As British punk legends The Damned arrive in Dundee, legendary founder member Captain Sensible tells Michael Alexander why punk remains more relevant than ever today.
It’s more than 40 years since their initial explosion across the fledgling London punk scene, and some 10 years since the release of their last studio recordings.
But as British punk legends The Damned return with new material and an extensive UK tour that brings them to Dundee’s Caird Hall on Saturday January 27, founder member Captain Sensible says punk is as relevant now as it’s ever been – and he has a message for aspiring young musicians troubled by the state of the world today.
“Young musicians should understand they aren’t going to create anything new by enrolling in some rock school or other,” he says.
“There’s so much of that in the south. Don’t listen to some lecturer teaching you a bit of Beatles, bit of Aretha, a bit of Zeppelin – you need to do it yourself. Find your own sound and do something radical and amazing.
“Preferably something to make Simon Cowell choke on his cornflakes!”
It was the summer of 1976 when Dave Vanian, Rat Scabies and Captain Sensible recruited guitarist and songwriter Brian James, played their first gig supporting the Sex Pistols at London’s 100 Club, quickly signed to Stiff Records and began writing the very first chapter of the punk rock history books – sticking up two fingers to the world while they were at it.
Their debut 7” single – New Rose –backed by a proto-thrash version of The Beatles’ Help – stole a march on the Pistols by becoming what is widely acknowledged as the very first punk record ever released.
The band really came into their own with their second single – Neat Neat Neat – a track which Captain Sensible cites as his favourite to this day because it’s “great to jam on”.
When the Damned bring the Evil Spirits tour to Dundee, supported by fabled Stray Cats drummer Slim Jim Phantom, and joined again by former Damned bassist Paul Gray, the set list will chart the band’s “musical adventure” from the creation of punk through to dabbling in 1980s garage psychedelia and goth.
However, Captain Sensible is confident Saturday’s gig will go a lot more smoothly than one particular Dundee show, back in what the band affectionately calls the “chaos years”.
“We assembled at the London record label office without Dave (Vanian), who was incapacitated,” Captain Sensible recalls.
“So as a stand in we called actor Heavy Metal Kids singer Gary Holton, who was a mate.
“’Come and sing on a few shows, you can learn the lyrics in the van during the long drive to Scotland’.
“After a brief haggle about recompense the great man met us in a pub. A boozy session and visit to an off licence later the Damned party hurtled northwards with all except the driver in the land of nod – pretty much all the way too.
“When Gary hit the mic later that evening he knew of only one song lyric – ‘Stab Your Back’, and employed it in every song. I wonder if anyone in Dundee remembers that debacle?
“Having said that, it’s a bit late to ask for your money back!”
With a new Tony Visconti produced album due out soon and The Damned: Stiff Singles 1976-77 boxed set also being released, Captain Sensible describes their music as having “passion and excitement – but a certain darkness too”.
“It’s an intoxicating mixture,” he adds.
However, when he reflects on that mid-1970s punk revolution, having been influenced by the Sweet, Slade, the Who, Kinks and the Troggs previously, he says punk set in train for him a “roller coaster ride of massive highs and desperate lows”.
“I was trying to change my own world cos for me as a teenager with little education to boast of I had a life of drudge ahead of me at best – or a vagabond of some sort,” he says.
“I was already known to the law and things could have gone from bad to worse.
“I was dossing in a Brighton squat, surrounded by junkies and ne’er do wells – then punk rock showed up and saved me.
“Every band needs a chaos factor – and I became the Damned’s random unpredictable nutcase. My dream job.”
The Captain says the high point was the reception of the first album.
“It caused a bit of a sensation and suddenly we were on front pages,” he says.
“The record is manic & riff heavy.
“Nick Lowe did a great job of capturing the uncompromising nature of our 35 minute live set. This is the material the more recently arrived members of the band love to play and they totally nail it.”
But he adds that back then they were just making the music they wanted to hear because there was precious little around at the time that had any “get up and go”.
“Glam rock had packed the sequins and gone – all we had left was country, disco and prog,” he laughs.
Asked if he prefers being in a band or his spell as a solo artist, Captain Sensible replies: “If avoiding having to go back to doing an honest day’s work for a living was my goal then Happy Talk was a blessing -mornings were never my thing.
“I could never get to work on time. But on the other hand I came alive in the evening – finding I was particularly good at causing a bit of chaos. So thus was in pole position when punk came along.
“A few years later, armed with a cassette full of demos – Damned rejects basically – I surprised myself by getting a solo record deal. And unbelievably within a few weeks I was on Top of the Pops!”
With Sensible solo success at its mid-1980s height, it became physically impossible to do that and work with his Damned colleagues so he quit the punk scene for a while – but had a good run at the pop game, making the most of it while it lasted.
In 2006, he famously set up the Blah Party as a political protest group – and while it fell by the wayside, he doesn’t have to look far for musical inspiration in the turbulently political world of today.
“You only need to open a newspaper and there’s a million song ideas staring you in the face,” he says.
“We are living in crazy times – that’s for sure – and punk rock, as a protest movement has to try and make sense of things. Suggest improvements.”
And so that brings us back to why he thinks punk remains as relevant today as it was 40 years ago.
He adds: “For me the message is to think for yourself – don’t let some TV talking head form your opinions for you.
“I don’t have a fancy car or house in the country and certainly don’t believe any of that rock star nonsense.
“You have to make your own luck in life – turn off the TV and do something creative.
“If you like music buy a guitar, don’t watch the Pistols, No FX or Damned – do it yourself.
“Punk is an idea not a movement – even less does it belong to the bands.”
With two fingers raised to the world, Captain Sensible adds: “You can **** ‘em all!”
*The Damned, Caird Hall, Dundee, Saturday January 27.