Monday, 28 November 2016

INTERVIEW Captain Sensible

IN an era when new bands come and go with alarming frequency, it is heartening to know that there are some who stand the test of time.
One such is The Damned. Formed more than 40 years ago, they were at the forefront of the punk and goth revolution and have notched up some pretty cool achievements to their name - including their not inconsiderable claim to fame of being the first British band to release a punk single - New Rose in October 1976 - the first to release an album - Damned, Damned, Damned - and also the first to tour America. 
Original members David Vanian and Captain Sensible continue to wave the flag for originality, stick two fingers up to mediocrity and celebrate a DIY punk ethos.
And to prove the point the pair are back on the road to delight their fans both old and new and are coming to the Brixton Academy on November 26.
However as Balham born and Croydon raised Captain Sensible tells me, he’s as surprised as anyone that they’ve lasted as long as they have.
“I’m slightly amazed if I’m honest as punk was not expected to be around for too long,” he says.  “And, with the trail of wreckage that would follow the band, who’d have bet it would’ve been the Damned that lasted? 
“But the fact is the songs are fun to play and the gigs are always different so it never gets boring - and the fans stop us getting too ‘up ourselves’… They have a few select chants for me, for example.
“It’s a fun period for the band though and the requests for items of stage clothing and gig mementos from the British Library and both the Croydon and Brighton Museums are very flattering… If slightly disconcerting.
“I was just thinking how funny it is that backstage conversations at punk gigs and festivals - which would've once been all about beer and birds back in the day - are now more likely to touch on shared ailments and recent hospital visits.”
Longevity aside, I ask what fans - and those new to the Damned - can expect from the gig - and how does the set list get chosen given the band’s extensive canon of work.
The Captain promises a celebratory evening of all the classics from their repertoire including the band’s debut album Damned Damned Damned which will be played in its entirety.
“It’s fairly manic, but also tuneful and, listened to now, still sounds pretty fresh to my ears,” he says. “It’s almost ‘un-produced’ by Stiff stablemate Nick Lowe, who managed to capture the energy of our live set spectacularly. 
“The guitars don’t sound nice, they’re a raw fuzzed out thrash - that’s punk rock. Pathway was a rough and ready studio round the back of an Islington garage, and Nick was known as Basher as there was no messing about. It was dark and dingy in there, so you had to be careful or you’d knock your beer over. 
“The sessions took two days after which the tape was recycled for an Elvis Costello album, so there’s no chance of a remix. Not that you’d want one - it’s perfect!”
And he says he’s looking forward to coming back to his stomping ground and rousing the crowds in Brixton, a venue he’s played many times before.
“So many great bands have played Brixton Academy - I’ll never forget supporting the Ramones there, ages ago,” he remembers. 
“The dancefloor is huge - which people like - but there's plenty of comfy seats for those who like a bit more luxury.  
“I was born south of the river so this is my local gig… Just wait til the promoter see my guest-list!”
As well as ripping up the music rule book with the Damned, the Captain, real name Raymond Burns, and now aged 62 has had a garden named after him in South Norwood, the Sensible Garden.
“Out of the blue one day I was contacted by an amiable bunch of anarchists calling themselves the South Norwood Tourist Board who, instead of moaning that the authorities should do something about a local patch of rough ground, decided to clear the dumped cookers and assorted debris themselves and create an attractive community garden,” he says. 
“So I was invited to cut the ribbon on the Sensible Garden… which made me laugh as, as far as I know, Eric Clapton hasn’t got one named after him!”
And he has also had a successful solo career including releasing Wot!, one of the world’s first rap hits and Happy Talk which was as far away from the band’s sound as you could get.
But he says he has always been up for experimentation and seeing where things take him.
“These things can occur when you experiment in the studio,” he says. “Sometimes you find yourself ahead of the game and get lucky. 
“Yes, we were there at the dawn of punk, then goth. I don’t know about proud, but it’s nice to twang a guitar for a living. And did you know all the beer’s free when you perform? I didn’t - that moment was a revelation.
“We just caught the tail-end of a golden period for band and music industry relations. Incredibly, the label would book a few weeks in a studio and let the artist get up to whatever they wanted. 
“The Damned could've made a punk style album over and over again, but we preferred to experiment and grow creatively. 
“It made for some funny moments when the label heard what their financial investment had paid for - when we delivered the epic 17-minute Curtain Call for example. It wasn't what they were expecting.
“Recording and performing require completely different skill sets, but we discovered we weren’t bad at either.
“I’ve been told we helped kick off the American punk scene, but that never really got mainstream while we were there,”  he adds.
Growing up in Croydon Captain Sensible says he was influenced musically by the Beatles - as many of his generation were - but says he became really excited about music when he heard Jimi Hendrix improvise his Star Spangled Banner, a protest song during the Vietnam War.
He says he played Hendrix’s albums over and over “trying to get a grasp of his technique”, but, by the time he’d worked it out “punk had arrived and nobody wanted guitar solos any more”.
But it did help him decide that music was what he wanted to do and it was while he was working at the Fairfield Halls in Croydon that the Damned got together.
“I met Chris - soon to become Rat Scabies - and told him about my band Johnny Moped, while he was playing drums in another local outfit called Tor. 
“Then one day he saw an advert in Melody Maker, auditioned and came back with his hair all chopped and I asked, ‘What sort of band is this?!’ - because if you had short hair in 1976 no girl was going to look at you - to which he replied, ‘I’ve met this guitarist, he’s a visionary and he’s talking about this intense new music that is going to change everything - and he’s looking for a bass player too.’
“So I went to visit Brian at his place in Kilburn where he played me a collection of explosive songs - whereupon I ended up sleeping on his hallway floor during rehearsals, in a shared flat with people getting ready for work tripping over me every morning saying ‘Oh sorry, didn’t see you down there'. That sort of thing. 
“Then we saw Dave (Vanian) in a club, thought he looked great and that was that - I don’t think there was any question of vocal auditions.”
With no money or manager the guys had to take the gear to rehearsals on the bus and found themselves struggling with drums and guitars up and down stairs. They also had to lie about the nature of the music - describing themselves as a blues band, country rock, reggae - to get a booking.
“We had the curtains pulled on us a few times,” he remembers. “We weren't that extreme, but compared to the laidback music of the time such as Little Feat, Osmonds and Emmylou Harris, our approach was probably a bit shocking.
“The period immediately prior to punk were the years of glam, and that’s the sort of band I imagined I’d be playing in while practicing guitar at home. 
“In the original line-up of the Damned, with the others all in dark garb, it was my job to provide an alternative, which enabled a few of my glam ideas to slip through. 
“Dave is always dressed immaculately - whereas I’m a slob, he’s an authority on films… I can’t stand them. He drinks port and fine wines… I prefer beer. 
“In a way we don’t tread on each other’s toes, and it’s a dynamic that works well creating some amusing moments along the way - sometimes when I’m in the middle of one of my on-stage rants I notice that he’s over the other side of the stage, checking his watch.
“As for the beret, well, while there were a lot of positives to punk, gobbing wasn’t one of them. I didn’t like it in my hair so started wearing a hat - which became the Sensible trademark.”
And just as now, the Captain is influenced by anything and everything when it comes to songwriting and has another album on the go which he says they will “get cracking on” after this run of gigs.
“I just open the newspaper and potential song topics fly off the pages,” he says. “It’s a mad world we live in, but instead of getting angry about it all, it’s better to get it off your chest in a lyric. 
“I can feel a Trump song coming on as we speak!”

The Damned will play at the Brixton Academy on Saturday, November 26. Visit for full listings.

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