Q+A – CAPTAIN SENSIBLE, THE DAMNED
By Shane Pinnegar
British punk legends The Damned bring their uniquely colourful psych punk mayhem to Australia this March, as they continue their 40th Anniversary Tour. SHANE PINNEGAR had the opportunity to email guitarist Captain Sensible (not a big fan of phone interviews) some questions, and The Captain had the opportunity to answer them and email them back.
THE DAMNED – 40th ANNIVERSARY TOUR
Wednesday 8th March 2017 The Studio, Auckland NZ
Friday 10th March 2017 The Metro Theatre, Sydney NSW
Saturday 11th March 2017 Golden Plains Festival, VIC
Sunday 12th March 2017 170 Russell, Melbourne VIC
Wednesday 15th March 2017 The Triffid, Brisbane QLD
Friday 17th March 2017 Capitol, Perth WA
Just over forty years ago, on 22nd October, 1976, The Damned released New Rose – the first British punk single. Their journey has been long and colourful ever since, with ten studio albums released, and a new one on the way. Captain Sensible was originally their bass player, then switched to guitar after the departure of Brian James following second album Music For Pleasure.
100% ROCK: Thanks so much for your time, Captain – I can’t tell you how much we’re looking forward to seeing The Damned live in Australia – you’ve been on my bucket list for many, many years but our paths have never crossed. As you traverse the globe, do you still find pockets of people who haven’t managed to catch a show, despite all the gigs you’ve played?
Captain: The vast majority of the planet, poor sods, have not witnessed the magnificence of a Damned performance… not heard us, even. [There’s] plenty that know of One Direction though. Mad old world, innit!
100% ROCK: October saw the 40th anniversary of your first single New Rose – were you conscious that you were doing something radically different at the time?
Captain: We were just making the music we wanted to hear, ‘cos there was precious little bands on the scene that had any ‘get up and go.’ Glam rock had packed the sequins and gone – all we had was country, disco & 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 [burger] Bar was the clincher.
The album was recorded in a dingy 8-track studio in the back of a garage – two days it took. The floor was strewn with empty cider bottles by the time we departed.
100% ROCK: The media played up the violence and aggression of the original punk scene – but musically you were all so different – and The Damned were the most ground breaking of the lot. Do you feel you received the respect you deserved?
Captain: The tabloids whipped up an anti-punk mood in the country… we’d get attacked in the street on a regular basis. Gigs too, invaded by mobs who wanted to ‘kill the punk band’. You have to laugh really, ‘cos the likes of Green Day, who’ve made millions, never had to fight in the punk wars of the late ‘70s… as The Specials said, there was “too much fighting on the dance floor”.
As for respect… who cares, it’s been a fabulous few decades. I’ve nowt to complain about.
100% ROCK: How do you feel the legacy of The Damned stacks up now against that of The Sex Pistols, The Clash, Buzzcocks and the rest?
Captain: All the class of ‘77 [bands] had their own take on punk. The Stranglers sound nothing like The Buzzcocks. Same with us and the Pistols. The Clash went on a musical adventure. It’s interesting to see bands develop – same with The Damned, we hated to repeat ourselves and every album has a different flavour. [1979 album Machine Gun] Etiquette was a mix of punk and psych, then somehow we found ourselves in at the dawn of goth with The Black Album and then Phantasmagoria [1980 and 1985 respectively]. Sure, our recording sessions could resemble a bit of a party, but we took the music making pretty seriously. I’m very happy with those records.
100% ROCK: I’ve read that you consider it your “job to slag all the rest of them off” – you seem to be the last true punk standing. Are you friendly with the members of those bands you came up alongside of?
Captain: I bump into them all occasionally. Mick Jones is lovely, we have a quick hug. It’s nice to still be here, after all. Musicians are dropping like flies at the minute. We always got on with fellow outcasts The Stranglers, and Steve Jones is always a laugh when we’re on his L.A. radio show. Steve’s more cantankerous and curmudgeonly than even myself… we have a good old moan about Britain – there’s plenty to keep that conversation going.
100% ROCK: Over the past year you must have copped a lot of questions about the 40th anniversary of The Damned and of punk – was it celebratory for you, or a distraction from the fact that you’ve been making great music for that whole time and many of that media wouldn’t give you the time of day?
Captain: Very happy to get a bit of attention – The Damned are a band that survives largely without radio play, TV exposure, or mentions from the likes of Rolling Stone. Without the fans we would have disappeared many years ago.
1977 is not altogether embraced by the UK as something to be proud of… I get the impression it’d be better swept under the carpet for the likes of the BBC. Sure, we WERE a bunch of stroppy yobbos – but Britain was still a very class ridden society and things had to change.
I liken interviews about those mad days to getting dragged through a hedge backwards… you relive the experiences, the rows, the ‘wherever I lay my hat’ experience, the chaos of it all… and then when the interview’s finished, somehow you have to return to 2017, and it’s all – ‘wow, what happened to the world?’ Some things may be better, but a lot of stuff has gone badly wrong. The surveillance culture for example, which is completely out of control and most definitely will be used against the people.
100% ROCK: We all know that punk was, ostensibly, a reaction against half hour-long solos from dinosaur rock bands – but what were you listening to which led to the sound you created?
Captain: Some of the prog brigade were doing long, long songs for the sake of it… as a tunesmith you have to give the song its own life, let it go where it needs to. Not shoehorn in a guitar solo to every piece you write. So, to an extent, we were stripping the excesses away and going back to rock n’ roll, and in particular the riffology of Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran. Add a big dollop of attitude and some anti-establishment lyrics, and away you go: punk rock.
Having said that, I loved the Hammond organ/guitar interplay of early Deep Purple, so Monty’s keyboards have become an integral part of The Damned sound… his manic dancing isn’t bad either.
Every weekend, rock bands played Croydon, I saw them all… it was a musical education. T-Rex, Bowie, Sabbath, Hawkwind… some great stuff – but as we moved into the mid-‘70s a lot of bands were coming out with all that Rockstar, ‘great to be here, you’re a lovely audience’ rubbish – and around that time I saw a wild band called The Pink Fairies, where the two drummers had a big punch-up onstage! One of them had been even more out of it than the other and losing time. I thought… when I get in a band that’s the way to do it. None of those daft ‘we love you’ platitudes – keep it real. Thus nothing the Damned do is ever choreographed or routine… the chitty chat between songs can go anywhere at all… and often does.
100% ROCK: Punk in the ‘70s was about doing it outside of the record label system, and not being virtuosos – The Damned have been doing different things musically your whole career. How do you feel about what the label ‘punk’ has come to represent over the years?
Captain: That’s how The Damned were the first out of the blocks, record wise… the other bands were waiting for big bucks deals, whereas we signed with Stiff, an anarchic DIY label where everyone mucked in and got involved. Bands would roadie for each other, pack each other’s records, it was us against the machine and it was funny watching the music biz trying to cope with what was going on. Eventually every label realised they had to have something punk related and even garbage like Siouxsie Sioux eventually got signed.
But what DOES punk mean now? Not the US version that came later, I’d have thought – I think the guys in those bands would wear anything, orange loon pants even – if that’s what it took to become rock stars. No, for me punk is an attitude – it certainly doesn’t belong to any bands or musicians. To me it means, don’t take no for an answer, do something creative… make something of yourself. To hell with the nay-sayers.
100% ROCK: You’ve gone back to grassroots last year with a crowd funding campaign to record a new album, plus put out a 40th anniversary live album – essentially there’s none-more-punk a way to finance a record! You must be thrilled that the process was so successful?
Captain: Crowd funding means there’s no label guy peering over your shoulder to make sure you’re not doing anything too weird, or unsellable even. We’ve always liked to do whatever we please – I remember some of the experiments… opening the grand [piano] and strumming the piano strings, turning the whole multitrack over… the engineer moaning that the EQ’s were all wrong… hiring sitar and tubular bells. Of course, we have all that stuff in laptops nowadays anyway, so the game is now to limit the sonic palette so it doesn’t start sounding all generic.
The ‘70s was a golden age for musicians – when labels to a great extent let you follow your muse. That’s been spoiled by all the plastic X-Factor garbage… bands that’ll do whatever they’re told to. They’ve ruined it for everyone – the days of labels booking studios for a month, not knowing what kind of record they’re going to end up with are sadly gone. Well, it was until crowd funding came along and the party’s back on, lol!
100% ROCK: I can’t wait ‘til the album arrives myself – did recording it for fans, rather than for a record label, allow you to make a better record, more representative of where The Damned are in 2017?
Captain: Following a break after the long (cold!) UK 40th anniversary tour we’ve actually just started the recordings.
100% ROCK: You made some interesting diversions away from The Damned – how do you look back on things you did like your biggest solo hits Happy Talk and Wot?
You also did something for Crass – This is Your Captain Speaking, I think?
Captain: Well, people remember Happy Talk, but I got the A&M deal through my own tunes… I gave them Martha The Mouth, Wot? and Sir Donald’s Son… did you know I wrote a song about the Don [Donald Bradman]? As soon as they heard the cover version they rushed it out and my life changed forever… I was that novelty record guy. But notoriety ain’t so bad – I’ve not had to go back to a normal job in 40 years which suits a lazy bastard like myself just fine.
The Crass EP was a real experience to make… I came out of that week with a new outlook on life, of a mainly anarchy vegetarian persuasion. For which I must thank them ‘cos before I had just been a rebel, now I knew where to direct the anger.
100% ROCK: The band bio movie Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead showed The Damned to have a certain level of dysfunction to it – you and your band mates don’t seem to be very close. Was the film a true representation of The Damned?
Captain: The Damned movie… where do I begin? While extremely grateful to director Wes [Orshoski] for making the film in the first place… no matter what the result – us participants are inevitably going to find fault. While the old footage was nice to see, and the film addresses some important band ‘issues’, my main gripe is its structure – which is pretty much a chronological ticking off of albums, events, band members in a list format.
Now, while the aforementioned may well be exactly what Damned fans want to see, the wider audience who don’t necessarily dig the band might not be so interested… I mean – every bloody band that has ever existed has had fights – even the bloody Mamas & Papas!
The Damned have had about 20 members over 40 years – they can’t all be in the current line-up.
In our case, there’s probably several better Damned films that ended up on the cutting room floor – after all, the band has had some big personalities to choose from to make for a central character. There’s the incredible stories of Paul [Gray, bass 1980-83] and Bryn [Merrick, bass 1983-89] who defied death [in 2015] in their double throat cancer scares [Merrick later died in September 2015]. And of course, our founder Brian James should receive all the plaudits imaginable for creating the Damned in the first place.
As for my esteemed ex-comrades Rat [Scabies, drummer of The Damned from their formation through to late 1996] and Algy [Ward, bassist 1978-‘80] – they’re exactly the sort of characters who deserve their own individual films… Algy’s Tank are complete metal mayhem – how did THAT happen?! And who wouldn’t want to watch a fly-on-the-wall doco following Mr Scabies as he scours French tombs and graveyards in search of the Holy Grail? [There’s even a book written about this – HERE and HERE]
It’s all in the edit – I refused to go along with a ‘bitch-fest’ as that’s not the film I wanted to be a part of. Wes constantly asked questions designed to get me to slag off my ex-colleagues. But when looking back – which is obviously what a film like this does – I preferred to reflect on their good sides and how much respect and… love, even, I have for them… which somehow never made the movie. You have to understand, I had so much fun [and] made such great music with these people – I’m just not interested in sitting in front of a camera espousing negativity. Seriously – life’s too short! To be honest though – it was the endless stream of rock star talking heads that did me in…. I know these big names help when it comes to promoting a film but that was a cliché too far.
A better film might’ve looked at what sense a bunch of old blokes make of their reckless punk former selves… and if there can be such a thing as an old age punk… and how that should manifest itself in a time of swinging cuts to UK hospitals and pensions. You should hear the bands backstage at punk festivals these days – everyone swapping hospital stories…
Of course, in time I may end up loving Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, so I will give it another try when I think I can bear it.
100% ROCK: Sometimes it seems the world is grossly unfair – in music, The Damned have often struggled to make a living, while Biebers and One Directions and shit make millions. On a global scale, our Western Governments have got more and more ridiculous and self-serving. Do we need punk more than ever right now?
Captain: If voting changed anything they’d scrap it, as they say. But with that ghastly brainwash machine in the corner of everyone’s living rooms it’s all too easy to keep us all under control.
So yes, some protest would seem to be much needed at the moment, and if last year’s Blackpool Rebellion’s anything to go by, there’s loads of new punk bands with plenty to say. We particularly liked Dirtbox Disco.
Oh, and in the psych realm, Melbourne’s King Gizzard [& The Lizard Wizard]… they’re making some fun music. You can’t beat a bit of improv.
And entertainment-wise people are so sick of the phoney scripted TV karaoke shows – [they’re] going out to gigs again, which is nice. We are the antidote to all that plastic crap, the way I see it is, if it’s perfect then basically it’s not really live.
100% ROCK: Thank you so much for your time, sir!
Captain: Nice one Shane – Capt
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Filed Under: Interviews
About the Author: Editor, 100% ROCK MAGAZINE