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the damned

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 2001?

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 show!

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"?

AUDIO: W

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 mistake.

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 Scabies unavailable?

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 till.

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 each other?

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 Talk"

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. Belch!

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 your childhood?

AUDIO: "Beauty of the Beast"

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 their interests?

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 streets.

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 memorable?

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 Take Over"

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 start.

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 music?

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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DAMNED LINKS

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 magazine.

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 them.

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 ]

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