Set sail with Captain Sensible and Rat Scabies on a voyage of The Damned

By  Sean Egan

It was the excesses of prog that spawned the punk movement. So says Captain Sensible of The Damned, one of punk’s earliest and perhaps its finest practitioners.

TheDammed.jpgMore than three decades later, the band have a catalogue of fine music under their belt and still play live and record.

The original Dammed consisted of Brian James on guitar, drummer Chris Millar, better known as Rat Scabies, bassist Ray Burns aka Captain Sensible and vocalist David Letts, who styled himself Dave Vanian. The group were christened The Damned in reference to two movies: a Dirk Bogarde flick and Village Of The Damned. As with several London bands of the time, they spurned a contemporary music scene which they considered stultifying in the extreme. Pretty soon, these young, disaffected musicians began to coalesce into a movement, and the movement was given a name.

The Dammed were less inclined to wrote political songs than punk contemporaries like the Sex Pistols and The Clash. Explains Scabies, “I’d just always grew up thinking it was out of my hands and you can’t beat the system. Also we’d seen all our previous heroes like The Beatles, the Stones and The Who and Led Zeppelin, all those groups – and Bob Dylan – they all threatened this political or sociological change but it never really materialised.” Sensible, though, adds, “It also depends on what period of The Damned you’re talking about. Brian was writing apolitical songs, yeah, he was saying, ‘Fuck politics, let’s have fun’. I’ve always been very political. I’m a red hot socialist.”

The Damned achieved the accolade of putting out the first UK punk single in ‘New Rose’ (October 1976), a staggeringly exciting two-and-three-quarters minutes of lust-fuelled anarchy. When the Sex Pistols released their long awaited debut release ‘Anarchy In The UK’ the following month, Sensible was distinctly unimpressed. Sensible: “If you take Rotten off the first single, it’s a solid kind of chug rather than an explosive chaotic mayhem fuelled statement.” Nor did The Damned feel like second best as a live attraction when they accompanied the Sex Pistols on the Anarchy in the UK tour of Britain that December along with the Heartbreakers and The Clash. “They basically put us on the bill because they needed bums in seats,” says Sensible. The Damned were shortly kicked off the bill following a dispute.

The Damned’s debut album – also the first UK punk album – was released in February 1977 and entitled Damned Damned Damned. The twelve songs were almost all written by Brian James and almost all sounded like despatches from the fires of hell, albeit melodic ones. It remains a punk classic and to many is the band’s masterpiece. Sensible has no hesitation in agreeing with that assessment. “No wonder Jimmy Page loved it,” he says. “We’d be playing the Roxy Club and you’d see Jimmy Page standing at the back, behind all these pogoing punks.” The album had such energy – particularly for the time – that a rumour has persisted that the master tapes were vari-speeded by producer Nick Lowe. Both Scabies and Sensible deny this. Sensible: “If you came to see us live we played it twice as fast as that anyway.” Scabies: “I personally don’t think so, having got the original multi-tracks to ‘New Rose’ back recently and, listening to them, they’re not sped up. I wasn’t at the mixes, Nick did ’em, but I don’t think he did. They’re all in normal tuning.”

The Damned – spurning the year zero attitudes of the Pistols – went on a UK tour with old guard star Marc Bolan. Meanwhile, Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason produced their second album, Music For Pleasure (November 1977), which also featured a new second guitarist, Lu Edmunds. Sensible: “We’d done a pretty good punk album and we thought that the next one, we’d do punk tinged with psychedelia and weirdness and a little bit of freeform, because Brian’s into jazz and stuff.” For Scabies, the making of the album was a mistake: “I was beginning to get disillusioned with the whole kind of group thing. It was as much to do with the business end. And Brian hadn’t had a chance to write any more songs – we were beginning to call up tunes that we’d already rejected. Working with [saxophonist] Lol Coxhill was brilliant and the track he’s on – a song called ‘You Know’ – I’ve always thought worked really well, so it wasn’t a complete disaster but it wasn’t actually the kind of thing we envisaged.”

James himself became disillusioned not long afterwards. Sensible: “Brian split the band up. He said, ‘We’ve done a much as we can with The Dammed’ and he’s moving on to other things and he wished us all the best. When we had that meeting, I just went off and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll form another band’. I thought it was that easy… We all went off and we started other bands.” It turned out to be far from easy and after a period the band re-coalesced, though – sacrilege to some – without James. (Sensible switched to guitar and Algy Ward joined on bass.) Reasons Scabies, “I think me, Dave and Captain remaining in the thing gave it a thread that continued.” However, he adds, “But we definitely went into a different phase just because the writing changed, so instead of it being all Brian with his much more MC5 guitar roots, it suddenly became a thing where we had some different chords out there and just trying to write songs that were melody based rather than guitar based.”

Machine Gun Etiquette (1979) and The Black Album (1980, with Paul Gray now on bass) were a pair of fine albums. Though the former boasted a Damned anthem as perennial as ‘New Rose’ in the unhinged form of ‘Smash It Up’, there was also some more sophisticated stuff going down. Scabies: “We were always very conscious of the criticism that was levelled at us that we were just a one dimensional punk band. We just wanted to show that we had other sides and it wasn’t just 90 miles an hour all the time and that we were more capable musicians than the perception was at the time.” Sensible: “Machine Gun Etiquette was almost what I wanted Music For Pleasure to sound like. I’m not talking about the songs, I’m just talking about the tinged-with-psychedelia kind of production.” Such development didn’t go down well with the purists at a time when third wave punk bands like The Exploited were to some to be returning to punk’s core values. Recalls Sensible, “Certain journalists who were really into Oi and punk and wanted to keep it pure – i.e., moronic – slagged us off for the experimenting we were doing in the studio, so we ended up calling one of our albums Strawberries, which is short for giving strawberries to a pig.”

The aforesaid Strawberries (1982) was another good album but in a way the end of an era for before long a totally unexpected event changed the inter-band dynamics completely. Earlier in ’82, Sensible had stumbled into a solo deal and his cover version of the South Pacific number ‘Happy Talk’ soared to number one upon its release. Sensible: “It was very strange for me because I didn’t necessarily ever want to be a singer.. My heart was in twanging a guitar in The Dammed.” Scabies: “In reality, just hearing it on the radio, it was, ‘Good luck to him, well done Captain’. But the reality of it was much, much harder to survive as a band with him along for the ride. It was just getting really boring. It would be ‘The Damned starring Captain Sensible’ on the posters. Just the work schedules alone were a nightmare, as he’d be off opening a supermarket somewhere and we’d all be sitting there waiting to do the gigs. It was just imbalanced on the road. Captain had a fortune and we were sharing burgers. It turned into being a destructive element for the band but in other ways it meant then that we could move on and shape shift again into another kind of group altogether.”

The departure of Sensible that Scabies alludes to occurred in 1984. Sensible: “I was knackered and I think I collapsed and I stopped doing the Captain stuff and I stopped doing The Damned at the same time and I had to take about six months off.” Roman Jugg took over Sensible’s role and the band – inspired by some menacing make-up they’d used in a guest spot on the Young Ones TV show just before Sensible’s departure – went off in a Goth direction. With two vital original members gone, some were assuming the band was staggering on in vain but the group amazed everyone in 1986 when their cover of ‘Eloise’ went top three, their highest chart position of all time. Scabies point out, “I was [recently] reading the first interview we ever did in Sniffin’ Glue and Dave says in that he wanted to cover ‘Eloise’.” This line-up released two albums, Phantasmagoria (1985) and Anything (1986).

The succeeding years have seen a bewildering series of personnel changes, including a short-lived live reunion of the original line-up, the return of Sensible and the departure of Scabies. Though he made the pretty good album I’m Alright Jack And The Beanstalk (aka Not Of This Earth; 1996) with Vanian, Scabies was no longer finding The Damned fulfilling. Scabies: “We weren’t picking up [a] new audience so it was all these old blokes in leather jackets that didn’t fit them. It just felt like, ‘I’ve done that for twenty years, it’s time to go off and do something else’.” The line-up of the band now features Sensible and Vanian. Bass duties are handled by Patricia Morrison, formerly of the Gun Club. Having a female in the band has brought about changes. “None of us would dream of mooning out of the window of a transit van anymore,” says Sensible. “There’s less talk about football and motorbikes and more intelligent discussion.”

The current line-up released a fine album in 2001 in the shape of Grave Disorder. However, their main income now derives from live work and it can’t really be denied that the band are mining a nostalgia circuit for punk that nobody would ever have imagined being within punk’s value system in 1977. However, Sensible isn’t one to agonise over this. “I’m an ex-toilet cleaner,” he shrugs. “I like playing the guitar occasionally. What people think of it is up to them. I’m always amazed at how lucky I’ve been.”

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