with The true punk icons have returned there’s a commanding new album. But you might a lot more to The Damned than gardening. think. Such as train spotting and
The punk icons have returned with a commanding new album. But there’s a lot more to The Damned than you might think…
t’s a widely held belief that The Damned are an open book. Few bands maintain an image, both as a group and as individuals, that is quite so clearly defined.
As an entity they’re enduring agents of anarchy and chaos who, since delivering the nascent genre’s initial vinyl statement with the seven-inch New Rose in October ’76, have been widely accepted as punk’s ultimate incarnation.
The band’s creative core is the chalk-and-cheese combination of founder members Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible, two of rock’s most instantly recognisable characters. Vampiric vocalist and Dark Lord Vanian’s engaging coalescence of graveyard glamorous Victorian mourning dress and rich baritone has seen him embraced as a reluctant icon for goths and steampunks alike. Meanwhile, self-confessed ‘court jester’ and guitarist Sensible’s irrepressible outpouring of beret-topped eccentricity and Beano demeanour has earned him the rare honour of being accorded a full-throated chorus of “Sensible’s a wanker” from each and every audience he faces.
It’s easy for casual observers to regard The Damned as surviving icons of a lost era; a reliable turn, rolling out the old act for punk nostalgists, all pissed-up and misty-eyed at Rebellion. But appearances can be deceptive, and The Damned are a far-from-spent force.
“We were focused on the work, and not where we were going with it,” Vanian says of
The Damned’s recent past. “For a while we were spiralling down. Not into a nostalgia act, but we weren’t as forward-thinking as I’d have liked.
Now we’re back to what I’d call a proper band again. It’s a great privilege to play Brian’s [original guitarist Brian James] songs from the first album, but after forty-one years I don’t want to just rest on my laurels. I wanted to make one last really good Damned album.”
Utilising a Pledge campaign, the band were able to bring in Bowie/Bolan producer Tony Visconti and record their recently released Evil Spirits at his studio in Brooklyn.
“Modern engineers maximise everything,” says Sensible, resplendent in red-and-black striped Dennis The Menace jumper. “They correct everything until there’s no rock’n’roll left. We wanted to do it in a vintage, all-valve studio with no computers anywhere near the place.”
But shortly before recording was due to commence, bassist of 13 years Stu West chose to leave. Because he left abruptly, they “had to find somebody pretty sharpish,” says Sensible. “The obvious candidate was the best bass player we’ve ever had. I’m about fourth in that list. Maybe fifth.”
“He said: ‘You probably think we’re a bunch of old c**ts, but would you be interested?’” says ex-Eddie And The Hot Rods/UFO bassist Paul Gray, recalling Sensible asking him to record with The
Damned for the first time since 1982’s Strawberries album. “It didn’t take long to say yes – probably a nanosecond.”
Among long-time Damned fans, Gray rejoining is widely regarded as a best-case scenario, as it marks an almost complete return to the Damned line-up that recorded 1980’s The Black Album, a record since reappraised and put alongside Machine Gun Etiquette as their best work. It’s no coincidence, then, that Evil Spirits’ 10 tracks echo the melodic, psychedelic Black Album Damned. Packed with earworms and hooks, the album could yet reveal itself as exactly the late-career magnum opus Vanian craved.
o the ultimate Damned frontline that we all know and love are back in harness: suave ghoul Vanian, hard-living buffoon Sensible and everything-louder-than-everything-else Gray. But is all quite as it seems? Do we really know them as well as we think we do?
Paul Gray has been in the wars. Shortly before appearing with Captain Sensible at a Rebellion festival show a couple of years back, he was involved in a ‘freak gardening accident’: “I secateured the top of my finger off, saw the top of it fall into the compost. I had to relearn all our songs on two fingers in ten days.”
And that’s not the half of it: “I’ve got really bad tinnitus and hyperacusis [hearing disorders]. Less from playing live, more from using headphones while recording with a Portastudio. I’d take the cans off at five in the morning and my ears would whistle for a while. Then one day it didn’t go. I’ve still got it twenty-four hours a day, but I’ve learned to adapt to it.”
Gray (who works as a Regional Officer for the Musicians’ Union in Cardiff, remotely while he’s on the road – he took annual leave to record the album) uses hearing protection live, but can’t use in-ear monitors. “I’m struggling a bit at some of the bigger gigs,” he says. His signature basslines and melodic style suit the 2018 Damned perfectly: “I just do what I normally do,” he says, laughing. “Play way too much and hope I get away with it.”
“We’re Dad’s Army on the road” admits a temporarily beret-less Captain Sensible. “Pinch [drums] makes a good Captain Mainwaring, barking orders and bristling with organisational skills; Mr Vanian’s the easy-going Sergeant
“If you imagine Dad’s Army making an album, that’s the reason we don’t make more.”
Wilson-type” – ‘Fall in why don’t you, you chaps’; Monty [Oxymoron, keyboards] is Godfrey, as he frequently has to leave the stage mid-gig to be excused. I suppose I’m Corporal Jones, freaking out all the time. People ask why it takes us so long between albums. We’re pretty dysfunctional, and if you imagine Dad’s Army making an album, that’s the reason we don’t make more.”
You personally are very much defined by the public image you adopted back in 1976. Do you ever regret it?
“What, the Captain thing? It opened a few doors for me. I lived the lifestyle twenty-four hours a day for years. It’s seriously not good for your health. I got thrown out of [London former music pub] The Nashville Rooms once. I was in the gutter, covered in vomit. Apparently all my colleagues stepped over me, said: ‘Let him rot.’ I woke up on a sofa with a blanket over me. Opened my eyes, saw gold discs on the wall and all these beautiful rare guitars, thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Then Dave Edmunds walks in. He said: ‘I took pity on you because I’ve been there myself.’ I’ll always love him for that.”
Do you ever get sick of the beret?
“I’ve gone on without it, but I just got catcalls: ‘Where’s your fucking beret, you c**t?’ So I’m absolutely fucking lumbered with it. I only wore it in the first place because people were gobbing in my hair. It was taking me about half an hour every night to get the grollies out.” Who are you when you’re not Captain Sensible? “What, in real life? I don’t know what to do with myself at home. I do really boring stuff like train spotting. I like seeing trains in other countries, so this is a great job for that, because you can get up and go and hang around in a station. I spent years propping up the bar all night or going to dodgy clubs. The rest of the band would be having breakfast in the hotel and I’d turn up in a dishevelled state. Nowadays I get up early, get a day pass for the local transport and ride the Metro and the buses. I get off on managing to work out how to travel like the locals do, working out the routes. It’s great. And nobody knows who the fuck I am without the hat.”
aptain’s always been a train spotter,” Vanian says with a smile. “When I first went to his house in seventy-six he still lived with his mum and dad, and his bedroom was just like Selhurst railway station waiting room. It was painted the same colours, and he’d gone in before they pulled the station down, had taken the signs, and they were all on the walls. His love is diesel; I love the steam trains and that era. When we’re on the road we sometimes go off and do steam excursions, and if I see an RAF museum
I’ll zip in if I’ve got an hour or so.”
And when you’re not on the road with the band? Who is Dave Vanian then?
“I like to think that I’m a dark, mysterious character that haunts the back streets of
East London, but it’s not true. I have lots of interests that keep me busy: art, classic vehicles, reading, poetry, old films, vintage clothes, 1930s music, gardening.”
Yes indeed, the potentially deadly pastime of gardening rears its head once more.
“I was out gardening yesterday, clearing out all the beds. In the eighties, I thought: ‘Right, by the time I’m in my late thirties I’m going to have a house in the country, proper pop star stuff, and I’ll build the most gothic garden anyone’s ever
“I don’t want to just rest on my laurels. I wanted to make one last really good Damned album.”
seen, with follies, pathways and mazes.’ It never happened. But I’ve got a small garden. I’ve always loved gardening. People used to laugh. I remember years ago, jumping off the tour bus because I saw an amazing garden centre. They were all laughing, saying: ‘If only your fans knew.’ I ran back on to the bus and I’d bought a stainless-steel spade I was really excited about. People go for psychotherapy and God knows what else. They should just go and do some gardening. A day in the garden and you feel great. Well, some people do. I remember Rat Scabies saying: ‘I’d like to concrete mine over.’ But there you go.”
h yes, Rat Scabies, drummer extraordinaire, the only member missing now from the classic Black Album line-up. Might we yet see the Vanian/Sensible/Gray/Scabies Damned back together for a final hurrah? Or possibly one more time around the track with original guitarist and New Rose writer Brian James?
“It’s something I’ve never wanted to rule out,” says Vanian, “This is my personal view. I’d love to do something with the original line-up because it’d be great for all the people who have supported us, and would really love to see it, but it would probably only happen the once. There’s a little bit of a feud between Captain and Rat. If they can sort that out then maybe it’s a possibility in the future.” So the last word is left to Sensible.
“It turned into a slanging match between me and Rat. But I saw him recently in Hyde Park and I said to him: ‘Nobody’s interested in a couple of old duffers like us arguing. Why can’t we forget about it?’ As the years pass, I can barely remember what we were rowing about.” Evil Spirits is out now via Spinefarm. The Damned play U K dates in June and August.