With its long-awaited 11th album, U.K. punk cult legends The Damned have seemingly staved off the heritage band title many others now wear as punks of yesteryear. The spring release of Evil Spirits has not only re-energized a cult following of fans across the planet, but given the punk band of 42 years proof that its demise has been overstated.
While the band has never aspired to charting climbing, Evil Spirits gave the band its highest-ever album placement – No. 7 on the U.K. Albums Chart this summer. Whatever comes after their brief U.S. tour, The Damned will go down in music history among the Mount Rushmore of pioneering punk legends that also include The Clash, The Ramones, and The Sex Pistols. The original foursome of vocalist Dave Vanian, guitarist Captain Sensible, former guitarist Brian James and ex-drummer Rat Scabies led the charge, but now, after at least two-dozen member changes, 11 studio albums, 20 live albums, nine U.K. Top 40 singles, hiatuses, solo projects, and band reunions, only Vanian and the Captain remain of that original crew.
Phoenix New Times caught up by phone with Vanian and guitarist Captain Sensible as they were preparing for tour. They talked about how they have surviving for 42 years, how they gauge success, Evil Spirits, and coming back to Phoenix.
This interview has been edited for length and content.
Phoenix New Times: While your early-day punk compatriots The Clash, The Ramones and The Sex Pistols were all trying to get signed to big labels, and go after the money, The Damned seemed to focus on the music first and foremost. They are all gone and The Damned remains. To what do you owe that longevity?
Dave Vanian: The difference I think, was that we were a band first and foremost. Musically, the band itself were good players. While we all had kind of a wild streak through us, everything was rooted in good music. Each member brought in influences of our own. We were living that punk rock ethos, doing it yourself, making it yourself – screw it if no one liked it.
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Captain Sensible: The Clash were doing it for the politics, the Pistols for the anarchy, whereas, with possibly more honesty than absolutely necessary, we always said we wanted the cash. Loads of the stuff. So basically, unless we do gigs, we starve – that’s why we are back out on the road again. But what’s better than cavorting about onstage in front of a cranked amp anyway?
The band has had the good fortune of working with a proverbial who’s who of modern-day producer greats: Nick Lowe, Nick Mason and Roger Armstrong, Hans Zimmer and Hugh Jones. How did you decide on Tony Visconti for Evil Spirits?
DV: I heard Black Star (Bowie’s final studio album) just when it first came out, and I thought I was a great album, not only because it was a great work from Bowie, and we hadn’t heard him from him on a long time, but because some of it didn’t sound dissimilar to The Damned, in a weird way. I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought of it before. Tony Visconti would be the man who would understand totally what we were trying to do, and get a sound across onto tape.
CS: We wanted an old-fashioned "classic" sound, and who’s better at that than Tony? Having Tony produce made sense on every level. We wanted to avoid the modern trend for maximizing, quantizing, correcting, Auto-Tuning, preferring to bash it out in a room together as a band, blasting out each track until it got Tony’s nod of approval.
The Damned diversified its sound with a mix over time of punk, New Wave, pop, and psychedelia. How much of that diversity developed over time, versus being who you were from the back in 1976?
DV: Because we all listen to different music – we’re are all very eclectic in our musical tastes – when we come together it works. Separately it never would, you know – we’d never get on. As musicians together, we (each) add something and it works like kind of a weird soup.
CS: With Brian gone, we went on a musical adventure ... nothing was off limits, except repeating ourselves, which we always found too boring to contemplate despite record labels asking for “another love song” or whatever. Dave really developed as a songwriter as we got into the ‘80s, taking us into darker areas that, although we didn’t know it, contributed to the creation of the goth scene. Generally mixing all the material up works nicely though, and a Damned show goes though lots of different moods, which is fun.
(To David) How has your voice changed, with the variety of punk, goth, psychedelia, atmospheric and pop genres the band had experimented with throughout the four-plus decades with The Damned?
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DV: When I came into The Damned, I had never sung before. From the beginning, I was sort of screaming – it was fast, it was frenetic, and then I discovered I had much more of a baritone voice, and I’ve got more in common with Scott Walker and Jim Morrison than I have with Van Halen or someone like that.
(To Captain Sensible) When you last spoke with Phoenix New Times you said, “Give us a break. We're old ... it's unlikely we'll ever do a big tour like this again, so if you wanna catch the band who started it all, now would appear to be the time.” What made you decide to come back a year later, besides to promote the new album release?
CS: Actually, that Phoenix show was so fun we asked the promoter to take us back there. We live in Britain, don’t you know, where it rains every day. Being able to lounge about by a hotel pool is a treat for us limeys.