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Sleeping with bed bugs and becoming mythic with The Damned

Artwork by Ava East.

Captain Sensible, co-founder of the legendary UK Punk band The Damned thinks that 11-12 albums in a 40 year career are too little. He is, of course, the only one who would think that. In a generation where most careers fizzle out after 3 albums in the course of maybe 4 years, it would not be an over-exaggeration to see The Damned as something sacred, a little bit untouchable. They are gods but they are benevolent ones. The kind who would gladly sleep on your bedroom floor after sharing a couple of beers, who don’t mind making themselves comfortable in the back of a truck.

The Damned have managed to achieve what all musicians dream of: they have made themselves immortal.Through their music, their influence, through sheer force of will. It’s as if growing up at the beginning of the Punk scene has instilled in the band the sort of desperate desire to experience all facets of life that is sort of hard for anyone to maintain, no matter how young they may be.

If there was any question to the band’s lasting relevance, any and all concerns of that sort have been settled with the new Tony Visconti produced Evil Spirits. From the perspective of most New York music nerds, the collaboration of one legendary band with an iconic Brooklyn noise producer seems like something out of mythology. But that sounds about right because that’s what The Damned has become—mythic.

You guys have broken up and reformed so many times, what do you think it is that keeps you coming back to each other? How has the fluctuation effected how you work together?

Captain Sensible: Being in a band is weird. I can’t speak for others but for us it was like joining a gang, it was us against the world. From our unprivileged backgrounds, our futures in the unemployment ridden UK didn’t look too rosy. Then punk came along and saved us. It was a clean broom, a bit like the 60s, a decade I grew up in but didn’t really experience as going through school. I was totally energized, still am, by those ideas of love and peace, equality, making the world a better place. Looking at the state of things today you wonder—whatever happened to all that optimism?

Anyway, when Brian (James) split up the Damned in ‘78 it came as a bit of a shock.. I mean, I’d found my dream job. Despite all the goofing around onstage I want to make as spectacular music as I have at home in my record collection. Beach Boys, Kinks, Small Faces, ELO, etc. Anyway, we decided to carry on without our former leader but weren’t given much chance of success as none of us had even written a tune.

Amazingly we found we could all do it.. and came back with Machine Gun Etiquette, which made a big impact. The mix of punk and psychedelia has a beauty to it—all our studio experiments seemed to work. That album was special.. and certainly shut up the nay sayers.But there’s always been a lot of music in this band—in fact we should make more albums. 11 or 12 in a 40 year career seems a bit slack.

It seems like you guys are feeling pretty down about the political and social landscape these days which is understandable. Do you have moments of hope? What is one thing you’ve seen lately that has broken through the negativity?

Moments of hope? Are you serious? The whole worlds gone mad. Look—I like a rant about politics as much as anyone else but I’m going to keep my head down and stick to playing guitar for a while. If people want to believe the garbage that’s churned out on TV and in the press that’s up to them. I’m not a youngster any more. And a future of machines vs people doesn’t sound like much fun. So people really need to do their own thinking.. not let some talking head on tv do it for them. Turn that evil box off and get a life is my tip.

“Standing on the Edge of Tomorrow” feels like it was written from the perspective of Brave New World or 1984, like you guys are trying to shake the young people to stand up and do something. Do you feel like this generation is radical enough? You guys first popped up during a time of extreme change and revolution yourselves, does it feel like we aren’t quite angry enough?

Standing, hidden, behind the uplifting chorus melodies there’s an element of despair in there. Stop the world I want to get off. Not much chance of that though—no rescue spaceships any time soon. We are stuck on this planet and have to make the most of it. (Laughs) making a fine job of that aren’t we!

Yes, punk rock was revolting, literally. I was sleeping on people’s floors for 2 years in its heyday. Occasionally I got a sofa. Luxury! We’d travel to gigs sitting in the back of a van on top of all the equipment, on an old mattress full of bugs. But when you’re gigging all the beer is free, which makes even stuff like that go with a swing.

Of course we wanted to change the world and we showed what could be done if you put your mind to it and don’t take no for an answer. What would I have done if I wasn’t in a band? I’d not have got on well with all that ghastly getting up early to go to work routine (laughs).

Is there something about getting older that makes you feel like you need less of a filter? Or is it just that you maintain that sense of youth and people just start to expect it less from someone at a certain age?

You stay the same mental age as when you join the band. There’s something about twanging a guitar for a living, you don’t need to grow up. I never did. I’m still a juvenile delinquent at heart with “Smash It Up” as the battle cry.

Having said that – I wish I hadn’t wrecked some of those lovely Gibsons. I wonder what happened to the bits that I threw into the audience? With a bit of effort you can rebuild guitars.. I wonder if any are still being played? That’d be nice.

No, my inclination is always to live on the wild side of life, it’s just that your body has a say in things too. And when you get to a certain age if you don’t listen to what it’s saying you soon find out about it. I had an extremely lucky run, while several of my contemporaries fell by the wayside – looking back I must’ve thought I was invincible. I’d drink for days without sleeping, and when my comrades finally hit the sack all I heard was the pub beckoning.

But listen in to conversations backstage at punk festivals these days and you’re more likely to hear tales of recent hospital treatment and the like than some fabulous party they just attended. While that’s a bit of a downer I must admit I find it extremely funny, as does Mr. (Dave) Vanian, who goes around these days puffing on an old fashioned pipe, like the one in the Sherlock Holmes films. Dave’s is a vape device but that didn’t stop the BBC freaking out when we visited recently.

Ironically you have some songs on this album that are about the trap of feeling safe when that feeling can break at any minute. It can sort of relate back to playing it safe as a band, which it doesn’t seem like you guys have ever done. Do you see anyone out there right now kind of taking up that mantle of taking the risk of talking about difficult subjects? Do you think that is maybe easier for a band thats been around the block a few times to do?

I sat next to a university lecturer on a flight back from Australia once. He specialized in animals and amongst the incredible stuff about spiders and bats we discussed the phenomenon of whales and dolphins prostrating themselves on beaches around the world. “All the articles I’ve ever read” I told him “claim there is no consensus as to why they do it. It could be this reason, or that reason—it’s all just guesswork”.
On the contrary my new zoologist chum informed me “we’ve known the cause for many years” and proceeded to tell me all about the ‘sonar deceit.’ All of which inspired our song of that very name – which is also the first Damned tune to have a Motown beat. And about time too!

Everyone talks about the issues going on in America right now because everything just comes off as so theatrical and ridiculous but the UK has been going through some shit too. Does it feel more insidious when its evil done through the sort of political lens that makes it easier to ignore?

These TV talent shows, where nearly everything is scripted and phoney? That’s today’s politics. None of these people should be anywhere near public office. Narcissistic psychopaths most of them too.

But money is power and if you have enough of the stuff you can ‘sponsor’ (i.e. buy) the next leader.

“Devil In Disguise” has some choice phrases fresh out of the Trump / Clinton presidential race. Lyrically, this is a great time to be a songwriter – there’s some powerful protest songs out there again.

Tony Visconti spoke about how he was surprised he hadn’t worked with you before and I don’t think he was alone. What do you think it was that brought you together with him? That’s sort of a legendary pairing.

Tony’s an old fashioned gent – it was a pleasure to work with him. He combines all that’s best of the classic 70s way of recording.. everyone together in the same room, arranging as you go, honing a tune until he says “that’s it, you’ve got it” with the good bits of modern studio technology. And the latest software plugins are extremely powerful and need to be handled with care. Overused, as it is far too often these days and you end up with brittle, noisy, over compressed, unlistenable pap.

Go back and listen to T Rex’s “Get It On”… or Bowie’s “Starman.” Visconti produced both of them and young musicians should check out that sound and when they hit the studio next try to resist the temptation to make everything louder than everything else.. and hopefully avoid correcting and autotuning their music to oblivion.

Evil Spirits, the new album from The Damned, is out now

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