The fact is, Captain Sensible IS punk rock. Not only is he a founding member of The Damned, one of the first three English punk bands (and the first to put out a record), but, just as the genre was codifying itself based off those early punk masterpieces, Sensible and the boys laughed at the "rules" and suddenly started playing psychedelia, pop, goth, and maybe even a little prog, proving that punk has no boundaries. Since then, the Damned have been hurtling through the galaxy of music, playing whatever tickles their fancy. The fact is, whatever "punk" may be, it's definitely what the Damned are doing, and no one does it like them.
Now, the band is celebrating their 40th anniversary with some UK and USA shows. They also have a new album coming up on the horizon and, knowing the Damned, it could sound like anything. So, Punknews' John Gentile called up Captain Sensible to talk about just a fraction of the adventures that the Captain has had over his four decades of smashing it up. They talked about the concept of "punk," Lemmy, the Ramones, and that time Sting got kicked out of the Damned's dressing room.
Captain, despite being in music for over forty years, you appear young, healthy, full of vigor, and appear to be a man no older than 35. A lot of guys that have dedicated themselves to music bear the rigors of the lifestyle. What is the secret to your longevity?
You're joking of course… we just did 3 hectic shows and I'm cream crackered - you have to be real careful these days not to overdo it on the bevvy as hangovers are gruesome at this age. The getting carted about all over the place is tough on the system too - I always say I do the gigs for free… but I wanna get paid for all the travelling.
Having said that there is a theory that you stay the same mental age as when you first join your band… to a certain extent I've not had the responsibilities and worries that normal people have, I've shifted a few records… but been bankrupt and everything in between as well. To be honest the pursuit of money and fame means nothing to me… who needs a flashy car anyway - I'm happy to get around by train.
I'm a perennial juvenile delinquent… my hero is still Dennis The Menace.[Ed- The UK Dennis the Menace, not the US Denis the Menace] There's more than a bit of him in my act.
A lot of people see punk rock as a reaction against the 60s bands like Pink Floyd, Love, and the Groundhogs. But, I believe you are a fan of all of those bands. Can you tell us about on formative concert that you saw, early on?
The 20 minute drum solos and twiddly diddly aren't we clever prog of the 70s had got a bit excessive… for me Yes and ELP we're particularly bad. But you can't put the Groundhogs in that bag… they were innovative, gritty and spoke about real issues - like war and mental problems. I learned a lot from watching Tony McPhee perform… he created a lot of his own chord shapes using drone strings for good effect. I'm pleased to say he's now a mate - has jammed with the Damned a few times. Anyone interested in edgy guitar music will get on with Thank Christ For The Bomb… its a masterpiece.
As for Pink Floyd there were two very different versions of the band… the Syd Barrett one is well worth a listen. After that they went a bit mundane.
What is your relationship with Dave Vanian?
We don't socialise… but get on great. Totally chalk and cheese almost everything he digs I don't and vice versa. He is suave… I'm a slob, he loves movies… they send me to sleep… he's not sporty - I'm a massive Palace fan. But this also means we don't tread on each other's toes and in most respects our various interests and in the studio our particular talents compliment each other. It works well - and as a songwriter it's nice to work with someone with as great a voice as Daves.
In keeping with previous incarnations of the band this one consists of a real bunch of characters - the difference is that this time round we all get on. How unusual is THAT for the Damned don't you think?
You were at the first Ramones UK gig. What do you remember from that show?
On this past Sunday morning, Joey Ramones' brother Mickey invited me to witness the unveiling of Queens newest street name… Ramones Way, which runs past the Forest Hills High School that several of the band had attended. As a mate I was called on to say a few words for the occasion, which they may have regretted as I'd been up deejaying till 3am and was not altogether coherent! Ah well, it's the thought that counts and it was certainly a special occasion for if anyone deserves the plaudits it's Joey, Dee Dee, Tommy and Johnny, without whom…
I told the story of Brian James sitting me down in front of his Dansette with the Ramones 1st album on repeat, in a bid to reprogram some of the prog out of my musical brain. Listening to the record now still reminds me of that period when I was sleeping on BJ's floor during the first Damned rehearsals. Happy days!
A bunch of musicians who would form bands attended the Ramones 76 shows, they showed us what was possible… at a time firmly entrenched in long boring solos that every rock song of the day seemed to have. They came out after the show and chatted too, there's some neat photos of the Damned, Ramones and Chrissie Hynde where we all look like kids. Amazing.
Joey was lovely, youâ€™ll never hear anyone say a bad word about the bloke. He asked me to do some backing vocals on his solo album but never said he was ill or anything, if id have known… you know… Iâ€™d have sung better or volunteered some guitar playing. But, he wanted me to do something with personality and a bit over the top. When he died WE COULDN'T believe it. I mean that version of Wonderful World is just astonishing isnâ€™t it, should have been a massive, massive, massive hit. Just the most incredible record, and he was seriously ill when he made it.
Far from being dumb the Ramones were masters at creating extremely catchy 3 chord tunes. Not remotely as easy as people think. The Damned toured with Marc Bolan on the Dandy in the Underworld Tour, and you even jammed with T-Rex for at least one live recording. A lot is written of Bolanâ€™s influence and music, but to you, what was he like as a person?
We caught him at a good time… the superstar phase over we toured with a humble Marc with something to prove. Unlike some of his contemporaries he dug punk and even ramped up his own set to reflect the changing times. We travelled together on the T Rex tourbus where there were a lot of laughs along the way. He give us advice too, about studios, gigging and the like. For a T. rex fan like myself the tour was magic… I watched their performance most nights and was devastated shortly afterwards when he went, writing the requiemesque part one of Smash It Up for him.
Similarly, Lemmy, who briefly played with you, passed away almost 12 months ago. What was Lemmy like as person, from your perspective?
Lem saved the Damned… I'd previously played guitar in the mopeds, but with Brian departed I ditched the bass, which left a vacancy in the 4 string dept if we wanted to do a gig for some quick cash, which seemed a good idea at the time as Dave, Rat and myself were completely brassic.
Lemmy was always to be found propping up the fruit machine at the Portobello Gold so we went along and asked him. After rehearsals he kindly offered his sofa to doss on… the catch was you had to stay up all night watching Luftwaffe videos. Woe betide if you fell asleep as he'd wake you up shouting "oy, you're missing the good bit"
Lemmy was actually a total gent… but if someone was behaving like an asshole he could give them both barrels without hesitation. I think your solo 7-inch EP on Crass records is phenomenal. I believe that you are the only artist to have been both on Crass records and a major label- in less than 12 months to boot! How did the Crass recording session come about?
I was noticing fans had Damned AND Crass on their jackets so I sought them out to see what they were about. I ended up staying a week at their Epping commune and came out of that experience completely reprogrammed… a vegetarian anarcho type if you like. There were political discussions round the dinner table, and the veggie food was superb. I thought, why should I ever eat a burger again… its nonsense. And cruel! I have a lot to thank Crass for… and the EP was such fun to make too. I went to see Penny a year or so ago… he's older now, but still has the Crass spirit. Lovely bloke.
I never philosophise about punk… but would subscribe to Crass's pacifism and creativity thing every time, That's punk.
As for the single it's just me, Penny on drums and Dolly Mixture on backing vocals… the product of a few brainstorming days in Southern Studios I think it has a sound all of its own. And I don't remember ever laughing so much as when we put together the "our souls for you" segment. Supernatural codswallop is best dealt with by laughing at it.
Without question, you are a founding architect of punk rock. But, my question to you, is that when you are writing and recording, do you ask yourself â€œwhat is the punk thing to do?â€ or do you just do it and, because you did it, ipso facto, it is "punk"â€¦ or do you not even worry about the concept of â€œpunkâ€ at all?
No, it never crosses my mind…. punk means different things to different people. Patti Smith is punk… the Hard Ons are punk… John Cooper Clarke is punk. I don't feel any obligation to dumb down in the studio… the opposite in fact. We always try to push ourselves as far as we can go creatively, Curtain Call was an example of that.
I'm aware that a lot of bands "go soft" as they go along but the Damned always have an intensity that comes through, even if each album has its own flavour. Which is part of the deal with us… we hate to repeat ourselves.
You are famous for your pet rabbits. Do you still have a pet rabbit?
My last pair were taken by an urban fox… actually, it killed one and took the other as a takeaway. But that's nature I guess. But that put me off keeping rabbits as they had nowhere to hide when the predator entered my garden so I blame myself partly.
Why do you have such an affinity for these fluffy little creatures?
All they do is sleep, eat and shag… not a bad life.
What about writing and playing music excites you in 2016? Is it something different than it was in 1976?
You probably don't want to hear this but I get excited about the guitar tone… adjusting the pickups… tweaking the knobs on the gear… getting it sounding nice…. like my heroes Tony McPhee, Peter Green, Jimi Hendrix, etc. I absolutely love playing live, it's what we do best, in fact I think the current lineup of the band play the classics better than the records.
As for writing, I come from a generation blighted by the massive dominance of the Beatles… as much as I tried to ignore them by listening to the Small Faces, Kinks, Move, Troggs etc their melodic song structures are still hugely influential. So for me it has always been about the melody - and I'm sitting on a few crackers of that ilk currently!
Please tell us about the time the Damned kicked Sting out of their dressing room.
The Police supported on a European tour, and yes, I recall Sting being thrown out of the Damned dressing room by Brian for requesting a bottle of wine with something like these words "you can have as much booze as you want when you are the headliners, but currently you're on the bottom rung of the ladder… which suggests you need to work a bit harder on your act". The rest of us were gobsmacked but Brian's pep talk obviously did the job as they were selling bucket loadsa records within a year or so.
What can you tell us about the new album?
Give us a chance… we've not hit the studio yet - but don't worry, we won't abscond with the cash… having said that… the old Damned probably would've.
As you'd expect there will undoubtedly be some surprises on the new record.
What are you listening to these days?
There's some great punk bands out there, but they don't get much support from the media in this age of Simon Cowell and the Kardashians so apart from going to local gigs how does anyone hear decent new music? We like the Feathers, Creepy Creeps, Toilet Boys, Electric Frankenstein, Phantom Visions… but they're not really new.
Wand are doing interesting things a new LA garage psych band. Aussies King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizzard, too. And El Perro Del Mar, a melancholic Swedish shoe gaze band. And Dirt Box Disco, who we played with at Rebellion and were a lot of fun.
Cheers me dears!