The Damned are the premier veterans of the original punk movement. They were the first band to put that energy to wax in the UK back in October 1976. Now 42 years later, they have a new album, Evil Spirits, and they have been touring relentlessly in support of it. Vocalist David Vanian and guitarist Captain Sensible are still keeping the flame lit along with long time keyboardist and masterful dancer Monty Oxymoron, drummer Pinch and for the American leg of the tour, they are joined by bass player Jon Priestly. On the latest platter, the bass duties were performed by returning bassist Paul Gray, who also performs with the band on their U.K. dates. He was in the band from 1980 – 83 when he contributed to the classics, The Black Album and Strawberries, then playing occasional “reunion” y\tours with the gang.
Captain Sensible took some time out a few weeks back while on tour to briefly chat with me about the tour, album and their longevity…
The shows since kicking off the US tour pull a lot of songs from The Black Album. Was that a conscious decision? Will more songs from Evil Spirits be added to the set?
I don’t know myself – we don’t make plans… This is The Damned we are talking about. It’s a roller coaster ride.
It’s hard to believe this is only your 11th studio album after 42 years. Do you see more in the future?
Punk was only supposed to last a year or so but The Damned have just finished an extensive world tour. How mad is that? 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.
What was your reaction when you found out it made the UK Top 10 albums?
Very strange but I enjoyed every minute. I’m just happy to still be doing it. I never look at us in any pecking order or anything like that. The only thing that would be nice would be if we could get catering on tour. When we toured with Motorhead they had a chef, it was bloody magnificent. You’d wander in at lunchtime and there’d be soup or something and Lemmy would be sitting in his room which you’d find by just following the trail of smoke and there he’d be with a can of Special Brew on the go. That’s the way to do it.
Photo by Michael Mitchell
How did it come to pass that you worked with Tony Visconti?
He was well aware of us and wondered why we’d never asked him before, which made us laugh. Having Tony produce made sense on every level. We wanted to avoid the modern trend for maximizing, quantizing, correcting, auto-tuning—basically cheating in the studio, courtesy of those insidious Pro Tools plug ins. We preferred to bash it out in a room together as a band, blasting out each track until it got Tony’s nod of approval. Although a decent bloke, he could be pretty tough—especially on the vocals. Well, he has worked with Bowie and Bolan, I guess.
I was particularly impressed by the way Tony wanted the emotion of the lyrics to be featured, so in “Sonar Deceit,” when there was a line about whales throwing themselves onto beaches to escape, what could it be? Anyway, he had Dave (Vanian) reflect the anger of that lyric. It was a great moment. We recorded it old-school style, all together in a room on top of each other with the amps cranked up. There’s is a grungy, garage vibe to it but the melodies soar over it all nicely.
Did you find it easy writing and recording after a ten year absence from the studio?
It had the feeling of being a first album again… So much has changed studio-wise since our last one… and not all for the better, so we made sure we recorded old school style – which was the idea with asking Tony Visconti, who knows a thing or two about “keeping it real.”
I read that there were something like 20 tracks ins some state or other from the sessions. What will become of the leftovers?
Any of my tunes that are rejected may well form the backbone of a new Sensible record – which was how my solo career got started in the first place.
One of the big questions floating about online is the absence of Paul Gray on this tour. Where is he?
Much as we loved Stu, and there was absolutely no falling out whatsoever, I don’t actually know why he quit. He’s actually in here somewhere, I think he’s gone to the pub with Pinch at the moment.
As a bass player, I was probably fourth or fifth in The Damned, I wasn’t much of a bass player. Paul is very much Number One, well, with Algy as well. They’re both immense bass players. But if I was a bass player now, I would just stand and watch what Paul does as it’s like a masterclass in bass technique. He uses the whole neck and I have to laugh as in most bands, when the guitar player is standing at the front doing a solo, the bass player is usually at the back of the stage but not him. He’ll be up there all over the pace, soloing as well. It’s an amazing technique he has.
Photo by Michael Mitchell
What do you think the key to your longevity is?
The difference I think, is that we are a band first and foremost. Musically, the band itself are good players. While we all had kind of a wild streak through us, everything was rooted in good music. Each member brought in influences of our own.
You’re known as a punk band but you’ve not really been punk since the end of the 70’s. Where do you think you fit in today?
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?
We were living that punk rock ethos, doing it yourself, making it yourself – screw it if no one liked it. The Clash were doing it for the politics, the Pistols for the anarchy, whereas, with possibly more honesty than absolutely necessary, we always said we wanted the cash. Loads of the stuff. So basically, unless we do gigs, we starve – that’s why we are back out on the road again. But what’s better than cavorting about onstage in front of a cranked amp anyway?
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.
Feature photo and interview by Michael Michell
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