By Dave Pehling
SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- The Sex Pistols may have gotten more headlines thanks to the publicity-savvy machinations of manager Malcolm McLaren, but British contemporaries The Damned were the true pioneers. The group was the first UK punk band to issue both a single and a full-length record as well as being the first to tour the United States.
Formed by guitarist Brian James (who had played in proto-punk outfit London SS) and drummer Rat Scabies (aka Chris Millar), the initial line-up of the band was filled out by singer Dave Vanian (born David Letts), and bassist Captain Sensible (aka Raymond Burns). The quartet played its first show supporting the Pistols at the legendary 100 Club in July of 1976, but beat the band into record stores with the October release of their debut single on Stiff Records of their classic anthem "New Rose."
The Damned would join the Sex Pistols along with the Clash and former New York Doll Johnny Thunders and his band the Heartbreakers on the notorious "Anarchy Tour of the UK" in December of 1976 that found a majority of the dates canceled by promoters or authorities. The Damned issued their proper debut album Damned Damned Damned in February of 1977.
Produced by pub rock veteran Nick Lowe, the album featured a raw set of blistering future punk classics like "Neat Neat Neat," "Born to Kill" and "Messed Up." The band's maiden voyage to the U.S. that spring was marked by a tendency to ramp up the already fast tempos, a move that's credited for inspiring early bands of the West Coast hardcore punk scene.
The band's follow-up effort Music For Pleasure found the band making the unusual choice of Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason as producer after mentally fractured Floyd founder Syd Barrett was unavailable. Though now considered another classic, at the time it was dismissed by critics and fans. Already at odds with each other during the tracking of the album, the failure of Music For Pleasure got the Damned dropped by Stiff Records and group split up for the first time shortly thereafter.
The individual members would delve into other projects before eventually reforming without James, initially with Motorhead bassist Lemmy Kilmister temporarily filling in for performances under the monikers Les Punks and the Doomed after Sensible switched to guitar before scoring a new deal with Chiswick to record as the Damned. The band rebounded with the garage-rock infused gem Machine Gun Etiquette in late 1979 featuring the hit singles and future classics "Love Song," "I Just Can't Be Happy Today" and "Smash It Up."
The band would go on to record a string of influential '80s albums, branching out into early gothic punk on the ambitious 1980 effort The Black Album (featuring the epic 17-minute track "Curtain Call") and delving into a mix of goth rock and punk psychedelia with subsequent classics Strawberries (Captain Sensible's last effort prior to an extended departure for his own successful solo career) and Phantasmagoria.
The band split up again in 1988 after a farewell concert, but it didn't take long for Vanian and Scabies to reunite and tour with new recruits the following decade, with Captain Sensible returning to the fold in 1996. While the Damned have only issued a handful of studio albums in the past two decades, the group has toured regularly and remains a fixture of punk festivals on both sides of the Atlantic.
More recently, the outfit was the subject of the raucous 2016 documentary by director Wes Orshoski entitled The Damned: Don't You Wish That We Were Dead that explored the band's early roots and took a closer look at the bond that has kept Vanian and Sensible on the road four decades later. Last year found the Damned celebrating its 40th anniversary with an extensive tour and completing their first new studio album in a decade after an online crowd-funding campaign. Recorded with legendary producer Tony Visconti -- who worked with David Bowie, T. Rex and Thin Lizzy to name but a few -- as Strawberries-era bassist Paul Gray, Evil Spirits was released on Search and Destroy/Spinefarm records this past spring to wide acclaim, with some critics calling it the band's best effort since the '80s.
The group has been busy with a recent string of European and British tour dates promoting the new recording, but Captain Sensible was kind enough to take the time and answer a number of questions via email about Evil Spirits ahead of the Damned's upcoming headlining set at Burger Boogaloo in Oakland's Mosswood Park on Sunday, July 1.
CBS SF: Were the songs for Evil Spirits written over the course of the decade since So Who's Paranoid? Or was there a concentrated period of writing ahead of the recording sessions?
Captain Sensible: Before we discovered crowd funding, there weren't queues of record labels chasing us waving contracts. The Damned have always been quite curmudgeonly in that we only make the music we like, regardless of considerations of commerciality. Record company people don't like that sorta thinking.
But once we'd raised the funds, it was time to come up with a bunch of songs so the whole band went at it in a competitive way, all attempting to write the first single. That may be why the album sounds like a "Best of" hits compilation.
CBS SF: The songwriting credits are spread fairly evenly across the band members, but the overarching lyrical themes of edging towards the apocalypse and distrust of the powers that be run through the whole album. Was there any discussion of song subject matter as a group? Or were you all on the same page given the planet's current precarious state politically and otherwise?
Captain Sensible: Mr Vanian wrote the album's opener, "Standing On the Edge of Tomorrow," which has a despairing "stop the world I wanna get off" vibe.
We all know the lunatics are running the asylum, so as a band, you either play boy meets girl songs, exorcise your demons or have a rabble rouse, which we decided on this time round. And why not? We are a punk band after all.
CBS SF: Musically, Evil Spirits seems to lean more towards the gothic drama and hooky, Love-influenced psychedelia of the band's '80s output like Strawberries and Phantasmagoria. Did you look to any of the Damned's earlier works as a touchstone for this album?
Captain Sensible: For inspiration, Dave and myself went back to the records we bought as kids, when first getting turned onto music. So, as we grew up listening to Merseybeat, psych and garage, there's a lot of that in Evil Spirits. We always had a soft spot for the Left Banke and Love, which we were listening to when recording Strawberries, so maybe as you say this album does follow that one style-wise.
CBS SF: What was your experience working with Tony Visconti? Was it hard not to get bogged down plying him for stories about recording David Bowie and T. Rex?
Captain Sensible: Who doesn't love a good Marc Bolan story? The guy was totally out there and Tony recorded all his hits so [he] saw some extremely wacky stuff. But it wasn't all one way traffic; we had a choice selection of Bolan anecdotes ourselves, seeing as we'd supported T Rex on their last UK tour.
Which sounds unlikely, a snotty young punk band gigging with a glam superstar. But Marc was smart and could see fashions were changing. With a cranked up setlist, he played high-velocity shows each night, which pleased our fans, while Dave grabbed the T Rex aficionados' attention with his sense of drama.
As for Tony, the great thing was we were all on the same page in our desire to make a classic sounding album, with the raw edges left on. Some modern records are maximised, auto-corrected and polished to oblivion. Rock 'n roll was never meant to be perfect.
Oh, and when I asked for Small Faces tape phasing, he knew exactly what I was talking about, which made me smile.
CBS SF: I was reading that the album used only about half of the songs you demoed for the label. Do you have any immediate plans for that material, or will it just be set aside for possible use on the next Damned album?
Captain Sensible: Since we've learned how to write songs again, it'd be a bit rubbish not to do another album sometime, so yes.
CBS SF: Were there any newer tunes of yours that didn't make Evil Spirits that could possibly end up on a future Captain Sensible solo album? Or do you see yourself focusing on the Damned for the time being?
Captain Sensible: It takes about two years of work getting an album together... so not something you just wave a wand at and it suddenly appears. So to keep my stress levels as level as possible, I'll be concentrating solely on the Damned for the time being.
CBS SF: Some of the band's more recent tours in 2016 and 2017 focused pretty heavily on songs from Damned Damned Damned and Machine Gun Etiquette. Did revisiting those albums live have any influence on the writing or recording of Evil Spirits?
Captain Sensible: Performing those albums was a serious workout and whipped us into shape as a live band. I think you can hear that on Evil Spirits. Drummer Pinch and bassist Paul Gray were immense as a rhythm section, which gave Monty and myself a lot of freedom to think a bit more on the epic side.
[Editor's note: New bassist Jon Priestly will be playing with the band at Burger Boogaloo]
CBS SF: Do you foresee featuring other albums from the catalog like The Black Album or Strawberries more heavily on the road in the future?
Captain Sensible: The difficult thing with the Damned is that we are three bands crammed into one: having been there at the dawn of punk, having a hand in the creation of goth, and also dabbling in a little psych whenever we feel it appropriate (or think we can get away with it!). So writing setlists can sometimes be difficult.
CBS SF: You suffered an injury during the band's last U.S. tour that required a few postponed shows, but you managed to soldier on after some recovery time. Did the spill lead to you reigning in the abandon of your onstage performance?
Captain Sensible: I hate stage barriers, even more so now since I fell onto one last year and broke a bloody rib. The thing is, gigs are just so much better when the audience and band are up close, so (and as our tour manager will attest) I'm always complaining about barriers, and the distance they are from the stage.
That's how I fell, 'cos I was tippy toeing on the edge [of the stage] -- showing off, my colleagues might say. But we are that kinda band, all trying to grab a little more than our fair share of the spotlight.
CBS SF: You've never made a secret of your admiration for Syd Barrett. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on your old producer Nick Mason getting together a band to play early Floyd songs?
Captain Sensible: Surprisingly Nick has done just that, putting together a band to go out and play Syd's songs, so good luck to him.
I know he produced us at a difficult time, when the first Damned lineup was imploding badly, hardly talking to each other. But forget the comments like "he couldn't mix a gin and tonic" and the like; Nick actually did a pretty good job of Music For Pleasure. I read the following on Julian Cope's website yesterday and subsequently listened to a couple of tracks. Surprisingly, I have to agree with the reviewer. They don't sound half bad either!
The Damned headline Day 2 of Burger Boogaloo at Oakland's Mosswood Park this Sunday, July 1. For more tickets and information, visit the Burger Boogaloo website.
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