Still Neat (x3) After All These Years

Why do the Damned carry on?

Photo by Steve Gullick

“The Damned ain’t going to quit while the Stones are still lurching on. Won’t be beat by a bunch of old reactionary turds.”

So speaketh Captain Sensible, co-leader and guitarist of the Damned, one of England’s first punk rock bands. And miracles upon miracles – they’ve had a rocky history – they’re a band still making noise at the 44-year mark, with a sparkling new album, Evil Spirits, produced by Bowie ace Tony Visconti.

Sensible, singer-songwriter-co-leader Dave Vanian and their three band mates are currently cavorting around the stages of America. “We kick more ass than most young bands,” Sensible continues. “We’re still playing – by public demand.”

Speaking of asses … back in the days of yore – and I’ve seen this sight – the Captain used to drop his trousers at the end of gigs and waggle his bum at the crowd. Nowadays?

“My kids come to gigs these days,” explains Sensible, who was born Raymond Burns 64 years ago, “so I’ve kinda stopped the baked cavorting. I don’t give a shit, to be honest, but they don’t want their chums seeing that on YouTube and bringing it to their attention. You can’t fart onstage these days without it ending up on YouTube.”

Let’s go back to some of those days of yore, being 1976 when the Damned put out the double A-side single, “New Rose”/”Neat Neat Neat.”

“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, Sex Pistols and Clash were the only respite from Saturday Night Fever,” says Sensible.

Photo by Dod Morrison/TheDamned @ the Royal Albert Hall, May 5, 2016

Of course, we also must ask: What is punk? (So many definitions, variations and proclamations over the years …)

“Good question,” says the Captain. “If you think it’s monotonous, one-dimensional, two-minute noise bombs then, yes, you’ll be upset by some of the Damned catalog. If, however, you think punk an adventurous go- for-it, don’t-worry-about-having-no-musical-education, just-create-something-marvelous kinda thing, that’s what we did. It didn’t always work, but bands just don’t have the freedom to go mental in the studio any more. We were lucky to catch the tail end of an anything goes music biz ‘70s vibe and do whatever we wanted.

“Punk is rebel music. It’s not for couch potatoes who haven’t a thought in their heads. Punk is an ongoing discussion about the world we live in and society and our corrupt political system. Stuff like that. Sounds relevant to me. Some of these new-fangled bands are inspired by us and drop our name, cover our songs so their fans get to hear of us and that’s how our audience is the mix of ages it is. Also, parents bring their kids who also dig the raunchy sound and irreverent banter between band and audience. I’ve always loved this…. Some of the things people [shout] between songs are genuinely funny. And often not completely complimentary to my good self! Banter is good and keeps gigs fresh.

Where do the Damned fit into today’s landscape?

“Now, we’re older and the radio plays even worse stuff than Saturday Night Fever,” says the Captain. “All that horrible pop with mangled vocals that sounds like it’s never been anywhere near a real musical instrument. With so much plastic dross about we need real punk, not the corporate crap. Real punk more than ever.”

 

I’m just happy to be able to twang a guitar for a living. I’m very lucky and don’t take it for granted like some other musos [British slang for musicians] I could mention. The glory days you mention were actually quite rough ‘n’ ready and we were sleeping on each other’s floors. It was fun but hardly glamorous. And we were the first, which always got up the Pistols noses. Nice eh!”

The Captain says he doesn’t look back much. “I don’t play our albums often,” he says, “but while having a quick twang before the tour I had a jam along with the Black Album [1980]  and was impressed. How we got away with some of the eccentricities and self-indulgence is beyond me. Machine Gun Etiquette [1979] is still a firm fan favorite to this day. Launched with the slogan ‘3 years of anarchy, chaos and destruction’ the album goes through various moods and styles, even occasionally pointing towards the goth thing that we would be involved with in the ‘80s. I don’t play it that often, but when I do it still takes my breath away in places. I think to myself, “We were actually quite good, weren’t we?”

There have been various and numerous breakups and realignments over the years, like the band, the Doomed, though Sensible and Vanian have most always been at the heart of the singing-songwriting. But there was the time … “I was cast adrift for a while after doing my dubious solo thing” – the Captain had a fun fling with “Happy Talk” and “Wot” from the Women and Captains First LP in 1982 – “but Mr. Vanian invited me back to play a show with them and all the old chemistry appeared instantly. Fighting for the spotlight, etc. And we complement each other as songwriters, neither of us treading on each other’s toes. We both love ‘60s garage music and appreciate a bit of dark melancholy if there’s any going. And the bloke is the best singer of his generation. Better than [Johnny] Rotten that’s for sure.

The Good Captain, photo by Jim Sullivan

Now, the Captain and I have had more than a few chinwags over the years and I posited this: A few years ago, he had told me he got his name Captain Sensible for the obvious irony of it because, as he said, “I used to behave quite badly.” But given the longevity of Sensible himself and the Damned, one would have to surmise there really is something quite sensible about him, at least in this century. He also said he was “a trendy vegetarian and we have to be aware of what’s going in our bodies.” So, I asked: Is the modern Captain Sensible indeed a more sensible chap?

“Now we often forgo the sound check to visit a preserved steam railway,” he says. “Yes, it’s come to that! There’s several train fans in the Damned these days [What happened was] basically, I met Crass, the vegetarian, anarcho-punk group [1977-1984] for a few weeks. I learned to love the food and despise the likes of McDonalds. I got the Crass brainwash big time and am glad I did. I was a debauched maniac when I met them and came out of that collaboration – “The “This Is Your Captain Speaking” a very changed person. They saved me from myself, as I was having a mad old time regardless of the consequences. Now, I’m more sensible.

“Also, I do what I can to fight the evil tobacco companies spread their crap product who pay a lot of money for something that can kill you in a painful and unpleasant way. Fuck  the cigarette companies – the owners and bosses should all be in prison.

 

We all know motivation can change over the years and that it’s certainly got to be a lot different than when they were kids, and, yet part of the job, if you will, is to maintain that youthful exuberance.

“It used to be all about the booze and mayhem and doing all we could to upstage the other punk acts – musically and bad behavior-wise,” says Sensible. “I have to admit my behavior was fairly out of control. We were living in this mad 24-hour punk rock party with drunkenness and lots of stuff getting smashed 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, as I might have been a bit more careful with other people’s property had I have known!”

What you read above was culled, mostly, from an interview the Captain and I did four years ago. We caught up last week via email one more time, talking Damned 2018.

And so, some happy talk about what the Damned is doing today. Their 13-date US tour kicks off in my hometown, Boston, at the Paradise club Oct. 17th and I’ll be there for my – I dunno – (10th?) Damned show, yelling “Neat! Neat! Neat!” at the appropriate moments.

 

On the new album, Evil Spirits, and working with Tony Visconti – I know Tony fairly well and know he was very excited about doing this you. I’m guessing you – like most everyone else – the critics are raving! – is happy with the results. What did he bring to the mix? Anything new? Different? Or, perhaps, how did he help hone the Damned sound in 2018?

We don’t like to repeat ourselves. All previous Damned albums have a different vibe. Tony’s production very much continues that trend. The album was a reaction against modern sounding records – over compressed, autotuned, polished to oblivion, all of which drives us nuts. We wanted classic ‘70s – so naturally asked the guvnor – Tony. He got the best out of Dave Vanian, there’s some powerful singing on tracks like “Daily Liar,” “I Don’t Care,” “Devil in Disguise.” 

Tony also tells an excellent Marc Bolan story, having produced all the hits. We threw a few back at him having supported the great man on his last tour – how unlikely is that? TRex and the Damned, gigging together in 1977? Amazingly it worked. We still have fans who saw us first on that tour.

 

My understanding too is that part of the reason you went to Tony was really liking what he did with Bowie’s Blackstar?

Mr. Vanian dug that, yes. I liked “Get It On.”

 

There seems to be a sound harkening back to Black Album and Strawberries-era Damned and the opening track, “Standing on the Edge of Tomorrow” brought a smile to my face and reminded me of vintage Moody Blues? (Who’da thunk it, a Damned song reminding one of the Moody Blues.)

I was amazed when Tony identified the Moody Blues vibe of “Standing.” Although not inspired by them I am a very big fan. especially of Days of Future Past and In Search of the Lost Chord. They used to have this sunken driving beat thing where the drums were going for it but lowered in the mix to almost tambourine level. Tony did that to our track. Then there’s the layered vocals – very Moody-esque. 

I met Justin Hayward once. Liked him a lot. You know the hippie thing they were part of had so many great ideas. Whatever happened to all those dreams of peace and love?


There’s a noir-ish vibe to the cover and some of the songs, but others are pure uplift.  How are you looking at the part rock ‘n’ roll (or Damned music) plays in today’s dysfunctional, divided world? As entertainment or more than entertainment? I know you’re positioned well to the left (as I am) – is that factoring into the Damned much now?

Sensible: “Standing,” with its space vibe is a stop the world I wanna get off kinda song. How do you save the human race from its own worst instincts? We were appalled by recent warmongering in the newspapers, the album reflects that. Maybe that’s hidden under the soaring melodies and driving beats. It’s the Damned way.


When you’re making out set lists for shows, how do you weigh the different eras and styles in terms of what you want to present? Obviously, there are the aging punks – I guess I’m one of them – who latched onto you back in ’77 and then the goths and psych crowd. 

You’ve hit upon the No. 1 dilemma of the Damned dressing room: How to please each section of an audience that spans genres. The Damned are, after all, three bands in one – Pioneers of Punk, co-creators of Goth and lovers of garage psych. All three must be present in the setlist, but how to mix it up? Sometimes we have given up and just handed out sheets of paper to the queue outside so those attending can choose the songs.

 

What’s the major misconception people might have about the Damned in 2018?

I’ve heard people say we are a “big” band, whatever that means. We may have a certain notoriety, but certainly aren’t remotely rich. I still see us as mavericks, outsiders. We don’t play the game other bands do. Punk should be anti-rocks tar. Fame is garbage, idiotic. But some people in bands believe the hype and swagger about like arrogant superstars, drunk on fame. 

I’m more likely to be found in the bar. gratefully accepting drinks from well-wishers. Well, it’s perks of the job!

 

Jim Sullivan

Jim Sullivan has written for the the Boston Globe, Boston Phoenix, the Boston Herald, Boston Common, the Christian Science Monitor, and Creem.

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