a band who had lost their way with Music For Pleasure. It came as a pleasant surprise to many who feared The Damned had lost their way. It was the one that did mesh punk with garage and psych to glorious effect. The one that included ‘Smash It Up’. The one that had Captain Sensible take over guitar duties from Brian James. “The guitar is all over the place. Yes, must be me then. All that listening to Hendrix albums. Some of it must've stuck. The rest is bluff,” he says immodestly. ‘Smash It Up’ was also banned by the BBC for its perceived anarchy lyrics. “I like a good rabble rousing tune. That lyric can be adapted for a variety of scenarios too. Getting you going in the morning. Or for playing at a party before you trash the place. It has got an element of 'smash the system' to it.”

And from then on, The Damned continued to release albums and singles on a regular basis, sometimes with Sensible, sometimes without. The Captain, incredibly, had a number one with his version of ‘Happy Talk’ in 1982 (it was a Rodgers and Hammerstein song taken from the 1949 South Pacific film!) and decided to leave The Damned in 1984 as Vanian and co marched on towards goth-punk-rock, with Vanian’s vampire look now the main focal point of the band. The Damned’s biggest hit, ‘Eloise’, was made with The Captain. He was too busy with his solo career at the time, and for a brief period it looked like he might become one of the most unlikely pop stars in history. “I had a bunch of songs. Some of which were too pop for The Damned and were binned. It got me a record deal with A&M though, with whom I had a few fun years as Britain's most unlikely pop star. People remember ‘Happy Talk’, but there were some decent self-penned tunes on the records too (anyone for ‘Wot’ and the rather good anti-war song ‘Glad It’s All Over’?) I had a great studio team. Tony Mansfield (the producer) and Dolly Mixture on backing vocals. It was a winning formula.”

But inevitably, the solo career stalled and Sensible was eventually lured back to The Damned full-time in 1996. “They were nice enough to forgive me for buggering off and doing ‘Happy Talk’. Has the rest of the nation, I wonder?” he ponders. I reckon they have. In fact, The Damned are none-too-shy about including that song within their live sets. Since Sensible re-joined them they have released two studio albums, Grave Disorder (2001) and So, Who’s Paranoid? (2008), most of the new material penned by Sensible. And, the last few years have seen the fortunes of The Damned revived considerably, although primarily as a live act. But they do have a new album on the stove. It’s been crowdfunded via Pledge. When will we get to hear it? “Give us a chance! But don't worry, we won't abscond with the cash. Having said that, the old Damned probably would've. Every album we make sounds different from the previous one. So, expect the unexpected.”

 

Meanwhile, this year sees them celebrating forty years as a band, forty years since the seminal ’New Rose’ single. How do you see yourselves in 2016. What relevance do you have in this day and age!? “I see us as an antidote to the plastic crap that comes from the likes of Cowell & co. There's no choreogràphy, autotune or mix cheating in a Damned performance. And our (on stage) verbals are entirely off the cuff. It’s proper live stuff with improv and all. It doesn't always go to plan, but you know, isn't that what keeps it fun?”

Are you still living in Brighton, I ask? What brought you here in the first place and why are you still here? “I escaped from London and the next thing you know you've been here 30 years. The Damned has taken me around the world many times, but there's nowhere that beats Brighton. The city that's 'helping the police with its enquiries’.”

Finally, I ask him about the Photo-Punk exhibition, featuring the work of Kevin Cummins and Ian Dickson, who is also a Brighton resident. Also celebrating forty years of punk, the exhibition can be seen right next door to The Dome where The Damned are playing the Brighton leg of their UK tour.

“We're in a museum? Now I feel old…”
Jeff Hemmings

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