Punk and Disorderly: An Interview with Punk Rock Legend Captain Sensible of
When it comes to musical retreads — the record industry’s bread and butter — people are getting nostalgic for fairly recent times. It’s hard to be nostalgic for punk rock when — in all of its many splintered sub-genres — punk is still going on, but there’s no comparing many of the punk rock bands of the past fifteen years to seminal bands like The Ramones, who started it all, and the British punk rockers who took their lead, then came across the sea to America and changed the face of music forever. First wave British punk launched what is seen by many as the most vital, historically influential movement to hit rock music in the past 25 years. And though a topical song like “God Save the Queen” seems a little dated, “Clash City Rockers” and “Pretty Vacant” can still inspire that youthful fuck-all attitude you just don’t find on an oldies station.
British punk began with, literally, a handful of bands: The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, Generation X, The Jam, and The Buzzcocks. Of these six bands, The Damned and The Buzzcocks continue to record and tour with two original members; pretty remarkable when you see the big picture and realize we’ve still got two bands standing, staying true to their own sound but avoiding categorization as a nostalgia act, from that ridiculously fertile era. Some of The Damned’s significant historical milestones include playing on the bill at the first-ever live Sex Pistols gig; being the first UK punk band to tour the States; releasing the first punk single, “New Rose,” and album, Damned Damned Damned, and so on and so forth. The best way to give a finger to the status quo’s idea of popular culture is to check out what’s going on with The Damned right now, as they provide a clear example of veteran punks in a league of their own, in contrast to the punk rock bands of the ’90s and beyond that, in most cases, just don’t get it.
The Damned — founding members Dave Vanian on lead vocals and Captain Sensible on guitar, plus bassist Patricia Morrison (ex-Bags, Gun Club, Sisters of Mercy), drummer Pinch (Janus Stark, ex-English Dogs) and keyboardist Monty Oxy Moron — have just released their first new studio album of new material in fourteen years, a rollicking, rocking pop/punk jewel called Grave Disorder on Dexter Holland’s Nitro Records. On a warm afternoon in late August, Ink 19 caught up with the Captain in New York City, where he talked about the Damned’s long, strange history, what it means to “fight in the punk wars,” his and Dave’s falling out with founding drummer Rat Scabies, and the enduring legacy of the late great Joey Ramone.
Do you still live in England?
Yeah we do. I live in Brighton, which we call “London, without the grief.” I was talking to Dave about that, whether we’d ever consider moving out, because we do a lot more work in the States than we do in Britain. In this country, people still like guitar music. I mean, it’s back with a vengeance with all these Limp Bizkits and Linkin Parks and all that. But in Britain, disco is king, very, very much so. It’s pretty sad really.
We’re coming up on the 25th anniversary of the UK punk invasion. How does it feel to have played such a significant part in that?
Well, when it started we didn’t think it would last more than fifteen minutes, let alone three weeks or three years or whatever. To be still doing it now is pretty strange, to be quite honest. Nothing we’ve done we’ve ever planned. I do feel it’s nice now for bands these days to be dropping our name, saying we’re some sort of influence, but to be quite honest, while we were making these records there’s always been a streak of complete chaos going through the band. That’s why we’ve had so many bust ups and label changes and things like that. Anything can happen, and usually does. I don’t know if that answers your question, but nothing is ever planned. I think the band shines because of that.
Some bands maybe nowadays, everything’s planned. They talk to their accountant and their lawyer and it’s a career decision whether to go to business school or to join a punk rock band. In those days it was all completely… this is why we all got ripped off I suppose. The great thing about the start of punk, for me, is that most of the bands, none of them sounded like each other. Generation X didn’t sound like The Clash and The Clash didn’t sound like The Damned or The Pistols or Stranglers or The Ramones, you know. And nobody dressed the same either, everyone had their style of dress. Now there is a punk rock uniform, if you like. What I say to these punk rock groups nowadays, I say “I fought in the punk wars for the likes of you.” We used to have our vans smashed up and the tires were slashed. We’d come out of the back stage door and there’d be a bunch of local hoodlums who wanted to beat us up, because you had to be daring to be punk. You had to stick your neck out, that sort of thing, to walk down the road dressed like that. Now it’s, anyone can do it.
It’s nice that these bands are saying “Oh, God bless The Damned,” because we did, we fought in the war for them.
I like to say, “I was a punk when you were in diapers, so don’t try to tell me what’s punk rock.”
All Music Guide called you “One of the most beguiling and talented individuals to emerge from the punk era.” That’s a pretty nice compliment, don’t you think?
[Laughs heartily] Who wrote that? I owe him a $20. Yeah, fantastic. Gosh, somebody cares about me.
Listening to Grave Disorder, it just sound so much like a classic Damned album, that your musical progression is almost seamless. Even back to back with Machine Gun Etiquette, which is 20 years old now, and obviously a more raw, punker sounding record, it’s hard to peg how it’s much different. How would you say your sound has evolved and how does that progression show up on the new record?
[Belches loudly] I’d say, “Buy us a drink, you tightwad.” It’s [long pause] a difficult one really, because I’m so close to it. But I think we always try to experiment a little bit, especially when Brian James left. And we still do, but my influence that I get from other bands is still the same stuff that I used to listen to then: The Left Bank, The Seeds, The Electric Prunes, you know, Roky Erikson, things like that. I mean, one of the tracks on the new album’s got a drum machine on it, and there are a few things on there I suppose that are modern, but not for the sake of it, really. We just do what we do, and nothing’s planned. It’s still chaotic.
My favorite song on Grave Disorder is “Song.com,” which at first I thought might be a commentary on Napster.
Right, I’m really into that stuff. I thought Napster was great and it’s a shame that those wankers in Metallica took it to court. I can’t see that it does anything but good, especially to promote new bands. For a band like The Damned, I think Napster could do a lot to spread the word.
How Internet savvy are you? How do you think the Web has changed popular music?
The great thing about the Internet is that it enables a free kind of movement of ideas and promotion of new bands, or new anything, really. It used to be that to spread the word about some new band or some new product you needed to have vast amounts of money, and the only people who had that was the major labels. It’s pretty tough to fight the majors and now I think it’s great for that. I’m all for it. I don’t know anyone in Britain who digs The Cowsills, you know? Apart from me, and I purchased their new album, called Global, which is only available over the Internet. And I go on the message boards and all that, so for obscure things, it does unite people with a similar kind of vibe.
How did it happen that there’s so much bad blood between you and Dave and original Damned drummer, Rat Scabies?
Well, Brian [James] actually phoned us up, we did an album launch in London where we played the whole new album, two nights running at this club called Dingwalls, and Brian phoned up and wished us all luck, which I thought was very nice. He said, “Best of luck with the album,” and all this stuff. But Rat didn’t phone up, by the way. But it was purely that he was caught with his fingers in the till. You know, you work with someone for years and years. You don’t expect them to shaft you financially.
Did it have to do with the album I’m All Right Jack and the Beanstalk/Not of this Earth?
Yeah, Dave really didn’t want that to be released, and I don’t think Rat paid him, I’m not sure. And that was on top of [the fact that], you know, Rat owns the first two albums, Damned Damned Damned and Music For Pleasure. You know, you can buy the rights to something, [and when] Stiff Records went bankrupt, he bought the rights to those two albums, and now licenses them to labels around the world; people like Cleopatra. When he collects the money, what he’s supposed to do is distribute a recording royalty to the people who played on the album, which he doesn’t bother to do. He’s supposed to pay me, too, but he doesn’t do that. He told me to get a lawyer, you know, but I don’t play games like that. This is why he’s out of the band.
That’s really a stain on his memory.
Yeah, well he says he loves the band and all this stuff, but I think he loves what he can do with the band, he doesn’t love the members of the band. Because he’ll rip them off.
On Grave Disorder, there are a couple of songs that deal with pop culture icons, Michael Jackson and John Lennon. How did those come about?
I think that [pause] most musicians are flawed. I mean, it’s obvious to anyone who’s into music, that most of these people are fruitcakes, aren’t they. I mean, Michael Jackson certainly is, but I’m not putting him down for that. I think musicians do this, because they are flawed. It’s a chicken and egg thing: Are they mad before they enter music, or are they mad because of what they go through; people telling them how wonderful they are and their egos? I think they’re mad before they go into it. I think they crave adulation and attention, I think they need the constant applause of people telling them that they’re great, because they have such low self-esteem. This is what I’ve seen, in so many people, and I’m just writing about that really. And the Michael Jackson thing, the bloke’s, like, sad… but a genius. There’s no question that the guy’s a musical genius.
The same with Lennon, who’s [the subject of] “Would You Be So Hot?” He’s a genius songwriter, especially with McCartney — they wrote some of the greatest songs ever — but the bloke was so flawed. People forget that, how difficult and unpleasant a bloke he could be at times, you know? He wasn’t very nice to people. You read all these things, that he if he met a new person he’d be really cynical and unpleasant to them. So, it’s basically just pointing that out — to the people who think that he was some sort of peace-loving, great guy — that he could be cruel, nasty, beat his wife, never had anything to do with Julian, his son, you know.
He [observed] this thing called Mercury retrograde, where he’d go and hide in the Dakota building every six weeks because some bloody idiot astrologer told him to. If he was having a good time at his house in Florida, or whatever, he’d come scurrying back to the Dakota building to hide, because anything that’s gonna happen bad is going to happen in Mercury retrograde. We nearly called the album that. It’s just such a stupid idea, you know. The bloke was up his own bum… but then, again, a genius. I like flawed musical people, and there’s so many of them. You look at a list of pop stars who are all mad as hatters, and we’re no exception.
And we all gravitate towards whatever pop star shares our particular flaw.
Yeah. Yes, exactly.
Your new drummer, Pinch, is kind of an old school punk guy, coming from The English Dogs. How did he join the band?
We had this drummer called Spike, and Morrissey poached him. So Spike suggested Pinch, another drummer who was his best mate. It’s like that really. But wait ’til I see that Morrissey, I’m gonna give him a punch on the nose [laughs], stealing our drummer. But Pinch is actually better, he’s more of a punk rock drummer. He’s written some stuff on the album, he contributes quite a few tracks. He actually writes his music on a Playstation. He’s got this program called “Music.” He sits there with a joy pedal and you think he’s playing Ridge Racer or Grand Tourismo or something like that, and he’s actually writing songs. There’s about four tracks on the new Damned album that were written on a Playstation. It’s an absolutely brilliant program, it’s got all sampled drum sounds in this thing, and he’s really handy with it. He’s really fast. He’s good at the riffs, Pinch.
What’s it like in the band with Patricia and Dave being married now, and how long have they been married?
Well, two tours ago, they disappeared after the tour, off to Las Vegas, and they got married by an Elvis Presley impersonator — ha ha ha! — at the Heartbreak Honeymoon Chapel or something like that. But it works, because Patricia, you know, has a history of being in bands, and she’s a pretty efficient person. She’s kind of whipped this band into shape and part of the success of what we’re doing is due to her. We’re the chaotic ones and she’s there and she turns up and makes sure Dave’s on time. She makes sure I get an alarm call and so it really works.
I remember her from The Bags, all those years ago, in LA.
She plays great as well, and she’s so photogenic.
What do you think is the most controversial thing you’ve done in your career?
Oh, dear. [Long pause] I remember when rap first started and I did that stupid rap piss-take, I did a song called “Wot.” I thought rap would be around for five minutes and I didn’t think anyone would take it seriously. And how stupid and wrong I was. So I did this song and it was a bloody massive hit! It was number one in France for seven weeks. I couldn’t go anywhere in France without people chasing me down the road, you know? So, not that that was controversial, but I used to come over to New York and go to these black radio stations and they couldn’t believe that I was a white bloke, and a white bloke from England as well. They couldn’t see it.
But “Wot” is a very British expression. Americans don’t say that.
Yeah, exactly. And the whole joke about the lyric was that it was done with kind of an upper-class accent. What I was taking the piss out of was not so much the rap; I was taking the piss out of the upper-class English. You know, stupid English people trying to get down and boogie [note: The Captain pronounced it “Boo-gay”]. [Quoting lyrics,] “I’m aware that the guy must do his work/but the pile driver man drove me berserk!/He drove me berserk, I say!“
And I recall you took a bit of a jab at Adam Ant in that song, who was all the rage at the time.
Yeah, I couldn’t work out what Adam was all about. “Ant Music for Sex People” — what was that all about? What a strange bloke he was. No, he’s alright. He was cute while he had his hair. [Laughs hard] Oh, you bitch!
Tell me about the band playing at Joey Ramone’s 50th Birthday Bash here in NYC? What are your thoughts on the impact The Ramones made on pop music?
Well that was, you know, they asked us to come out… obviously, the bands didn’t get paid, but it was something we had to do, because I don’t think there would have been a British punk scene without The Ramones. I mean, I listened to their first album non-stop while we were putting The Damned together, and it just changed everything in Britain. Joey was such a nice bloke as well. It was a good gig as well, because everyone was celebrating what he’d done and what The Ramones had done and the albums had just been re-released, digitally remastered. And they sound absolutely brilliant. They sound so fresh, still, to me. My son is trying to learn to play the guitar and I gave him some Ramones albums and said, “Here, listen to that.” One, it’s easy, it’s a great way just to learn some Ramones songs… I mean, that’s how Sid Vicious learned; jamming along with the first Ramones album. It’s easy and it’s fun, just fun music, great tunes. Yeah, they’re brilliant, or they were.
You know, I had heard, shortly before he died, that he wasn’t in very good health, but no one knew how sick he was.
No, I had no idea. I sing on his new album, that’s not been released yet. We would email each other and that, but he never mentioned once that he… I didn’t even know he was ill. He would send me tapes over and stuff like that… yeah. I sing on a track called “Mr. Punchy,” I sing backing vocals on it. It’s kinda good, it’s very pop. He’s got such a good pop ear.
How did you get hooked up with Dexter Holland’s Nitro label?
I don’t know, really. That was Patricia and Dave who sorted that out. I’m the inefficient one, and they know what they’re doing. I know [Dexter] was quite fond of The Damned. Then The Offspring covered “Smash It Up” for the Batman movie, and I’ll tell you what, they said, “Oh, you must go and see the Batman film, Batman Returns,” or whatever it was [it was Batman Forever — ed.], cause “Smash It Up” was on it. So I sat in there, in amongst all these kids — it was the school holidays — and I was sitting in there waiting for the “Smash It Up” bit to come on. Then I saw the part where Robin stole the Batmobile. He’s driving around the sleazy, punk side of town, and [the radio is] going “Smash It Up, Smash It Up,” and I’m shrieking with laughter. Everyone turns around like, why am I laughing? I could just hear the sound of cash registers going “Ch-ching! Ch-ching!” And I thought, “Oh blimey, that’s staved off bankruptcy for another year or so!”
It’s a very up and down thing, being in a punk group. You don’t know how you’re gonna pay your bills and that, sometimes. I’ve had bailiffs at the door and been through some very lean times. So, The Offspring doing “Smash it Up” was great.
Well, you must have heard when Guns ‘N’ Roses did “New Rose”?
Yeah, but I didn’t write that one, you see. And Guns N’ Roses don’t do it for me. I don’t like those longhaired bands, no. Shite.
Oh, I love their classic stuff. But that’s just me.
You’re just a weirdo. You, with your pink hair. You’re flawed. You should be a singer [laughs].
Catch The Damned live when they tour the States in the fall.