The Damned's Captain Sensible On 40 Years of Punk, Politics and Punch-Ups

The classic U.K. punk group's resident madman talks surviving as a band for four decades, his attempt to start a political party, and the time his bandmate chased him around a recording studio with a shotgun.

For a band that released the first-ever U.K. punk single, the Damned never quite received the attention of their peers.

"New Rose," from 1976, beat the Sex Pistols out of the gate by a matter of months. In '77, manic debut album Damned Damned Damned followed. The songs were fueled by the raw energy of the Stooges and MC5, but also stood on the shoulders of glam bands like the Pink Fairies while ratcheting up the tempos. Unlike their contemporaries, the Damned skipped out on the major label advances and promotion, stuck to their guns and helped define the independent spirit of punk—not merely waving the flag, but actually living up to its morals.

Of course, it was a short-lived victory, and the band was constantly broke. Members splintered off and the band began to mutate, helping forge a second genre, goth, in the process.

But what the band lacked in relative fame, it's made up for in longevity. In 2016, the Damned celebrated their 40th anniversary. Never a group to be hung up on tradition or sentimentality, it is continuing its long trip by doing what it does best: laying down sets of bristling fury night after night, around the world. Captain Sensible—the group's resident madman, former bassist and current guitarist—took a moment on tour to answer some  questions.

WW: It took only 40 years, but it seems the Damned are playing larger and classier venues than ever before. Does it feel like you're finally getting your due?

Captain Sensible: Some bands worry about their status, and whether they'll get some stupid award or other. The Damned are outsiders, and have nothing to prove—we're just happy to be able to travel around the world playing gigs. All the British punk bands from '77 had their own approach to punk. I respect the Stranglers and [Sex] Pistols, but for me the Damned have an adventurous musicality that makes their live performances a unique and theatrical experience. The Damned are a real live band, [and] the reason we are still popular is as an antidote to the awful, plastic modern music. Auto-Tune, quantise, compression—it's cheating and not for us.

How strange has the whole trip been?

It's a cliché, I know, but the whole thing's been a roller-coaster ride of massive highs and desperate lows. We were just making the music we wanted to hear because there was precious little around at the time that had any get-up-and-go. Glam rock had packed the sequins and gone. All we had left was country, disco and prog.

But mainly I was trying to change my own world, 'cause for me as a teenager with little education to boast of, I had a life of drudge ahead of me at best. Or a vagabond of some sort. I was already known to the law, and things could have gone from bad to worse. I was dossing in a Brighton squat, surrounded by junkies and ne'er-do-wells. Then punk rock showed up and saved me. Every band needs a chaos factor, and I became the Damned's random unpredictable nutcase. My dream job. As for low points—maybe the rows and punch-ups? But all bands have them I think, even the Mamas & the Papas.

The Damned were the first British punk band to release a single, thanks to your relationship with independent label Stiff Records. What about the legacy today and after the Damned are gone?

I'm absolutely not interested in any legacy, awards, status, hanging out with celebrities or any of that stuff rock stars do. For me, punk bands and fans are the same. Star trips are the sort of thing we set out to get rid of.

The Damned were both ferociously fast and totally wild in 1976. What are your thoughts about the incredible frontiers of tempo and extremity of subject matter that have come to music in the ensuing years?

Little Richard—a huge hero of ours—he was considered subversive once. You have to try and view artists in context of the period in which they broke through. We ruffled some feathers at a time when country, rock and disco were everywhere. You'd be surprised how upset people were by punk in '76. Just walking down the road wearing a studded leather jacket was an invite to anyone who fancied to engage in fisticuffs. Being no hero, I actually became very good at running during that period.

In 2006, you formed the political Blah! Party, which later mutated into a protest group.

Trump and Brexit are symptoms of a huge disconnect between politicians and voters. People don't trust Washington and want change, which explains the popularity of outsiders like Bernie [Sanders] and Trump. As for Britain, Tony Blair's lies to justify the Iraq War had me so enraged I started my own political party, rather than put a brick through the TV screen when his face popped up. The Blah! Party I called it, as in "blah blah blah, heard it all before." The people want a government that listens to them, not the corporations. Blah! to the lot of them.

Where should people be looking for hope, and what do you think the average music fan can do to make a difference?

Don't ask me about politics, I'm just a daft guitarist. Leave that to our trusted elected representatives who somehow manage to answer not to the voters but to the corporations who so generously fund them. I'm loving the debate about "fake news." That's been a long time coming. People don't like wars—they have to be lied into supporting armed interventions, and we have to learn from previous examples. In the U.K., it was a genuine thrill when the Tories were booted out by Blair's New Labour project. But then they took us straight to Iraq via "dodgy dossiers" and a whole bunch of "fake news" from the mainstream media.

Do you think there's anything inherent in the punk manifesto that is an argument against playing a greatest-hits set from a 40-plus-year career, or is this exactly what you should be doing?

The first rule of punk is there are no rules. Punk was a reaction against the excessive rock-star nonsense of the mid-'70s, the swaggering, macho buffoons with a foot up on the monitors while boring audiences to death with long, tedious guitar solos and lyrics about wizards and pixies. I'm happy to say we helped get rid of that. We're just a bunch of wacky blokes who happen to make music, no pedestal required. For me that's the punk way—don't get up yourself.

Regrets? Well, I smashed a few fine guitars back in the day. I wish I hadn't done that. But the way the band was—I'm talking about volatility and ego clashes here—it just seemed a better idea to trash the equipment than hit each other. Studios especially could set things off. "You're ruining my song!" "Well, it's a crock of shit anyway!" That sort of thing. Rockfield [Studios], being on a Welsh farm, had a shotgun on the premises. I recall an occasion when Mr. Vanian, not best pleased with some irreverent backing vocals Rat [Scabies] and myself had contributed to his latest song, chased the pair of us across the fields blasting away. I didn't look back to see whether he was aiming at us, or, hopefully, the sky. 

This tour, and its across-the-board set list, is a celebration of not only 40 years of the Damned but of actually surviving a lot of extremely mad and debauched times in one piece—physically, if not quite mentally.

SEE IT: The Damned play Crystal Ballroom, 1332 W Burnside St., on Friday, April 14. 9 pm. $23 advance, $25 day of show. 21+.

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