Emerging from Essex in the mid-1970s with proto-punk pioneers Eddie and the Hot Rods, Paul Gray went on to become an essential part of what many would describe as their favourite Damned line-up and one that saw the release of the Friday 13th EP, The Black Album and Strawberries. Anyone fortunate enough to have seen the band live during this period will be aware of how thin a line they sometimes trod between electrifying genius and spontaneous combustion. This was arguably the punk ethic taken to its most extreme limits.
Paul also spent four years with UFO and has worked for the British Musicians Union for the past few years. Along with fellow Damned legend Captain Sensible, Paul has just released a brilliant new album ‘A Postcard From Britain’ as The Sensible Gray Cells. Recorded in a true back to basics fashion, the album serves as an excellent snapshot of our country today. Paul was kind enough to spare some time to tell Louder Than War about the album and his time in the vortex of chaos and creativity that was the early-80s Damned.
Louder Than War: Can you tell us how long you 2 have been working together again?
Paul Gray: We’ve always enjoyed working together and had talked about doing an album together for yonks, but it took a while before we were both free at the same time. Captain came down to my place in South Wales for a week last autumn and in between visits to the pub we knocked a bunch of ideas around. Some of the songs I already had, some Captain already had, and the rest we knocked up together. The “postcards” theme quickly manifested itself, all the quirky things that make our funny old country both good and not so good – we wanted the album to have a wistful feel to it, and any track that didn’t fit we dumped. It was great working to a theme and made the whole process very easy lyrically – it came together very quickly and was hugely democratic. The easiest album I’ve ever recorded!
‘Postcards from Britain’ is a fantastic album; can we talk about the recording process first, in a garage and kitchen?
Thanks! We had no budget for a studio and all that bollocks, so our recording method was really decided for us. We both love that 60s garage band sound, so we took it quite literally! Mostly it was recorded straight onto a MacBook in my kitchen – I’m a bit of a luddite with all that stuff – I’d just about figured out Garageband, but still recorded on my 4 track cassette portastudio. Captain, however, knows his way around Logic blindfold – so that was very handy! A couple of the portastudio recordings worked pretty well already, so Captain figured a way to dump the individual instrument tracks one by one onto the computer – we then rigged up a USB mic in a cardboard box with a few egg boxes stuffed inside to record the vocals – really hi tech, right? – and other stuff like acoustic guitars and bouzoukis. The rest was done plugged straight into the computer, no amps or anything. Once we’d got them down we then spent a day in a friend’s garage to record the drums – a couple of the tracks were recorded entirely live. Captain then took everything back to his gaff in Brighton and added the fairy dust, and we gave it to a mate of mine who’s got a decent pair of ears to mix. He may have wished he’d never got involved there were so many mixes flying about lol!
The sound produced is a really strong back to basics sound, is that what you envisaged on starting out?
Yep, absolutely – no record companies interfering, or producers wanting to stamp “their” sound on it, or drummers moaning about the bass drum not being loud enough in the mix. It’s entirely as we wanted it, and we’re hugely chuffed at what we’ve achieved.
Did knowing you would record the songs in this way affect how you wrote them?
Good question! Thinking about it a bit, actually no … usually songs are so messed about with between being written and the final recording they can lose much of their initial charm. This way as soon as we had an idea worked out, we recorded it, and that was that. Nothing was changed – you can spend so long messing about with songs, and usually the initial spark is lost. We actually wrote the album really quickly – the lyrics especially flew into place, which as neither of us is a prolific lyricist is a feat in itself – most of them written up my local pub over pints of foaming Timothy Taylor, roaring with laughter, and the next day we recorded them. It was very much a 50/50 effort and huge fun to record unencumbered in that way.
Can you tell us a bit about the other musicians on the album?
The drummer, Ant, is a mate of mine from up the valleys – ha has a great swing feel to his playing. We didn’t want a bish bash bosh merchant, and he fitted the bill perfectly. The smallest drum kit I’ve ever seen – the bass drum was held in place by a Doc Marten! Some more mates of mine popped round to put on some backing vocals, and the lovely lady who let us use her garage – a retired doctor, no less – put some piano on on “Halfway to Hollywood”.
We both knew Nik Turner, he lives in deepest West Wales – lovely bloke. He was well up for blowing some sax, so we boshed down to his gaff earlier this year with the laptop and he honked away as only he can on a coupla tracks. He walks it like he talks it, lives on this rambling farm in the middle of nowhere, hounds everywhere, various people dropping in and out regardless of the fact that we were recording … it was mad.
Lyrically there’s a lot that many people will agree with on there. Can you give us your perspective on some of the themes you tackle?
“City Bird” was one of Captains – it was first called Croydon Bird, so not unnaturally I thought it would be about drunken birds teetering about in high heels and falling all over the gaff instead of the much maligned pigeon, a very British bird … we kept the shrieking harridans theme for Tragic Roundabout, about us Brit’s possibly excessive love of alcohol, from the lonely old colonel mumbling incoherently into his gin to the total alcoholic lunacy that takes over every high street these days on Friday and Saturday nights. That one was written up the pub, funnily enough!
“English Summer” was one of mine and came together very quickly – everyone moans that summers ain’t what they used to be – Last year so many festivals were cancelled, it was terrible for the bands, promoters and punters alike. And global warming is the reason why, not helped by the tragic deforestation the other side of the world by the multinational burger companies and then squeezing zillions of cattle onto it, farting methane everywhere. We’re on a really slippery slope and if it’s not already too late it soon will be. I have a son of nine and I really worry about what the state of the world will be by the time he’s my age.
I think the lyrics are very transparent – we wanted them to be accessible, they’re all about the things that bothered or amused us, and from the feedback we’ve had clearly a whole lotta people agree. “Stole Into The Night” is about Blair and the tragedy of the Iraq war, “State of The Nation” reflects the tide of anger that continues to sweep the country around bankers bonuses, phone hacking, corrupt politicians expenses…need I go on? All those who think they live above the law and get away with it … and “Halfway to Hollywood” is a scathing take on all those dreadful X Factor type programmes promising fame and fortune to anyone with less than an ounce of talent and more often than not delivering bitter disappointment to the contestants – but a fortune for those who make them. “Looking At You” was inspired by a walk we took up the lane and found ourselves in this posh housing estate with mini cameras tracking our every move…you can’t get away from them, they’re everywhere. The number of times UK citizens are caught on CCTV per day ranges from 70 to 300! And don’t get me started on all those dubious Google shenanigans … but we did balance with a few light-hearted pokes too, like “Lottery of Life” – take a bow the pub bore – and “Queen for a Day”, one of Captain’s classic pop songs.
One that really struck a chord with me is ‘Forgotten High Street’, a very true song, but maybe not the expected subject matter. Can you just expand on it a little please?
It’s so sad driving along and every day seeing yet more Tesco Metros and Sainsbury’s Local’s sprouting up like some vile rash, and the old family shops that took a pride in what they sold and actually made you feel welcome when you walked in – the grocers, bakers, clothing shops, tea shops and fishmongers – all being forced outta business by them. Everything now is so homogenised. It’s a very wistful look-back on our country of yesteryear, where the shopkeepers knew your name, took the time to speak to you, let you have stuff on tick and contributed to a real community spirit. Everywhere looks the same now, it’s terribly depressing. God knows what the high street of 50 years’ time will look like, I dread to think. Maybe everyone will be shopping online and there won’t be anything left except takeaways, estate agents, yet another bloody Coffee Republic and pound shops. How awful would that be … in fact, come to think of it, that already sounds like the streets around Cardiff.
The theme of Britain today runs throughout, what’s your perspective on how Britain has changed since you started out in music?
I remember the months spent driving the highways and byways of our splendid country in the early days…there was a busy and purposeful bustle that you don’t see nowadays. Obviously the steelworks and coal mines and traditional manufacturing industries have now all but gone and of course we all know what a devastating effect that’s had on our towns and communities. Large parts of Britain now look like a wasteland. It’s become terribly shabby. The official unemployment figures – for what they’re worth – are the same now as they were in 1976 at 7.7%. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. But there’s a whole new swathe of discontent sweeping the country what with phone hacking, NHS cover-ups and unachievable targets at the expense of patient safety, ludicrous bankers bonuses and MPs expenses fiddling and the rest… we had those outburst of riots last year and I wonder when it’s all gonna give.
When we were trawling around for sound bites for the album, funnily enough one of the things that struck me most was how our accents have changed, at least down south. We’ve lost all those lovely old fashioned accents epitomised in the Ealing comedies, from the very English Terry Thomas “I say old boy” to the traditional east End barrow boy. That strikes me as a great loss, somehow. We’re gradually becoming homogenised. Like bloody Tesco’s.
Looking back on your period in The Damned, I think The Black Album and Strawberries are both amazing albums. How would you assess them looking back now?
Ha ha I would agree with you! I think the band were at a creative peak then, certainly the ideas were unstoppable … we could easily have made a triple album with no loss of quality control. It was a magical time, despite the odd hiccup. Outside of our fans, I think The Damned has always been somewhat overlooked in favour of some of the other bands under the punk banner. I can’t think of many journalists in that period, outside of Carol Clerk, bless her, that would give us the time of day or actually listened to what we were doing. Perhaps it’s because we didn’t take ourselves that seriously, although we worked fucking hard in the studio – round the clock in fact, much to the chagrin of our engineer Hugh Jones. I love both those albums dearly and still play them regularly. In a way, they’re timeless.
Do you feel the reputation the band had at the time may have adversely affected how the albums were received critically and commercially? Does that bother you at all?
Here’s the thing – there was no master plan like the Clash or the Pistols. We didn’t go back to our hotel and plan world domination or write out lists of hammy slogans, we went back and raised hell. We had no Svengali manager calling the shots and thinking up front page scams, no corporate band uniform however “punk” it was dressed up as or slick PR team hidden behind us. We were just us, doing what we did, on our tod. If people liked us, then great, and bollocks to ’em if they didn’t. I can’t really recall what our reputation was back then…lively and unpredictable, perhaps? I DO remember a review Nick Kent did of us at Hammersmith entitled Mindless, Directionless Energy … that may have been what a lot of punk was about, but it certainly wasn’t us. Had he ever actually listened to us? Clearly not. It was easy to take the lazy journalistic cop out route of “what a bunch of hapless buffoons” with The Damned. Apparently he didn’t set foot in the venue and wrote it from the pub opposite … anyway we ended up nicking his review heading for one of our live albums. lol. It’s a drag that a lot of people couldn’t see past that and actually find out for themselves what we had to offer. Does it bother me? In a way, yes, because I would have loved those albums to have gained greater recognition, but we would never have done anything differently.
How did The Damned end up with no record contract for so long after such great albums?
Hmm…we outgrew Chiswick Records, fab as they were, but then found out that we were just too hot to handle for the bigger record company suits and bean counters. It’s a fucking tragedy, really. They thought we were way too wild and unpredictable for their nice shareholders and had these visions of us coming in and smashing up their nice Habitat offices and uprooting their fucking parlour palms. Tells you a lot about record companies, right? We tried every single label in the UK and the only bunch who were eventually brave enough were Bronze, bless ’em. I guess they figured that as they had Motorhead they could handle us ha ha. And then of course as soon as Strawberries came out they went down the pan. How’s THAT for timing!
As a teenage fan at that time, a Damned gig was absolutely massive and memories are still vivid. It all seemed unpredictable, spontaneous, chaotic and slightly dangerous. Is time playing tricks on the memory? What was it like from your perspective?
Well I’m glad you said that, ‘cos it’s exactly as I remember the gigs at that time too! There was NO band like the Damned to play with, believe me. Anything and everything was fair game – there was everything to play for and nothing to lose. At any given point the whole thing could either explode or implode – it doesn’t get much more thrilling than that!
What would be your most vivid or most amusing story from those times?
Oh god there’s a book there somewhere … I couldn’t possibly pull out one above any other. There’s hundreds of ’em.
No one could accuse The Damned at that time of compromising their principles? Do you have any regrets looking back and feel that possibly you could have achieved more if you had played a more commercial game?
Well, when I was with Eddie & the Hot Rods Island Records persuaded us, much against our collective wills, to play the commercial game and shorten our name to “Rods” for “Do Anything You Wanna Do”. What a mistake that was….suddenly, nobody knew who the fuck we were. The beauty of The Damned was that we didn’t have to deal with any of that bollocks. But after Captain and I had left and they went all goth and signed to MCA they played a more corporate game. As Rat famously said. “it was time to sell Vanian by the pound…”. No – no regrets, absolutely not.
From your experience in your career and in the Musicians Union, what is the most common mistake you feel musicians make and what advice would you give?
That there’s a living to be made out there, and they are the ones that are owed it ha ha! There’s not nearly enough self-critique going on these days. Because anyone can knock out a recording on a laptop and bung it on Bandcamp doesn’t mean that it’s a masterpiece and everyone’s gonna rush out and buy it. Even in the last few years everything has changed so radically. My advice would be, forget about money, do it for the love, and if you’re stuff is good and people like it and you’re savvy enough to figure out how to earn a few bob out of it, fantastic.
Any plans for future recordings?
Well the main thing we wanna do is to take these songs out live – we had planned some live dates for about now to tie in with the release but I went and got bloody throat cancer so that’s put the kibosh on that for a while. I’m on the mend though so we’ve gotta look at next year now.
As for recording I’d love to do more with Captain, the door’s never closed there really. I’m doing a bit with some chums of mine called the Monte Dons, good fun and acoustic based with Ant drumming again. My tinnitus has levelled out at long last and I have good earplugs now so I’m up for anything really!
To buy the album go HERE.
The Damned will be on tour with Ruts DC from late November. Full dates below. See their website for tickets.
The Damned and Ruts DC tour:
- Nov 28: Bristol O2 Academy
- Nov 29: Portsmouth Pyramids
- Nov 30: Leamington Spa Assembly
- Dec 01: Buckley Tivoli
- Dec 03: Leicester O2 Academy
- Dec 04: Chesterfield Winding Wheel
- Dec 05: Cambridge Corn Exchange
- Dec 06: Wolverhampton Wulfrun Hall
- Dec 07: Edinburgh Picture House
- Dec 08: Newcastle O2 Academy
- Dec 11: Norwich UEA
- Dec 12: Leeds O2 Academy
- Dec 13: London Roundhouse – with Theatre Of Hate
- Dec 14: Manchester Ritz
- Dec 15: Northampton Roadmender