The Damned. Photo: Dod Morrison
Growing up in the suburbs of Houston, having a solid record shop like Vinal Edge at my disposal was essential to discovering new music for me to listen to. One time with an armful of albums by The Jam and The Clash, the shop’s longtime employee Bob turned me onto the album Damned Damned Damned and introduced me to one of my favorite albums and bands of all time. The Damned were never ones to follow rules, and they definitely lived up to the ideology of punk while creating some of the best records of their time. Now, 40 years later, they’re touring the release of that record that changed my life, as well as changed the punk movement forever. Free Press Houston was more than giddy to interview founding member and guitarist Captain Sensible about the past, the present, and what they have in store for Houston when they bring the tour here in this month.
Free Press Houston: Does it feel like 40 years together as a band?
Captain Sensible: No, time has just flown by. When you’re enjoying yourself, etcetera. The weirdest thing is that Monty has been in the band 20 years, whereas our founder, the punk visionary Brian James was only with us for a couple of years. How mad is that? I don’t blame BJ for bailing out though. Me and Rat must’ve been a nightmare back then. A couple of right ****s.
FPH: Last year, you guys played at the prestigious Royal Albert Hall to mark the 40th year of the band. Was it surreal to perform there being a punk band, or did it feel right at home for you?
Sensible: We tried to book a gig there in the ’70s, but they banned us. That came out when the current management had a look in their archives and found the letter. Something like, “Not the sort of act we want at our venue.”
To mark our 40th anniversary the grand setting was perfect, now we are also a bit long in the tooth. And the stage is situated almost in the middle of the venue as well, which avoids us appearing like ants to those at the back of some halls I could mention.
FPH: The album, Damned Damned Damned is easily one of the landmark albums from the punk movement. Did you ever think that the band would get as big as you’ve gotten when you were recording it?
Sensible: Define “big.”
FPH: With the 40th anniversary edition of the album that was just released, the fact that “New Rose” was recently called the number one punk song of all time, is it strange to see something you did so long ago become so celebrated?
Sensible: We had no idea the record would be popular, let alone talked about 40 years on.
It’s a cliche, I know, but the whole thing’s been a roller coaster ride of massive highs and desperate lows. The high point was maybe the reception of the first album, it caused a bit of a sensation and suddenly we were on front pages. The record is manic and riff heavy. Nick Lowe did a great job of capturing the uncompromising nature of our 35 minute live set. This is the material the more recently arrived members of the band love to play and they totally nail it.
We were just making the music we wanted to hear ’cause there was precious little around at the time that had any get up and go. Glam rock had packed the sequins and gone — all we had left was country, disco and prog.
But mainly I was trying to change my own world ’cause for me as a teenager with little education to boast of, I had a life of drudge ahead of me at best. Or a vagabond of some sort. I was already known to the law and things could have gone from bad to worse. I was dossing in a Brighton squat, surrounded by junkies and ner-do-wells. Then punk rock showed up and saved me. Every band needs a chaos factor, and I became the Damned’s random unpredictable nutcase. My dream job.
During rehearsals I was sleeping on Brian’s floor, we spent our days traipsing around clubs attempting to blag support gigs, which paid peanuts so we were generally starving. When Stiff records offered us a record deal, the promise of a visit to a Wimpy Bar was the clincher.
FPH: The Damned were the first UK punk band to tour the US, correct? Did the tour go well and were there any nights that stand out in a positive or a negative way?
Sensible: The [Rolling] Stones had cakes and whisky sent to CBGB’s for us, along with some hookers if I remember correctly. We played some blistering sets, got drunk quite often and wrecked equipment. Meaning that by the time we reached Los Angeles, we didn’t have enough cash left for hotels let alone the airfare home. The Weirdos were kind enough to let us sleep on their floor, but to get home, we had to have a collection box at the venue for donations. Those were the days!
FPH: You guys never really called yourselves “punk,” but it was rather what the music press called you. With albums as diverse as The Black Album, what do you think the music of The Damned should be called?
Sensible: It’s punk. Mixed with goth, of course, a bit of psych, some melancholy, a smattering of garage, and a bunch of good old fashioned classic rock.
The critics slated our experimental departures from the two minute thrash format, but for me the first rule of punk is there are no rules. In fact punk is more an idea than anything to do with a bunch of famous bands. It says if you like something: music, art, sport, do it yourself. Be creative, everyone has a talent, the important thing is to turn off your TV and find it.
Punk was a reaction against the excessive rock star nonsense of the mid ’70s. The swaggering macho buffoons with a foot up on the monitors while boring audiences to death with long tedious guitar solos and lyrics about wizards and pixies. I’m happy to say we helped get rid of that. We’re just a bunch of wacky blokes who happen to make music, no pedestal required. For me that’s the punk way — don’t get up yourself.
Regrets? Well, I smashed a few fine guitars back in the day. I wish I hadn’t done that. But the way the band was, I’m talking about volatility and ego clashes here, it just seemed a better idea to trash the equipment that hit each other.
Studios especially could set things off. You’re ruining my song, well it’s a crock of *** anyway. That sort of thing. Rockfield, being on a Welsh farm, had a shotgun on the premises. I recall an occasion when Mr. Vanian, not best pleased with some irreverent backing vocals Rat and myself had contributed to his latest song, chased the pair of us across the fields blasting away. I didn’t look back to see whether he was aiming at us or — hopefully — the sky.
This tour and its across the board setlist is a celebration of not only 40 years of the Damned, but actually surviving a lot of extremely mad and debauched times in one piece, physically, if not quite mentally.
FPH: There are stories of you being set on fire, and the band lighting Elvis Costello on fire. Are those antics a thing of the past, or will we see a glimpse of Susie Lollipop?
Sensible: We were a bunch of absolute bastards. That’s the truth of it. People are always telling me appalling stories from back in the day. The “chaos years” I call them. Nowadays it’s like an eccentric old gentlemen’s club. Well, Mr. Vanian is single handedly attempting to resurrect the fashion for smoking a pipe. He has a collection of the things.
I’ve not got the right “figure” currently to bring Susie back. For some reason or other — large quantities of craft IPAs probably — I’m carrying a spare tire or two round my waist.
FPH: With this 40th anniversary tour, what should people expect to hear from the band when you perform in Houston this month?
Sensible: A special 40th anniversary career spanning setlist with no mix cheating, autotune, choreography or rehearsed chat between songs. We live for the live experience. A lot of stuff is unique for every gig. We thrive on having an element of danger to the proceedings, any other way is boring. Perfection is overrated, rock n’ roll needs all its rough edges left intact.
As it seems, the band has grown wiser in their latter years, and should be worth making it out for just to hear these songs performed live. You can catch The Damned on their 40th anniversary tour at House of Blues on Wednesday, May 17. The all ages show has sets from The Bellrays and Elhae, with doors at 7 pm and tickets for $20.
So Messed Up: An Interview with The Damned syndicated post