Vive Le Rock looks back with a classic interview with punk legend BRIAN JAMES.
Brian, when you wrote ‘New Rose’ back in ’76, just where the hell did that come from? Because back then, music was nothing like that. It was all the Emerson, Lake and Palmer and prog-rock rubbish!
B: I don’t know. It came from a whole bunch of places. You know, it’s like, I’ve always been into kind of ‘attitude music,’ be it rock ‘n’ roll, Eddie Cochran, be it, I don’t know, the Yardbirds. Later on, the Stooges, MC5. Then, later on, the Dolls. Lou Reed had his time where he had a hell of a lot attitude going. You know, even old blues stuff had a lot of attitude to it. I guess, ‘New Rose’ was written—it was a riff that I had kicking about for a while. I used to be in a band called Bastard, and we couldn’t get a gig in this country to save our lives, so we moved over to Brussels, Belgium. And we went all over. We didn’t make much money—we were starving, you know what I mean? We were sort of lived off other people, but at least we were playing a bit. Some of them got into it, particularly the French people there. And I liked this riff kicking about, and I was playing it to the guys in the band, but it seemed to go nowhere, and when I came back to England, and I met Rat [Scabies] after teaming up with Mick [Jones] and Tony [James] in London, I played this riff to him, and he immediately picked up on it and, it was like, “Ah, ha!” And so whilst Rat was scrounging around, trying to find gigs for us, and he was trying to get a band together and trying to find a bass player and a singer and all this sort of stuff, I got to writing. All the sudden, the song [birds?] approached! I don’t know. It was a combination of playing with the right drummer and the kind of scene involved, there was this kind of—At the time, the Pistols were playing. I’d seen them because we were taken down—like, the London SS guys—to some party they were playing and they were lead guys, and they did a lot of Stooges numbers, and it was like, “Wow,” there’s a lot of people out there, not just two or three other people. And you’d bump into people, people with the same sort of attitude, you know people who actually had short hair or wore leather jackets, and I think that’s where ‘New Rose’ comes from. It’s because of this thing starting up, and it’s just exciting.
And then you went from the album’Damned Damned Damned—obviously, it was a major explosion, you know. Everyone knows that’s a fantastic album. But second album, ‘Music For Pleasure,’ has been a real favourite of mine. You know, it’s got some real great songs, but it was less thrashy and a bit more experimental, wasn’t it?
B: Well, we wanted to….One, we didn’t have a lot of songs written, but no one in the band really wanted to copy the first album. I mean, it was okay for the Ramones because they had a particular kind of sound, and that’s what they did. They always did that through the years, kind of thing. And that was their style. But with the Damned, we were four different types of people playing music together, and I don’t know. We all shared a kind of an interest in trying something new a bit, and, to me, that’s what part of the band thing was about. It was about experimenting, trying new stuff. There was no punk bands, of the original bands, that sounded the same. Everybody had their own kind of style to them. The Adverts had come along, and all kinds of bands had come out of nowhere and were given that stimulus from the original punk bands to do it. Anyone could do it.
E: There was a lot more innovating back then. A lot of punk bands now sound all very similar. It’s sort of been done before.
B: That’s another thing. To a certain extent, this is like the third generation of punk bands You know, you have bands copying the Damned; you have bands copying the Clash, the Pistols. And it was like, “Oh, this is getting a bit fucking tiring.” They walk around in their uniforms. All the fuckin’ leather jackets didn’t mean anything, the black leather jackets. I don’t know, the skull and crossbones and that sort of stuff. It all became sort of like a uniform. That’s not the point of all. It was all about expression and fuckin’ doing your own thing! It was about your fantasies. So it all sort of went up its own ass.
E: [laughs] Fair enough. And so, did you actually leave the Damned, or did the band just fall apart?
B: What happened was Rat left the band, first of all, during the European tour. And he was a bit unhappy with it. He wasn’t happy with ‘Music For Pleasure,’ and he wasn’t happy that I wanted to get another guitar player.
E: Oh, that’s right. Lu, yeah.
B: Yeah, and anyway he was kind of overdoing it. And he sort of freaked out a bit, and said, “Alright, I’m off.” And so we got another drummer, this guy called John Moss(later in Culture Club). It just wasn’t the same. It was me and Rat who picked up the band, restarted it, and it was because of that thing that me and Rat had going, that was the sort of stimulus for all the rest of the band and stuff, you know what I mean? So it was the sort of center point of it. And, so I said to the other guys, I said to Captain and Dave Vanian, I just want to split the band up. We’ve done it; we’ve said it, and it ain’t the same without Rat. It’s time to work with other musicians and see what comes out.
E: It’s quite brave I supposed, but you went on to head Brian James Brains and the Hellions. And I think my brother saw you playing at the Reading Festival and you got bottled off with the Hellions. Is that right?
B: Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I knew what was going to happen. We played in the afternoon, and apart from us it was all fuckin’ heavy metal bands. The day or two before, I got an army outfit. I sort of dressed up like a soldier to go on stage, not like the Clash, but like a real soldier. And I went out there expecting the worst, and boy did I get it.
B: –bottles and everything. But I’ll tell you the worst thing they were chucking was like mud, big globs of mud, right? And as it comes in—like physical things like bottles, bricks or whatever, you can see it coming, and you can duck, right? But mud just flips up in mid-air.
B: We lasted as long as we could. It was full marks. We were doing ‘New Rose,’and this mate of ours called Gaz[?], who plays with the Lightning Roses, he said before that he wanted to get up on stage, and I said, “Yeah, yeah. Come and join us for ‘New Rose,’ Gaz. It will be a laugh.” I didn’t think in my wildest dreams, he’d fucking—I thought I—I’d forgotten about it. I just thought, “Let’s make it to the end of this song and fuck off,” right? All of the sudden, this guy’s getting in and it’s like, “Yeah! Full marks to you man!” Walked up to the firing line, here.
E: Excellent. And after that, of course, I don’t really know how long it was but you formed another groundbreaking band the Lords of the New Church, which is a sort of a gothic-tinged thing to start with, and that had never been done before.
B: Yeah, it was sort of the same thing. It was like four—I mentioned it when he was in the Dead Boys back in New York in 1977, Easter of ’77, when Damned and Dead Boys played for three nights at CBGBs. And we just got to invite them over on our ‘Music For Pleasure’ tour and all that. But this, in general, in particular, we really got on again and we said one day we’re going to get a band together. My thing, before I came back from Belgium, before the Damned, you know, started and all that, was I wanted to find an Iggy. That’s what I was looking for. I wanted my own fucking Iggy. And I was lucky enough between the Damned and the Lords to tour with him in America.
B: –with some bass and some other guys. And that was a fucking gas. That was really good. So I kinda got it out of me system a bit, but I still wanted to work with this Stiv guy. He came over to join up with some of the guys from Sham 69 in a band called the Wonders. And I put out an album. And I think they all got a bit bold with it, and at the same time they were doing their stuff, me and Stiv were getting together and writing some songs and basically planning to do something. And, in the end, we got Dave out of the Wonders, who used to be in Sham, and this guy Nicky, who was running the club—I don’t remember the name of the club—but he used to play in this band called the Barracudas. And they found their own sound.
E: It really was different back then. I saw your show at the 100 Club, well it was a few years ago now, but are you ever going to do some more stuff with playing those songs?
B: Yeah, at the moment, I’m going out as Scabies and James playing ‘Damned Damned Damned.’ We just played out second gig last Friday in Bristol. And it really sounded good. We had a lot of fun. And yeah, so the idea is we’re going to try and book the 100 Club for July the 6th because it would be like the 36th anniversary of the first band gig or something like that. And what we want to do, if we could possible do it is do a show there in the evening, and in the afternoon, do a special kind of an acoustic thing if you can imagine it in this pub called ‘the New Rose’ in Islington. So, for the time, make it a real celebration for our Damned fans.
E: Yeah, oh excellent. So you won’t be playing any Lords songs with this, or…?
B: No, this will be—
E: Oh so this will be just ‘Damned Damned Damned.’
B: We also do a couple numbers off ‘Music For Pleasure.’ We do ‘Sick of Being Sick,’ ‘Stretcher Case,’ and ‘Help!,’ things like that.
E: You were going to go to America, weren’t you?
B: Yeah, it was talked about, but did all the logistics of it—to get fuckin’ visas for America now cost like 1500 pounds each. It’s like, “You must be mad, man.” They take money off you at the gigs and tax. And it’s like, “How do you get from A to B? America’s a big country, right?” So, we’re going to wait a bit.
E: Build it up a bit, and wait till you get a few good offers, yeah.
B: Absolutely, man, absolutely. We’re off to Japan, though.
E: Yeah, because I saw you do the other one when you had Monty playing bass. That was cool. That was really good, though. I think you play well with Rat. He’s a fantastic drummer, and you work well.
B: Well, we just spark up each other, you know? That’s the way we used to be, and that’s the way we still are. Whenever we get the chance, we play together.
E: You’ve done the Brian James Gang for a while, and you’ve had your album out a few years ago. And you’ve got ‘Chateaux Brian,’ which is like a stripped-down, acoustic solo album, which I’ve been playing. And some of the Stones-influenced stuff like ‘Wishing Well’ is great. Have you been waiting to do something like that for a while?
B: Long, long time. Just needed to do it when the time is right, you know? I was messing around with Mark, from the Lords of the New Church on acoustic and piano, and it sounded really good. And he kept pushing me. “You gotta do it. You gotta do it.” And I said, “Look, I’m not going to do it where I just go into the studio and start banging something down. I want to do it properly. I want to do it on tape, first off. I want to do it analog, instead of digital, because I wanted purity of sound on the guitar and the vocals and stuff like that. He said, “Look, bring it up to me. I’ll sort all that out, if you go down and write some songs.” And I had a bunch of songs that I had been kicking around for ages because that’s how I write everything, is on acoustic. If it sounds good on acoustic, it sounds twice as good on electric. So I liked these songs I was kicking about, basically. And went in and did it, and I’m glad it’s taken this time, to tell you the truth. Like, my voice. Now it’s got a bit more weary and broken up and stuff like that. And I’ve gotten used to the idea of singing a lot more.
E: Well, it sounds great, man.
B: I’m glad you like it!
E: I guess doing a stripped-down thing with Rat is part of that, I suppose, of extinction or something a bit different.
B: But it is. It’s also a challenge. I’ve never been one to write particularly incisive lyrics, when you’re getting into the lyric side of things. But I’ve really got something, and I’m proud of it.
E: Are you going to get it on?
B:–stuff on the piano and the accordion. Really created some nice moods.
E: Are you going to do a bit more stuff with Mark?
B:Yeah, I hope to. Actually what I want to do is just go to the 100 Club when me and Ratt play and do an evening of Brian James down there. And do a little acoustic set with Mark. Do the Brian James Gang and have some special guests come along.
Read all about Brian, The Damned and The Lords Of The New Church in our next issue!