The Damned: Captain Sensible – Interview
Damned legend chats to Dave Jennings about Punk, Politics and new album, Evil Spirits recorded with Tony Visconti.
The Damned have just released their tenth official studio album to widespread acclaim. Produced by the legendary Tony Visconti, Evil Spirits showcases yet again the band’s ability to morph their sound and distil their wide range of influences to deliver yet another dimension to their already hugely varied canon. Time and again The Damned have leapt beyond the imaginations of those who feel they have a handle on what the definitive “Punk” sound should be and Evil Spirits is no exception. It has the “feel” of earlier albums, but not the sound. It is, in many respects, an album of the here and now; a mature, almost reflective, offering that is very much in tune with the Twenty First Century Damned themselves.
Now in their forty second year, The Damned story is very much the chaotic “rock ‘n’ roll” fairy-tale of drunken revelry, trashed hotels, superb albums and live shows which balanced on the high wire between chaotic brilliance and total disaster. There have been break-ups, make-ups and enough ‘Smash it Ups’ to fill a series of films, yet Wes Orshoski managed to get a fair representation into the recent biopic “Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead?”.
What that film also revealed, however, is The Damned have changed. Consistency has replaced the myriad line-up changes and live shows are now unfailingly delivered to the highest standard. They celebrate the history of The Damned and will always be gloriously irreverent, but the members of the band are dedicated to ensuring punters leave their live shows on a high and this Damned gigs among the very best on the live circuit.
However, it wouldn’t be The Damned if something didn’t go wrong. In this case, it was the decision of bassist Stu West’s amicable decision to leave the band just as they were about to record Evil Spirits. Step forward Paul Gray, bassist of their most golden period of The Black Album and Strawberries and the show went on.
Louder Than War caught up with the band’s legendary guitarist and “Punk eminence grise”, Captain Sensible as he waited to sound-check before their Leicester show on the recent Evil Spirits tour.
Louder Than War: How’s the tour going?
Captain Sensible: It’s amazing that we’re still able to do it. We certainly couldn’t do it how we used to, non-stop partying. The van would be in a cloud of smoke as everyone smoked and everyone drank like nobody’s business so we’d be drunk before we even left London. Then the tour manager would be driving a van and then we’d stop at some traffic lights and we’d all pile out of the back and into a pub on the corner, Then, he’d come in trying to get us out but we’d order one more drink before he got us into the van. As soon as we hit the motorway everyone would be fast asleep and we’d wake up in Manchester or Birmingham or wherever. We’d never make the sound check and we’d all be in a right state, the gigs must have been very hit and miss in those days.
LTW: No, they were all good in their own way.
Cap: Well luckily, the audience were usually in the same state that we were. The drum kit was flying and guitars getting smashed. If only I’d saved a few of them, I can only imagine what they’d fetch on eBay.
We didn’t realise, and this is how stupid we were, that we were paying for it all. We’d end the tour and say to the tour manager,” where’s our dosh then?” and there’d be a handful of small change. The rest had gone to pay for all the wrecked venues and gear, and hotels of course. We never thought we were paying for it. They used to buy bass guitars in job lots of ten for me, whatever was the cheapest.
LTW: Can you imagine anyone getting away with that nowadays?
Cap: I hope there’s bands today that don’t treat it as a career. With us there was never any commercial considerations at all, we were just treating it as a non-stop party. We’d go in and make the albums to the best of our ability because I just wanted to emulate my heroes like The Kinks and The Move and The Troggs, people like that; bands that played nice easy riffs that I could copy.
There were some cracking young bands at Rebellion last time we played there, really good. But as far as the mainstream is concerned I think a lot of these young bands have all been to Rock School or something. They all learn their little bit of The Beatles and Aretha Franklin and Led Zeppelin so it’s all very polished and homogenised and it all sounds plausible. But you think “Hold on a minute, where’s the next radical maniac going to come from? A Syd Barrett or John Lennon or even a Wacko Jacko? Where are they going to come from as everything sounds the bloody same nowadays?”
LTW: Is there room for them anymore, would a Record Company actually want them?
Cap: No, probably not because people who work for record labels have had it so easy. We came from a golden period, we caught the tail end of a magical period for bands where the label would put you in a studio for 3 weeks and leave you alone and then they were given whatever it was you had come up with. Nowadays, I think the labels know the product they want before they even get it. So the likes of Mumford and Sons and these other posh, “samey- samey” type of bands that are around just deliver to order.
I mean that’s the other thing, where’s all the Working Class bands nowadays? They’re all posh twits like James Blunt (adopts posh voice) “Oh yes I was a Colonel in the Army and now I’ve decided as a jolly good career move I’m going to be a singer s0ng-writer. Pip, pip! Chocks away!”
LTW: You’ve got Paul Gray back in on Bass, was that the obvious choice when the vacancy arose?
Cap: It was for me. Much as we loved Stu, and there was absolutely no falling out whatsoever, I don’t actually know why he quit. He’s actually here somewhere, I think he’s gone to the pub with Pinch at the moment.
As a bass player, I was probably fourth or fifth in The Damned, I wasn’t much of a bass player. Paul is very much Number One, well, with Algy as well. They’re both immense bass players. But if I was a bass player now, I would just stand and watch what Paul does as it’s like a masterclass in bass technique. He uses the whole neck and I have to laugh as in most bands, when the guitar player is standing at the front doing a solo, the bass player is usually at the back of the stage but not him. He’ll be up there all over the pace, soloing as well. It’s an amazing technique he has.
LTW: I spoke to Dave last year and he said at the time the album may go in a more psychedelic direction, I’m just wondering if Paul re-joining has had a big influence on the way the album has turned out?
Cap: Paul wasn’t in at pre-production stage, we actually recorded all the demos with Stu. If Paul had been there he would certainly have contributed ideas as he can really write as well but our involvement with Paul started pretty much the first day of the sessions with Visconti, who, as you can imagine, doesn’t come cheap so we could only afford him for 2 weeks. That included rehearsals so we went straight into the recording with Visconti, who is based in Manhattan, so we were banged up in a Motel nearby.
It was a really manic two weeks, sort of banging it all down and I think it would have been different if we’d had longer. But having said that, of the twenty-two songs we gave the label, they chose the ten most commercial tracks; the ones with the most melody. A lot of the weirder tracks, Krautrock, Psychedelia and Garage stuff are kind of waiting for the next sessions, which won’t be with Mr. Visconti as we’ve run out of dosh!
LTW: Obviously, you’ve recorded with Visconti for the first time. What did he bring to the process for you?
Cap: We wanted to work with him, not just because he was a big name as there’s a lot of those around. It was because of those Seventies albums he made with Bowie and Bolan and the like, they just have a golden sound to them. I do like a bit of Glam Rock I must confess and it all just sounds so beautiful, songs like Get It On are just beautifully recorded.
We wanted to tap into some of that vintage, kind of classic vibe. I don’t understand the process in studios nowadays; everything’s kind of maximised and compressed and auto-tuned and everything goes through processors to make it sound bigger than everything else. You listen to some of these American, so-called “Punk”, bands who will remain nameless and everything sounds so big and processed and it sounds fucking horrible to me, I can’t stand it.
You listen to some of those old Punk records like The Only Ones or The Clash first album, or even our first album; they’re gloriously gnarled, those guitar sounds are rasping, they’re not posh sounds at all. You wouldn’t get away with those sounds anymore; it wouldn’t get past editing. Instead of having one guy playing all the guitar like Brian used to do, nowadays you’ll have a guy sitting in a booth playing it over and over while they multi-track it. There’s a lot of sounds recorded now, drum fills for example, that people can’t reproduce live as it’s all enhanced by technology. That’s not our style and never will be.
Also, a lot of bands today are mixing their albums into live shows, rather than play the whole thing live. You don’t get it at Rebellion but believe me it happens. So when The Damned go on after one of these bands at a festival, and everything we play is proper live, I get the feeling people are thinking “hmm, they’re ok but not as polished as the band who were on before them” who probably had half their sound pre-recorded. There’s so much cheating nowadays.
LTW: On new album Evil Spirits, how did the environment of Visconti’s studio influence how you approached the recording of your guitar sound?
Cap: Well, if I had any disagreements with Visconti it would be over the fact that I feel there could have been raunchier guitar work on the album. He wasn’t really into loud guitars and noodling and kept a lid on all that sort of thing. I used a Vox AC30 for a lot of stuff rather than Marshall and it’s given it a slightly different, more garage-type sound than the “big Punk” sound that I usually employ.
LTW: I get the feeling that the production style has left more room for Monty’s keyboards, some of the tracks seem to ride along on them in an almost ‘Dave Greenfield’ manner.
Cap: Yes it has, and there’s also an almost ‘Tamla’ tinge to some of the tracks, and a sort of ‘Bond’ feel too. Dave really likes his soundtracks and you can hear that influence coming through. But to me, when a band go in to record, the most important thing apart from having the songs ready, is that you should decide before you go into the studio to limit your sonic palette. In your laptop, or even your phone, is every sound that’s ever been on a record – harpsichord, mellotron, grand piano, they’re all there, there’s far too much choice.
So we said “Right, on this album, we’re going to go for this kind of vibe and we’ll have this flavour. We’re only going to use certain instruments, trombones not a whole brass section for example, and for keyboards, we’ll only use Mellotron, Grand Piano and Farfisa organ.” The guitars were Garage-style Vox AC30 and then the Rickenbacker of Paul, there’s not a lot more than that really. Then there’s a whole load of backing vocals, which Visconti was conducting us for.
Visconti took a lot of time to concentrate on the lead vocals. He really liked Dave’s voice, which was nice as he’s worked with the best and he just kept saying “phenomenal, phenomenal” as Dave sang. But I have to say, as a singer myself, Dave is annoyingly good. I’m there watching him and I say to myself, “how does he fucking do it?”
LTW: I remember when Strawberries was released in 1982. You managed to combine a change in sound with capturing the zeitgeist of political protest at the time. I can see echoes of that with Evil Spirits. It’s not an angry album as such, but it is definitely concerned?
Cap: The last album, So Who’s Paranoid was talking about the surveillance state, ironic really as one of the most popular TV programmes at the time was Big Brother where people are watched 24/7. George Orwell’s ‘1984’ happened and we’re now living in that sort of environment where all your personal details are known and probably for sale ( Note: this was before news of the Facebook scandal broke).
Our new single, Standing On The Edge Of Tomorrow was written by Dave. Now we never discuss our lyrics, we always write as individuals, but obviously I’ve formed my opinion on what he’s written. If Dave is saying, “Boy have we fucked things on this planet, beam me up Scotty, I want to get off” you have to say that may be the only answer for the Human Race. You think of the never-ending wars and the never-ending debt; people don’t run governments anymore, corporations do, their influence is truly frightening.
Every High Street in the country is a carbon-copy of every other one; the same old chains and store-fronts. They’ve let Amazon destroy town centres as you can buy everything online now. Jeff Bezos is worth somewhere around $120 billion dollars – one bloke! That is not healthy, not when people are sleeping in shop doorways. What is going on in the world?
You’d think there would be more protest going on but there isn’t. Two million people marched against the Iraq war and they were ignored. The wars have continued, Guantanamo Bay is still open, where are the demonstrations against all that? There’s plenty of people obsessing about Trump, and obviously I’m no fan of Trump but they should be fighting against the threat of nuclear war and the threat of climate change.
The Doomsday Clock stands at two and a half minutes to midnight now I think; that’s something to really demonstrate against, not that sexist pillock in the White House, arsehole that he is. Sexist tweets are not going to destroy the planet but nuclear missiles and climate change bloody will. Where’s all the anti-nuclear protests? The NHS is being privatised as we speak, where’s the support for that? It’s an absolute disgrace! People demonstrating and showing they won’t take this crap does make a difference. We can stop these parasites if we stand up to them.
LTW: The Damned have never really had the media focus of, say The Pistols or The Clash, however, the band does seem to be receiving a little more attention more recently. Is that something you feel is overdue?
Cap: I don’t give a fuck to be quite honest. I don’t want any respect or awards or accolades; no interest in them whatsoever. I’m just happy to still be doing it. I never look at us in any pecking order or anything like that. The only thing that would be nice would be if we could get catering on tour. When we toured with Motorhead they had a chef, it was bloody magnificent. You’d wander in at lunchtime and there’d be soup or something and Lemmy would be sitting in his room which you’d find by just following the trail of smoke and there he’d be with a can of Special Brew on the go. That’s the way to do it.
LTW: A final word about your audience; they’ve stuck with you for years and are very much part of every Damned show.
Cap: They are, bless ‘em. I look to them to entertain us as well as us entertaining them. They can sway a whole show and take it in a different direction with just one choice comment between songs. I like the cheeky nature of it, the irreverence because, at the end of the day, there’s nothing special about anyone in a band is there? That’s what the whole Punk Rock thing was – to just get rid of all that nonsense of mega-bands with ideas above their station.
Every show on this tour has been different. It’s like we’re in a different band sometimes, it’s really strange. Sometimes bands have the same thing they say every night between songs, “I’s great to be here in blah, blah, blah”, but that’s not us. Some nights nothing goes on, other nights it’s just non-stop jibber-jabber and you never know in advance, which is nice, it keeps it real.
The Damned’s Evil Spirits is out now on Spinefarm Records.
The Damned are on Facebook
All words by Dave Jennings. More from Dave can be found by checking out his Louder Than War Author Archive. He is also on Twitter as @blackfoxwrexham