The Damned’s ‘New Rose’ at 40: Your Captain Speaks!
In the past year, the amount of coverage given by the mainstream press to the 40th anniversary of punk rock has been suffocating — occasionally even nauseating. Don’t get me wrong: I'll be the first to admit the impact that music had on my life. But after a while, all this nostalgia just fades into white noise and static, having about as much effect as my father droning on about walking uphill in a snowstorm in order to get to school.
But long after all these music mags and news shows go back to ignoring punk and return to covering all the usual dismissible popular horseshit in the world, two facts will remain:
- The Damned fucking rule
- Their debut single, "New Rose," will forever be the yardstick by which all raucous music is judged.
And this Saturday, October 22, marks — you guessed it! — the 40th anniversary of that landmark release by the longest-running British punk band. A special edition of the single is being released on that date, and to celebrate, the Damned co-founder Captain Sensible (born Raymond Ian Burns) was kind enough to talk about the recording of the single, his pre-punk musical loves and his feelings on the brouhaha on punk's 40th anniversary.
The "New Rose" single released on Stiff Records is known as the first piece of vinyl to be released by a U.K. punk band. Was there even a competitive atmosphere at the time in regards to which band would get their record out there first?
Only between the managers who wanted their boys to be number one. Bernie Rhodes [manager of the Clash] hated Malcolm McLaren [manager of the Sex Pistols], and they both despised Jake Riviera [Stiff Records co-owner]. The bands got on fine, though, and attended each other’s gigs, but the rivalry was pretty intense when it came to the managers; they all wanted their bunch to be top dogs. All the bands all had their own sound, their own take on what punk was all about. The Stranglers sounded nothing like the Buzzcocks, who were in turn completely different to the Clash. We all agreed on one thing, though, and that was that the old dinosaur acts like ELP and Yes were past their sell-by date, and they could take their 20-minute drum solos and songs about wizards and pixies and fuck right off.
Once the records by the Clash, the Sex Pistols and others started to trickle out, how did you think they stacked up to "New Rose"? I remember reading somewhere about you hearing the test pressing for "Anarchy in the U.K." and thinking it sounded like Bad Company!
I've always seen it as my job to slag all the rest of them off, but of course I do have grudging respect. Although, if you do imagine John Lydon removed from the Pistols, they ain't gonna sound quite so anarchic. Unlike the Clash and Pistols records, "New Rose" was recorded in an eight-track demo studio in the back of a garage. It sounds like it, too! Totally gnarled! Totally punk rock!
What are your memories from recording the single?
Dave Berk, Johnny Moped’s drummer, ferried me and my amps from Croydon up to Islington in a Morris Traveler. What a car — like an old shack on wheels! We carted the gear into this extremely dingy room, which became home for two days. Nick Lowe kept us jollied along with an endless supply of cider; basically the cheapest booze to be found in the Off License. We played our entire set until he was happy he'd captured the vibe. There were a few rows — mainly over who had messed up the timing and caused a retake. That would've been between Brian [James, guitarist] and Rat [Scabies, drummer], as me and Dave [Vanian, vocalist] were slightly less volatile.
When Nick Lowe was brought in by Stiff to produce "New Rose," were you thinking, “You mean that hippie from Brinsley Schwarz?”
I didn't know what a producer did. In fact, even now, I think Nick’s non-production got it just about right. I mean, let's face it: Damned Damned Damned ain't posh-sounding like Never Mind the Bollocks, is it? It has a warped beauty to it, and captured the live excitement of our gigs wonderfully. It’s all thanks to Nick being the vibe specialist, to a certain extent. Not a bad job for a country rocker!
Speaking of Nick Lowe, did you have an interest in the pub rock bands that were around before the punk explosion?
As a teen, I attended every live gig I could, but not pub or country rock, though. For me, the wilder and sweatier the better. The Groundhogs, Edgar Broughton Band and Pink Fairies put on rollicking shows, but by the mid-'70s, the U.K. music scene had gone a bit tame. So, to hear the music we liked, the class of '76 had to do it for ourselves.
A lot of the big bands of the time were virtuoso musicians; that’s what people were watching by the mid-'70s. Twenty-minute drum solos and all that show-off guitar nonsense. Could a bunch of oiks with a limited repertoire of chords like us compete with that? Somehow we did.
Is it true you wanted the song “I Fall” as the Damned’s first single instead of "New Rose"? What was the reasoning behind that?
“I Fall” was faster. It used to upset the cheesecloth shirt brigade more than "New Rose." Compared to what was on the radio, it was pretty dramatic. But mainly, I used to enjoy playing the bass line. Any player who had a go at the song will tell you it's a workout for the wrists. The song certainly kicked plenty of ass — or, as I prefer, booted serious quantities of bottom.
Besides shooting out the first piece of punk vinyl, you were also the initial U.K. punk band to come over to America to tour. What was your take on where the U.S. was in regards to punk at the time?
Apart from the Ramones, the New York scene seemed to be mainly drugs, art and kinda pseudo-intellectual, whereas the Pistols, Clash and Damned were working-class and proud. We were, to a certain extent, fighting to escape from our dismal futures in a class-ridden society.
Wasn’t there also something where you were supposed to tour with Television when you were over here, but they kicked you off the tour?
Yes, the Damned were badly behaved, and we simply didn't care who we insulted or upset. Our behavior didn't suit Television, and maybe they had a point. But hey, we had plenty of snotty attitude, that's for sure. But we got on great with the Dead Boys; they were as out of control as we were. Cheetah Chrome didn't take any bullshit, or "Handsome Dick" Manitoba from the Dictators for that matter. We're still good chums today.
Legend has it that when punk hit England, it was this slate-cleaning thing where every punk denied love for any music that came prior, unless it was the Stooges or something like that. Time has shown that Keith Levene was a lover of Yes, John Lydon was a Hawkwind fan and Chrissie Hynde was a folkie into Tim Buckley. And you mentioned the Groundhogs and the Edgar Broughton Band before. It makes me curious if all this love for pre-punk music was being blasted behind closed blinds and locked doors at the time?
Every era has had its crap music. In ’67, when Syd Barrett and Hendrix burst onto the scene, Englebert Humperdinck's "Release Me" had been number one for 12 weeks. Punk happened because people had had enough of long, boring guitar and drum solos, and although there is innovative music being made today, it doesn't get the exposure it deserves because that Simon Cowell-inspired dross is just everywhere.
I was told to hide my Hendrix albums when a journalist visited my home for an interview in '77. Being the contrarian I am, I didn't, and left the Carpenters, Soft Machine and Small Faces on display. The Bromley lot loved Bowie, but I preferred the experimentation of krautrock and jazzier prog. Stuff like Can, Terry Riley and Neu! had a big effect on me. Then punk came along and I got my chance. However, as soon as I got some say in the band's musical direction, around the release of our third album, Machine Gun Etiquette, I made sure an element of psych was added.
The Damned play with some great young bands occasionally. You see them perform and think, “I can't wait to hear the album.” Then often, when you get it, everything is compressed and Auto-Tuned to hell with these insidious ProTools plugins everyone is using. "Go very easy on that stuff" is my advice for young musicians reading this.
I’ve always been curious about the single you did for Crass’ record label in 1981, "This Is Your Captain Speaking." How did that come about?
There were fans who had Damned and Crass written on their jackets, so I went to meet the band and see what they were about. I ended up staying a week at their commune and came out of that completely reprogrammed — a vegetarian anarcho type, if you like. There were discussions around the dinner table, and the food was good. I thought, “Why should I ever eat a burger again? Its nonsense and cruel!” I have a lot to thank Crass for, and the EP was such fun to make, too. I went to see Penny [Rimbaud] a year or so ago. He's old now, but still has the Crass spirit. Lovely bloke.
Do you feel what Crass were accomplishing was the natural extension of where punk should have gone?
I never philosophize about punk, but I would subscribe to Crass' pacifism and creativity thing every time. That's punk.
In this past year, the amount of nostalgia for the 40th anniversary of punk is staggering. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on all that.
The last 40 years has seen punk rock swing from being the end of civilization to being actually worthy of some celebration. "New Rose" still sounds fresh today. I think we were ahead of the game. Direct, tuneful, uncomplicated and fairly raunchy music — gotta love that!
Did you expect it to last this long?
In '76, I was just happy to be able to twang a guitar for a living. I still feel the same. I’m a lucky bastard, and I don't take it for granted like some other musos I could mention. The glory days were actually quite rough and ready, as we were often sleeping on each other's floors. It was fun, but hardly glamorous. And we were the first, which always got up ol' McLaren's nose.
Punk put the U.K. at the forefront of the music scene for a couple of years. Not everyone liked it, of course, but the Damned, U.K. Subs and Johnny Moped were a much necessary alternative to Saturday Night Fever and disco in general with the gigs at the time full of pogoing spiky-haired types having a bloody good time.
We've had a splendid crack as a band. A lot of things that went pear-shaped were our own stupid faults. How we survived the mania of the ’70s and ’80s without anyone dropping dead, I've no idea, and wrecking label offices was never going to get us extended contracts or decent promotional budgets. But as you can imagine, it was bloody good fun in a time when bands could pretty much do whatever they wanted in the studio without label types breathing down your necks. In fact, when they did turn up, we always put on a little show for them, with the band splitting up in a flurry of fisticuffs or the drummer climbing in [the] grand piano to add nonsensical avant garde overdubs on a straightforward punk tune. They got the idea in the end and left us alone, and we actually made a few decent records despite all that chaos.
Many members of London ’77 bands had been at the Ramones Dingwalls gig a year or so earlier, and shortly after kick-started their own scene. The Ramones sound was a spectacular blitzkrieg of noise, garage and pop music. Joey was a lovely bloke, too. Did you know we played what would have been his 50th birthday party in New York? His mum Charlotte [Lesher], who organized it, knew we were chums. It was a great, but emotional evening.
I always say that's proof there is no god: The amazing Ramones were taken from us, but those two appalling bores Eric Clapton and Phil Collins are still with us.
THE DAMNED on TOUR
Oct. 27 — Los Angeles, CA @ Belasco Theatre
Oct. 29 — New York, NY @ Gramercy Theatre
Oct. 30 — New York, NY @ Gramercy Theatre