INTERVIEW WITH CAPTAIN SENSIBLE OF THE DAMNED
by: Marc Emmerik
How are you? We’re very happy to have you guys back in Amsterdam again! You played a great show here at Rebellion 2014. In oct 1977 you played at The Melkweg for the first time and the opening bands were The Police and Wayne County. Do you have any recollection of that show? Or other Amsterdam shows?
A lot of people don’t know this… especially if they’re under 40.. but international travel in the 70s was still very much the domain of posh folks. If the hoi polloi ever went abroad it was only going to be to a sunny beach in Spain or the like. For me it has been an amazing experience connecting, and learning from my European neighbours. We are, after all the same people…. nations mean (or should do) little in the great scheme of things. All that rubbish of the last century… the wars, etc are so stupid. Whatever drove us to fight each other – there simply wasn’t any problems between the actual working people on the front line as evidenced by the Xmas football match during the appalling trench battles of WW1. The true reasons we fought those insane wars remain hidden to this day.
Anyway, back to the question – to visit and play in Amsterdam meant more to me in 77 than just doing a show. And I also was aware that Soft Machine, my favourite band had played the Melkweg so that was good too. Although their wonderful prog jazz was not so popular in 77… partly because of the Pistols and….. US!
The funny experiences on the tour you might want to hear are probably these….. it was our manager Jake’s brilliant idea to have me and Wayne County get married, maybe for PR reasons… I hope so anyway, lol. Sadly it didn’t happen – but we could’ve had the first ‘rainbow wedding’… wouldn’t that have been fun! The other incident was Sting being thrown out of the Damned dressing room by our guitarist Brian for requesting a bottle of wine with these words “you can have as much booze as you want when you are the headliners, unfortunately you’re currently on the bottom rung of the ladder… which should indicate you need to work a bit harder on your act”. Brian’s pep talk obviously did the job as they were selling bucket loadsa records within a year or so.
You practically invented punk and goth, and were the first punk band to release a 7” (New Rose in 1976) and an album and now have a legendary status. Were you aware of this back then, and ever thought you’d still be playing the Melkweg to a huge crowd 38 years later?
In ’76 I was just happy to be able to twang a guitar for a living. I still feel the same…. a lucky bastard, and I don’t take it for granted like some other musos I could mention. The glory days you were actually quite rough n ready as we were often sleeping on each other’s floors. It was fun but hardly glamourous. And we were the first, which always got up the Pistols noses. Nice eh!
We’ve had a splendid crack as a band. A lot of things that went pear shaped were our own stupid faults…. how we survived the mania of the 70s / 80s without anyone dropping dead I’ve no idea. And wrecking label offices was never going to get us extended contracts or decent promo budgets. But as you can imagine it was bloody good fun in a time when bands could pretty much do what ever they wanted in the studio without label types breathing down your necks. In fact, when they did turn up we always put on a little show for them…. band splitting up in flurry of fisticuffs…. drummer climbing in grand piano to add nonsensical avant garde overdubs on a straightforward punk tune…. food fights. They got the idea in the end and left us alone, and we actually made a few decent records despite all that chaos.
Punk put the UK at the forefront of the music scene for a couple of years – not everyone liked it of course but the Damned, Subs, Mopeds etc were a much necessary alternative to Saturday Night Fever and disco fever in general with the gigs at the time full of pogoeing spiky haired types having a bloody good time.
In another country the class of 77 would be national heroes but I’m the UK, and specifically by the lack of radio play we receive I get the impression punk is a dirty little secret that would be better brushed under the carpet. Unless you are an American pretendy punk act with a big label and which case that’s all well and good. Put them on the playlist forthwith!
What I like about the UK ‘class of ’77’ is that the bands all sounded different…. having their own take on punk. Many members of London ’77 bands had been at the Ramones Dingwalls gig a year or so earlier and shortly after kick starting their own scene. The Ramones sound was a spectacular blitzkrieg of noise, garage and pop music. And Joey was a lovely bloke too. We played what would have been his 50th birthday party in New York ‘cos his Mum Charlotte, who organized it knew we were chums…. it was a great but emotional evening.
But back to 1977 – The Stranglers sounded nothing like the Buzzcocks who were in turn quite different to the Clash. We all agreed on one thing though and that was that the old dinosaur acts like ELP and Yes were past their sell by date and they could take their 20 minute drums solos and songs about wizards and pixies and fuck right off
Punkettes like Crissy Hynde, X Ray Spex and the wonderful Slits struck an important blow for women in rock after years of record labels treating female artists like pieces of meat to exploit as they saw fit. A lot of that sexist exploitation went out of the window for a while…. until all that ghastly pimps and hos stuff turned the clock back to the bad old days for the ladies again.
You guys know Amsterdam pretty well? I think Capt Sensible even lived here for a while?
Yes, when the Damned split after MFP in 78 I did a runner to Amsterdam to join a band with our ex roadie Big Mick. He was an ex Brit soldier so could get us gigs in army bases in Germany. I got in trouble for adding Hitler moustaches to paintings of the Queen and hubby Phillip. That sort of thing wasn’t popular but I was a fun loving punk and had no (still haven’t) respect for authority.
I lived on a houseboat near the Ajax stadium with Joe Thumper, the drummer and at first was rudely woken every morning by the commuter boats starting around 6am. I soon got used to that though and ended up loving the canals and boats… and the cafes and sleazy rock n roll vibe the place had in the 70s. Good times!
Besides punk, you’re also considered to be one of the forerunners of the gothic genre (The Black Album from 1980). With almost no other bands playing this style yet, how did this develop, and were your influences music and movies?
The Damned straddle several genres – punk, goth, psych – it’s a good mix.
Without getting uppity – the Damned can really play. It’s a proper band like Deep Purple and the Sabs before us. I just wanted to be in a group as good as them.
But as we entered the 80s I realised Dave Vanian’s songs were getting increasingly stylised… what would become called goth a few years later. Writing our SETLIST is sometimes difficult as we have to please 2 entirely separate audiences in the punks, who want it fast and loud, and the goths who prefer it dark. That dichotomy makes it interesting though.
“We kick more ass than most young bands,” Captain Sensible said, and judging from your Amsterdam show at Rebellion 2014 I think he’s right. What’s your secret? Is it that diet of punk rock and goth that keeps you young?
No, its not age… it’s all about attitude…. we’ve always been on the fringes of acceptability, and don’t get a lot of support from TV, radio and other media. It’s the fans who’ve kept us on the road over the years… nobody else. Young bands who should be kicking ass just don’t seem to be as rebellious, as anarchic. Maybe there are some who are but we don’t generally hear about them. All I know is I hate all that plastic machine music that’s played on the radio these days and feel sorry for young musicians today if that’s what record labels are looking for. I wanna hear angry young bands telling it like it is about the stupid never ending wars we are living through… where is the anger against all that? These are dangerous times – the likes of which I had hoped we’d seen the last of.
You just returned from a tour in the US, how did it go and any nice anecdotes?
I wrote a dairy with all the tour gossip on facebook
You also just played a short tour with Motorhead. You always had a good relationship with Lemmy, dating back fom the 70’s. How did those shows go, and how is Lemmy doing?
Lem saved the Damned in ’78. Here’s how…..
It’s never fun when a band splits up… especially if you are a former toilet cleaner, and that occupation now seems like the only job option you have left.
This was the terrible situation I found myself in shortly after we’d delivered the Damned’s 2nd album to Stiff Records early in 1978. Entitled ‘Music For Pleasure’ the recording sessions had given me very little joy as we were barely talking to each other by that point. Our leader Brian James had written an amazing bunch of anarchic tunes for Damned Damned Damned but compared to that his new material was decidedly lacklustre…. and that, added to the fact that he wasn’t keen on playing anyone else’s songs was pretty much the cause of all the conflict.
I have to admit my own behavior was fairly out of control at the time too… we were living in this mad 24 hour punk rock party with much drunkenness and a trail of wreckage following us because I had discovered I was actually quite good at causing a bit of chaos. Never once did it occur to me that we were the idiots who were paying for all the destruction or I might have been a bit more careful with other peoples property had I have known! We DID all agree on one thing though – that rather than rehash the 1st album time after time the Damned should go on a sort of musical adventure, changing and developing with each new record. That was the reasoning for Pink Floyd’s psychedelic ex front-man Syd Barrett having been appointed producer for MFP and I still think we could’ve made an interesting spaced out punk psych record together – if Syd had had his head together enough to attend the sessions. He sent Floyd’s drummer instead – who we rudely complained about at the time saying he couldn’t even mix a gin and tonic!
So things ended up that it just wasn’t happening for the Damned so, after being dumped by Stiff owing to lousy album sales, and having limped on for a few more months of dis-harmony Brian called a band meeting (in a pub of course) and told us he had had enough of our company and it was goodbye. Not the news I wanted to hear as I rather liked jumping onstage making spectacle of myself – and the free beer in the dressing room was nice too.
What kind of new band would I put together now was the question I was asking myself…. and the answer was right there in front of me. Why not attempt the psych / punk experiment that should have been Music For Pleasure’ – and that is exactly what I did with the short lived ‘King’ group who although we had only done a handful of paid gigs were starting to sound as though they had something… which was the point the phone rang and it was my ex colleague Rat Scabies who’d been offered some money for a London show if we could get some kind of Damned lineup back together. Being totally broke I didn’t need much persuading I can tell you.
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 well, you know the rest.
You guys always had a special way of dressing, back then but also now. Dressing in nurse’s uniforms, using weird make up, and Dave Vanian almost singlehandely developing the whole gothic look. How did this happen, did you have fashion designers working for you?
I used to wear these fluffy jump suits which were extremely bloody hot under the stage lights I can tell you. Impossible to play in for more that half an hour or so so… so I’d end up naked, drenched in sweat on more than one occasion. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Plus the fact that I don’t give a hoot.
Anyway, we were all born without clothes and humans managed to exist without them for thousands of years so who cares about some daft law that was probably brought in by the killjoy Victorians anyway. Blah blah, etc. Anyway, that behaviour didn’t go down too well at a show in LA 30 years or so ago….. the cops stormed the venue and I was bundled off backstage and clothes plonked on me by the roadies in the nick of time before the law arrived in the dressing room demanding to speak with “that Damned limey that had his ass hanging out” or whatever.
Yes, I may be a slob but Mr Vanian certainly has style. It is the crazy juxtapositions between the two of us that make the band ‘tick’ for me.
At fests, do you check out other bands, and do you know any of the other bands playing at Grauzone like The Fall, Membranes and NEU! There’s a lot of young bands at Grauzone fest who are influenced by The Damned, do you keep up with new bands/new music? And what do you think of the state of new music?
Neu! were a HUGE influence on me. It’s wonderful to be playing a gig with them. I saw Michael Rother recreate that hypnotic motorik vibe in London not so long ago and wrote him a fan letter afterwards to his website, from which he sent a very pleasant reply. He is a sonic pioneer…. very influential too.
Apart from one or 2 albums a year that ‘grab’ me I only listen to the same large collection of old 60s and 70s records I’ve collected over the years. I liked El Perro Del Mar, Zero Zero, Krankschaft and ZZZ of more recent bands. I just mention this to prove I do listen to new stuff occasionally. It just needs to be special (as these bands are) because I have at home some of the greatest records ever made so why listen to dross just ‘cos its new?
What can we expect from the show? Any last words?
We will play a mixed setlist covering all periods of Damned history including adrenaline fuelled punk, anthemic goth and some psyched out improvising to keep us on their toes musically. We’re a proper band in the old fashioned sense of the word…. we don’t choreograph anything and have never cheated with tapes like so many live acts currently. Also, we are lucky in having Dave Vanian who is by far the best singer of his generation.
And Pinch, Monty and Stu are genuinely Damned in character and musicianship and have contributed Grave Disorder and So, Who’s Paranoid to the discography. These albums contain our heady mix of alternatively dark and melodic tunes and if not on ITunes can be got hold of from officialdamned.com or captainsensible.com – end of ad.
After my solo career…. Wot! And Happy Talk, etc I was cast adrift for a while after doing my own thing but my ex colleagues invited me back to play a show with the Damned and all the old chemistry appeared instantly…. the songwriting partnership, the fighting for the spotlight, etc. Dave and myself share a love for 60s garage music but also appreciate a bit of dark melancholy if there’s any to be had – and the bloke’s the best singer of his generation too. Better than old Rotten that’s for sure.
We like to think of the Damned as being a rudderless pirate ship sailing thru a sea of musical mediocrity – back to save the world from plastic entertainment garbage like the x-factor, and all that horrible new fangled pop music with auto tuned vocals.
The band members all do other things most of the time so when we get back together and start jamming through the varied catalog of songs we have to choose from its always fresh and exciting.