Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian from legendary punk rockers The Damned reflect on forty years of touring, the term “punk” and what the future holds for a band now entering its fifth decade of existence.
“Nobody was using the P word,” insists Captain Sensible, larger than life guitarist of The Damned, reflecting on the much celebrated 40th anniversary of punk rock.
“Even when we got the first couple of reviews, people were calling us a punk group, “ he continues, “I didn’t know what they were talking about. When I joined Brian (James – founder member and the band’s original guitarist) in his quest to do this new fangled music, he never said ‘I’m putting a punk group together’. It’s just remarkable that in London all these people were doing the same thing at the same time.”
Rather, he continues, what would eventually become known as punk – the phrase was coined by Melody Maker writer Caroline Coon – was initially a collection of different bands with very different influences who shared a common attitude more than a specific sound.
“Everyone had different ideas,” says Damned singer Dave Vanian, “When it first started, all the bands were different from each other, and most of them didn’t look the same either, although we all changed a kind of burning desire to do something ourselves. Two years later there was punk by numbers, you know, and rules – you’re supposed to look a certain way, act a certain way. We didn’t have that, we didn’t want that to exist.”
Even the band themselves, as Vanian points out, are a combination of disparate flavours, from his own interest in the late ‘60s garage psychedelia and film soundtracks to Captain Sensible’s dogma-defying admiration for prog rock. “People like that shouldn’t be in a band together,” laughs Vanian, “but we loved music so much we came together, all those different resources together…”
It’s a combination that’s enabled them to evolve and keep their ideas fresh over four long decades since the moment – October 22, 1976 to be precise – that they released their thrusting and speedy debut single “New Rose”, widely acknowledged to be the first record by a British punk band, Their arrival, consolidated by their masterpiece of a debut album Damned Damned Damned initially galvanised their contemporaries into action, with The Clash, Sex Pistols and others quickly realising they needed to get into the studio quickly to keep up. Its rowdy, fast and furious approach set a template that was copied by a second generation of punk bands, and as the first UK punk act to reach not only New York but also America’s West Coast, they sowed the seeds of a hardcore punk culture which would spawn Dead Kennedys, Black Flag and many others.
It was a trip that Sensible remembers vividly. “Working class people didn’t go abroad in 1976, there was no Spanish holidays or anything like that. No Costa del this and that,” says Sensible, “So we were sent abroad as ambassadors for Britain! Very unlikely because we were a bunch of yobbos. And of course, we didn’t have any respect for anyone. We stood onstage in New York, in CBGBs, taking the piss out of the whole situation.”
If their relationship with the “very arty, very druggy” scene in New York was a little terse, the other side of the country took them to their hearts immediately. “The West Coast embraced us totally,” Vanian says, “The crowds were fantastic and it seems that we also started a lot of bands off. In a way, I suppose, similar to when The Ramones played London.”
With 40 years of hard touring under their collective belt, can they remember their first ever gig? “The Nashville , a weird place,” recalls Vanian of the West Kensington pub now known as The Famous Three Kings, “a bit rough, an Irish pub, with a three-legged Doberman Pinscher behind the bar – no-one could ever get behind the bar. That dog was like the hound of hell. I think he was actually famous for saving someone’s life this dog.
“But the gig itself, we supported a kind of folk rock band called Salt, and of course they hated us, their audience hated us, and half way through the set which was only about 25 minutes long they closed the curtain. We just opened them and finished the set regardless. I think Captain shouted ‘anyone with a beard can fuck off’.”
It was an unlikely icon of a previous generation, T Rex’s Marc Bolan, who gave the band their first big break as a live act. Vanian recalls: “That changed everything for us. His publicist and all his people worked upstairs from Stiff Records, so we were always seeing each other. Marc was having a bit of a comeback, and he was one of the old guard who saw the punk thing as being interesting and worth looking at. He wanted to get in touch with the younger kids through us, so we teamed up, we got some of his audience and he got some of ours.”
The band’s initially furious and ‘frenetic’ sound, that they’re revisiting on their current tour which features the Damned Damned Damned album in full, was the idea of ‘visionary’ founder Brian James, as Sensible dubs him. “When I first met him he said ‘I want to put a gang together, it’s going to be a gang that plays music and it’s going to be faster and it’s going to be louder than anything that’s gone before. And he played me the songs. And he was right. Especially at a time when Whispering Bob (Harris, 1970s Radio 1 DJ) was playing Emmylou Harris and Little Feat. That’s what people were into. So you get The Damned on stage playing that mad, frenetic music, and we used to drive audiences running for the exits… Get a reaction, that’s what it’s all about. If you get no reaction that’s awful, but positive or negative – it don’t bother me either way.”
But while that’s the sound that made their name, it’s their ability to consistently defy categorisation that’s given them their longevity. Their third album Machine Gun Etiquette, their first without Brian James, brought us evergreen classics such as “Love Song” and “Smash It Up”, bringing an element of raucous power pop to their sound which has been echoed in the work of giants such as Green Day, Blink-182 and Offspring. They began the ‘80s with their fourth LP, The Black Album, saw them recast as the godfathers of goth and reacted against the accepted wisdom of the three-minute punk classic by the inclusion of the epic “Curtain Call”, clocking in at 17 minutes. The decade proved to be highly successful for them, with the Phantasmagoria album and a clutch of chart-climbing singles including their no3 hit “Eloise” cementing their reputation. Captain Sensible also scored a number of solo hits around this time including early rap outing “Wot” and a cover of “Happy Talk” from the musical South Pacific which reached the top of the British singles charts in 1982.
As Vanian says, “We wouldn’t have wanted to make ‘New Rose’ twenty times, brilliant song that it is. Experimentation was always on the cards, take some risks. Rather than make music that people would expect and that you can sell, it was a case that we wanted to write music we wanted to write.” He points to “Curtain Call” as an example. The idea of a 17-minute track may have been initially viewed with suspicion by fans and label alike, “now it’s one of the favourites of the crowd.”
It was certainly one of many highlights of their special Albert Hall show back in May when the group revisited every album in their career in a massive double set show. An emotional evening, says Vanian. “It was a very special gig, we’d never done anything like that before. Two sets, basically, retrospective going backwards. And it was exciting because some of those songs we hadn’t played for years and years, so we were really on our toes – we had to be. Kind of stressful in a weird way. They weren’t songs we could just relax and play. But I like that because it gave us tension. And the audience, because The Damned have always been the outsiders, it was almost like everyone in that room was willing every song to be as good as it could be… I didn’t have time to think about the emotion of it until afterwards. And it was one of those magic gigs where everything worked, the music, the lights…”
With their touring schedule now taking them across the globe on an annual basis in recent years, from Argentina to Tokyo, one of Sensible’s favourite places, there’s been little time for the studio. But come the new year they’ll be starting work on the follow-up to 2008’s So, Who’s Paranoid?. The album is the band’s first exercise in crowdfunding, with fans putting up cash via a PledgeMusic campaign. “It’s going to be pushing more the psychedelic influence… and we’re gonna hopefully push the boundaries, for ourselves… ”
In the meantime, that original spirit of punk created by that handful of disparate bands in London 40 years ago, still lives on, Sensible reckons, pointing to the anti-authoritarian DIY nature of today’s hip-hop artists as a particular example.
“I still think it’s a good idea really, Anti-authority, pro-creativity, DIY, make it up for yourself. So what if they tell you ‘you can’t do that’, ‘join the army’ or why don’t you do this? No, fuck off. I’m going to learn the guitar and go out and do something with my life. Or learn to do something else, it don’t have to be guitar. Punk rock’s like thinking for yourself and not taking no for an answer. Cos otherwise I’d still be cleaning toilets, wouldn’t I?!”
Get tickets for upcoming The Damned shows at www.ticketweb.co.uk/thedamned