The Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Jam — they get punk rock respect more than three decades down the pike, but their contemporaries the Damned are oft seen as a footnote, a comic one at that. The band remains fronted by singer Dave Vanian, forever dressed as a dapper vampire, and guitarist Captain Sensible, attired in all manner of garish garb. Why the no-respect vibe? “You’re expected to split up and stay split up or someone in the band should die,” says Sensible, now 60. “That’s the route to, um, not success, but legacy.”
The Damned, boasting numerous lineups and stylistic shifts, are happy survivors. Today’s quintet — with keyboardist Monty Oxymoron, bassist Stuart West, and drummer Pinch — have been together four years and had been scheduled to play Royale Oct. 25. Sensible promises 90 minutes-plus of their best stuff, going back to their double A-side single, “Neat Neat Neat”/”New Rose” (1976, credited as the first single released by a British punk band). The Damned have evolved into what Sensible calls a “goth-psycheledic-punk-’60s-garage-twang” band. They’ve released their first CD in seven years, So, Who’s Paranoid? (English Channel), and it’s damned good. I recently talked with the Captain (neè Ray Burns) about the past and the present. (The first part of this is from a 2009 interview; then we did a catchup on the boys in the band today.) Song I just found out the Damned covered, during the brief period Lemmy was in the band: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dJRGBWZLzSo
JSInk: Let’s say it’s 1976 and I was there to ask you if there’d be a Damned in the 21st century ….
Sensible: 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.
Not as badly as some. But I know you’ve been naked from the waist down a lot on stage — I saw that during the ’80s in Boston. But I’ve been told that’s history.
It’s funny you should say that. Last night we played Bristol. 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.
I was standing at the merch store before the gig and someone asked me the very same question. 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.
All in good fun though.
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.
I’m guessing your audience includes peers and curious kids, wondering what 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.
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.
Let’s talk about the boys in the band. You have 19 alumnae. What do you feel the, uh, new guys – drummer Pinch, bassist Stuart West and keyboardist Monty the Oxymoron – bring to the party?
We have a Damned documentary being made by Wes Orshoski currently. By now Wes, whose last project was “Lemmy: The Movie,” has captured some very funny footage already as the Damned are quite a strange bunch these days. People think they know us – but I reckon there will be a few surprised faces when the film is released.
Dave Vanian, our glorious leader is going back in time and is now trapped somewhere in a black-and-white ‘40s ‘B’ movie. Sporting his sophisticated pencil moustache while wearing his smart three-piece suit he never looks anything less than immaculate.
And then there’s Monty. Our keyboardist gets so mad if he can’t open his hotel door he will often be witnessed ferociously banging his head against the corridor wall at 3 A.M., cursing at God. Loudly.
Our bassist Stu is always late for sound checks, apparently having more important things to do with his time. Like taking photographs of locomotives down at the nearest railway station, for he is one of the Great British tribe of train spotters.
Then we have our drummer, Pinch – the king of the conspiracy theory. Each tour begins with his latest revelation about evil deeds in high places.
And then there’s myself. But I am the normal one, of course! I took Wes to do an interview outside the former home of my parents – where I spent my school years – and no sooner was the camera rolling than a drug-crazed mugger made a grab for it and a good old-fashioned punch-up ensued in which $50,000 worth of film equipment got completely trashed, and Wes ended up being rushed to hospital. He probably needed a rabies antidote. I should have mentioned to him that I was born and raised in the roughest part of South London, where one person’s posh movie gear is someone else’s year’s supply of crack cocaine. But despite all of that it should be a fun film.
And now, for something not completely different but complementary Hugo Burnham, a North Shore resident and Associate Professor at New England Institute of Art, was the drummer in the influential English post-punk group Gang of Four and had these observations of offer about seeing the Damned back in the day.
I saw the Damned for the first time at Leeds Polytechnic, playing first on the bill on the fated Anarchy in the UK tour on December 6th 1976. Along with the Damned, the controversial tour – banned in various cities – featured the Sex Pistols, the Clash and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers.
London punk finally had come north. I think that Leeds was the first gig that they been able to play, as the city did not force the Poly Union to take any action against the tour despite some local MP trying his best. The vibe going in was muted excitement as, at any minute, everybody felt it could have gone south – either through some sort of violent act – the place was full of off-duty coppers doing security, who were clearly itching to get stuck in – or a last-minute cancellation by the city powers.
It was full, but certainly not packed, which it was for the Ramones/Talking Heads gig a few months later there in May 1977). It was mostly the few local kids who had fallen under punk’s spell, and the bands or almost-bands at the time, local Leeds kids, SOS, and almost all of the students who would end up in Gang of Four, Mekons, and Delta 5, plus Frank Tovey (Fad Gadget) and Marc Almond (of Soft Cell.) You might say pretty much everybody who drank regularly at the storied Fenton pub that sat next to the flyover bridge smack between the two campuses of University of Leeds and the Polytechnic.
The Damned were totally irreverent and delightfully assholic; they made me think of “The Rocky Horror Show.” They were messy and fast and loud. It was great. Dave Vanian was acting as much as he was singing. The audience was still less-than-animated – all quite worried they’d be jumped on by the security guys who were doing little to hide the fact that they were tooled up (carrying coshes). [British slang for blackjack or bludgeons/] A few danced, pogoed around. But it was not what everybody later got used to at punk rock shows around the country.
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!
– Hugo Burnham
With TSOL and the Briefs. Note: Early show, starts at 5:30. Tickets: $25 (cheap).
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