The Damned have a unique place in the history of punk music. They were the
first to tour the states, the first to release a single and the first to
shape rowdiness into something fun for all. Their music and legendary stage
shows capture the kid in us who first heard Chuck Berry's "Dingaling", or
first drank Grandpop's beer. Beginning as modest musicians, they improved
like no other group because they genuinely loved music. Their attraction is
not only to traditional punk, but to whacked-out prog ("Curtain Call"),
ample-bosomed ballads ("Eloise") and the skewed pop psychedelia ("I Just
Can't Be Happy Today") of their youth. They love it all, and they play it
all. In terms of particular talent, Dave Vanian's voice is just a notch below
Freddie Mercury's in my book, while Moron and Sensible, the other two Damned
elders, bring a wild, anarchic grace to their instruments. Playing solo or
with the group, their work compels because they make any old note shine like
a blissed-out invention.
To help celebrate the Damned's first US tour of the new millenium, I hooked up with
Captain Sensible via the magic of e-mail. Our conversation (as it were) focuses not only on the
Damned's new record, Grave Disorder, but on his overlooked and much-beloved solo career. His
Christmas Catalogue has made tea, snaps and Wendy my favorite snack,
while Live at the Milky Way has enough force to turn David
Syvian's farts into gold. It's truly great to see the Captain back and
building new glories with Dave, Monty and the rest of the Damned.
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Splendid: Did the Damned, upon forming, have a thirty-year plan? And is
Grave Disorder close to where you expected the group to sound like in
Captain Sensible: A bizarre question... Did there seem to be any plan
except auto destruct during the infamous "chaos years" of Algy Ward and
the road crew from hell? People being set on fire in the van on the way to
gigs, sacks full of manure on stage -- that sort of thing. Our motto was
"The first rule is -- no rules!" But somehow we have come through this
carnage stronger than ever, playing great, with a bunch of cracking new tunes.
Grave Disorder is a little like a first album in some ways, 'cos the
point had to be made that we are a relevant, happening, "now" band rather than
a buncha UK punk revivalists. So the sound has evolved a trifle... but it's
still pretty Damnedified for that. I'd never have put money on being alive
in 2001, let alone making another Damned record, what with the madness that
frequently engulfed us in those days. Grave Disorder sounds pretty
good to me, though... Not that I play it all the time or anything, but on
different hi-fi systems, I'm always impressed at the urgency and excitement
of the whole thing. In fact, I'm really looking forward to the next one!
Splendid: I've always been intrigued by the cheerful
way you approach politics and social issues, be it "Generals" and the jolly
anarchy of "Smash It Up", or your present jabs at political leaders Bush and
Blair. Were there ever moments when the Damned, or some members thereof,
wanted your music to be less lighthearted, and veer
explicitly toward Crass territory,
where the song was a success if and only if the message was deeply felt?
Captain Sensible: We've always tackled a variety of lyrical topics in this
band and long may that continue, especially since there are a buncha
contributors to the songwriting duties in this line-up. You can't open the
bloomin' newspapers these days without lyric ideas jumping off the page...
This really is a world gone mad, and the lunatics are running the whole
Splendid: As a related question, the band once jokingly (or fittingly)
dubbed themselves the Doomed. Because of the events on September 11, what's
to happen with songs like "W" and "Democracy"?
Captain Sensible: We changed the name of the band for five minutes cos Brian James wanted to
fold it for good and was whinging a bit about us using the name. As far as
the appalling things that happened on Sept 11th (and who will
ever forget that date?) are concerned, I just wish that Clinton had had a
little while longer to bash the heads together of the two sides in the Middle
East conflict. It really did seem that he was getting somewhere. Whatever
people think of him, what with all this Monica Lewinsky thing and all that,
I kinda trusted him a little more than some other presidents I can mention.
Peace is still holding in Northern Ireland too. That's another Clinton
success. Yes, "W" is about Bush Jr., and there ain't a lot of democracy about
these days, unfortunately, but we can count ourselves lucky we weren't born
in Afghanistan, methinks. I'd be straight on one of those refugee boats, no
Splendid: Rotating personnel is one of few traits the Damned seem to share
with the stereotypical punk band. Did the recent changes in personnel, all
of which worked out well musically, occur out of necessity? Were
such folk as Paul
Gray or Rat
Captain Sensible: Paul has given up playing live owing to damage to his ears
courtesy of the excessive volume he used to crank his amp up to. Rat's not
with us for a different reason. He was caught with his fingers in the
Splendid: You seem to have a lot of strange studio experiences, like the
ketchup wars during the Geoffrey Brown sessions. What was it like working on
Joey Ramone's solo album? Were you fairly kindred spirits?
Captain Sensible: I've never heard anyone say a bad word about Joey...
Indeed, he was a nice chap and 'twas a pleasure doing me bit for his album. I
sing some dodgy vocals on a track called "Mr Punchy", which has one of those
naggingly catchy hooks that he was known for. I mysef do like a tune, it
has to be said. Me solo albums are a bit poppier than the Damned, and Dave's
Phantom Chords have their distinctive style, but the Damned has its own sound,
and it's weird how that almost imposes itself on a song without us even
trying to achieve that result.
Splendid: Though the Damned covered "Help", all the genre-sprawling albums
you've made (like your Black Album) suggest
the latter-day Beatles records were a heavier influence on the band's
conception of what a great record should be like. Are there certain
attributes you think fans should expect from every Damned album?
Captain Sensible: We produce more material than we end up using, so only the
best songs get used. I can think of other bands who could employ this
strategy, whose album ya purchase at great expense 'cos ya dig a track you
maybe heard on the radio, and on firing the CD up at home you feel cheated at
the amount of "filler" tracks you are hearing. The Beatles aren't me fave
band by any stretch of the imagination -- I mean, a lot of their stuff is
sugary boy-meets-girl pap, innit? But their records were consistently strong
on the content front, which is what we have attempted over the years. Also,
you can expect a Damned record to be a little musical journey through a
variety of themes and moods. I do think the new CD is thoroughly absorbing -- but
then, I would say that, wouldn't I?
Splendid: For you, is one of the primary attractions of the Damned the fact
that you don't need to sing lead? Is that luxury one of the things that brought you back to the group?
Captain Sensible: Honest answer? Okay, that's fair enough. I never did like
the being a "front man" bit. I'm a guitarist, and really enjoy doing that. And
when you've got Mr Vanian on vocals -- who is one of the best
singers/performers -- why bother, eh?
Splendid: To me, the contrast between your voice/personality and Vanian's is
one of the group's greatest strengths, akin to the great disparity between
Jagger and Richards. Was it by design or happenstance that you and Vanian
bring totally different angles to the group? And, naturally, since I know
neither of you, am I right in presuming you have little in common with
Captain Sensible: Ha ha -- are we the "Glimmer Twins" of punk? We do bring
different apects to the Damned, though; you're spot on there. He does stuff I
can't do and I do stuff he can't -- and probably wouldn't want to, either.
Splendid: When you left the Damned in the eighties to concentrate on your
solo career, it's impressive how even punk purists adapted, to the extent of
liking 99 percent punk, and one percent songs from South Pacific. Did
you cover "Happy Talk" because it defined some part of your personal
philosophy? And do you prefer your poppy, studio version best, or the
sped-up Milky Way reinterpretation?
AUDIO: Captain Sensible's "Happy
Captain Sensible: I covered "Happy Talk" cos we had an imbalance on
completion of Women and Captains first, my first solo album. There were more
tracks on one side than the other and I'd run out of my own songs. Tony
Mansfield, my producer, sent me home to find a song to do a cover version of and I chose
"Happy Talk" 'cos it was such a weird concept -- punk bloke does showtune. It
was on me Mum n' Dad's fav soundtrack album (South Pacific), so there
was an element of doing it for them, I reckon, too. Which version do I like?
Definitely the loud one with the freakout intro -- cosmic, daddio.
Splendid: Has there ever been interest in documenting the stories of the
Damned through film? And would you rather a Robbie Williams play you over
someone like Gary Oldman?
Captain Sensible: Not that anyone would want to do it, but if the story was
ever told then it'd have to tell the whole story, 'cos the wacky "Captain
always-down-the-pub, larger-than-life" bit is not 100% the truth. In fact
(ask the band) I can occasionally be a bit moody and that, but usually bounce back
to being the annoying git that is Captain Sensible before too long.
Splendid: In 2000, Kevin Rowland
released an album of covers that supposedly defined him (I loved it; most
people didn't.). If the Damned did the same thing, would most of the
songs be psychedelic numbers from the sixties (as your last few solo records
seemed to suggest)?
Captain Sensible: I'd love to do that. Like Bowie's Pin Ups, another
example of that kinda thing. I think people would be very surprised what
we'd chose, though, 'cos this band digs music from almost every genre -- except
Opera and Country, of course. Oh, and this awful R&B nonsense that's everywhere these
days. And Phil Collins, and so on...
Splendid: In "Shadow of Love" and the recent "Beauty of the Beast", horror
films are given a little homage. Were the Hammer films a major influence on
AUDIO: "Beauty of the
Captain Sensible: I remember coming back from watching these films -- we
were underage so had bunked in -- and taking the short cut home through
a deserted sewage farm. In the darkness. Me and me cronies would all
huddle up so as not to be the last or the first -- who would be grabbed by the
monsters and fiends lurking behind the bushes and that. Great stuff...and
then there's the Carry On films --
"Ooer matron!" indeed.
Splendid: In the two Decline of Western Civilization movies, the LA
punkers seemed a bit miserable, while the metal bands were, in contrast,
people wanting to drink, fuck and have some laughs. Of the many part-time
members who have played with the Damned, what personalities fit best with
the group? Did Lemmy (of
Hawkwind/Motorhead fame) work out well?
Captain Sensible: I don't like metal. Well, the crap old version of it,
anyway (dunno much about "nu metal", to be quite honest). It's a right load
of ignorant sexist macho bullshit with the look of rebellion (which the
teenage boys dig) but the politics of the right. I remember having a row with a
bunch of "metallers" at an Iron Maiden gig -- all of 'em Thatcherites
without exception, but dressed up in leather with bullet belts and skulls
everywhere. Their politics would have more in common with members of the country club
than they'd care to let on. Wankers. Lemmy, of course, is a bit of a charmer in his own gnarled way and was a pleasure to work with. He actually offered me the guitarist's job in
Motorhead at one point but I was busy with this bunch at the time. Can you
imagine what sort of records would have been concocted with that lineup? No,
neither can I...
Splendid: Is part of the reason you're lyrically current, singing of the
Internet ("Song.Com") and Jason Priestley, based on love of the youth and
Captain Sensible: Being in a band is like being stuck at around
22 years old. Therefore so-called "youth culture" is always at the front of
our minds. Hey dudes, trust us -- we know what's happenin' out there on the
Splendid: Like the Mel
Brooks movie of the same name, "History of the World Part 1" is such a
grandiose title for such a bouncy, silly song. Do you think, ultimately,
life's more amusing than wretched, and that the "griping" side of punk is a
bit overindulged by other groups ?
AUDIO: "History of the
World, Pt. 1"
Captain Sensible: Ha ha -- You watch a lot of films, don't you? You should
get out in the sunshine more. It's a big world out there. Go explore a
bit. The song you mention is actually about the world heading rapidly to an
untimely conclusion while people gossip about the events on last night's soap opera.
Splendid: As long as you're given an airplane ticket, you once said you'd
play anywhere, any time. Is this love for both travel and performing still
intense, and are there any performances which stick out as especially
Captain Sensible: Apart from the fact that there's not a lotta dosh in this
job (unless you're one of the few at the top), the travel and meeting all
sorts of people is great. Oh, and tasting different beer and foods (and
ice cream) is rather nice too. Playing the Fillmore in San Francisco was a
thrill, what with Hendrix, Santana, the Who, Zappa and all the other greats
who'd played there, and the psychedelic posters that promoted these gigs
available in books and the like.
Splendid: One of my favorite musicians is Martin Newell, with whom
you've had an occasionally collaborative relationship. Has there ever been
interest to pursue projects outside of music, like he has done, and would
the Damned ever consider a tour by tricycle or skateboard?
AUDIO: Captain Sensible's "The Toys
Captain Sensible: If Vanian had his way we'd all be travelling to shows on
Harley Davidsons methinks. If Monty had his way we'd all be walking (he
hates the internal combustion engine). Other projects? There's a whole
buncha music in me yet, and that's my passion, to be quite honest. Even if I had
another source of income, I'd still have to compose songs.
Splendid: The Damned and your own solo albums have been graced, not only
with great music, but with wonderful extras, from smelly sleeves and Captain
Sensible dolls to LP covers where you have a nice, cottony Santa beard. Is
there anything you would have loved to do that budgetary constraints or
present laws of physics prevented?
Captain Sensible: Yes. Where do you begin? If this band gets a decent
budget for videos and strange packaging and stuff, the fun would really
Splendid: It's great not only to have the music you and the Damned have
given us, but the whole band persona, which for me seems as necessary to
punk culture as Huck Finn and
his raft are to literature. Are there any parting words you could give kids
with guitars as they seek out their own Damned personalities in the world of
Captain Sensible: Blimey, you're too kind. Advice to kids with guitars? Get
yaself a couple of CDs by Jimi
Hendrix (avoid listening to Eric "Claptout") and practice. Write your own tunes,
'cos at the end of the day a great "muso" with bad
material ain't gonna get nowhere. And that's it.
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Read Splendid's reviews of Grave
Disorder and Sessions of the Damned
Dave Vanian gives his own interesting song-by-song analysis of Grave
Disorder in the Mojo4music web
Visit the officialDamned website. It's got a great historical essay on the group that's a bitch to print, but quite entertaining. New features include the Captain's Tour Log, and a ton
of great MP3s, including the vintage solo stuff from Monty Oxymoron that
started the whole "oxymoron" craze in the English language.
Here's a GeoCities page that's actually fun. It's a Captain
Sensible tribute page that asks you to harass Rhino to release his
earliest solo records. Since Rhino Records is like a brand name now, and
getting pricier by the day, it's hard to find a good reason not to annoy
Visit the Damned's current US label, Nitro Records
Buy lots of Damned recordings at Insound
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Theodore Defosse is a California-based plastic surgeon whose clients include Jennifer Aniston, Ted Danson and Michael Jackson.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - uncredited, borrowed from websites :: credits graphics ]