The Damned are 40 this year and still punk as fuck. Or goth as fuck. Or something in between that was never quiet the Ramones or Bauhaus, but Dave Vanian dressed like a vampire and Captain Sensible wore gonzo plaid. Something for every counterculture. If you caught them in NYC on Devil’s Night or Halloween proper—the audience went mad over their 3-hour long sold-out shows at Gramercy. And they are still at it, their tour billed “A Unique 40th Anniversary Retrospective” has moved onto Europe to take seigue.
All this “damned” excitement inspired me to dust off a vintage Captain Sensible interview and yes he was as witty and insightful as you’d hoped he would be. Recorded at SXSW after the premiere of Wes Orshoski’s The Damned: Don’t you Wish That We Were Dead (a totally misguided as fuck documentary now out on blu-ray), Captain and I talked about glam, punk, and punk rockers for a bit at least.
Diabolique: What were your initial thoughts about going into music?
CS: Crikey! Well just avoiding, uh, working? I don’t know. I was a toilet cleaner – it’s not the best job in the world. I was a big – I was a huge huge huge fan of Jimi Hendrix, and The Doors – stuff like that – and I thought to myself, ‘Christ, here I am doing one of the shittiest jobs in the world, and I want to be up onstage twanging the guitar for a living.’ So yeah, that was my motivation for it.
Diabolique: Why’d you pick up the bass first?
CS: I didn’t. I learned to play the guitar, and I met Brian James, um, at a point in British music where things were just about to make a massive change. And Brian was – he understood the zeitgeist, he was uh – in fact, he was instrumental in the whole ’76 UK punk rock thing – and he recruited me as a musician in his band, The Damned, and he was a guitar player, so there was only room for a bass player, and I said, ‘Yes.’ I mean, I would have been stupid not to.
Diabolique: What was the year?
Diabolique: What was the country like during that time?
CS: Britain? Lot of unemployment. I mean, I remember distinctly because I was fresh out of school. I’d been taught, you know, the British Empire and the kings and queens of England, and a lot of like sort of right wing nonsense like that. And I knew there was something there, there was something more real out there. It took me, you know, to join a band and see the world to really educate myself. And so here I am – whether I am educated or not I don’t know. I’m Captain Sensible: you don’t want me to be an intellectual, surely: I’m a drunken buffoon! [Laughs.] But I’m – sorry, I’ve forgotten what your question was.
Diabolique: How was the energy you were saying?
CS: Very grey kind of political vibe at the time. There was a three-day week going on and dustbins in the street because the councils didn’t have enough money to pay the rubbish – the bin collectors: that was going on as well. Musically, I mean – I have to say that the glam-rock scene had gone, pretty much, by ’76. The golden days of Gary Glitter, and Slade, and Bolan and all that stuff had run its course, really, and we were left with a really horrible country-rock thing going on with Little Feat and Emmylou Harris.
There was a lot of stadium rock as well. Bands were singing songs about pixies, and Merlin, and knights of the round table – King Arthur – Lyrics that did not apply, or mean anything, to a bloke from a council estate – to young people, or young women or whatever, had nothing to relate to in the music that was being made at the time, so we did it for ourselves, never ever thinking that it would be popular.
So then when The Clash had been talking about, you know, 1977, no Elvis, Beatles, Rolling Stones, and The Damned, and there’s Poly Styrene – All these other bands, and they’re telling these stories, it was from the heart, you know? Like I say, didn’t expect it to be successful. I was astonished when I found meself on TV, I couldn’t believe it.
Diabolique: Why did The Damned decide to tell those sorts of stories, instead of – The Clash were very conscious, very political – a lot of your songs aren’t. In New York City, you had The Ramones, who also had that point of view, of not being political, they were always against that – save Bonzo Goes To Bitburg. The idea of having fun, of just creating rock ‘n’ roll.
CS: Well it’s a complicated question because there are various Damneds. The first incarnation of the band was Brian James’ baby, where he wrote all the material for the first album, and pretty much most of the second album. He had a song called ‘Politics’ in fact, which said he wasn’t interested in that sort of thing; he was only interested in having fun and rock ‘n’ roll, you know? Whereas myself, the songs that I’ve written, are quite different. I believe in naming names.
You’re never going to change the world with rock ‘n’ roll, but I do believe that, if you’ve got bands, and they have a voice, and they come from the people, and they communicate back to the people, then I think that they have a right – No, a duty – a duty – to tell the truth, about what’s going on in the world, as best as they see it. The Damned’s first two albums, that were written by Brian, didn’t do that. But some of the songs I’ve written are fairly close to the knuckle, you know? Over the years, I’ve just written – I’ve just written one about Henry Kissinger that he’s not gonna like. [Laughs.]
Diabolique: How would you describe the audience, of people who love The Damned?
CS: [Laughs.] I would describe it as ‘discerning music loves’. People who cut through the bullshit and support a band who are not plastic, who don’t choreograph anything. Nothing is planned. I think people understand that The Damned are a rudderless ship. It’s all completely random, and any success that we’ve had is only because of the things that came out of Vanian’s and meself’s and Brian’s brains, you know? We had more music in The Damned than most bands deserve to have. And it’s the only thing that kept us from falling through the plughole of oblivion. Somehow we’ve survived. It’s because there’s a lot of music in this band. Vanian’s a fucking genius, you know? And he’s a great singer.
Diabolique: What inspired the look of The Damned and the theatrics?
CS: I don’t know about Dave, I can’t speak for him, but I loved glam-rock myself. T.Rex: I wanted to be Marc Bolan, you know? I had cork-screw hair. I had satin trousers – the whole thing. Then punk rock came along and I had to throw me wardrobe away! [Laughs] To be quite honest, there’s a lot of glam-rock in what I do. I wear these floppy outfits and everything: you could have worn that in Slade, or T. Rex or The Glitter Band. People miss that.
Diabolique: Why do you think people are still punk rock nowadays?
CS: Punk rock ?
CS: My God. Where do you start with a question like that? You have to say, well, first of all, what does ‘punk rock’ mean?
Diabolique: What does it mean, then? To you.
CS: I think it means a very different thing to the singer of Green Day than it does to Captain Sensible. I don’t want to slag the guy off, and I don’t want to slag – There’s nothing in it for me to go around with a bitter and twisted attitude – but for me, it was just a way of making something out of nothing. I was fairly uneducated, and I wanted to make the – I was a big music fan – and I wanted to make the greatest music that I possibly could, with whatever music that was in my mind. I always wanted to make perfect, perfect records, like The Beatles, like The Move, and The Kinks.
I always tried to make the best records that we possibly could. It was never really ever a thing about maximizing your sales potential or any other nonsense like that – or getting gold discs-blah-blah-blah. It was just purely and simply an exercise in being as creative as humanly possible. I honestly think that people should – you like music, you like football, or you like movies, theatre, or anything like that – should get out there and do it themselves.
Because we’ve all got records, we’ve all got plays, we’ve all got books in us – and we should get out there and write them, and play them. So if you like sport, buy a fucking football and kick it around yourself. Don’t watch these overpaid assholes like Captain Sensible and David Beckham do it. That’s punk rock for you, which is exactly the attitude where I’m coming from. The rock stars of the mid-seventies, I thought to meself, ‘They do not relate to me. I’m gonna do it myself. I don’t care, you know? I don’t care if nobody’s interested.’ I think that everybody should follow that lead, really.