Photo by Raven
The Sex Pistols, the Clash, the Jam — they get punk rock respect more than three decades down the pike, but their contemporaries the Damned are oft seen as a footnote, a comic one at that. The band remains fronted by singer Dave Vanian, forever dressed as a dapper vampire, and guitarist Captain Sensible, attired in all manner of garish garb. Why the no-respect vibe? "You're expected to split up and stay split up or someone in the band should die," says Sensible, now 54. "That's the route to, um, not success, but legacy."
The Damned, boasting numerous lineups and stylistic shifts, are happy survivors. Today's quintet — with keyboardist Monty Oxymoron, bassist Stuart West, and drummer Pinch — have been together four years and had been scheduled to play the Paradise on Sunday, January 4. At press time the band announced it was cancelling its North American tour, but when we talked to Sensible he had promised 90 minutes-plus of their best stuff, going back to their double A-side single, "Neat Neat Neat"/"New Rose" (1976, credited as the first single released by a British punk band). The Damned have evolved into what Sensible calls a "goth-psycheledic-punk-'60s-garage-twang" band. They've released their first CD in seven years, So, Who's Paranoid? (English Channel), and it's damned good. I talked recently with the Captain (neè Ray Burns) about the past and the present.
Let's say it's 1976 and I was there to ask you if there'd be a Damned in 2009.
I would've said we'd have lasted six weeks maximum. We had to lie and cheat our way to get gigs. We'd go to venues, look to see who was on the schedule, and we'd say, "Look we can support this band, we're a dub-reggae act" or "We're a heavy rock act" or "We're a folk act." You couldn't use the p-word; if you said you were a punk band you'd get no gigs whatsoever. And then when we got on the stage, quite often the curtain would be pulled or the plugs would be pulled. We'd end up playing three songs and that was it. We'd be kicked out on our ear holes.
Would you get paid?
No. We'd drink as much as possible backstage before we left. That's how I got my name, Captain Sensible. Obviously, it's ironic. I used to behave quite badly.
Not as badly as some. But I know you've been naked from the waist down a lot on stage — I saw that during the '80s in Boston. But I've been told that's history.
It's funny you should say that. Last night we played Bristol. The final power chord finished and the band sauntered off. I surreptitiously had given the sound guy my old [solo career] hit "Happy Talk," but the big-band version from the '50s. I run back on stage and grab the microphone and croon this rancid old show tune and, of course, I get the odd heckle so of course I have to show them my bottom.
I was standing at the merch store before the gig and someone asked me the very same question. I said to this lady, "No, madam, I'm trying to behave myself these days," and her face dropped and she said, "Oh no, we only want to see you behave badly." School teachers and lawyers come along to see the Damned and they have a few drinks and they want to see really bad behavior.
All in good fun though.
Right. I'm a trendy vegetarian and I think we have to be aware of what we shove in our bodies. We only get one chance at life, there's no born-again nonsense gonna happen. We've got to make the most of what we've got while we're here.
I'm guessing your audience includes peers and curious kids, wondering what the Damned is all about.
Yeah, it's very strange. You're supposed to hate the music your parents liked and parents are supposed to be outraged by what the kids are listening to, but I think punk was so ahead of the game in 1977 — kind of quite extreme — we're now in fashion. The Dead Kennedys, Ramones, and dare I say the Damned still sound fucking brilliant. Punk is still saying something and it's still relevant and the great thing is anyone can do it — learn three chords and form a band.
What accounts for your eternal joie de vivre?
I never saw the point in po-faced rock stars, people who think they're special and everyone should run around and treat them like gods. At the end of the day, if you can play a guitar it doesn't make you special in the slightest. You don't go around groveling to the plumber when you see he's done a good job. I never saw the point of some of my contemporaries — you never see a photograph of them smiling. They're so serious. What's that all about? I just never got it. It doesn't mean I don't take life and politics and the way things are going incredibly serious. These are very dangerous times we're living in.