A band at the forefront of the punk scene breakthrough 35 years ago, The Damned are marking the occasion by performing two of their early albums – 1977’s ‘Damned Damned Damned’ and 1980’s ‘The Black Album’ – live around the UK. Having just returned from taking the tour around the United States, guitarist Captain Sensible spoke to us on the cusp of the tour’s first British date.
“The Damned is a rudderless pirate ship, sailing through a sea of rock ‘n’ roll, and you never know what’s around the next corner.”
S] You’re about to head out on your 35th anniversary tour – did you imagine when you performed your first gig you’d still be going out on the road in 2011?
C] “Oh no, no, very much not. You have to understand at the time all the main bands that you saw on the scene, playing gigs and in the music papers… all the guitarists were virtuosos and geniuses and the drummers were so technically brilliiant, they would play twenty minute drum solos at every night. It has to be said, it used to be quite boring going to rock shows in ’74.
I honestly thought, although we should play our instruments, it wasn’t the same, the show-offy nature that other bands were doing. I honestly didn’t think punk would take off the way that it did, not that I didn’t have any confidence in it.
Certainly what I wanted to see was people with passion, and songs that actually said something. I didn’t think the music loving public of Britain were going to discard the old rock dinosaurs in the way they did. It was just an incredible time in 1977.”
S] What, for you, have been the highlights of 35 years of performances?
C] “I think, everytime you get on stage, it’s a highlight. It’s remarkable being in a band… I’m only part of this band, and when I hear the whole thing gelling, it’s just a marvellous experience.
The high points, I suppose when we did ‘Top of the Pops’; you tell people about that now and they say, “What’s ‘Top of the Pops’, Grandad?” It was bloody good fun to do, I can tell you; they had a wonderful subsidised bar on the top floor, and you’d sit there with the other bands. It was a very kind of social thing. I absolutely loved doing ‘Top of the Pops’ with the likes of The Stranglers, UB40 and Depeche Mode – just really good fun.”
S] It took three years after releasing your début single ‘New Rose’ to get your first appearance on ‘Top of the Pops’; why do you think it took that length of time for the producers to get you on the show?
C] “When I joined the band, when it was first formed in 1976, the leader was Brian James. He had a bunch of absolutely stupendous songs, he had this vision about changing British music and doing something exciting and wild, and forgetting about the usual rock clichés that were around at the time – guitarists standing there with a foot up on the monitor behaving like an arsehole playing a guitar solo that goes on for ten minutes and leering at the women in the audience like a sexist pig. Brian said, ‘We’re going to change all that,’ and we did.
Although Brian’s songs were stonking, they weren’t what you’d call ‘pop music’. When he left, and the rest of us started writing, there were more ‘tunes’, more melody in what we did. I was a huge fan of The Kinks and The Small Faces, I loved Donovan… so when I write a song, the first thing in mind is, ‘Is this tune good?’ We had more hit records when Brian left, I’m not slagging his songs off, but after he left, the songs became more melodic, people bought them and we got on ‘Top of the Pops’ and that’s the way it worked.”
S] What can we expect on the 35th anniversary tour? Are there any surprises or treats up your sleeves?
C] “It’ll be a nice surprise if we play both of these albums as note-perfect as possible, because that’s the main aim. It’s quite adventurous; both albums are quite difficult to play for different reasons; the first album because it’s so frenetic and there’s so many riffs. If you lose your train of thought in the middle of the song, you can get totally lost. The songs go like an express train, it’s completely out of control – if you lose your train of thought, you’re buggered.
‘The Black Album’ is a completely different thing, there’s alot of harmonies and you’re doing lots of things at once; they got me playing keyboards, and it’s quite difficult. In rehearsals, it was really seven days of bloody hard work, I tell you, because some of these songs are tough.”
S] You and the guys have just returned from taking this tour around the US. How did things go for you there?
C] “We played a gig in New York, and there was a huge demonstration in Union Square, it was the Occupy Wall Street people. There were speeches and a real mixture of American people – young and old, black and white. The speeches that they made were so inspiring, and these people have got such great ideas. We got across to Seattle and the same thing was going on there, then San Francisco.
I’ve been touring America watching the Occupy movements of each city, and I think the corporate capitalism is, kind of, out of control, it’s gonna have to take some of their ideas on board. There are people who say capitalism has gone down the toilet and it’s past its sell-by date. I think things have got to change, things will change. The young people on these Occupy protests, they’re smart kids, and I don’t think they’re gonna take the bollocks they’re being fed anymore by the media or the politicians.
I think politics is so discredited now; I don’t think if you voted for the three big parties in Britain, any of them would do anything different, it’s all much of a muchness these days. I think it’s all about single-issue stuff, getting off your arses and protesting.”
S] Do you think the political environment has come full circle from when the punk scene first emerged?
C] “I think punk rock is more than just the band; to a certain extent, the bands are almost irrelevant. Punk means doing it yourself; making something out of nothing. I was expected to be cannon fodder when I was at school, I wasn’t very bright, and I was determined I was going to make something of myself.
It’s making the most of a bad situation; I see these Occupy protests as the very best form of punk expression; nothing to do with the bands, it’s everything to do with the people getting together, making something and changing things.”
S] There’s a film being made of the tour. What’s it like sharing the experience with a crew following you around?
C] “It’s one guy called Wes [Orsboski], he did the Lemmy film, and we’re at the stage now where he’s a kind of mate. We don’t even know he’s filming us. If going around for a camera for weeks and weeks, there comes a point where you don’t even notice it’s there and you’re just behaving normally.
What I hoping is the people who see the film, and the fans in particular, who think that they know us as people, what we’re like, our personalities, I think they’re going to be surprised. I think there’s more eccentricity in this band than I think people are aware. We’re quite a strange bunch of people. When the drummer joined about seven or eight years ago, he described us as a bunch of lunatics we who occasionally get together to make music!”
S] You’ve also recently provided a song for a video game, ‘Shadows Of The Damned’. What was like to be involved with?
C] “I’m a video game junkie, I’ve had every console that’s ever been made, so for me it was quite exciting. You know, I could tell you every game that’s ever out on the original Game Boy and the Sega Mega Drive… I thought it was appropriately, quite a dark game. It had this dark Gothic tinge to it, so it was quite nice.”
S] It seems like everyone in the band has so many side projects on the go like your ongoing solo career and Monty and Dave’s composing. What’s it like balancing the various commitments of The Damned alongside everything else you get up to?
C] “In the 80s, when I was having hit records, it was just a crazy, crazy time. I had this total schizoid career. You were doing The Damned – there was a dangerous element to the band, it wasn’t an easy band to be in. People around us, I sometimes wonder, how did they put up with us? We gambled a lot, we used to fight a lot, we used to drink a lot, we used to smash a lot of stuff, we set each other on fire – all sorts of insane things like that.
Then I’d do my own stuff – pop stars are expected to be clean and behaving themselves, but I was the same bloke I was with The Damned, and I think a lot of people were a little bit shocked. I didn’t play the game, I just didn’t fancy being a squeaky clean pop person, I got thrown out of France and Spain by the record label for doing things…”
S] We know you’re strong supporters of the SOPHIE Foundation. How did you get involved with them and why did it appeal to you to endorse their cause?
C] “When we heard the story, it was such a shocker that things like that could happen, and people have a lack of tolerance of people. Just ‘cos other people may look slightly different, and we are all the same without our different uniforms.
I don’t like to use the word ‘chav’, I think it’s kind of insulting, but I don’t look down on them because they wear Nike gear and baseball caps, they can do what they want; as long as they don’t pick on others – I don’t understand the whole violence thing.
So we get involved when we heard the story, we met the family and did a couple of gigs for them.”
S] How did the Lancaster family feel to get you on board to support them?
C] “I remember it was quite emotional, we got on very well; it wasn’t your typical Damned gig, that’s for sure.”
S] Once the tour has finished, where does the future lie for The Damned and Captain Sensible? Do you have any plans for upcoming stuff at present?
C] “I have to say, I rather like the fact The Damned is a rudderless pirate ship, sailing through a sea of rock ‘n’ roll, and you never know what’s around the next corner. It could be a bloke from a record label with a multi-million pound contract, or it could be a maniac with a chainsaw – you just never know in this band! And I like it like that, because I’m very much of the persuasion that you should take every day and make the very most of it. I’m well into my 50s now and I’m making the most of my time on this planet.”
The UK leg of The Damned’s 35th Anniversary Live tour kicks off tomorrow (November 9) in Bristol. More information about the band, and the tour, is available on their website. You can also check out Captain Sensible’s website for details on his solo projects.