BIG INTERVIEW Captain Sensible of The Damned: 'People are fed up with plastic music sung by karaoke singers'

The Damned, 2018. From left: Paul Gray, Pinch, Capt Sensible, Monty Oxymoron, Dave Vanian. Picture by Steve Gullick

Riding high on the back of a hugely successful tour marking the 40th anniversary of their debut album, punk trailblazers The Damned decided to strike while the iron was hot, and have bounced back into the fray with their first long-player in a decade.

On that tour, the band played their debut, Damned, Damned, Damned in full, an album which captured the spirit of early punk, and included New Rose – the first ever punk single.  

They are now heading out on tour and preparing to release their 11th album, Evil Spirits, the follow-up to 2008's Who's Paranoid? 

Led by original singer Dave Vanian and bassist-turned-guitarist Captain Sensible, the band have got the bit between their teeth and are ready to go. But what's taken them so long?

'Months on the road whips a band into shape,' the Captain tells The Guide, 'we thought it’d be a shame not to record something while we were hot.'

But he adds: 'We thought we’d give the X Factor generation a chance, and they failed miserably, so by public demand we are back! 

Captain Sensible of The Damned, live in Guildford, November 2016. Picture by Paul Windsor.

'Actually, there’s more than a grain of truth in that, people are fed up with plastic music sung by karaoke singers, which is why gig attendances are doing so well. The modern music biz, with streaming and downloads is unrecognisable for a band like us. We caught the tail end of a golden period for artists in that a label would put you in a studio for a few weeks and whatever craziness you concocted would subsequently be released on a piece of vinyl. Labels these days don’t seem so inclined to splash the cash unless there’s some guarantee of sales at the end of it, and while that may make sense for them that doesn’t encourage experimentation and the avant-garde. The Damned have always made the music they want to regardless of commerciality, so labels haven’t been queuing up to sign us.'

To record Evil Spirits, the band worked in New York with Tony Visconti, the famed musician and producer who had a long association T-Rex and then David Bowie, and whose resumé reads like a who's who or rock.

'There’s something wonderful about the '70s sound – the further away you get in time from those glam and punk records, they still sound so great and compare favourably when up against all the maxed-out, ultra-compressed auto-tuned guff that passes for records these days.

'We thought, “There’s a bloke who specialises in beautifully crafted old-school production, did a spectacular job on Bowie’s posthumous album, but how could we ever afford him?”'

The Damned - Captain Sensible & David Vanian live at the Hope & Anchor, London 1 January 1977. Picture by John Ingham

As a result the group turned to the crowd-funding website, Pledgemusic, and the fans were overwhelming in their response – they ultimately raised more than four times their original target.

'Someone mentioned this new-fangled Pledge thing and there you go! The recordings were done '70s style, Tony had us all playing live, bashing it out in the same room with a focus on getting the initial band version of each song as close as possible to the finished thing. He chose a studio with a heap of wonderful sounding antique valve gear and mics which often had to be cajoled into action with a few taps.

'The new album sounds old-school of course, and there’s still a fair bit of punk in there but it also has the singalong vibe of early Bowie and T-Rex. Getting to sleep back at the hotel during recording sessions was sometimes a problem, with the album’s many themes and melodies buzzing around your head.'

Over the decades The Damned have never been afraid to experiment with their sound, what can we expect from this one?

'The first single, “Standing At The Edge Of Tomorrow” has a neat '50s spy-theme flavour to it. Apparently it’s the first single written by Dave, after 40 years in the band! Long overdue – it’s a cracker. The backing vocals are sung in Russian male choir style, that’ll be fun onstage. There’s a lot to be said for a thrashing drum kit and a cranked up guitar, add that to a bit of melody and some rabble-rousing lyrics and you’ve got  something magical.

'Tony turned back the clock and recorded us as you would a '60s garage band, all in this tiny room making a racket. The new album has the excitement of the live sound, but with new songs. Actually, we could’ve just recorded a gig, I never thought of that!'

'Seeing as Tony chose the songs on the album you’d expect melody to be at the forefront, and you’d be right. But, whatever anyone expects the overall sound to be like, I think they’ll still be surprised. I remember when Dave was at the mic doing his thing, Visconti being very impressed with him as a singer – and he’s worked with the best.'

Back when their debut was released, Brian James was on guitar, and The Captain was the bassist, as a result, last year's tour was the first time he'd played guitar on some of those tracks.

'Anyone who has had a go at playing tracks from our first album will tell you it’s quite an experience, the scattergun riffing takes a lot of concentration with a workout for the wrists as a bonus. 

'I must’ve been going for it a little too much in Toronto though as I went flying off the stage and came down heavily on the barrier. I woke up in the ambulance with sirens blaring on way to the hospital – the result was a broken rib. The guitar was still in tune though! Seriously though, it makes me mad to see successive governments hiving off lucrative pieces of the NHS to private companies because that night in Toronto hospital proved extremely expensive.  Don’t get ill in Canada would seem to be good advice – and support the NHS in the face of backdoor government privatisation.'

Brian's departure after album two, Music For Pleasure, was a watershed moment for the group, and one that nearly saw them split.

'When Brian James quit in ‘78 we were considered to be washed up - nobody would’ve predicted a resurrection with the quality of songs like Love Song or Dr Jeckyll & Mr Hyde.

'But this band has always had a lot of musical ideas floating around,we never stop writing, that’s what keeps it going. Oh, and the fans, without whom..!'

The Captain is surprised though, to find The Damned still going when so many of their peers have fallen by the wayside.

'We should’ve done the decent thing and crashed and burned after our first album –– then we’d be legends. Instead of which, we went on this mad musical adventure - blistering punk, experimental psychedelia through gothic soundscapes and beyond, to whatever we are now.

'Writing setlists is never easy, you don’t want to tip the balance too far one way and risk upsetting the other fans.'

And he's long-since reconciled The Damned's position when it comes punk retrospectives that often overlook his group in favour of The Clash and The Sex Pistols.

'Well, if the Pistols hadn’t uttered that rude word on TV maybe things would’ve been different. As I said to Steve Jones “I was more than capable of effing and blinding on the Grundy show myself”. His reply was, “But you didn’t though did you Captain? We did”. Good luck to them... cough splutter.'

That said, the band's cachet is riding pretty high right now  does he feel the respect overdue?

'No - who needs respect? We’re a punk band. I still feel we are on the fringes, going against the grain rather than doing whatever people expect of us. Happy Talk [his solo number one from 1982]  got up a few noses, that tickled me!'

Evil Spirits sees bassist Paul Gray come back into the fold, he was part of the band for early '80s opuses The Black Album and Strawberries. And the Captain feels its given them a new lease of life.

'I’m looking forward to playing onstage with Paul Gray again. He’s a spectacular bassist and once told us that if he got paid by the notes he crams into a song he’d be a multi-millionaire. On the album sessions Paul and [drummer] Pinch really clicked as a rhythm section, which allows Monty [keyboards] and myself to have a good old wig out on occasion. Dave will be prowling the stage as ever, while I’ve had a new-fangled bridge installed on my guitar for occasions when he bumps into me, which is often! The new bridge is called an Evertune, 'cos it never goes out of tune regardless of how clumsy your colleagues are. Anyway, this thing cost £500 so it'd better work.'

The Damned play at The O2 Guildhall, Southampton on Tuesday, February 13. Doors 7pm. Tickets cost £13.25. Go to academymusicgroup.com.

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