The Damned on playing small venues, headgear that protects you from spit, and why they won't stop 'til the Stones do
For nearly four decades now, legendary British rockers The Damned have been haunting stages around the world with their brand of gothic-inspired punk.
Since storming onto the London punk scene in 1976, the band has evolved and survived multiple line-up changes over the years, with the group now led by founding members Dave Vanian and Captain Sensible, who are keeping the original spirit of The Damned alive and well.
Today, Vanian’s punk-meets-rockabilly crooner vocals and Sensible’s wildly blistering guitar are backed up by the jackhammer rhythm section of drummer Pinch and bassist Stu West, along with keyboardist Monty Oxy Moron, who often looks like a possessed version of Beethoven, his hands flailing wildly about when not pounding the keys.
Bay Area fans are in for a treat this week as The Damned play two shows in Northern California ahead of their appearance at the Ink-N-Iron festival in Long Beach — and these are the only U.S. gigs on the books for the year.
“I love visiting San Francisco, it’s the most European city in North America and a vegetarian’s paradise. My home is in Brighton, the gay capital of the UK and a lot of the relaxed liberal attitude we have there is over here too,” says Captain Sensible, via email. “I like the way the Bay Area is a collection of villages all with their different vibe, but mainly it's the smart, friendly people here that make a visit such fun.”
Looking back over almost 40 years of on and off history as a band, Sensible offers a candid assessment of what life has been like as a member of The Damned.
“I'm not one for regrets, we've had a splendid crack as a band. A lot of things that went pear shaped was our own stupid fault — and how we survived the mania of the 70s / 80s without anyone dropping dead I've no idea. But as you can imagine it was bloody good fun in a time when bands could pretty much do what ever they wanted in the studio without label types breathing down our necks; in fact, when they did turn up we always put on a little show for them, band splitting up, drummer climbing in a grand piano to add nonsensical avant-garde overdubs on a straightforward punk tune, food fights. They got the idea in the end and left us alone, and we actually made a few decent records despite all the chaos.”
The Damned were the first punk band from the UK to release a single — “New Rose” — and an album, Damned Damned Damned.
They also broke ground as the first to cross the pond and tour the United States, a jaunt that saw them play the infamous Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco back in 1977.
“It's all a blur as you can imagine, but we met loads of young upstarts who told us they were getting their bands together. It was a great time, a clean slate if you like. And it felt good to give the jaded stadium rock stars of the time a kick up the arse.”
“I also remember American beer being universally appalling. In fact I would cram my suitcase with as much booze as possible, if you can believe that. Now, of course Californian craft beer is the cutting edge of brewing and we intend to visit a few breweries this trip.”
As for Sensible’s now-signature stage attire — a red beret and crazy sunglasses — it turns out it had nothing to do with trying to make a fashion statement: It was born from the environment that came to epitomize live shows in the early days of the punk movement.
“The truth is that at first I only wore a beret to stop the 'gob' (spit) getting in my hair. After Johnny Rotten and Rat Scabies had their famous spitting incident at a Pistols gig in '76 it became part of the punk scene for a year or so. The problem was the hot stage lights baked the gob in your hair and it was almost impossible to remove the hard lumps afterwards, so I wore a beret and sunglasses to stop it getting into my eyes. That's the true story, it wasn't fashion — it was self preservation!”
Fans will be able to hear all sorts of first-hand accounts and behind the scenes stories in the near future when a documentary film about The Damned is released, made by Wes Orshoski, the filmmaker behind “Lemmy,” the award-winning portrait of the iconic Motorhead frontman.
“I took Wes to do an interview outside the former home of my parents — where I spent my school years — and no sooner was the camera rolling than a drug crazed mugger made a grab for it and a good old fashioned punch up ensued in which $50,000 worth of film equipment got completely trashed. Wes ended up being rushed to hospital. He probably needed a rabies antidote,” says Sensible.
“I should have mentioned to him that I was born and raised in the roughest part of South London — where one person’s posh movie gear is someone else's years supply of crack cocaine.”
Despite difficulties such as that jarring incident, Sensible says that the rest of the project has been proceeding along well.
“He’s captured some very funny footage already as the Damned are quite a strange bunch these days. People think they know us, but I reckon there will be a few surprised faces when the film is released.”
One fact that casual fans of The Damned might not know is that Captain Sensible is a huge train buff — he’s driven steam engines in England, and even had a diesel locomotive named after him.
“There was a company that had a punk fan as boss and he named his locos after his heroes. John Peel, Joe Strummer — mine was originally going to be called Morrissey but it came to the guy’s attention that he made a point NEVER to travel by train. Whereas I do all the time, so I got it instead!”
Unfortunately, Cotswold Rail went out of business a few years ago, and when the engine was sold, a disgruntled employee that was owed money stole the nameplates.
“I'd maybe buy ‘em if he offered, gotta be worth a fiver, eh?” says Sensible.
While the Damned often perform at large music festivals around the world these days, Sensible still favors smaller shows, like the one the band will play at Slim’s on Wed/4.
“I prefer the club gigs, the closeness to the audience. And when I see bands, that's also the environment I prefer. Festivals with screens and the musicians half a mile away on a distant stage is not great is it? The problem is that now we are a certain age, and there's not likely to be another club tour as it's a bit knackering.”
Although Sensible mentions that the members of The Damned aren’t exactly spring chickens anymore, he’s adamant that they have no intention of hanging it up anytime soon.
“The Damned ain't going to quit while the Stones are still lurching on," he says. "We’re not gonna be beat by a bunch of old Tories.”
The Damned, with Koffin Kats and Stellar Corpses
Wednesday, June 4
333 11th St., SF