YOU'RE SO VANIAN!
Back in 2002, to coincide with the release of THE DAMNED’s ‘Smash It Up’ retrospective, Dave Vanian took a stroll down memory lane with Hugh Gulland.
VLP: To begin at the beginning, how did the four members of the original lineup first meet?
D: Captain and Rat worked together, they cleaned toilets in the Fairfield Halls in Croydon, I first met Rat, I was in a band that never actually played a show, it was Chrissie Hynde on guitar, Rat was on drums and I was introduced to him by Malcolm Maclaren funnily enough. And it was like Malcolm overseeing it, there was another singer who I only know as Dave, it might have been Dave Zero, and he had perfectly white hair, so we looked like a couple of dominoes! We did a whole pile of sixties garagey numbers, but it never went any further, and basically Rat wanted me to meet Brian (James, original Damned founder), and Brian’s words were to Rat, I believe, ‘He looks like a singer, we’ll try him out!’. So I auditioned for the Damned, and the other guy who was asked never actually turned up, I was the only one, so whether they actually liked me…!
Brian had all these songs he’d been working on and wanted to fulfil this dream of getting an album together, and he was looking for the right people to work with, with the same attitudes. Till that time he’d never found anyone, but in Rat he found the perfect drummer, and I guess in me he found the perfect singer who’d give vent to his songs, and immediately I saw him play guitar I wanted to work with him. He was an amazing guitarist, there’s only so many guitarists who don’t sound like anyone else, immediately they play you know who they are, and I’d always been a big fan of Johnny Thunders. He reminded me in a way, he had the same kind of attitude, I liked that and I liked what he did. Of all the band, I imagine I had the least experience, Rat had been in several bands. And Brian was a little bit older than the rest of us, he’d been in bands previously, and Captain had been in bands with Johnny Moped. So I literally just lied my way into the business, I lied that I’d been in a couple of local bands out of town. I knew I could hold a tune ‘cause I could sing along to a record, at least I thought so!
VLP: The Damned were famously booted off the Sex Pistols ‘Anarchy’ tour in late 1976, what was the story there?
D: When we were put on the bill by Malcolm, the Pistols had never really played anywhere, they’d played gigs in London and maybe one or two outside, but generally they pulled in 30/40 people. We’d been on tour quite a while, we had a big following by then, we were put on that bill to get people into the venues. Malcolm wasn’t taking any chances, he got the Clash, the Heartbreakers, he had a good bill. The day before the first show, they were on the Bill Grundy show, after the Bill Grundy show they were front page news, everyone was talking about the Sex Pistols and councils were banning them at the venues. Tickets had been on sale and I remember saying at the time, well, we can still play. ‘Cause I was thinking, these poor kids who’ve bought tickets, they’ll want their money back, this kind of thing. This was after the Pistols had swanned back in in their limousines, I might add, like ‘you can fuck off now, we don’t need you anymore’. And it was a case of, we’re ‘traitors’, ‘cause we still want to play, but Malcolm was looking for an excuse to dump us anyway, ‘cause he’d never wanted us on there, it was just a question of he couldn’t get the bums in seats. And then of course the whole thing fell apart anyway, only 3 of the shows were ever done and we all went home!
VLP: You had the first record release of the UK punk movement with ‘New Rose’, you must have worked very quickly with the earlier material?
D: The album was made within a week, just because that was the way it was, we were on the tightest budget you could imagine, we didn’t even have a brand new tape, we taped over someone else’s stuff. But it was brilliantly captured, the raw vibrant thing, they did a fantastic job, and Jake Riviera, of Stiff (records), realised what he had on his hands, it was all him really, and he realised if he got that stuff out quickly… we were just, ‘wow, we’re making a record’, a couple of years later we’re ‘wow, we’ve got no money!’ The same old story!
VLP: You seemed to arrive as these four distinct personae, you were like this gravedigger character and so on…
D: We were already… it was just sheer accident, not by design, that we all ended up in the same group. I think that’s what set us apart. Basically bands were all like-minded individuals and consequently looked the same, like the Clash, the Jam… but we were all extremely different from each other in every way, but where we came together was our love of music. In fact it’s still the same now, Captain and I like each other but we really don’t have that much in common. But when it comes to music it’s a magical thing, it’s a weird thing, and I think it’s the very differences that make the Damned work. And that’s why the music was pulled in all different directions too, it was quite a democratic process, there’s very rarely any arguing, it’s like what sounds good rather than who wrote what.
VLP: But how democratic was it in the early Damned with Brian?
D: He didn’t let anybody write anything! But you’ve gotta remember when we all got together, it was his band. But the thing was, when the second album came, there were reasons, we were rushed, various things, Brian somehow lost a bit of magic, he consequently said, ‘I’ll split the band up’. For a period of a month or so we wandered around wondering what the hell are we going to do next? We realised, perhaps we should try writing ourselves, putting something together. The Captain was pretty prolific, he had tapes he’d been doing in his bedroom for years. He was a guitarist to begin with, he played bass because he so much wanted to be in a band. So we tried it out, and surprise, surprise, it worked, it went on from strength to strength. I think it could have been the end of the band if we hadn’t all been writers without knowing it!
VLP: Yeah, because the third album Machine Gun Etiquette was quite a remarkable comeback…
D: I think the reason that happened is, the first album’s great, but it’s Brian only. I think if we’d all written, the first album would have been a lot different. I think that was good because the potential of the band hadn’t been reached, it was just one member. When everybody pitched in, it suddenly became, ‘wow there’s a lot more to this’, we hadn’t used up all our ideas straight away. Very often a group’s first album is the best thing they’ll ever do. Of our stuff, people like different stuff from different periods, but there’s always something that comes up on another album somewhere that surprises people, that’s what makes it worthwhile for me.
VLP: Yeah, the variety over the two CDs is remarkable…
D: Well, it surprises me! I took a trip down memory lane a while back cause we were gonna do some old numbers and I was surprised at how good the production was, how we’d edged it with things no one else would have done. There was no criteria that got in the way. There was none of this politics, doing it for any reason other than music-motivated. We never lied and said we didn’t want money, we’d have loved some money, but we’d never have sacrificed the music for it. Playing some of the albums, I’ve realised why we’re still broke, our integrity’s intact. I can look back and I’m proud of what I’ve done and that means a lot I think, I’d hate to sort of look back and think ‘Jesus why did I do that?’
VLP: There’s a certain psychedelic influence in there, particularly from the third album onwards…
D: Certainly for Captain and myself, that’s another meeting point. He likes stuff I wouldn’t like, but at the same time, he’s like me, he loves the wonderful ineptitude of a fantastic fuzz guitar, the feel of it’s just fantastic. It’s not necessarily played tremendously well, but everything’s in there, it’s got soul to it. Psychedelic music is always going to filter into the band.
VLP: Also in places you can hear the influence of that orchestral kind of sixties pop, like Scott Walker…
D: I was always a big Scott Walker fan, he had such a great voice. That was why I did ‘Eloise’, because all those grandiose melodramatic sixties songs, I loved all those, and I thought it was a shame no one was doing those anymore. And my main influences have also been film music, it’s something I have more of than anything else, and it tends to filter in, because I tend to think of moods and music as different ways of writing the three minute pop song. Things like John Barry, even Morricone, and things like John Carpenter, it’s endless.
VLP: Have you always found your audiences open to this? At first glance it’s quite a long way from what’s expected of a punk rock band!
D: With us, it’s always the case of Expect the Unexpected, and we always stressed anyone who was a Damned fan, or came to a Damned show, should come with open ears. It’s about having a wide musical spectrum and not being pigeonholed. I used to get annoyed with the punk thing because I thought that restricted what we were. I don’t give a damn now, but at the time I thought that’s wrong. What the name became known as, when ‘Punk’ was first coined, it was a diverse group of bands, who didn’t sound the same, the Adverts, the Jam, the Pistols, the Clash, none of them sounded the same, and the second wave of punk was all the same three-chord bands, and that was depressing. And then people thought that’s what it was, it became a fashion statement and I didn’t like that. The one thing we used to say about Punk, the rule about Punk was that there was no rules, that was what it always meant to me. There were no cultural divides, it didn’t matter what colour you were, and musically it didn’t matter what you did, it was the attitude that counted, how you did it. So I like to think that when we put orchestral pieces in with our music, it was never supposed to be pompous.
VLP: It’s odd that, although there’s always been a lot of fondness for the band, there always seemed to be a bit of bitchiness directed at you, not only from the press but from the ‘hipper’ circles of the punk movement…
D: We were the outsiders, it was kind of strange. We thought it was stupid, when someone talks to you, saying ‘what do you want?’ we’d say, ’well, we want money’, you want to have everything you want to have. Other people saying ‘we wanna change the world’ when they really didn’t want to, and people believed it. By being the most honest, we were also the most put down. And Captain’s buffooned image overshadowed his brilliant guitar playing and song writing. I’ve never understood why they can’t take Captain seriously as a great guitarist, when you’ve got Angus Young dressed as a schoolboy!
Maybe this anthology will redress that a little!
Well at least it’s well done and anyone who wants to know what it’s about, it’s there!
Many thanks to David Vanian and to Penny Brignell.