It’s been forty years since the shock and awe of punk filled living rooms, and young minds, on either side of the Atlantic, and one of the genre’s innovators in The Damned is hitting Cyprus Avenue on August 24th. Guitarist Captain Sensible speaks with Mike McGrath-Bryan on the band’s past, present and future.
This year sees punk, be it in one’s own eyes simply a genre of music, an overarching aesthetic, or mere sensationalist slapstick, hit forty years old. The word “punk” alone inspires Homerian bouts of semantics and sabre-rattling among those that are so given, but like any other movement, be it social or musical, no-one knew precisely what would happen or what impact it would have, least of all Captain Sensible. “No, I wasn’t attempting to change the world, just improve mine, as I’d identified the fact that on the ladder of life the bottom rung was gonna be my position. So in ’76 I was rather happy to be able to twang a guitar for a living. I still feel the same… a lucky bastard, and I don’t take it for granted like some other musos I could mention. The glory days you were actually quite rough ‘n’ ready, as we were often sleeping on each other’s floors. It was fun, but hardly glamourous. And we were the first, which always got up the Pistols’ noses. Nice, eh?”
Debut single New Rose holds an irreplaceable distinction in the genre, the first punk single to hit the UK charts in late 1976. How was that juxtaposition of being in a band as part of a broad movement so positioned against the mainstream, and being embraced on such a large scale? “I was shocked when New Rose entered the charts… as an avid viewer of TOTP’s, I made the most of our trips to the BBC. They had a wonderful bar on the top floor too, where all the TV celebs would mingle with the bands… that was a good laugh. Punk put the UK at the forefront of the music scene for a couple of years – not everyone liked it of course but the Damned, Subs, Mopeds etc were a much necessary alternative to Saturday Night Fever and disco fever in general with the gigs at the time full of pogoing spiky-haired types having a bloody good time.”
Looking at the term “punk” now, and the term’s status as a broad stroke, as well as in relation to the band’s stylistic move away from it in the 1980s, the question arises of what they make of it now, and if they see their influence or legacy. “The Damned straddle several genres – punk, goth, psych – it’s a good mix. Without getting uppity – the Damned can really play. It’s a proper band like Deep Purple and the Sabs before us. I just wanted to be in a group as good as them. But as we entered the ’80s, I realised Dave Vanian’s songs were getting increasingly stylised… what would become called goth, a few years later. Writing our setlist is sometimes difficult as we have to please two entirely separate audiences in the punks, who want it fast and loud, and the goths who prefer it dark and lyrical. That dichotomy makes it interesting for us though… our setlists can vary dramatically depending on the audience.”
The last four decades have brought the Damned to Ireland on numerous occasions. The Captain is enthusiastic in recounting previous exploits. “I do recall a wonderful show many years ago in Cork. A couple of doors down from the venue, Dave and myself were trying out the local stout. A very friendly landlord was jollying things along with whisky chasers on the house… consequently we lost all track of time, and when they eventually found out where we were, the band were an hour late onstage. The gig went with a swing too, I believe”, he chortles.
Fast-forwarding to today, where do the band see themselves creatively now? Is there any new material on the way, on that note? “Each album we’ve made has been a different vibe from the preceding one… it’s been a musical adventure, so I’m looking forward to hearing what Mr. Vanian will bring to the table next time. There’s been talk of a new album, maybe for next year. The only thing you can guarantee is that there’ll be material involved that will surprise people… as there was on the last one So, Who’s Paranoid which included a 14 minute psychedelic freak out.”
With forty years under their belt, one mightn’t blame the Damned for resting on their laurels as their contemporaries. Thankfully, none of the lads seem to be so disposed, not least the Captain, even on an anniversary tour. “We like to think of the Damned as being a rudderless pirate ship sailing through a sea of musical mediocrity, back to save the world from plastic entertainment garbage like the X-Factor, and all that horrible new-fangled pop music with autotuned vocals. The band members all do other things most of the time, so when we get back together and start jamming through the varied catalogue of songs we have to choose from, it’s always fresh and exciting. Bearing in mind some of our ages, we won’t be doing this forever… but the fortieth anniversary gives us the opportunity to play a career-spanning set, covering all periods of Damned history, including adrenaline-fuelled punk, anthemic goth and some psyched out improvising to keep us on our toes musically.”
The Damned play Cyprus Avenue on August 24th. Tickets on sale now from Eventbrite and the Old Oak.