Of course, I’ve seen Captain Sensible’s pasty-white bare ass.
And, if you’re of a certain generation and a certain punk-rock and/or goth mindset, you’ll say, “Well, who hasn’t?” And, depending upon the gig, perhaps you were fortunate enough to get the full monty.
Captain Sensible is The Damned’s one-time bassist, longtime guitarist, occasional singer and co-songwriter. He and I were talking about those ass-baring occasions about ten years ago. Dropping trou is something he used to do quite frequently during many a Damned concert of the ’70s and ’80s. I remember one of them in Boston, where backstage post-show, he crowed about being “hung like a hamster.”
But, I wondered, as a man of 55 (as he was in 2009), was that maneuver something he’d put behind him as maturity crept in?
Sorta. He told me about a show the band had just played the previous night in Bristol, England.
“I was standing at the merch store before the gig and someone asked me the very same question,” the Captain said. “I said to this lady, ‘No, madam, I’m trying to behave myself these days,’ and her face dropped and she said, ‘Oh no, we only want to see you behave badly.’ School teachers and lawyers come along to see The Damned and they have a few drinks and they want to see really bad behavior.”
But then, as the gig came to a smashing close: “The final power chord finished and the band sauntered off. I surreptitiously had given the sound guy my old [solo career] hit ‘Happy Talk,’ but the big-band version from the ’50s. I run back on stage and grab the microphone and croon this rancid old show tune and, of course, I get the odd heckle so of course I have to show them my bottom.”
The topic came up again five years ago, during another interview. Sensible said he’d modified his behavior in part because a) he was a father of four, and b) the reality of life in the YouTube age.
“My kids come to gigs these days,” explains Sensible, “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 on stage these days without it ending up on YouTube.”
It’s September 2019 and The Damned still stalk the earth, fronted by singer Dave Vanian, forever dressed as a dapper vampire, and Sensible, attired in all manner of garish garb including a red beret and a striped shirt. Co-founding guitarist/songwriter Brian James was gone after the first album, later joining Stiv Bators in Lords of the New Church and Genesis P-Orridge in Psychic TV. Rounding out the current Damned cast, keyboardist Monty Oxymoron – no longer called Monty the Moron – bassist Stuart West, and drummer Pinch. (Pinch holds the seat once occupied by the man who was a contender for best name in punk, Rat Scabies.)
I’ve spent a fair amount of time over the years with The Damned, watching/reviewing them on stage, chatting and quaffing beers off stage. They hit my public turntable first in 1976 when I was a college DJ (WMEB-FM, Orono, Maine) and I kept spinning the double A-sides of their 45 “New Rose” and “Neat Neat Neat,” constantly annoying the old hippies still at the station.
I first saw The Damned at a Boston club in 1979. I was yakking with Sensible after the show and asked how he’d describe what The Damned do, keeping in mind the band’s refrain in “Noise Noise Noise:” “We say noise is for heroes/Leave the music for zeroes.”
Said Sensible, sensibly: “We play musical anarchy.” That night, they played not only their own psycho-punk stuff, but also bastardized versions of Sweet’s “Ballroom Blitz,” The Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” and The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant.”
Hugo Burnham, a friend who was Gang of Four’s co-founding drummer, saw them in England three years before me. “I saw The Damned for the first time at Leeds Polytechnic,” Burnham told me. “They were playing first on the bill on the fated Anarchy in the UK tour on December 6th 1976, along with the Sex Pistols, The Clash and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers.
“The Damned were totally irreverent and delightfully assholic; they made me think of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. They were messy and fast and loud. It was great. Vanian was acting as much as he was singing. Local scenester and photographer David Whittaker has a story that he saw Sensible signing an autograph for a punkette in the audience. He asked to see it, and saw that he’d scrawled, ‘I’m not signing my fucking name on this.’ Yeah! Punk rock! No rock stars!”
More than four decades down the road, the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Jam are the English trio that gets all the founding-father/punk-rock cred. But The Damned, every bit their contemporaries, have oft been viewed as a footnote, and a silly psychedelic one at that.
By the early ‘80s, the ever-mercurial British rock press was dismissing The Damned as a cabaret punk rock act. In 1989, I was talking to Vanian after a gig and I mentioned that knock.
“I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” he said. “I saw a Gene Pitney concert recently and it was cabaret, but it wasn’t sickly-sweet.” He reasoned that if The Damned was indeed cabaret, “it was cabaret down the dark alley you wouldn’t want to go down.”
“Obviously,” he continued, the songs “don’t mean what they once did because things have changed, but they still seem fresh and exciting.”
Of note: The Damned were at that time on a “farewell” tour. But as with The Who, Elton John, David Bowie and Cher, “farewell” has no real meaning. After that ’89 gig, Sensible did muse, “The thing is, if I don’t do this, what can I do? I don’t want to go back to cleaning toilets.” (Which was, in reality, his old pre-Damned job.)
So, The Damned are still storming the stages of the world and they’re a group so well-thought of by the Misfits and Rancid that they’re on the big punk-and-more lovefest at Oakland’s Oracle Arena Sept. 11 and New York’s Madison Square Garden Oct. 19.
Putting aside the recent Misfits/Rancid tip of the hat, why the Rodney Dangerfield no-respect vibe?
Sensible (neè Ray Burns April 24, 1954) has a ready (and not inaccurate) answer for that: “You’re expected to split up and stay split up or someone in the band should die. That’s the route to, um, not success, but legacy.”
Recently, the website Blabbermouth called them “the greatest surviving British punk band.” (Not quite sure who the surviving competitors might be.)
The Damned, boasting numerous lineups, breakups, stylistic shifts and even name changes (they were The Doomed for a while), are happy survivors. The Damned is the only punk group to have an album produced by a member of Pink Floyd – drummer Nick Mason, doing their second LP “Music for Pleasure” – and David Bowie producer Tony Visconti – their 11th studio album, “Evil Spirits,” which came out last year. The Damned have evolved into what Sensible calls a “goth-psycheledic-punk-’60s-garage-twang” band.
On Nov. 1, The Damned will release a 39-track best-of compilation called “Black is the Night: The Definitive Anthology.” (The title track is a new song.) So here’s another “best of” – the best of my banter with Sensible over the years.
Hard Noise: So, how do you look back at the glory days of punk rock?
Sensible: 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.”
Of course, I must also must ask: What is punk? So many definitions, variations, permutations and proclamations over the years …
Good question. 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.
Let’s say it’s early 1976 and I was in London asking you if there’d be a Damned in the 21st century.
I would’ve said we’d have lasted six weeks maximum. We had to lie and cheat our way to get gigs. We’d go to venues, look to see who was on the schedule, and we’d say, “Look we can support this band, we’re a dub-reggae act” or “We’re a heavy rock act” or “We’re a folk act.” You couldn’t use the p-word; if you said you were a punk band, you’d get no gigs whatsoever. And then when we got on the stage, quite often the curtain would be pulled or the plugs would be pulled. We’d end up playing three songs and that was it. We’d be kicked out on our ear holes.
Would you get paid?
No. We’d drink as much as possible backstage before we left. That’s how I got my name, Captain Sensible. Obviously, it’s ironic. I used to behave quite badly.
There’s kind of double irony in there, though. Yes, you were a loony, but also a smart lefty who later lived and recorded with the anarcho band Crass. And you’re a vegetarian who’s written a few songs about animal rights like “Torture Me” and “Wolf No Meat.”
Right. I’m a trendy vegetarian and I think we have to be aware of what we shove in our bodies. We only get one chance at life, there’s no born-again nonsense gonna happen. We’ve got to make the most of what we’ve got while we’re here.
You’re not a fan of the tobacco industry, either.
I do what I can to fight the evil tobacco companies who spread their crap product, who get people to 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.
I’m guessing your audience today includes peers —old punks and goths — and curious kids, wondering what the hell The Damned is all about.
Yeah, it’s very strange. You’re supposed to hate the music your parents liked, and parents are supposed to be outraged by what the kids are listening to, but I think punk was so ahead of the game in 1977 — kind of quite extreme — we’re now in fashion. The Dead Kennedys, Ramones, and dare I say The Damned still sound fucking brilliant. Punk is still saying something and it’s still relevant and the great thing is anyone can do it: learn three chords and form a band.
Once upon a time, you took a swerve away from The Damned and had solo hits with “Happy Talk” and “Wot?” from the 1982 album, “Women and Captains First.” Then …
I was cast adrift for a while after doing my dubious solo thing, 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 Rotten, that’s for sure.
“Happy Talk” does make me think, though, you’re a pretty upbeat guy. What accounts for your eternal joie de vivre?
I never saw the point in po-faced rock stars, people who think they’re special and everyone should run around and treat them like gods. At the end of the day, if you can play a guitar it doesn’t make you special in the slightest. You don’t go around groveling to the plumber when you see he’s done a good job. I never saw the point of some of my contemporaries — you never see a photograph of them smiling. They’re so serious. What’s that all about? I just never got it. It doesn’t mean I don’t take life and politics and the way things are going incredibly serious. These are very dangerous times we’re living in.
We all know motivation can change over the years and that it’s certainly got to be a lot different than when you were young, and, yet part of your 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. 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!
It would appear there’s no Damned breakup in sight.
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. 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 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?!