A Danger to Themselves: The Return of
Formed in 1976, The Damned has grappled with travails of fame and success that would break most bands. For over thirty years they have endured it all: brawls, being set on fire, even dozens of lineup changes. This all just underscores the fact that it has never been simple or easy for The Damned. Like a sturdy ship, they have managed to weather every storm, remaining one of the most important bands around. Captain Sensible has been there for most of the journey — he was there at the beginning and he is there now to help keep it all going. But the Captain is more than the guitarist for The Damned. During his career he has also achieved success as a solo artist and social activist. To this day, his onstage antics are the stuff of legend. A devout trainspotter, The Captain recently had his own locomotive named for him. Ink 19 spoke with the Captain before a recent gig in Norwich, where the Damned are touring the UK in support of their tenth studio album, So Who’s Paranoid?
How long did it take to record your new record, So Who’s Paranoid?
I know we did our first album in two days, this one took a little longer than that. But we’re not Fleetwood Mac just yet. The new one took three weeks. Mainly it took three weeks because we did in this fabulous studio owned by the drummer of Jethro Tull, of all people. He’s got this fabulous studio on the bank of the river Thames, it has everything including a swimming pool and a motor launch. We went cruising up and down the Thames visiting lots of different pubs. How we got the album recorded at all is remarkable, I think. We were having so much fun.
That is quite a far stretch from the first album.
That was done in an eight-track studio. It was all in one room and we were all on top of each other, deafeningly loud, that one was fueled by copious amounts of cider because it was the cheapest booze in Britain.
How are the new tour dates going?
It is really good fun to mix the set up with some of the new material. The new material is quite different. It’s got a more jangly ’60s garage vibe going on in some of the songs so we are quite enjoying mixing that up with the punk. We think punk started in the late ’60s with The Seeds and all these Nuggets bands, you know the real garage music, when you used to annoy the neighbors by practicing in dad’s garage. Garage means something else now doesn’t it? I can’t work it all out.
Are you coming to the States for this record?
Right before you called I was sorting my flight out, flying into Washington.
You’re coming right around the time of the inauguration then. The city will be all decorated for that.
Yeah. It’s really good because I was over there on the West Coast while they were having the election. I took the liberty of visiting a polling station. I think we are seeing history being made here. It’s a really important election to restore faith in American democracy. Thank God the right person won. That’s all I can say.
When you recorded this new record how did the creative process work? How is the creative process going for the band now?
We all write our individual songs and bring them to the studio. Everyone in the band writes, which is great. It bodes well for the future. Maybe we can make another album off the back of this one because everyone’s contributing.
Obviously we’ve all got different styles. Mr. Vanian is not going to be writing anything that sounds like The Byrds and I’m not going to be writing anything that is too dark and gloomy. But when it comes to the studio it always sounds Damned. Somehow it always takes on the spirit of the band.
You and Dave are the two senior members of the band. How do you coexist? You both are so dynamic in your personalities and yet you seem so different as people. How does that dynamic work with The Damned?
The great thing about it is we are absolutely chalk and cheese. You couldn’t be two more different peas in a pod. Dave is very interested in movies and movie soundtracks. He obviously has his own particular style, which is very suave and sophisticated. Whereas myself, I am a total slob and I have no interest whatsoever in films but I devour all things audio. I love fiddling around with audio manipulation programs on my Apple Mac and I’m always searching for great new Nuggets-style garage rock bands and stuff like that. So yeah I’m known more for my haphazard comedic way of life.
Where do Monty (Oxy Moron, keyboards), Stu (West, bass), and Pinch (drums) fall in the process?
It has a good dynamic. Everyone gets on. Monty is mad as a hatter. He’s very entertaining after a gig when he is completely drunk. He can get a drum solo out of anything, a wine glass or a pair of spoons. Stu, the bass player, is my trainspotting buddy. He stands on the platform for five hours taking photographs of locomotives. Which is, I think over and above the call of duty. But he seems to like it. Pinch is, well let’s put it this way, since Pinch has been the drummer we stopped getting messages on our website from good friends and fans saying bring back Rat Scabies. That shows you how good he is.
You mentioned trainspotting. How did you get interested in trainspotting?
When I was a child it was quite popular. It was all the rage. We had steam trains then. I’m quite old. They just smelled magnificent and I was very excited standing on the end of a platform writing down the numbers, taking photographs. You know that sort of thing. I think it’s something I like since I’m a vegetarian, so I would never go fishing or anything because I think it is cruel. You know it’s a way of getting away and relaxing. You stand there; you take your girlfriend and go trainspotting. You get away from the misses for a few hours but without the cruelty.
Which of the songs on So Who’s Paranoid? is your personal favorite?
I love the lyric on the one about the bloke who goes to visit a dominatrix and she dresses up in a maid’s outfit. “Maid for Pleasure,” it’s called. Because I kind of like dressing myself. Don’t tell the press. I managed to drag my way onto a burlesque show. I did a couple of songs dressed up in a maid’s outfit. I looked quite good as well. Even if I say so myself.
The audiences you are getting for the new tour, are they a combination of die-hard, old school punk fans and new kids or is it just one dynamic of an audience?
It’s a lot younger since some of these American punk bands have been dropping our name, you know. They’ve been saying we’ve been a big influence on them. That’s kind of nice. We get kids along for the gigs, old farts, and all sorts. A total mixed bag. And gorgeous Goths. Yeah. I actually quite like that look.
Were you a part of the Naz Nomad record (a ’60s sounding side project of Dave Vanian’s)?
No, that’s what they did while I was off having a solo pop career in the eighties.
About your solo pop career, what was it like going from being in The Damned to having “Wot” and “Happy Talk” go to the top of the charts? Was it a shock for you?
It was the kind of thing that you think happens to other people really. I was described in one of the papers as Britain’s most unlikely pop star. I did take advantage of it. I think I wrote some nice songs. I was being driven around in a limousine and had people attending to my beck and call, and for some reason or other girls found me attractive, so why not? I had an absolute whale of a time for about three years and then the record companies threw me out and within a few years of it I was bankrupt. Yeah, it was a bloody good time while it lasted.
You wrote some really amazing stuff like “Glad it’s All Over” and “Hard To Believe I’m Not.” Some of that stuff is not only great pop music but also very beautiful on its own.
I love beautiful pop music. I love a beautiful melody. I am really into The Carpenters, ABBA, anything like that. Lou Reed writes a beautiful pop song when he wants to. I don’t think because you are in a punk group you should just write shouting kind of protest songs. A good melody can reduce you to tears. My favorite classical composer is Rachmaninoff. You could steal a few melodies from him.
Do you think being a pop star brought anything to the band when you returned?
I don’t know. I don’t know if it’s been a positive thing for us because you want to think of punk groups as not caring about success and stuff like that. Although a lot of American punk groups are.
Are you surprised that punk is still kicking around?
Not at all. You have to remember that when we started coming to the States in ’77 and all through the ’80s, the predominant successful music genre apart from country was hair metal. We’d be playing a small club somewhere and along the road there would be a stadium with seventy or eighty thousand kids watching some ghastly hair metal band while we were down the road playing in front of three hundred people. Punk wasn’t really there really in the ’80s. It wasn’t so big. I’d like to think it’s because we were ahead of the game. It’s a case of too much too soon. People have only just caught onto it in mainstream terms. We were doing things right in ’77.
Do you think The Damned doesn’t get the due it deserves when compared to The Sex Pistols or The Ramones?
I think you have to blame us to a certain extent. We were on auto destruct for a lot of the time. I call it “the chaos years” because we were producing good records but our live performances ranged from good to absolutely appalling. It was like total mayhem. We are lucky to have all survived to be quite honest.
Do you or Dave have any sort of professional working relationship with either Brian James or Rat Scabies?
They were my friends. It’s tough to be cheated by people you work with.
On the new record you worked with The Brighton Gay Men’s Chorus. What was that like?
That was brilliant! We needed a choir with this particular track (“Dr. Woofenstein”) and I recorded them in a church just around the corner from where I live. It’s the gay men’s chorus as well which is another nice thing because it’s nice to let our fans know that we are fairly right on people and that we don’t discriminate against anyone. We’re pretty left wing. I’ve been called a Commie Bastard. I don’t object to it.
Throughout your career some of your records have a socialist bent to them.
I think to a certain extent America had Britain’s revolution. You had all the best minds. Thomas Paine and the rest of them went over and helped you guys out. Unfortunately we still have our kings and queens over here. We were in Paris recently and I asked if we could borrow their guillotine.
What do you see as the future of The Damned?
No idea. It’s a rudderless ship. It’s never choreographed, planned, or anything. One thing is for sure… it won’t be a dull ride.
The Damned recently canceled their North American tour due to an illness in the band. So Who’s Paranoid? is out now on Red Eye Records.
The Damned: www.officialdamned.com