The Damned’s Captain Sensible often walks on stage, red beret and all, to chants of ‘Sensible is a wanker’. It’s an old tradition, a tongue in cheek tribute from fans of a punk band that can genuinely claim to be ‘the original’, and a vast improvement on the shower of spit and beer that often accompanied punk’s earliest outings. The Damned were there at the movement’s start: since releasing Britain’s first punk album, they’ve held together in various incarnations through a major label deal, a barrage of booze and chemicals and a wide array of public hatred. In the Captain’s opinion, they’re still churning out music every bit as good as what they ever produced, with relative sobriety a major contributing factor.
To put things in context, when The Damned started out, Abba and Queen were still very early in their careers, and Metallica’s Lars Ulrich was just thirteen. In short, Captain Sensible has lived through a lot. Not bad for a man whose musical career was a not so natural progression from toilet attendant. 36 years later, Sensible’s fiesty as ever…
Hello Captain! You’ll be surprised to hear that Goldenplec first came across you as a live force at Salisbury Playhouse back in 2002. The Academy is glamour central after that, and the band seem to be flying higher than a decade ago. What’s driving you on these days?
I love twanging the guitar for a living!
When you compare the ‘punk’ scene now to The Damned’s early days, are you surprised by the direction of the genre? What do you make of the modern day incarnation of punk?
Today’s bands must be careful of all this powerful studio technology that can make you sound big and powerful. Sometimes less is more – for me the 70s sound is marvellous . It’s very pure and not overproduced. The modern American punk sound bores me if the truth is told.
But punk should be more than the music, it’s an attitude which says regardless of your circumstances you can be creative and make something of your life. I picked up a guitar and with a handful of chords managed to change my life from the rubbish future that life had planned for me. Everyone should turn off their TVs, free their minds and create something.
These big famous American so-called punk bands are anything but. If the trend was bright orange loon pants and banana shaped guitars the tattooed brigade would all be sporting that style. Punk is specific to the late 70s – all the Johnny come latelies are bandwagon jumper wanna be rock stars. Blah blah.
Is it possible, in your opinion, for punk to hold the same meaning as it did when you first started out? Does musical protest hold the same shock factor and poignance?
No idea, I’m just a bloke in a band… not a social commentator. There was no decent music around in ’76, that’s why we got off our arses… we had to do it for ourselves – or listen to the Osmonds.
The Damned’s major label period came largely while you were working on your solo material. You don’t seem like the kind of guy who’d be all that happy to bow to the music corporations anyhow. Did you feel the MCA signing sat well with The Damned’s image?
We never said we were anti dosh, in fact as an ex lavatory cleaner I didn’t ever feel like turning down any juicy record deals and the odd suitcase of cash I can tell you. Bring it on… if anyone’s offering, lol.
I believe you’re very first South American tour took place earlier this year, definitive proof that after more than 35 years, there’s plenty more to be achieved. What would you still like to do as a band?
We are a rudderless pirate ship adrift In an ocean full of crap music. Our job is to act as an antidote to the terrible TV karaoke programs that are turning people off music. We have no plans for world domination or any of that rubbish…… We’re just happy to be a bit underground and do our own thing. Whatever that may be.
We make an album every 5 years or so these days….. our latest is called ‘So, Who’s Paranoid’ and addresses the surveillance culture that we seem to have everywhere these days. There’s a crazy amount of security cameras in the UK these days and it is my guess that the ‘War On Terror’ is simply an excuse to bring in repressive measures against the people in case they decide that corporate capitalism has gone too far
The red beret has become very much the Captain Sensible icon. Does it have a specific meaning for you?
Yes, it managed to stop the gob that was flying at gigs in ’77 getting in my hair.
The audience doesn’t know who I am if I don’t wear it these days so I guess I’m a bit lumbered with the thing. It could be worse, I could’ve chosen a cowboy hat…
Do you struggle playing guitar on stage through your shades?
No, after a while your fingers know where they’re going by themselves… which is why it’s possible to play the guitar behind your head…. if your feeling in a particularly show offy mood. Not that I’m ever that way inclined. Ahem
If you had to pick out a single moment that epitomizes your entire raison d’etre as a band, what would you point to?
‘Dark Asteroid ‘ on the last album…. it’s a 13 mins long psychedelic extravaganza that we thoroughly enjoyed making. With no regard for anything but musical exploration we thought at first it might be edited down to make it more palatable for the faint hearted but couldn’t find it in us to axe any part of the piece. It went out in all its manic glory. That sums us up.
Over the years, you’ve talked a lot about the influence of 60s ‘punks’ (in attitude, rather than style) on your sound. Are you still finding new inspiration in plenty of less-obvious places?
I like Rachmaninoff for his romance and melancholy… and early Soft Machine for their jazzy and fun inventiveness. They’re hardly new artists though.
Simon Cowell is an inspiration I suppose…. in that everything he does – if you do the opposite you’re probably on the right track.
For all the political angles to your music, the Blah! Party was probably your biggest statement to date. Are you happy with how that’s turned out?
Well, it was just a way of getting me through the Blair ‘WMD’ days… but he’s just one of a whole.
What do you see as the biggest failure of modern day politics?
Lying liars lying on TV – and getting away with it.
Few bands survive quite as long as you’ve managed. What has held the band together over the years?
The immense amount of music in the band members triumphed over the chaos and mania. We dig each others creativity I guess. It’s never boring – no 2 albums sound the same.
If you would have asked me to make a prediction in 1976 I wouldn’t have bet 5p on the Damned with their collection of eccentric and volatile characters still be doing gigs together 35 years later….. or even that the original members would all still be alive such was the mania and lunacy that surrounded this band back in what I call the ‘Chaos Years’. Every mad, bad and dangerous for your health we did it….. even falling asleep was frowned upon – we called it the 24 hour club.
You know there is a tendency to look back in time at the glory days of British punk with rose-tinted specs and imagine that it was all a well planned and choreographed exercise in grabbing ‘cash from chaos’ but I lived through those days and let me tell you they were unpredictable and dirty times. Not that I regret a second of them as it could be tremendous fun watching the faces of the more easily outraged members of society as they recoiled in disgust at our squalid antics.
We didn’t even have a van to transport the equipment to the rehearsal studio at the beginning – but were luckily London had a plentiful supply of red double decker buses where the plan was to run up the stairs with drums and guitar as quickly as possible before the conductor had a chance to stop us.
All the bands of the time were swapping members and dreaming up new names every week – Chrissy Hynde played guitar for the Damned for a couple of weeks – while Brian James and members of the Clash nearly ended up together as London SS.
And the strange thing was that the wannabe managers hanging around trying to impress us by buying paying for the occasional cheeseburger (skint bands can get very hungry) seemed to be proprietors of clothes shops looking for someone to showcase their trendy garb. And free clothes and a bite to eat were pretty persuasive stuff at the time if I recall correctly.
Unfortunately seeing as the newspapers were whipping up an anti punk fever simply walking around town became a dangerous affair and I got so much practice at running away from confrontational situations that I could’ve represented Britain at the 100 metres in the Olympics.
Once you had completed the lineup of your band the next problem was finding getting a gig, as obnoxious punk bands were very much NOT what any club manager wanted at their venue. So you found yourselves having to lie about the kind of band you were to get a gig…… “our material is mainly blues based”……or “prog rock, definitely no punk – honest mate” seemed to work occasionally.
And all would be OK until you hit the stage and started playing – we actually had the curtain pulled on us while we were performing once. By the HEADLINE ACT it was too. They were a competent but boring blues act called S.A.L.T. and snotty nosed punks like us had arrived to wipe the likes of them off the scene. No wonder they hated us so much.
In fact quite a few of the ‘old guard’ – popular musicians of the day, despised everything that we stood for….. and didn’t hold back in saying so either. The music papers were full of slaggings from the likes of Yes, Genesis, etc.
But there were a few honourable exceptions, like Led Zeppelin, Phil Lynnott, Lemmy and the lovely Marc Bolan – who liked the Damned so much he asked us to be the support act on what sadly turned out to be his final tour – owing to a horrible car crash.
The stadium rock bands (the ‘old dinosaurs’ as we called them) seemed invincible though, and It seems amazing to me now that a bunch of maniacs like us could not only help getting rid of most of that stuff but also that some of us are still around gigging today – in the Damned’s case on their 35th anniversary tour, which visited Japan in February.
Now I have to say the Damned of today is not quite as rough and beer fuelled as that of our ’77 vintage but I honest ly cannot remember enjoying myself as much as I do these days. And we play the songs MUCH better sober too. Well, sober-ish anyway.
As published on Goldenplec.com, May 2012.