The Damned’s Captain Sensible on surviving almost five decades of punk, Sid Vicious, and new album Darkadelic | The Sun
TAKE one look at Captain Sensible and you would think his name was profoundly ironic.
With his red beret, wacky shades and striped tops, The Damned’s flamboyant guitarist comes over as an overgrown Dennis The Menace.
Sensible once called himself a “debauched maniac” who had fun “regardless of the consequences”.
He is front and centre on the punk pioneers’ debut album with his smirking face covered in cream pie.
“I’d have eaten some if it HAD BEEN cream,” he exclaims today. “Unfortunately they filled the flans with shaving foam.”
Oh, and as some of you may remember, he had a No1 solo hit with one of the daftest songs ever recorded, Happy Talk.
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And yet, after various exchanges with this larger than life character, I’ve discovered that the Captain actually talks a whole lot of SENSE.
We’ve hooked up to celebrate The Damned’s typically unflinching and rather brilliant new studio album, Darkadelic.
It arrives a full 46 years after the band’s iconic debut, Damned Damned Damned, regarded as the first UK punk album and featuring the scene’s first single, New Rose.
So what keeps Sensible (by name and, er, by nature) going? “We never became super rich so work is a necessity,” he answers.
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“Plus we are lucky enough to have fans who seem to like what we do . . . but the main reason we continue to run around making a racket onstage is that it’s probably the most fun job.”
‘Against the grain’
Sensible’s chief brother-in-arms is fellow founder member, lead singer Dave Vanian, an eternal creature of the night who looks like he just walked off the set of a B-movie horror flick.
“Most marriages are shorter than the decades we’ve worked together,” says the Captain.
“The key is learning how NOT to annoy each other and there’s genuine respect between us.
“I mean . . . how great is it to have someone blessed with pipes like Dave sing a song you’ve written? The fact we both dig the same music helps, too.”
Sensible sums up The Damned’s place in the music pantheon with refreshing candour: “We’ve always done our own thing. Gone against the grain. Made every mistake possible and then wonder why none of us ever made megabucks.
“Dave jokes that things might’ve been different if we’d chosen to name ourselves The Fortunate instead of The Damned. Who can say?”
Before we get on to Darkadelic, the man born Raymond Ian Burns 69 years ago sifts through the mists of time to 1976 and the birth of these enduring rabble rousers.
“In the mid-Seventies, stadium acts so dominated the scene,” he says. “It was hard to believe a tectonic shift in music trends was just around the corner.
“But when the Ramones flew over in ’76 to play Camden’s Dingwalls with an amazing debut album under their belts, they showed that oiks like us might actually have a future.
“Once the show was over, they chatted with an audience mainly comprised of people who would be involved in the following year’s punk explosion.”
An amazing picture of the event shows New Yorkers Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy with The Damned and Chrissie Hynde, co-conspirators from both sides of the Atlantic in rock’s greatest revolution.
I quickly discover that Sensible is a consummate raconteur. Take his description of his first foray into a recording studio with Vanian and departed founder members Rat Scabies (drums) and Brian James (guitar).
“I’d gotten a lift to Pathway Studios in a Morris Traveller — like an old shack on wheels it was.
“On arrival, I was disappointed to find out that our debut album was to be recorded in a dingy, cramped back room of an old garage complete with disused petrol pumps.
“The place stank of oil but we bashed through our live set over and over until [producer] Nick Lowe was happy with the results.”
Sensible continues: “Nick managed to capture the wild and frenetic sound of the live Damned experience, not polishing or tarting it up as so many modern producers do.
“All the rough rock ’n’ roll edges were intact. So, for me it’s the definitive class of ’77 punk album — but then I would say that wouldn’t I?!”
So where did his penchant for zany stage outfits come from? I venture.
“I worked the T. Rex show as a cleaner at Fairfield Halls [Croydon],” says Sensible.
“Every girl in the audience fancied Marc Bolan something rotten. I thought, maybe I’m in the wrong job and went out the next day to purchase a guitar.
“My thinking was that after a bit of practice, I’d end up in a band like all my heroes on Top Of The Pops, all glammed up in lipstick, platform boots and feather boas.
“However, by the time I’d learned to play, fashions had changed dramatically — and flamboyant attire was positively frowned on.
“But I didn’t let that put me off and, as time went on, I began bringing increasingly wacky garments to gigs.
“The inflatable dinosaur I wore at the 1978 Rainbow show may have been a tad excessive but, you know . . . it got my pic in the music papers.”
I ask Sensible about his chart rivals in the late Seventies and he gives them fair dues: “The Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, The Stranglers — all the early bands got on OK.
“It was the MANAGERS who were constantly at each other’ throats, trying to make their particular boys the pre-eminent punk act.
“My faves were always The Stranglers ’cos I’m a sucker for a spot of Hammond organ. And they had a way of courting controversy that I found admirable.
“I hope those poor music journalists who were sent out on tour with The Stranglers or The Damned back in the day were paid danger money. They certainly earned it!”
Among Sensible’s acquaintances was late Sex Pistols hellraiser Sid Vicious, who famously looked the part but couldn’t play his bass.
He reels off a string of Sid anecdotes. “I taught him to play at [punk scenester] Soo Catwoman’s place in Ealing Broadway by strapping a bass on him and plonking him in front of a Dansette record player with the Ramones’ first album on repeat.
“Another time, me and him had a scrap at The Roxy with the punches doing considerably less damage than all the broken glass we were rolling around in.
“And we were chased by cops in West London after causing a bit of havoc with a metal security chain in the dead of night.
“Sid was a better runner than myself so he managed to escape my well-deserved night in the cells.”
We move on to the music. It’s worth noting here that if The Damned started out in the brash, unvarnished style of the day, their music over nearly five decades hasn’t stood still.
The Captain sees it like this: “After two albums with Stiff Records, we went on an epic musical adventure starting with the psych-influenced Machine Gun Etiquette and onwards to the present day.
“It’s been said that The Damned are fairly remarkable in having had a hand in the creation of three distinct musical genres — punk (class of ’77, correct), goth (Phantasmagoria, Eloise) and rap (my Wot single was indeed one of the first big rap songs) — and, as immodest as it sounds, there IS an element of truth in there.”
He continues: “We’ve always liked pushing the boundaries. That may be why no two Damned albums sound the same.”
This brings us neatly on to Darkadelic, their 12th studio effort, which draws inspiration from their quality 1982 LP Strawberries but has a vibe all of its own.
Sensible says: “Strawberries was influenced by garage psych bands from the late Sixties — The Troggs, The Electric Prunes, The Seeds etc.
“We broadened our sonic palate by adding Farfisa organ and fuzz guitars, which blended nicely with punk beats.
“We decided to revisit this world on Darkadelic but it became apparent during recording that some of the lyrical content [written during lockdown] was decidedly dark — hence the title, which Dave came up with while listening to the final mix.”
In a departure from their previous album, the new one brings Sensible’s blistering guitar-playing to the fore. He explains: “Tony Visconti [who produced 2018’s Evil Spirits] dug the improvised keyboards that are Monty Oxymoron’s speciality.
“But Darkadelic is the revenge of the guitar. I made a point of writing a few choice parts for myself. Well, you don’t get anywhere in this game by holding back do you?”
“We recorded in an unapologetically old-fashioned mode — five people playing through the songs one by one until they had the definitive version.”
Sensible and Vanian share songwriting duties with the former, who once founded his own political party, letting rip at the people who run the country on Beware Of The Clown.
He says: “After a succession of useless leaders, this song virtually wrote itself. But if that chancer Boris had hung around a little longer, Beware Of The Clown might’ve got to No1. He couldn’t even get THAT right!”
Another cracking Sensible composition is Wake The Dead, aimed at punk funerals.
“We played Love Song at my dad Tom’s funeral,” he says. “It was his fave song of ours. He’d do a Sinatra-style crooned version coming home from the pub.
“Also, it became apparent that fans were doing similar when THEIR loved ones depart this world.
“So I thought it an idea to write something especially for those occasions. Not a sad, maudlin affair — no.
“Punks and goths in garb adorned with skulls and coffins are more than aware we’ve all got to go sometime.
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“Wake The Dead is a heroic two-fingered repost to the grim reaper who should really be the one to worry ’cos wherever it is we go, you can be sure the punk generation ain’t going quietly!”
Once again, the indomitable Captain Sensible makes perfect sense.
THE MOMENT SOUTH PACIFIC MET PUNK
In 1982, Captain Sensible’s recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Happy Talk reached No1.
Today, he says: “I was lied to No1 by the label who smelled a hit.
"I’d been holding out for one of my own songs but A&R man Tony Burfield called, ‘There’s a household name in the studio as we speak.
"So, if you DO fancy a No1, should we not get ours out now?’
I found out Tony had been telling porkies!”
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