"People envision some golden day of punk, where everyone in London was really successful, but it was absolutely scuzzy," Captain Sensible, the guitarist for the Damned, says with a laugh. "There was no plan for world domination, despite what [Sex Pistols manager] Malcom McLaren said."
"In the beginning, the punk scene was so full of promise," offers the band's vampiric-looking frontman, Dave Vanian. "All the bands were different, and all the sounds were different. The common denominator was that it was all very young kids doing it, and doing it on their terms. But then it became, 'You should listen to this and you should wear this uniform, and you shouldn't do this or that.' It was supposed to be about not having rules, but every generation of music gets watered down."
Vanian and Captain Sensible – who was born Raymond Burns – are authorities on such matters, since the Damned were the U.K.'s first punk band to put out a single (1976's "New Rose") and album ('77's Damned Damned Damned), as well as the first to tour the U.S. With original guitarist Brian James and drummer Rat Scabies, and alongside the Sex Pistols, Clash and Buzzcocks, they helped pioneer the cutting, manic sound that defined a cultural movement in the country four decades ago.
When James quit, Captain Sensible moved from bass to guitar and the band created a new sound that split the difference between the genre they helped create and the keyboard-saturated Nuggets comp for another classic LP, Machine Gun Etiquette, catapulting them into the U.K.'s Top 40 with "Love Song" and "Smash It Up." Ever unpredictable, in 1986, at the height of their goth era, they scored a U.K. Number Three single with a cover of Barry Ryan's majestic Sixties pop gem "Eloise."
In the years since, as the group continued to put out surprising and creative albums, they've gotten their due from the likes of Elvis Costello, Spoon, the Offspring, My Chemical Romance and the Replacements, among countless others. Guns N' Roses, who recorded "New Rose" for their "The Spaghetti Incident?" covers record, have been performing the song regularly on their reunion tour.
Now the Damned are celebrating their 40th anniversary with a North American tour. "It's always been difficult to write a set list because we're two bands in one – goth pioneers and the punk pioneers – so that material's got to be in there," Captain Sensible says with a laugh. Nevertheless, they've been playing career-spanning 20-song marathons each night.
Before the tour started, Vanian and Captain Sensible participated in extensive interviews with Rolling Stone to look back on just how they got here.
What do you remember about the Damned's first gig, in July 1976?
Dave Vanian: It was at an Irish pub with a small stage in Kilburn, where we supported a folk band called Salt. It was an incredibly bizarre place. They had a three-legged attack dog behind the bar. They pulled the curtains on the stage and tried to make us stop, and we didn't stop. We played our whole set regardless. The folk audience didn't understand what was going on.
Were you wearing your vampiric makeup then?
Vanian: I looked like that before I was in the band. They asked me to audition because Brian told Rat, "He looks like a singer," whatever that meant. I didn't look like anybody else at the time. I was just drawn to the Victorian-gentleman scenario, so I dressed like that. Just wearing black was a major issue then – forget about anything else. People used to ask me, "Why are you wearing black? Are you going to a funeral?"
Were the Damned conceived as a "punk" group?
Vanian: Our music didn't have a label. We were just a band.
Captain Sensible: There were no bands around that I could relate to. We were fighting against the mega-stadium bands like ELP, Genesis and Yes in 1976. They were all singing songs about pixies, wizards and King Arthur and the round table. What does that mean to a bloke who just left school? But we were only doing it for ourselves, to make the music we wanted to hear.
Vanian: We considered ourselves a garage band. We were rehearsing in tunnels under the railway station, similar to the Sixties bands that rehearsed in their garages.
Captain Sensible: We were into the Seeds, the Troggs, the Kinks and the Chocolate Watchband. And we were into the psychedelic music that came when everything changed in 1967.
Vanian: It changed a few months later when the press dubbed it "punk." That term probably came over from New York, because you had inklings of things over there like Television.
You came to the U.S. in '76. What was that like?
Vanian: I remember when we played CBGB in '76, we had a telegram from the Rolling Stones of all people, and a load of cream pies. They all wished us lots of luck [laughs]. I thought it was quite bizarre at the time. I don't know what the cream cakes were for, but you can imagine where they ended up.
The Damned were the first U.K. punk band to put out a single and an LP. How did that work out?
Vanian: I think it as just purely luck. We were just hard working. When the Pistols first started, it was kind of a joke. They were great fun to watch, but there'd maybe be 20, 30 people there, most of whom you'd know. I never thought they would become a major band at the time; it was more about the spectacle than the music when they started. With the Damned, it was always about the music. Brian was a fantastic guitarist. The band members were actually good musicians.
Sure, but you had fun, too, like playing the Beatles' "Help" at hyper speed.
Captain Sensible: People would come to our gigs and say, "You said you were doing a Beatles cover." And we'd say, we did play it, you just didn't recognize it [laughs].
Did you cover "Help" because you hated the Beatles?
Captain Sensible: No, but the thing was that the Beatles loomed so large over my generation. It was a fucking pain in the ass. Sure, they were great songwriters, and sure, they were geniuses, but they were always there. So our "Help" was a bit of revenge [laughs]. And I deliberately didn't tune the bass guitar properly when we recorded it.
Brian James once said that he thought your producer, Nick Lowe, captured the spirit of the time on Damned Damned Damned better than Chris Thomas with Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols. Do you agree?
Vanian: Absolutely. Nick didn't really produce the album so much as capture the performance of the band.
Captain Sensible: Our label, Stiff Records, was one of the first indie labels. What the Pistols made sounded like quality, because they had a big label and top engineers and producers. But punk rock shouldn't be quality; it should be fucking mania. It should be gnarled, a glorious lo-fi live sound. Nick just let the tape roll. Most of the time, he was running out and getting bottles of cider for us.
Vanian: Even the quarter-inch tape they used was second hand. There were other people's demos on it. We recorded one song and some other music came up after. We were like, "What the hell is that?" And the reply was, "Oh, don't worry about it. That's nothing."
Captain Sensible: If you listen to the guitars on Damned Damned Damned, it's fuzzed out and epically distorted. That's the way I see my punk rock. But having said that, I love the Pistols.
You recently played all of Damned Damned Damned live. What struck you about the songs?
Vanian: Some of it was quite challenging. It's deceptively simple. The guitar parts are a lot more challenging than they first appear.
Captain Sensible: We used to call Brian the riff-meister. That's why Jimmy Page was such a fan of the band at the time. There are photographs of him and Robert Plant backstage at our gig at the Roxy. Jimmy Page saw something special in Brian's guitar style and writing, as did I, since I was a guitar player before the Damned and switched to bass to play with Brian.
Led Zeppelin came to one of your shows?
Vanian: Yeah. John Bonham wanted to come up onstage and play drums. All the punks were throwing things at him, and he was very, very pissed. Unfortunately, he didn't manage to play very well and made a bit of a mess of things. But I was quite amazed at people's reactions. I thought it was driven by the press, because punk was in its second year. It was a shame really. Punk very quickly degenerated into a different animal than it should have been.
Your second album, Music for Pleasure, did not get a warm reception. What do you think of that now?
Captain Sensible: I don't blame people being disappointed because it didn't sound as epic as the first album. It didn't have that heroic garage vibe, so I tend to agree. I don't play it at all at home. I don't think I even have a copy [laughs].
Nick Mason, Pink Floyd's drummer, produced the record. How did that come about?
Vanian: Our label, Stiff Records, had offices below the people who worked for Marc Bolan and Pink Floyd. We really wanted to have Syd Barrett produce the album, so we approached them about it.
Captain Sensible: We wanted to make a punk album tinged with psychedelia. I think all the Floyd people were slightly embarrassed at how absolutely huge the band had become since the day they decided not to pick Syd up [for rehearsal, kicking him out of the band]. At the time, he was sitting at home in Cambridge, doing his paintings, but everyone wanted to get him back in music. So they said, "OK, look, you can have Britannia Row," Pink Floyd's own studio, "free of charge with Syd Barrett as your producer." We were absolutely gobsmacked. When we got there, Nick walked in and said, "Syd's really not up to doing this, and he sent me along in his place. I hope that's OK." [Laughs] We thought, "Well, we're getting this incredibly expensive studio for free, and we have Nick Mason," so we said OK.
Vanian: Not to disrespect him as a producer, but it wasn't the kind of album it might have been. I don't know what it would have been like if Syd Barrett had produced it, but I think it would have been a much more interesting time.
Captain Sensible: They imposed the Floyd recording technique on us. Everything is pristine and clinically recorded. It was so different from the first album. It needs a remix, really, but I don't think the multi-track exists because of the way Stiff Records would recycle tapes.
Why did the band split up around when the album came out?
Vanian: Brian was in a strange place. The songs seemed to suffer a bit. There was a little bit of unrest in the band, and he decided the band was to split up. But we met a week later and said, "Let's just continue." Captain had always been a guitarist.
There was a brief period between when you broke up and re-formed in which you were playing with Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead. What do you remember about that time?
Captain Sensible: We knew Lemmy because he was a permanent feature in Dingwalls, a club in London. He was famous for propping up the [coin-slot] fruit machine all night. And he'd run out of money, the fruit machine had taken it all, and he'd go, "Lend-me a fiver," so people called him Lemmy. You have to understand, before Motörhead made Ace of Spades and those albums that went stratospheric, they were a pub-rock band.
Vanian: We didn't have a bass player, because Captain had gone onto guitar. Someone said, "Why don't we ask Lemmy?" It seemed like a crazy idea. And he accepted.
Captain Sensible: We were pranksters at the time. I remember making a bet with Rat Scabies, "I'll bet you can't get Lemmy to play an Abba song." So he said all right, "Twenty quid." So at rehearsal, Rat says, "Lemmy, we've got a great idea to do a cover version of an Abba song, a real punk-rock version of 'S.O.S.' how about that?" Lemmy said, "Tell me the chords, gentlemen, and I'm there." [Laughs] He fucking played it. He was game. There will never be another Lemmy.
Vanian: We did a couple of shows together as the Doomed, and then obviously Lemmy went back off to Motörhead, because it was only just to fill in for a couple of shows until we got another bass player.
When you finally got around to doing Machine Gun Etiquette, the band had a poppier sound with keyboards, and "Love Song" and "Smash It Up" were both Top 40 singles in the U.K. Why did you sound different?
Captain Sensible: When we played with Lemmy, it was just a few gigs because we were absolutely skint. Then someone said if we had a few tunes, we could get a record deal. So we decided to suddenly become songwriters. None of us had written a tune in our lives.
Vanian: Every member of the band is very different from each other. Captain was coming from prog and glam rock, as well as the mods and the Who and Small Faces. I was influenced by movie soundtrack music and obviously Sixties stuff, and a bit more melodramatic music. Suddenly we were all putting it together. Somehow it clicked.
Captain Sensible: I wanted to make records as good as the ones I my record collection – Pet Sounds, the Seeds, the Prunes, Sgt. Pepper's … once again going back to the Beatles. The record label wanted a punk record and we were on this semi-psychedelic trip. And why not? "Psychedelic" is just another word for interesting for me.
What was Machine Gun Etiquette's "Plan 9 Channel 7" about?
Vanian: It was about a love affair that never happened between Maila Nurmi – who was Vampira, the TV host – and James Dean. There's a backing vocal, "Come and join me now," which was a postcard that she sent to James Dean with her sitting by an open grave with a sign saying, "Come and join me." I did that before she became legendary in the whole goth movement.
What have you made of the goth scene, which sprang up after the Damned?
Vanian: I really didn't have anything to do with it, because I'd been living that way my whole life. In some ways, I suppose I felt a bit sad about it, because it was popularizing something that I and a few other people enjoyed, and suddenly it was this huge movement. It degenerated into a parody of itself. I remember Captain used to actively chase down [Bauhaus'] Peter Murphy and say, "You stole my singer!" Because they did a very obvious version of [goth] that I hadn't done.
You titled your next record The Black Album, well before Spinal Tap, Prince, Metallica and Jay Z, I'm guessing to take the piss out of the Beatles. Who thought that up?
Captain Sensible: Dave picked that title. He is the prince of darkness [laughs]. I am the light of happiness and spreading joy around the world.
Vanian: Yeah, we thought it was taking the mickey out of the White Album. It was the opposite. It just seemed right when it came up. It's surprising no one else did it before, really.
Captain, you left the band before the Damned put out Phantasmagoria. Why is that?
Captain Sensible: I was doing my solo career. I had tried to do both for years, because I love the Damned, but I was driving myself into the ground. I chose the one that was making money. And it ended up being the Damned's most successful period. That figures [laughs]. People thought there was animosity between Dave and me but when I got to Number One on the U.K. charts, Dave was the only one who sent me a telegram of congratulations. And I did the same when they had hit records. So it was good.
Earlier you talked about how each of the original punk bands were unique. Do you agonize over making something special with your recent albums?
Vanian: I thought [2001's] Grave Disorder was a fabulous Damned album that didn't really fit in with the previous ones. I really loved it. Unfortunately, it got critical acclaim but we didn't have the push that was needed. After a while, people couldn't even get ahold of it. The last album, [2008's] So, Who's Paranoid, I think, sunk without a trace [laughs]. I think if we had been 19-year-olds, the albums would have been a massive success. But a lot of people are waking up and seeing that the Damned are still around, rather than knowing we've always been around. It's kind of like people thought we died or we got fat and old. Well, we did get old, but we didn't get fat, thank God.
Where do you stand with new music? Will you be recording soon?
Vanian: We won't get anything recorded until we get back from America. We've been doing lots of preproduction and sifting through tons of material. There's a lot of stuff. It's not just songs, it's pieces of music. Captain came around, and I had 42 pieces of music, so ... you know.
Captain Sensible: It'll be 12 songs with some extended stuff. With the current state of the world, the lyrics are virtually writing themselves. There are total assholes on the scene. It's insane but it makes for great songwriting possibilities.
Vanian: It's exciting stuff. Expect the unexpected with this one.
What do you consider the best Damned album?
Captain Sensible: I like Strawberries. We were listening to Lenny Kaye's magnificent Nuggets album collection, and it had a huge influence on us. We were into that and Left Banke, with all the harpsichords. I still think Strawberries sounds fresh.
Vanian: The first album is so great because it just sounds so good, whereas when you heard the Sex Pistols' first album, I was disappointed because it sounded like a heavy-metal band with a weird singer on top of it. And obviously, for us, The Black Album, because it changed our history. Then I equally loved Phantasmagoria, though it's a little Eighties sounding and self-indulgent at times. But it was still a lot of fun to do. And Grave Disorder is a favorite of mine, simply because it was the first album where Captain came back and it seemed to be going in the right direction. It had everything I thought was the Damned.
You're currently on your 40th anniversary tour. Did you invite Brian?
Vanian: No, but I see him occasionally. He lives in Brighton, not far from where Captain lives. He plays little bits here and there, but lately he's been playing more. I'd like to see him more. We weren't sure what to do with the tour, whether to have guests onstage. I thought, "Christ, how many people could we get?" There's a million of them that were in the band. In the end, we decided not to do it.
Captain Sensible: It's difficult because for some reason there was a bit of bitterness [with Brian]. All bands have bust-ups, but it's difficult. Brian is sort of the founder, but there are other really important people from back in the day. And I'm the current guitar player and I don't want to invite somebody who might take my job away [laughs].
Finally, what is that has kept the two of you together? You've been the Damned's sole original members for the last 20 years.
Vanian: When we work together, it's fun. Onstage, it's great. We're like a couple of giddy schoolboys running around the studio, and keeping the engineer going for too many hours. It's just taken us a bit of time to get to that point [laughs].
Captain Sensible: On paper, we're complete opposites. Everything he likes, I'm not interested in and vice versa. I like trains and urban transportation, and I'm absolutely bored to death by movies, which is his passion. He has style and if you put a suit on me, I just look like a fucking slob. But we dovetail together in some strange way. Of course, I see my role as trying to steal the spotlight from him onstage [laughs]. But we get on. The guy's a gentleman.