The Damned: Interview

One of Britain’s most iconic punk bands the Damned are back on tour this year, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the band.  Other than being a pioneer of punk, the Damned also were one of the spearheads in the goth scene and are just all round pretty damn important. We caught up with Captain Sensible himself ahead of the start of their US tour next month. 

You’ve been in the studio working on the follow up to ‘So, Who’s Paranoid?’. Could you tell us a little more about this?

An album to celebrate 40 glorious(!?) years of the Damned seemed a good idea. We don’t make many, it’s quality over quantity. We’ll go off on a tangent as per usual as we don’t care to repeat ourselves. It’s been a musical journey in the Damned, I love the experimenting in the studio… all night brainstorming sessions fuelled by copious amounts of quality ale. That’s the way to do it – it’s gonna be fun!

Your debut single ‘New Rose’ turned 40 last year and was the first single to be released by a punk band. Do you think it’s still as relevant today as it was then?

It was released at a time when the scene was all country rock and disco ‘New Rose’ caused a right stink in the UK… with old guard rockers like Phil Collins and Cliff Richard not seeing anything good in it. But to get slagging from boring old farts like that was music to our ears.

And we were first too… cos while our rivals waited for a major label to come knocking with big wads of cash, the Damned did it the punk way, signing with Stiff, one of the first indie labels… working out of a dilapidated shop in Paddington. Bands would be put to work packing each other’s records, roadying for one another and generally helping out. For example fellow Stiff artist Nick Lowe produced our album, and managed to capture the manic energy of our live set pretty well I thought. He didn’t overproduce it, that’s for sure – unlike some of our rivals albums.

While we got on well with the likes of Glen Matlock and Joe Stummer, the bands managers were at each other’s throats trying to get preeminence for their respective groups.

Somehow the Damned have maintained a kinda outsider status which suits me fine. We don’t like to hobnob with celebrities or network in the corporate rock world – in fact we make a point of slagging off most other bands.. well I do anyway. Apart from guitaring that’s my job – “oh, don’t worry about him… that’s Captain Sensible. He hates everyone!”

There’s a lot of pirate imagery about currently but that sums us up, punk pirates who don’t give a fuck. Love us or hate us, as long as there’s some sort of reaction that’s fine.

If someone had told you back when you first started you’d still be touring happily 40 years later, what would you have said?

I was only trying to break out of a cycle of unemployment and unskilled jobs… like my year as a 70s toilet cleaner – joining a band was my escape from that life. So gigging with the Damned was magic… fun, recklessness, creativity and all the beer is free. We were a gang that played music, occasionally getting hauled off down the cop shop while mainly having the time of our lives.

You were the first punk band to tour America. What can fans expect from your tour this time round?

Thank god there was no YouTube around 40 years ago – some of our performances were fairly debauched featuring nudity, drunkenness and foul mouthed rants. While we do still have that element of chaos (i.e. me) we do our utmost these days to do justice to the material, which is always a joy to play.

It’s a mixed setlist covering all periods of Damned history including upbeat punk, anthemic goth and some psyched out improv for fun. 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 the best singer of his generation.

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 plastic pop music with it’s auto tuned vocals.

On your US tour will you be carrying any politically charged messages with you?

Don’t ask me about politics… I’m just a daft guitarist. Leave that to our trusted elected representatives who somehow manage to answer not to the voters but to the corporations who so generously fund them.

I’m loving the debate about ‘fake news’… that’s been a long time coming. People don’t like wars.. they have to be lied into supporting armed interventions, and we have to learn from previous examples. In the Uk was a genuine thrill when the Tories were booted out by Blair’s ‘New Labour’ project. But then they took us straight to Iraq via ‘dodgy dossiers’ (lies) and a whole bunch of ‘fake news’ from the mainstream media.

I’ve done MY Blair song… entitled ‘Stole Into The Night’, it’s probably on YouTube.

As well as being a complete pioneer of punk, the band is well known for being one of the first gothic rock bands. What sound would you say your loyalties lie with these days?

With the Damned you’re getting three bands for the price of one – we were the first UK punk band, had a hand in creating the goth scene and veer towards garage psych whenever the inclination takes us. The setlist can change mid gig, depending on the audience… and well timed heckling is encouraged. It’s all about the live experience – to hell with choreography and set routines – we like to live a little dangerous and just go with whatever happens.

From the punk material I have to say my favourite is Neat Neat Neat, with its fabulous Eddie Cochran-esque riff. Perfect for a quick jam and eminently danceable. On the other hand Eloise is simply epic… a theatrical, mad, desperate declaration of love for a ‘lady of the night’. These things happen… quite often probably.

You’ve toured alongside some legendary bands, including Motorhead. You’ve said before that Lemmy saved the Damned, could you tell us a little more about your  friendship with him?

We used to hang around in the pubs in Portobello Road, where Lemmy was a permanent feature – propping up some fruit machine or other. Apart from speed metal, that was his passion. He’d let us sleep on his floor if we missed the last bus home, and was a good chum.

So when the Damned split and we were all a bit skint – one day my 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.

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 then someone suggested writing some new tunes.

Lemmy had a tour coming up however so we found ourselves having the difficult task of finding a bassist with equally uncompromising attitude and sound… and then someone mentioned this bloke they’d heard of that plays his bass with metal picks. His name was Algy, he demonstrated his thunderous technique and was immediately offered the job. Finally, the Damned was ready to record it’s psychedelic punk rock record!

Any final words of wisdom for our readers?

Turn off your TV, free your mind… do something creative and fun. Life’s too short to waste on watching box sets of crap tv shows. You never know where it might lead…. but in our case there are now a few British museums that have punk displays in them… that makes me feel weird.

I still feel the same but the body is older… I cannot party for days without sleeping any more and I prefer a bed these days – I think I spent a year or so sleeping on other people’s floors.

We have nothing to prove – I’m just happy to travel around the world playing gigs. All the British punk bands from 77 had their own approach to punk. I respect the Stranglers and Pistols but for me the Damned have an adventurous musicality that makes their live performances a unique and theatrical experience. The Damned are a real live band.. the reason we are still popular is as an antidote to the awful plastic modern music – autotune, quantise, compression, its cheating and not for us, some songs in our set change every night… Neat Neat Neat, Antipope, and Ignite for example, and the improvisations can be amazing – whereas other times they can fall to pieces. That is the real joy of live music… never quite knowing what will happen next.

The Damned will play in Portland’s Crystal Ballroom April 14th. Tickets are available here.

Check out the absolute classic ‘New Rose’ here: 

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