Punk legends don't get any bigger than THE DAMNED's very own Captain Sensible, not only a bit of a silly old sausage and all round nice bloke, but also one of the most electrifyingly good guitarists on the planet. It was a pleasure to sit down for a pint with the Captain and Damned keyboardist Monty on the eve of the release of their brand new album ‘So Who's Paranoid?’ ahead of their appearance at the London Rebellion festival 2008. Here's what went down.
THE DAMNED: Monty (far left) and Captain Sensible (second from left)
VLP: So you’ve got a new album out. First of all, how come it’s taken so long. I mean it’s been, what, seven years since the last one? I mean, it was quite a long time between the previous one to that too.
Sensible: When we were having that successful period, being on Stiff and Chiswick Records and that, they’d put you in the studio every other week and nowadays people aren’t waiting with bated breath for the next record and we aren’t flavour of the month anymore. We just do it when we fancy it really.
VLP: And you’re doing it on your own label?
Sensible: I think so. I’m not the business person in this band. I haven’t got a clue how it’s working.
VLP: Yeah. You’re just supplying the lead guitar and some vocals and writing songs.
Sensible: Yeah, I don’t know about the business stuff at all. It always—my eyes glaze over and I fall asleep, you know? I start listening to country music on the jukebox.
VLP: There’s always been a lot of different phases of the Damned. Everyone album from ‘Damned, Damned, Damned,’ and then obviously ‘Machine Gun’ was brilliant, and then ‘The Black Album’ and the ‘Strawberries’ was slightly different again. What can we expect on this one?
Sensible: Well, once again, it’s like a completely different album from anything we’ve done before, I think. We don’t really repeat ourselves, and this one, for me, sounds a bit—it’s a kind of jangley, garage, punk, psychedelic album. There’s a bit of 12-string on there, there’s plenty of Hammond.
VLP: So you’ve gone back to the garage style?
Sensible: Yeah. We love that style. I don’t think you can beat it really. Fast guitars and tambourines.
VLP: Yeah I like that garage punk stuff. It’s made a big revival.
Sensible: Yeah. It’s the music that I play when I’m doing my two-finger typing on my computer.
Eugene: But you’ve always liked the psychedelic side of the Damned as well. Is that coming through on this album as well?
Sensible: Yeah. Tell ‘em about Track 13.
Monty: The last track is an eleven-minute freakout sort of Krautrock Hawkwind jam.
Sensible: It’s really not for the faint of heart. Far be it from me to say what the listener should do but personally I would grab hold of the best pair of headphones I could get and listen to this track at a reasonable volume because it really does take you on a mind-bending journey. Mr Vanian’s idea was that we should record the track while we were tripping. We did cop out – we just did some hash cakes. It’s there in its entirety – it’s not trimmed at all. The first take. Whether it’s commercial to do psychedelic freakout jam sessions, I don’t give a flying fuck! The critics aren’t going to get it. No matter what you do you’ll get some stick, so we’ll give ‘em something to really whack us with!
VLP: That’s what music should be about.
Sensible: It is. You know, whether it’s commercial to do 11-minute psychedelic freak out jam sessions, or not, I don’t give a flying fuck cause the critic’s aren’t gonna get it. It is like a rudder-less ship, The Damned, which for some reason or the other always goes in the right direction. And I think we’ve been so lucky in this band to always have had a collection of just fantastic musicians and songwriters, Because otherwise I think we would have lasted one album. Especially when Brian James jumped ship. If we didn’t have the music in us, we would have gone back to the toilet cleaning jobs.
When we tried to get Syd Barrett to produce ‘Music for Pleasure,’ we wanted to marry the punk thing with the psychedelic thing. Bust Syd never showed up. I’d like to grab hold of ‘Music for Pleasure’ and give that a fuckin kick up the jackson. Give that a remix—it’d be brilliant. I’m afraid it just sounds to clean for my taste. There’s too much studio technique on there. You need to strip all that away and accentuate the raw vibe.
VLP: Why do you think The Damned have survived so long?
Sensible: It’s the only thing we can do! I personally would like to see a band like The Damned. The music’s there and you turn up to see the band and you never know what’s going to happen really. Is the stupid guitarist going to have his trousers round his ankles? Is the keyboard player going to freak out and storm offstage, kicking equipment about? The chaos is there, there’s a vibe to it. You never know which Damned is going to turn up!
Monty: Maybe it’s something to do with the fact that everybody’s a bit crazy, but no so mad that we can’t actually do the business.
Sensible: And as we said, the singer is singing better than he’s ever sung. When we listened to the album yesterday, Dave Burke said that’s the best he’s ever heard Dave sing. So for some reason or another, Vanian’s just improving with age. Not that he’s old or anything!
VLP: So Captain, you used to be a toilet cleaner, yeah? Are there any similarities between being a toilet cleaner and the music industry?
Sensible: I remember Dave Robinson said, ‘Music is toilet rolls, play it today and throw it away.’ He wanted the next Damned album to be made out of licorice. You play it once and then eat it. Which I thought was a fairly good idea, cause I like licorice.
I used to like cleaning the bogs though and they did say they’d keep the job open for me as I was quite good at it!,
Monty: They’re keeping the door open for you, you mean!
Sensible: Yeah…There was this turd that just wouldn’t flush and I had to go down to the canteen and get a knife and fork to slice it up. I gave the knife and fork back after a cursory rinse under the tap, put it back in the tray, and the funny thing was the mayor of Croyden walked in, with his entourage, into the café and they took the knives and forks.
Unbeknownst to me, when we played there - going back to the scene of the crime - the road crew bought a hundred bog brushes and they hung them on a wire right above my head on the stage and at the end of the show they cut them down and threw them into the crowd so a hundred people went home with a new bog brush to celebrate my return! Whenever I go back to Fairfield Halls to see bands play I’ll always check the bogs to see if they’re up to the high standard that I left. Job’s still open though – if this album doesn’t sell I might have to go back!
VLP: When you started the Damned, did you think that you’d still be doing it 30 years later?
Sensible: The thing was, when Brian split the band in ‘77, I was so upset that I just couldn’t believe my favourite job had gone the toilet. He arranged this meeting in a pub somewhere and said, “Yeah, I’ve decided to call it a day…I’m forming a new band,” and that’s not really what I wanted to hear. And I had had four or five pints at the meeting as well, so I was staggering about in a daze thinking, what am I gonna do the rest of my life? And I was walking along and I saw this cinema where they were showing ABBA, the movie, and I thought I’d go in there because I was getting emotional. So, I went in and had a quiet blub, with all my punk gear on, surrounded by all these people singing ABBA songs. Strange day that was. But then we got it back together again and we’re still going now. I never thought it’d be going for 32 years.
VLP: I mean bands come and go. The music industry just chews you up and spits you out.
Sensible: I think it does. If you look at the charts, you don’t really realize any of the names and they won’t be around in a year’s time, will they?
VLP: So we were just talking about the old days of the Damned, do you think you’d ever get back with the original lineup?
Sensible: Yeah, it was suggested that we were gonna go out and do something for the anniversary—what was it, 30 years? We were gonna do a few shows. Maybe London, New York, Los Angeles, maybe Tokyo and Istanbul (laughs). But then it started becoming a much bigger thing and Jake Riviera became involved and I started to go, “What’s going on here? This is not really what I agreed to do.”
VLP: Are you not interested in that? Cause obviously something like that, a lot of people would be keen to see.
Sensible: No, I don’t do anything I don’t wanna do. I’ve turned things down, which might have been quite lucrative. Not just that—you know, reality TV shows.
VLP: What was it like being Top of the Pops?
Sensible: I know this sounds cliché, but those were the days. It used to be fun mixing with all the other bands that you wouldn’t normally, like Modern Romance, Marc Almond, Yazoo. In that bar on the top of Broadcasting House or whatever - it was a nice, cheap subsidised bar it was - Lemmy’d be in the corner feeding the fruit machines. It used to be really good up there, nice atmosphere, actors walking around.
VLP: How did you come up with the idea to do ‘Happy Talk?’
Sensible: I recorded a bunch of stuff, but we didn’t have quite enough to finish the album, so we did a cover version of ‘Happy Talk.’ And as soon as the record label heard it, they banged it out as a single. And when I went down to the Top of the Pops, someone in the prop department shoved a parrot on my shoulder. Even now, when I’m walking down the road, people still shout at me ‘Where’s the fucking parrot Sensible?’”
I took my influence from Tony McPhee and Jimi Hendrix. I’m not saying I play like that, but I like the single-note, twiddly, psychedelia solo. Whether that’s punk or not, I dunno. But punk always for me was—the punk rulebook, the first rule says there’s no rules. All punk is, is just do your own thing and be real.
I always thought it was very brave when you see people like T.V. Smith and Hugh Cornwall going out doing acoustic tours. I always thought that was a fairly brave thing to do because if you’re used to standing on stage with a big noise coming out of the kit and the base and the backline, but they do it well, don’t they? That’s proof of a good song if you can play it on an acoustic guitar, and Hugh’s songs sound great.
VLP: What’s the most sensible things you’ve ever done?
Sensible: Well, I go down to the green grocer like everyone else.
VLP: Doing ‘Happy Talk?’
Sensible: Is that the most sensible thing? No. It’s the most unlikely thing really,
For three years after ‘Happy Talk,’ I was staying in top hotels, being driven around in limos. It was absolutely brilliant. I remember we stayed in this hotel in Paris, cause it was number one in France for seven weeks, I was staying on the same floor, in the best hotel in Paris, with the Rolling Stones. That was an experience.
You know, every job’s got its perks. When I worked for British Rail, you get two free tickets to anywhere in Europe plus twelve free tickets to anywhere in Britain and free travel anywhere in your local area, which is fantastic. So that’s perks for that job. When I was a toilet cleaner, you get as much bog rolls as…
VLP: So what’s the most sensible thing you’ve ever done? Come up with something witty.
Sensible: I’m not known for my wit.
VLP: What’s the silliest thing you’ve ever done then?
Sensible: I jumped between two buildings somewhere in Europe to get this big flag. We wanted to get this flag and we were absolutely sloshed. And I’m scared of heights as well, so I must have been absolutely sloshed cause I jumped between these two buildings, I suppose about six stories, but I got it. But that was our backdrop after that.
VLP: What can we expect out of the Damned for the next year or two? Should we expect the unexpected?
Sensible: Well, we just wrote the set list yesterday.
VLP: Is there new stuff in the set list?
Sensible: Five out of 18 songs. But it is difficult to write the setlist. There are two schools of thought. One is that you should challenge the audience or give them what they want. We just do what we want.
VLP: Why are you called Captain Sensible?
Sensible: Well everyone had a stage name in those days so we could go down the dole office. Cause if you’re in the paper, “Ray Burns played bass guitar,” they’d wave the music paper at you and say, “Look, Ray Burns, base player of the Damned, you’re off the dole.” But if I would’ve known I’d be doing it 30 years later, I would have chosen a better one.
VLP: What’s your favourite cheese?
Sensible: Cheese! Stinking Bishop! For your readers out there, allow me to recommend very highly Neil’s Yard Dairy in Barrow Market. They’ve got the stinkiest cheeses known to mankind. This one called Stinking Bishop is—I keep it in three plastic bags in the fridge and when people come around I just shove it in their faces.
Eugene: Monty, what’s your favourite cheese?
Monty: I should say Brie or something that’s been fermenting for years.