The Damned: Making sense of the Captain

By Mike Dinsdale

He was born Raymond Burns more than 55 years ago, but he reckons it's probably been 35 years since anybody called him that.

Since then he's been known simply as the Captain or, on more formal occasions, Captain Sensible.

And on January 25 the Captain and his band of merry men, English punk pioneers The Damned, will play their first gig in New Zealand for 25 years, at the Powerstation.

For any fans of UK punk rock it will be a real treat; The Damned were the first UK punk act to release a single, with 1976's New Rose a heady slab of rock that set the tone for all acts to follow.

I was hooked the first time I heard the opening refrain. A bubblegum-pop gasp of "Is she really going out with him?" that harked back to the 50s, but the powerful drumbeat that followed left the listener in no doubt that this was a sound designed to sweep away all the dinosaur rock that had gone before.

It amazes The Captain that even now, 35 years after it was released, people listening to New Rose for the first time can't help but be blown away by the sheer power.

"Yeah, it's funny that," he says from his home in Brighton, on England's South Coast.

"It always had that effect on people. I can't really fathom why, but it's rock and roll music, it does that to some people. But punk was really the culmination of what had gone before and there was so much in such a short time - Rock and Roll, Merseybeat, psychedelia, heavy rock, glam rock - they all happened in about 15 years and really punk was the last great music movement after that.

"Nowadays it's all that manufactured tripe for reality TV. It's shite karaoke music for people who don't have a clue. For me, music is about being a bit anti-establishment, not sucking up to it."

So I take it you won't be watching the exciting culmination of UK X-factor then Captain?

"Not bloody likely. Rock and Roll and that anti-establishment thing is a heady mix and can be frightening. That's what we were trying to do with (debut album) Damned Damned Damned.

"It was pretty frenetic stuff, with the riffs coming thick and fast. But it was all about really meaning it, not being fake, that's the bottom line with punk."

And though the music was always powerful and innovative (Goth, love it or loathe it, you can credit the Damned with creating it on 1980's The Black Album, while 1979's Machine Gun Etiquette explored psychrock) it was live that The Damned really came to the fore.

The Captain says the Auckland crowd is in for a good time as the band have been playing the songs for a "good few years now" and know how to put on a good live show.

I start telling of my first live Damned gig, at Middlesbrough Rock Garden in about 1978, but he cuts me short.

"Yeah, I remember that too ... You lot up there are bloody animals, you b*******. You were all chucking stuff at us and gobbing and I remember our bassist was really pissed off so he vomited in a pint glass and drank it ..."

Yeah, I remember it too well as I'll never forget the panic as 400 people crammed into a space that was big enough to hold only 300 tried to part like the Red sea to avoid what came next ... It wasn't a pretty sight.

"Ha, ha, ha. Them were good days those early gigs. We were wild and having a really good time."

I remembered a particularly wild one when they supported Motorhead, but The Captain reckons most of the gigs with Lemmy and his motley crew were all pretty wild and he can't recall my particular memory ("there was a lot of whisky and substance abuse involved though").

"We were really living a lot for the day then. We never expected it to last the next month or year, let alone still be doing it 35 years later, so we were trying to make the best music we could while having as good a time as we could, too, because you never knew when it was going to end," he says.

"But when you come along and see The Damned now you can see we still have that hunger for the music and still play with passion and I think we are still relevant. At least far more relevant than most of the crap that they manufacture to fill the charts with these days."

January's gig will include a lot of The Damned's old stuff and a fair bit from the newer albums, such as 2008's So, Who's Paranoid and 2001's Grave Disorder.

But will we be getting any of the Captain's solo stuff? What about his chart topper Wot, or that little ditty with the Dolly Mixtures Happy Talk, or what about that ode to organised religion on the Crass label Our Souls To You?

"Ha ha ha. People tended to let me off doing a lot of that sort of stuff, because it was crazy and that's very much my nature. I could cause a bit of trouble and people would go 'oh, it's only The Captain, leave him alone'."

So what are you most proud of then, Captain?

"Machine Gun Etiquette, The Black Album and Strawberries [complete with scratch-and-sniff strawberry on the front cover] were three great albums to make," he says.

"We just went into the studio and everything clicked and everything we tried worked.

"We thought, let's record while the tape is running backwards and it worked, let's splice this with that, and it worked.

"There's a few times I thought we'd see the end of The Damned, but we are still here and it's been a real joy. We can be creative and it's such a wonderful thing to do that in the context of punk. You can be creative to make things change."

So back to Raymond Burns, have you ever thought of having another moniker rather than Captain Sensible?

"Ha ha ha, funnily enough I did once have one. I wanted to be Dwayne Zenith, a member of a ghastly hair metal band, wearing spandex and with a flying V guitar ... but I decided against it."

 Catch The Captain, and The Damned, at Auckland Powerstation on January 25. Tickets are $65, and expect a Grimly Fiendish time.

- The Aucklander

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