The Damned: Back on the boat

By Scott Kara

On the eve of their first New Zealand tour in 25 years, guitarist Captain Sensible of the Damned tells Scott Kara how he went from cleaning loos to forming one of the original punk bands

The Damned, who were at the forefront of the punk revolution in the late 70s, play in New Zealand in a couple of weeks for the first time since 1987. Photo / Supplied
The Damned, who were at the forefront of the punk revolution in the late 70s, play in New Zealand in a couple of weeks for the first time since 1987. Photo / Supplied

The last time British punk rock originals The Damned came to New Zealand in 1987, Captain Sensible wasn't in the band. The founding member and guitarist quit in 1984 to do his own musical thing, and it was just one of the many line-up changes the band has been through in its 35-year existence.

"That was the Woolworths' line-up then wasn't it?" he jokes of the version of the band who made it to Auckland 25 years ago.

The Captain came and went a few more times before rejoining in 1996 and these days it's him and original singer and old mate Dave Vanian who are the mainstays of the group.

"We complement each other. He's suave and sophisticated and I'm a pretty legendary slob," he laughs.

The Damned play at The Powerstation on January 25 - incidentally, the same venue they performed at in 1987, when it was known as The Galaxy. Back then they were still riding high off the back of hit single Eloise, a catchy gothic cover of Barry Ryan's 60s pop song.

Even though he wasn't in the band when they recorded Eloise, the cheeky Captain insists he had wanted the band to cover the song for years.

"I like to think it was my idea in the first place because I'm a big 60s pop fan - I think the 60s were blimmin' marvellous. You can't beat the Small Faces, the Kinks, and the Who. Although I didn't care much for the Beatles. It was a bit too syrupy for me. And the Equals, you can't beat the Equals.

"But yeah, I do seem to remember playing it [Eloise] to them. But I probably didn't; I don't know, I'm probably just rewriting history like Malcolm McLaren did," he laughs again.

His jibe at McLaren, the conniving, controversial manager of the Sex Pistols, harks back to when the Damned were at the forefront of the late 70s punk movement. They were recruited by McLaren to play on the Pistols' Anarchy in the UK tour in 1977. However, they only got to play one show.

"The bands were all getting along great but the reason we were going out on tour in the first place was because Malcolm needed to sell tickets. If he sent the Sex Pistols out to play in Leeds and Liverpool there wouldn't have been many people at the gigs because nobody had ever heard of them."

But on the eve of the tour the Sex Pistols appeared on the Bill Grundy TV show where they swore and behaved badly - which, as it turned out, was the perfect publicity for the tour.

"The notoriety they got out of that put them straight in the lap of the whole country. At that point Malcolm didn't need the Damned any more. He booted us off the tour."

Not that the Damned needed McLaren or the Sex Pistols either because the Captain and his bandmates - Vanian, drummer Rat Scabies, and guitarist Brian James - were doing their own thing off the back of songs like New Rose (punk's first-ever single released in 1976) and the riotous Neat Neat Neat, from the classic debut album, Damned, Damned, Damned.

"We had embarked on our musical adventure. There was a lot of music in the band to start with and we were quite proud of the fact that we could really play."

Back before the Damned formed, the Captain and Scabies were cleaners, Vanian was a gravedigger (which is fitting given his dark and mysterious demeanour), and it was James who was writing songs and had the idea for the band.

"He put the ad in Melody Maker, and he knew he wanted people who had bags of attitude. His whole idea was for it to be like a street gang who he could rely on not to take any shit from anyone.

"And I like a bit of confrontation on stage and the bands who most impressed me in the 70s were the ones who used to argue on stage and occasionally have a fight on stage. That's what I like."

James left the band (for the first time) in 1978 and while 1979's Machine Gun Etiquette was still a punky beast, it was on 1980's The Black Album where the Damned's sound started to take on a more gothic touch.

"It was kind of punk but with a really exotic tinge."

This darker turn in both mood and lyrical direction was Vanian's influence and comes through on opener Wait For the Blackout, the unnerving tautness of Twisted Nerve, and the epic gallop of The History of the World (Part 1).

"I did find a pentagram under Dave's carpet once," laughs the Captain. "It's true. He had a flood in his basement flat - the one he sings about in Blackout - so anyway, I had to help him with the carpet because it was getting wet and I pulled the carpet up and underneath was a pentagram and I said, 'Oh, I didn't know you were into that Dave'. And he turned around and said, 'Oh, it must've been one of the previous occupants'. But I do just think he is genuinely interested in old horror movies and he's very knowledgeable about them. And if he sold his soul to the devil, then good on him. Some cracking songs have come out of it."

After 35 years in the band the highlights for the Captain have been meeting his heroes like Robert Wyatt, touring with Marc Bolan of T. Rex ("One minute you're a bog cleaner and the next you're hanging out with pop stars and he was a decent chap") and playing songs like Neat Neat Neat to this day.

"It's just a great riff and it's exciting to play. So it's been quite a nice career really."


Who: Captain Sensible, guitarist from The Damned

Where and when: The Powerstation, January 25
Essential albums: Damned Damned Damned (1977); Machine Gun Etiquette (1979); The Black Album (1980); Phantasmagoria (1985)


- NZ Herald

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