Music interview: Punk pioneers The Damned

At the cutting edge of 1970s punk rock, The Damned are still around and play in Leeds next week. Duncan Seaman reports.

Friday, 11th November 2016, 7:43 am
Updated Wednesday, 16th November 2016, 5:03 pm
The Damned

It was the record that announced the arrival of punk rock. Two minutes and 46 seconds of tub-thumping drums and buzzsaw guitar prefaced by the words ‘Is she really going out with him?’ in homage to the Shangri-Las’ song Leader of the Pack.

Last month marked the 40th anniversary of the release of New Rose by The Damned and to celebrate the band, led by original singer David Vanian and bass player Captain Sensible, are embarking on a national tour that includes Leeds O2 Academy.

When reminded of the fact that The Damned have now lasted four times as long as The Beatles did as a band, Vanian reflects wryly: “Blimey, that’s frightening, isn’t it? I wish I had the royalties that Ringo did.”

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Cover of The Damned's 1976 single New Rose

The passage of time is certainly not something he dwells upon. “You tend to forget about it and it’s not until you look in a mirror or do something you realise,” he says.

“I still find it incredible that I’m still in the same band this long. It was never my intention. Life’s funny, you find yourself in these situations and before you know it there you are.”

When released on Stiff Records on October 22, 1976, New Rose became the first punk single. Vanian remembers the recording session with producer Nick Lowe being “fast and frenetic”.

“The studio was probably the tiniest place you’d ever imagine. It was a tiny room with a sloping ceiling. The drums had to go at the end of the room because the ceiling was too low to stand up. We were all crammed into this little room and the actual [mixing] desk part was only big enough for two people to be in at one time. It was basically a converted living room in someone’s house that was all sound-proofed.

The Damned live on stage in 1976.

“It was very much a case of putting the band down and getting the performance of everything and Nick just pushing a few faders because there wasn’t an awful lot in the way of production going on but he did a great job of capturing the live essence of the band which I think was the most important thing at the time. It’s probably why that song sounds so great because it wasn’t encumbered with lots of fancy production at all, it was just as raw as it came and I think at that point in time there certainly weren’t many records that came out that were like that.

“Everything [else] was quite smooth and well produced at that point in history. I think it was a bit of a jolt to have the energy that was being pushed out by these young bands but also the rawness of the sound.”

It seems Captain Sensible preferred another song, I Fall, but he was out-voted in the Stiff Records office. “In retrospect I think New Rose was a good track because as soon as the drums come in it’s instant. It’s like hearing for the first time C’mon Everybody or your favourite single where you just hear a bar and you know exactly what it is, it’s kind of infectious.”

In stealing a march on London contemporaries such as the Sex Pistols and The Clash, The Damned led the way towards a major change in British music. “At the time it was a typical story of four young kids really wanting to be in a band and enjoy it so much the excitement of that was enough for anything,” says Vanian, now 60. “It was just going and going and going. Everything was just escalating, there were no breaks. It was just like a rollercoaster for the first year. It was exciting because everything was firsts. I’m a young kid who’d never been out of the country and suddenly I’m on an aeroplane, I’m in America then this, that and the other. It was kind of a dream.”

David Vanian of The Damned

In a whirlwind period of 15 months, The Damned released not just one album but two. For the second, Music For Pleasure, they attempted to persuade the reclusive former Pink Floyd singer Syd Barrett to produce it. “We had the same publishing company and PR, we were always talking to people that were in direct contact with him,” Vanian recalls. “When it came to that second album we wanted to move on and do something different and Syd was an ideal choice for that. He had considered it but he said ‘no’ and we ended up with Floyd’s drummer [Nick Mason] instead. It came close but I think at that point Syd didn’t want to do anything much. He was in a very bad way, I guess. It’s a shame. It would have been a totally different album. It was kind of a missed opportunity.”

One of the features of The Damned in the ensuing years has been regular line-up changes. The first happened in 1978, when the band briefly broke up, and for a few months Vanian, Sensible and drummer Rat Scabies formed another group, The Doomed, with Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead.

“We didn’t have a bass player and we asked Lemmy,” says Vanian. “We came back but we weren’t sure if we were back so we called ourselves The Doomed for a joke. Lemmy was great, we did a single with him, he was very easy to get on with in that situation – he came in, learnt songs, played them and he wasn’t trying to upstage anybody. He liked the band genuinely, he could see where we were coming from, we had a lot in common in that respect – different types of music but still the same types of attitude. It was lovely.”

They remained friends and just months before Lemmy’s death last year The Damned supported Motorhead. “It’s a shame he’s gone,” Vanian says. “I think we played the last but one part of his tour.”

Cover of The Damned's 1976 single New Rose

In the 1980s The Damned’s sound gradually shifted towards gothic rock, leading to chart hits such as Eloise and Grimly Fiendish. David Vanian’s fondness for frock coats and white make-up led the way.

“The first album was totally written by [guitarist] Brian James, it was his band, brilliant album, but then when Brian decided he didn’t want to do it any more and the band split we decided to come back together. We’d all been champing at the bit to do our own things within the band and this gave us our opportunity,” Vanian explains.

“It really started to change from Machine Gun Etiquette onwards, each album evolved when new members came into the band and things shifted slightly or what we were listening to. Our influences float around. You might get obsessed by something for a while then you move on to another thing that you really love and it can’t help but come out in the music somehow.

“I think what happened in the 80s the music changed but also the band decided to dress up a little bit. The actual remark that I heard was ‘Oh, Vanian’s getting a lot of girls, let’s dress up like him’. I think that might have had something to do with it. We had more of a unified image that we’d never had before but I didn’t say, ‘Come on, lads, you’ve got to get your frock coats on and put some lippy on, you’re coming on stage.’ They kind of followed my lead. I’d been that person, that’s why I was brought into the band because I’d always been a person who I am – if I wasn’t in music I’d be this way.”

The Damned play at O2 Academy Leeds on November 17.

The Damned live on stage in 1976.
David Vanian of The Damned