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The Damned in 1976
FRIDAY the 22nd of October, 1976: ABBA’s ‘Greatest Hits’ tops the album
charts, Pussycat’s ‘Mississippi’ is the UK’s best selling single and Demis
Roussos, Paul Nicolas and the Climax Blues Band were a few of the treats
featured on yesterday’s Top Of The Pops.
Crashing in on this net curtain nation of medium-wave stations and threechannel TV come The Damned - playing in the key of speed, thrashing
about like ADHD Bash Street Kids and firing off punk’s first speeding bullet
of a single – ‘New Rose’. Described by Sounds’ John Ingham as “so hot it’s
a wonder the vinyl didn’t melt”, ‘New Rose’ is a three-minute warning of
the chaos, creation and pop culture combustion soon to blaze its way across
the nation.
Rewind to the 6th of July for The Damned’s live debut, and you’ll find a
band bolted together from the shrapnel of previous collaborations and
crossovers: London SS, The Subterraneans, Masters Of The Backside powering through a set-list penned mostly by Brian James, whose midseventies band Bastard had toured Belgium playing originals and overamped Alice Cooper and Iggy tunes to the lowlanders.
The final piece to fall in to place had been Dave Vanian. James and Rat
Scabies had spotted two potential faces while scouting for singers at The
Nashville and invited both to audition. One, a lanky lad with a jet black
chimney-brush barnet, known as Sid Vicious, the other, a grave-digger, with
the funeral parlour pallor of a silent movie vampire - Dave Letts/Vanian.
Before we continue, just pause for a moment to imagine what sort of an
alternative tale we’d be telling if Sid had got the gig. Thankfully in a
moment of sliding door synchronicity he never arrived and Vanian’s try-out
became a rehearsal cementing the chemistry of this new collusion.
One of The Damned’s earliest ‘firsts’ for punk was playing outside of the
UK, at the ‘First European Punk Festival’ in Mont-de-Marsan (where future
Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis could be spotted in the stalls). This French
event was overseen by Jake Riviera, who signed the band to his label Stiff
on the strength of The Damned’s frenzied headliner set and the ear-pulling
appeal of ‘New Rose’.
One month after Mont-de-Marsan and while the ink was still drying on the
Stiff contract, the band blitzed through both sides of their debut single in a
four hour session at Pathway Studios (see the Brian James interview within
this feature for more on this). Although the mood of the moment was soured
the following day, when midway through The Damned’s set at the 100 Club
Punk Festival a glass pitched at the stage by Sid (possibly still stinging from
losing out to Vanian) shattered on a pillar, blinding one of the audience.
From their earliest gigs, anecdotes and eyewitness accounts report The
Damned as a high-firing, furiously paced, four-headed monster going full-tilt
through a super-fast set with a frontman prowling around like a bloodless
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panther. The band’s escalating pace and status drew approving nods and
noises from vintage edition rockers – Robert Plant, Jimmy Page and Marc
Bolan who were all quick to align themselves with these feisty new (wave)
kids on the block. A rootsier indicator of the Damned’s expanding fanbase
was being the first group pictured on a Sniffing Glue cover.
At this point in the punk timeline - with a rolling schedule of live dates
across the capital and home counties, a John Peel session in the bag and
‘New Rose’ released to heated media coverage - it could be argued that The
Damned were the scene’s biggest punter-pullers. McLaren’s invitation to for
them join the Anarchy tour was perhaps a tactical way to get bums on seats,
only for the band to be ejected, after a TV-kicking Bill Grundy interview and
Filth and Fury national panic sent the Pistols profile skywards.
The Damned raced into 1977 like a greyhound out of a trap, bagging more
records (literally) with their debut album - being the first from a UK punk
band. ‘Damned, Damned, Damned’, released on February 18th, hammered
twelve manic tracks into thirty spitfire minutes. The wiry dynamics, triggerfinger riffs, crashing drums, thrashing guitar and garage-band attack captures
the unpolished DIY ethic of punk’s big bang perhaps more authentically than
anything else from this explosive era. The album was supported with three
months of domestic gigs, a mini-American tour (another first for UK punk)
and a run of dates supporting (and sometimes jamming onstage with) T. Rex.
Eighteen months of fast-forward momentum fizzled to a standstill following
a difficult second album – ‘Music For Pleasure’, as the band shed new
recruits (John Moss, Lu Edmonds) and elder members, eventually self
destructing into a fug of splinter groups and solo projects.
A fistful of gigs as The Doomed and some inspiration from Uncle Lemmy re-energised Scabies, Captain Sensible and Vanian, who regrouped as The
Damned, with a new label (Chiswick), and a new member. The hammerwielding Algy Ward (formerly of The Saints) having been installed on bass
allowing the Captain to reclaim his pre-punk position of guitarist.
‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ was a muscular update of the debut LP’s lightning
strike style. Incredibly for a band that were minus the writer-in-residence of
their first two albums, The Damned delivered a run of chart-hitting singles
with their first batch of collective self compositions. Tunes that also
broadened and blurred the boundary-lines of punk. The speed-freak fizz of
‘Love Song’, ‘Second Time Around’ and ‘Anti Pope’ were the pace-setters with Scabies leaving no space between the beats - but this was Punk-Plus,
taking the genre into new territories: ‘Smash It Up’ (anarcho-pop) ‘These
Hands’ (psycho-circus), or the Captain’s nifty fingered extended wig-outs
and the Python-like randomness of the nonsense chants and Okapi outro.
The line-up of almost all lead players gave a caricature-ish twist to the
visuals. With a run of chart bothering singles under their bullet belts and an
album crackling with refreshed energy - Radio One session-bookers, teen
mags, Top of the Pops and the weekly music press were quick to tap into
The Damned’s anti-hero stance, snappy quotes and multiple personalities.
By 1980 the Pistols had long since imploded and The Clash were role
playing their musical influences. Conversely The Damned were
consolidating their creative new boom and re-assembling at Rockfield
studios, with Paul Gray (ex-Eddie And The Hot Rods) replacing Algy Ward
to self-produce their fourth album and most ambitious project to date.
Almost an inversion of The Beatles’ ‘White Album’, ‘The Black Album’s
four sides (well, three studio and one live) of experimentation stretched the
‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ template into dark Pepper-esque sequences of
imagined soundtracks, squealing feedback, sparky rockers and pop nuggets elements all rendered into the seventeen-minute menace of ‘Curtain Call’, a
showcase for the developing ebony depths of Vanian’s vocals. The cinematic
scope of the songs, threading together re-heated psychedelia and late night
horror-nods pre-empted both the ‘80s psychedelic revival and upcoming
Goth-movement by several years.
This was an album almost entirely unlike the output of The Damned’s new
touring partners: the Anti Nowhere League, The Ruts DC and Vice Squad.
Or, in fact, any of the Punk’s Not Dead fundamentalists and Oi polloi
shouters painted on the backs of the motorbike jacketed masses. In the studio
they may have been playing with the sound effects and esoteric trickery - but
live The Damned were gear-shifting between moody new tunes, bare
knuckle punk or even old school musical hall by verbally sparring with the
audiences during between-song banter and chants. New boy Roman Jugg
brought his keyboards from the stage to the studio, as The Damned made a
one off stop at the NEMS label for the ‘Friday The 13th’ EP - before signing
to Bronze, also home to Motorhead, for their next album, ‘Strawberries’.
The touches of Edward Lear on ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ and H P Lovecraft
on ‘The Black Album’ had, by ‘Strawberries’, become full blown Lewis
Caroll prog-punk with cello arrangements and reverse rhythm tracks. From
the Motown a go-go of ‘Stranger On The Town’ to the name ‘n’ shame
arpeggiated politico-pop of ‘Riot Forces’ and ‘Bad Time For Bonzo’ and the
Floydian widescreen solo of ‘Under The Floor Again’, ‘Strawberries’ is The
Damned through the looking glass. Although during the recording,
increasing friction between Rat and Paul had peaked to a point that when the
call came to join a bass-less UFO he was quick to accept.
The Damned’s family tree had always been a cat’s cradle of line-up shuffles,
label hops, single only releases and collaborations - from backing Magic
Michael (without Vanian) to recording as Naz Nomad and the Nightmares
(without Captain). Ironically by the time the band finally landed the
recognition and stability of a major label - the Captain had jumped ship,
breaking away to promote a better-paying solo career (hints had been
dropped on several TV shows) - leaving Roman to replicate the Captain’s
guitar parts and the media spotlight shifting to the usually shadow-seeking
Dave Vanian. The MCA promotion machine went into overdrive for
‘Phantasmagoria’, as the band groomed their sound and visuals for
mainstream saturation. It was a re-brand that paid off, pitching The Damned
into their highest chart placings by way of some poppier singles and
‘Elouise’s wall-of-sound refit.
The rushed follow up, ‘Anything’, came and went with the critical and
commercial fuss fading into the distance and the band fracturing into a longhaul wilderness of anniversary dates, occasional reunions with ex-members
Paul Gray, Brian James and the Captain and a one-last-blast album ‘Not Of
This Earth’ with Kris Dollimore filling Captain’s boots and a surprise guest
appearance from Glen Matlock on bass.
In 1996 Sensible and Vanian teamed-up to reignite The Damned - a team
still in action today. There may only have been two albums in the last ten
years, but live, the band has maintained an industrious work rate since
reforming. It’s another irony that the longest running line up of The Damned
is also the most recent model with Pinch (drums) and Monty Oxymoron
(keys) rounding out the sound with a new maturity. Both albums from this
model – ‘Grave Disorder’ and ‘So Who’s Paranoid’ - distil the essence of
The Damned: restless energy, panoramic band dynamics, an ear for a well
turned tune and glowing musicianship
When ‘New Rose’ was despatched in October 76 it was free of any
situationist sloganeering, art school concepts or pseudo-intellectual agendas.
The Damned were the most raw-rooted of the first-wave bands – a twofisted blitz of pure punk power. Not only did they shatter most of the firstpast-the-post statistics - but today, they remain the last of the ‘Class of 76’
still standing.
Almost unbelievably for a unit whose base build was anarchy, chaos and
destruction - all of the key people and past members of The Damned are
still alive and kicking (if not gigging). Although only the polar
components remain in play: the Captain and Vanian - the light and shade
of The Damned - doing what they’ve always done - but doing it with
more proficiency than ever. Defining and refining the legacy of The
Damned and driving it forward with punk’s original push-ahead ethics
into a future of new possibilities.
The original Damned line-up had
crossed paths in various bands - but
do you remember the first rehearsal
with Dave?
“Rehearsing has never been The
Damned’s strongest point and I
remember acquiring the nickname
‘Eats’ owing to the fact that I was
always slipping off to the nearest café
for a quick sandwich or whatever when
the others weren’t looking. As for Mr
Vanian, he would disappear himself
when we practiced at that church down
Lisson Grove... And we’d invariably
find him attempting to start up the huge
old pipe organ belonging to the place. It was in a fair old state of disrepair
but he did manage to get the thing groaning and wheezing away in a dark
and mysterious fashion one day that made me think ‘Hmm, this bloke’s got
some interesting ideas’ which we now know he did, but we had to wait until
phase two of the band before he let rip with them, in part helping create the
whole Goth thing.”
For the first few gigs you were quite static - what made you become the
animated chap we know now?
“Yes, it suddenly dawned on me one day that BJ and Ratty were not going to
accept being outshone by the frontman if they could possibly help it - they
were getting their faces in the papers rather more than yours truly, that’s for
sure. I guess it was at that point I turned up the charisma a notch or two possibly in a vain attempt at impressing the ladies.”
You seemed to play short scale basses at the time - was this due to be
being a guitarist, and was the violin one a nod to Macca?
“I had played guitar in Genetic Breakdown (which became the Johnny
Moped band) before being impressed enough with Brian’s revolutionary
music concept that I converted to bass. As I was used to the shorter scale of
a guitar, less unwieldy viola basses and Fender Mustangs appealed to me
more. No disrespect to Paul McCartney, who’s a staunch veggie and decent
“ I nearly did my wrist in on a Precision once - which is
possibly some kind of commendation for Fender’s
roadworthiness: ‘As approved by Captain Sensible virtually impossible to destroy!’”
chap by all accounts, but my use of those ‘Beatle’ basses had nothing to do
with him - they were simply a lot easier to smash to pieces than a Fender
bass, which are more serious slabs of solid wood! I nearly did my wrist in on
a Precision once - which is possibly some kind of commendation for
Fender’s roadworthiness: ‘As approved by Captain Sensible - virtually
impossible to destroy!’ I’m willing to bet that Paul Simonon regretted that
almighty swing he took at the stage with his, as captured on the cover of
‘London Calling’. Arm in a sling for a week or so I reckon.”
At the time of the Anarchy Tour, The Damned were probably a bigger
draw than the Pistols or The Clash - were you invited along to pull in
the punters?
“Pretty much. Malcolm wasn’t shifting many tickets for his Anarchy Tour
until the Pistols/Bill Grundy episode, after which they were front page news
and he didn’t need us anymore. We had an unpleasant surprise when the
decision reached us in our low budget B&B a mile or so from the venue.
We’d been as excited as anyone about the tour and in particular working
with our chums in the other bands, not to mention Johnny Thunders, who
was already a legend because of his work with the Dolls. It’s said that The
Damned were prepared to audition before local councillors or something but
I have to say that nobody asked the band that question - and I know what I’d
have said if they had - and it would have been fairly rude.”
Publicity wise - there seemed to be a dumbing down around the Stiffera (The Damned only know three chords etc.) was this deliberate and
was it frustrating when you actually more musically proficient than
most of your peers?
“Well, when I met Brian for the first time while he was recruiting for
Damned members there was no talk of going backwards musically. In fact
amongst the Stooges and New York Dolls records in his collection were
albums by John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I was into Soft Machine and The
Groundhogs and thought we should be pushing the boundaries musically so
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In amongst the jangle-pop and punk of ‘Strawberries’ there are
some deliberate political points - Thatcher, Reagan and animal
rights – something you’ve maintained since. What made you go
public on politics?
“Politics is too important to leave to a bunch of corrupt, career
politicians on the make. How unedifying is it watching them jump on
the gravy train one by one after they leave office… A nice fat cat
directorship maybe, for services to the same corporation they gave an
easy ride to when in government.”
The Damned in New York in 1978
Marco Pirroni (of The Ants/Wolfmen fame) told me you once
covered his guitar in mustard. Barry Cain (Record Mirror) said
you set him on fire. Are there any incidents that you think ‘I wish I
hadn’t done that’?
“Yes, those sort of things frequently happened in the ‘Chaos Years’ - I
apologized to Marco recently at some punk reunion organized by a foreign
music mag. By the way, he still has a remarkable ear for a tune, which
explains his new band The Wolfmen.
“Any regrets though? I think we might have occasionally wrecked a hotel
that didn’t fully deserve it. I mean - if the staff are arsy snob types giving it
the old Captain Peacock routine then sure, let them have it with both barrels
- something we were quite adept at - but if they’re a decent bunch in some
family run place then maybe, yes, we occasionally disrupted the lives of the
wrong people. If I could go back in time I’d replace the broken windows
myself. Ahem.”
didn’t really get Jake’s ‘Back to three chords’ ads, although I could see it
was a catchy line in tune with the primitive ‘caveman’ rock vibe that some
journos were attaching to the punk scene. It certainly put some clear blue
water between us and the likes of Genesis and ELP.
“Everyone in the bands I knew were trying to create something special and
relevant to the times - despite a lack of formal training or the royal college of
music education that some of these rock stars of the ‘70s had had. The big
difference between us and those guys though was that we weren’t about to
start singing songs about wizards, pixies and astral travelling.”
‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ saw a new line-up and a new label but the
band had lost their songwriter in residence - no pressure there then. But
you managed to score some hit singles. How did the songwriting process
“We suddenly had to become songwriters overnight. But me, Rat and
Dave had had a bit of practice, having all been involved with outside
projects for a few months. I can’t speak for the others, who all came up
with the goods in their own way, but I’ll have to admit that I was
definitely scratching around for inspiration for a while until I was
messing around with my Akai tape recorder one day, playing a selection
of favourite songs and TV commercials at various speeds. But it was
when I turned the tape round the other way and played the compilation
backwards that I realised that I was listening to a selection of great
melodies that nobody had ever heard before. I thought ‘Crank up to
double speed, rearrange with thrashing drums and loud guitars and here’s
a cracking bunch of kick ass tunes’ - and all ready to help contend with
the ‘difficult’ third album situation we found ourselves with.
“You couldn’t do this today as advertisements these days are bereft of any
discernible melody but go back to the ‘70s and the likes of Cadbury’s Flake,
Weetabix and Shake ‘N’ Vac were naggingly catchy, virtually undislodgeable from the poor old brain once heard.
“Do I have any shame about taking this route for my first excursion into
songwriting? Not really. I thought it a typically creative and punk answer to
an enforced but definitely surmountable dilemma.”
It took The Beatles several albums and unlimited Abbey Road access
before experimenting in the studio. The Mark 2 line up of The Damned
did it from the off with ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’, peppering it with
surrealist /Python moments and sounds. Where did you get the ideas
and inspiration from?
“Monty Python of course, The Goons, Vivian Stanshall and the Carry On
crowd were everywhere when I was growing up so you were never short of
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the odd catch phrase to throw into the conversation if things are getting a bit
dull. I remember us all going into shops and rambling on nonsensically
about nothing in particular to see how long it took the proprietor to catch on
to the fact that we were pulling his plonker.
“The studio experiments were another matter entirely and we certainly used
to get the engineer working. If they thought it would be easy recording us as
we were ‘just a punk band’ they usually had another thing coming.
Backwards recording, tape phasing, using the grand piano as a reverb
chamber, recording thunderstorms, doing vocals in the bathroom for the
acoustics, re-miking using the Hammond speaker, mad ‘all hands on the
desk’ mixes… It kept them on their toes alright.
“On the previous album we’d asked Syd Barrett to produce for a totally
psych punk vibe but ended up with the Floyd drummer instead as Syd was
not up to it. Nick Mason is a nice enough chap but wasn’t particularly
cosmic. He actually made us sound ‘nice’ which wasn’t really the point. I
wish we could have got Nick Lowe to work his magic on the second album.
“Anyway, after that experience we were champing at the bit to go on a
musical adventure of some sort which became ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’, so
titled after a quote from a review of one of our shows. As in ‘They played
with a kind of....’”
Expanding on the ‘MGE’ template, ‘The Black Album’ is
widescreen listening that no one else (certainly punk bands) was
doing then - and is almost a template for the ‘80s psych revival and
Goth. Were you deliberately distancing yourself from Oi and
contemporary punk of the time or was this an album that evolved
in the studio?
“No, it wasn’t contrived as an answer to Gaz Bushell’s Oi thing. I think we
were just listening a little too much to the Stones’ ‘Satanic Majesties’ album.
It’s just so dark, moody and malevolent. I don’t care if they are embarrassed
by it – we considered it a work of genius and I used it as a template of some
sort for production and arrangement ideas.
“’Lively Arts’ and ‘13th Floor Vendetta’ are good examples of where that
philosophy took us. It’s all in there: backwards, strange effects, the lot. And
it still sounds great to me and hasn’t aged at all. Unlike the band!”
Live, the band have always had plenty of banter with crowds…
“I like the punk band/audience relationship. Just because you twang a
guitar for a living doesn’t make you any better a human being than
anyone else. The audience have paid for their tickets and if they have
something they want to say then I want to hear it. Even it is derogatory to
my good self, which it often is….”
How did you pick up on punk and the
developing scene?
“There wasn’t one when The Damned,
started - there was just us. Bernie Rhodes
and Malcolm McLaren were working
together and Malcolm had just about put
the Sex Pistols together. Mick Jones and
Tony James had somehow got involved
with Bernie, and they were trying to put a
band together. Brian James joined up with
them and they were looking for a
drummer and a singer – forever - and they
couldn’t really find anyone. Then I turned
up and Brian said he wanted me to join
the band. Tony wasn’t all that keen - he didn’t like my haircut.
Me and Brian went off and put The Damned together - then a bit later it got
the name punk. Really, the whole thing about playing fast songs was what I
liked. I only really liked playing fast songs. In fact I got thrown out of bands
for not wanting to do soppy covers...”
How did you feel about Stiff’s dumbing down of The Damned when you
were proficient than most of your peers?
“We were accused of playing badly on purpose - and that we were all supergreat musicians - but that’s not at all true. The people that were regarded as
good musicians in 1975 were the Eagles and Little Feat. It was all very prog,
there was Gentle Giant and ELP and those kinds of bands that were all really
“We were accused of playing badly on purpose and that we were all super-great musicians - but
that’s not at all true.”
up on the technical playing. And we turned up and were regarded by that
generation as being rubbish because we couldn’t do all that stuff.
“People forget punk didn’t change things overnight - it’s taken thirty years.
Punk was regarded as throwaway disposable garbage that didn’t really
belong in the mainstream of music. You can hear the influence and speed of
The Damned in US bands like The Dead Kennedys. The Damned were fast.
And we liked being fast. We had a lot of energy to burn off.”
Sid Vicious and Dave Vanian were both invited to audition weren’t they?
“England was a very grey and gloomy place back then and very few
people had punk style. Most people were in loon pants or Status Quo Tshirts. And when we’d go to see the Pistols, there’d be half a dozen
people from Malcolm’s shop and a few of The Bromley Contingent. Not
many people looked good and when Dave walked in, Brian saw him and
went ‘Wow, who’s that guy?’ so we said ‘Come on down on Saturday,
we’re rehearsing, see what you think’. And then the same night Sid
walked in, and he looked really good as well - so we threw the same
question at him.
The near perfect big five from the Damned.
February 1977
The incendiary first ever U.K punk album with
songs like ‘Neat Neat Neat’ and ‘Stab Your Back’
that killed the careers of Yes and Emerson, Lake
and Palmer stone dead. ‘Damned Damned
Damned’ was mainly Brian James’s atomic riffs
stealing the show and setting up the band’s
legendary status. With ‘New Rose’s intro of “Is she really going out with him”
nicked from the Shangri Las, this Nick Lowe-produced debut is near faultless.
November 1977
The difficult second album that followed hot on
the heels of their debut nine months earlier, ‘MFP’
flopped and failed to make the UK Top 100 and
was first album to include additional guitarist Lu
Edmonds. However this Nick Mason (Pink Floyd)produced record contains worthy additions to the
Damned’s cannon including the single ‘Problem Child’, ‘Don’t Cry Wolf’,
‘Stretcher Case Baby’ and the quite brilliant ‘Alone’ hinting at their Goth tinged
future. Apparently the band are not fans!
November 1979
Considered by many to be the greatest punk
album ever, ‘MGE’ was the Damned crawling out
of the wreckage of Brian James’s departure and
Captain Sensible taking over guitar, with former
Saints bassist Algy Ward joining the chaos.
Twelve tracks combining ferocious punk,
psychedelia, pop and demented musings, this album broke all the rules and is a
true classic with hit singles ‘Love Song’ and ‘Smash It Up’ joined by the likes of
‘Melody Lee’, their exceptional cover of the MC5’s ‘Looking At You’ and their
proto goth epic ‘Plan 9 Channel 7’ round out a legendary classic. Hey man,
what’s happening!
October 1980
With former Hot Rod Paul Gray now on bass and
riding high on the success of ‘MGE’, The Damned
went into Wales’ Rockfield studios and selfproduced this double vinyl album whose cover
was a “go at the Beatles’ ‘White Album’” as
Scabies has said. Side one and two contained
eleven tracks including punk/goth numbers ‘Wait For The Blackout’ and ‘13th
Floor Vendetta’, the Captain Sensible-sung British pop of ‘Silly Kids’ Games’ and
the grooved-up punk of ‘Drinking About My Baby’, side three featured the
seventeen-minute epic ‘Curtain Call’ with side four containing a live set of classics
recorded at Shepperton studios. A hugely grandiose, experimental success.
October 1982
Now on Bronze Records and with Roman Jugg
adding keyboard solos, the Damned kept
pushing their boundaries even further with their
fifth album, the lavish sounding ‘Strawberries’.
Aside from opening track ‘Ignite’, much of the
punk elements were gone, replaced with complex
arrangements and harmonies. Singles ‘Generals’ and ‘Dozen Girls’ did
well while songs like ‘Stranger On The Town’ and ‘Under The Floor Again’
are brilliant pieces of latter day Damned. The last album from the classic
line-up and an admirable record that showed the band at the height of
their creativity.
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You worked together later for ‘Sid Sods Off’.
“That was his farewell to England. He was moving to America and he
needed some money to get out there. Not only that - I think the point was
that there’d been a bit of public animosity about Glen and him and there
were quite a few rumours flying. I think Glen made a point of doing it to
let everyone know him and Sid were mates and there wasn’t any bad
feeling about Glen leaving the Pistols and Sid joining.”
The present-day lineup of The Damned
Would you say being a drummer gives you a different temperament
from other musicians?
“I don’t call myself a musician - I call myself a drummer. I don’t do
notes, I don’t do melodies, I don’t do scales - what I do is time. Set time
for the band to play to, that’s my job.”
Who do you rate from the classic drummers?
“I used to go and watch Ginger Baker play quite a lot, but at the time I
never used to rate Bonham much. What he did was so kind of
unacceptable - so simple. Everybody else was trying to be busy and fill
everything up and there was this bloke who was ‘I’m not gonna do that.
I’m gonna sit on this and let the band do the work’ so it was only much
later on I realised how brilliant it was what he was doing.”
As first time songwriters for ‘MGE’, how did you work the songs up?
“A number of ways really. My part was I could never play the guitar
properly - everything I wrote you could either play it on two strings or it
was just one chord (laughs) that moved up and down the frets for the
changes. Nine times out of ten, one of us would have a couple of ideas and I’d sit down with the Captain and he’d say ‘I like that’ and ‘I’ve got
this section I need to do something with, maybe we can tie them
together’. That’s why there’s a drum roll in the middle of ‘Smash It Up’ not because everybody thought I should be featured - it was the only way
we could link up the two pieces of music.”
‘The Black Album’ was self written and produced - for a band
doing ‘anarchy, chaos and destruction’ there must have been
some self-discipline…
“If you’ve got a piece of music that’s got some gravity - like ‘Curtain Call’,
you don’t want to have laughter on that. You realise it’s a work that does
have a lot of substance and structure and you just don’t treat that piece like
that as opposed to ‘Melody Lee’ or ‘Dozen Girls’, which you can have a bit
of fun with. So really it was always dictated by the notes and the way the
mood came over. Plus we were doing it and it was new for us. This was
experimental. This was a band that hadn’t really written that many songs and weren’t really used to it so, when it came to putting it together we took
quite a lot of care - because we weren’t on certain ground. We knew that is
wasn’t punk in terms of - it wasn’t the three minute song that just had a lot
of guitar on it - it was big and epic and went to other places.”
This year marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of
punk’s first single ‘New Rose’. Jump back thirty
five years before this and you’d land in 1941, a
ration book landscape where Elvis is eleven,
Lennon a short-trousered schoolboy and Bowie
still a sparkle in his father’s stardust. Its author,
Brian James, remembers…
Was ‘New Rose’ something you’d written before forming The Damned?
I’d had part of the song for a while, and had even been jamming it with my earlier
band Bastard, who were into The MC5, The Stooges and The Pretty Things, but it
was when I played the riff with Rat - who drummed like no one else I’d ever played
with, that the energy of Rat’s drumming and his style fitted the riff so well that the
song came together and was created out of that moment.”
How did Stiff pick up on the song?
Jake Riviera signed us after seeing The Damned at Mont De Marsan on the strength
of ‘New Rose’ and saw it as a single straight away even though Captain wanted ‘I
Fall’ as the first single.”
Did you demo it first?
There’s no demo for it - we didn’t really bother with things like it - we just went
straight in the studio and recorded it.”
Is there a real life Rose?
No, it’s not about a girl, it’s really about what was happening at that time, the speed
and the energy of the movement. The Damned were always about the energy.”
54 vivelerock.net
You seemed quite punkfriendly while you a Hot
Rodder even wearing a ‘Punk’
slogan T-shirt on Top Of The
Pops in ‘76. What was the
appeal for you?
“I liked the design of the T-shirt.
There was an awful lot of the
British punk I didn’t like, but
punk went back to the ‘60s with
all the garage bands, ‘Nuggets’
and all of that. The appeal was
the naivety of the songs and
recordings, and of course Patti
Smith and the Dolls were being
called punk long before it hit the UK.”
Eugene Butcher talks to Chiswick Records founder and Damned producer
Roger Armstrong.
You’d crossed paths with The Damned when you were in Eddie and
the Hot Rods - what was your take on them before joining and did
it change once you were in the line-up? What musical influences
would you say you and other members brought to The Damned?
“Captain and I were really melody merchants and shared a mutual
appreciation of ABBA. I can remember playing ABBA stuff backwards
on our Portastudios and finding all these weird melodies to nick. Dave
was obviously into the more filmic stuff that crossed over with the
three of us sharing a love of ‘60s stuff. And Rat and I were well into
‘Live At Leeds’ and the MC5, so it gave it that anything-could-happen
edge - quite a heady mix when you put it all together.”
The albums still sound fresh today. They haven’t dated and sound
timeless - if not better than ever.
“We were quite lucky we had some good people working with us in the
studio - we were too inexperienced for anybody to give us the reigns but
we did always work with people that kinda knew what they were doing
and when we would discuss, throw a wobbler or have a fit of pique about
something we always got a result. We were quite happy - not really coproducing, but we only worked with people we knew we could
manipulate (laughs)!”
Some of the experimentation was unknown territory. Were you
distancing yourself from the Oi/punk crowd?
“We didn’t really like any of that anyway. By the time of The Exploited,
every group sounded like Discharge. You know, it was all mohicans and
studded leather jackets. I thought it had become a uniform and in order to
try and get rid of one type of society, we’d actually created one that was
even harder to join than the one we were trying to get rid of.
“The punk thing, in ‘75/76’, had a very mod mentality - you wouldn’t wear
the same clothes as Johnny Rotten or The Stranglers or any of the other
bands that were around. It was very important to have your own identity that was everything. So it became a bit disillusioning when everybody put
on the same cartoon clothes and it became that uniform. It wasn’t the point.”
With ‘Phantasmagoria’ being on a major label, who did the
grooming? Was it band decision or the label?
“It was a conscious decision. For me, we were losing the Captain rapidly,
and Roman had been playing keyboards for us – and he was a guitarist as
well. We did the Young Ones and we went and did the whole thing, they
put all the pale powder on and everybody was wearing Gothy clothes I
just looked at it and thought ‘Really, Dave’s the singer - it’s about time it
was the singer’s band’. There were a couple of other things going on in
the background as well - we were having trouble finding a deal because
of the Captain’s situation - being number one and ‘Happy Talk’. They felt
that it wasn’t doing Dave any good, having to kind of compete with him
onstage. And when we did the Young Ones I looked at us standing there
in make up and thought ‘Really, we should just start selling Dave by the
pound’. Roman and I had already started working on some songs –
‘Shadow Of Love’ and we were putting ‘Grimly Fiendish’ together - stuff
that a had a pop sensibility.
“It wasn’t a conscious thing to be commercial, we just didn’t have that
punk anger going on anymore. We’d been through the experimental stage
- we’d done ‘The Black Album’ and this gave us a massive scope to really
go off in any direction and do we want. The one thing we hadn’t done
was made some very commercial three-minute pop singles. Not that I
think we over-did that either, because take the singles out and the rest of
the album has got definite light and shade and character to it. It’s got
humour - and I thought it was a different kind of Damned album; it was
still a Damned album - I didn’t think we’d lost our identity.”
“Captain and I were really melody merchants and
shared a mutual appreciation of ABBA. I can remember
playing ABBA stuff backwards on our Portastudios and
finding all these weird melodies to nick.”
Far from being ‘another bass player’, you were a core part of the
team and a contributing songwriter. Were they receptive to your
ideas and input?
“They were, and they were all great. Nothing was worked out in
advance, one of us would come up with something and we’d all dive
straight in with our respective styles. ‘The Black Album’ especially
was a hugely creative time and there were no boundaries - we were
beholden to no one but ourselves, so anything was fair game.
“My bass playing just seemed to fit right in with Rat’s and Captain’s
style, and Dave was a great singer to play off too - I’ve never traded
off another singer melodically like him, he provided me with a lot of
possibilities to bounce of his style of singing. And I’ve said it before
and I’ll say it again: I’ve never played with a better guitarist or
tunesmith than Captain either.”
‘The Pleasure And The Pain’, ‘Generals’ and ‘Hit Or Miss’ are all
great tracks. Did you bring in any songs that were bounced by the
band? Or did you have any plans for a solo album?
“Yeah, plenty were ditched! A bass player solo album? I think not,
although Bronze Records had this mad idea to have me managed
by Mick Green from the Pirates for some sort of solo project. I did
go to his gaff in Essex for the crack and not a Telecaster to be
seen. I was a bit gutted, especially when he suggested putting me
with some rockabilly guitarist he was managing... So that was the
end of that!”
As a bass player how easy was it to lock in with Rat’s rhythms
and style? On ‘Strawberries’ you’ve got separate writing credits
- why is this?
“Erm, ask Rat. I remember stepping off a plane at Gatwick from
holiday and buying the NME and reading that I’d been sacked. I was
bit surprised about this as you would imagine. It so happened that the
rest of the band knew nothing about it. As far as I’m aware they didn’t
know anything about the change in writing credits either...”
You produced ‘Machine Gun Etiquette’. Were you surprised at the range of ideas
that the band came out with?
“They obviously showed other sides and generally people agree that it was them at
their peak. Captain moved to guitar from bass. That was the big change - that was the
most important thing. The man is an absolute genius. I remember him saying to me
once, ‘Roger, why don’t people take me seriously as a guitar player?’ and I said,
‘Captain, it’s probably because you end up bollock naked on the edge of the stage
and people find that hard to equate that with the fact that you’re an amazing player’.
Captain would sit for hours and play guitar lines on top of each other. Those great
arrangements and the band themselves rising to the occasion were what made it.”
It’s a total classic...
“It was an amazing thing to make - it was quite intense. We knew earlier on the
material was amazing. I sent them back home to Croydon to a studio for weeks on
end and they’d keep banging away and kept bringing me stuff on the weekend and
I’d send it back and they’d work on it. Dave [Vanian], being the mystic man, just came
out of the blue with some incredible work, like the bit on ‘Plan 9 Channel 7’ where he
does the sort of wailing. Dave turned up at Wessex Studios and said, ‘I’ve got an idea
for ‘Plan 9…’ for the end’. We put the reel on, wound it forward to where he wanted it
and I hit record. He just went straight into that wailing thing. And then he left.
Everyone just sat there and was like, ‘what was that?’”
What was it like having the Damned on Chiswick Records and who was the worst
“They all had their moments. No, Dave was fine. If things got too out of order actually,
Dave was the one who snapped them back in. Even though Captain and Rat are big
guys, Dave just stood up and told people to behave themselves. You didn’t argue with
Dave. He was hard as nails. Algy [Ward] and Paul [Gray] were fine, they just liked to
mess around. Captain and Rat [Scabies] liked drinks and joke playing. Rat is one of
the funniest men I’ve ever worked with - he could just have the entire studio in stitches.
If he hadn’t been the drummer in a punk rock band he could have been a stand-up
comedian. He was so funny and outrageous.”
How did the Damned and Motorhead end up recording those couple of songs
[‘Ballroom Blitz’ and ‘Over The Top’] together as Motordamn?
“I think it was Ted [Carroll] and Doug Smith, who managed Motorhead and managed
both bands, for his sins, and the idea was probably cooked up over a couple of bottles
of wine in a restaurant. It was a Sunday and we went into Wessex to do it, and it was
a very messy session. At one stage I was ready to give up. It was Lemmy, bless him,
who got me through it and said, ‘no, no, we can do it’. [‘Fast’] Eddie [Clarke] and
Captain didn’t exactly rub each other up well. Eddie was really an old-fashioned rock
guitarist and that was it. He couldn’t get ‘Ballroom Blitz’, where his role was just to
play along with the chords. Captain found a big piece of cardboard somewhere and
marched through the studio with the chords for ‘Ballroom Blitz’ written on it. Eddie
thought that was taking the piss, threw down his guitar and stormed out. Phil [‘Philthy
Animal’ Taylor] collapsed by the end of ‘Over The Top’; I think he’d imbibed a bit
much. I think there’s a take of ‘Ballroom Blitz’ with both drummers on it. ‘Over The Top’
is both bands playing simultaneously. Lemmy sang ‘Over The Top’ because there was
no room for Dave on that one - I think he banged a tambourine or something. It was a
very chaotic and drunken day. At the end of the day we got billed heavily for the
studio costs because of damage. They’d broken into the bar area. Putting those two
bands in the studio together and what do you expect?”
What Damned album are you most proud of?
“‘Machine Gun Etiquette’ was a great piece of work but I’d say ‘The Black Album’,
which I believe they’re touring. They did that themselves, they’d matured enough by
then. The band did the album in the country. All I’d do was drive there and keep an
eye on it every so often. At the end of the sessions I arrived and there was smashed
bottles and broken windows and Rat comes over with a long face and says, ‘it’s
terrible, Captain’s completely gone off his rocker, Paul and Captain are arguing’. In the
studio Captain was playing out of tune piano and Paul looked drunk. So I’m panicking
and asking what they’ve got out of this and what they’ve done with the money. This
goes on for fifteen to twenty minutes then Rat can’t contain himself anymore. I’d been
had - it was something they’d all set up. That was typical Rat. Paul and Captain were
laughing their heads off at me.”
Below: The Doomed (the Damned with Lemmy on bass) in 1978
If there hadn’t been the tensions during ‘Strawberries’ how much
longer had you planned to stay with the band and would you have
taken UFO’s offer if things had been better at Damned HQ?
“Well, I’d probably still be with ‘em. UFO was a great and entirely
different experience but nothing beats The Damned.” VLR
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