There might be no band in all of music that’s harder to peg than The Damned. Though they came out of, and in many ways ignited, the punk movement in the U.K., they were nothing like their peers. They weren’t angry or ugly or driven by rebellion. Rather, they aimed to take listeners on a riotous journey, a heady sound trip that delved into psychedelia and macabre rock, ominous aesthetics and aggressive, hook-driven sounds. Then they constantly changed things up with each subsequent release and live show, defining and then defying what punk rock has stood for over the last 40 years and counting.
For the next year and a bit beyond, the band’s two iconic remaining original members, singer Dave Vanian and guitarist Captain Sensible, will be celebrating The Damned’s prolific career on the road, starting tonight at the Belasco Theater in downtown Los Angeles. But they will also be trying to complete a much-anticipated new record, which they opted to self-release via Pledge Music. Though it was planned for release early this year, there have been delays due to the touring schedule, but both musicians say they are finally in the process of writing for the new one — which fans have been foaming for — right now.
“Once we finish the American tour we'll go straight into preproduction on the album and we'll start recording,” Vanian explains via phone from the U.K., a week before the tour kickoff. “We all feel we want to delve into where we were when we started, which was more psychedelia and guitar-driven stuff. There will always be elements of pop music because we love pop. There’s also going to be some dark stuff and more interesting musicality on this one because we really want to push ourselves, and if you don’t challenge yourself, there’s no point in doing it."
Captain Sensible flew into L.A. before his bandmates, so we meet on the patio of a popular Sunset Strip restaurant, a few days before the Belasco show. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt and his signature funky shades, the randy rocker reveals he too has fun stuff in mind for new Damned music, much inspired by the state of the world today. He also looks back, sharing recollections of early gigs in L.A., sleeping on the floor of The Weirdos’ house and hanging with The Germs (he says the bands got along great, despite the fact that The Damned were portrayed as haters in Germs biopic What We Do Is Secret).
It’s a time of reflection for the band, obviously, and as Sensible flashes back to what he calls "the chaos years," when he was The Damned's bass player (he moved to guitar when Brian James left), the NYC punk scene figures even more prominently than L.A. in terms of their trajectory. It was where the United States got its first taste of their ground-breaking sounds and unique style, predating The Sex Pistols’ visit here by nearly two years.
“We were the first U.K. punk group to get to the States. I remember when we turned up in New York and played CBGBs,” he recalls. “The Stones were in town and sent cakes, big cream cakes, Champagne and a couple of hookers. “
Sensible says that like The Stones, The Damned have battled ageism over their long career, and that particularly when it comes to punk, no one expects their kind of longevity. But they’re obviously still full of vim and vigor right now, having survived dramatic breakups and makeups puls hard partying over the years. In many ways, Sensible still seems like the life of the party, while his bandmate Vanian remains a more mysterious contrast. Their yin-and-yang thing still makes for appealing chemistry onstage and diverse textures on record.
“I’m the light, happy pop guy,” Sensible says. “Whereas the other guy [Vanian] is the prince of darkness. We’re opposites. That’s the dynamic of the band.”
The Damned’s original dynamic included two other notable members. Guitarist Brian James, who founded the group in 1976 (he wrote nearly all of their first two albums), left after just two years, only returning for a brief stint in 1988 for their Final Damnation tour. Original drummer Rat Scabies, who was in and out over the years, left the band for good in 1995, apparently due to conflicts over royalties.
To say that The Damned’s lineup and personal history have been contentious and complex is an understatement. Sensible, for example, was out of the band for much of the '80s working on solo stuff, scoring what some might say was his biggest hit of all, the rap-influenced ditty “Wot.” The 2015 documentary from Lemmy director Wes Orshoski, Don’t You Wish That We Were Dead, attempted to explore the band’s history and its various members' conflicts over the last four decades, and though fans seemed to enjoy it, its subjects — not so much.
“I don’t think it’s a bad documentary but I think there’s a lot more to be said and more details to be shown,” Vanian says. "Wes meant well but I think originally his idea was a film that would show the antagonistic side and the animosity. That just didn’t exist between Rat and Captain, and when he realized that it wasn’t there, he filmed us for a long time trying to find something. … He got some interesting stuff but on the other side he didn't get the heart of the band. With any band there’s conflicts; you’re dealing with fragile and huge egos, and bands spend more time together often than they do with their own loved ones."
“It’s a shame. There’s probably a better film in there on the cutting room floor,” Sensible concurs. “He followed us for two years and saw some great freakouts and backstage mayhem. I would liked to have seen that in there.”
Both Sensible and Vanian downplay the tensions between the original members portrayed in the film, and Sensible goes as far as to say that a reunion of all four (which hardcore fans have lobbied for over the years) isn’t out of the question some day. “I have absolute respect for those guys. I mean they changed my life, especially Brian. What would I be doing now? He picked me to be his bass player. I wouldn’t have played bass for anyone else. He was a visionary who talked about musical revolution that was gonna change everything. At the time I met him there was no aggressive music at all in England, which is why we had to make it for ourselves. And I didn’t ever for one minute think it’d end up being as popular as it became.”
In 1977, the band were denied a chance to perform at the U.K.'s famed Royal Albert Hall, deemed “not suitable” by the venue's management. So last year’s performance there, kicking off a run of 40th-anniversary shows, marked a pivotal and vindicating moment in the band’s history. Their longevity and refusal to play by the rules even after all these years has only strengthened their legacy. Interpersonal turmoil aside, The Damned have survived holding onto their loyal fan base and winning new ones daily via their vampy, visual and visceral live shows. The Captain still rocks the red berets and punky-jester attire while Vanian, whom some call the original “goth,” still fancies ghost-white makeup and snappy suits. They’re still a sight (and sound) to behold, conjuring both gloom and giddiness with every song.
“I always saw the beauty in the darkside,” Vanian says. “It wasn’t gloomy to me. When I was young, my idea of the perfect house would have been an old chapel or church to live in. I always loved Gothic architecture. At the time that seemed completely nuts. I was always attracted to that aesthetic. I was brought up on black-and-white television and Gothic horror and romance. I read all the typical literature, Poe and Stoker and Lord Byron ... what's nice is there’s elements of this that have crept into everyday life today.
“The difference, I suppose, is that when I was very young it was dangerous to dress that way," he continues. "A lot of times I got into trouble for the way I dressed, but I wasn't going to change. I suppose I got my lumps to prove it. Nowadays it's like mail order. You can get anything you want. You can be like, 'Oh, now I'm really into these bands so I’ll get some black nail polish.' It’s more of a uniform or something."
For followers of dark music culture, Vanian’s marriage to L.A. bassist Patricia Morrison (The Bags, Gun Club, Sisters of Mercy) was the ultimate rock romance. Morrison played with The Damned beginning in 1996 (she married Vanian that same year) and left in 2004 after giving birth to their daughter, Emily — who, Vanian says, at 13 years old might be following in her parents' footsteps.
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“She's going to become a much better musician than I am. She reads and writes music already. She plays the piano, bass and violin. She can improvise. Whether or not she will use it in the future I don’t know, but it’s a wonderful thing to have,” he says. “My proudest moment was when she played during our show at Royal Albert Hall last year and did the violin part to 'Curtain Call.'”
For this year’s tour, both Vanian and Sensible say they aim to represent their entire repertoire onstage, from the James-penned early stuff to the Vanian-driven deathrock-ish period to Captain-penned pop songs of their later years and beyond. Since Sensible wasn’t in the band for a chunk of their '80s run, that era is more of a challenge, but it’s one he seems to enjoy. And Vanian says that tackling the lesser-known material from their vast catalog is what keeps the live shows fresh. Still, you can always expect to hear the hits, too. I caught the band last year at both the Roxy and San Francisco’s Great American Music Hall and they served up all their classic songs ( “New Rose,” “Smash it Up,” “Neat Neat Neat,” “Love Song,” “Melody Lee”) fiercely and faithfully.
“We started doing a longer set last year and some songs we hadn’t played at all," says Vanian. "That’s great because it shakes you up and keeps you on your toes. Most of the songs we do over and over and know inside out. So the lesser-known ones feel quite fresh. They make you a little nervous about not screwing them up and getting them right. That's good. We still like taking risks and we like that kind of excitement. “