Brian James Interview
We talk to Damned founder about his new album and special 100 Club show
Founding member of The Damned and one of the leading lights on the original Punk scene, Brian James is still burning with a love for Rock ‘n’ Roll and is about to celebrate the 40th anniversary of The Damned’s first ever performance at the iconic 100 Club. In addition to that, he has also gone and released an outstanding return album in The Guitar That Dripped Blood, a tour de force and one of the best guitar albums I’ve heard in a long time. Full of his trademark guitar sound and that unmistakeable raw, abrasive power, it signals that the riffmeister is still very much at the top of his game. I caught up with Brian as he was finalising preparations for the 100 Club show on July 6th.
LTW: You’re hitting the 100 Club on July 6th for what looks to be a great night. What are the plans for the evening?
Brian: Well it’s the 40th anniversary of the first ever Damned gig and I wanted to commemorate it. The 100 Club is where we first ever played, supporting the Sex Pistols and it’s a great venue and always a pleasure to play there. It’s me and the Brian James Gang and it’s basically a party. Everyone and anyone is welcome to come down and if anyone fancies jumping up on stage and playing that would be great. I’ve no idea who will turn up but there’s an open invitation so we’ll have to see how it all works out.
We’re releasing an EP, The Anniversary Waltz so people can have something to hang around and remind them of the night. It includes my solo version of Sick of Being Sick, which The Damned actually gave away at gigs to celebrate our First Anniversary. There’s also a version of me and Rat playing an old Pink Fairies song called Teenage Rebel and we’re charging £7.60 for it on the night, which we thought was appropriate.
It’s also commemorating the 40th anniversary of my life as a professional musician, a career that’s allowed me to make a living doing something I love. I went on from that to play with great people and heroes like Iggy Pop so it’s a massive thing for me. If you like Rock ‘n’ Roll get down there, if there’s any tickets left!
LTW: What memories will the night stir of that first ever gig?
Brian: Well, funnily enough I was checking up on this and just 2 days before, The Ramones played The Roundhouse and we all went down to see it. I forgot how close to our gig it was. Everyone was caught up in the vibe. We were talking to them after the show and invited them to our gig but they were playing Dingwalls the next night and the flying back to New York so couldn’t make it.
It was a great night, I was really happy with how the band played, there was a great atmosphere and things just seemed to escalate from there. It was the start of a whole alternative scene; the Pistols were great, we were great and a whole host of bands sprung from that night. I suppose it was the start of a scene that is still thriving today.
LTW: So, you have undoubtedly influenced many bands, but what influenced you at the time of that gig?
Brian: Well I just see what we played as a continuation of genuine Rock ‘n’ Roll. We had an attitude that had been missing for a long time. In the ‘60’s there were bands like The Yardbirds, the Stones and The Kinks and they all started with a groove that made me want to pick up a guiatar and play. Then there was the British Blues scene with John Mayall, Clapton and Peter Green and everyone was also looking to America and the Delta for influences like BB King and Freddy King; there was just so much emotion in that music. It was real and that was the sort of thing that really inspired me when I was starting out.
But then we had ‘Flower Power’ and it all just got too folky and lazy for my liking. Then it got worse with Prog Rock where emotion seemed to go out of the window completely and it seemed like you needed a bloody university degree to play it. Then we had that Tin Pan Alley nonsense of Glam Rock where song-writers and producers were running the show with bands being told what to sing and how to dress. It seemed to me that music had lost touch with the street. There was no dirt or nitty gritty and the only bands at the time I thought were worth bothering with were those like The Pink Fairies, they had a really good spirit. The real stuff was in the States as far as I was concerned, the New York Dolls, Velvet Underground, MC5 and The Stooges – they were my heroes, the beginning of what was ‘Punk’, or what came to be known as ‘punk’ anyway.
Someone took me to see the Pistols at a party and they played a Stooges song and I just thought “wow”! I was in a band called Bastard and we just couldn’t get a gig anywhere. We moved to Belgium where people were more relaxed and more into that sort of music. I just remember when I saw The Pistols thinking they were the perfect band for The Damned to make our debut with, they were a great band in the early days.
LTW: Your new album, The Guitar That Dripped Blood, is a full on return to the style you were originally known for. It’s certainly a change from the Delta-Blues feel of the previous album, Chateau Brian?
Brian: Chateau Brian was something I just felt I had o do, like an itch I had to scratch I suppose. I’d done a revamping of my old songs on Damned If I Do as the record company were keen to get that out there, but I’ve always had an urge to do something different. I had a load of songs hanging round that really weren’t suitable for a rock ‘n’ roll album and I needed to get it out of my system.
I grew up on the Blues. I first started playing with an old mate Ian Anderson (not the Jethro Tull one) and I loved it. But then I gradually got into rock ‘n’ roll, left school, got a decent amp and guitar and went big into a harsher type of sound so I never really played it in public after that. Once you pick up an acoustic guitar though, it’s almost like you feel your fingers go to Smokestack Lightning, I just find that style so irresistible. Anyway, Mark Taylor, who did the album with me, got in touch to say he’d picked up an accordion in New Orleans and would I like to see how some songs sounded. We tried it out and it just seemed to give the songs a certain colour and the album grew from there.
To me, everything grew from that type of music, you had the Delta Blues guys, then Hank Williams and then Elvis came along. Then you get Eddie Cochran and it spreads through to the ‘60’s and ‘70’s until you get to Punk, which I think, before everything got hijacked, was the ultimate DIY scene. It all got lost a bit in the ‘80’s for me as synths started to appear on everything and massive production jobs which seemed to kill the real spirit.
LTW: And your new album is a mixture of the spirit you’ve mentioned and the raw guitar power that you’re well known for.
Brian: After Chateau Brian I decided I wanted to get back to my roots, real rock ’n’ roll stuff. I’d had Mean Street hanging round for a while and it never seemed quite right but then I did it with Malcolm Mortimore, who I grew up with and is a brilliant drummer and he made it work. Then I had Becoming a Nuisance which was a Lords of the New Church track which I also had on my first solo album. I was never happy with it, it basically just had a chorus and I always thought it needed something more. I sent it to Cheetah Chrome from the Dead Boys and lives in Nashville and he just knocked it straight out and it sounds brilliant now. Old Cheetah’s keeping the spirit alive alright!
From there the songs just wrote themselves really, once you’re on a roll everything seems to come naturally. I got in touch with different drummers but Dave ‘Caveman’ O’Brien is the main guy on it. I was singing all the tracks on it then thought it would be interesting to get another perspective so I got Adam Becvare from Lustkillers in that worked perfectly. Graham Humphries, who’s done some brilliant horror posters over the years, did me a sleeve that just looks amazing so I’m really happy with the whole package; it just comes across as so fresh.
LTW: So your new album certainly has the sound and vibe of early punk, and you’re commemorating the birth of Punk at the 100 Club, what are your views on that period looking back?
Brian: It was a brilliant, spontaneous time at the very start. It was very similar to the ‘60’s with a DIY ethic. No two bands sounded the same, which I think was crucial, but they all had the same attitude and energy. Everyone just thought “we can do this” and would form their own bands and dress how they wanted. That was until the businessmen got involved and just killed the whole movement in my eyes. The bands that followed us and the other early bands just all sounded the same to me, they weren’t original or trying something different which was the whole point of it when I started.
I remember when we got back from The Damned’s first US tour Rat and I went down to The Rainbow to see The Clash. The Clash were up on stage in that clothing they had started to wear, which was their choice, but we looked at the audience and they were all wearing the same – bondage trousers etc. I just thought do these people want to be like sheep? Is this what it’s all come to when you have a uniform that people feel they need to wear? I thought then that the Punk scene was all over. There just weren’t enough bands that wanted to do their own thing in my opinion. The Adverts were good and The Buzzcocks were a great band but there’s not a lot beyond that for me.
Mind you, I was on a bus the other day and there was this old lady on there with multi-coloured spiky hair on there and I thought “good for you” – that would never have happened without punk and it’s still really important to a lot of people so it’s a double-edged sword I suppose.
LTW: Any new bands that you see that give you hope of a renaissance of that spirit?
Brian: Not a lot really to be honest. The Black Bombers who support me in The 100 Club are really good. They’re no spring chickens but they are a breath of fresh air. There’s The Hangmen in the US and an interesting band from Brighton called Prinzhorn Dance School. They’re worth looking out for – very stark and minimal but abrasive at the same time.
I often check out new bands that someone will recommend but get disappointed far too often. I’m forever saying “why did you tell me to see that band? How could you think I’d like that?” I’ve got a bunch of mates called Dirty Strangers they play “Shepherd’s Bush Rock ‘n’ Roll”, keeping it alive and they’re always worth seeing.
LTW: You’re celebrating your 40th at the 100 Club and The Damned, the group you started have just celebrated theirs at The Royal Albert Hall. What do you think about how The Damned and their longevity?
Brian: I think they’ve done great. They kept the true spirit of Punk and I think that’s why so many people love them. The key thing with The Damned is that they kept changing, they never conformed and that’s what Punk was always meant to be really. They also picked up fans through their different periods which I feel makes them important too. They had the original Punk fans, then they were one of the most important Gothic bands, then there was their sort of psychedelic period and their comebacks. Some of what I hear by them appeals to me and some doesn’t but I’ve always admired them for doing what they wanted to do. Full marks to them for that and good luck to them too.
The Guitar That Dripped Blood is available now on Easy Action Records and if you’re ken to hear some undiluted raw power with that essential hint of ’76, don’t hesitate. If you can get down to The 100 Club to hear it live, alongside some classic Damned tracks, even better. It just could be a pretty special night.
Brian James is on Facebook
He plays The 100 Club with the Black Bombers on Wednesday July 6th.