They have the dubious distinction of being the third, fourth, or fifth most notable band to emerge from the British punk explosion of 1976. After the Sex Pistols and the Clash, and possibly somewhere between the Buzzcocks and the Jam, there was the Damned.
The Damned were the first British punk band to put out a single — “New Rose,” in October ’76 — and the first punk band to issue a full album with Damned Damned Damned in February ’77, before the Pistols and the Clash. And unlike the Pistols and the Clash, the Damned members are all still here to tell their tale. When we catch up with a couple of them, they’re on a train traveling from San Diego for a gig that’s part of the kickoff for their 40th anniversary tour, which resumes again in the U.S. on April 6 in Los Angeles.
While enjoying the ride, the Damned’s two original active members, singer Dave Vanian and guitarist Captain Sensible, are in reflective moods while being looked after by Andrew “Pinch” Pinching, the band’s drummer/road manager, who’s been sitting in for original drummer Rat Scabies since 1999. (The rest of the current touring unit includes bassist Stu West and keyboardist Monty Oxymoron). “I cast myself as the adult babysitter,” Pinch quips. “They’re a bunch of slippery fish, that’s for sure,” he adds, before handing the phone over to Vanian.
The frontman, who favored all black clothes and a vampire look before “Goth” was actually a thing, finds it a bit mind-blowing that the Damned still exist, 40 years later. “I never thought it would happen,” he admits, “but there you go. Here we are.”
“It doesn’t make any sense does it?” Captain says. “I thought it wouldn’t last three or four weeks, let alone 40 years — but I’m not complaining, because I used to be a toilet cleaner and I know what s*** jobs are like.”
Along with their tour, which has also hit the U.K., Japan, Australia, and New Zealand, the Damned are planning to record a new album later this year, their first since 2008’s So, Who’s Paranoid?
While the Damned have survived lineup changes and evolved to explore different musical styles over the years, for some reason they’ve never enjoyed the notoriety of some of their U.K. punk peers. “Unlucky, I guess,” Vanian says. “The Pistols were known for swearing on a TV show [Today, hosted by Bill Grundy]; that really pushed them worldwide more than anything. They weren’t pulling large crowds at that time. The Anarchy for the U.K. tour, we were banned from the bill, after the Grundy TV show.
“We were kind of the outsiders. We were with a small label. Stiff [Records] were great with ideas and everything, but they could only go so far [with promotion]. All the other bands signed with major record labels. [Stiff] were too small to do anything. [The other bands] had a huge machine behind them. We had a couple of guys. There was a big difference. It was very difficult to compete at the same level.”
As for Captain’s take, he says, “I don’t know. Not for me to decide, really. I’m just happy to be doing it.” But then he adds, “Probably because they had more success than we did. I’m not knocking them… The British punk scene, it was a class-divided society in Britain at the time, and punk rock was 50 percent trying to make music that we wanted to hear, because nobody was doing it at the time. [Rock music back then] was all songs about pixies and wizards and 20-minute drum solos, stuff like that.”
The motivation was twofold. “The start of the punk scene was making music we wanted to hear, so we had to do it ourselves,” Captain reiterates. “The other part was trying to get your way out of the life you would be living on the bottom rung of the ladder, which wasn’t very appealing.”
Another difference between the Damned and some of their peers was they didn’t necessarily dismiss the past. They covered the Beatles’ “Help” on the B-side of “New Rose,” and later recorded versions of the Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” and Arthur Lee and Love’s “Alone Again Or.” Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason even produced the band’s second album, 1977’s Music for Pleasure, after the group’s first choice, Floyd acid casualty Syd Barrett, was unavailable.
“Some people thought that U.K. punk rock, year zero, 1976-77, should be the start, and everything before was total nonsense and total rubbish and should be thrown in the dustbin. But I didn’t ascribe to that,” Captain says. “When the guy from Stiff Records said, ‘You’ve got a journalist coming around. Hide your Jimi Hendrix albums,’ I thought that that was kind of wrong. Sure there was some really bad music in the mid-’70s. There was some really tedious, ridiculous prog-rock. Yes and Genesis spring to mind. Just stupid songs, you couldn’t relate to the lyrics. Songs about wizards. But there was also some absolutely brilliant music, you know. I wasn’t going to hide my ELO or Hendrix albums and stuff like that.”
Another difference was the Damned were actually accomplished musicians and Vanian could actually sing — elements that would come in handy when the band’s music evolved beyond punk in the ’80s. “We can play,” Captain insists. “The funny thing that always makes me laugh is that I worked hard as a cleaner and I did a lot of extra hours so I could buy a really nice guitar and would practice a couple of hours a day. I was really learning how to play solos, and then punk rock came along and didn’t have to play solos; you’d just get onstage and play three chords and the verse and scowl a bit.”
Still, Captain doesn’t discount the Damned’s early material, written by original guitarist Brian James, who would later join Stiv Bators in the Lords of the New Church. “I wouldn’t have played bass for anyone else, but Brian was a visionary,” says Captain, explaining why he originally played bass in the Damned before shifting to guitar following the departure of James in 1978. “He told me his ideas and played me ‘New Rose’ and a couple of other songs, and I thought, ‘Wow. This guy is all right.’ He said, ‘There’s something dramatic coming around the corner. Music can’t stay the way it is; it’s gonna change and we’re going to be the ones to do it.’ And I thought, ‘Wow, yeah, I want to be part of that.’ And he was right.”
Over the years, the revolving-door Damned lineup has included such notables as drummer Jon Moss (back in 1978, long before he joined the Culture Club), Motorhead’s Lemmy Kilmister on bass, current Public Image Ltd guitarist Lu Edmonds, and bassist Patricia Morrison, who has also played in the Bags, the Gun Club, and the Sisters of Mercy, (Morrison later married and had a daughter with Vanian.) When Captain Sensible went solo for a stretch in mid-’80s. Vanian became the focal point as the band shifted into a mix of Goth and psychedelia and had alt-rock hits with covers of Barry Ryan’s “Eloise” and Love’s “Alone Again Or.” With a new deal with MCA Records, it appeared the Damned might finally be primed for a commercial breakthrough, but it wasn’t to be.
“We came over in the ’80s and they didn’t do any promotion for us,” Vanian recalls. “It was all for Charlie Sexton’s new album. They came to see us one night and realized they made a mistake, but it was too late. We were going back to England. We missed out on a few chances here and there. It was a mixture of bad luck, bad choices, and the band imploded as well. It happens. Every generation of bands has amazing bands that didn’t make it quite to the absolute top — although we were right there, creating at the beginning.”
The Damned’s influence has been acknowledged by several notable acts that have covered their songs over the years, including Guns N’ Roses, who released their version of “New Rose” in 1993 on The Spaghetti Incident?, and the Offspring, who two years later remade “Smash It Up” for the Batman Forever soundtrack. Although those covers helped to turn a new generation of fans on to the band, the Damned aren’t necessarily fond of those interpretations. “I wasn’t knocked out by it,” Vanian says of the GNR recording. “It’s pretty staid, but it’s great that they wanted to do that.”
As for a reunion with original drummer Rat Scabies, who hasn’t played with the band since 1996, and guitarist James, Vanian says, “It could happen, but there’s nothing in the works.” Captain has a bit more to say on the matter: “Never say never. The problem is, as much as I love Brian and respect him immensely, there’s only room really for one guitarist in the band. But he could do it. He could play the material through the Stiff era. Having said that, yeah, I would definitely work with Brian again.”
As for Rat, “We used to row quite a bit, but I can’t really remember what it was all about. There was a film made about the Damned, [the 2015 documentary] Don’t You Wish We Were Dead. The guy who made the film [Wes Orshoski] concentrated on the rift. I said, ‘Look, that will bore the audience. Every band that ever existed has had rows. The Mamas & the Papas have had rows. The Carpenters have had rows. Don’t concentrate on that one thing.’ That is what the film is about. But I’ve got nothing against Rat. He’s still a really good drummer.”
However, Captain can’t let his comments on Rat go without a dig. “The great thing about Rat is that his nose is bigger than mine,” he quips. “He makes me look good.”
We note to the Captain that at least the Damned have the possibility of reuniting their original lineup — something that’s long past for the Clash following the death of Joe Strummer, or for the Ramones, whose original members have all passed on. “To me, that proves that there is no God,” Captain quips in true punk-rock fashion. “Joe [Strummer] and Joey [Ramone] and people like that have been taken, but we’re still left with Phil Collins and Eric Clapton.”