They shoulda been finished by 1980. In the DIY world of late ‘70s punk rock, which saw bands implode (or explode) sometimes within days or weeks of forming, the Damned were releasing their fourth album in 1980, what I consider to be their magnum opus, THE BLACK ALBUM. Of course, by 1980, the band had already split after the departure of guitarist and primary songwriter, Brian James following the release of their second full-length, MUSIC FOR PLEASURE; thankfully, the call of the stage (and a nice payday) brought the remaining band – vocalist Dave Vanian, drummer Rat Scabies and bassist-turned-guitarist Captain Sensible – back together, this time with drinking buddy Lemmy filling in on bass. By the time the sessions for THE BLACK ALBUM began, the group was already on to their fourth bassist, Paul Gray having supplanted former Saints bass player, Algy Ward. Over the years, twenty-five full-time or touring musicians have been a part of the legendary aggregation, with Vanian being the only constant; however, the band coalesced into a solid line-up with bassist Stu West joining Sensible, Vanian, keyboardist Monty Oxymoron and drummer Pinch in 2004.
And, so, forty years after releasing the first UK punk record, DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED, the band are back with a major tour underway and a new album in the offing. With a stop scheduled at the Delmar Hall in Saint Louis on April 21, I reached out to the responsible parties to check in with the band before the commencement of the North American leg of their tour. It was agreed that e-mailing some questions to Captain Sensible would be the best approach. This, then, is the result of that communication; other than a minor tweak here and there, Captain’s answers are left intact, exactly as he wrote them. No animals were harmed in the exchange. Well, maybe a couple, but… they deserved it!
THE MULE: You’re celebrating the fortieth anniversary of your debut album, DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED and forty years of a general wreaking of havoc with an extensive world tour. How has the tour been going and what can we expect when you hit the shores of North America for a two-month long jaunt?
CAPTAIN: The band gets on great; probably why it’s the longest lasting lineup in Damned history. But, the important thing is they play the material, particularly from the classic period, with real gusto. Stu and Pinch are a phenomenal rhythm section which allows Monty (an improv genius) and myself freedom to be playful with the songs… it’s never quite the same twice. Which is good, because love music shouldn’t be too predictable. I like an element of danger… I’ve always seen my role in the band to add a touch of chaos.
THE MULE: Of late, a lot of groups have been celebrating these types of anniversaries by playing the entire record live. Can we expect to hear those twelve songs played front to back or do you have other surprises in store?
CAPTAIN: We’ll be playing a special career spanning 40th anniversary set – with the Damned you’re getting three bands for the price of one – we were the first UK punk band, had a hand in creating the Goth scene and veer towards garage psych whenever the inclination takes us. The setlist can change mid gig, depending on the audience… and well timed heckling is encouraged. It’s all about the live experience – to hell with choreography and set routines – we like to live a little dangerous and just go with whatever happens.
From the punk material, I have to say my favourite is “Neat Neat Neat,” with its fabulous Eddie Cochran-esque riff. Perfect for a quick jam and eminently danceable. On the other hand, “Eloise” is simply epic… a theatrical, mad, desperate declaration of love for a “lady of the night,” These things happen… quite often, probably.
THE MULE: The album was among a number of firsts for the band: You were the first punk band from the UK to release a single with “New Rose,” DAMNED DAMNED DAMNED was the first UK punk album and you were the first English punk group to tour the US. What do you remember from those first few months of the band and the explosion of punk that followed? There must be a great sense of pride in what you, Dave, Brian and Rat accomplished in such a short amount of time.
THE CAPTAIN: Brian put the original ad in a music mag looking for like minded musicians. He wanted a gang that played with aggression. You can hear the results on the first two albums… but, when he jumped ship in ‘78, it left the rest of us with a huge problem. None of us had any history of songwriting. Also, with me now on guitar, we needed a bassist.
We used to hang around in the pubs in Portobello Road, where Lemmy was a permanent feature – propping up some fruit machine or other. Apart from speed metal, that was his passion. He’d let us sleep on his floor if we missed the last bus home, and was a good chum.
We were broke and had been offered some money for a London Damned show if we could get some kind of lineup back together.
As ex-guitarist of the Johnny Moped band, I fancied a go at 6 strings again, so we called up our old mate Lemmy to play bass and knocked together a setlist of Damned and Motorhead favourites during a short boozy rehearsal. The reaction of the audience on the night of the performance was splendid so we arranged another show… and then another…. and then, someone suggested writing some new tunes.
Lemmy had a tour coming up, however, so we found ourselves having the difficult task of finding a bassist with equally uncompromising attitude and sound… and then someone mentioned this bloke they’d heard of that plays his bass with metal picks. His name was Algy, he demonstrated his thunderous technique and was immediately offered the job. Finally, the Damned was ready to record its psychedelic punk rock record… MGE (MACHINE GUN ETIQUETTE – Editor).
THE MULE: I’m reading Steve Jones’ book, LONELY BOY. He kind of gives short shrift to the Pistols’ ANARCHY TOUR that the Damned were a part of. Do you have any memories – fond or otherwise – of that tour and the other bands on the bill?
CAPTAIN: Damned, Clash, Pistols and Johnny Thunders’ band got on great – more than could be said for the four managers who all wanted preeminence for their bunch. MacClaren put the package together cos his lot couldn’t sell tickets outside London… a situation which changed when Steve Jones swore on a teatime TV show. At that point, with Rotten and company on all the front pages the next day, the Damned were no longer required to fill venues so we were given the heave-ho.
I bump into Steve every now ‘n’ then, and put it to him recently that it doesn’t take a lot of skill to curse and swear on a TV programme – I could’ve quite easily done that myself. More than capable! His reply? “But you didn’t, Captain… WE did”
You have to laugh…
THE MULE: The Damned has certainly had their share of ups and downs, with members coming and going, breaking up and reforming, legal issues regarding the use of the name, signing with and leaving record companies. For you, what are the high points and low points in the band’s career?
CAPTAIN: High point was the reception of the first album. It caused a bit of a sensation and suddenly, we were on front pages… the record is manic and riff heavy – Nick Lowe did a great job of capturing the uncompromising nature of our 35 minute live set. This is the material the more recently arrived members of the band love to play and they totally nail it.
We had no idea the record would be popular… let alone talked about 40 years on.
We were just making the music we wanted to hear cos there was precious little around at the time that had any get up and go. Glam rock had packed the sequins and gone – all we had left was country, disco and prog.
But mainly, I was trying to change my own world cos for me, as a teenager with little education to boast of, I had a life of drudge ahead of me at best. Or a vagabond of some sort… I was already known to the law and things could have gone from bad to worse. I was dossing in a Brighton squat, surrounded by junkies and ne’er do wells – then punk rock showed up and saved me. Every band needs a chaos factor… and I became the Damned’s random unpredictable nutcase. My dream job.
During rehearsals, I was sleeping on Brian’s floor; we spent our days traipsing around clubs attempting to blag support gigs – which paid peanuts so we were generally starving. When Stiff Records offered us a record deal, the promise of a visit to a Wimpy Bar was the clincher.
As for low points… Maybe the rows and punch ups? But all bands have them, I think… even the Mamas and the Papas.
THE MULE: A couple of fairly well known musicians produced the first two Damned albums. What are your thoughts on those first two records and the producers, the Nicks: Lowe and Mason?
CAPTAIN: Nick managed to capture the live sound of the band… it’s not “posh,” that’s for sure. If you play the record loud and close your eyes, you could be in London’s sleazy basement Roxy Club watching the band. It is pure punk – unlike some of our contemporaries, who polished and perfected their sound in an un-punk like manner, I thought.
Nick Mason stood in for Syd Barrett… our original choice. But we were getting Floyd’s studio for free, so couldn’t tell him to eff off.
THE MULE: One of my all-time favorite albums and my favorite Damned album has always been THE BLACK ALBUM. What are your memories of writing and recording that record? How do you think it holds up 37 years later?
CAPTAIN: Somehow, the Damned had a role in kick-starting the punk AND Goth scenes – and moving into the ‘80s, I’d noticed Dave Vanian’s songwriting was moving into darker territory – which culminated in the appropriately titled …BLACK ALBUM. We were fascinated by the possibilities a little experimentation in the studio would give… It was a very creative time of Dave and myself having all night brainstorming sessions. The other guys would listen the next day, open-mouthed at the wild departure from the two minute thrashes we’d been famous for. These are the most fun songs to perform… but demand a lot of concentration.
THE MULE: It’s been nearly ten years since the last album of new material, SO, WHO’S PARANOID. I understand that you’re working on a new record. Can you tell us about the PledgeMusic page and when we’ll see the finished product? Do you have something unexpected up your collective sleeves? With the new record coming, your fans have to wonder: Where do the Damned go from here?
CAPTAIN: The Buzzcocks guys told us about this PledgeMusic thing, which I’d no idea about – but when told it allowed us to make the album we wanted to make… without a record label bloke peering over your shoulder, I was there. So, we can pretty much do what we like – which in the ‘80s would’ve meant getting comprehensively sloshed and wrecking the studio and getting thrown out of a few along the way for those sort of capers. Probably not this time though, being considerably older… and marginally wiser.
Pinch, Stu and Monty are such great players though… they’re going to get a chance to flex their muscles musically. This is a band that can break out of a song structure and really jam it up.
Each album we’ve made sounds different from the last one – and this one will continue that trend. It’s fun to experiment, to be creative… take a few risks. The only shame is not releasing before the world tour, but to have boshed out a half finished album would be wrong. I have SERGEANT PEPPER… and PET SOUNDS in my record collection, played ‘em to death over the years and, unlikely as it sounds, always aspire to achieve those standards.
An album to celebrate forty glorious years of the Damned seemed a good idea. We don’t make many… it’s quality over quantity. We’ll go off on a tangent, as per usual, as we don’t care to repeat ourselves. It’s been a musical journey in the Damned. I love the experimenting in the studio… all night brainstorming sessions fueled by copious amounts of quality ale. That’s the way to do it – it’s gonna be fun!
There will be some surprises, but plenty of energy and melodic content, too. Oh, and some darkness, too.
The Pledge campaign was an instant success. Thanks, everyone! We are currently trawling through the best material we have and putting it through the Damned machine. Who knows how much longer this band can go on, so we are really going at it with a Big (Brother) eye on the quality. Rest assured, it will be as different as any album the band has ever made. Move on or croak!!! We want people to discover this record and be aurally challenged. Dave, in particular, has some really wacky ideas that he wants to put on here and we are all pretty excited that he is vibed up about it. We may have to tour with a full orchestra and dance troupe to realize it properly! Hahahahaaaaa.
THE MULE: You had a successful solo run in the early ’80s and you continue to release music outside of the band. Is there any news on that front? If so, what and when can we expect something?
CAPTAIN: I did an album with Paul Gray… A POSTCARD FROM BRITAIN, it’s called. It’s a concept piece which reflects our views on our home country… not all of them glowing!
THE MULE: Looking back on a forty-plus year career, where do you think the Damned places in the pantheon of rock music?
CAPTAIN: I really don’t care about any of that… it’s all been fantastic fun. And, a wonderful musical adventure. The Damned are outsiders – we don’t have celeb friends or go to swanky parties. We are the same as we’ve always been… just a bunch of…
THE MULE: Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. Look forward to seeing you in Saint Louis on April 21.
CAPTAIN: Cheers!!! I have to be real careful these days not to overdo it, as hangovers are gruesome when you get to this age. The getting carted about all over the place is tough on the system too – I always say I do the gigs for free… but I wanna get paid for all the traveling.
Having said that, there is a theory that you stay the same mental age as when you first join your band… to a certain extent I’ve not had the responsibilities and worries that normal people have, I’ve shifted a few records… but been bankrupt and everything in between, as well. To be honest the pursuit of money and fame means nothing to me… who needs a flashy car anyway – I’m happy to get around by train.
I’m a perennial juvenile delinquent… my hero is still Dennis the Menace. There’s more than a bit of him in my act.