You'll be punk'd and you'll like it

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 January, 2012, 12:00am


He's partial to wearing schoolgirl gymslips, has often gone before an audience in a dress and, on at least one occasion, got so drunk that he stripped on stage and clenched a banana between his buttocks

But The Damned's guitarist and punk legend, Captain Sensible, has grown up a little since those days, and for the band's first show in Hong Kong, he's chosen something a little more sedate... but only just. 'I'll be wearing a one-piece furry pink outfit,' the Captain proudly boasts of the wardrobe his Japanese girlfriend is putting together for the Asian leg of his seminal band's 35th-anniversary world tour. 'I have a very low embarrassment threshold.'

The jumpsuit in question is a replica of one he wore for the cover of The Damned's 1979 album Machine Gun Etiquette. It's not the only thing the Captain plans to resuscitate from the band's four-decade history. He's on a mission to educate China about real punk rock.

'There are places in the world that are yet to know what The Damned is all about. We will show China - or at least a room in China - what punk is really about,' The Captain - Raymond Burns to his mum - declares from his base in Brighton, the hip British seaside town that the likes of Australian gloom-rocker Nick Cave and DJ Fatboy Slim also call home.

The Damned are one of the few bands that can legitimately make such a claim. They were punk rock before the Sex Pistols felt the first gooey hit of pogoing fan-phlegm on their scruffy collars.

Formed in 1976 when the Captain and drummer Rat Scabies joined singer Dave Vanian and guitarist Brian James as a means to avoid 'becoming just another cog in the establishment's wheel', the band notched up one of the most impressive lists of rock 'n' roll firsts: they were the first band to release a punk single (1977's New Rose) and punk album (Damned Damned Damned), and can claim to be DJ John Peel's debut punk play on his hugely influential BBC radio show.

They were also the first British punk band to tour the US, inspiring the formation of west coast hardcore bands such as the Dead Kennedys, venue manager Brendan Mullen explained in the authoritative Punk: Attitude documentary made by the era's chief chronicler, Don Letts.

With Vanian dressed in white face make-up and a vampire cape and the Captain in a beret and any assortment of weird and wonderful outfits, they were the punks who did it for laughs, the antithesis of politically charged peers such as The Clash.

While The Clash's Joe Strummer preached from a middle-class perch, the working-class lads from The Damned were in it for the fun. The Captain was rarely seen without a bottle of beer and a leering smile, and Vanian crooned and pranced around the stage like a peacock.

'I was in a band called Johnny Moped, and we never really thought we'd go anywhere, but one day Rat Scabies came back from an audition with his hair cut short,' the guitarist remembers. 'That was radical. Nobody had short hair in those days. So we became punks.'

The three-chords-and-a-sneer creed of punk was not one The Damned subscribed to. While Johnny Moped were playing the ragged sort of pub rock that British punk sprang from, the Captain says he was proud of his guitar chops.

'We were always able to really play,' he insists, citing the band's proficiency as the reason they were booked to play alongside the Pistols and Clash on the infamous Anarchy Tour punk revue in 1977. According to the Captain, Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren booked The Damned to sell tickets.

'We were more famous than the Pistols at that time,' the Captain boasts. 'But by the time the tour started, the Pistols had become the most notorious band in the world.'

The tour wasn't a good one for The Damned. They were derided for their comic-book appearance and criticised by Strummer for not pulling out of the tour in solidarity with the Pistols, who had been banned from almost every venue after causing a furore with an expletive-laden interview on daytime television.

'That was McLaren again: he didn't want us opening for the Pistols 'cause he knew the audience would have left after we'd finished. Let's face it, the Pistols were nothing without Johnny Rotten.'

From their outrageous stage gear and antics - drummer Scabies is credited with starting the punk trend of spitting at the bands - to the music, The Damned have never fitted neatly into any category. Within a couple of years of forming, the punk movement had died out, and The Damned appeared to have outlived their welcome. But the new decade brought a new chapter and a new flourish of success.

The Captain left when inter-band relationships went sour in the early 1980s and launched a successful solo career, scoring chart hits with twisted pop singles such as Happy Talk and Wot. The Captain-less Damned also won new fans when they changed musical direction under the leadership of Vanian - the only member to have remained in the band throughout its history - and hit the charts with goth-tinged single Eloise and the hit album Phantasmogoria.

The Captain continued to shock with his increasingly manic live shows and in 2010 raised eyebrows again when he toured with the Glitter Band, occasionally standing in for their disgraced former leader, Gary Glitter. 'I loved it; it was a glorious taboo to break. Why should those songs not be heard or sung? The Glitter Band had a unique sound and had some great songs. And anyway, there are far more evil people in the world than Gary Glitter.'

At 57 the Captain - and The Damned - show no signs of slowing down. The current members have been together for more than seven years, the longest continuous line-up in the band's history. And while it no longer features Scabies, the Captain insists their present drummer, Pinch, has breathed new life into the band.

'Punk is an attitude, not an age thing,' he says, repelling the suggestion that he is too old to don his trademark Dennis the Menace striped jumper and spit out songs of teenage kicks and rebellion.

'Punk was a reaction against all the rubbish and garbage that was on the radio at the time,' he says, naming in particular 'po-faced rocks stars' like Eric Clapton.

'He should crack a smile sometime, and he is just not a creative guitarist,' the Captain rants before turning his guns on the progressive rock acts that flourished in the 1970s. 'Playing 20-minute guitar solos and singing songs about pixies and Merlin had absolutely no relevance to working-class kids in council estates at that time.'

The reason for forming The Damned almost 40 years ago remains the impetus for continuing to tour today. Only now it's not the 'ghastly rock gods' such as Clapton or David Bowie ('I won't have one of his records in the house; he hasn't written a decent song in more than 30 years') but the likes of Green Day and their nu-punk counterparts at which he directs his ammo.

'I don't see any punk in any of the bands today,' he complains. 'When I see all this boring American so-called punk, I can't help thinking that while they may sound punk and look punk, they will just as quickly change when the next look comes in. It's all too corporate and calculated now.'

The Damned - One Night Only, Tuesday, 8pm, Grappa's Cellar, B/F, Jardine House, 1 Connaught Place, Central, HK$550. Inquiries: